Tenth Orbit by Gustavo Bondoni
There is no motion.
The feeble energy arriving from the distant star is not enough to support motion, yet move I must. Survival is dependant on movement, as winter does not allow sufficient energy accumulation to survive the night. To survive means to feed, and to feed means to stay ahead of the planet’s shadow. Even that will not be enough in another fraction of a revolution. Then, the energy will only be sufficient if I stay aligned with the motion of the planet in such a way as to constantly absorb the noontime sun.
Ironically, this would be impossible without the cold itself. I cannot feel cold, yet it is a concept that I can clearly sense in the crystalline structure of the planet. It is much easier to move through the crystal in the cold of winter. In winter, I can move halfway around the planet in an instant.
But not without expending energy. Precious energy. And I cannot stay within the crystal more than the instant used to move. I need to be above the surface to feed from the star. All energy that reaches the surface is lost to me forever.
This is winter.
Periods of feeding followed by desperate movement to a new feeding ground. Even my size diminishes as I consume the energy stored during better times. The area I can cover shrinks to the point where, at times, it stretches only the distance between two or three depressions on the surface. In winter, I wither.
Ah, for the glorious days of summer! In summer, I could easily rest for a night, and still have energy to expand the following day. I could stretch out and reach to the small moon in orbit, far from the surface, tracing its contours with the edge of the energy field that defines my existence. It feels different from the planet. It is more difficult to move there, as if the crystalline matrix is somehow imperfect.
In winter, the moon is like a dream. I can sense its position, and its dimensions, and its motion, but I cannot stretch out and feel it. It is simply a question of insufficient energy.
This is also winter.
Unable to act or move except for that movement which is necessary for survival, I must be content with merely receiving information from my surroundings. In winter, I must pay attention to all that transpires within my sphere of consciousness. It is the only way to avoid sleep. Sleep that is inaction. Sleep that is death. Only in summer, an eternity hence, dare I sleep.
I sense the star. Unimaginably distant, yet, at the same time, the center of my existence. It is the source of my nourishment, my life. It is also the compass for my perceptions, for I can sense only that which occurs inside the elliptic orbit of my planet. Is there, can there be, anything outside my orbit? Logic would indicate that there is, for, often, the planet on the ninth orbit will move outside the ellipse, and disappear from my senses. Is the whole system just a product of my imagination, simply disappearing when the orbits are not aligned in accordance with a capricious set of rules? I think not. Over the long winters, I have come to believe that I am somehow linked to the star and that the universe has two halves: everything between my physical self and my source of energy, and everything else.
I can only perceive that which transpires within my orbit.
Today, I only sense the star out of habit. There was a time, countless revolutions before, when the star was the only thing to which I would attune my senses. My consciousness was not as developed as it is now, and my only recollections of these winters are sharp sensations of fear and hunger. Hunger from the lack of nourishment available, combined with the fear that something would happen to the star. I would check the condition of the star. Upon finding it in good health, the fear would fade, only to return moments later. My memories from the summers of that same period are sensations of joy and movement and exploration. It seems that even then, I was able to forget about survival when a higher order of pursuits presented itself.
And, in hindsight, I find it understandable to have ignored the rest of the system. Of what possible use were the planets in the first four orbits? Little more than enormous balls of rock circling the star, they held no interest for me.
The sixth through ninth orbits held a small amount of promise, but, alas, unfulfilled. Similar to the star in composition, the energy they emitted was insufficient to complement the nourishment from the star. After a cursory glance, I had lost interest.
And the fifth! A sad, empty place devoid of the planet it should have had. The potential of the site was unlimited; a planet could form similar to either type of its brethren. But no planet had accreted here. It is a wasteland of small stones, none larger than the moon I dream of in winter.
It had been many winters ago that a small in-congruence of energy on the planet of the fourth orbit had called my attention to it. Tiny, inconsequential, but different. A pulsing I could feel within the very core of my being, as if it called out to me. I could even feel it in the summer, when I would normally be more concerned with the exploration and the joy of unlimited, unworried movement. I tried to answer the call, but, as always, the moon was as far as my energy could go. That summer was the first time this restriction had seemed an unbearable burden. I wished to cross the barren space and join in the pulse. It became my new reason to exist. My fear and hunger were replaced by desire.
For many revolutions, it was thus. My longing grew and grew until all I could think about was how to cross the empty expanse. And I could feel the signal growing fainter with every passing moment. My urgency increased.
Then the pulsing stopped.
In the final moments, it had felt strained and weak, as if losing a monumental struggle. The very reason for my existence had ceased to be.
I have no recollection of the following winters. I am not sure how I survived, or even if I survived. Perhaps I simply ceased to exist, only to reappear at a later time. Be that as it may, I recall nothing except that on one winter day, the pulsing had returned in a different guise. Somehow, impossibly, it had relocated to the planet of the third orbit, and was throbbing with a strength that had never been exhibited by the pulsing on the planet of the fourth orbit. It felt somehow victorious. It was like the difference between a summer day and a winter night.
