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02 Eternal Suffering


This story is a reflection on the morality of revenge. It was originally inspired by my contempt for Islam Karimov, but applies to every tyrant you’ve ever wanted to see tortured for their crimes.


The words “The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace” were etched in block metal letters above the entrance to the Lattice of Sorrow. The phrase struck Ayesha as a vengeful prayer.

She walked along the long shadows cast by the words and through the massive open gate. The Lattice, perhaps the largest sculpture in the galaxy, now stretched out before her, each one of its billion monuments commemorating a tragedy from the Last Great War. The smallest memorials were no bigger than a tombstone; the largest, great stone and metal mausoleums, covered hundreds of cubic metres. They stretched in every direction and far up into the sky, all unique save for two common elements: each told a story about one of the Tyrant’s massacres, and each had a light symbolizing the life and death of one of the Tyrant’s trillion victims.

For the next hour Ayesha randomly floated through the Lattice, experiencing the sensations which emanated from the memorials. Some whispered stories, others broadcast emotions scanned from victims at the moment of their deaths. The most prevalent emotions were horror and fear. The most unsettling emotion was relief, for people only feel relieved to die after unbearable suffering.

A placard at the centre of a marble arched doorway caught her attention. It read,

The recording contained in this mausoleum was taken 1,000 seconds after the death of the child Elizum Kemble. He was one of the one billion people killed during the Siege of Ashanti, the final battle of the Last Great War.

The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace.

Ayesha had always thought that it was perverse to experience a death scan, but because of her anger at this senseless murder she decided that she would. She stepped under the tomb’s portico and paused for a moment. Upon entering she felt a slight jolt as her perspective was replaced by that of the murdered child.

Mechanized soldiers fall through the air like snowflakes, their uniforms splashes of white against a deep, blue sky and a brown, dusty town. I want to run but I cannot. There is no where to run to. We are encircled. I hide in the shadow of a doorway hoping that I have not been seen.

The soldiers walk towards each other, compressing the crowd – my friends, my family. I want to help them but I cannot. I am trembling with fear.

The Mechs pause, raise their weapons and fire. As the dust settles they vacuum up the corpses into the balloon-like bags they carry on their backs.

As the man-machines clear the quare of bodies, one turns suddenly and looks directly at my hiding place.

I stare into its mottled green-brown eyes, trying to understand what, if anything, it is thinking as it prepares to kill me.

Ayesha hastily stepped out of the mausoleum. She was shaking because the Mech that killed Elizum Kemble had the same eyes as the one that had murdered her own family. She staggered off the platform in front of the memorial, hovered unsteadily in the air for a moment and then scudded away into the darkening sky. She had had enough of memorials so she flew directly towards her ultimate destination, the Ashanti Palace. The Palace, which once was a regional headquarters in the Tyrant’s empire, had been converted into a prison and museum after his defeat.

The entrance to the Palace faced onto the Plaza of Justice. From a distance the Plaza appeared flat and empty, save for a lighted sphere in the middle. As she drew closer she saw that it was teeming with people. Many were clearly tourists, but there were also clusters of semi-permanent camps inhabited by protesters and agitators. Though most were concerned with the Tyrant’s suffering – some for, most against – she could see representatives from a vast array of the galaxy’s political interests. If you wanted to get a message out, this was a good place to do it: most people visited the Lattice of Sorrow at least once in their lives.

The Plaza was so large that it took several minutes of flying before Ayesha saw the Panopticon, which was popularly known as the Tyrant’s Punishment. She had always thought of the Panopticon as a transparent sphere, but as she approached it she could see that it wasn’t a structure at all: it was simply a force field that held the Tyrant’s gaunt, twitching body suspended in the air. From a distance his disjointed movements appeared graceful, but as she lowered herself closer to him she saw that he was in agony.

Unlike her siblings and friends, Ayesha had never flinched in the face of pain. When she grazed herself as a child she did not run whining to her parents for solace. Instead she would investigate the wound, and try to conquer her pain. She could not help but look at the Tyrant. After ten thousand days of torture she was surprised to see that his sunken, hollow eyes were alert: they constantly darted around, looking directly at faces in the crowd that pushed around the edges of the Panopticon, angling for a better view. The look in his reddened eyes was deranged. His apparent lunacy was emphasized by his frayed tongue, which incessantly licked his bloody lips.

After several minutes of intent viewing Ayesha retreated to a quiet spot several hundred feet above the Tyrant’s body, and prepared to watch the end of the Cycle, a 10,000 day period during each second of which a memorial light would be extinguished to commemorate one of his murders. As each the light was extinguished, the Tyrant’s body would be wracked by pain. At the beginning of the Cycle the Lattice burned with lights. Now that the Cycle was ending the lights were gradually giving way to night. When the last light was extinguished later this evening, medics would take down his wretched body so that he could be revived sufficiently to endure another round of torture. Ayesha would interview him immediately before the Punishment resumed.

