I was someone with that quintessential human curiosity. At eight years old I read everything I could about space and the cosmos and multiverses and the frequencies of light that we could not observe. I was like an eager explorer but without so much as a wooden boat. I desired to see the edges of the universe despite the experts saying we never would, that the universe expanded too quickly. Somehow I knew there was a way to get there. There had to be.
The sky was a light and whitish gray as sunlight fought against dark clouds. The pine forest that surrounded the bike path was like a box of Q-tips, so dense one could see only a few trees in. Whatever lay beyond those first few rows of trees was a mystery unless one dared venture in.
I pedaled my bike along the dirt path, jolting up and down every time I ran over a tree root or a rock. The forest fluttered in the corners of both my eyes as my pupils struggled to register the rapidity by which I moved past the trees.
I approached the lake that resided by the side of this bike path and decided to stop there for a moment. The water was so calm that it looked like glass. I set my bike on its side and walked toward the dock.
I stopped when I noticed the wooden shack next to the dock. It had always been there, but the door had always been bound shut by a chain and padlock. But today the chain hung low, dragged to the ground by the open padlock attached to it. The wooden door was opened a quarter of the way, just enough to create a small dark void that in itself advised against entrance. The words do not enter were scrawled on the surface of the door, something that hadn’t been written there before. My pals and I had tried many times to bust the lock and had even been chased away once by a guy in a white coat. I wished my friends were here at this moment.
No matter, I thought. I’ll tell them of it. I bravely stepped forward, slightly puckering at the thought of something bursting out from the dark void of the doorway. But I pressed on until I found myself with my palm on the rough wooden door. Careful not to drag and give myself a splinter, I pushed the door forward. I stopped momentarily when a loud creaking noise filled the air. I glanced around to make sure no one was here. And then I pushed again on the door and stepped into the shack.
It smelled musty in the shack. The wooden floor was wet and soft and spongy, a paradise for worms and silverfish. A window at the back looked directly out at the lake. But what caught my attention was all of the fancy equipment in the middle of the room. It was like Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory but a bit flashier, like machinery out of an 80’s sci-fi movie. There were five laptops lined side-by-side on the desk, each of them wired together, the final laptop being wired to some sort of a metallic container that I now know was a sensory deprivation tank. There were so many wires that it reminded me of a picture of the human brain’s neurons our teacher had shown us in class a few weeks prior.
I approached the deprivation tank from which thousands of wires protruded from various points on its surface and through its lid. I gripped the lid with my fingers and pulled up, opening it. Inside the tank was a pool of water. It was just as calm as the water on the lake. I tapped the surface of the water with the tip of my finger, which caused an orb to form on the surface and expand from the initial point of contact.
I walked back over to the desk upon which the numerous laptops sat. Scattered all over the desk were papers with messy lab notes scrawled upon them. One of the notes caught my attention due to what was written at the bottom, below a bunch of scientific jargon and complex equations. In all capital letters, the word LAKE was written and circled several times.
I couldn’t make much sense of the brainiac argot that was scrawled on the notes in the shack, not at that age, so I lost interest in the shack and left and walked down to the edge of the dock. I removed my shoes and my socks and sat on the edge and dangled my feet so that they just barely touched the surface of the water.
I gazed out at the lake for quite some time. A heron flew across the lake and glided just above the surface before disappearing into the nearby forest. A fish leapt out of the water just high enough for me to catch a quick glimpse before it vanished.
I started to illustrate contours in the water with my feet in the same way one would write their name with a sparkler. In doing so, I disturbed the surface enough so that, for a time, I failed to see the thing that was steadily emerging from the murky depths. But when I saw it I quite literally had a knee-jerk reaction as I yanked my feet up from the water.
The thing I saw emerge from the murk looked like the skull of some sort of canine animal. Why it was floating to the surface, I had no earthly idea. But I was further alarmed when I realized that the skull was moving around as if it were alive.
I rapidly crab-walked backward away from the edge of the dock. I laid on my back and stared out at the edge of the dock, frozen in terror. I waited several moments, curious to see what the skull was doing now, but far too petrified to act upon my inquisitiveness.
