His person was bare of any adornment save the many rings that he wore on his fingers, and when he folded those fingers together and laid them on the table, the stones upon the rings aligned as if they were the very planets in my home system.
“They were worlds once,” the man, the merchant, said, locking me in a gaze that seemed to vibrate from his carnelian-colored eyes, “before they fell into decay, and then just…fell.”
I wondered what value there was in dead worlds.
When first I walked into the shop, I had not thought much of it, squeezed as it was between more opulent shops, like a thin empty volume bound in paperbark propped between two rich leatherbound bejeweled and gold-leafed books of wisdom. I had not thought much of the man who came out to meet me, judging him to be a merchant of cheap wares. But even as I lowered myself onto the dusty stool toward which he’d waved me, I began to note what I had not noted at first glance. In one corner, peeking from beneath a tattered tarp was the tusk and lower jaw of a most mammoth and rare beast. Pitch black and precious was its skull. Even broken, but a handful of the skull was worth a thousand times the worth of my ship. Here was a skull intact…
My gaze flicked toward an object under glass that much resembled—and perhaps was—a holy relic stolen from a temple on that very world many centuries past. There was a gleam of gold on the ceiling. There was the scent of potions that I and my sensitive nose had only ever smelled in the abode of a high alchemist.
There were treasures in that shabby little shop.
“You will note that there are six rings, but only five stones,” he said.
I glanced down at the merchant’s rings. “Where is the sixth?”
“That is what I need your help with, Captain.” The merchant explained that he needed me to find and recover that sixth stone for him.
“I’m a gardener,” the merchant said. “I wear upon my fingers the seeds of many worlds.” He smiled and explained.
“Worlds rise and fall many times until their final fall. Some die slowly, becoming barren of all life, or swallowed by a dying star. Some rot from within. Some are struck by calamity from without. Sometimes once the debris clears, there is a precious seed left behind.”
That seed would twirl in the tidal forces of the broken world that came before it, until it grew thicker and heavier, strong enough to exert its own force. In the effort of its birth and growth, the new world burned from the spinning, breathed and moaned into life, and wept until waters poured from its new and earthen form. From the seed would grow a young planet, laden with potential, and upon its fresh skin, miniscule and magnificent, new life would spark.
Only a few breaths and blinks would pass for the planet before it bore conscious life, and the cycle began anew. Rising and falling, and final destruction.
Again and again must the cycle go round. It was said in many a myth that the cycle would continue until the world spun in perfect balance and there was no more creation or destruction. No more life or death. No more knowing or unknowing. Just being.
Such philosophy was beyond the simple thoughts of an adventuring cargo captain such as myself. I say adventuring because after several missions in which crew, captain, and ship had risked life and limb for the sake of higher causes, I would at the very least call us adventurous. A few among my crew, I would surely call heroic. That would not count myself, and it’s not out of humility that I say so. I’ve always been too practical for heroics. Adventures on the other hand bear enough profit to be called acceptable risks in my accounting. Adventures peak my all-too-keen curiosity.
I did occasionally encounter things—places, folks, objects—far beyond my ability to comprehend even in the maddest corners of my subconscious. Most times I made the decision to steer clear of such mysteries.
I’m not sure why I didn’t listen this time to that alarm at the back of my left eye that would twitch and itch, all the more furiously, if I were about to get myself into something I would later regret (assuming I’d be alive and intact enough to regret it). I rubbed my eye as the merchant kept talking.
He sought to collect and plant the right seeds, nurture them, and grow the worlds out into a new system. A carefully cultivated system that would be built on the principles of harmony, wisdom, enlightenment.
If any of it were true, it was beyond me. All I saw was five precious stones. Beguiling jewels, it was true. I thought it was the merchant’s eyes that were hypnotic, some trick he’d learned to encourage purchase of his wares. But the more I gazed upon them, the more I realized that it was the stones that were mesmerizing. They drew my gaze with a loose but urgent lure that I couldn’t put into words, like a silent siren’s song, or the sure but gentle hold of gravity.
