The Next Nearest Star

Em has traveled a great distance and knows there is far yet to go. She figures she will be dust and energy long before she arrives at the place toward which she hurtles. Her newly condensed oceans boil. She is unsettled.

Em forgets her loneliness when, in the great blackness, she sees lights twinkle. Tectonics crag and mountains push through her skin before receding again. If she had arms she would reach around and scratch. The sun wobbles and blinds her. All her water evaporates and the tiny forms of life, cells and protozoa, burn. Far away, there is a flash that took a million years to reach her. Eventually Em can hear something. It is a single note, or perhaps a chord, she isn’t sure. She has never heard anything before. The note is deep and sometimes she thinks she can hear it tremolo but it resumes after too long and then she cannot tell if she still hears anything at all. A kind of hum, she thinks. There and not there. On her surface, the water has collected again. Cells have grown and there is some kind of fuzz she has never seen. Stalks and leaves. Storms and lava. Strangers crash into her and vaporize. She never learns their names or where they have come from. There is one that crashed into her and never really leaves. It hovers around her like a friend. Em calls out but it does not respond. It seems trapped, frozen but for its orbiting. Bursts of light in the black. Heat comes in waves. The pull of everything is constant; Em feels it at all times.

Her memory is worthless. Nothing that can be seen is the same as it was. Even the sun, which started so dim and small, is now powerful and growing. Sometimes she can feel heat from other suns too. Their heat is faint like a low whisper and takes very long to reach her. She likes to feel the warmth of distant lives. Alternate versions of herself. Bigger. Smaller. Some full of life. Some barren. Em sometimes wonders what else she would rather be if not this small sphere in the darkness. She wonders for millennia. She cannot come to any conclusions.

She can see a passing comet if she looks hard enough. It is on an elliptical orbit and will never come near her. The gas and dust in its wake dissipate and light up in the solar wind. She fantasizes about soaring through the darkness like that. It feels so foreign now, and she does not allow herself to wish for it very long.

Farther away is the next nearest star. It is much larger than her sun. It gives off a more powerful heat though it is faint to Em. It overpowers the planets in its system. Em cannot see these planets except when they eclipse their great sun. Tiny, dark, wobbling specks of black across its glowing surface. Em tries to get a good look and when she looks away she sees nothing but light.

In her own system are the most beautiful things. She spends centuries looking at her neighbors, gas giants with ribbons of color. Their attitudes of genesis. Constant rebirth. A wide set of rings around one. Great storms on another. Their strangeness is confusing and a little frightening. They are examples of the scope of creation. They are mere sand grains next to the suns but entire universes to the pebbles and particles on her surface. Her faith feels complete until the universe reveals the need for a new faith. It is both the strength and weakness of faith, she thinks. Its nature is one of trust. Yet the nature of existence is one of change and accumulation. Learning and observing, resetting what once she knew. Replacing information with information. Emotion with emotion. Her many faiths are informed by her experience. Faith is not a vacuum, she thinks. It is nothing like space.

Creatures grow complex upon her. Feathers and scales. Voices and sentience.

She sees the blueness of a gas giant far off. Its stillness is a part of the greater stillness that has overtaken the area. It seems to have no surface. Just a blue face, stoic against its backdrop. It must be an observer, Em thinks. A great eye. This is what Em might rather be. A magnificent organ, capable of only sight. Having no other part to collide, deteriorate, or vaporize. To be nothing and something at the same time.

Back when the system was just clouds of charged particles, a tiny nebula swarming and spinning so quickly that it spun most of itself into rogue bodies, planetary ronin, Em barely understood her own thoughts. She was misshapen. Her gravity uneven, her core liquifying. Frightened, she slowly started looking into the distance. It felt like the right thing to do, to orient toward the direction in which she is traveling. The light and radiation that blanketed and penetrated everything around her incubated the system. Em was aware of herself but did not know what she was or what would become of her. A stranger collided with her and went spinning off in pieces, leaving a giant piece piercing her. Em’s spinning made the piece slowly become a part of her, as if it had been there her whole life. Other strangers sped by. It was confusing being surrounded by others and yet feeling so alone. A meteor she liked to watch was enveloped by a protostar. She felt an urge to yell out. To deny the destruction of something she felt had the right to exist. She wondered if this had to do with justice. If it was injustice to deny something its existence.

