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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