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 moon that night was four-fifths gray and had a tail of two stars. It looked like a little cougar or a leaping cat. It looked like a silver dandelion about to blow its seeds into the galaxy. Or a lamprey. The burning, thin and tilted crescent smiled down from the dark indigo sky, and the traveler got up again, able for the first time in weeks to breathe and walk the stone paths along the shore of an infinite sea.
The mound of sand rose pale and smoky in the blue night of great stars as a light breeze constantly added and subtracted grains of sand to and from its mass. The lost assassin thus perceived the merciless impossibility of death, the momentous eternity, the shattering and reassembling of numbers and words, and the distance of distance.
One can get tired of the lapping waves and the stroking oars. It turns out that there are a limited number of canals and bridges in the town, and the town itself is a limited island in a finite pond. One cannot even make a word problem in topology with this state of affairs. Monotony and despair are inevitable but lethal to the trade of the oarsman. The first is a spiritual problem, the second a practical problem. One can count passing birds, but this distraction only lasts for so long. An older oarsman once related a legend, saying that every time a gondola brushes against the shores of the pond, the coast erodes a little bit more, and the ringed sea expands. Some day, the pond and the gondolas will break through the rocky isthmus and reach the open sea. In the meantime, there is monotony and emptiness. It was already difficult when there were fewer stops, fewer coins, and fewer dinners, and yet the boat keeps moving, and the oarsman keeps punting and stroking the wet sea. These days, there are no real passengers, but they have left behind their seductive fragrances and phantom weights. Only ghosts ride, and rich or poor, they will not pay a single obol, drachma, hyperpyron, zecchino or florin, nor will the guild allow an oarsman to quit or retire. The ghosts are infuriating, but one can not accomplish anything with ghosts. They are notoriously inept at the art of conversation or navigation, incompetent at seduction, and will not help with the punting or steering despite riding for free. They have no appreciation for the coffin-black paint of the gondola, the physics of the forcola, or the laws of tracing cloud constellations. The unthought forcola especially bothers the oarsman, for it is a miracle of nature and engineering. The phantom weight of past passengers and the uncanny presence of ghosts and their intangible, almost irrelevant deaths only grows as the world drifts by. Other gondolas appear in the mists of distance, but no vessel ever catches up to another. A hideous silence laps at the lone wandering gondola.
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.
In the beginning, Heaven gave adamantine rings that shone like silver and platinum to all human children, one ring for each person. The angels passed through the land, gently placing them on the fingers of every woman and man. It was a kind of wedding present or testament of a promised inheritance. Then the angels drifted like brilliant smoke and dazzling snow back to the high mountains. Time went by, and the people grew impatient and greedy. Some traded their rings for food, shelter and clothes. Others traded them for perishable trinkets and vain books. One day, a horde arose, stealing all of the rings. The horde melted down the rings to forge swords, and distributed the swords, one sword for each person, woman and man. All of humanity raised their swords and set off for the mountains. The reason was clear enough. There would be other treasures in heaven. The very stars that shone by night were most likely gigantic gems or precious minerals. The ravenous horde began its ascent, a dark line of ants upon the great white void of the slopes. The way was difficult, and one by one, the climbers fell into snowbanks, chasms, or threw themselves from cliffs. There were some who perished of altitude sickness; there were some who died of cold; there were many who ate the snow and died of famine. The higher they climbed, the more they tended to throw themselves from cliffs of long icicles. Forever they climbed upward through mists and blizzards, forever encouraging themselves with the better view they had of the world from these heights and the closer they had drawn to heaven. Many are buried forever with their swords in eternal snow. A remnant is still climbing today. The mountains of heaven are infinite.
I was writing the last pages of my text on eclipses of the moon and sun when the event happened. I was still wearing my bronze armour for I had to write in a hurry between battles, and wanted to finish my treatise before beginning my tragedy on the life of the destroyer who traveled on a winged horse armed with a crystal eye and the horror that turns men to stone. And then there was thunder, a rainfall of stars, and smoke all over the surface of the earth. Logic fails to explain or express the journey, for either I was carried off by a comet or another strange cosmic phenomenon, or spirits transported me from the earth into the vicinity of unfamiliar stars and planets. The third possibility is that I have gone mad. It is unlikely I could have survived the first type of event without burning up or suffocating. Travelers have often reported the burning up of falling stars and the way the air grows thinner the higher you climb into the mountains. It would seem that there is no air in the ether and traveling through the atmosphere is a violent and hazardous event. The second possibility is no less impossible or disconcerting, for it is said that even if spirits or immortals exist, they are too far away in space to notice our earth or care about our life, and being transported by them to this area of space by their powers makes no sense, for I have not encountered anyone or anything other than a great void of orbiting stars, streaming luminous clouds and the shadows of planets. The one planet in my vicinity, which I orbit each day, at about the same distance of the moon to our ancient earth, glows with swirls of amber, molten gold, topaz and black steel. It is like looking into the forge of a blacksmith or into one of those strange marbles of glassblowers, or a rare gem. It is a cat’s eye without a body. Its warmth wafts over to me. I do not seem to have difficulty breathing, but I know there can be no air, for nothing lives or grows in this empty sea. This morning star, like an ember in the dark sky, like a mysterious cat’s eye, seems to be made of gases and elixirs. I believe these elixirs drift outward, the way heat drifts from a hearth, the way an aura of light spreads from one little lantern into the night. It seems possible that these elixirs have made me immortal. I do not breathe, I do not eat, I do not weep or feel pain anywhere in my body, and I do not die. The only thing I feel is an infinite sadness. My mind works without ceasing as I ponder the revolutions of stars and planets. Some five hundred years must have passed since my arrival. I can guess this by the patterns of changes in the stars, the seasons of my planet, and the number of calculations I have made from where I float like a drowned sailor in the universe. I now know the circumference and age of my planet, I have numbered the planets in this ring of stars and guessed the durations and lengths of their orbits, I have predicted countless phenomena with increasing accuracy. I am a living almanac who cannot impart a single iota of what I have observed and tested. On the earth I once heard legends of subterranean hells full of darkness and flames that maidens would fall into and heroes would visit at great risk. I did not think about such things much. I was too occupied with the codex and the spear. Whether or not a hell exists under the earth, it certainly exists here. It is a beautiful hell. My soul burns with the beauty and sadness of the starry chaos. The third possible explanation for my night voyage remains. I may be locked into a an infinite madness, a madness so great that my body may have died but my mind cannot sense it and sleep, a madness that only increases my pointless calculus of astronomical phenomena while decreasing my memory of life. Perhaps all three explanations are interwoven, swirling together in this maelstrom of suspended and turning lights and shadows. I pray that this is true, for if there is a hell, then it seems more possible that there is a heaven that will someday draw me from the dance of flames, from death without death, from infinite madness. I have come to experience infinity, but I have yet to find eternity. I would like to find a friend in this great emptiness.