I remember staring out the window of our cabin, realizing for the first time that we were losing the stars.
Not all of them of course. But our impending planet landing meant the experience of sailing through them, ever-changing across an infinite landscape, was slipping away. There was something unsettling about the thought. Something sad. The stars we’d be able to see from Terra2, our new home, would be limited. Tiny. Insignificant. They’d shift in the sky, but never really change. The wealth of stars we’d wandered through during my eighteen years on Domino—the ship where I’d been born, the only home I’d ever known—would be forever out of reach.
It’s been five days since we entered Terra2’s orbit. Four since we were joined by our sister ships, Flute and Ester. Three since the navbots were sent down to explore the surface. And one since they returned, reporting that the environment was stable and we were safe to disembark.
My parents are scientists, members of the crew that’s been working tirelessly for decades to prepare for planet landing. This accomplishment—landing safely, exploring the planet, building a new society—was their life’s work, finally realized.
By comparison, I was merely their son.
So while they remain on board, tinkering with their precious fact-finding gadgets and finalizing plans, I’m out here with the rest of the 1300 or so civilians, setting up a base camp with little more than a sleeping bag.
For me, planet landing means many things. A new home. A new world. A new everything, really. On Domino, we’d learned a lot about planets. Particularly Earth, the dying planet our ancestors had escaped. They said Terra2 was almost identical to Earth, with one sun and one moon. But that doesn’t matter much to me since I have no memories of the place. All I know is that Terra2 isn’t Domino and everything about that puts me on edge.
My fingers tremble as I drag a matchstick across the flimsy box, the cardboard lousy with moisture from months of being stored in the medicine cabinet of our cabin’s shower room.
I’ve only done this a handful of times. Fire was rarely needed on Domino. Light and heat were givens. For nearly 200 years, they’d been provided without question. Dim lighting while we slept and higher levels while we were active. Tonight’s sunset will be our first experience with actual darkness, something I’m not looking forward to.
I try again with the match, running it quickly across the scratched surface. The darkened tip flares to life and I touch it to the kindling gathered beneath the stack of wood. It catches easily, flames licking the underbelly of a log until the bark turns black.
“That should do it,” I say to Mrs. Hawthorn, who smiles at me graciously, her hands clasped as though she’s been praying.
“You’re a lovely boy, Alex,” she says. “Good with your hands, just like your father.”
“Well, then I guess I can’t take all the credit,” I say, knowing she meant it as a compliment, but having a hard time taking it as one. “If you have any more trouble with that fire, you let me know.”
Many of the passengers who were on Domino were just that—passengers. While some cooked or cleaned or were part of the crew, others, like Mrs. Hawthorn, her two daughters and their children, were purely along for the ride. I find myself wondering how they’ll survive on this new planet as we start to branch out and inevitably stop caring for one another. It may not happen during my lifetime, but I know that day will come.
I return to the spot where I’d dropped my gear—a sleeping bag and rucksack of what my dad had referred to as “the essentials”: food, water, clothing. Enough to last me until the rest of our possessions are delivered.
I can’t stop thinking about how the sun has slowly been setting since the moment I stepped off the taxi-shuttle. It’s almost kissing the horizon now, pulling behind it a shade of dark sky that’s gradually fading into the black universe where Domino hovers just out of reach.
This was one of the many things they tried to prep us for in planet landing boot camp, hoping to explain with slides and film what night would be like on the surface. But they couldn’t properly demonstrate because on Domino there was always some form of light, even when they flipped the switch during training. Emergency lights above the doors, flickering status bulbs on vital equipment. Domino was alive; total darkness didn’t exist.
As I look around the camp, I’m starting to think I’m the only person who feels nervous about the darkening sky. Or maybe everyone else is just too distracted.
I spot my friend Natalie helping her mother spread out a large canvas tarp. Natalie is the same age as me, which on a ship of 1300 people means we’re friends. But I’d be her friend even if there were millions of people. And not just because she’s beautiful. You know how people talk about the kind of girl who’s gorgeous, but totally doesn’t realize it? The kind who’s super cool and down-to-earth and doesn’t make you feel like you came out the other end of puberty with all your parts in the wrong places? Well, Natalie is like that, except that she has to be starting to figure it out since it seems I spend the majority of our conversations these days staring at her body. It’s not like I do it on purpose. It’s just so damn inviting. And that smile, that long blonde hair. I listen to her too, of course. She’s smart. She’s funny. It feels like she’s everything these days.
She catches me gawking and gives a little wave. I wave back, but then pretend to busy myself with my sleeping bag, which turns out to be no easy task. Unrolling it and maybe fiddling with the zipper pretty much cover the full extent of sleeping-bag-related actions, notwithstanding the whole crawling inside to sleep part. I notice a bit of dust on it, so I incorporate brushing off every last speck into my charade as well. I’m relieved when I glance up to see her faced away, talking to her father. I don’t want her to feel sorry that I’m alone, that my parents didn’t consider themselves to be two of “the essentials” I might need out here.
And honestly, I keep going back and forth about it myself. I’m basically a man now. Or at least, a very manly boy. Who’s possibly afraid of the dark. So, maybe a mannish boy would be more accurate. Whatever. It’ll be fine. Manliness is overrated anyway.
I pull together the branches I’ve gathered from the nearby forest. The trees on Terra2 seem just like the ones that grew in the agriculture sector of Domino except they’re taller. Probably because they never have to stop growing. Planets allow living things to thrive. Spaceships do not. Another handy tip from Planet Landing 101.
