The last paralus was passing into the outskirts of its own solar system, having traveled a light year through a maze of planets, satellites and meteors. Beyond its prow glimmered the cloud of ices, volatiles, and planetesimals, possibly the very origin of wandering comets and the limits of their known worlds. Deterioration had set into the ship and into the bodies of the paraloi. It would be a matter of hours or days until complete disintegration, and it was more than likely that they would not breach and pass beyond the cloud of planetesimals. They listened to their mournful music and drank. At last, the captain of the paraloi gave a speech in the form of a parable. It is the last hour, he said, and we have come to the very limits of what we can know. Our crew of brave paraloi consists of the only survivors of life in our solar system. The cost of our efforts has been great. Five planets have been ruined, four destroyed, and others damaged so that we might arrive at this moment. There is no life ahead and none behind. What we may know, what is truly real, is this moment. Once upon a time, there was a fiery visionary, a heretic, who said that there were other suns with other exoplanets circling around them, and that our first world was not the limit of what we could navigate. And he said that the universe is infinite. The philosophers said he was wrong because his views did not agree with what they taught. The scientists discovered that there were indeed other suns with other exoplanets, but they said he was wrong because he only guessed without any evidence. One of his closest enemies discovered the rivers of the outer planets by looking through a telescope. For years, successive generations of better telescopes and mathematics confirmed the existence of these rivers. It was not until the first paralus to pass by the planets of rivers that we learned differently–the rivers were an optical illusion. There were no rivers. I cannot help but feel that the universe has an end somewhere, that it is finite and bounded. I do not know what the universe or matter is. Our voyage, however, seems increasingly infinite.
They waited by the roadside for the coach, dressed well and animated. They were trying to convince a wanderer, a shabby man, who seemed to combine fresh youth and exhaustion in his features, manner and expression, to remain with them until the road coach arrived. They spoke of the rewards, the sites to see along the great highway and the comforts of the coach. The wanderer looked around at the wind blowing through the golden barley, at the racing clouds, and at their long afternoon shadows in the dust. There was something deeply painful in his eyes. Growing up, he started to say, as though launching into an epic while gazing into them plaintively. Then he just laughed, shrugged, and disappeared into the grain fields. Now and then they saw his shadow shapeshifting among the glimmering stalks. The road coach appeared in the distance, trailing a cloud of dust.
Every day, the mariner watched the clouds and recorded their migrations in the sand. Every night, the wind and the waves erased his cloudscapes. Though he could count ten types of clouds, four heavens, and numerous variations and subdivisions of both, and though he often pondered the possibility that clouds were living things, far more mysterious and majestic than eels, oarfish, calamaria, or dragons, sorrow grew inside of him as he watched them pass by in armadas, in caravans, in solitary paths, their beauty filling him with a lightheaded gravity. Why did the ice, snow, rain and steam find these shapes to form? Why did they change and reform? Were there worlds with different types of clouds with different shapes? Where would snowflakes and raindrops go if there were no forms to receive them? It was undeniable that billions of their atoms would only fill a teacup, and trillions of teacups formed the atmosphere, and it was beautiful to live on an endless beach of soft mornings of soaring kites and white sails and deep nights when the lanterns flickered and the surf moaned. The man lit a smoke and threw the burning match into the infinite night.