My heart leapt from its home in my chest when I saw the canine skull slowly rise up above the edge of the dock and look right at me, its mouth agape in a ghostly simper. Its left eye was a lifeless socket, but its right socket contained within it a glowing red light like the Terminator. What was almost as curious were the wolf-like ears atop its head, which looked to be made of bone but were otherwise nonsensically placed atop a skull. Where the neck should have been, there was instead a metallic spring of some sort, which snaked its way down into the water. Strangely enough, there was a bowtie attached to the thing’s neck. Still paralyzed as a figurine, I stared at the thing as its mouth opened wider and it spoke. When it spoke, however, it had no lips to flap. Rather, its mouth hung agape as the words sort of exited, as if it were breathing the words rather than speaking them.
“Hey, kid,” the thing said casually. “What’s your name?” I didn’t answer, and for a moment I may as well have forgotten what my name was.
“Fine,” it said, “I’ll start, then. My name’s Otto.” After a moment of silence, I told the thing my name.
“I never see anyone down by this lake,” said Otto. “Besides the geeks in lab coats that used to hang around in that cabin all night long. I wonder how long they did that before I got here.”
“What are you?” I asked, abruptly.
“Just some weird thing,” Otto responded.
“Everything is… a thing.”
“I don’t really know what I am. I just kinda roam the multiverse and see what there is to see. It’s actually pretty rewarding. Infinity is a big number, after all. Been doing it so long that I’ve forgotten what I am or where I come from.”
“The multiverse?” I had read before about the multiverse theory in some popular science book for kids.
“Don’t ya know about the multiverse?” Otto asked. “What are they teaching kids in this dimension? Boy, I tell ya…”
The thing rambled on and I started to crawl backward, intending to get to my feet and get the hell out. But as I attempted to pull my left foot up, it felt as though an invisible rope of sorts was attached to my ankle.
“Oh, yeah,” said Otto, seeming to have noticed my struggle. “By the way, I attached a little cord to your ankle. I find it works best when I’m trying to talk to somebody, seeing that they usually just run away. I mean, am I really that scary?”
“Please let me go,” I stammered. Otto stared at me in silence for a moment.
“Alright, kid,” he said. “Ya drive a hard bargain. So, here’s the deal; if you can guess at which moment I attached my the wire to your ankle, you can run along home on your bike. Now, was it, A, before I got to the surface of the water; B, when I first emerged from the water; or C, just before you began crawling away from me?”
I was sweating bullets as I racked my brain, even though it was anybody’s guess. This character, he seemed crafty to me, and if he could traverse dimensions, who was to say he couldn’t attach something to my leg before I’d even laid eyes on him? Still, I juggled and fumbled these three options around in my mind before blurting out the answer my gut told me was best.
“A!” I shouted.
“A?” asked Otto.
“Yes. Before you came out of the water.”
“Sorry, kid. The answer is none of the above.”
“I attached my invisible string to you right when you stepped inside that cabin over there.”
“You didn’t make that a choice!” I grumbled.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Otto, quite sarcastically. “Do you make the rules? Or do I, the guy who traverses realities?”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Relax, kid. I’m just gonna show you around, is all. I mean, you’re a rather Curious George, aren’t you? Why else would you go inside that shack?”
“Show me around where?”
Otto paused for a moment, then spoke.
“Everywhere,” he said. “Don’t worry, skippy. I’ll have you back before you can say ‘Otto’s your uncle’.”
And with that, I felt a growing pull on my ankle as Otto started dragging me toward the edge of the dock. I resisted and clawed and kicked to absolutely no avail. Otto sunk back below the lake’s surface, dragging me with him.
I was yanked right off the edge of the dock and down into the water. It was autumn and so the water was icy cold. Bubbles shot out of my mouth as I screamed a muffled scream under water, watching the surface disappear into the murk as I was dragged downward into the lake’s abyss.
I suddenly grew warm again. My eyes adjusted and I realized that I was now standing on dry land. Otto floated right next to me, and I could now see him in his entirety. His metallic neck was attached to some sort of centric metal disk. From the disk sprouted five mechanical arms, a mechanical hand at the end of four of them, and a strange-looking pincer at the end of the fifth. This anatomy reminded me of an octopus.
Otto chuckled. “Jeez, kid,” he said. “You gotta loosen up. I wasn’t gonna drown you, or anything.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Another galaxy. Just across the pond from yours.”
