Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept.
Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.
When the planet came and stole her from those dreams, it was almost a relief. The silence on the black world was a silence less oppressive. The darkness was welcome and warm. Em, in those nights, wandered its pitchy forests and walked the shores of surging, inky seas. There were mountains like rows of broken teeth, as though she had fallen into the weathered jawbone of a huge beast dead a million years, but it was only the world, immense and black under stars.
She did not speak of the planet to her parents. Everyone handled loss in different ways, she had been told. Besides, she could not be sure that the black planet had not always hung above her bed in the darkness. Maybe she had never noticed it before.
The only person she talked to about it was Jena, whose desk was beside her own in four of the six periods of the school day. Jena had come up through the science magnet, and she still either did not know or did not care that high school frowned upon certain enthusiasms.
“Everyone gets at least two,” Jena said when Em told her about the dark world. She wore the half-smile that indicated she expected questions. “Statistically, that is.”
“Two planets. Earth-like planets, specifically.” Astronomy class was a joke, but Jena had convinced her to take it. “Twenty billion in our galaxy alone.”
“Right. But I only have one.”
“And you see it when you go to sleep.”
“It is a planet.” Em paused. “Not much like Earth.”
Jena’s shirt had a picture of two robed figures in some kind of hover-car. It said, These aren’t the druids you’re looking for.
“But you could walk around and stuff on it, right?” Jena asked.
Em loved that she took her words for what they were. Jena didn’t look for hidden meanings, didn’t see a dead brother staring from every emotional nuance.
“Yeah,” Em answered. “But it was completely dark. No sun.”
That started Jena in on something called second-generation planets. It was difficult to follow. Lots of things Jena said were difficult to follow, but it was sometimes nice just to listen. She was saying something about planets forming after their suns died, planets orbiting pulsars or black holes.
“Of course there wouldn’t be life,” Jena concluded, chewing the end of a bright green pencil. “Unless it was based on thermal heat or chemical reactions.”
Em decided not to say anything about the forests. They made her nervous, with their tangled roots and restless limbs.
“Maybe everyone has one,” Em ventured. “If there are so many. Maybe everyone has a world, and they just don’t see them.”
Jena watched her.
“You said there are supposed to be enough in our galaxy for everyone to have two. Maybe we all do—one for the night and one for the day. Only we don’t always see them.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“I wonder what happens to them when we die,” Em said softly. “A bunch of empty planets.”
When Em fell asleep, she felt she was falling. She fell down to the black planet, even as it spun above her as she lay on her bed. She fell to its surface if she did not snag on memories of her brother along the way, memories of the way he steepled his fingers when he spoke or angled his head at her when she came around behind him while he was reading. If she did not slip into memories and dreams, she fell to the planet.
On the surface, starlight gave little illumination to the landscape. The stars were tight and clustered above her.
If there were paths, she could not see them. She knew the forests were crowded with eyes, though she never heard movement among the trees, or the things that were the equivalent of trees here. After a time she realized the eyes belonged to the trees themselves. They had no leaves but millions of fingers, and they all bent away and let her pass as she walked.
She paused at the edge of a sea. The mountains were outlines against the golden blur Jena said must be the Milky Way. Jena said it must be the galaxy seen from much deeper within than they saw it in their own nights on the planet where Em’s brother was dead.
Em remembered a day when her brother had explained—a book with a picture of a prism on the cover propped carefully against the gauze on his chest—that things in a dark room did not have colors that could not be seen but that they had no color at all. He said darkness did not hide color but actually erased it.
Now she stood in the shadow of the forest and felt the world spin beneath her. The stars changed their position against the silhouette of trees.
After a time, she thought she heard someone calling.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.” Today Jena’s shirt bore a logo of a goblin riding a killer whale. The stylized caption beneath read Orc-Orca Alliance.
Em rubbed sleep from her eyes. She had been in the forest for weeks last night, it seemed. Now, in the passing period between classes, it was hard to concentrate.
“Tidal lock. It doesn’t have to be circling a black hole or wandering without a tether through space. Maybe you’re just always on the side facing away from the sun.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like the Earth’s moon.” Jena held a hand in front of her face, palm facing inward. “It’s locked with one side toward the Earth, so we never see the other.” She spun slowly in the hallway, keeping her palm facing toward her face. A few students stopped to watch. “Rotates at the same speed it revolves.”
“I saw the stars moving last night.”
It helped that Jena was good-looking. She could stand in the hallway between periods pirouetting like a lunatic and still earn approving glances from the junior and senior boys.
“They would still move, if it orbited fast enough. But it means maybe you’ve just always been on the dark side of it. Maybe you haven’t seen the day side yet.”
She shook her head. “It’s not like that, Jena. I’ve been all over it. It’s black all the way around.”
Jena shrugged. “I wish I could see it. If everyone has one, I should too. But maybe something has to happen to make you see yours.” She broke off, glancing at Em.
“There is no sun,” Em said again, to herself, as she shut the door to her locker.