The longing returned, stronger than before. A searing, uncontrollable urge to join the pulse, to immerse myself in it and to consume it overcame my routine, honed over the ages to survive. Forgetting all caution, I accelerated to great speed over the surface of the planet, partly in celebration and partly to feel that I was doing something, anything to achieve my goal. But it was winter, and I expended energy I couldn’t afford. I almost didn’t manage to escape the shadow, and when the winter finally ended, my size was almost too small to feed effectively.
But I was content. The meaning of existence had, once again, moved beyond merely insuring the sufficient absorption of nutrient energy from the star. There was purpose.
And my hunger grew.
As the strength of the throbbing increased, so did my hunger match it. And its strength increased continuously, revolution after revolution. I was barely in control. I would sometimes find myself trying to use the motion of the moon to fling myself in the direction of the third orbit, to no avail. I would course down the crystals of the planet, deep into the core in an attempt to shut it out. But also, to no avail.
The throbbing grew ever stronger.
A temporary respite, this object. It is obviously foreign to the planet, not part of its surface. The energy it absorbs is given freely, radiating outwards. It is here, and only here, that on all of the surface of the planet, I can feast. This object has never been here during previous winters. The crystalline structure is different, much different from that of the planet. Even in the heat of summer it is a joy to course easily through its tubes and walls.
It had arrived in the summer, this vehicle. It would never leave.
Many revolutions had passed, and the thrumming had grown subtly different. More complex, more intricate, somehow more purposeful. And ever louder. It was as if a tiny, faster pulse had been set over the original. A secondary pluse which threatened to drown the original, but never did. My growing hunger was now joined by a curiosity, a fascination, which was new to me. What did it mean, this great concentration of pulsing energy? Why was the third orbit, with its short seasons and large rocky planet, special in a way that the fourth orbit had not been?
Slowly, the second pulse grew, overtaking, and in some cases diminishing, the original throbbing. With time, the planet on the third orbit came to be dominated by this new addition, and it seemed from my distant vantage point that the first pulse existed only where the second pulse allowed it to. The balance of power had changed, and I had no idea what it meant. But my hunger did not abate, it merely changed focus. I would not be able to rest until I could consume the second pulse.
The planet in the third orbit began to change. This was not unusual in itself, but the rate of change threatened to overwhelm. There had been a time when it was sufficient to monitor the progress of these pulses every winter or even every two winters. While it was impossible for me, having become attuned, to drown them out, concentration was still required to grasp the subtleties, the details.
The rate of growth was incredible. Even when the pulse was just starting on the planet, the growth had not been this great.
But, one winter, the pulse broke away from everything I had expected. The first great shock came when the third planet began to emit energy. While feeble, this was the same type of energy that came from the star. Was this radiation, coming from such an unexpected direction, to be my next source of energy?
And then part of the pulse left the ground.
It was as if it had split a tiny part of itself off and sent it far over the surface to rejoin the main body at a distant point. How could this be possible? And, as I watched entranced, this happened again and again. Could this be the way for me to reach the pulse? I tried to split off a small part of my energy field.
Success! But my excitement was short lived. The energy I had split off simply drifted onto the surface of the planet out of my control, and became lost to me forever. It was destined to be another winter of hardship. But what fascinating distractions!
The pulse split once more, differently now, and a small portion of it moved to the large satellite orbiting the planet. It remained there for what seemed like just a few moments before rejoining the main mass, but it was distinct. Before summer was fully upon me, the process had been repeated a handful of times.
It didn’t happen again until the following winter, although I watched anxiously, every waking moment of the longest summer of my life, trying to move the pulse simply through strength of will. I felt that if it could reach the moon of the planet, then it would come to me. To be devoured. To add its energy to mine.
And the time did come the following winter, when the pulse surged outward from the confines of its planet. First, to the moon. Did I dare dream that it would try to leave the third orbit? Could I hope that, in time, it would come to me?
At the end of that same winter, a tiny fraction moved away from the third orbit on a course towards the silent planet of the fourth. Because it had left the main mass of the pulse behind, I could sense this small portion that much more intimately. I can still remember my shock upon realizing that it wasn’t a small portion of a larger mass, but several individual pulses. Different, but almost imperceptibly so.
Upon realizing this, I had eagerly returned my attention to the main throbbing still on the planet. With my newfound perspective, I could discern hundreds, thousands, billions of throbbing, pulsing, individual sources of energy. And, finally, some of them were coming to me.
Their progress captivated me for many cycles. I watched as they slowly approached the fourth orbit. I suffered when the signal from their energy became strained, reminding me of the pathetic final days of the pulsing from the fourth planet. I agonized as the individual sparks went out. I despaired when all pulsing finally disappeared. They had made it less than half way to the fourth orbit.