The gears of my imagination whirled. I wondered if those worlds truly were dead, or if each one was full of conscious beings. Were they in need of rescue, I wondered, from the possession of this cosmic merchant? Was my potential patron a villain to these worlds? Did the inhabitants of those worlds look up to their skies and see, instead of a full moon, a strange vibrating disc of bright and bloody red, and beyond it, did they feel the looming presence of a not-so-benevolent “higher” being?
Could I appear in those same skies and assure the people of those worlds that the one they feared was a mere merchant of cheap wares? That when they looked upon him, they need not fear, but should scoff and go about their business? Perhaps they were dead after all. Perhaps the stones were corpses of dead worlds, but how had they died? Naturally? Or did something or someone siphon off their very life force?
I heard a sinister chuckle and looked up at the merchant. He was leering—no, just smiling—at me.
“Have a care, Captain,” he said. “Worlds, even the seeds of them, are not to be trifled with.”
Nor did I have any interest in trifling with them. I told the merchant, who seemed far less sinister outside of my strange reverie, my terms. So long as I was scavenging and not stealing the stone, I would take the job. We drew out a brief contract and signed it. Then I was on my way.
It was not our most difficult or dangerous mission, but it had its particular challenges. We were given the coordinates of a planet. We descended far into a cave and mined for weeks before we found it. We had a moment of hesitation when we saw there was at least one intelligent people on the planet, but they were still a fairly young people, with only a rudimentary language. So we proceeded. They watched us but did not interfere or come close. For our part, we let them be as well.
As we were pulling away from the planet, we felt a strange resistance, not from gravity pulling the ship, but from something else. Something that seemed to be pulling the stone back toward the planet.
It was enough to make us think upon the meaning of the mission we had accepted. The people on that planet provoked unbidden thoughts within me, about myths and legends. In our ship’s archives, I found the story that the merchant had told me, about the worlds cycling. I had not truly believed him. Higher philosophy was for others to ponder upon. But I began to wonder if what we were delivering to the merchant truly was the seed of a new world.
It didn’t make sense that this seed had been lodged within a young world. Had the planet been born of that seed? Would removing it cause the world harm? I had told the merchant my terms. Had he deceived me?
We orbited the planet for several days, watching. The planet—and its people—seemed fine, though how could one tell on such a small scale of time? We had to move on if we were meet the merchant’s deadline. But I wondered if we had altered anything, like the course of that people’s development. I wondered if we had doomed that world to die for the whimsy of a believer.
I gathered the crew and we discussed it. I told them that when all my thoughts were gathered as one, I still believed the stone we had mined was just a jewel. A precious jewel, and one capable, perhaps, of more than just gleaming prettily on the merchant’s finger. But a jewel nonetheless. I would deliver it as I was tasked to do. But if any of them had any objections, I would hear them and think on them.
There were many uncertain expressions, but no outright objections.
The stone lay heavy in my breast pocket as I entered once again that shabby shop on the narrow alley. The merchant greeted me with a tray of refreshments that were redolent of sweet herbs and golden fruits. Despite the mild day, the drink was steaming and the cakes appeared rich. Music played, almost imperceptibly, from somewhere within the shop. I thought the merchant would want his wares at once and send me on my way. But he made light conversation about how his business had been faring, and he asked after my crew and myself, not satisfied with my brief and superficial answers. I was suspicious of his curiosity and reluctant to give him any information about myself or anyone I held dear.
I had slept well and yet the somnolent atmosphere of the shop—the quivering music, the heavy sweetness of the treats on the tray, even the rhythmic lilt of the merchant’s speech—began to lull me. I leaned forward, in part, I think from the weight of the stone in my pocket. I asked the merchant if he was ready to receive his prize. To my surprise, he drew back from me, nervous. He seemed eager yet reluctant.
Ah, I thought, finally understanding. He’s about to receive his heart’s desire. He is afraid of being overwhelmed or disappointed. He has been stalling all this time.
I felt some small bit of relief that I wasn’t being toyed with by some malicious mind. I was simply caught in the drama of standing between a man and his greatest wish. He would be a gardener of his own utopian system.
I reached into my pocket. “Such a monumental task,” I said. “Where will you start?”
He grinned. “By clearing out the field, of course. Now that I have all six stones, it will be a quick and easy matter.”