There was nothing for Jena to see. That was the point. There was nothing to see at all. It was black. Em was in the forest again.
It was trying to tell her something. That was clear. It was not speaking with a voice; she had heard no words the evening before. It was speaking with its presence. It was trying to explain.
Why was there a black planet hanging in her sky?
Em found a stone. She had been wandering along the shore of the black sea, listening to the sound the waves made—a sound heavier and more hollow than the seashore she recalled on Earth. She kneeled on the shoreline, trying to work up courage to put her hand into the unseen surf and feel if the liquid was water or something heavy and alien, when she found among the thousands of black stones she moved over one that struck her knee.
It was almost perfectly spherical, the size of a large softball. There were indentations on one side and circular grooves on the other. She held it for a long time, wondering whether it was natural or artificial, trying to remember what she recalled about rocks on Earth and how they formed. There might be a million other stones like this one on beaches all over the black world. They might be artifacts. They might be eggs.
She ran her hands over its surface again and heaved it into the sea.
“Do you remember my brother?” Em asked Jena the next day. It was after school, and they were sitting behind the gym, against the wall’s cold bricks. Jena was experimenting with cigarettes. Em couldn’t see the shirt she wore today, as it was covered by a windbreaker.
They hadn’t spoken of her brother directly before. Jena’s eyes widened slightly.
“I don’t remember your brother,” Jena answered.
“We weren’t friends then. And we were still in middle school. When he died.”
Jena was cautious. “It was last year?”
“Do you think it’s his planet?” she asked.
Em shook her head. “No. It’s just a planet. That’s the point.” She thought about telling her about the stone but decided against it.
“Was it cancer?” Jena eyed her cigarette suspiciously.
“No. EB. I can’t remember what it stands for. It’s a genetic thing. They call them butterfly kids, because the layers of their skin don’t adhere correctly. They’re fragile. He always had sores. He was always in pain. And then he developed an aggressive mycosis and died.”
“Mycosis. That means . . .”
“A fungus. A fungal infection. Yes.”
“Why are you telling me?” Jena asked.
“Because it’s a thing.” Em took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Smoke made breath visible, showed you how quickly it dispersed. But Em wasn’t smoking. Her breath remained invisible. “Having skin that doesn’t work. Being killed by a fungus.”
“I’m sorry.” Jena was blinking, and Em realized with a flicker of surprise that there were tears in her eyes. “I mean, what do you do with that? What does that mean?”
“You told me something once,” Em said.
It had been a long time since Em cried. For a while, that had been the only thing that helped. But then, after a while, she couldn’t do it anymore. She would think about crying, but it was as though she was watching herself from the outside, and the feeling would pass. She felt the same way watching Jena now.
“You told me about how they measure wind speeds on a planet’s surface.”
Jena stared at her and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “What?”
“How they can measure winds on planets so far away we can never reach them. You explained it, but I can’t remember.”
“Jesus Christ, Em.” Jena blinked again. “I’m crying about your brother, and I didn’t even know him.”
Jena pushed her cigarette out against the bricks. “It’s about temperature. If you know how close a planet is to its star and how fast it’s rotating, you can calculate temperature difference between its hot side and its cooler side. And you can use that to calculate wind speed. Because wind is caused, you know, by temperature differences,” she finished weakly.
“We can calculate the wind speeds on worlds trillions of miles away,” Em said. She touched Jena’s shoulder. “What do you do with that? What does it mean?”
“Nothing,” Jena said. “I mean, I don’t know. It just is. It’s just a fact that’s there.”
“Right.” She kissed Jena’s forehead. “Like my planet. Like you. That’s the point.”
That night, when Em fell to her black planet, she understood. If she had talked to her parents, they would have made her talk to a counselor, and maybe a counselor would have had a theory about why and how she saw a black planet spinning silently above her bed each night. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that the planet was sending a message: somewhere, in the empty night of space, I am here.
Em stepped out from under dark trees and looked at the mountains outlined against stars. The planet was there, and one day someone might measure its surface temperatures and wind speeds and maybe even—one day—set foot on its surface. But for every planet known, there will be a billion more never touched or seen.
Em had a vision of a world where the inky seas pitched up over the shoreline and beat at the stones.
It was the same with her brother’s death. A fact like that hangs there, in your sky, like an absolute black planet, like a planet without a sun.
She crouched in the shadows of the mountains and felt the cold stones beneath her.
Em knew, for a time, a black planet, absolutely alien and unique under foreign stars. She knew, for a time, her brother.
The black planet spun in silence above her.
Stephen Case gets paid for teaching people about space, which is pretty much the coolest thing ever. He also occasionally gets paid for writing stories about space (and other things) that have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and several other publications. His novel, First Fleet , is being serialized by Retrofit Publishing and is available on Kindle. Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and will talk for inordinate amounts of time about nineteenth-century British astronomy. He lives with his wife, four children, and three chickens in an undisclosed suburb of Chicago that has not yet legalized backyard chickens.