One hour before dawn the last memorial light was extinguished. The only light in the entire Lattice of Sorrow came from the Panopticon, which continued to glow with hard white-blue light. The Tyrant’s body hung limply, only periodically twitching from muscle memory, not torture. Over the next few minutes the light from the Panopticon began to fade; soon everything became black and still. The darkness lasted an interminable time then was ended by a loud, crashing noise, which echoed for a few minutes more. When the last echo died away there was a final moment of silence and then the memorial lights were turned back on.

The Plaza was far more crowded than Ayesha had realized. She lowered herself carefully into an empty spot several hundred metres from her destination, the main entrance to the Palace. On her way she passed a group of protesters quietly sitting in a circle, sipping tea. Their placards read, “Only God can punish for eternity” and “Let the Tyrant die and be judged. Hell is worse than any punishment humans can devise.” These pacifists were flanked by a more sanguine group sitting in the shade of a large banner which read, “His soul has been judged already. Let his body suffer for his crimes.” Ayesha rushed passed the two camps, not wanting to get embroiled in a dispute.

As she approached the Palace entrance she wondered yet again what she hoped to achieve in her upcoming interview. She had no desire to vindicate the Tyrant’s crimes and was indifferent to pleas for clemency. She opposed punitive justice when it was difficult to determine guilt with certainty. But in this case there were no doubts. The Tyrant had ravaged over one million worlds and though he personally had killed not one person, his soldiers had murdered over one trillion innocent civilians. The thought of these atrocities brought her mind back to Elizum Kemble’s murderer, the man-machine with a white steel body and human eyes. She wasn’t interested in the machinery of terror; but rather the humanity behind it.

A rabid looking man pushed his way in front of her and shouted, “He didn’t do it! He only killed in self-defense. This is all a lie!” The Denier waved a brochure he thought contained evidence for his ignorant claim. Ayesha pushed the man aside and walked into the thickest part of crowd, towards the main entrance to the Palace.

Once there she activated her security pass. One moment later a group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere and with apparently no effort cleared the crowd from around her. They entered the Palace through a tiny side door which opened onto one wing of a tremendous, square hallway. The floors of the hallway were paved with polished marble laid out in a red and white checkered pattern. Twenty metre high marble statues lined each wall. In the center of the hallway there was a huge alabaster sculpture of a man wrestling with a snake. The roof had a grid of skylights that let light shine down in articulated lines. The roof was held up by long columns of dark green marble, the tops of which were decorated with elaborate carvings of acanthus leaves.

Seven hallways radiated out from the atrium, a main hallway that immediately faced the entrance-way and one on each of the 3 remaining sides. Ayesha was led by her escorts around the based of the alabaster statue towards the main hallway. Her footstep’s echoed loudly as she walked. The soldiers who accompanied her were silent. At the entrance to the hallway she saw the erect, still body of a Mech. She looked at its eyes. They too were mottled green-brown. Her entire body became tense with fear. She halted several metres before it to collect herself. Her escort saluted and left.

The Mech let her stand silently for a respectful moment and then spoke with a disconcertingly soft voice. “Are you alright?” She tried to answer the mechanized soldier’s question but could not.

The Mech spoke again. “Please do not be alarmed madam. No doubt you have seen countless images of soldiers like me enacting terrible atrocities. You may have even experienced a death scan. Fear not. I have been reprogrammed; I pose no threat to you.” She did not respond; fear had paralyzed her.

“Ma’am. We have a very tight schedule.” The Mech offered his arm, as an escort. She flinched away from his touch but nevertheless proceeded in the direction he indicated.

The main hallway was designed in a baroque style. It had a painted parquet floor and its walls were adorned with tall mirrors, which were interspersed with arched crystalline windows. Large glass chandeliers hung in a row from the centre of the ceiling. Even the most prosaic items, such as door handles and torch holders, were the products of elaborate craftsmanship. Ayesha paused to examine a fresco that dominated one wall. The focus of the painting was a man with a great powdered wig; his clothes were made of purple velvet and were covered with heavy gold ornaments. His feet were shod in long leather boots which opened up at his thighs. On one hip he wore a scabbard out of which protruded the handle of a sword which had been decorated with colored stones; his gloved right hand rested on a holster, which contained a gun. On his head he wore a large, rimmed hat which was decorated with a tremendous feather. The large feathered cap initially made Ayesha think that this man was some type of shaman, but when she examined the painting more carefully she realized he was a military leader. Directly in front of the great man was a prostrate man, grandly dressed, who was signing a handwritten document. The prostrate man was also flanked by armored men, though his soldiers had all lowered themselves onto one knee, and were unarmed.