I frowned, not understanding, as I dropped the stone into his waiting hand.
“This world must be destroyed,” he said, seeing my confusion. “This whole system in fact. Only then can I plant.”
I remembered a struggle. Verbal at first. I refused to surrender the stone—the seed. I entreated the merchant to find another way, an empty uninhabited system. I told him it made no sense to destroy a world that was still living. I tried reason. I offered passage on my ship at no charge.
He insisted that the seeds must be planted in his own system. That was the whole point of his enterprise. He sought to bypass the cycles of rising and falling, and the striving toward a perfect balance. He believed he could bring to his people immortal lives of peace and harmony.
For a world to be reborn, all who came before, all that came before must be destroyed. The future must be built on the bones of the past. So those bones must be destroyed, ground up into the mortar that would hold the future together. All their stories, their quirks, their joys, their faces, would be gone, but not forever. Their past beings would be shaped and fused and formed into something new, a new and harmonious world.
When I realized that words and reason would not work, I tried to wrest the stone from his hand. I tried to grab at his other rings. He was stronger than I expected. Or I was weaker.
He managed to place the stone in its setting. For a brief moment, nothing else filled my gaze but this stone, burning yellow like a star, speckled with sparks of red and violet. It spun in its setting, its irregular form reshaping itself into an orb. Then the world came to an end in a blaze of destruction.
The single world that formed around the seeds was a beautiful one. A glittering and rapturous one, for she was innocent. But she was also tainted by the crime that still seeped through the life-stealing seeds from which she was born.
Something survived the destruction from the previous cycle. Perhaps something always survives. Spirits. Mine. His. Theirs. All who came before. The people of the world that came before, and my people. My crew. Most spirits passed on to what was beyond, even all my crew, but I was left behind, and so was he. He was spirit now like me. But once, he had been a merchant. I watched him.
He saw what he had wrought. That his action had tainted the new world he had planted. He tried to remove the stain by taking it upon himself, and it seemed to work. He removed the six seeds, leaving only the planet’s original seed within it. The seventh seed. The seed of the world he had destroyed.
I watched as the new world grew older. It was not as the merchant had hoped, a world in balance. It was not a whole system of worlds, but one great world, larger than any I had ever known before I became a spirit, whose only mission now was to watch. This world was like all other worlds in one way. It was destined to grow and rise and fall, again and again, until a final fall.
The merchant’s spirit descended upon the world. He took form, not the form of a man, but of a titan. He walked upon the few lands of the watery world. With the power he wielded in those six seeds, he created more like himself. He gave some of the seeds to the keeping of these others, his children. He and they fell and were reborn as gods, petty and cruel from the corrupted powers they possessed. They came to forget the seeds lodged deep within them. So they did not know why they, though they enjoyed power and dominion over the world, were stained with such base natures.
I watched, knowing that watching was not enough, but knowing too that if I joined the world, I would either be corrupted by the powerful beings who walked upon it, or oppressed by them. So long had it been that I too had forgotten myself. I had seen enough to know that once I descended, I could not become spirit again unless I died. I feared death. But in time, I overcame my fear and descended to the world. It was then that I heard the planet herself speak. She told me the story of what had transpired. Though what was done could not be undone, I asked if there was a way I might stop the others, those false gods, from meddling with and spoiling the lives of those who lived and died upon her.
The planet told me that the seed from which she had grown was still within her, hidden from the other seed-bearers. She told me where it was and entreated me to take it. It would mean that she would lose her awareness and could no longer help me. But so long as I held the native seed, I would have the advantage, for on its native world, it was more powerful than the other seeds. If I could chase off the other spirits, cast them into the world beyond, then I would save the planet and its people. I might even be able to restore the planet’s seed, and with it, her consciousness.
We battled for centuries, for millennia, the false gods and I, until there was an intelligent people on the planet, who told stories of gods battling in the skies and beneath the seas. The other seed-bearers believed they truly were the gods of that world. Though I struggled to, I remembered otherwise. I remembered that I was once an adventuring captain. I held the seed of the new world. One of the false gods had been a merchant. He held the seed that had triggered the destruction of his world, a warm yellow golden orb with sparks of red and violet.
