Once upon a time, there was a thriving civilization living under the light of a warm yellow sun. As eons passed, the civilization spread. It advanced. It regressed. It advanced again. It rose. It declined. And it rose again. It changed, became unrecognizable from its past self. And as the civilization did, so did the sun that burned above it and smiled down upon it. The warm yellow sun was aging, and as it did, it grew warmer and warmer, and bigger and bigger, darker and darker, yellow to orange to red, until the smiling yellow sun became a glaring red giant.
And that giant swallowed the civilization upon which it had once smiled.
In time, more eons upon eons of time, the giant burned itself out, spent all its rage and light and heat.
And an eon after that, humanity came upon it in our travels through that region of space.
An unmanned craft found the system. It sent back astounding images of what seemed to be a planetary nebula (the type of nebula that formed around a red giant as it cast off its outer layers). We’d seen the nebula from Earth, though we didn’t see a star at its center as we would have expected. Our unmanned explorer didn’t find a star either. But it did collect intriguing preliminary data about the area from onboard detectors and an automated micro-laboratory. It collected samples. It successfully returned to Earth.
The trip took two generations.
By the time it returned to us, the faithful explorer was a beloved relic, an antique hero. And it was still on the clock. It checked in at headquarters, and showed all the wares it had collected on its journey. Among the samples it had taken were a few chunks of glittering dark metallic rock that looked a bit like graphite. They were collected from what appeared to be an asteroid belt in the middle of a starless solar system. They had properties somewhat similar to rock that had been discovered before, but upon closer inspection, it was quite different…from any other mineral on Earth, and from any other mineral we could fathom, either through extrapolation or imagination.
Did it give off useful energy, that dark glittering rock? Did it hide astounding beauty? Was it anything we could make use of?
Or should we let it be?
We asked ourselves all such questions when we found the mineral, the compound, the substance.
The only thing we know for sure is that it is a mystery. What else is it, we are still figuring out.
For one thing, we believe the rocks are pieces of a whole, possibly a whole the size of a planet, and that planetary body was some kind of archive. We have found evidence of knowledge stored at various levels in the mineral, macroscopic, microscopic, even molecular. And we don’t yet have the technology to be able to discern it, but there may be information stored even on the atomic and quantum scales. We’ve deciphered and translated enough to find vague allusions to the presence of a star and a civilization circling that star. A civilization that—it seems—spoke in myths. Stories filled with cosmic coincidence. Stories that reflected what we had discovered through scientific inquiry and exploration.
Like the story of the man with golden skin who became king over a prosperous realm. And this king smiled over his realm as a star smiles on the planets in its orbit.
All was well until the generous king spent all his own wealth and all his people’s wealth to assure that their realm would grow and thrive and endure. For no thing that keeps growing could endure.
The king had nothing to give when a great sorcerer came to his court expecting gifts of treasure. The sorcerer cursed the king and turned him into a fearsome giant who sprouted flaming red fur. The giant burned with rage at the injustice of the sorcerer’s curse.
He thirsted for vengeance, and in his fury, he destroyed his realm. He scorched every castle and palace, every home of wood and stone and straw. He ignited every forest and meadow. So fiery was his temper that every lake and river in his realm boiled and bubbled until nothing was left but pocks and scars upon the land. His rage incinerated every creature in the realm from the fearsome to the harmless, from the great mountain bears to the tiny jungle crickets.
And he burned to death all his people, every single man, woman, and child.
So consuming was his fury that it lasted for an age. His once-prosperous and beautiful realm was enveloped in flame for centuries.
But all things must come to an end. And so too did the king’s fury.
As he calmed, he saw what had become of his realm. He saw what he had done to it. And he lamented. For he had loved his realm truly, and he had loved his people truly, and he swore that he would do better than give his life in penance for his most gruesome and terrible crime.
He would give his eternity.
The king was still enchanted by the curse. And the tears he wept in grief and sorrow and true love and repentance were transformed into beautiful many-colored clouds of dust and light that flowed from his eyes into the heavens and traveled far, far up into the cosmos.
As he wept, and as he emptied his grief into the world, his form began to shrink. He wandered, though he did not wander far, for fear that he might harm other realms. He sought the sorcerer who had cursed him. He sought to ask that sorcerer what he might do to fulfill his vow to live in service of life until the end of time . He did not find the sorcerer, but even if he had, he might not have found any answers. Sorcerers cast spells. This did not necessarily make them wise or good.