I looked up and I realized that I’d been so transfixed by Otto’s strange appearance that I hadn’t even noticed the strange appearance of the surrounding land. All around us were massive pyramids. They looked like the ones in Giza, but they were at least three times the size and they were made of otherworldly silver titanium. At the top of each pyramid was a glowing red eye that reminded me of the illuminati symbol. And there were dozens of these pyramids. Their number stretched on past the horizon in every single direction you looked.
Walking the roads between the pyramids were alien beings. They were humanoids and they stood nine feet tall. Their skin was gray and their eyes were pitch black and their noses were just two small slits on the surface of their faces. They all wore robes and none of them spoke to each other.
“Why are they so quiet?” I asked.
“They don’t have to speak,” said Otto.
“They speak to one another telepathically.”
“Through their minds?”
“That’s what ‘telepathically’ means.”
As the strange beings walked past us, I began to realize that they didn’t pay any attention to us.
“Can they see us?” I asked.
“No,” Otto replied. “We’re cloaked. Like shadows that can’t be seen or heard or touched.”
“What would they do if they saw us?”
“The men would hang us by our entrails and peel the skin off our bones.”
“Yeah. They’re a racist bunch.”
I grew thankful in that moment that the beings couldn’t see us. As I further scrutinized them I noticed that there were two distinct factions among them. The first was a bulky kind with a perpetual scowl on its face and masculine facial features. The second was a thin and curvaceous being with effeminate features and tranquil expressions and body language.
“Are the big ones men and the skinny ones women?” I asked.
“You catch on fast, kid,” said Otto.
“Why do the men all look angry?”
“The males of the Nal species are pissed off all the time. They’re obsessed with building pyramids and conquering enemies and getting it on with every female in their midst. They’re all about…’carnal pleasures’.”
“Yeah. You know, pleasures of the flesh.”
“Oh.” I still didn’t really get what he was talking about at that age.
“The females are the opposite,” Otto continued. “They’re peaceful, like what your planet calls ‘monks’. They’re all about peace and art and music and whatnot. The Nal’s kingdom spans this entire galaxy. It’s ruled over by a Nal King and a Nal Queen. The queens are the ‘ying’ to the kings’ ‘yang’. They keep the kings in check by not letting them go and pulverize the entire universe and wipe out every sentient being that isn’t a Nal. I mentioned that the males are racist, right?
“Any-who, here’s the kicker; every few million years, there’s a pattern. The ruling Nal king will murder his queen and establish total authority over the entire kingdom. With no peaceful queen to keep him in check, he promptly travels to the Crilia moon, where he awakens the army of Amshar.”
“The army of Amshar?”
“Yeah. It’s an army of trillions of Nal soldiers that lay dormant beneath the ground in cryo-sleep for millions of years until they’re woken up by the rogue king. Then, the king proceeds to enact universal ethnic cleansing and wipe out all other ‘unclean races’ in the entire universe.” I stared at Otto in disbelief for quite some time.
“Wait, hang on,” I said. “You said this happens every few million years?”
“The last time it happened in your dimension was about 65 million years ago,” Otto replied. “It caused the Permian mass extinction on your planet, and then it wiped out what you call the ‘dinosaurs’.”
“And this can happen…anytime?”
“At any…given…moment, kid.”
I stood there with my mouth agape for what must have been a minute or maybe even two. The thought that all I knew and had ever known and would ever know rested upon the temperament of a single alien king…absolutely maddening. I’d never felt so small. My planet was an anthill in somebody’s backyard, at the mercy of their pesticides on any given day.
“You wanna go to the top of one of those pyramids, little buddy?” asked Otto. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t find a single word.
Suddenly, Otto and I were atop one of the pyramids. For a brief moment, I forgot about the prospect of total annihilation as I was awestruck by the incredible view.
“Pretty sweet view, eh kid?” said Otto.
“Yeah,” I replied halfheartedly. “Pretty sweet.” A brief moment of silence ensued as we both gazed out at the city of pyramids.
“Well,” said Otto, “that’s the high point of your dimension. Let’s go check out some others.”
“I wanna just go home.”
“Don’t talk like one of those slacker potheads on your planet, you’re not one of them. You’re an inquisitive kid that wants to know more. Right?”
