the art of planet-building
First published in F(r)iction Online #15: The Identity Issue (2020).
the art of planet-building
You are assigned your Purpose before leaving the Mother Womb. Void of conscious thought and concept of self, your entire life is planned out on your behalf.
A Technician does what they are designated to do: scans your essence and your flesh, feeds the results into the Cosmic Mind. An on-duty Designator does what they are designated to do: assigns you your one true Purpose.
All the possible paths you are capable of taking, all the hardships you are capable of overcoming, every disaster that would leave you in wreckage—all of it is scrutinised in detail, until only the brightest road is lit. The gods will not leave your life to chance when your success can be guaranteed.
And thus, before your first breath, before your first thought, you are given your Purpose, and you are given your name.
Peritak. Builder of Planets.
Despite what the gods will have you believe, even the clearest journeys can be difficult to travel.
You are only a fledgling when you ask the question.
“Why am I here?”
The class of Builders turns to look at you.
You meet their stares with confusion. You do not understand how your peers trust with such conviction. Do they not wonder, the way you do? Of all the Purposes, why were you designated this Purpose—to build planets? What was it about your body, your essence, that set you on this path?
“We are here to learn how to build planets, Peritak,” the Guide says. “Is there something in the lesson you do not understand?”
You understand the lesson. You understand all you’ve been told. How to manufacture a planet’s core. What tools are required for the assembly of foundations. The density recommended for a planet’s surface. Landscape and lifeform production. Then, once proficient, you’ll join your peers in building planets.
Is there something in the lesson you do not understand?
“No.” You bow your head. “I understand.”
Class continues as though you never interrupted.
The first time you visit the Museum of Flourishing Life is the first time you learn of The Ether.
Having wandered from your peers’ tour of the Archives, you follow the sign reading ATELIER, through the winding corridors, through the Universe, until you reach it. You have only learned of the Atelier through teachings. You never expected to see it.
After all, this is a place for Creators.
You hover between the end of the Museum and the beginning of the Atelier. Though the floor is dull and grey, each station is blossoming with colour. Opaque glass domes of alternating sizes spread unevenly across the hall—a constellation of ideas. Creators enter and exit their domes with thoughts floating behind them, sketches printing on endless scrolls, prototypes manifesting in the space around them. This is nothing like the Archives, filled with boxes of documentation, tools, and prototypes. Nothing like the Factory, where skeletons are built and filled.
This is where life is imagined, where planets are truly born.
Every project a Builder assists is imagined and designed by one of the Creators before you. Absorbed with their tasks, they pay you no mind. You are careful to stay out of their way, lest you hinder their process and be asked to leave.
“Little one,” a Creator asks. “What are you doing here?”
You startle, realising the question is directed at you. It takes a moment, but you recognise the Creator as Kinapon, famed for the meticulous detail involved in their planets. Their last creation, the planet Vortumnus, required twice the average Builders and took three times as long to complete. It is rumoured amongst your peers that Kinapon assisted the Cleaners in transporting the project scrolls to the Archives—something unheard of for any Creator. Why, you wonder, would a Creator undertake a task outside of their Purpose?
“Are you, perhaps, on a tour with your peers?” Kinapon asks. “Have you come to see where you’ll be working?”
Kinapon assumes you are a Creator, not a Builder—after all, Builders do not visit the Atelier.
“What is your name?” Kinapon asks.
“Peribon,” you lie.
“What sort of world do you hope to create, Peribon?” Kinapon gestures towards a dome blooming with flora. “A world of growth?” They turn to another, vibrating with mist and cold flurry. “A world of beauty?” Near the end, a smear of colour flickers. “Or would you set your mind on something new?”
“I am not yet sure.” You watch a Creator you don’t recognise exit an empty dome, the scrolls above them blank. “Do you always know what you want to create before you create it?”
“I do,” Kinapon says. “However, the planet I create and the world it becomes are never the same.”
You do not understand, and by Kinapon’s expression of amusement, it shows. They walk you from the edge of the Atelier, back into the Universe.
“Do you know, little one, the difference between a planet and a world?”
They stop in front of the gods’ most recent marvel, on display at the center of the hall. Even from behind glass, it looks beautiful—swirls of mauve and indigo and cream, orbited by speckled moons. You read the award printed on the screen.
