The Endless Shore 

The shore was like a book of sand and stones, printed by waves and birds. The old friends warmed themselves by the campfire, smoked cigarettes and passed around a bottle of brandy. They had already put away their telescopes. The darkness of the sky and its cold stars seemed to amplify the roar of bright fire and dark water. The planet was desolate in those times, with only a hundredth of its peak population, a number declining every year. Would it have ever worked? one of them wondered aloud, looking skyward with his naked eyes. Another pointed to the sky with the bottle she held and said, No, not without 700 billion voyagers, each able to live close to 10 million years or more in good health in any climate and an endless supply of materials and fuel. And that just to see the fifty some odd galaxies nearby. She passed the bottle to him. It is always about time and temperature, he sighed, and took a drink. The other old friends whispered and gazed into the sparks and flames or faced the great shadow surrounding them, blowing out ghostly clouds of smoke. What little we have known and done, someone said. And someone else started rowing a boat into the dark waves. 

The Long Voyage 

The strange, conical vessel of smoked chrome, its color indefinable, had crashed into the rough surf on a long deserted beach. A lone naturalist abandoned his observation of night crabs to investigate. Onboard, he found an advanced and yet simple technology and the body of the solitary captain. The consoles lit up and infused the naturalist with instructions. He washed the body in seawater, carried it back on board, and placed it in a casket after wrapping it in dark linens. The cone whirred and whispered, crackling with something quite blue and seemingly electric until a catastrophic explosion of thunder shuddered outside. The vessel lifted off and ascended into the galaxy. The voyage was long. For days or years the naturalist was infused with an epic, or possibly the ship’s log. Moons had cracked, planets had burned, time had warped like wood left in water. The golden dust of nebulae had sung. A transcription of its song followed. It was beautiful but incomprehensible. It trailed off, and then there was silence, as if the song of the nebulae had eaten through the log, eclipsing everything else, until the captain had lost his way and crashed. Through the portholes, the naturalist saw the golden stars, but they were silent. One day, the ship suddenly entered into orbit around a soft green planet marbled with swirls of mocha and vanilla and great black craters. Night fell and only one cluster of lights appeared on its surface. The cone initiated its calm and unhurried descent. It landed sideways in what looked to be the mould of a cone set on rails in a gigantic railway station. Only one humanoid person was there to greet him and the wheeled stretcher on the cold, empty platform with its rusted wickets and luminous, moon-pale analog clock of illegible numbers and sharp, black hands. Dressed in a dark, woollen coat, the beautiful woman had mauve skin, copper hair and mournful golden eyes. She spoke telepathically at first, accustoming him to her language as she led him through the wickets into an abandoned city of brick and stone. They brought the casket to a mausoleum in a cemetery full of willows and maples. She prayed and wept for a moment, then took the visitor by the arm to a steakhouse with the sign of a cast-iron lion. Inside, they dined on rare steak and potatoes by candlelight, served by tarnished androids. Through the windows, he beheld the maze of cobblestone streets, narrow shops and houses, arcades, antiquated lampposts, the distant outlines of castles. Where is everyone? he asked, finally able to converse. They are all gone, she sighed. The day our ship left on its maiden voyage, the afterburner caused a multifaceted catastrophe that annihilated almost everyone. I alone have survived. To return to your planet, you would have to annihilate me. I do not mind, but I fear that you would encounter nothing upon your return to your planet, just as you found nothing here. To travel is to destroy. The naturalist was no longer hungry, and he pushed his plate away to drink his ale in silence, remembering the song of the nebulae. They went outdoors and walked up a great hill in a park overlooking the clocktower and the city. A cold, starry sky swirled above. I am sorry, she whispered, hugging him tightly, rubbing his cheeks with her tears. We never meant to disturb your planet. All of our science assured us that we would find salvation at the end of our travels. The man stared into her golden eyes and hugged her fiercely. Where were you heading? he asked. To Eden, she said. To the morning star. 

