The void stretches out into timeless infinity. A rogue planet floats by, the sole passenger on an unknown stretch of black road; its destination the never-ending maw of the universe that seeks to swallow all light, all life, all existence. The curvature of the planet reveals the frozen ruins of a once vibrant, dynamic home to carbon-based lifeforms. The near totality of its nitrogen- and oxygen-rich atmosphere dissolved when its gravitational imperative lost traction. The little gray planet’s home was caught in a bizarre cosmic accident, a cataclysmic nightmare, wherein two galaxies united, each throwing punches with its respective arms, sweeping and swiping, disturbing the fabric of space with their roiling, undulating movements, before settling into the new rhythms of the ultra-massive black hole at its core. Unfortunately, that little sphere was discarded, flung into the cold embrace of an unfeeling cosmic void, fated to roam the cosmos alone. How long has it been floating in the vast darkness of space? A week? A month? A millennium? Time is meaningless if there is none to tell it. An old ethical parable related to quantum theory comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound? Well, if life is extinguished on a planetary scale, does time proceed? Having floated alone for quite a while, the celestial body is suddenly bombarded with tiny, aimlessly floating meteors, and small granules rain down on its barren surface. The pellets slam into the ashen surface of the planet, emitting vertical puffs of debris that are all but invisible in the dark. It is a divine mixture of desiccated earth, dust, and ancient skeletons swimming through the wreckage, trapped where they fell. The distant stars create a dim gauze of light, briefly illuminating a frozen figure in the ice. Perfectly preserved by the universe, its body as it hangs in suspended animation, the crystallized rubies of its blood bedazzling the grotesque sculpture of ice. The dead creature’s skin is broken, shattered, yet woven together in a horrifying tableau, its final moments of fear and dread forever captured. Perhaps the architect of the void should anoint it with a clever title. Perhaps “Knowledge” would do. Having passed through the storm, the planet now encounters another exponential problem — an asteroid. Despite several formative moments of contact with such entities in the past, this planet and this asteroid are strangers. Each one buoying in separate realms until the void’s invisible current altered their positions and purposes, rendering this engagement inevitable. Since its expulsion from its former galactic home, the planet has known several new asteroids, but none quite as ancient as this behemoth. As the planet skirts the monstrosity — its oddly cylindrical form slowly rotating — there is a distinct tug as the asteroid, three times the size of its passerby, alters the planet’s trajectory to the side. Such a small deviation might go unnoticed, but sometimes it is a small stone that sets off an avalanche. In this vein, the planet takes a different path, one hundred thousand or so miles to the right. The little sphere is powerless. Something that few sentient life forms learn is the unmitigated, eternal darkness of space. The stars are not streetlights, illuminating the journey from Point A to Point B. But there is no Point A, no Point B. There is nothing but empty — for lack of a better term — space. While galaxies are immense, they are not bright. Shrouded in dust and debris, any light divined from the swirling vortexes is pale and muted. The darkness pairs well with the loneliness of the void, the endless emptiness that fills the space between random celestial bodies. They sail across a sea of matter that is nameless, voiceless, formless. It is, in a word, nothing. After floating for a handful of millennia, the little planet sails beside a spiral galaxy that appears to be imploding. The brief explosions, silent in the vacuum, shine on the curves that cut through the element clouds. Like fireworks, supernova release bright light, announcing their existence before expiring in Heaven’s arms. The phantasmagoric dosser colors the makeshift sky of the little planet, briefly casting a rare luster across the frozen remnants below. Hell is cold, after all. Dante’s dream of a pit filled with tormented shrieks was a two-dimensional reality compared to this hellish place. It yawns, swallowing civilizations, with no regard to the lives it destroys. It shrugs off galaxies, creates gravitational instability that plunges decent creatures into total nightmares. Perhaps it has been a boundless plane for so long that it has lost the ability to care. Regardless, the little planet floating through the darkness knows nothing but loneliness out here, among the stars that have yet to burn out. Now with the asteroid a mere dot against the black backdrop, the planet continues to drift. Ambient waves of gravity carry it both nowhere and everywhere. The planet sways and rolls, awaiting whatever the void has in store for it. The subtle change in trajectory ushers the little planet toward a strange light, blinking far away in the distance. The trenches of ice crosshatched across the planet’s surface catch this reddish light, refracting it. For a short moment, it emblazons the global graveyard. If anything, this icebound planet — and its former inhabitants — are a warning. The dominant species, so consumed with fighting amongst themselves, never developed a contingency plan. While everything within the universe dies