The Planet Bellona • Epipon • This budding planet represents the clashing of differing sentiments found in various lifeforms. Boasting over 100 sentient lifeforms, its self-destruction is imminent. The fleeting existence of this world is a tribute to the planets lost to The Ether.
“What is The Ether?”
Kinapon examines you closely. Perhaps you have given yourself away.
“No, I don’t suppose you’ve come to that particular lesson yet,” Kinapon finally says.
At the entrance of the hall one of your peers waves you over. “Peritak! The Guide is searching for you!”
“Pe-ri-tak.” Kinapon hums, walking you to the entrance. “It would seem you are a Builder of Planets.”
You remain silent. It is one thing to cause trouble to your Guide, whose Purpose is to teach you; it is another to offend a Creator, who could choose to reject you from future projects you wished to be assigned to.
“It was good to meet you, little one,” Kinapon says. “Next time you visit, come find me. I will show you The Ether.”
The offer is too good to believe. Your voice is feather-soft when you ask, “Am I allowed?”
“Ah!” Kinapon says, smiling widely. “Who will stop you?”
You follow your peer back to the Archives, where the Guide reminds you to remain with the group at all times. Do not run off. Do not wander.
Only as you’re leaving the Museum do you realise Kinapon never explained the difference between a planet and a world.
Your curiosity grows and spreads, until you are consumed with an urgency you don’t understand. You hurry back to the Atelier; this time, you do not hesitate on the edges, searching eagerly for Kinapon.
“We meet once more, little one,” Kinapon says. “Have you escaped the clutches of your Guide?”
“You said you would show me The Ether.” You hurry to follow as Kinapon leads you through the hall. “And you never explained the difference between a planet and a world. I asked the Guide, and they said there is none.”
You’re led through a dimly lit tunnel, the floor glistening as though coated with water. “Where are we going?”
“You truly are a Builder.” What Kinapon means by that, you’re unsure, but they seem amused. “This is the way to the Dome of Light.”
You stop in your step. The Dome of Light. This is where the judgment is made, where Creators bring their planets for appraisal by the gods. If worthy, the planet will be displayed in the Universe, where it will be permitted to exist until its natural end. Some will turn on their axes for eternity.
“Did you never wonder, little one,” Kinapon asks, “what happens to the planets deemed unworthy?”
Longing to study it, you step closer but Kinapon yanks you back.
“Careful, little one,” they whisper. “Or The Ether will take you too.”
Where? You want to ask, but Kinapon is already leading you towards the outer rim of the Dome.
At first you think you are being moved to make space for an arrival—perhaps other Creators, or Cleaners. You wait, as Kinapon does, but no one comes.
You feel it. The floor rumbles beneath and the circle of pillars dims further. A black light shoots from each of them into the central pillar, filling it with a piercing darkness, until the light and planet are clouded in gloom.
It is over in an instant.
The streaming shadows vanish, and the central pillar is once again filled with light.
“Kinapon,” you call out, though they are beside you. “What is the difference between a planet and a world?”
You return to the Atelier so many times you know enough Creators by name to have your pick of projects.
While your fellow Builders are sending scrolls, you are walking from dome to dome, learning things only Creators are taught.
When the Creator Taripon asks if you would like to be assigned to their project, your curiosity feels unquenchable. How did they come to imagine it? How long do they expect construction to take? When will it be ready for the Dome of Light?
While Taripon answers what they can, there are some questions they, too, desire answers to.
“What do the gods want in a planet?” you finally ask Kinapon. The both of you are at the mouth of the tunnel between the Atelier and the Dome, having just witnessed another planet taken to The Ether. “Why is it Creators were not taught?”
“That is for the gods to know,” Kinapon replies. “Our Purpose does not require the knowledge.”
Preposterous, you think but do not say. “How are Creators to build a worthy planet if they do not know what the gods consider worthy?”
“There is an entire collection of worthy planets for us to study, little one.”
Though true, you think, there is an infinitely larger collection lost to the Ether.
The first project you are assigned to build is deemed worthy by the gods. The second project meets the same fate. Then, the third. It is only after the fourth that your peers confront you.
“All the planets you helped build—they are all displayed in the Universe. How did you know they would be so revered?”
“It is luck,” you reply, going back to your work. You are assisting construction for the Creator Momopon. You had smelled the sweetness while passing their dome, seen the softness from across the Atelier. When they began requesting Builders, you gave them your scroll in person.