“Great! Onward we go.”
I suddenly stood in the middle of a small village. The village was comprised of strange houses that were dug halfway into the ground like burrows. They reminded me of hobbit houses. The roads were made of dirt and all of the houses were made of wood and straw. There were food stands lining the streets, but most of them had signs that read things like bowl of ants or mealworms 5 coins.
The inhabitants of the village were even more strange. They were bipedal aardvarks, of all things. Most stood about three-feet tall and they waddled around on large feet that looked quite cumbersome.
One particular aardvark wheeled a cart down the road and shouted “Ants, three coins! Get your bowl of ants for three coins only!”
“Where are we, now?” I asked.
“We’re in another world,” said Otto. “Another time. Another…space. In this dimension, the aardvark evolved to become the intelligent species of your planet.”
“What about people?”
“They’re still lemurs, hopping around in the trees.”
“Because evolution in this universe shafted you, kid. That’s why. It didn’t care too much for lemurs. Your kind didn’t even make it to the monkey phase. No, here, evolution loves aardvarks for some reason. Did you know aardvarks and anteaters aren’t the same type of animal? I shit you not, they’re not even the slightest bit related. I mean, I’ve traveled to billions of conceivable realities and all of their solar systems, and that is what shocked me. How lame is that?” Otto proceeded to giggle for an entire minute.
“Pretty sure every conceivable animal has been the top species in one reality or another,” Ott continued. “In some realities, it’s dolphins. In others it’s chimps. Some, it’s praying mantises. I shit you not, there’s a universe where praying mantises have school and governments. You wanna see it?”
“No thanks,” I replied.
And then I suddenly found myself drifting through the vacuum of space. Otto was drifting next to me. Somehow I could still breathe. Straight ahead was a circle of light that spiraled into a pitch black gap. We were headed straight for it.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s a black hole!” said Otto, excitedly. “It’s fun! Trust me! The trick is to relax and not shit yourself!”
I had never felt such a pull in my entire life. I felt a massive series of knots in my stomach as I hurtled down toward the black hole with such momentum. I soon found myself staring into nothing as I still hurtled downward. Pitch darkness wouldn't be the way to describe it. No, it was just nothingness. I could not hear and I could not see and I could not taste or smell or feel. I couldn’t even hear my own breathing. What was maybe 30 seconds passed and there was still nothing. Only my consciousness and the nothingness that surrounded me. I had never known such terror. Was this hell? To be surrounded by nothing with which to stimulate one’s five senses but still remain conscious?
“What’s the matter, skippy?” Otto’s voice startled me and yet comforted me. I never thought I’d be so happy to hear his voice.
Light soon began to manifest and it grew and grew until eventually we were staring into a shining bright light. It was so bright I had to shut my eyes.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s a white hole!” said Otto. “What goes in must come out! How many kids your age get to say they were swallowed and shat out by a black hole, eh?”
“None, I guess.”
“You guess? No human being can say it, buster!”
“You’re right, you're right.” I couldn’t believe it at the time, but I was growing accustomed to Otto. Maybe it started when I was happy to see him after staring into nothingness for a minute or two. Or perhaps we had just formed a bond after all of this time together. And as I came to think of it, I realized I had not a clue of how long I had been on this bizarre journey with him. Given the events that occurred, it seemed like only a couple hours. But it felt like months.
The white hole flung Otto and I out into the vacuum of space. We were in deep space. Not a nearby solar system was anywhere in sight. They were all merely twinkling stars in the pitch dark sky.
“Where are we going, now?” I asked with the enthusiasm of a toddler on a road trip.
“A place I think you’ll really enjoy!” said Otto. “But only because you’ll be glad you don’t live there!” I laughed.
“Oh, you’ll see!”
I was suddenly standing next to Otto in the dark bedroom of a child. Toys littered the floor and the walls were covered in pictures of rocket ships and the bed blankets had dinosaurs on them. A boy around my age lied sleeping in bed.
“What are we doing here?” I whispered.
“You don’t have to whisper,” said Otto. “We’re like ghosts, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, what are we doing here?”
“Watch the closet.”
“Just watch the closet.”
