“The Little Nebula” Excerpt by Karen Harris Tully

Chapter 1: Satellite Surfing

“[T]he youngest was the prettiest of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all the others, she had no feet, and her body ended in a fish’s tail.”

—Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid (1836)


Luminous was an energetic nebula, as far as nebulae go. Living in the cold, near-vacuum of space, made up of energy, gas, and dust, she refused to settle for the gravitational pull of any of the larger celestial bodies, like her siblings kept advising her. Why would she want that? Her surfing verged on art, creating beautiful aurora borealis above Earth. Plus, she loved to watch the fast-paced, short-lived people on its surface.

The humans were so full of life and noise, growth and emotion, as they floated through space on their blue-green planet. They were fascinating. They were also dirty, careless, and wasteful.

Look out below! Luminous crashed through a snarl of broken satellites and defunct space junk, surfing her once-favorite atmosphere: Earth’s. The debris spiraled out of orbit to burn up on re-entry.

For many hundreds of Earth’s orbits, the people had been extracting Earth’s resources and turning it into trash. The space around the planet was now so full of human-made debris she could barely even surf her favorite spots. And now they’d turned to mining nearby asteroids to get more resources to create more short-lived junk for an ever-growing population. They could not seem to control themselves.

She’d tried talking to them, but communicating with humans was hard. She’d come to the conclusion that their attention spans were too short for meaningful conversation. Also, they didn’t seem able to see her as anything other than random gas and dust. And so, she’d had to watch while they junked up the Earth’s oceans, land, and her orbit. She’d had to devise a more direct way of communicating the problem.

Bombs away! she called in the universal language of radiation. She gathered up some junk in her gaseous cloud and released it toward a newly-launched satellite. Pieces ricocheted off its solar panels and it fired boosters to right its course. But she couldn’t have that. For humans to take action, she had to hit them where it hurt: in their new technology.

She stretched herself out and tumbled the satellite into her gaseous tentacles, swung it around, aimed and released it to enter Earth’s atmosphere, burning toward the giant island of trash stuck in the swirl of the ocean’s currents. She followed it up with a whole swath of debris and felt a deep satisfaction in returning some of the litter. She knew aiming at cities would garner more attention to her cause, but she drew the line at terrorism.

Recently, over the last two hundred orbits or so, humans had actually been trying to deal with their discarded resources on Earth’s surface. But they hadn’t yet addressed the junk they’d left adrift above Luminous’s favorite planetary atmosphere.

It hurt to see the Earth this way. But without being able to talk with humans, satellite destruction was her best—her only—method of communication.

As for the overcrowding, humans seemed to be trying out several solutions, none of which had even made a dent. They had placed surface domes on the moon and Mars, but hadn’t yet seemed to figure out how to create an atmosphere like Earth’s in either place. And, they had built an enormous space station out near Luminous’s home planet Neptune, which used thrusters to keep itself in a strange, unnatural non-orbit. They called it Tersa Tellus.

So many ships had puttered their way out to the silver, double-ring port, including recently, the three biggest space ships yet. Though she couldn’t talk with humans, she could hear their excitement and knew this was a big deal for them. She kept hearing one word: colonies.

And then, the excitement spiked, with the strong added emotion of fear. She heard a mass of radio waves projected all around the Earth and saw more frenzied activity than any human event she’d ever witnessed. And she kept hearing the same word over and over, in every language: Pangaloid.

She had no idea what a Pangaloid was, and the signals from the satellites she hadn’t destroyed had been no help. She needed to consult her sister Astri, who liked to stay close to Neptune, but first she turned to look out at the distant, prophetic stars. What she saw there made her stop in her orbit. Any thoughts about chucking another satellite back to its makers died a fiery death. Could she be reading that right? Now she really needed to talk with Astri.

Luminous sped across the solar system and found her lazing around in one of Neptune’s rings, absorbing the minimal sunshine. She watched as Astri ricocheted off a meteoroid and spun off in a new direction. Sometimes Luminous thought Astri had forgotten she was a nebula. Or, maybe she simply preferred being solid.

Lu! Are you finally giving up on the blue-green monster? Come to relax with me?

Earth isn’t a monster, Astri. It’s exciting. You should really come with me next time, for the people watching if nothing else.

They blew up Callisto! Just a few cycles ago!

Which I’m sure was an accident. Luminous had thought they’d finally gotten to the point in their evolution that they weren’t going to destroy themselves. And then they’d blown up one of Jupiter’s moons. It wasn’t very reassuring. You’re the one who retaliated by chucking satellite parts down on areas of dense human activity, she reminded Astri.

We’ve seen their ships, Lu. They open up their maws and pull us out of orbit and then, she whispered dramatically, they eat us.