at some point, there are several species that persevere for much longer than others. But those who resided on the blue marble are not among them. The light vanishes, returning the planet’s sky to a wasteland. The final vestige of warmth, flickering against the planet’s once hallowed walls, shrinks like candlelight. No one would ever witness the flame go out. At the end, the gray planet was only Charon, ferrying the dead across the River Styx. Another rogue planet slow dances through space, waving goodbye to the little sphere, before being thrown in the opposite direction. The passing rogue was wounded, battered, the victim of some unseen celestial collision that had sent into a waltzing tailspin. It rollicks on mindlessly, no dust settling on its surface. The little planet watches as this chaotic ball tumbles off into the nether. Change is relative, but what does it mean to be a lifeless ball adrift in the ocean? What is the year now? Is it half past midnight? An energy lingers underneath the darkness, driving the endlessness of the void. Through all the blackness, the eternal night, there is light — a small votive candle, battling extinguishment. A star not yet snuffed out. It hovers in a direct line with the course of the rogue planet. If the rogue could think, it would hope — hope for the star to reignite a spark within its dead heart. The universe has exhausted its breath and is preparing to take another. The stars, planets, singularities, and so on — everything remaining experienced a strong tug, as though they were children at the end of their tether. They must return home. Red transitions to blue, everything retracing the steps back toward oblivion. The last stars burn brighter, like beacons leading the way to the end. Many eons ago, one human — a type of carbon-based life form — said there is nothing better than oblivion since, in oblivion, there is no wish unfulfilled. Things crunch together, slowly but desperately. Thousands of years pass like ships in the night, each arbitrary day bleeding into the next. The blackness of space is somehow crowded. Spherical worlds cast aside, both rock and gas, linger. Entire celestial bodies lose momentum. They collect, each circling the drain, unknowingly. The little planet perseveres. It will meet the blinking star in the distance, now infinitely brighter than before. The glittering ball of energy dispels the darkness with its radiant glow, fighting the force that tears the universe apart. There is a chance for the planet to make it. As the little planet approaches the burning light, an odd rumble echoes throughout its atmosphere. Its cold surface feels the barest hint of warmth, and a rush of invigoration accosts the freewheeling traveler. Even in the darkest of times, there is hope. In whispers, the universe coaxes the last building blocks out of hiding. Dozens of heavenly bodies appear on the periphery, but the little planet pays them no mind. All it feels is the subtle pull of gravity toward the light. The star burns with fiery passion, reflecting a red hue. But then it begins to change, to shift. As the little planet perforates heliopause, the star waves to its descending friend with angelic wisps of blue, blowing a kiss goodbye. And there is light — more light than the universe has seen in so very long. The explosion rages as the star makes its final stand, taking its last breath. Its mass increases so much that it spans far into space, with layers that shine brighter and brighter. Cacophony erupts, hurling the planets into the void. While the planet idles in place, having avoided excessive damage from the blast, the others are jettisoned by their starry protector, who shrugs them off coldly. One rocky planet meets its demise by crashing into another — the speed and force of the impact shattering both spheres, sending rocky shards in every direction. A gas-based planet rolls into interstellar space, promptly caught inside a black hole, where it slowly dies over the next five thousand years. The little planet bravely marches forward, despite the disintegrating star, whose color is cooling and paling as it transforms into a white dwarf. Any desideratum lurking under the barren world’s crust shivers with the star. Tiny bits of plasma smack against the planet as it approaches the celestial residuum. There is no hope, as hope breeds tragedy. But this is not a tragedy — only cruel irony, a wicked coincidence. The same wandering orb has trekked across space, arriving to this destiny, many times before. Its recurring fate is ancient, archaic, forgotten. There is never deviation in outcome. But the planet, forever cursed to cross the universe, somehow transcends itself. The planet’s matter breaks down, fusing with the very fabric of space. The universe bursts, releasing memories and thoughts lost until this moment. As one with Existence, the planet holds the answers to questions never formed. Even in death, there is birth. There is meaning, and there is consciousness. This is one of many beginnings and endings. It is cyclical, intermittent. It keeps restarting, hoping for something, but what? It does not matter. As the Existent Planet looks back into the darkness, the collective universe now a singularity of memory, it inhales. With a mighty roar, it is reborn. LET THERE BE LIGHT.
SAMANTHA FISHER is a contributor to Sagebrush XVII.
Cover Art: The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host, John Martin, 1836, Watercolor and oil paint with brown ink and scraping out on paper (via the Getty’s Open Content Program).