Otto and I stared at the closet door for a few moments. I wasn’t quite sure what we were waiting for. Then suddenly the doorknob began turning slowly. It turned all the way and then the door steadily opened. The first thing I saw come through that doorway was a clawed foot. Acting on instinct, I backed away and headed for the door.
“Dude,” said Otto, “you’re gonna miss it! He can’t see you!”
I watched with horror as a grotesque boogeyman exited the child’s closet. It was humanoid. It had slimy gray skin and sharp teeth and beady yellow eyes. The boogeyman crept over to the child’s bedside and stood there and stared down at the child for an entire minute.
“What’s it doing?” I finally asked.
“He’s gonna scare him,” said Otto, who seemed to find this rather amusing.
“What is it?”
“It’s the boogeyman! In this universe, the boogeyman is real and he picks random kids to haunt.”
After several more minutes, we watched as the child rolled over and woke up and found himself staring up into the eyes of the boogeyman. The child screamed a bloodcurdling scream as the boogeyman roared at him. Otto burst out laughing like a sicko.
“Take me out of here!” I screamed.
“Okay, okay!” said Otto. “Sheesh, lighten up, kid.”
I was suddenly standing on a fishing boat out in the middle of the sea. There was utter chaos aboard the boat as people scrambled back and forth. On the side of the boat, a huge net was cast and a few of the fishermen were wrangling some sort of massive sea creature. Otto floated beside me and looked on at the scene.
“They’re wrangling a sea monster,” said Ott.
“What kind?” I asked.
“Well, see for yourself.”
And with that, Otto shoved me off the side of the boat. I plunged down into the water. I opened my eyes and found myself floating midwater and gazing upon the creature that was entangled in the net. It was hard to see at first with all the thrashing and the bubbles and the splashing. But when the foam cleared I saw flippers and thought that perhaps it was a whale. And then I saw the scales and the tail and the elongated neck. It was a plesiosaur. I knew it because I’d read about them in books. It gnashed its teeth and continued to thrash the net, trying to break free of the fishermen.
A mechanical hand broke the surface and grabbed my shirt collar. Otto hoisted me out of the water. He held me there as he floated just above the surface.
“Well?” he asked. “Did you see it?”
“It’s a plesiosaur!” I exclaimed.
“Damn right. They never went extinct in this reality. You should see the sharks here…”
Otto and I continued to traverse the multiverse for quite some time after that. How much time passed during our journey, I could not tell you. All I knew was that I wasn’t aging and it was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a few years since we had left the lake. I suppose you may wonder if I missed my parents or my home or my friends.
The truth is, to explain the captivation of roaming the multiverse is nearly impossible. At a certain point, my curiosity and intrigue had grown to such a degree that all rationale was thrown out the window and replaced with the emotions of an explorer. Time ceased to exist as we hopped from reality to reality, bubble to bubble.
We were on an infinite highway of spacetime, each universe just one exit. We traveled to a universe where people lived in four dimensions and walked up the many sides of skyscrapers to get to their offices. We traveled to a universe where human beings had conquered the stars and every planet in the galaxy was connected by a network of tunnels. Spaceships traveled planet-to-planet through these tunnels. Another universe existed on the surface of a much larger universe, like a bubble atop the surface of boiling water. Otto and I watched as this universe popped just like said bubble, ceasing to exist for all time to come.
In another dimension, ants mutated in size and into intelligent beings, and they took domain of the earth and put human beings in chains and made slaves of them all. The humans were forced to construct anthills the size of skyscrapers and gather food for the ants and take care of the larvae.
Another universe was inhabited by strange creatures that looked like tardigrades, and they were the sole engineers of human brains. The human brains they had created existed in water vats and were stimulated by electrical signals, experiencing a full existence and yet unaware that it was all a hallucination.
Toward the end of our journey, Otto grew less humorous, as if he had just received bad news of some sort. I repeatedly asked him what was the matter, to which he said that it was nothing. But at the very end of our journey, he began to pipe up.
“So, listen,” said Otto as we floated through space. I floated with my legs criss-crossed, eating a cheeseburger from a universe that made them particularly well.
“What is it?” I asked Otto.
“There’s something I gotta show you,” he replied.
“What’s that?” I had a mouthful of cheeseburger as I asked this.
