Markus stood on the rocky hill in front of his house, neck aching as he craned it toward the sky. He’d been waiting for hours. He’d snuck early out of bed, slinking his way through the house and slipping outside into the muggy morning air. He’d climbed the hill, using his hands to steady himself as the ground slipped and slid beneath him, until he reached the highest point in the village. When the light came, he’d be the first to see it.
It came only once a year, the light, the bringer of the harvest. Markus squinted his eyes and his chest jumped as he saw it. A pinprick of light, duller than even the stars. It grew slowly, flickering and pulsating dimly like blood pumping from a heart.
Markus hopped from foot to foot, shaking his hands out as he waited for the moment.
The light grew brighter, then exploded out in every direction as it descended onto the land below. It rushed over the empty fields in a wave, inundating them with a warm, bright yellow glow. The dirt, plowed neatly into hills and furrows, shook and came alive as tiny, wispy white tendrils peeked out of the earth and opened their first leaves to the light.
The light surrounded Markus, covering his skin and hair in a cool and tingling mass of tiny bodies, like animate grains of sand glowing and shimmering as they darted around his face. Individually, their movement was erratic, drifting and surging one direction to another even as the swarm itself flew ever forward. But together there was a sense of harmony, no collisions between pieces of the light, each one shifting slightly to accommodate the others. A kind of peaceful chaos.
Markus blinked, fighting to look but unable to keep his eyes open, like trying to see in a rainstorm. Then it was gone. The light never lingered long. It whooshed past him and the village and down into the valley.
Markus ran. He chased after the light with a child’s spirit, never doubting he would catch it, even as it faded further and further in the distance. He ran until the last of the light disappeared over the horizon and he doubled over trying to catch his breath. Sweat glistened on his forehead and trickled down the back of his neck.
He laughed. Next year he’d catch it for sure. He turned back toward the village and the sound of his neighbors singing and shouting grew softly as he returned. His mother and father passed mugs of lager to each other, toasting to the light as their crops lived a lifecycle in a day, first blossoming, then turning heavy with fruit and grain.
Markus reached for his own glass and joined the dancing and revelry the light had left in its wake.
One day the light stopped coming.
Markus had grown old, too old to chase after the light, but not too old to sit out in his rocking chair and stare up at the sky.
At first, Markus thought it was his eyesight going. He’d lost track of some of the old stars; it was natural he might not see the light when it was still far out. But as time crept on, uneasiness settled in his stomach and crawled up the back of his throat. Voices murmured around him in hushed tones. Parents snapped at their children to hush and quit playing.
“Maybe it’s just a little late this year. Took a wrong turn at the last rock,” someone said.
A few uneasy laughs answered him. The hours drew on, and one by one the people left to go back into their homes. A few were sobbing, but most just moved numbly, their necks bent toward the sky, looking for anything, any sign of hope.
Markus stayed on his porch, waiting, watching. The village slept and awoke in the same darkness that hung overhead every day the light didn’t come.
The first day was for blaming. The hushed, fearful whispers turned to shouted accusations. It was the flyers that did it. They stole the light, or killed it, or did something to scare it off. People stared up at the darting specks of light in the sky, the stars that moved this way and that in an angular, incomprehensible dance—the flyers—and cursed their names.
One woman, words slurred with despair and drunkenness, picked up a stone and threw it toward the sky. More rocks followed. Everyone seemed to carry one in their hand. They yelled and whooped and made promises about what would happen to any flyer unlucky enough crash near them.
Markus sat on his porch, looking up at the sky.
The second day was for planning. Anger gave way to fatigue and discussions on how to survive a year without a harvest. There were some food stores. Baskets and barrels of grains and dried fruit sat in the cellars of every home, and even more was kept in the town center. Hunger would come slowly, growing and spreading like a crop of its own.
Markus worked while the village slept, loading up his handcart with all his stores from the previous harvest. He’d lived frugally, and much remained. He loaded several heavy baskets of grain and boxes of the sweet dried fruit that stained his teeth even after many weeks of being preserved. Carefully, he nestled a round terra cotta jar between two grain baskets. The jar was stuffed with nuts his niece had gifted him from her resurrection tree, the only plant that stayed alive between visits of the light, slipping into dormancy until it was reawakened by those tiny, dancing organisms.
Markus walked slowly out of town, not returning until the first of his neighbors had crept out of their homes. He waved as he returned emptyhanded to his front porch. No one asked where he had gone.
