“Now, don’t you go readin’ too many books,” said Joseph’s father. “And get too smart. Then you won’t wanna work on the farm no more.”

Joseph’s father was the smartest person he knew, with the exception of his Grandpa, but he never saw either of them read any books. After a hard day’s work, their only entertainment was watching the stars. Joseph wondered how they knew so much when they hardly ever left the farm? “Well someone’s gotta do some work around here,” his father said. “And seeing as you’re a little professor, I may as well carry on.”

Joseph helped him often, but without joy. Why would anyone choose this life of endless dirty drudgery outdoors, when they could be sitting in a smart office in the City having video conferences? Wasn’t that the blessing provided by this advanced economy? The ability to rise above the muck? And the need not to get up at 5am?

Joseph loved reading. And despite his father’s admonitions, there were, strangely, plenty of good books scattered around the house. There were ancient classics – The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf; holy texts – Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, The Bible and Quran; classic literature – War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and The Magic Mountain; and modern classics such as Midnight’s Children and The Alchemist.

But the books that Joseph loved most were science-fiction classics. Where regular novelists created new characters and new stories, writers such as Clarke, Asimov, Dick, and Heinlein (or Art, Iz, Phil, and Rob, as he called them),  also created new technologies, new societies, new life forms, new dimensions, and new worlds! He just couldn’t get enough of them. He resented having to sort potatoes, fuel tractors, feed cows, harvest tomatoes, dry chillies, and water, and weed, and plough, and harrow, and cultivate, before and after school. If only he could sit in bed reading sci-fi books.

Mr. Cox was a dealer in all manner of machinery. He visited them yearly, usually in spring, around Joseph’s birthday. He stayed for a few days, setting up and testing new equipment. He was like a distant Uncle to Joseph, and always brought him presents – usually model spaceships. They were really, really good ones – incredibly detailed, and with working lights and lasers and drives.

After dinner, Joseph blew out the candles on his mother’s quadruple-chocolate cake. She said, “Joseph, there’s one for each dimension.”

Then Mr. Cox said, “There you go, son,” and gave him a gift. His eyes were twinkling. The cover said Spacebook. “I checked with your father. He said that you were ready to read this. We both read it when we were your age, and it changed our lives. Your grandpa read it too. It’s a full moon and it’s your birthday. That’s all I’m saying. Happy birthday, Joseph.”

Joseph was disappointed to not receive a spaceship, though he was intrigued by the book. He ran a burst of his electric toothbrush, put on his silver pyjamas, and switched on his tall adjustable reading light that looked like a Martian, before settling into bed. The book was filled with diagrams. There were moons and stars; nebulae and supernovae, local galaxies and globular clusters and superclusters; spiral galaxies and quasars; black holes and white holes – both spinning and non-spinning; and red giants and supergiants.

Joseph fell asleep, amazed by the interconnections and hyperdimensions of space. He saw that Mr. Cox wanted to show him the unlimited possibilities of the universe. He didn’t want him to get stuck on the farm, like his father and grandpa. He wanted him to leave – like a rocket reaching escape velocity. But Joseph wondered why his father would approve of this gift. Surely it went against his beliefs? He didn’t think about this too long though, for he was soon asleep, dreaming.

Or was he?

He awoke on the Moon. A greyish glow infused the layer of dust around him. The temperature was cool, but not chilly, with pockets of heat rising from the scattered ruts. What was that – a Subway wrapper? And a Starbucks cup? And a McBox? Trash from earth had collected in the ruts! Had it floated here by itself, he wondered? Or was it left by astronauts? He had never expected lunar landfill.

His eye caught a red flash above. Immediately he was on Mars. Its surface was the colour of a bloody scab. Thick gases floating made it feel like going into the bathroom after someone had just taken a shower – or worse. He saw straight lines heading in many directions. Were they roads? Boundary markings? Canals? They were abandoned and crumbling. It was a civilization that had perished.

A polished stone glint took him into the heart of the sun. Boiling plasma burst out all around him, as fusion reactions forged hydrogen into helium atoms, producing colossal amounts of light and heat. Magnetic fields reversed constantly, and photons poured out of the suns’ centre. But he knew that this awesome inferno would one day expand, and then fall into itself.

Joseph skipped across red dwarf stars, mid-mass stars, and large stars, as they fizzled into black dwarfs and white dwarfs, and exploded into supernovae. He watched a pulsar collapse into its own centre, leaving a dense core of neutrons, which produced intense beams of radio and light waves, which seemed like cosmic distress signals.

Joseph was at the edge of a massive black hole. But its contents were hidden forever – for even light cannot return from beyond the event horizon. This was all that could ever be seen and known. This death-space anchored our galaxy, and was the unknown centre around which it revolves.

Little prickles bombarded Joseph’s body. He was hit from every direction, everywhere. This Cosmic Background Radiation is formed of the ripples of the early universe, forever flowing. He realized that the nature of our universe is cyclical; it is growth and decay. And we have only the present moment – the now in which we exist – to do what we must.

Then Joseph was in all of these places at once – he was on the moon, on mars, in the sun, on stars, in pulsars, skirting black holes, bathed in radiation, and also back on earth. He was in a multiverse, where all possibilities existed at once. But the earth he was on was not the one he knew. It was now a wasteland, like the moon, or mars. Had there been drought and famine? Resource depletion and climate change? Over population and water wars? Technological chaos and nuclear battles?

Joseph returned with a jolt. Is this how the earth would be? Spoiled and wasted? Was there anything that could be done to save the world? To save this precious earth, his home?

He knew immediately the answer. It was 5am. He got out of bed, washed, and put on his clothes. He waved at Mr. Cox, who was drinking tea and watching sunrise. Then he joined his father in the fields to do his duty. He too would be a nourisher of soils and steward of the earth.


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