Without answering, Otto floated to a wormhole and I followed him. After we went through, it was as if we were inside an elevator shaft of some sort, but it was made of a kind of bright green, gelatinous substance. Otto and I began to float downward through the shaft.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“This here,” said Otto, “is the spectrum of light. The human eye is only able to see a certain frequency of light. But, like the keys of a piano, there are keys that go up in pitch and lower in pitch. You and I have only explored the middle frequencies throughout our travels through the multiverse. But now, I gotta show you what lies below.”
I gulped as we traveled down through the gelatinous tube. I wasn’t sure why Otto suddenly sounded so sinister.
As we descended, it began to grow warm. And then it got hot. The heat was almost unbearable. The air was thick and musty and smelled toxic. Our surroundings grew shadowy. Sparks began to float up past us, as if from some bonfire below. Strange muffled noises began to echo, and then they got louder and I realized what they were. The sound was the collective screaming of what must have been millions, perhaps billions of people. The screams were so great in number that their mixture made one collective sound that was just about the most horrible thing I’d ever heard.
Otto and I emerged from the shaft and what I saw immediately horrified me. The collective scream was now deafening. The heat was like a furnace. The sky was a dark, blood red. The ground was made of black sand and soot and ash. And all around me there was an endless desert of the stuff. And through the desert winded rivers of molten lava and fire. Floating through these rivers were the souls of the dead. They screamed in agony and despair and remorse.
Elsewhere, I saw groups of people being lead in chains by demonic creatures that whipped them relentlessly. The demonic creatures were unlike any artistic depictions of demons or devils I’d ever seen. They were indescribable and they defied the laws of physics. They took the form of one thing but simultaneously everything, each form more horrifying than the last.
The people in chains were lead to a massive hell-mouth and tossed inside. The hell-mouth belonged to a massive serpent that was large enough to wrap itself around Earth ten times over. Its body was not comprised of scales but rather and endless pipeline of rotting flesh. The serpent’s body ducked and weaved and ascended into the sky. And when I looked up I saw more poor souls hanging from the sides of the serpent’s body. They were like rotten fruits from some godawful tree, thick decaying branches attached to their upper backs from which they hung.
I turned around and I saw a miles-long orchard of ghastly trees that stood 100 feet tall. From these trees hung large, round, orange pods. Inside of these pods, humans floated in agony, seemingly tormented by the sludgy material inside.
And as I gazed all around at the endless desert with all of the tormenting orchards, the lakes and rivers of fire and lava, the planet-sized serpent, the agonized wails of deceased souls, I knew where I stood. I stood in hell.
I looked to Otto, who floated beside me, still as stone. Tears were welling up in my horrified eyes as I remembered that I was still only eight years of age, and I had seen more than any human being of any age, at least as far as I knew.
“Why did you take me here?” I asked Otto.
“I don’t know, kid,” he said. “You were just treating this like a…like a board game. But it’s not that. It’s not like that at all.”
“I wanna go home.”
“Sure, kid. One more thing.”
We journeyed to another sector of this horrible underworld. We stood atop a massive wall that looked out over the entire visible domain of hell. We were so high up that you could see the curvature of hell’s celestial body. Down below was an abyssal labyrinth that stretched down past where light could touch. And from it a massive collective cry of pain erupted.
We traveled down several levels until we got to a particular cell. Otto told me to look inside, and I did. Inside the cell was me, but I didn’t believe it at first. I didn’t recognize the person in front of me, beyond those steel bars. It was only through Otto telling me that I knew it was me who sat in that cell.
“No, I don’t believe it,” I said in denial.
“It’s you,” said Otto. “Not you, exactly. But the you from another reality. There are several versions of you that were condemned to this place.”
“What do I look like? God? I have no idea.”
“How do I avoid coming here?”
“I don’t know. Just…just be a good kid, I guess.”
And just like that, I found myself sitting on the edge of the dock once more. Otto floated directly in front of me, just above the surface of the lake water. We stared at one another for quite some time. And then he began to descend back down toward the water.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “You’re just gonna leave?”
“You be a good kid, bud,” said Otto. “Play video games, date girls, go to school…you’ve explored enough.”
And Otto sank down into the lake, disappearing into the murk. I never had much desire to explore after that. I lived quite simply.
Written by Jake Wick