Astri, you’re an energy being. Get off your rock and avoid them!

Luminous, you’re a nebula. If you want them to understand you, you’ve got to be solid with them. Send their satellites back to the inhabited areas that sent them in the first place. Now, that’s a message they would hear.

But they’re not as bad as you think, Astri! I mean, yes, they’re capable of destruction, but also love, and kindness, and creativity, and problem-solving. Remember when they were heating the planet so much it was killing them? They solved that.

Halfway, Astri conceded. They may have stopped the Earth from warming further, but they never did slow the great storms, or their consumption of every resource.

But they took the first step. They’re making progress! Except, Astri, there’s something new going on. I need your help to figure what it is.

Astri expelled an exasperated puff of gas. You need help alright. Here’s some advice: Stop surfing Earth. Stop watching them! Stop trying to get those tiny humans to do the right thing. You work too hard and they’re going to do what they want no matter how much you try because they can barely see past their own puny lifetimes. Earth is a lost cause, Lu, and you won’t be radiant forever. Stay and have some fun with me.

But surfing Earth made her feel like she was experiencing something bigger than herself. There was nothing else like it. She wished she could make Astri understand.

Instead, she gestured at the stars with her shifting extremities.

Astri, what do you see? Her own change in perspective hadn’t made any difference. Astri was silent for a long moment, observing the prophetic stars, twinkling in their usual soundless song through space.

War, said Astri at last. War is coming. War and destruction.

An Earth ship passed by and she followed them, towing Astri along despite her protests, still not knowing how to engage humans in a way they would listen. She trailed them a short way to that giant, gleaming ring in space, Tersa Tellus. It was slowly spinning, with ships docked around its shell and humans working and frolicking in space vehicles nearby. Every once in a while, blue and red laser blasts slashed through space, reducing rogue meteors and comets to dust.

But it wasn’t the light show that caught her attention. One look at that silvery, spinning ring and all thoughts of trying to talk with the humans again stopped. It was now clear why there was all the excitement and fear on Earth. A very strange, unknown type of ship, white and softly glowing, was docked at the port.

Humans were getting their first official alien visitors. But, Luminous sensed something much bigger than one alien ship. There was an energy shift in the solar system. She felt its incoming waves. And, a few stretching hops away, she found the source.

The ship was merely the tip of the alien iceberg. An entire new planet was now parked outside the Kuiper Belt, orbiting the ninth and farthest planet from the Sun, enormous, dark Planet IX. No matter that planets did not travel, not that she’d ever heard of, but this one was here, now. And its radiation signature was the same as the alien ship at port.

Planet IX was the one planet that Luminous, Astri, and their nebula siblings stayed away from, for it housed an energy being like them, and also, not like them. This one was older, old as the solar system, old as the galaxy. This one they knew simply as Ix, and they studiously avoided his creepy, extremely elliptical orbit, which would soon cross into the Kuiper Belt and come the closest to Neptune it had been in thousands of solar orbits. Did these aliens, on their strange lush planet, know about Ix? About the energy beings who quietly, sparsely inhabited the galaxy? What was the reason for their visit—Ix or the humans?

The traveling planet wasn’t large by any means, only about half the size of Earth, but for a planet to travel, and to stay warm in the far reaches of space where everything else was ice—how was that accomplished? Had the humans noticed? More importantly, how would they react?

This last question was vital, because of the humans’ star weapons. The time was long past when they could only blow up their own planet. She had seen the weapon they’d launched at poor Callisto, and she’d watched them unload multiple identical weapons at their space port. She hadn’t worried much about it at the time. Ice moons couldn’t shoot back, but now, well, she supposed it all depended on how their first alien encounter was going.

She felt worry build in her greater than she’d ever felt before. She tried to calm herself. Energy beings had been here long before biologicals, and would be here long after, she reminded herself. Energy beings did not interfere with the short lives of humans. But this? She looked at the verdant Traveler planet, in a place where no such planet had any right to be, and back toward Earth. It was not even a speck in the distance, but she could picture the beautiful, blue-green planet clearly. Humans had made terrible choices with their home, but they and the Earth were hers. This solar system was her home. There had to be some way she could help humanity avoid war with these Travelers. If she could only talk with them.

She tried at the port’s great silver ring, but the humans were in too much of a frenzy with the alien ship there to pay attention to a nebula out the windows. So, she headed back toward Earth to find another ship, on its long, slow jog to the space port, and hopefully someone who would pay attention to her warnings. Astri, curious, tagged along and they soon found what they were looking for. A human ship had recently launched, and an unusual one. This one was super shiny, slightly faster than usual, and it held only one person: a pleasantly symmetrical young man.