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 in the space between my conception of the arc my life should follow and the path I was taking. I now think of this as a materialist asymptote: I wanted it all and was never satisfied with less, so kept striving. A hungry ghost.
I’m wandering away from my story. The trigger for my disquiet, what most unsettled me, was music. The band I had hired for entertainment played an atonal symphony composed explicitly to celebrate my achievements. I had loved atonal music because its lack of (apparent) structure gave listeners so much potential. What unsettled me was that the commissioned piece the band played was very abstract. Listening to it made me think that even though I had actualized my dream 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.”
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.
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 solitary exploration. I passed the tests easily: I crave isolation.
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: inbound 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 from 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 still the dominant plant species when I explored. The primary civilization was as advanced as one could be without interstellar flight, and shared the fate of the planet’s physical geography.
I began my explorations at what I called the Ruby Temple, which was a six-pointed structure that was big enough, even now 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 in relics was represented as a red stone.
I targeted the center of the temple as my landing point, a seared pit in the middle of a ruined metal tower. As I got to within one kilometer of it I stopped to hover. I hypothesized that the artifact was 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 a courtyard piled high with coal. I didn’t land but instead explored the spokes of the temple where I found similar coal piles, engine ruins and precious stones. It took me most of one day to realize that the whole site was one gigantic coal-fueled space ship. The ship was so large because it is a difficult task to build coal-fired engines that can move their weight to interstellar velocities.
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.
I vividly remember floating above this absurd folly of a coal-fired space ship 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 it secured my reputation. §
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, that 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 maybe 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 then 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, and 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. Fin