Chapter 2: 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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