So at last, the king climbed the charred remnants of a mountain in what was once his realm. There he sat and contemplated the cosmos. As the remnants of his rage cooled and the tears of his grief flowed, he grew smaller and smaller. If there had been any other men and women in his realm then, they would have dwarfed their king. He shed the layers of flaming fur. When his tears were spent, he took upon himself the white garb of the peaceful, the penitent, and the sorrowful.
He was an old man by that time. His hair and beard had grown as white as his garb. He radiated still with heat and light, but it was different now from his rage. And different too from the yellow warmth of his youthful smile. For now he burned with a benevolent purpose.
He could not restore his realm. But he could strive to nourish another.
He radiated his light and the cooler warmth of wisdom throughout the realm and beyond. As he shined outward, the world around him, reflected his light back toward him, and his whole being collected the knowledge and the wisdom of the cosmos. Even the lost knowledge and wisdom of his people, burned to ash and scattered into the air, returned to him.
As he spent more and more light and collected more and more wisdom, he grew darker and denser. His hair and his beard turned black, as did his garb, and his whole form hardened to stone and rock.
So he abided for many an age, until a people from a faraway realm found him still sitting in contemplation. They saw that the harsh winds of the plains buffeted his frozen form. Believing him to be an artifact, a statue, they feared that the winds would erode him. So they built a shelter around him. And a few remained in the desolate land to watch over the statue. They considered removing him and bringing him back to their realm. But this they did not do. They saw that he was bonded with the earth where he sat, rooted there, like a tree. To remove him, they would have to cut off those roots. He must stay where he was, they decided. And they stayed with him.
In time, the shelter around the statue was built to be sturdier, stronger and larger. Permanent dwellings were built for the statue’s keepers. And as they studied the statue, they learned much about the people who once lived in the land, and about how the statue came to rest there. They learned all this from carvings that they found all over the statue, etchings of an ancient language.
More and more time passed, and the remote shrine attracted many who wished to learn from it, visit it, and gaze upon the black stone sage for themselves. A village was built around the shrine. More villages sprung up around the first. Proper roads were built. Towns were formed. And the biggest towns became cities. And before three generations had passed, the once-prosperous, made-desolate realm was prosperous and vibrant again.
The shrine of the black stone sage was not at the center of this new realm, though it had been the seed that started it. The shrine sat in the mountains that were once again remote. For the villages that surrounded it were mostly empty by then, inhabited only by the keepers of the shrine, and the visitors to it.
And that man from long ago, the king with the golden skin, the cursed red giant, the repentant white dwarf, the black mystic, he would abide. For the scholars studied him still, and still he gave to them the knowledge he had collected. And the more they searched and questioned, the more he would give.
For he had vowed to give for all eternity.
The part of the myth where another people come and discover the black stone statue intrigued us when we first translated it. It sounded prophetic. It was egotistical of us to cast ourselves as characters in an alien people’s myth, but…the role seemed to fit. We stumbled upon that archive of knowledge, as another people stumbled upon what they believed was a stone statue.
We have our own myths about mysterious black stones. Like the glittering stones that comprise an archway that stands in the middle of a mystical isle, and through which the dead pass from this life to the next. Newer translations of the alien people’s myth suggested that the king’s people survived in some way, some incorporeal form, after he burned them, and that they were guided to another life by passing through the king’s penitent form.
We continue to ask ourselves if we are injecting our own biases into the translations, hard as we might be trying not to. We continue to ask ourselves what it means if our translations are actually correct. What it means that some of our ancient myths run so closely parallel to that of an alien civilization that probably died out long before we were a twinkle in the Earth’s eye.
There is indication that they—like us—were carbon-based life forms. But this particular story was not about them. It was about a star. Their star. Their sun. He smiled upon them like a benevolent king, even as our Sun smiles upon us.
Theirs was a yellow sun about the same size as ours, we think. Enough time passed and that main sequence star of medium mass spent all of its energy and became a red giant. Just as the king in the story spent all his realm’s wealth. More time passed and the red giant too spent enough of its fuel to undergo another transformation. It cast off its outer layers as the king-turned-giant cast off his fur. Those layers turned into planetary nebulae, as beautiful as the ethereal tears of repentance that the cursed king wept. And the red giant became a white dwarf. Like the diminutive and contemplative king in the story, a white dwarf star just sits where it is for eons upon eons. And then at last, the star will cool and condense and darken. It will become a black dwarf.
Once a star becomes a black dwarf, it stays that way…for eternity.
They say our universe isn’t old enough for there to be any black dwarf stars.