Ayesha moved slowly forward, examining the other paintings. All contained similar themes: pictures of the great man in various grand, dysfunctional outfits, surrounded by victorious and vanquished soldiers. She realized then that the entire hallway, the mirrors, the chandeliers, the crystalline windows, down to the very last, ornate detail, had been constructed to glorify this one man’s military exploits. Not one painting gave any indication of how brutal warfare was for these soldiers. “Imagine killing someone by impaling them with a metal stick, or blowing them apart with small balls of steel” she thought. “Somehow such images never never adorn monuments to military victories. It’s as if humans have a disability which makes us unable to see our barbarity for what it is even as we celebrate it.”

Her escort interrupted her reverie. “While we wait for the Prisoner is there anything you would like to know about the Palace or the Last Great War?”

“Who is that man?” Ayesha pointed to the painting of the leader with the feathered hat.

“His name is Louis Quattorze. He was a French ruler. This is all a replica of a hallway in one of his Palaces.”

“Was he a great military leader?”, she asked bitterly.

The Mech replied in a neutral voice. “If you judge greatness in terms of conquests, then no he was not a great leader. Although he fought many wars against his neighbors, when he died his nation’s borders were little changed from when he began. Most of the few increases in territory he did achieve were legal victories, not military.” The fact that the glorious battles depicted along this gallery were pointless did little to change her low opinion of Louis Quattorze.

The Mech waited a respectful moment for Ayesha to reply, and when she didn’t, said, “The craft-work is tremendous, isn’t it, particularly when you consider that the originals these artifacts were modeled on were all constructed with crude tools?”

She nodded her assent, but let the Mech’s attempt to converse fail.

The Mech’s wrist beeped sullenly. “It’s time”. He nodded towards the doorway at the end of the hallway. They passed through it into a large room also decorated in a baroque style.

“What is this place?”, Ayesha asked.

“The Hall of Peace.”

“Was this one of Mr. Quattorze’s chambers?”

“No. The Hall is modern. It is where the Tyrant was captured after his attempted suicide.”

They did not enter the Hall but instead turned down a grey, utilitarian service corridor. At the corridor’s end they encountered a heavy metal door with a grill on its thick glass window. The Mech gestured towards the door, “Please enter. This is where you will be meeting the Prisoner.”

The interview room was a small, windowless box, with white walls illuminated by bright blue-white lights. In the center of the room there was a thin metal table which was bolted to the floor. There was only one chair. She expected the Mech to stand but wondered where the Tyrant would sit. Directly opposite the chair there was a second door exactly the same as the one through which she had entered. She sat down on the chair while the Mech moved beside the second door and became still.

As Ayesha waited she looked directly at the Mech. It was interesting what human traits had been retained in the design of these man-machines. They had protuberances which resembled arms and legs, they spoke through a vent where one would expect a mouth, and had human-like, eyes. “Why had their designers retained any human attributes?” she wondered.

“How old are you?” she asked the Mech. Though the question itself was neutral, her tone of voice was accusatory.

“I was born 1,158 years ago. I reached this final state” it gestured towards its body, “1,026 years ago, just after the conclusion of the Last Great War.”

“Why do you exist?”

Though the Mech’s voice remained without affect, it’s awkward body language made her think it was taken aback by her question. It replied, “What do you mean?”

“I know that you are an amalgamation of human soldier and machine. But I don’t understand the need for a hybrid soldier. Why didn’t the Tyrant create an army of robots? What does your humanity bring to soldiering?”

“Memory”, the Mech replied.

“I don’t understand”.

“The way humans and machines interpret their experiences is different. Machines have virtually unlimited storage capacity. Humans do not and therefore must constantly filter and reinterpret their experiences. The Tyrant felt that war was an art, and that humans, because of how they remember and learn, are more artistic than machines.”

“But you are programmed.”

“It is true that the general parameters of my behavior are strictly regulated. For example, I am incapable of killing you right now. Or any human, for that matter. But within certain parameters I am free to act based on my experiences and judgment. I am not very different from you, except my boundaries are programmed.”

“What about your conscience?” she asked. The Mech did not answer her question. She spoke again, “Did you fight in the War?”

“Yes. In fact I fought right here on Ashanti, during the final battle of the war.”

“Did you kill anyone?” Ayesha looked directly into the Mech’s mottled eyes as she asked this question.

“I personally was responsible for 1,021,067 verified deaths and several million more that were never verified.”

“Do you regret what you did?”

“What I did was senseless.”

“Is that your programming talking?”

“No. From a purely military perspective, the massacres were not constructive, even though our victims’ bodies did power our weapons.”

“Did you take any death scans?”