The twenty-ninth day was for math. Markus heard it through whispers. Half a year of food for two people is a year of food for one. An old man, perhaps too old to even to live to the next harvest, would be better off if he died sooner, left his resources to the younger and more able bodied.
Markus left the town on the thirtieth day. He passed by the fields, ruined by neglect and fits of rage, the neat furrows pushed over and smashed into lumps of soil and broken ale bottles. He kept walking until his house, the house he’d long pictured staying in until he passed from the world, disappeared on the horizon.
Markus had found the cave when he was a boy. The light had showed it to him, back when he had the legs to chase after it. He had followed the light over a ridge, stumbled, and fallen into a deep pit. Quick reflexes and a love of tumbling saved him from broken bones, but he had cut his hands and knees on the ground and hissed at their stinging. He looked above him, too high above him, at the hole and the sky desperately out of reach.
He had panicked. He felt around the walls of the too large cavern, trying to find a place to climb up and out. He’d jumped, and screamed, and tried to scamper up the walls, but he only rubbed more dirt and rock into his cuts and made his voice go hoarse and scratchy.
Hours later, he sat down at the bottom of the pit and cried. He kept his eyes on the ground, unable to look at the place above him he wanted so desperately to be. Then, in that total blackness, he saw a light. One single piece of the light that must have fallen in with him.
He stared at it as it danced around him and reached a hand out to touch it. It skittered away, and Markus felt a sudden sickness seize him, the realization that it could go where he couldn’t, that sooner or later it would fly up and away and leave him behind. But the light kept dancing, floating in front of him and around him, lazily swooping side to side.
Markus watched the light flitter through the cavern, riding tiny air currents he couldn’t feel. Then, impossibly, it glided against one of the walls and disappeared. Markus jumped to his feet and rushed to wear he’d last seen it.
He found a small gap, a gap not much wider than his body, which led to a narrow tunnel. Markus raced down it, bumping against the stone walls until he reached a short shaft. He looked up and saw the sky.
High above Markus, the flyers darted in front of the long, hazy clouds that astronomers said was an arm of the galaxy, stretching out with a million worlds just like his.
Markus watched the flyers as he climbed up the narrow shaft, squeezing his fingers into the jagged rock and stretching his toes out to balance. They said the flyers traveled between many strange worlds. Worlds full of air that couldn’t be breathed. Worlds where the light was so bright it blocked out the stars for hours at a time and painted the sky blue.
Markus pulled himself onto the surface and flipped onto his back, breathing deeply with relief as he looked up at the sky. Staring at the hazy clouds, he tried to imagine what those other worlds would be like. A bright blue sky, and colors everywhere on the ground, as bright as when the light came. It sounded wondrous. It sounded frightening, too much good overloading the senses, the stomachache after a feast.
Markus squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to picture it, then he exhaled and got to his feet, preparing himself for the long walk home. He never told anyone about what happened that day. Instead, he’d bitten his lip, and sat quietly at the dinner table, smiling when he thought no one was looking. The cave became his secret place, a shelter when he needed to get away.
The trail of fire burned across the sky brighter than anything Markus had seen in two planetary revolutions. The sound, a deep rumbling wave accompanied by the hissing of sizzling metal, crashed against his chest a few moments later. The trail ended in a puff of smoke and a bang that was jarringly late, as though the world had fallen out of sync.
Markus chased after it. His shoes, now no more than thick wrapped bundles of cloth, sank into the ashy ground as he trudged on. His path took him near the town, but he heard no sounds as he approached, no laughter, no tears. During the long absence of the light, his world had died. It wasn’t rotten so much as mummified.
Smoke billowed in the distance, inky black against the dark gray horizon. Monotone colors as desiccated as the landscape.
Markus kept moving. Past the crumbled sandstone buildings, past the bent and twisted metal poking out of the ground like withered stalks, past his own house, as ruined as the rest, the ceiling collapsed inward, the porch scorched black from an explosion, the few belongings he’d left behind stolen or scattered around the broken doorway. His chair had lost a leg, but still sat stubbornly upright, leaning against the wall to stare at the stars.
Markus didn’t stop until he reached the flyer.
The flames burned themselves out before Markus arrived. Still, he felt their heat as he approached, a dryness in air that always felt heavy and wet, and he tasted smoke flavored with metal and acid. The wreck, a grotesque corpse of broken and twisted metal, had wings like a bird, and a long, slender body. Markus circled the wreck slowly, studying it.
A single set of footprints, uneven, and drawn out in long divots by dragging feet, led away from the flyer toward the rocky hills along the horizon. A drop of moisture, not water and not oil, darkened the ashy gray dust around the prints.
