Chapter 1: First Encounter

My ship, the Quark, popped out of hyperspace 10 lakh1 kilometers above the planet Eleutheria. The moment it did I looked at my scanner: as expected, all of the bio-sign readings were extreme. There was no planet in our galaxy with remotely as much biomass per cubic hectare as the green-blue giant before me.

My research told me that this trip could be very dangerous. Although it is common for space probes to malfunction, it was exceptional that every single probe that had been sent to explore Eleutheria had failed by the time it had gotten as close to the planet as I now was. I scanned the solar system for signs of weaponry. Nothing. I scanned for signs of artificial energy production. Nothing. There was no sign of any technology whatsoever. “All this life and no machinery”, I thought.

The Quark shuddered as it stopped. I glanced at my control panel trying to determine what had happened. Aside from the change in the ship’s momentum, every other measurement was unremarkable. The fore scanners showed a green-blue planet, the aft scanners a blazing yellow-white sun. I tried to move the Quark backwards, away from Eleutheria but the ship did not move. Attempts to move up, down and sideways had similar effect. I cut the engines and all extraneous power sources in order to save energy, and then began to investigate why my ship had stopped moving. It had to have been because of some form of counter-force, but my logs told me nothing.

I spent the next several hours broadcasting messages, on the assumption that someone, or some thing, had stopped the Quark. These efforts to communicate fell upon deaf ears, or at least were not responded to in a way I comprehended. Although I had no information that would allow me to interpret this silence as anything specific, it soon provoked me to anger. I am not one of those people who become violent when angry. As my temper flared I became more and more focused on solving the riddle that I was in. With obsession as my motivation I worked continuously for the better part of the next day analyzing my data with every analytical tool I possessed. My results were all negative: no matter had shifted, no energy had been expended and yet the Quark had made the transition from light-speed to stillness in an instant. Ultimately my frustration gave way to amazement. During my explorations I have encountered countless amazing technologies, but never one that could not be recognized as technology.

I brooded until I fell asleep.

When I awoke I was amazed to discover the projection of a small, frail man standing in front of me. There were beads and colored ribbons in his hair and he had a gnarly, matted gray beard. He wore a white sari, which hung loosely on his lank, bony frame. Because he was translucent and stood in front of the fore-scanner, a filtered image of the green-blue planet could be seen through his body.

The moment I noticed him he greeted me with a low bow and said, “Welcome to Eleutheria. Namaste.”

There were so many ways I could have responded to this first encounter. I could have been afraid, startled or full of anticipation, curiosity or hope. I regret to report that I was simply disappointed. Seeing an image of a human in front of me, even one as oddly dressed and wild-looking as this one, meant that Eleutheria had not only been discovered, it had been colonized, and was therefore just another piece of human history that had been lost and found again. Such discoveries happen every year and are rarely headline news.

The wiry old man, apparently reading my mind, said, “Fame is not the only reason you are here my friend.”

I nodded my head in agreement. Acquiring fame is the least of my motivations for exploration, though it is one of them.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Sadhu Jain.”

I know that a Sadhu is a holy man and that Jainism is a religion that respects all life, but that did little to help me, so I asked, “It is obvious you are a projection. Where is the real you right now?”

“My physical body is on the planet but what you see here is not a projection”, he gestured towards his translucent body and said, “This is the real me.”

I let this cryptic remark go unchallenged and asked the question that was foremost on my mind, “How did you stop my ship? I was moving at light-speed.”

“Your ship is still moving, but slowly relative to the universe.”

I leaped to my control panel and analyzed scans of the galaxy since I arrived. The star-field had not shifted at all. “How could I have missed this?”, I thought excitedly.

My amazement at being somehow taken out of time cleared my head of anger: this was a mystery worth investigating further. “Sadhu Jain‚” I said respectfully, “I would very much like to visit your planet.”

“I will ask permission.” The projection of the mystic blinked into nothing.

The next moment I was in space. Eleutheria loomed in front of me; the sun was at my back; nothing was above me and nothing beside me but the flickering of distant stars. You have never experienced the sublimity of the universe until you have done so floating alone in space. I slowly twisted myself around so that I was facing the center of the galaxy. No matter where I looked I saw stars. The vastness turned my awe into terror. I dodged my fear by twisting my body so that the green-blue planet filled my view.

I used my pocket scanner to orient myself. I was 5 lakh kilometers away from my ship hovering in the atmosphere above Eleutheria but I could not determine how I had arrived at my current location. In fact the only anomaly I could measure was a 10 metre spherical corona of space-time, a data smudge which my scanner struggled to describe.  On the inside of the corona was an atmosphere exactly like the one in my spaceship; on the outside, the near vacuum of space. I was slowly falling toward the planet.

A shadow crossed my view. I looked up to see a placid Sadhu Jain floating beside me. You would think that I would be afraid, in fact horrified, to be suspended in space by some form of technological magic in the company of an unkempt mystic. But I was not afraid of Sadhu Jain; I was not afraid of the magic that kept me alive while I hurtled toward this amazing planet. I was certain that the same magic that gave Eleutheria so much life would protect mine.

I tried to orient my body to face the Sadhu as I fell, but could not because of dizziness. I spoke the moment I could, “Sadhu Jain, this is a very complicated way to get me to your planet. Wouldn’t it be simpler for me to land my ship?”

“Machines are not allowed on Eleutheria”, he replied.

“Indeed! What do you mean by machine? Do you mean any machine? My right eye is artificial. Is it an forbidden technology?”

“The machinery in your eye will not work on the planet. But there is no need for you to worry. You will perceive far more than you sense once you land.”

I have been trained to practice discretion during first encounters but the Sadhu’s cryptic, mystical words compelled me to press him about his beliefs. “Am I that different from my spaceship?”, I asked. “Aren’t I just an organic machine? ”

“There is a difference: you are divine”, he blandly replied.

I smiled at this bold statement, but I fear that my smile was rueful. My intentions may strive for divinity but I know that my actions rarely, if ever, move me closer to it. I said, “If I am divine, Sadhu Jain, then why did you have to get permission for me to visit Eleutheria?” I asked, with hints of challenge and bitterness in my voice.

His response took me aback. “I had to ask permission for you to visit because your spirit is dangerous,” he said.

“Why are you letting me visit at all?”

“Because you are divine”.

His circular words and indifferent manner caused my temper to fray, again.

“What is this place?!” I exclaimed.

“It is a dream of a perfect world.”

I blinked.

When my eyes opened Sadhu Jain was gone.

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