An explorer visits the planet Eleutheria, an extremely lush world that has been engineered by technologically advanced Jains to be perfect, in the sense of having no predators. On Eleutheria the protagonist is given three tests based on the concepts of Maya, Karma and Anava, the three malas of Hindusim, to determine if he will be allowed to explore Eleutheria. Ultimately he fails his test because to pass it he would have to change his nature, which he is unwilling to do. All he can do is dream of perfection.
I am actively working on turning this story into a virtual reality play.
My ship, the Quark, popped out of hyperspace 10 lakh1
A lakh is an Indian unit of measurement equal to 100,000.
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 that dominated my view.
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. Then 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 almost imperceptibly shuddered, then 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. Energy was expended but the ship did not move. I then tried moving up, down and sideways to 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 scan-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 coloured 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. 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.
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. 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 perspective is skewed: 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 was below me but the flickering of distant stars. You have never experienced the sublimity of the universe until you have done so outside of your ship, staring into deep space. I slowly twisted myself around so that I was facing the centre 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. No energy had been expended to transport me to my current position. In fact the only anomaly I could measure was a 10 metre spherical corona of space-time, which my scanner struggled to describe (data smudge). 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 focus by orienting my body to face the Sadhu but initially could not because of the dizziness caused by the speed of my descent. 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 excluded machine.”
“The machinery in your eye will not work on the planet. But there is no need for you to worry. I expect that 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 the hint of a challenge and perhaps bitterness in my voice.
His response took me aback. “I had to ask permission for you to visit because your soul 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.”
When my eyes opened Sadhu Jain was gone.
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 the planet’s outer atmosphere in an instant. An 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, each of which opened onto wilderness; in one direction there was a forest, in another a lake. The third gate faced steppes 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 town 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 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 leaped out of the forest that surrounded our site 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 asked.
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, for a moment 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. [Initially the buildings resembled those that I had noticed on the perimeter of the Three Gates, but as they came more into focus I saw that many were built in a white-washed adobe style.]
I was no longer on Eleutheria, but instead was somewhere I had not been in over a century, 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 both my graduation and my engagement party. I had completed the purchase of my house the day before.
I knew what I wanted and where I was going, and had set myself up to acquire it all.
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 an amoral asymptote: I grasped for all and was never satisfied with less, so kept striving. A hungry ghost.
I’m loosing my story. The trigger for my disquiet, what most unsettled me, was the music. The band I had hired for entertainment played an atonal symphony composed explicitly for my celebration. Until that point, I loved atonal music because its lack of (apparent) structure gave listeners so much potential. What unsettled me was that the music the band played was very abstract. This 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 Town 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 gate?”, I asked.
“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 a copse of 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 which enveloped us.
The light was silent.
I was 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 destroyed 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 craved isolation.
But I digress.
What brings my story 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 an unsuitable foracademic 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.
Outbound communication worked perfectly. I knew precisely where I was from my charts so I could send messages home with ease.
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.
As I lay in silence, staring at a tinted image of the approaching sun, I went into a trance. When I awoke the planet Archion Prime was in front of me. I sent the message that I had safely arrived in ten thousand scrambled parts to my Department, 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 several weeks to explore the planet.
Archion Prime was covered in the ruins of large red clay cities which rose from dry dusty red-brown plains. Because of some fluke of geology it was blessed with precious stones, especially emeralds, ruby’s 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 was 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 natural geography.
I began my explorations at what I called the Ruby Temple, which was a six-pointed building 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 was often 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 ruins 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 sphip and thinking if these people wound up nowhere then where am I? My unfiltered answer was nowhere. Although it was a nihilistic realization, it wasn’t a cruel one: my investigation secured my reputation and made it easy to turn nowhere into anywhere and get by.
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 followed his advice and my consciousness was overwhelmed by a cacophony of spirits. The Sadhu continued speaking. “Join us. Begin with me.” He began to glow with an intense purple light than suffused the air around us.
Begin with 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 then through him it connected with the world and perhaps the entire universe beyond. 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, because 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 stepped 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 fire. The lion signaled me to sit on his back, so I did. I was glowing yellow; 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 third gate. It was the crudest of the three, made of pieces of grey drift wood and clay.“This gate is 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 planet and its sun.
“If you can merge with us 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. The waves grew thick; 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 see but not touch. 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 imagine, I imagine 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 once again 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.
1Lakh is the Indian word for 100,000.
2An asymptote is a curve the comes infinitesimally close to crossing the x or y axis of a graph but never does.
Space matters when talking about silence. Although emptiness doesn’t make silence louder or softer, it amplifies it.
[How much of infinity is nothing?]
[But I’m getting ahead of my story, which explains how I found myself surrounded by silence in deep space.]
[all that I could feel was despair at the thought that our nature is our reward, punishment and destiny].
Because I am an explorer I often think of my experiences as problems to be solved. The foremost problem on my mind, at that point, was the mysterious barrier that still separated – or protected – the planet from me. I queried my host, “Sadhu Jain, you said that machines could not work on Eleutheria, yet I am still able to measure things with my scanner. I am a scientist. I need to know: can I trust my measurements?”
He tersely replied, “What good are your measurements if you do not know what you are measuring?” My reply to his challenge was that data leads to knowledge, but I said nothing.
my discoveries secured my reputation and made it easy to get by
I vividly remember floating above this absurd folly, and thinking if these people wound up nowhere then where am I? My answer was nowhere. Although it was a nihilistic realization, it wasn’t a cruel one: my discoveries secured my reputation and made it easy to turn nowhere into anywhere and get by. But I have never been less engaged than when I made them.