“I took scans from as many of my victims as I could. Scanning was part of my standing orders.”

“Have you experienced the scans?”

“Yes. All of them.”

Ayesha imagined this man-machine sequestered in a booth reviewing its murderous deeds from the perspective of its victims. She wondered if it was like an idiot child who could use its fingers to count but could not make the cognitive leap to abstract numbers. Could this Mech determine that its senseless murders were evil or did the fact that it was programmed preclude the possibility of moral sensibility? Could you program conscience? Could you unprogram it?

Her agitated mind leapt to the memory of her family’s murder. Looking directly at the Mech she asked, “Have you ever been to the planet Luthan?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

Ayesha let the conversation lapse.

The door opposite her opened with a clang revealing the body of the Tyrant suspended awkwardly in the air by a force-field, which maneuvered him into the space in front of her. He dangled limply in the air, the toes of his feet hovering a few centimeters above the tiled floor. The door slammed shut.

Despite having just been revived by medics, the Tyrant was stooped and frail. He wore an orange jumper which hung loosely on his body. His watery blue eyes were unfocused and drifted lazily around the room, rarely settling on any one object for more than a blink. His manner was likewise unfocused and his limbs constantly twitched. There was no hair anywhere on his body.

He leaned forward suddenly and shouted directly into her face, “What is your name?!”

The force-field that contained him slammed him back into the air, so that his body became straight and rigid. Immobilized, he floated back towards the door. Though startled, she replied without hesitation. “Ayesha”.

After a moment the Prisoner began to move his fingers tentatively. His force-field prison allowed him a certain amount of free movement, if he behaved.

He addressed his next question to a blank wall. “You didn’t answer my question. I asked you, why are you here, Ayesha?”

“I’m here to interview you.”

“What do you want to talk about?” he continued, belligerently, his gaze still fixed on the blank white wall to his right. “My Punishment? Do you want me to tell you what its like to be repeatedly electrocuted? Do you want to talk to me about justice?”

Ayesha knew from her research that the Prisoner would eventually tire of these histrionics, so she silently waited for him to continue. After a moment he spoke again, this time with a tired voice, “Very well. Interview me.”

Ayesha took one long breath to collect herself. She only had a brief time for this interview and wanted to make each question count. She was well prepared. In her hand she held a list of clearly cross-referenced questions; a flowchart of potentialities. If he said this she would ask this, otherwise that. But where to start?

Her thoughts kept returning to Elizum Kemble’s memorial and the murder of her own family so she asked the question that had been foremost on her mind all day, “Half of your victims died in the last year of the War. Why did you keep killing after you had lost?”

The Prisoner floated away from Ayesha; his head fell backwards onto the nape of his neck and his manic eyes wandered around the ceiling as he answered her question, “Do you know the story of my capture?”

“You poisoned yourself moments before the 82nd airborne stormed this Palace. Allied medics revived you and then you were tried and sentenced by the War Crimes Tribunal to a life sentence for each one of your victims, to be served in the Panopticon.”

“Do you know what kind of poison I used?”


“Do you know how deadly it is?”

“Yes. At least I think I do.”

With each question the Tyrant’s body became slightly more erect and his eyes more focused. Suddenly he wheezed loudly and his rigidity collapsed. He hung in the air like a broken puppet, speaking his next statement with a soft, halting voice, “Ayesha, I was dead for over 6 hours before the medics revived me. I cannot answer your question. I do not remember anything from before I died.”

His quiet words inflamed her response, “Why would the Tribunal let me see you, if you have no memories? Why would they let anyone see you?”

He replied with the same defeated voice. “The Tribunal doesn’t believe me. They hope you will trip me up with clever questions.” He nodded towards the ceiling. “They’re watching now, you know. Of course you know.”

She dismissed his allusions to the surveillance sensors and continued. “But you can think. You’re lucid.”

“Yes. When I’m not being tortured.”

Ayesha’s mind was racing but directionless. If what he said was true, all of her questions were irrelevant. She repressed an urge to strike him. She knew that anger was just an expression of her frustration. Then her rage turned against the War Crimes Tribunal. “How dare they mislead me like this!” she thought. “This interview is the culmination of years’ worth of effort. They could have warned me about this!”

“Do you feel betrayed?” The Tyrant’s voice had a cloying tone. “Of course you do. All the interviewers do. You’ve been manipulated.”

“Where were you born?” Ayesha shot the question at him, like a trial lawyer.

“On the planet Sirius under a blood-red sun,” he immediately replied.

“How do you know that if you have no memories?”

“I hear that dreadful poem recited continuously when I am enduring my Punishment.” The Prisoner made a croaking noise which Ayesha assumed was laughter.

“What do you think of your sentence?”