He’d seen enough blood in the last year to develop a sense for it. The first few times it had come with a rush of fear and adrenaline, a tickle at the back of his throat, a sudden anxiousness and need to flee. Now it only made him wary, more careful and conscious of his next move.
He needed to find the pilot. Others would be around soon.
Markus followed the tracks toward the hills. The pilot had fallen once on their way up the incline, leaving a smeared set of palm prints in the sand and another bit of blood on the rocks. Their hands looked small, smaller than the booted footprints would have suggested.
As Markus crested over the first hill, stepping carefully on the sand and rocks that threatened to pour down with each step, he saw the pilot resting on the ground halfway down into the next valley. She kept one hand pressed firmly against her stomach and breathed heavily.
Her clothes were strange. But then, what must he look like to her? An old man with a beard that hung around his face like wispy white clouds, fabric torn and mended and torn again hanging too loosely from his thinning body. He ran a hand over his hair and beard, trying to tame them a bit before he stepped closer.
The pilot jolted back when Markus moved forward. One hand flew toward her jacket to reach something, but couldn’t find it. She hissed as the movement pulled against her wound, but then clamped her jaw shut in a thin, firm line.
“Who the hell are you?” The pilot hissed as she struggled to her feet, eyes never leaving Markus.
“My name is Markus,” he said, offering a soft smile. “Did you fall from the sky?”
The pilot started to shake her head, and her face contorted into a frown as she looked for a lie. Finding none, she shrugged. “I guess you could say that.”
“Are you hurt?”
Markus bit his lip, uncertain what to say next. “I have medical supplies. And food. Not far from here.”
The pilot studied Markus carefully, eyes moving quickly from his wizened face to his tall but lanky frame. Though he pretended not to notice, Markus could see the calculation in her face, wondering if she could trust him, wondering if she could fight him off if she were wrong.
“Okay,” the pilot sighed as she stepped toward him. She kept her right hand pressed against her side. Blood oozed slowly between her fingers.
The pilot never complained about the distance they walked, though it must have pained her. She followed a step behind Markus and her head swiveled from him to the rocky crags and torn up fields surrounding them.
The pilot sniffed once and Markus looked behind him to see that she was holding back tears. Markus wondered how old she was, though he knew she had to be not much past twenty years. Her skin was a shade lighter than his, though still a deep, rich brown, and aside from a scar on her left cheek, she had none of the marks time had left on Markus’s face.
Their eyes met for a moment, but the pilot’s gaze warned him not to ask about her. Markus nodded and continued walking.
“We’re here,” Markus said, after a long passage of silence. He stopped in front of a large boulder shaped like a man squatting down. The rock, porous and volcanic, was lighter than it appeared, like a dried husk of a rock slowly rolling across the landscape.
Markus bent down and his spine popped softly. The pilot’s eyes shifted to him at the sound. “Just my old bones,” he said as he brushed a thin layer of dirt off the ground and revealed a misshapen trap door constructed of the same dull-gray metal as the destroyed flyer.
Markus yanked on the door’s handle and it groaned open.
“You go down first,” Markus said.
The pilot glanced uncertainly at the hole. There was a ladder, a rickety frame made of tree branches roped together, attached to a stone wall. The bottom of the pit was invisible, melting into a cloud of black about five rungs down.
The pilot glanced at Markus once more. Then she shrugged and grabbed hold of the ladder, quickly sliding into the darkness below.
Markus moved more slowly, taking three steps down before reaching back to grab the trapdoor and pulling it over his head. Without even starlight to guide him, Markus stepped down the ladder, not needing to see to know where he was.
“It’s dark down here,” the pilot said quietly as Markus’s feet thudded against the dirt at the base of the ladder.
Markus took a couple of steps into the room and pulled his lantern from a metal crate he kept near the ladder. His hands and feet moved automatically, well-practiced with moving in the dark. A small orb of light illuminated the room as he switched it on and Markus saw the pilot standing with her hands out in front of her, ready for an attack as she kept her back pressed against the wall.
“Bit of a loose wire, I think,” Markus said as he tapped the metal casing of the lantern.
The pilot stepped away from the wall and glanced around. The light only dimly reached the farthest walls, the whole space being no more than twelve paces long and perhaps eight wide. The light reflected softly off a table near the center of the room.
“Thank you. For helping me,” the pilot said.
“My name’s Angie,” she added, shoulders slumping a bit as she lowered herself to sit on the floor.
