The Cataracts 

In a dark palazzo, the traveler approached what looked to be a great wooden dais. Through the arched windows on the far side of the chamber, he saw aquamarine canals and the pastel facades of the villas perched along their banks. Dark gondolas darted past. Magnificent stone statues stood vigil throughout the chamber, elaborate scrolls and rich paintings hung from the walls. A great, robed woman lay stretched out upon the wooden dais. As he came closer, he realized that the wooden dais was a gigantic type box, a box filled with thousands of dark squares, each one capable of carrying a lead type the size of a crate. Some of these were scattered around the dais, and a mess of printed papers fluttered in the breeze blowing from the canals through the dark arches. The woman asleep on the type box possessed a grandeur and glory that defied words. She was long, fair and slept with one cheek propped on her bent arm, the other arm was thrown dramatically outward, trailing off the dais, as though pointing to the discarded scraps of text that floated in the air or the disarray of the glinting italics in the sides and tops of the huge types. As ancient as time, and yet as youthful as a virgin, her skin glowed with a faint silver radiance. Her imperishable robes, though delicate and intricately woven of platinum threads, were covered with a light film of dust and almost imperceptible cobwebs. Near the bottom hem, he descried the letter pi; at the top, an elegantly pleated theta. A long ladder thronged with angels, saints and abstract spirits rose from the pi to the theta. Despite the beauty of the designs and the incorruptible material itself, the robe was torn, exposing her nudity, which gleamed with the sad pallor of sunless days. She looked almost bloodless, her lips and nipples almost blue, her eyelids dark with fatigue. The more he gazed upon her, the more she seemed to resemble a marble statue from a drowned garden. In the blue twilight of the room, he watched as her skin changed. The robe melted into rivulets of silver water and rolled from her now golden, now luscious and youthful skin. Within seconds, as though written in invisible ink, lines and words appeared all over her body, activated by his own silent breath that had drifted over to her form. Drawing even closer, he saw a map spread out upon her figure. Marked with the lines of rivers, the borders of kingdoms, the markings of living cities and of vanished cities, her skin rippled like the surface of a lake. The legends blurred and reconfigured, the names of the cities and kingdoms appeared in every imaginable type and font, and drifted in and out of view with the subtlety of smoke. He began to search the map, studying every geographical formation, every trade route and secret paradise, every terrestrial hell and valley of shadow. The blood drained from his cheeks and he felt his strength leave his limbs as a dark, bloody gash appeared on her abdomen, but instead of blood, a flood of saltwater gurgled up, pouring out of the red gate. Staring into the cataract within her wound, he saw an architectonic labyrinth of waterfalls within. With horror he saw that he held a sword dripping with gore. Throwing it to the ground, he tried to wash his hands in the jets of saltwater streaming out of her. The blood vanished, but he continued washing. Frantic, he parted the cataracts like curtains, and stepped into her wound, walking through naves of water in search of something that he could not quite name. Tremendous torrents sounded around him. Everywhere he looked, he saw drifting spray and plunging quicksilver. After walking for miles, beyond the last cataract, he found an immense night full of moons, planets, and stars glowing and pulsing above a great sea. There in that immense night full of magic celestial lanterns of many soft colours, he walked into the sea until he was fully immersed. For three days and nights, he walked along the ocean floor, only to emerge at the far end on the threshold of the amber morning star that blazed like a tiger’s eye marble, casting x-ray images of his skeleton on the dark, sandy shores where his shadow would have fallen. Weightless, his body took flight into the star.

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 Write-Offs

Some centuries or milennia into the future, there is an inspector who travels from planet to planet on one of the newest models of black ships with a small crew of technicians. Despite her sophisticated spacecraft and a black budget, almost none of which is spent, her task is simple, a job that lies somewhere on the borders of journalism, archaeology and bureaucratic inventory. She visits decayed planets, assesses them, and writes them off. Sometimes she also revisits the write-offs to note any changes, but this is a formality. Nobody is going to visit them, much less develop them. Throughout the years, she has charted numerous galactic boneyards and abandoned planets, areas of the galaxy not worth maintaining, repairing or even visiting. It is not really known how the planets got this way. It was not her species that damaged most of them, but a species very much like hers. One day, she will speak to a code-breaker who serves as her navigator and cartographer. In the old days, he would have been a programmer, one not immune to the lures of building machines and playing video games. It is based on such experiences that he explains his theory of dead worlds. In the beginning, each world flourishes according to its own native rules or coding. The colonists approach it like a game. Once they have mastered the rules, they can win the game for a time, but they find that winning has too many limitations. It is then that they use cheats, mods or hacks to make the inconceivable happen in the world they are playing. Deer walk backwards, clouds grow wheat aimed for the earth, night skies are cobalt blue and day skies are magenta, and so on. The end result is always the same. The world vanishes, replaced by a new entity, a hacked world, a projection of the colonists’ imagination. Not only can they intervene in nature, they can redefine and change nature. Eventually this manipulation will also become a bore–a pointless draining of time, energy and resources. The original world can no longer be retrieved or repaired; it is not merely buried under endless strata of modifications, it is indelibly altered or erased. The world is then abandoned. Other virgin planets are sought. Most of the time, however, the colonists are not that good at their game, much less at cheats, mods or hacks, and disasters ensue. The worlds die. In the cases where the worlds do not die, they are abandoned because they could not fulfill expectations or meet arbitrary projections. The worlds are then written off anyway, as if they were dead.

The Mesa

It was in the other land on another planet. A land washed by green oceans, with rusted mountains of snowy peaks, ash-gray fields of volcanic stones and great mesas of red sand. A traveler wandered in the copper wastes until he came upon a blind man with cream-thick cataracts. The man had a striped blanket covered with ornate instruments of colored blown glass. What is wrong with your eyes? the traveler asked. They are mine, the glassblower replied.

The Minefield

In their travels, the wanderers encountered a sunlit, dry planet of scattered clouds, snowy mountains of stone and rolling plains of golden grass and scattered trees. There were soft seas that washed the semi-arid deserts and steppes. It looked like a good planet to cultivate. One day, as they walked through a plain, explosions of dirt and smoke fatally dismembered several comrades. The rest of the crossing continued uneventfully until they came to the coastal mountains where it began to rain what could only be described as bombs coming out of both clouds and blue sky. After a deluge of phosphorus fire, naptha, and other deafening fireworks burning the ground and leaving black, smoking craters, the land had rest for another thousand days. The wanderers came to discover that these unpredictable mines and bombs were organic, though inanimate, and really no different than weather. The silence was not friendly, though sometimes preferable. It is difficult to safely study an explosion one cannot define or test. In time, there was only one wanderer left intact, a lone shadow walking slowly and thoughtfully over the strange landscape.

The Paraloi

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.

The Almanac

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.