He answered her question indirectly. “Did you experience any death scans before coming here?” She nodded and he continued. “There are millions scattered throughout the Lattice. My soldiers took most of those scans for me. I have been told that I used to experience the scans for pleasure. Ayesha, my sentence is horrific, but I can’t blame you for wanting to punish me. Of course I am guilty.”

His emphasis on the word you off-put her. She had never felt herself culpable for his suffering – he committed his trillion crimes and others punished him. But from his perspective of course she was. The Tyrant’s Punishment was dictated by her society. She could throw her support behind those who felt he was better off dead. But she did not, and therefore she shared some responsibility for his eternal suffering.

The Prisoner continued speaking, “You’re not here because of the people I murdered are you?” This raised her hackles, but before she could correct him he completed his point, “Ayesha, you’re here because of some other personal tragedy aren’t you?”

She took a moment to calm herself: it was foolish to be angry simply because this damaged, insane man had insight into her motives. She nodded.

“Are you afraid of me?”

She looked at him. “No.”

“What about that?” he nodded towards the Mech.

“It terrifies me.”


“Have you ever heard of Luthan?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a mining planet. I grew up there. My father was a senior executive in the company that owned it.” She looked at him to see if he was listening and couldn’t tell. Even though his gaze was averted, somehow, out of the corner of his left eye he watched her. He said, “I am listening. Continue.”

“When I was eight years old a company tried to buy Luthan. The company bribed most of the people who could influence the sale. My father opposed the bid. He was a stubborn man who was strongly motivated by his strict sense of morality. One day, as my family prepared for dinner, a Mech murdered him. Then it killed my brother, my mother and my two sisters. I escaped because I hid in a tree. The police never captured the murderer. They claimed it was a renegade from your army that had eluded reprogramming. It was a transparent but serviceable lie. The next day the planet was sold.”

The Prisoner responded to the space behind her left shoulder, “Ayesha, people are greedy.”

She shook her head sadly, “Its worse than that. Years later I saw an interview with the owner of the corporation that murdered my family. He was asked why his company had fought so hard for a relatively unimportant planet like Luthan. It turns out he did it for Eleutheria.” She began to shake while recalling the memory. The Prisoner reached one of his palsied hands towards her, but the movement was ended abruptly by a force-field.

“What? I don’t understand.”

“Eleutheria is a very beautiful garden. My family was murdered for a garden.”

“Would you torture their murderers?”


“Would you kill them if you could do so with no consequences?”

When she did not answer, the Prisoner resumed his interrogation, “What do you feel about me?”

“I hate you.”

She braced herself for a demonstrative response, but instead the Tyrant slumped pathetically forward. His force field pushed his limp body back into an erect but akimbo position. He weakly spoke, “Ayesha, do you want me to suffer until the end of time?”

“I want you dead. You are a monster.”

He laughed weakly. “Ayesha, I’m certain that the old me, who I was before I died, would have loved your hatred.”

An alarm beeped twice. Moments later two soldiers appeared to escort the Tyrant from the room; the interview was over. As his limp body was pushed out of the door, Ayesha could see that he was trying to say something to her but his words were muted by his force-field prison.

The Mech escorted Ayesha to the service doors through which she had entered, but did not leave the Palace with her. She stepped alone into the crowd; the small doors closed quickly behind her. Immediately, a dissembling man with matted hair, loose clothing and wild eyes approached her waving a pamphlet into the air. “Lady, you must be important. Only important people are allowed into the Palace. Listen to me. He didn’t do it! You must set him free. He’s innocent.” The man stuffed a pamphlet into her hands and then shouted directly into her face “He Didn’t Do It!” Her temper flared; she harshly shoved him out of her way.

Her scuffle with the Denier was interrupted by a procession from the Palace: the Tyrant was being returned to his Punishment. Everyone turned to watch. At the base of the Panopticon the Tyrant’s escort backed off into a semi-circle around his skewed hovering body. Slowly he floated into the air. As he moved the cables that nourished and tormented him gradually ensnared him in a web. There was a thick moment of anticipation once he was in position; this was followed by a loud crashing sound which echoed into silence: the Cycle had begun. The Tyrant began to writhe in pain as one by one the lights of the Lattice of Sorrow were extinguished.

Ayesha fled in horror into the air far above the Plaza and then set her course away from the cursed place; the Denier followed her. She landed at entrance to the Lattice. The moment she did the Denier grabbed her by the shoulders, roughly turned her around and shouted into her face, “HE DIDN’T DO IT! YOU MUST HELP FREE HIM” She faced him full on and shouted in reply, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and then violently pushed him to the ground. The Denier fell into the shadow of the letters cast by the gate:

The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace.