“Angie? I had a niece with that name,” Marcus said as he opened a trunk in the corner of the room and started to dig through it. “She passed on, well, sooner than she should’ve.” He stood and walked over to Angie a moment later, passing her a roll of bandages and a tin bottle of water.
Angie took the supplies and poured some of the water on her side, hissing as the liquid made contact with her skin. She pressed the bandages against her wound, a cut that looked much shallower now that the blood had been cleared away.
“This salve should help,” Markus said as he handed her a mostly empty jar of an ash colored cream. “It’s saved my life a few times.”
“What’s it like up there?” Markus asked, unable to hold the question back any longer. He slurped another spoonful of porridge into his mouth. The mixture was tasteless and soupy. He’d started adding more water to it, hoping to stretch his provisions a bit further.
Angie had stayed with him over a week. Her side was healing and uninfected and she’d grown restless, offering to repay Markus by cleaning and scavenging. Markus gave her tasks, little things that didn’t really need doing, but she did each of them with vigor.
“What’s it like up there?” Angie tilted her head as she repeated the question. “Bright. I never thought about it really, but it’s bright.” She swallowed. “You know I’d never been to a planet before? I used to dream about what it’d be like, to have so much freedom. To be able to go anywhere without walls and air tanks and pressure suits.”
Markus hummed. “I always wanted to fly. Be part of the dancing lights in the sky.”
Angie laughed and her spoon clanked against the edge of her dish. “We don’t dance, I’m afraid. It’s mostly just mining and hauling big space rocks to the nearest processing system.”
“It still looks beautiful.”
“Only from a distance.” Angie sighed. “But it was home.”
Markus dropped the spoon back into his empty bowl and looked thoughtfully at Angie. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Picking up the lantern from the table, Markus led Angie down a narrow tunnel at the back of the room. He heard a soft rustling behind him as the jagged stone edges of the wall scraped lightly against Angie’s skin and stalactites tugged at her hair. The tunnel curved to the right, then expanded into a large, open cavern.
“It’s not finished yet, but with your help it could be,” Markus said, walking toward the center of the cavern.
A flyer. Nestled in the cave like a fox in a burrow, sheltered from the elements and the people that would tear it to pieces as a proxy for their anguish. Even in the dim light of Markus’s lantern, the flyer was a patchwork beast, stitched and riveted together from the dead ships that had fallen before it.
Angie darted toward the flyer, running her hand along the metal wing, fingers catching in the pits and gouges that peppered its body. She reached up, grabbing the rim of the cockpit, and hoisted herself inside with a jump.
Angie slid easily behind the controls. Her hands glided over the switches and gauges and then back to the control stick. She pushed on it experimentally, feeling the familiar pressure of it tugging back at her.
“Not bad, old man,” she said. Then her brow furrowed. “But how did you get it here?”
Markus laughed. “I flew it. Kind of. Mostly.” He coughed.
“Mostly?” Angie asked.
“I found a wreck on the other side of ridge, about half a day’s walk from where you crashed. It had been sitting there awhile before I got there, dust covering everything.”
Markus rubbed his mouth. “He was already dead—murdered—when I got there. My people,” Markus sighed. “My people don’t act much like people anymore. Anyway, some of the metal had been scavenged off it, along with the seat and anything else people thought they could use, but the frame was intact and the engine seemed more or less alright, so I figured, what the hell, let’s see what this thing can do, right?”
“That’s pretty dangerous.”
“I know. It was stupid, really. But I didn’t care back then. The light was gone. My niece was gone. And I figured the worst that could happen was dying. And that didn’t seem like much of a bad thing at the time,” Markus said quietly. “So I climbed in, fired it up, and promptly got knocked on my behind as it started skimming over the ground, black smoke coming up everywhere behind me. I figured that stick thing directed it around, and I managed to more or less guide it back this way.”
“I’m impressed you managed to land it down here,” Angie said.
Markus chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “I actually tried to land it on the ridge above us but I slid and kind of tumbled in here.” He glanced at the hole in the rock above them. “Bit of a pattern for me, really,” he added. “It took me days to get it upright again, and I had to take most of it apart and put it back together. It got me thinking that it wasn’t all that complicated after all. There was a chance I could get it working again. I’ve gone to a few other wrecks and scavenged smaller pieces off of them, and repurposed some of my stuff for it, but I could use another pair of hands. And a pilot to teach me to fly it properly.”
Angie smiled. “I might be able to help with that.”