But if we follow the logic of the myth, what we’ve found are the remnants of a black dwarf star, one that was somehow shattered, whose pieces ended up in the asteroid belt, whose presence is still felt in the planets in the system. The planets and the asteroid belt continue to orbit…something. So maybe we’re wrong. We can’t see anything, even up close, so we’ve concluded that the star shattered and is gone. But maybe the pieces we’re finding in the asteroid belt are just scrapings that flaked off as the star was buffeted by cosmic winds. Maybe the star is there after all. And we just need to figure out how to see it, touch it.
If we’ve really found a black dwarf star, we have found the impossible. That alone would be mystery enough. That alone would be an epic discovery.
The physics of the black rocks don’t make sense. They’re denser than they should be. The density would make sense in a star, a white dwarf, but in a piece of rock, of what appears to be ordinary matter, it doesn’t make sense, at least not yet. The rocks we’ve collected and observed keep shifting, as if they were somewhat fluid, an extremely slow-moving fluid. But they don’t necessarily shift in response to being placed in a particularly shaped container, or being touched. They just shift at random, it seems, even when joined with another piece of black rock. And when they do shift, the etchings on their surfaces change.
We first thought those etchings were cracks, or just a naturally occurring feature of the rock. But on closer examination, the patterns appeared to be purposefully carved. And if they were purposefully carved, they meant something. We began trying to crack the code. We began examining the rock under microscopes and finding even finer etchings.
Until we discover otherwise, we continue to operate under the presumption that our mysterious heavenly body shattered long ago and all its pieces are in the asteroid belt. We’re still finding pieces, so we can’t yet extrapolate what it might have looked like before it broke apart. We can’t even tell yet how it broke apart, whether by some natural cause, or a purposeful one. The mineral substance that comprises the black rock still doesn’t have an official designation, even after forty years of our studying it, remotely and up close. These days, we can make the trip to the system and back at lightning speed. But it’s so far away that it still takes a year to travel there and back again. So we’ve built a station there with living quarters and laboratories. And because it escaped no one’s attention that we were still following the blueprint of that myth, we called it Village Station.
And because of how long it would take for us to travel back and forth, we’ve started gathering up the mineral substance and putting it back together right there in that system. The two modules doing the bulk of the work have been nicknamed Shrine and Temple.
And we’re all wondering what the shape of this knowledge repository will be once we put it back together again. Will it look like what we expect a black dwarf star to look like, a dark sphere of dense matter? Will it be a planet-sized statue of a robed and bearded man sitting in contemplation?
Would it be dangerous to put the pieces back together again? Would something happen? In their myth, the new peoples found the black stone sage intact. Should we be worried that we didn’t find the same thing? Did something go wrong? Or are we reading too much into their myth?
Some still say we should leave it alone. That we should study the system but without disturbing it.
Others say we can’t stop, because we can’t decipher the whole archive without putting it back together again.
Leaders still meet in locked-door rooms and debate how to proceed. Friends still argue about the black stone sage over comfort food in diners and coffee in cafes.
We’ve only just entered an age where we have overcome much inhumanity at last. A delicate age.
We have taken to the stars together.
And we have encountered our first great trial.
We still ask ourselves if we’re making it up. The whole story. In our desire to not be alone in the universe. Are we inventing some code in the etchings of a mineral substance we’ve never encountered before? How are we so certain those aren’t naturally occurring? Are we all just agreeing to have a collective delusion about the great and mighty civilization that once lived right across the cosmic pond from us? How convenient that all traces of this sentient civilization were wiped out by its own star.
But no…we are honestly striving to check ourselves on this one. We are dialing up our skepticism. We are narrowing our eyes and crossing our arms and saying to ourselves, “prove it.”
A world consumed by the flames of a once-benevolent star.
That’s what will happen to us, assuming our species lives to see the beginnings of the end of our Sun. It seems unlikely. We would have to survive for billions of years more. The Earth would have to survive us. We have come so far, but we are not yet wise. We are like that king. Full of love. Full of rage.
Perhaps our predecessors, the authors of that stellar myth, left behind clues about what they did or didn’t do. Lessons we might learn. Were they able to get away? Make a life in another solar system? Or were they trapped? Did they maybe send a seed ship somewhere? Colonists? Why couldn’t they have recorded their knowledge in a more straightforward manner? Data and facts. Instead of these myths that we had to decipher.
If we believe the myth, then we are the colonists. We will be the ones who build a new world in that ancient system. And we will continue to learn about those who came before us.
And the archive, the sleeping star, will continue to teach us. He will continue to give. And perhaps once we are gone, he will continue still.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.