Again her oceans boil and life is nearly gone. She feels dried out, as if she is mostly rock. But she can still feel the oceans, small as they are, at odds with the land, as if the two are engaged in a struggle. Lights flash in the distant black. She is mesmerized and allows herself to forget her oceans, to be hypnotized by the subtle movements of anything distant. She spots a body in orbit around a faraway sun. A stranger. Em knows they will never meet.

The system itself spins in its remote cluster of systems. Em has a sense of the organization but has little interest in classification, in deciding which belongs with which. Early on she wanted to classify everything, but as she ages, as her orbits grow into the billions, she grows less interested in order. It has something to do with memory, she thinks, but also finds that her mind does not work as quickly as it used to. Her memory is a galaxy of confusion. A moment before might have been the beginning swell of the universe. Around the invisible rips in space, time shifts so that past and present and future mean the same thing. Time is a stubborn and useless material. It does not interest her. She prefers light to time. Light splits the darkness and creates shapes. It gives contrast to existence, a basic diversity so it isn’t all one tiresome black. Em will take diversity over order in any epoch.

A small planet not far from her is quiet. It’s had its own trials, grinding itself up, colliding with passersby, boiling its own oceans. Em sees its oceans evaporate after another million trips around their sun. Its air and clouds dissipate and it begins to look bare. Em is sad for the little planet, and she feels a little ashamed that her sadness is due in part because she does not want this to happen to herself. The face of the little planet turns ruddy, like an old creature about to give in. She wonders what is right and what is wrong and if the universe cares about such things.

Em spins quietly in space, the heat beneath her surface steady, her oceans warm. Her air settles rich and balanced. Beasts of one kind or another roam her. They die out and return and die out and return and die out. Some leave her face and do not return. She loses track of them when they drift into the shadow of the system for they are small and curious and hide when out in the open.

Much later, after she sees more than she ever thought she would, the light in the system dims. The red planet is almost black. The gas giants are impossible to see. The faraway points of light barely twinkle, the flashing of eons ago. Her sun is dark amber and turning brown. Em’s face is a gray and cold place. And yet she swells with emotion. She looks into the darkness around her and sees everything as a collection of forms. Temporary shapes that shift and are reinvented as energy. She grows excited at the prospect, to become the fabric of other forms. The combustion of a great sun billions of years away; the boulders on a crumbling asteroid, having traveled the length of a galaxy; the spark in a clever machine that moves a group of clever beings from one place to another; the hairs on a creature sniffing the wind off a saltwater sea; the prey of such a creature whose life is a link in a web outside the bounds of justice. She feels no malice toward anything anymore. She owes the shapes of the universe nothing, and feels she is owed nothing. She wishes to have no power. If she is to put a name to her feeling, it might be mercy. It has been too long and she has seen too many things she wished did not happen. But forgiving trespasses, granting freedoms, allowing safe passages—these are what has kept her curious and hopeful, excited to continue her journey. There may be no justice, she thinks, but there is mercy.

The sun expands and envelops her smallest neighbors. Passing strangers drive themselves into its cooling bulbous body. They vaporize. Em sees the edge of the sun come toward her and she turns away, toward the black and the distant strangers. She takes in the light of the past as what surrounds her grows darker and hotter. She is not lonely nor does she wish for something else to happen. The hum of her body turns to a buzz as her surface breaks apart, and before long the heat overtakes everything and the light dims or grows bright, she cannot tell which. The system dissolves and at once Em becomes something she never could have imagined.

Brian Mihok is a writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Fast Company, The Disconnect, Publishing Genius, Vol 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. His novel, The Quantum Manual of Style, was released in 2013. He also co-founded matchbook, an online literary magazine that was active 2009-2022. Find him, his writing, and his films at

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