But they didn’t give up. In short succession, two more groups of individual pulses left the planet from different points on the surface. A third followed soon after. All were headed for the planet of the fourth orbit, as if in a race. Two of the groups arrived on the planet. The third perished in the emptiness of the space between orbits.
The groups on the surface eventually set out on the return journey. Only one arrived on the planet of origin. By this time, however, a number of new groups had set out to cross the vast expanse. Many of them arrived on the fourth orbit, and several of these stayed on the planet through various revolutions. The pulse had gained its foothold and was growing in a completely new environment. It had crossed the great divide.
Would they come to me?
My hunger knew no bounds. But I was patient. I had been there before the pulse, and I could wait a while longer to consume it.
I watched as the pulse continued to expand, gaining footholds in each orbit. In every case, the pattern was the same. The first faltering steps followed by the wholesale covering of the surface by the pulse. The pulse was absorbing every orbit. The second. The fifth. The moons of the planet of the sixth orbit. The seventh. The eighth.
As the first tentative visits of the ninth orbit began, I knew fear for the first time since my earliest memories of winter. What was this unstoppable force that was absorbing the system? Could it be, as I had thought, a new source of energy to consume and feel the glory of it coursing through me and allowing me to grow beyond my wildest dreams? Or were they coming to consume me, as they had consumed every other orbit between myself and my star?
Only one thing was certain: I would soon find out.
The pulse was coming. I could sense the trajectory. My eternal wait would be over the following summer.
Regret is unnecessary. I have learned that patience is the way to reap rewards. I will have my opportunity once again. And, then, I must use my patience to control my hunger. I have learned.
The shadow is approaching, and it is with some remorse that I leave the vehicle to find a safer place to feed. I have known what it means to be sated and have been punished for my greed. For now, I will move with the energy of the star. But I know I will grow again. I must only be patient. Over countless revolutions, I have learned to wait. With deliverance so near, I must now put that knowledge into practice.
The landing of the vehicle had been a violent event. The sheer energy in the deceleration. The heat. I huddled deep in the crystalline structure of the planet and watched, my fear dueling with my hunger. How I wanted to move to the surface and absorb that energy! Even what little reached me was more than I had ever felt. More than I believed possible. What I could achieve if only I could consume it.
When the vehicle finally stopped moving, I could sense two distinct pulses moving within. I moved closer slowly, afraid to reveal my position to these representatives of the force that had devoured the entire system. Only the desperate strength of my hunger pushed me towards the twin pulses. At this range, the strength of the throbbing was incredible. I inched closer.
And then I could sense the pulse for what it really was. I retreated in disgust.
The pulse was not pure, clean energy, as I had so long imagined. It was encased in a physical body. Just like a rock. Or the moon. But the energy of the pulsing was intricately woven into the physical matrix. The pulse was the body, and the body was the pulse. The energy was corrupted, tainted.
But it was also infinitely seductive. Calling to me, stirring my hunger. Despite my revulsion, I moved closer. The body of one of the pulses had left the vehicle and was moving over the surface of the planet, interacting with it physically. Two protuberances supported the torso and aided in locomotion. I edged to the surface and extended my senses, fascinated.
At this range, the energy of the pulsing was almost irresistible. I hungered to absorb it, to make it mine. I forgot about the taint and moved towards the pulse. Only my fear kept me from closing the distance in an instant. Closer, ever closer, dreading the moment when I would be detected and devoured like all the planets of the other orbits. Would this be my fate?
Closer. And closer still. I did not want to move due to my paralyzing fear of this monstrosity, yet I could not bring myself to stop.
And closer still.
And suddenly I knew it had detected me. The figure straightened and stood still. And then the pulsing increased in intensity. It radiated reflected fear and desperation. At this range, I could almost read its thoughts behind the web of energy. It began to move towards the vehicle. It was afraid and was going to leave me forever. I would never experience what it was like to absorb this glorious new energy form. It moved quickly, desperately, towards the vehicle.
But not quickly enough.
I crossed the crystal matrix of the planet’s surface that separated me from it and flowed into the body.
And absorbed the pulse.
An eternity spent drinking the energy of the distant star had not prepared me for this. It was as if I had expanded to ten times my normal size. I flowed around the planet effortlessly. I expanded my size and enveloped the moon. The whole moon. I was more powerful than I could have imagined. The energy coursed through me to the point where I could actually affect the physical surface of the planet. I soared.
But, too soon, the energy was spent. It was gone. The desolation of its absence tore at my very being, agony such as I had never felt before. I would absorb the second pulse.
But this was impossible.
I watched powerless as the top of the vehicle separated from the rest and moved off into the void, out of my reach forever.
I must avoid the temptation to feed excessively. If I am small, I will not be detected.
They will return, and I will board the vehicle. I will feast on a different orbit, leaving the tenth forever. Will I be closer to the star that was my only companion for so long? Or even further away, on an unknown orbit with longer revolutions and harsher winters? No matter, for the pulse will provide me with more energy than I can expend.
But I must be patient. They will return, and I will be here.