The Legend 

They called him the legend or the angel. In the distant past, he had visited their planet of stone and had given them the book of time, a codex filled with philosophy, starlight, good grain, whales, and warnings. He was good at teaching, healing, and opening hearts to infinity, but the legend always warned of a great meteor. The book of life, he insisted, would help everyone survive the great burning, whether they departed or stayed. One day, he vanished. Centuries passed. Copies of the book of life could be found in every library and household, but few read it. Nevertheless, the people of that distant planet continued to celebrate the legend, making stone statues and paper effigies of him, gathering on special days to exchange gifts and drink ale, or telling children apocryphal bedtime stories of the legend’s exploits. It was during a great festival for the legend that he reappeared, looking nothing like his effigies and seeming quite awestruck at the quantities of ale, the bright lanterns, the colorful mounds of gifts. Not knowing who he was, some of the people, in a show of hospitality, invited him to speak to their festive assembly. Standing up tall and straight, he pulled a bone-white codex from his coat pocket and began to read. Only a handful of people recognized the words from the book of time. Closing the book, the legend declared that it was the eve of the great meteor and the great burning. The air filled with bitter laughter and angry scorn. An older woman, offering him a pint, gently explained that the last heretic to say such things had been exiled from the world two centuries ago and had probably added his skeleton to the great whirlpool, a handful of moons and exoplanets where the people of that planet sent their human refuse. The meteor, explained another, was a metaphor for hate, and the real legend had used such language to teach kindness and justice. Were there any living beings in the whirlpool? the legend asked, ignoring their reproaches. Quite a lot, conjectured a young scientist, who seemed very nervous. The exiles maintained contact with the mother planet now and then by firing up great flashlights that could blink out codes. They used this to broadcast meteorological and astronomical reports or warnings. In fact, they seemed to be telegraphing now. The scientist pointed upward. It was a beautiful sight. A coil of lights flashing one after the other in the dark sky, spiralling inward, going dark, and then spiralling outward in strange rhythms. The legend said it was time to depart. Only the scientist followed. The others returned to their ale and opened their gifts. As they boarded the rectangular, blue-black ship resembling the coal tender of an old railway train, the legend asked the scientist what the flashlights from the whirlpool had telegraphed. It’s nonsense; it’s no longer one of our words; it’s not a word we use anymore, the scientist mumbled. What word? the legend demanded as the box car ascended into the starry night. Miserere, the other whispered, as a great light blossomed ahead. 

The Stars

One cold, winter night, a young woman was waiting in vain for the bus. She started to walk to keep from freezing. The omnibus traveled at about 40 mph. The earth traveled around the sun at about 70,000 mph. The solar system drove the celestial highways of the galaxy at close to 600,000 mph. The galaxy traveled at a speed of up to 700,000 mph. The local cluster of galaxies traveled at almost double that speed at 1,340,000 mph. One day, some 4 billion years into tomorrow, her galaxy would crash into another galaxy–it was heading into the collision at a speed of 240,000 mph. She could only walk about 4 mph, but the possibility of a stray motorist driving into her at 20 to 50 times her speed was not improbable. More than 12 people a day died that way. Though the wind was sharp, the traffic lights and shop windows made her feel warm in her heart. The manholes looked like black holes. A dark sea of stars glowed in the northern sky. All the iced, black sidewalks had been covered with the pale blue sparkles of salt. The salt splashes looked like galaxies and constellations of stars, some dim and some bright, giving the illusion of varying distances. She could not escape the temptation to count and build a puzzle as she walked. There seemed to be about 5 galaxies of salt per square of pavement. The more she walked, the more she counted. There were about 40 paved squares per block. Block after block, her vague math seemed to confirm the estimate. There were about 10 blocks per mile, and thus 400 paved squares per mile. She knew from the city’s published records on engineering and maintenance that there were some 90 miles of sidewalk, which meant there were about 36,000 paved squares. To summarize, there were about 200 galaxies per block, 2000 galaxies per mile, and thus about 180,000 galaxies of salt on the sides of the city streets that night, if all had been salted just like the blocks she had walked till now. In those days, scientists thought there might be about 500,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Cities like hers, with a population of 150,000 or more, only numbered 5,000. There were not enough cities on earth. She would need almost 600 times more cities with frozen, salted streets to mirror the heavens above.

The Observatory

In a distant corner of the universe, an astronomer lost all of his funding within days of building a gigantic observatory with a massive telescope on one of the highest mountains of his planet. Through the telescope he observed and counted twenty six stars, a handful for each of the quadrants–east, west, south and north. This was no more than what could be seen with the naked eye. It was dark out there and disappointing. There were not even enough stars to make imaginary pictures, as one could with cloud formations. Somehow, he had expected more stars.

The Bathtubs

It was not a good analogy, but it was the first thing that came to the mind of the worn out teacher leaning over an astronomical globe and atlas with the young girl. There were blackholes and galaxies. There were new stars and there was emptiness. It was like filling, overflowing and draining countless bathtubs of bubbles and sparkling water. The bell rang and the young girl gathered her textbooks and notebooks into her bag, and stepped out into the afternoon. She surveyed the old street with its abandoned buildings, closed shops, automotive garages, empty lots of weeds and rusted cans, and small humming factories. Coffee cream splashes of a dying sun fell on cracks, dust, stains, warped wood, corrugated steel, tarnish, rust and ash. The world really was dirty, she thought. And yet, who could be taking all those baths up there in the night sky where the stars were so clean, shiny and fresh?