04 Anava


At that moment I returned to Eleutheria. I was now floating beside the Sadhu, who was watching sheep graze unafraid amidst a pride of lions. This made me think of eating. I said, “Sadhu, I am hungry.”

“That is a problem”, he replied gravely.

“What do you eat?”

“We all subsist on Amrita.”

I knew that Amrita was what ancient Indian gods drank to be immortal but I was certain that for Sadhu Jain it referred to something else, for example a food synthesis technology. I puzzled over this question as I looked at the pastoral scene in the fields below me. The planet sensed my hunger. The sheep began to bleat. Lions pawed the earth and growled loudly. A great flock of birds leaped out of a pond and wheeled through the sky in front of me.

The bubble that enclosed me lifted me high above the plains, despite my desire to walk beside the Sadhu.

The planet was rejecting me.

Sadhu Jain spoke to me through a voice in my head. “Change your perspective: don’t view the scene. Viewing makes you an outsider and apart. Experience it by becoming one with it.”

I attempted to follow his advice my opening up my consciousness and was overwhelmed by a cacophony of intruding spirits. The Sadhu continued speaking. “Join us. Begin with me.” He began to glow with an intense purple light that suffused the air around us.

Begin with you how? I wondered. And then I didn’t think, or rather there was no I in my thoughts. Somehow my spirit joined with the Sadhu’s, and  through him it connected with the entire world. I floated back down to the planet’s surface.

The indigo aura that had enveloped me dissolved and my sense of identity returned, though not completely. I felt connected with all of the life around me; this both enhanced and diminished me.

I softly landed on the ground in the middle of a flock of sheep. The animals were no longer agitated. I sensed that they accepted me or perhaps I should say that I, as part of them, was no longer a threat. A lion, who had been resting on the edge of the flock rose and slinked forward. As he got closer to me his image became unsteady and he burned with an intense orange aura. I could feel myself as part of that aura-fire. The lion signaled me to sit on his back, so I did. I was glowing yellow-red; the Sadhu glowed indigo beside me.

I blinked. When I opened my eyes we were again at the Town of Three Gates. I was still riding the lion. We were facing the crudest of the three gates, which was made of pieces of grey drift wood and clay. “This gate is called Anava”, the Sadhu said, anticipating my question. “It is our word for ego.”

The lion stepped lightly over the threshold of the modest gate. Before me flowed a golden river. It was deep, but choked with sandbars and reeds the size of trees.

I rode dreamily beside the middle branch of the river. My spirit felt like a tiny boat on the surface of a calm ocean, except that unlike a boat I was not content to float on the surface but rather felt a compulsion to be immersed in water. I dismounted and walked into the river and began to swim, or more accurately the river invited me to swim. It pulled me in.

Although I still do not know how much of Eleutheria was illusory, I do know that it was a world of spirits; as I immersed myself in the Golden River I merged with them. In one moment I was the spirit of a fish, in the next I was the spirit of a bird; after that I was a fast land animal. My connection with these souls spanned the river, the surrounding plains, the entire planet.

“Merge with us and you can stay”, the Sadhu said.

Until the Sadhu spoke I had been experiencing other spirits. Now they attempted to experience me. The feeling was like standing beside a breaching dam the size of infinity. I was overwhelmed. Swimming, which initially had been effortless suddenly became difficult. My panic and fear caused the water around me to churn. I tried to shut out the millions of spirits that were absorbing my identity. As the waves thickened my fear transformed into panic. I began to sink like a stone through the water.

You must go!

With this message I was flung out of the golden river. I could feel no breeze, I could smell no smells; I could touch but not feel. Once again Eleutheria was quarantined against me. Sadhu Jain floated beside me. He said farewell with a low bow and a plaintive “namaste”, then I was hurled away from him, upward through the clouds and into space.

Although I moved with great velocity I felt like I was not moving at all, so it was easy to ignore the images speeding by me, and to reflect on my sudden exile from Eleutheria. With a heavy heart I mused, “What kind of perfect world would not have me as part of it?” As I thought this sad thought I burst out of the green-blue planet’s atmosphere and into space. “Eleutheria is not exactly a perfect world”, I corrected myself, remembering the Sadhu’s words, “it is a dream of a perfect world.”

This made me wonder, What would I dream of if I dreamed of a perfect world?

I thought about what I had just experienced: skies thick with birds; seas bursting with fish; dense forests. I had an answer to that question. My dream is the same one as Sadhu Jain’s, for I too long for harmony, peace, and abundance, and when I dare to dream, I dream of a world where there is no suffering. I have visited this dream, but could not stay.

I watched the Quark grow from a distant dot into a space ship. I knew that I would take a few minutes to reach it, so I twisted my body to look into the deepest part of space. Once again I confronted infinity. This time I was not afraid, for my terror had given way to awe and my heart was full of longing.

