The Witness


Looks like Planet Magazine is also gone, so I'm posting the story of mine they ran in 2010. It's inspired by "Sitting on the Moon" by Enigma.

 Probably the part I'm most proud of is that this story received an unsolicited comment 4 years after it was published. This is a screenshot from a web archive. Regrettably the illustration the publication used to accompany the story was not preserved.

The Witness

by James L. Steele


The dying star above me is surrounded by luminous, red gas. I sit down and gaze up at it. The star flickers as it spins, and slowly, gradually, the red cloud spreads. Its shades of red deepen and eventually fade into the blackness of empty space.

I lie down and watch. The star throws off another ring of material, creating a wave in the cloud. It ripples through it in slow-motion crests and troughs that take hundreds of years to reach the edge. The star spins and flings another wave of material out in another direction. A new series of slow ripples push through the nebula.

After a few thousand years, the star calms down into a white speck surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud. The nebula sets on the horizon of my moon and the sky momentarily goes dark.

The darkness lasts only a few moments, and then the stars begin passing by. They careen silently over my head, casting me in yellow light. Then blue light. Then red. Orange. White. Dull red. So many are going by right now that their light mixes together.

I’m leaving the galaxy. I’m sure of it. After so long I’ve become able to tell where I’m moving to, and if I’m right I’m just now leaving the edge of this galaxy. This must mean there is something I need to witness from the outside.

The moon turns. I wrap my fingers behind my head and prop it up. A swirling mass of blue and red light with twelve arms spinning around a core of pure white is rising on the horizon. The galaxy I just left. It’s shrinking rapidly as the moon speeds away from it. Another galaxy flies over my head into view. It enters the sky next to the galaxy I just came from. The new galaxy has no arms, but is merely an unformed mass of red and white.

The two galaxies soundlessly swirl closer and closer. I can tell from the star orbits that they are perpendicular to each other, with the blue and white galaxy horizontal and the red blob vertical from my point of view. The two swirl closer and closer. The red galaxy cuts into the blue and white galaxy’s paper-thin edge. Stars are pulled from their fixed orbits and flung above and below the blue galaxy’s disc. Red stars are also ripped from their orbits.

Stars collide and explode. The gases collect, condense, and form new stars. Some of these stars explode and release more gas, which condenses into yet more stars. The galaxies grind and cut into each other. Debris stars curl around both galaxies and fall into wide orbits. The cores just barely miss each other, and as the red galaxy reaches the edge of its victim, it slows down.

The red galaxy is pulled backwards. The blue galaxy pulls toward the red one. The two galaxies orbit each other. Stars flail about, orbiting far and wide. Many collide and explode, giving birth to hundreds of new stars. They gradually settle into new orbits, and form new galactic arms. The two cores orbit each other a few hundred light years apart.

Thousands of years pass. Millions. The galaxy has just settled down again. The two galaxies have formed a single galaxy of dark dust swirling between and around clusters of stars.

Then, the two cores collide. The sudden deepening of the gravity well sends a shockwave across the universe. Stars nearest the new black hole are instantly consumed. The core glows brighter with the sudden surge in feeding. The galaxy’s core changes from bright white to bright yellow. It oscillates from white to yellow to red, then to white over the next few million years.

The galaxy is moving away. Its light no longer drowns out the universe, and the galaxies begin winking through the black curtain of space. I stretch my arms and legs, and settle back down again.

Thousands of galaxies spin and churn. They meet and merge, trading stars and nebulae. Many are thrown into the void between galaxies and their glow is swallowed up by the emptiness. Galaxies orbit each other from safe distances. They form clusters and dance around one another. I’m moving into one of these clusters.

I sit up straight and watch the stars pass by. A pair of blue stars are in a tight orbit. The larger star’s gravity is so strong it’s pulling material off the other star. This hot gas flows with the orbit into a swirling disc that joins the two stars at the hip. My moon flies through this disc. The gas dissipates above my head. It never touches me. Nothing ever does.

A giant star in the distance expands and contracts, shedding material in vast shells. The multiple shells form a nebula. The star illuminates the nebula in shades of green and red. The star fades to white, and then finally fades out completely. The nebula expands, dissipates, and fades to black over the next thousand years as the light of the star is absorbed by the debris.

Clusters of stars fly by. My moon stops by a pulsar. It spins once every six seconds, and its light is hypnotic. After staring at it for so long I can hear it, like a heart beating in some distant, lonely reach of the galaxy.

The moon comes to a stop in a dusty region of space. Dust and rocks and gas orbit a star. Over thousands of years, gravity collects the dust into dozens of spheres. The solid spheres tug on each other, collide and shatter, recollect and collide again. Eventually the five remaining spheres have swept the system free of debris and settled into fixed orbits around the star.

