By Ken Liu
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Oort was born a few cycles ago, when a
wandering star passed by.
A seam opened inside me like a yearning I had not even known existed. The gravitational forces of the sun, that distant, bright pinprick light, and this new star, were tearing me apart.
Afterwards, drifting next to me was a shapeless lump of ice made of water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane, someone who had once been a part of me but also completely new to the universe.
"Mom, what's near the sun?" Oort asks.
"Only danger," I tell her.
"That's not what Tyche says."
Tyche, that good-for-nothing brown dwarf, that failed star, is back in the neighborhood. I've felt the perturbations.
"Tyche told us about great banded Jupiter and magnificent ringed Saturn. It sounds so much more fun near the sun than here, where nothing ever happens."
"Stay here with me and the rest of the comets. This is where we belong."
She's gone when I wake up.
I look around, frantic-there, diving headlong towards the sun like a falling star, is my child.
Damn you, Tyche!
"The young must have their adventures!" Tyche shouts, laughing.
"Send me after her."
Tyche obliges. Her gravity pulls me out of orbit and launches me after my stubborn, foolish, beautiful child.
Faster and faster, we dive towards the sun, and Oort stays just a step out of my reach.
"Isn't this fun, Mom?" She giggles, and dodges out of my grasp. "Wow, Tyche wasn't lying. Is that Saturn?"
The gas giant looms in the darkness, its rings fiery halos drowning out the background starfield.
"Sena!" Saturn says in a booming voice. "You're even more lovely than I remembered."
"You know him?" Oort asks.
"Don't sound so surprised. Your mother was young once, too," I grumble.
It's getting hot.
"What's happening to me?" Oort sounds frightened.
The vapors from the sublimating ice on her surface form a soft, glowing nimbus around her. My child has grown her misty coma.
"Don't be afraid," I shout at her. "You're just growing up."
She leaves a trail of dust thousands of miles long behind her. The gases in her coma, ionized by the solar wind, form a bright glowing veil pointing away from the sun.
"She's glorious." Saturn's voice is fading. "Reminds me of a certain young comet I once knew..."
I show Oort how I turn to expose different sides of my body to the heat of the sun. As trapped pockets of water vapor, ammonia, and methane explode, the plumes nudge my trajectory this way and that.
Oort imitates me, and we skim right around the edge of the great whirlpool of Jupiter's gravity well.
"Thanks, Mom," she pants.
We swerve and dodge through the shoal of asteroids, ever accelerating, getting closer and closer to the sun.
Up front, a blue-and-white rocky planet hangs in space like a jewel.
"What's that?" asks Oort.
I sigh and tell her the truth I've been trying to hide from her. "A cemetery."
Eons ago, my mother and I had taken this very same journey. The world had been younger then, and I more daring.
"Stay back, Sena," Mother said. "Don't skim so close."
"You never let me do anything fun!"
And I twisted my way near the planet, trying to pass between it and its pale moon like a daredevil. A slip, and I was caught in its gravity well, spiralling down to the surface.
Mother said nothing but swooped in next to me, and with a firm push, nudged me into an escape orbit.
But the rescue had its cost. I watched, helplessly, as she plunged towards her death on that barren, blazing rock. Falling through the thick atmosphere, she burned, so bright that I imagined her to be a tiny sun.
I kept my eyes on her trail on the way home. It continued to shimmer in the dark void of space and refused to dissipate, like my guilt.
"I'm hardly a graveyard," says Earth, startling both Oort and me. "The water from your grandmother and other comets filled my oceans, and their organic molecules, colliding and combining, evolved into ever more complex and beautiful patterns. They now love to watch the sky for comets."
I imagine the eyes of the creatures below gazing up at us. Some of the atoms in the life below had once belonged to my mother.
"I'd like to visit grandma again next cycle," Oort says as we loop around the sun, grazing the fiery orb so closely that we almost touch it. We're heading home.
I think about how, with each approach to the sun, a little more of us is lost to the emptiness of space. Eventually, in a few more cycles at the most, we'll be gone.
But how glorious to leave that trail across the sky, to inscribe a message of wonder in the heavens for creatures whose lives are lived in the blink of an eye compared to ours. The universe is a canvas against which we trace out our names, and how much better to blaze and shine and create and inspire than to drift forever in the safe, lifeless darkness.
"All right," I tell her. "We'll come back."