“Luck,” another peer says, amused. “Do not let the gods hear you speak of such things.”
“Perhaps Peritak is but a great Builder,” says another. “Perhaps every planet they touch turns to pure light.”
Thinking they exaggerate at your expense, you laugh, but you are the only one who does. When your peers look to you, it is as though they are looking towards the stars.
You find yourself longing to be in the dimly lit tunnel between the Atelier and the Dome of Light.
“I have been thinking,” you say to Kinapon, “of searching for my Designator.”
The scrolls circling Kinapon drop, cluttering against the grey floor of the Atelier.
The both of you had been discussing the latest gift sent to The Ether. A voluptuous planet filled with vicious oceans and thirsting lifeforms. Had it been deemed worthy, it would have met a swift death, though its blueprints would have been immortalised in the Cosmic Mind, accessible should the gods wish the planet be recreated once more.
“Do you know where I would find them?”
Kinapon replies, “I have been waiting a long while for you to ask.”
Designators mostly frequent the Grand Genesis, amongst Birthers and Technicians. The corridors are uncurved, their walls white. The doors are identical, with labels you cannot read.
Unlike the Museum of Flourishing Life, you have no place here and you feel it. The air is musky and pungent, and every step meets resistance.
A Designator approaches you, voice clipped, “Can I assist you with a matter?”
“I am searching for Yeleom.” You hold out the scroll, covered in symbols you cannot decipher.
The Designator looks it over. “Where did you get this?”
“It was given to me by Kinapon,” you answer. “What does it say?”
The Designator does not reply. They usher you through corridor after corridor. Occasionally, they pause to look down to the scroll.
Finally, when they have stopped at a door, you ask, “The scroll, is it a map? A series of directions?”
“No,” the Designator replies, returning it. “It is a letter from your mentor to Yeleom, requesting your Purpose be transferred.”
You stare at the scroll. Kinapon knew your reason in wanting to find your Designator.
“But you looked to it often.”
“In disbelief,” the Designator says. They knock on the door, before leaving the way you came.
As Yeleom examines the scroll, you wonder if there is a specific emotion you are expected to feel. This is, after all, the Designator who assigned you your Purpose, who wrote your path for you. Are you supposed to feel excitement? Or joy?
Resentment? Yeleom’s cube contains nothing more than a wide screen in the centre of the room. You hover behind them as they search through the Cosmic Mind. The screen they stop at is covered in graphs and symbols almost similar to the ones on the scroll.
“Pe-ri-tak,” Yeleom says, finally lowering the scroll. “You were birthed after the Dreaming Drought.”
You do not know what this means. You want to ask, but there is a question you want to ask more. “Why was I assigned to be a Builder of Worlds?”
Yeleom is muttering too softly for you to comprehend the words, examining the enlarged graphs on the screen, one by one, until finally turning their head to study you.
“You wish to change your Purpose.”
“It has been done before,” you say quickly. “In the past, there have been Birthers who became Technicians. Cleaners who became Builders—”
“Do you know how many Builders have tried to be Creators?” Yeleom asks.
The screen changes. It is a red circle on a grey background. Nothing more.
“Three,” Yeleom says.
You know this. You know their names, the planets they built. The first designed seven planets in total. The second returned to building before their first planet was even completed. The third designed over two hundred planets; the final design garnered no Builders.
“All three failed,” Yeleom says. “They have returned to their assigned Purposes.”
You know this too. The first one assisted on the completion of Forctis, a planet with six blue moons, designed by Tinipon. The second has yet to assist building a planet deemed worthy by the gods. The third, contrary to Yeleom’s claim, you know has never been heard from again.
Should you fail, you will be the fourth. A statistic on Yeleom’s graph.
And here you are.
By the time you learn all there is to learn about being a Creator, Kinapon has designed eight more planets. Seven of them are displayed in the Universe.
“My most prized planet was a gift to The Ether,” Kinapon jokes. “You would have loved it, little one.”
You wish you could have seen it, just once, before it was destroyed. Though Kinapon shows you the scrolls and prototypes before the Cleaners box them up to be taken to Archives, it is not the same as seeing a completed planet, as seeing an entire world.
“We will be seeing planets designed by you, soon enough,” Kinapon says. “I have no doubt you have an abundance of ideas ready to be given life.”
But your first planet takes twice as long as the average Creator, even with Kinapon’s help.