Millions of years pass. The star slowly fades from yellow to red, and sheds its material in waves. The planets in the system are pulled apart by the violent explosion. In the wake of the nova, new stars form. New planets orbit them.

But no life.

I sigh and close my eyes. I hold my knees to my chest and cry.

Of all the things I’ve seen, all the wonders I’ve witnessed, the one thing I have never seen is life. I’ve asked to be shown life many times, but the moon only takes me to another galaxy collision, or another solar system formation. Sometimes the moon just takes me to a galaxy and stays there for a long time, letting me soak up the scope of what I’m seeing.

I open my eyes and look up again. The newly formed planets orbit new stars. Their orbits are consistent and comforting in a way. I stand up and walk a few dozen paces. Sitting and watching the universe isn’t boring, but every now and then I need a break. Sometimes using my body makes me feel good.

The surface of the moon is barren and dark. It’s small enough to walk around in just a few hundred paces. Nothing could feel more alien. I pause. I stare at the ground. The light has changed. The moon is covered in pale, blue-white light. I turn my head skywards. I have moved outside the galaxy, and I’m looking up at it. It spins a million years a minute and dominates my entire sky. I have no choice but to notice it. I’m sure that’s the point. I smile at it and I continue walking around the moon. The galaxy follows me around.

The dusty surface is cold, but I don’t feel it. The galaxy, the stars I see, the clouds of dust I fly through all emit dangerous radiation, but none of it reaches me. The moon insulates me from the universe and keeps me alive. I don’t need to eat or breathe. I don’t feel lonely. I should. I have vague memories of a life before this, but they’re so distant they hardly matter.

The last thing I remember about my previous life was a dying star. My world orbited it, and in less than a second it was gone when the star shed its first layers. I think that’s why I’m often taken to witness dying stars. To see how beautiful they can be, and how they stimulate the formation of many new stars and planets.

Without life.

I have seen the universe. All I have seen is dust and gas and debris moving according to the laws of gravity. I have never seen life.

When I first arrived here, shortly after my kind’s extinction, I used to walk around this moon looking for someone else. Looking for whoever or whatever rescued me. Looking for the reason I’m free of hunger and thirst and the need for companionship. Eventually I stopped trying to reason it and just accepted that I’m here, and I’m witness to all the wonders in the universe. It took a few billion years, but now I think I understand.

I climb a small crater. I walk inside its bowl. I stand in the middle and look up. The galaxy is closer. I stand here and watch it spin. The moon moves into it. The galaxy swirls around the moon, casting it in pale blue light. Dust and gas are deflected off the moon’s atmosphere.

The moon flies through the galaxy into the core. At first, there’s nothing visible, but a few stars in the core stray too close to the center, and gas peels off them. It spirals down and around and around and down and vanishes at a point. A black hole has just started to feed. More stars are stretched into thin strands that descend into nothing. The material heats up and glows. The glow consumes me, but I feel no heat. My eyes are not blinded.

In my previous life I was told that nothing exists until someone or something witnesses it. The death of my kind was the death of all life in the universe. The universe could not allow that. It rescued me. It keeps me alive. It needs me alive so I can see these galaxies and nebulae.

The moon travels out of the galaxy. It flies through enormous nebulae, remnants of past supernovae. I smile at them. I cry, but from the beauty and not the grief.

My kind always wondered who God was. Who created the universe, and why. I’ve had plenty of time to ponder this, and having seen the universe as a whole I think I know now. The answer was staring us in the face the whole time. God is the universe. The universe took interest in my kind because it knew that without us to witness it, it would cease to exist, both in the present and the past.

From what I’ve experienced, I don’t see evidence of a super-intelligent being. Maybe the universe knows it needs someone to witness it to survive, but it knows this only on the most basic level, like an animal knows it must eat or it will die. It doesn’t know why it will die, or question why it should go on living, it is just a survival instinct.

I can live with that. The knowledge that I’m the most important living creature in the universe. The knowledge that my people did have a purpose in life, and it was as simple as opening our eyes every day and observing the universe’s existence. If only we had known this sooner. Perhaps things would have been different.

Stars are forming in the nebula. Their sudden illumination pushes dust and debris away, as if the immense light itself exerted physical force. One star after another blinks to life. I watch hundreds of them. Each casts a different light on me and changes the color of my moon.

It was because of life’s extinction that I discovered why we were alive in the first place. With this knowledge, I could watch the universe for eternity. Me and God, keeping each other alive.


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