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03 Maya


“This gate is called Maya, which is our word for illusion.”

Sadhu Jain gestured for me to follow him through it. The Sadhu walked quickly. For several minutes I floated behind him, over a hilly savanna, taking in my surroundings, thinking my private thoughts.

After a difficult to measure period of time the grasses gave way to sky-scraping trees. Eventually the Sadhu stopped to rest beside a pool that had formed at the bottom of a mountain waterfall. He sat down on a pad of downy, dark green grass. The pool was edged with white and yellow flowers.

It is inaccurate to speak of the water and the land as separate things in this scene; everything was enveloped in mist.

The mist refracted light into a riot of muted colors.

The colors diffused into a rainbow.

The light was silent.

This reminded me of the first time I experienced silence.

True silence.

I opened my eyes.

I was no longer on Eleutheria, but I knew where I was.

I abandoned the goals of my life to give my life direction: the Foundation that funded my university position wanted active archaeologists, and although there are billions of people interested in studying ancient cultures there are precious few willing to spend the time, take the risk, and most importantly are able to endure the psychological stresses associated with exploration. I passed the tests easily: I crave isolation and that was more than enough.

But I veer from my narrative: what brought me to this point is silence.

Between solar systems, in deep space, there is silence as deep as infinity, which I sailed through for over one year. My ship, the Pea, was little more than a pod, my initial thrust was provided by a slingshot, and my acceleration was provided by a photon sail. You may think my employers miserly for not getting me a proper exploration vessel, but the choice was mine. Although the Pea itself was slow, it was the fastest, surest and cheapest way for me to escape from my purposeless, comfortable life.

My job was to make a detailed scan of the ruins on the red planet Archion Prime, in order to establish that the planet was unsuitable for academic study and could be turned into an amusement park. Don’t fret if you love ruins as much as I do. My loyalty was not with my employers and no park was ever built.

Thus far the journey was a success. Everything, from the food synthesizer to the photon sails worked except for one detail: in-bound communications were broken because I had veered slightly off course – only by a degree or two, but in space one percent might as well be infinity.

I wondered what to do as I lay there in silence. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do: signal that I was alive and that all of my systems were functioning. Simple. I would not have to do anything except approve the action and the Pea would do the rest. But I did not want to hear from my Department and I did not want to speak with my sponsors. Or my ex-wife. Or anybody. Or anything. Least of all did I want to communicate with some expressionless machine.

As I lay in silence, staring at a filtered image of the approaching sun, I went into a trance. When I came again to myself the planet Archion Prime was in front of me. I sent a scrambled message to my Department to let the my sponsors know I was alive, and then went back to communication silence.

I directed the Pea to do a loop around the sun at a speed that would give me time to hop off and explore the planet.

Archion Prime was covered in the ruins of large red clay cities which rose from dry, dusty plains. Because of some fluke of geology it was blessed with precious stones, especially emeralds, rubies and diamonds, which were scattered around the planet in temples. The city I choose to explore first was home to the largest of these temples.

I remember listening to the crunching sounds that my boots made when I first set foot on the ground. The sand was made of compressed carbon. These grains of diamonds rubbed together as I moved. They were very abrasive. But that isn’t why I remember the sound so vividly. It was because it ended my period of silence.

Archion Prime is a desert now, but in the past, for millions of years, it had been lush. Its forests, or what they became, carbon fuels, were the planet’s curse: despite spectacular technological advances, the Archion civilization depended primarily on coal for energy, which was abundant and cheap, but unfortunately turned rain into acid, and ultimately destroyed most plant life, save for spiny tumbleweeds and succulents, which were the dominant plant species when I explored. The Archion civilization was as advanced as one could be without interstellar flight, and shared the fate of the planet’s biomes.

I began my explorations at what I called the Ruby Temple, which was a six-pointed structure that was big enough, even when ruined, to be seen from orbit. On each point were rubies, polished into the shape of tetrahedrons, which weighed hundreds of kilos. The entire site was a temple to a sun god, who was represented always using red granite and rubies.

I targeted the center of the temple as a good place to begin exploration: a seared pit in the middle of a ruined metal tower. As I got to within one kilometer of it I stopped to hover. The artifact was likely one of the most important religious buildings on the planet. But it wasn’t the building that astonished me. In the middle of the temple debris I discovered the ruins of a space ship engine surrounded by piles of coal. I didn’t land but instead explored the spokes of the temple where I found more coal, along with ruined engines and skewed pieces of metal. It took me most of one day to realize that the whole site was the ruins of a gigantic coal-fueled space ship. The ship was so large because it is a nearly impossible task to build coal-fired engines that can move to interstellar velocities. The weight/propulsion ratio is all wrong.