“You are trying to merge all the planets you long to create into one,” Kinapon says. “There is time, little one. You can create them all in time.”
You think of the three Builders—of the red circle on a grey background.
They had time too.
It occurs to you, slowly, then all at once.
You have an entire solar system inside you, the stars burning incandescent in their fervour.
When, at last, you finish the design for your first planet, there is not a single Builder who agrees to join your project.
The planet you’ve tentatively named Pales, full of luscious landscapes and violent lifeforms. A smudged burnt umber color, smelling richly of damp dirt, orbited by a single moon. With a team of thirty or so Builders, its construction would be timely, straightforward. There’s little reason for the average Builder to refuse.
You approach Builders who were once your peers, who were once by your side constructing planets. Their eyes don’t quite meet yours when they speak.
“Perhaps another time,” some of them say, as though the alignment of the stars affects the ability to build.
“Perhaps the next planet,” you suggest. The words might as well be tossed into a box, brought to the Dome of Light, and gifted to The Ether.
“Perhaps,” they reply, their voice faltering in a way you can’t afford.
When the next six planets you design meet the same fate as the first, you begin to wonder if the gods have ever faltered. If the gods ever hurt. If they ever struggle to be, the way lesser beings do.
“You knew this path would be difficult, little one.”
You walk through the tunnel with Kinapon, into the Dome of Light. Nunobon’s planet Novensiles is at the centre of the Dome, illuminated within the pillar.
Earlier, it was deemed worthy by the gods. Now, it awaits transportation to the Universe.
“I am going to build it myself,” you say.
Kinapon, watching Novensiles rotate, was scarcely moving at all. You sense them still nonetheless. “Build what, Peritak?”
“The next planet I design.” You relish in the look they give you. It is rare to surprise Kinapon. “I will design it and build it myself.”
They step away from the central pillar, the look of surprise dimming into one of consternation. “Peritak,” Kinapon says, “a project built by a single Builder is unheard of.”
“So are the planets we design,” you remind them. “They are unheard of until we create them and give them names.”
Creators lose track of time, and Builders lose track of space.
It is not until a cloud of your scrolls collide with a fellow Creator, crashing into the side of your station, knocking a disorganised tower of prototypes to the floor, that you realise you have lost track of both.
You vision is blurred, as are your thoughts. How long has it been since you last rested? One more moon, you told yourself. One more moon, and then a break.
But the way the moons illuminated the planet’s surface hadn’t been quite right, and you weren’t sure if it was the structure of the moons, or the paths of their orbits, or the distance of the planet from the sun — and, somehow, now you find yourself collapsed on the floor, staring up at Epipon, disorientated and distantly wondering if your planet needs moons at all.
“Your ideas are growing too big for your station, Peritak,” Epipon says. They look to your station, where the contents spill forth across the grey floors. “Be mindful of encroaching.”
“The gods want new and the gods want the same,” you say, exhausted. “It is hard to decide which path to take.”
“Yes, I suppose that is true. Although…” Epipon’s head tilts back, thoughts sloshing, before dropping forward. Epipon peers down at you. “The two do not have to be separate.”
The words splash onto your skin, cold and jarring. You wake from a haze you have no memory of slipping into.
It is not the first time you witness a judgment, but it is your last.
The gods flicker before they shine. Then all is dim again, the only light in the Dome from the central pillar, the planet you created in the centre.
You can imagine it on display at the centre of the Universe, rotating behind glass. The deep violet crust is barely visible under the glittering whorls of grand forests coloured sunshine-amber. The milky oceans are modest, but given enough time and tectonic activity, they will shift and spread, become their own everchanging shapes. A blazing bright planet, contrasted against the gaping black of the universe.
The Planet Poena • Peritak • With a luminescent core, the lifeforms of this planet can be sustained with no need for a sun or moon for light. As the first planet designed and built by a Builder, this world is a beacon for those who find themselves lost in the Universe.
And it would have been — a world — had it been given the chance to grow.
“You have my condolences, Peritak,” Kinapon says, approaching the central pillar. “Truly, it is a beautiful planet. Its destruction will be a shame.”
You do not reply.
In all your lessons, as a Builder, as a Creator, none of the Guides warned you of this. You have given all you have to Poena. You built its structure with your bones. Its craters and valleys are filled with your blood. Your life and your light are in its soil and its atmosphere.
And the gods have deemed it unworthy.
Where does that leave you?