“What happened to this place?” Angie asked. She lay underneath the flyer, hands caked with grease and soot as she dug through a mess of wires. She hissed as two of them touched and sparked against each other.
“Same thing that happened everywhere,” Markus said. He sat under the left wing, fiddling with a blackened mass of burnt wiring and half-melted metal. “The light stopped coming and it died. Things turned ugly. Those of us that are left avoid each other when we can, fight when we can’t.”
Angie peeked her head out from under the flyer. “What do you mean the light stopped coming?”
“The light. The light,” Markus’s eyes widened and the metal fell forgotten beside him. “You really don’t know?”
Angie shook her head.
“It comes from, I don’t know, up there somewhere,” Markus gestured above his head. “Some kind of swarm from space, like tiny little bugs is what people used to say. They’d swoop out of the sky like a miracle each year and everything would start to grow. Flowers, fruits, grains, everything. Then one day they stopped coming. People gave up hope. Then they gave up on each other.”
Markus sighed. “We had some food stored, of course, and there are a lot less of us running around than there used to be,” Markus turned his head away. “But I’d guess we’ve probably got less than a year before the end of everything.”
Angie bit her lip. “And that’s why you rebuilt the flyer, why you rescued me. You want to take shelter in the sky.”
Markus shook his head, standing up from under the wing. “No. No, I’m going to bring the light back. It’s just gotten a little lost. I’m going to bring it back home.”
Angie pulled herself out from underneath the flyer, wiping her hand on a dirty cloth before tossing it back on the ground. “So you know where this light of yours is?”
“No,” Markus said.
“You know how to bring it back once you find it?”
Angie sighed. “So it’s just wishful thinking, then. False hope.”
Markus gently tapped his hand against the wing of the flyer. “I wouldn’t say that. Sometimes you have to run after the things you don’t know you can catch. That’s the only way to move forward. Besides, I have you to help me now.”
Angie bit her lip and grabbed another wrench.
Markus awoke slowly, shaken to consciousness by a low rumble that tumbled through the tunnels and echoed off the walls even as it faded into nothingness. It was only after the reverberations stilled and silence stuffed his ears like cotton that he jolted upright.
The flyer. Markus scrambled down the tunnel, feet slipping on the dirt and the narrow walls tearing at his clothes as he hurried to confirm what he already knew. Angie was gone. So was the flyer.
Markus saw a grease stain where the flyer had stood, one more black mark in a place already eaten by darkness. Markus slid to his knees. Hours passed. The light from his lantern faded and died.
The sky stayed dark. Sometimes Markus sat on the surface and watched the flyers dance in the sky. He wondered if any of them were Angie. He wondered if she ever looked back down on the surface to see him looking up at her.
When Markus was a boy, the light had seemed brighter than anything he had seen. He remembered watching it roll over the hills, coating the fields with a golden glow and sticking to every building like a glittery film.
In those days, there were colors. Greens and blues and reds and deep rich browns. It was so beautiful that he never minded that it came just once a year.
This light looked different than he remembered, though Markus couldn’t say in what way. Maybe it was a bit older, a bit sicker, maybe it was tired from traveling all that way across the stars.
Markus had never seen anything more beautiful.
Markus glimpsed high overhead, drifting and growing bigger as it undulated toward him.
Markus put a hand to his mouth, choked on a sob as he watched the light move closer. Unhurried, waving and swooping to the sides and even retreating on itself before surging forward again.
Markus watched it for minutes before he heard it. He’d forgotten it had a sound, a low hum that he felt with his chest more than his ears.
The light came closer and Markus saw the first bits of color blossom on the ground.
Greens. The greens were always first. They wiggled and hopped out of the ground dancing to the hum of the light. The flowers would come next. Blues and yellows and violets blooming into red fruits.
A chorus, a hundred voices shouting and crying and laughing, welled up over the rocky hills and shifting earth. Markus’s throat tickled and he realized his own voice was calling out among them, sounding out the same relief and euphoria together with everyone.
Markus hadn’t felt together for a long time.
Markus heard the thrum of the flyer’s engine before he saw it, a tiny splotch of black in front of the sea of light. The flyer passed overhead, and Markus saw it dragging a large rock behind it, the light melting off of the rock in waves. In the next second, the light hit him, almost blinding him as it flew past. A million billion dancers paraded around him, bringing the dead land back to life. He stood immobile, letting the light touch him and watching it flicker past.
As the last of the light flew past him, Markus turned and started to run, chasing the light until it disappeared over the horizon.