The Life of a Photon

Chapter 1 – Chaos

Our hero’s tale begins with fusion. A collision between two atoms. An explosion. An event so violent that when the atoms meet, they converge and spew forth a fanfare of energy. This energy swirls around wildly before it begins to divide and coalesce into quanta. Each quantum is simultaneously both unique and identical to every other, and from one of them, our hero is created. A photon.

But you see, the core of the sun is no easy place to be born. It is oppressively dense and hot, a plasma ball of hydrogen and helium crushing down from every direction, tugging against each other with the tendrils of gravity. Our hero zips around at the speed of light, but even his agility does not permit him to escape.

The core is crowded with molecules that writhe, clamor, and scream over one another, and before long, our hero collides with one. It’s a jarring encounter. He disappears entirely, completely annihilated for an instant. Then, his energy is encapsulated once more and he is spat back out, disoriented, moving uncontrollably as fast as before, back into the pit of plasma.

Even before he can regain his bearings, he is consumed, destroyed, recreated, and tossed in yet again. The sun is so dense that he barely travels for a moment before it happens again, again, and again. Annihilation and reincarnation. countless times over. Our hero knows of nothing else but this infuriating existence, this cycle of being at the mercy of his molecular oppressors.

Millennia pass. Eons upon eons of this burning inferno.


 Chapter 2 – Space

But finally, grace shines upon him. Miraculously, our hero passes through the threshold of the sun and is released into the emptiness of space.

The suddenness is jarring. Could this be true? He wonders, fearing a trap orchestrated by the hydrogen and helium, but the space clears so much that almost no atoms pass by anymore. Instead, he finds thousands of his photon brethren flying alongside him, all just as amazed as he at their fortune.

To be able to fly along their path without fear of interruption or destruction feels like utterly exhilarating freedom. He and his fellow photons breathe a sigh of relief, then begin taking stock of their situation. They are bound together through their horrific origin, their shared unchangeable trajectory, and a sense of mystery. What was going to happen next?

He and his roving band fly in comfortable solitude, enjoying each other’s familiar presence. Cousins, perhaps, for among them there are different types. He can feel it in their cores, like they carry energies that are related but distinct. Our hero has no names for any of them, but we can call them greens, yellows, blues, violets. As for our hero, he is red.

But wait! In a blur, they see another photon whiz by! Traveling just as quickly but in a different direction, it is gone in an instant. And another! Unpredictably, like sporadic shooting stars, they pass by our group of friends. They move in smaller packs, and sometimes it’s just one photon completely alone. They come in all different wavelengths too. Our hero doesn’t have names for them either, but somehow he suspects they look considerably older, as if they’ve been on their journey for much longer than he. For all he knows, maybe they have.

Sometimes, they pass by greens and blues flying in the opposite direction, but there is no chance to ask from where they come before they fly away at the speed of light. Uncertainty looms, but still our hero can’t imagine that much can be worse than the prison from which they had just escaped.

This is bliss. Eight long minutes of quiet, calm bliss.


 Chapter 3 – Onslaught

Then, molecules start to come again.

It’s not nearly as dense as inside the sun, so these molecules simply pass by without colliding with any photons. Still, our hero is troubled. Among the hydrogens, there are more menacing molecules, many times larger than those that had tormented him in his past lives. Those are nitrogens.

They whiz past. As more, more, and more of them appear, a sinking feeling rises in our hero. He already senses that this will not go well. At that instant, he watches in horror as one nitrogen gets too close to his blue photon friend, grabs ahold, and hurls him aside. Alarm spreads in the rank when they realize the danger of these foes. The calm of space is not going to last. Boldly, our hero and the other photons charge onward.

As the photons press on, the cloud of gas grows thicker and the nitrogens bounce unpredictably off one another. Another grabs hold of another photon and throws him aside too. The photons want to fight back, but our hero realizes that he and his friends are completely unarmed against these strange enemies. All they can hope to do is slip by as the hordes of gas molecules peel away photon by photon.

Then, the scene changes. Our photons descend into a metropolis of towering spires made of carbons, oxygens, nitrogens, and hydrogens. These structures loom ominously overhead, so nearly motionless that it is eerie. Our hero doesn’t know it yet, but he and his friends have just ventured into the depths of chlorophyll, which is a terrible place for photons to be. This is where the onslaught begins.

Suddenly, with no warning, something snatches his friend away violently! Frightened, our hero peers around frantically to find the cause. Then he sees them, the true beasts. The biggest atoms he has seen yet, magnesiums that have been chained onto the structures. They snap. They snarl. They are engineered to seek out and completely engulf photons. The ravenous beasts lunge out to devour our hero and his friends. Devour they do, and with frightening efficiency. They are slaves to the constructs, which he now realizes have been created to house and unleash their ferocity.

Something about them makes them especially able to sense and capture his blue friends and his fellow red photons, and something else tells him he wouldn’t be recreated like in the sun. When his friends go, they are really gone. Their souls are absorbed by the structures as raw energy. Sustenance. As he watches all of them disappear score by score in whirling blurs of magnesium, our hero hopes beyond hope that he will survive.

By a stroke of sheer luck, our hero glances off a carbon tower and flies mercifully away from the magnesium monsters. Relief comes, but agitation lingers. All his blue and red cousins are lost, and the rough encounter has scattered all of his green cousins in random directions too. Only a tiny contingent remains as our hero flies back into the clouds of nitrogen once more.

A moment later, they tumble abruptly into a matrix of molecules. This place is different: peaceful, but in a puzzling manner. The molecules are dense and orderly. They do not attempt to approach. Instead, they stand by like passive sentinels, simply watching the weary travelers pass through their realm. Still, something feels different to our hero. It is as if the matrix is affecting him in subtler ways, like their mere presence is slowing him, dragging him down, warping his entire being. He doesn’t realize it, but that is the nature of glass.

Just as abruptly, he slips back out of the matrix. The transition is disorienting, like he and his few green friends that remain have somehow changed course. Hardly a moment passes before they meld into yet another matrix of glass and again have their realities distorted by the passive sentinels. They tumble through a maze of glass, then air, then glass, air, glass, air, glass.

Our hero is so dizzy that he almost doesn’t notice that the last interface turns away his green friends. He panics as his last companions are refused by the sentinels and bounce off while he is forced to enter by himself. This final matrix, a red filter, draws him inside and tosses him unceremoniously out the other side.


 Chapter 4 – Desolation

It’s quiet again. Serene and quiet, like space. And in the quiet, he realizes that he is completely alone. Every single one of his brethren who he had traveled is now gone. Averted by the clouds of air, or engulfed in the frightening organic towers of magnesium, or  warped away by the glass. Here in this vacuum, not even atoms are present to keep him company. And now, he plunges relentlessly towards an abyss. With absolute certainty, he knows that this the end of his journey.

Our hero thinks back to those fleeting eight minutes in space that he shared with his fellow photons. Perhaps the others will make it back. Through the dangerous and frightening labyrinth he braved to end here, his friends must now pass through one more time. Maybe some will make it. Then, they could fly away free for the rest of eternity, joining the ancient travelers they passed along the way.

In the silence, he mourns. He doesn’t even notice when the abyss steals away his soul.



Epilogue – Remembrance

Somewhere, a camera screen jolts to life. It displays a merry image, a young sapling just sprouting its first leaves to bathe proudly in the warm sunlight. The screen culls millions of streams of photons into existence, and it shoots them out into the unknown like a salute. Somewhere in that grand tapestry of pixels, a single stream shines with just a hint of red, a tribute to our hero’s journey.