The Trader

A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.

The Long Letters

With red paper she wrapped long letters scrawled by pale hands. Her hands were empty. The wooden floorboards of the buses creaked and the aquariums of the restaurants and the markets bubbled. Her eyes looked long, looking for something. She remembered the miscounted pocket change and miscounted days. Motorcycles still purred through the markets where he had followed her. And she wandered, heading for the post box with a long red letter, a little song, of motorcycles and markets and long abandoned temples, heavily tattooed and illegible in the evening haze.

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 Breaker

Through curling tunnels of blue-green glass, through curtains of white foam, he moved at breakneck velocity, his feet firm on the board, every muscle alert and receptive to the motion of the breakers. The light and sound coursed around him and through him. Whether he was freefalling sideways or diving upward, the green water followed him and he followed it through depths and heights, always searching, searching the vertigo, the curves and cascades of shimmer and thunder, his body left far behind in sand and sky. The last breaker was the one he had been waiting for. It was high and hard, rising up swiftly, a beast of furious water. And he mounted the beast and soared into the great blue of sea and sky, almost touching the sun. Within seconds, he knew that it would throw him hard, and this certainty lifted his soul through seven heavens of angelic winds. Life was endless. The impact was cruel but not fatal. A stone or brick struck his cheek, and the pavement shredded his legs. For several minutes, he lay on the concrete, just breathing and remembering. The wheels sparkled on the asphalt not far away. All of the abandoned buildings looked like black and white postcards. The skater got up, his mouth full of blood, and walked on air towards the skateboard. The gray pigeons were gathering by a lake of blue spring rain.

The Radio

The one thing he could never tire of was the sound of the waves. Wave after wave curling, lapping, foaming and hissing, receding back into the silence. The only conceivable sound for silence and solitude was this rhythmic sough of the ocean. The first time he had discovered it was as a child in the north country, either by one of the volcanic lakes or on a gray beach facing the sea—he could no longer remember—and it had remained a constant longing and fulfillment inexplicably twined into the very being of his soul. This was the only thing that kept him sane and pure. To live without the surf would be a kind of spiritual death for him. Or so he believed. Now and then, however, distractions and temptations came. And he would return to the radio that played the music and news of every continent and planet. And with a furious and desperate hunger his hand worked the dial, seeking and seeking every frequency and channel, every broadcast that traversed the great worlding. It always ended the same way. The cheerful bulletins, sultry whispers, alarmed voices, brass bands, orchestras, violent screams and mournful guitars all announced the monotonous death of civilization. Everything sounded similarly hollow and forgettable. The hand then touched the switch and the buttetscotch glow of the console faded into the darkness. Dispirited, his body walked slowly through the nightfall to the beach. There was no golden age, no elysium on any of the earths. The worlds were disappointments. And then the man of waves would walk along the shore and sit in the sand and listen to the breakers. The sounds of the ocean enveloped him. One evening, after meditating on the beach, he decided to invent the radio that others needed. And so night after night he brought a kind of blackbox or phonograph to the shore to record what the great seas whispered and moaned. This was the starting point of his invention, which he later built and exported to other lands. Not everyone found it useful, but wherever his radio played, people tended to find peace. It was a radio that poured out silence from its speakers. Not a mere absence of sound but the very sound of profound tranquility. It was a radio of the sea, of silence and solitude. It was a radio of prayer.

The Last Days

In the last days they came for the coyote to punish him. They said that he would have to build every day for eternity. And he could only build with scissors, paper, and rock. It’s not much to build with, the coyote thought. It would be better if I had some cornmeal, tobacco, and clay, or even just the empty blue sky.

The Archivist

The girl escaped the riots by traveling through mesas, prairies, and deserts. In the sanctuary of an abandoned white mission crumbling at the foot of the iron-gray mountains, she met the almost immortal archivist. The shadow introduced himself with immaculate manners and a gentleness she had never seen before. The man had burning, green eyes full of mystery and tenderness, like a young child still amazed and excited by the world. Dressed in a black frock, a white ruff collar, and long leather boots, she thought he looked like a figure from a history textbook or a character in a renaissance play. The archivist said that he had sailed on galleons six hundred years ago. The interior of the mission was practically a museum exhibit from bygone times. There were bookshelves of ancient codices, polished oak tables covered with manuscripts and charts, and coffers stuffed with relics. They stood over a table, where he showed her pictures resembling an unknown continent. She saw it begin as an almost formless mass in blank, bone-white oceans and acquire firmer and bolder edges of ink, more promontories and inlets, more precise curves. She asked him what the drawings were about. The archivist explained that they were the diagrams of thought experiments, or a succession of related thought experiments that had been acted out in space and time. And he spoke of handwritten thinking machines, diagrams, mind maps, memory palaces illuminated in old manuscripts, geometric drawings with proofs, astronomical tables and charts used for calculation. One by one, he showed her more pictures. Something was beginning to form in her mind. At last, she saw that the drawings were nothing more than maps of her own land. The archivist looked into her eyes with suffering or desperation and asked her what the thought experiments meant.