If there is no place for your world in the Universe, where, in all the cosmos, do you belong?
Perhaps, you were wrong to deviate from the path you were set. Perhaps, if you turn back now, you can still find your way back to the start. The fourth Builder to fail as a Creator — you will have lost nothing but time and pride.
Perhaps, all you have gained as a Creator will make you a better Builder.
“Your next planet will be worthy of their praise,” Kinapon insists. “From this very moment, you may call yourself an experienced Creator.”
Kinapon speaks with a certainty you have never felt — not with your assigned Purpose, nor with your chosen one. To know they have such faith in you is both harrowing and moving.
You offer a small smile. “Kinapon, do you know the difference between a Builder and a Creator?”
Kinapon laughs. “Oh! How the tides have turned. I remember a time it was I who asked you such questions.”
“You never did tell me, you know,” you say, stepping up to the central pillar. This close, you are bathed in its brilliance. “The difference between a planet and a world.”
“You know the answer now, little one,” Kinapon says fondly, as though speaking to an old friend. You suppose they are no longer your mentor. Now, you would be considered peers.
It is strange that you should feel so tired, so worn and old, and yet so small, so little, all at once.
You wonder if, when The Ether takes Poena, the budding organisms you’ve created, given life to, will feel it—the way the floor of the Dome quakes, the sting of black light. You wonder if they will hear the reverberating silence, if they will feel the horror of loss. You wonder if you will.
“What of you?” you ask Kinapon. “Do you already know the answer to mine?”
“Alas, I do not,” Kinapon smiles. “Tell me, Peritak — Builder and Creator of worlds — what is the difference between a Builder and a Creator?”
Kinapon, like you, will learn the answer with time.
Alone in the Dome, surrounded by its dimmed pillars and silence, you hope to find peace. Poena is in its final moments, but instead of pride, you feel the gravity of death.
This close you can see the glow from its core penetrating the planet’s crust, pure radiance streaking out of every pore. It seems all the more cruel that Poena has no understanding of its fate.
But the gods, you suppose, consider this a kindness.
There is a space inside you that once housed an ache — one you would have built galaxies to ease. In its place is a grief too great to stomach. It is a physical mass, devouring your organs and your flesh.
If only you could trade Poena for your unease. Pull the planet and its moons from the central pillar, and fill it with this black hole inside you.
You wonder if the gods have ever felt loss like this — if the paths they travelled have ever been as tumultuous. The floor rumbles beneath and the circle of pillars dim, and you are left wondering if there are places even the gods have not been.
It occurs to you, slowly, then all at once.
Supernovas are neither worlds nor stars. They are suns, burning out. They are stripped of nebula, skin and flesh. They are white dwarfs, losing their breath. They are flashes of illumination, in the space and time between life and death.
They are brilliant, in their creation of light and destruction of self.
They are, to your disappointment and relief, short-lived.
“Searching for a spark?”
Kinapon turns away from the scroll to face their peer. Epipon gestures to the dome, lifeless save for the scrolls and prototypes bursting from the boxes haphazardly stacked outside. “Another planet to The Ether?”
“A world, I should think,” Kinapon says. “Another world to The Ether.”
Epipon makes a non-committal noise. “For what it’s worth, I thought it had promise.”
“As did I,” Kinapon replies.
“But we are not gods.”
“No. That we are not.”
They both watch as a team of Cleaners enter the hall, sealing the boxes and taking the lot off to the Archives.
“Perhaps the next planet,” Epipon says, “will be more to their liking.”
A Cleaner sticks their head out of the dome. “There’s more draftwork in here.”
“That’s odd,” Epipon says, going over to take a look. “Peritak is usually quite thorough.”
“All that cannot be packed, move to my dome,” Kinapon says. “Peritak will send it to the Archives upon their return.”
The Cleaner relays the information, and the two Creators watch as all is packed into boxes, the excess transferred to Kinapon’s dome.
Kinapon picks up a prototype of a lifeform. It wiggles in their hand.
Anything the Cleaners do not send to the Archives will be destroyed. All Creators know this.
“There would be no shame in it, you know,” Epipon says. “If Peritak returned to building planets. It is, after all, their true Purpose.”
With the dome now empty, Epipon’s words reverberate — but Kinapon does not appear to be listening. They step out from vacant space and stare towards the tunnel leading to the Dome of Light, as though expecting you to return.