There had been as much battle among the other seed-bearers as there had been between them and me. Often and easily I pitted them against each other. But one day, they came to an agreement, to rule the world together, with the merchant as their king. They could not kill me while I held the seed of the world, so they plotted to overpower me and banish me into eternal slumber. They made no secret of this plot, for all of them working as one would surely defeat me.
I had great power, but I was not powerful enough to defeat them after all. I was not powerful enough to keep my promise to the world I had sworn to save. In desperation, I carved the true story of all that had come to pass deep into the earth, in a secret language that I taught to a few. I hoped someday they might grow mighty enough and wise enough to defeat the so-called gods someday. I wrote the story of the seeds, what the gods’ weaknesses were, and at last, I ground to powder the seed in my keeping, and scattered it where I knew the other seed-bearers would never look. They were vain, and did not see anything but themselves and the power they sought. They would look for it upon my person, or in the heart of the planet where it once lay. Though I did not see it, for I was placed in eternal slumber, that is indeed where the seed-bearers searched. Futile was their search.
I had scattered the seed among the minds of the mortal people of the world. There it would hide, and there it would grow, and grow, until it guided them to be bright enough, wise enough, humble enough, and farseeing enough to find and read my message. For only when they overcame the corruption and rot and came together would the seed within them grow powerful enough to defeat the false gods.
That day has not yet come to pass.
I toss and tumble in a feverish sleep rife with nightmares of death and unknowing, wondering who I am, and why I must abide and keep abiding when all whom I know and all that I cherish and all that matters is gone, was gone many ages past.
But the seed abides in the people. So there is hope. I feel the familiar rising. Not the rising to the surface of water. But the rising out of the dimness of dreams. The rising to wakefulness.
I looked into the glinting brown eyes of my first officer, who furrowed her brow with momentary concern, then seeing I was well, informed me that the evening meal was ready and still hot, but not for long if I dawdled. She left my cabin with a final curious glance.
I’m awake, I thought, breathing hard, my head woozy.
The sound of my voice, the real sound of it, almost brought a tear to my eyes. They were already drenched, by the sweat from my brow, my temple. I wiped my brow and realize that I was still dressed. There was a knot at my back. I was tousled in my unmade bed, having only kicked off my boots, before dropping into sleep.
Never before and never since have I cherished the waking from a dream more than I did in that moment. I was a man again. Just a man.
Let the gods have their powers and their dominion over worlds, I thought. Let them battle each other and leave us be. We mortals who cherish waking and the promise of hot meals.
By instinct, I placed hand to my heart, which I felt beating happily within my chest. My hand felt a bulge in the left breast pocket of my jacket. Suddenly, my breathing stilled.
I had fallen asleep with the stone in my pocket. I had not yet delivered it.
I pulled out the stone and looked at it. It had not yet been polished and shaped into an orb, but it still gleamed with warm yellow light, like a sun, and within it sparkled flecks of red and violet. I had still to shake off the full effects of sleep and dream, but already I understood. So long as I remained awake, I was certain I would be safe from its strange powers.
I had thought the stones to be innocent worlds. I had thought the merchant to be the danger.
It was just a nightmare. But was it? I felt drained, as if I had just suffered a dozen fevers all at once. But I was regaining my fortitude quickly, the more I woke. I was starting to feel hungry. The merchant hadn’t looked sickly. But what does a sick spirit look like anyway?
I wondered if we should return to the planet where we had found the sixth stone, to make sure there were no more of them. I wondered if I should destroy it, destroy them all. I wondered if they could be destroyed. Weren’t they only stones, after all? Stones with some effect on our minds that was at once wondrous and noxious.
I frowned at the stone, or whatever it was I recklessly and unknowingly held in my hand.
Whatever you are, you have got your tendrils in him. I should take you back to where I found you, but he would send another.
I contacted my pilot and told him to change course. I would gather the crew and make sure no one slept until that stone was off our ship. I would leave the stone in the hands of those who were wise enough to heed the common sense warnings of this common captain.
There was a mystery in that stone, but it was a sinister one. I would leave that mystery for others to solve. I will steer clear of it, and aim my crew and ship back toward adventure.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Seeds of Many Worlds” by Sanjay Patel.