Craig Chalquist

An Archetale of the Assembling Terrania Cycle

This tale was inspired by The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry.


“What does it mean to mature?” asked immortal Paesha, puzzled.

Although the undying Powers of the cosmos could be anywhere at once, and in fact operated everywhere at once, some locales got more of their attention at a given time. One of these was the site of a fragile but persistent experiment in consciousness: Earth.

Paesha looked down at the shimmering blue world through thick smog, wildfire smoke, and metallic orbital trash left over from innumerable rocket launches by competing, necktie-wearing male bipeds. The coastlines were wetter and the white poles scantier than the last time she had visited.

Unda, also present, replied at the speed of thought: “It means to grow, develop, acquire wisdom and self-management, exercise one’s capabilities, gain new strengths by overcoming obstacles, and, for mortals in particular, integrate the unconscious aspects of themselves into more conscious living and being with themselves and with others.”

Although the Powers have no faces beyond what humans and other species have given them in fantasy and mythology, Paesha “frowned.”

“Our mother Radantia always speaks of maturation as a positive process, but it sounds messy and uncertain and turbulent.”

“It is all of that, and also highly conflictual at times.”

Conflict was difficult for Paesha, the Power of peace, to grasp. She usually arrived either before it or after it and preferred to avoid it altogether.

“But what good is so much adversity? Does it not threaten the very nature of maturation? Why cannot beings simply grow into their adult form in accord with their own nature?”

Warlike Bellum could have answered that, but he was off with Kluni and Doja dragging a black hole through a collapsing solar system. His consort, loving Aluere, could have too, but she was delighting a continent of silicon-based reptilians with an elaborately filigreed supernova remnant whose luminous clouds filled half their sky.

The worlds turned. Then:

“I feel a fondness for the spiral galaxy that holds the planet below in one of its arms.” This from maternal Komoyna, known to humans by a thousand names, including Aditi, Nokomis, Selu, Olokun, Akka, Almene, Sarpanitu, Xi Wang Mu, Alusina, Ixchel, Juno, Parvati, and Hera.

She “pointed” in a circle around them, tracing the 275,000-light-year circumference of the spinning body of stars 100,000 light-years across and 1,000 thick: a gigantic glowing eye rotating in space. Its pupil, a supermassive black hole, resided within its ancient central hub. Like Komoyna, the galaxy went by many names, one of which was Milky Way.

Satellites surrounded it, including the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—pale patches in the night sky of the southern hemisphere—and the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy near the Milky Way’s bright rim.

“It seems to be eating its neighbors,” Paesha noted wryly.

“The tale of the galaxy’s maturation is a larger one than that,” said Komoyna. “Let us listen in while it tells the tale in its own way.”

I know exactly when I will die.

My birth is less clear to me. My awareness emerged gradually from patches of bright fog. That was thirteen and a half billion years ago, give or take a few million either way.

From my halo, formed of millions of immigrant stars, my sense of self slowly spread inward to my hub, grown when gas from somewhere—the memories are too dim for clear recall—poured into my center ten billion years ago. Metals and elements that would build planets and their occupants cooked in the forges of my blazing interior.

It was about that time when a galaxy speeding across the darkness intertwined with me, playing havoc with my gravity and dark matter alike.

First came the waves of gravity reaching into me and disordering entire solar systems. The gasses I used to make stars swirled into chaos, flowing unpredictably anywhere. The primal pattern of my being was dislocated, at first on my fringes, and then in my very heart.

Then alien stars entered me, bringing worlds as they came. None crashed into my own, but my entire structure slowly changed, my awareness baffled at first by how much of what was filling me was truly mine.

In a way, I died. My sense of self was all but obliterated as my vitals underwent a long reorganization. I did not know from century to century, millennium to millennium, whether any of my former identity would survive. Would it disappear forever, lost in the void? Would it turn into something else, something utterly alien to my former being? Or would it emerge stronger? I sat in the uncertainty of it far longer than any mortal could. My halo was in tatters.

During the long “collision,” half of all the stars formed that made up my central mass. I gained in bulk and vitality, and I emerged from this long trial with a brighter halo than ever.

Certainly I’m better off than the larger of the two bright patches that orbit me. Long ago it too developed star-bearing arms, but an encounter with another galaxy collapsed it into an irregular mass.

I used to yearn for stability. But after a dozen galactic mergers across the eons, I’ve learned that my essence is luminosity and life-formation through motion, rupture, change, imbalance, rebalance, and flow.

Adversity strengthens me. With each new conflict, my stellar productiveness increases. Do you know how many civilizations live within my arms, between them, just beyond them, and near the center of my body? I do. I watch them rise, flourish, and fade, giving way to sprightly newcomers. Some destroy themselves with their own inventions. Others achieve maturity by creative adaptation, using hardship to grow new capabilities and new wisdom. I place mighty labors on promising species, testing them for survival and eventual greatness. After all, they are the reason I am here.

I am testing the dwarf galaxies that orbit me. Are they worthy of a merger? What can we grow to achieve together? The larger patch was barren until my tidal forces penetrated it and ignited new stars.

My kindred float around me on every side, glowing in a vast sea of night. The largest of them, Andromeda, is headed directly for me. What will happen in four and a half billion years when I and the other galaxy collide?

I do not know. My present form will expire, as it has in the past; but this transformation will go even deeper.

Perhaps the large black holes at the center of each of us will orbit one another for a time and then smash together, igniting a quasar and releasing the energy of a hundred million supernovae. Perhaps the Triangulum galaxy will join the merger, adding its mass to ours.

Or perhaps we will combine identities to evolve into an elliptical galaxy.

Just as the spiral is the image of development and self-nourishment, the ellipse signifies maturity. My elliptical kindred are not as bright as spiral galaxies are, nor do they form as many stars as we do. Their stars tend to be older and redder, their planets inhabited by civilizations either deceased or hoary with experience. I aspire to ellipticality, some day.

What is certain is that my current spiral self will cease to exist. Experience and long observation tell me that another self will replace it. Such is the way of the endlessly creative cosmos. Such is the way of maturation.

Until then, I will tend my stellar children and their almost countless offspring. For now, my fertile interior remains a lively space to grow in.

“Do you now understand maturation?” asked Komoya.

“I do,” said Paesha. “And in the enlargement of my understanding, perhaps I have matured a little myself.”

On Earth, Charles Messier of France, who had lost six siblings and his father before reaching age 24, studied a comet (a harbinger of disaster for many) and a solar eclipse (ditto) and decided to become an astronomer. Puzzled by stellar objects that looked like comets but did not move, he began cataloguing them, publishing the list in 1781.

One day another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, became one after his father died, releasing him from the study of law. In 1927, Hubble showed these objects to be distant galaxies like the one human beings inhabited. Earth and its solar system resided in the Orion Arm not far from a stellar nursery.