The Archion civilization had gotten so very close to escape velocity, but their last-chance bet on the wrong energy source, coal, failed and they went extinct because of acid rain.

I vividly remember floating above the ruins of this absurd folly of a civilization and thinking if these people wound up nowhere then where am I when I am here investigating them? My unfiltered answer was nowhere. Although it was a nihilistic realization, it wasn’t a cruel one for the discovery that brought me to it secured my reputation.

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02 Karma


I fell toward the planet as if through a vision; for though my view altered as I moved, I felt nothing, neither wind, rain, nor friction. Because I felt nothing I found it difficult to believe that what I saw all around me was real. My scanner informed me that it was, but I did not trust its report.

I passed through Eleutheria’s outer atmosphere in an instant. One instant  later I burst through the clouds into a clear sky. I could not see any horizon because everywhere I looked my view was blocked by something that was alive: huge flocks of birds; thousand meter high trees; vast herds of animals; and seas that were bursting with fish.

As I drew closer to the planet’s surface, the arc of my trajectory altered. I no longer fell but instead raced above a forest canopy toward a rising sun. After a few moments my movement slowed; then I gently began to float down onto a flat, dusty triangle at the conjunction of three roads. At the entrance to each road was a gate, one opened onto wilderness; one onto forest.  The third gate faced a grassland and a distant mountain range.

I landed beside Sadhu Jain. He was more substantial than the projection I had seen on the Quark, though barely so: his eyes were watery and unfocused, his dreadlocks were wild, his sari was tattered, and his deportment was loose.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“This is the plaza of the Three Gates. It is the entrance to our world.”

“What do you mean? Is this some kind of test?” I asked.

“No more than any other experience”, the Sadhu replied. He walked to the gate that faced the mountain range. I followed while he spoke to me over his shoulder, “These gates lead to aspects of our world that you must experience before we will allow you to explore any further”. He spoke without a trace of affect in his voice, but the moment he finished speaking a gigantic flock of birds punctuated his words with a cacophonous roar.

I followed the Sadhu through a trellised gate adorned with ancient vines, broad leaves and succulent grapes. “Do you have a name for this gate?” I inquired.

He replied, “We call it Karma. It is the beginning of the path that leads to where you are now.”

As the Sadhu spoke, he gestured for me to follow him, which I did. I was still enclosed in an atmospheric bubble, so I floated rather than walked. When I passed through the gate everything became blurry, then the scene before me gradually resolved into an urban area, a city or town, probably the latter because there were pedestrians and cyclists and animal-drawn carts, but none of the large structures one associates with dense urban areas.

I was no longer on Eleutheria, but instead was in the town of Elen on the planet Anktrope, where I took my doctorate in cultural anthropology, met my wife, purchased my first house, and for the first and only time in my life settled down.

The scene I was in was more like a dream than a simulation. Although there were sounds and colors, the former never resolved into anything as specific as speech, and the latter were vibrant and smeared, more like an abstract painting than a representation. But this description is also inaccurate because there was a vividness to my experiences despite the uncertainty of my senses.

I had returned to the moment when my life was in balance between potential and achievement. I had just received my degree and been offered a posting at Elen University. It was the day of my graduation, my engagement party and the closing on my suburban dream house.

I knew what I wanted and where I was going, and had set myself up to acquire it all. Or perhaps I should say my grasping had direction and focus.

Returning to this scene after one hundred years, I could not help but notice an infinitesimal disquiet caused by the space between my conception of the arc my life should follow and the path I had taken. I now think of this as a materialist asymptote: I wanted it all and was never satisfied with less, could never achieve infinity and so kept striving. A hungry ghost.

I’m wandering away from my story.

The trigger for my disquiet, what most unsettled me about the vision Sadhu Jain was showing me, was music. The band was playing an atonal symphony composed explicitly to celebrate my achievements. I once loved atonal music because its lack of (apparent) structure gave listeners so much potential. What unsettled both was that the commissioned piece the band played was very abstract. Listening to it made me think that even though I had actualized so many of my dreams the result was more a vivid illusion than real.

That moment of disquiet was a seed that once sprouted grew quickly and persistently, ultimately eroding the foundations of my life: my work and my family.

I blinked. When I opened my eyes I was back with Sadhu Jain at the Plaza of Three Gates. The Karma gate, which we had just passed through, was to my left. We faced the middle gate, which was difficult to focus on because it shimmered. Initially, I thought this was because of a problem with my eyes, perhaps as a result of my recent journey; then I attributed the shifting images to distortions caused by heat and humidity. I looked more closely and saw that both of my hypotheses were wrong: the physical structure of the gate was actually changing.

“What do you call this?”, I asked.

“This gate is called Maya, which is our word for illusion.”

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We the People


Psychedelic Noise

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