I glance up to see that the sun’s a half-circle now. There are hundreds of campfires popping up along the field we’re spread across. They glow brighter as the sky turns purple-black, but none offer enough light to be anything but pinpricks of orange.
I lean over my own meager stack and light it with one of my few remaining matches. Just in time too as the sun slides out of sight, leaving a diminishing halo in its wake.
I take a deep breath and focus on feeding the fire. The air here feels humid and heavy and it makes my skin feel sticky. I wait for a few of the larger pieces of wood to catch then sit back, grateful to be away from the heat.
My eyes are having a hard time adjusting to the darkness as it surrounds me. It penetrates the space like a spreading stain that I can’t clear away. I sit huddled in my circle of light, glancing around to see others doing the same. I can sense the hysteria starting to bubble up, the hum of surrounding chatter shifting to a high-pitched buzz. This is new to every one of us, this complete and actual dark. Based on everything they told us, it shouldn’t be scary. It’s just the absence of light. But I can’t help but wonder if light erases things that exist in the dark. If there are sudden threats surrounding us. Ones we now can’t see.
The darker it gets, the more uncomfortable I feel in my own skin, like something is crawling on me. I freak myself out about half a dozen times before I have to force myself to stare at the fledgling flames and pretend an unknown world isn’t watching from just beyond their reach.
“Nice fire,” says a voice from behind me and holy crap do I jump. I turn around to see Natalie, standing there in a short dress that shows off her long legs. It’s all flowy and pretty with thin straps, and the skin across her collarbone looks slick and warm beneath her playful smile.
“Thanks,” I say, as calmly and coolly as I can manage. “I built it myself.”
“You’re so intrepid,” she says sweetly and then laughs. “Wanna see something cool?”
For a split second my mind goes somewhere dirty, but I manage to shake off the thought and ask, “Like what?”
“You have to come and see,” she teases.
I’m extremely hesitant to leave the reassuring comfort of my campfire, but it’s Natalie, so I know I won’t refuse. I pull a narrow piece of wood from the fire, holding up the lit end like a candle. I stand and nod for her to lead the way.
At first, I think she’s going to walk us back to where her family is gathered by their own fire, but instead she starts in the direction of the woods.
“Wait,” I say, stopping dead in my tracks. “Where are you going?”
She turns around to face me, a flash of mischief in her eyes. “Just trust me,” she says and with a twirl of her skirt, she’s off again.
I try to stay close behind, but as we enter the forest, the slim band of light cast by my torch feels wholly inadequate. There’s a sudden tightness in my chest. I can’t tell if it’s the humidity or what, but I feel like I can’t breathe.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask, instantly mortified by how shaky my voice sounds.
Natalie cuts through the trees like she’s done this a thousand times. “You’ll see,” she calls back over her shoulder. She’s so much braver than I am.
The trees don’t look like trees anymore. They look like crooked fingers, furious wings, dark shadows of creatures that have no names because they’re alien to us. And the darkness makes it so I can’t detect their subtle movements. Can’t see the way they circle us, the way they reach. The way they’re slowly closing in.
A few feet ahead, Natalie is nothing but a silhouette in a pale sheath of fabric. She’s walking faster than me, her pace confident and sure. I jog to keep up, terrified of losing her in this creeping dark, but the unthinkable happens. I stumble, tripping over a section of rutted ground, and though I don’t fall, I lose enough balance to send the torch flying from my grasp. My reaction is like the victim of a landslide—panicked, desperate and ultimately incapable. The torch lands in a puddle of muck that extinguishes the flame on contact.
“Dammit,” I hiss, the word a crumbling pillar. I crouch to the ground as though I can somehow retrieve the lost light, but every last ember has gone out.
My world is black and cloying. I’m choking on claustrophobic thoughts, my lungs filling with muggy air and this terrible thing called night. My breath hastens as I open my eyes wide, but I can’t see a damn thing and it makes me miss the stars. It terrifies me.
“Alex?” Natalie’s voice rips through the air, concerned, but with no trace of the fear I feel coursing through my veins.
“I’m here,” I say, my voice strained. “I dropped the fire.”
I hear leaves rustle as she nears, kneeling beside me as she places a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asks.
“We need to turn back,” I say between ragged breaths. I look around and see nothing but dark shadows. “We shouldn’t be out here.”
“It’s not much farther,” she says. “I promise. I thought you’d be up for a little adventure.”
“If it were up to me, I’d still be on Domino,” I say, and as the words leave my mouth, I realize how true they are. I’d return to Domino in a heartbeat if it were allowed.
When she speaks, I can’t see her, but I can sense her, just there. The darkness is a barrier between us, but it’s a barrier that years of knowing her allows me to breach. Her voice sounds quiet, and even a little sad, and I can easily picture what her face looks like when her voice sounds like that. I’ve memorized her without trying.
“I guess I’d always thought of Domino as temporary,” she says. “A place to pass the time until we got here. This is where we can finally be free. To live our lives the way we were meant to. People belong on planets with tall trees and sunlight. With room to spread out. To run.”
“But this darkness… aren’t you scared?”
She must have to think about this because she doesn’t answer right away.
“Maybe a little,” she finally says. “But I figure I’m with you.”
I exhale with nervous laughter. “That’s assuming a lot, don’t you think? I feel like my heart is going to break out of my ribcage. I don’t understand how you’re not peeing your pants right now.”
“Did you pee your pants?”
Natalie chuckles and the tension in my body eases at the sound. She always manages to make me feel better, like the luckiest version of myself. I try to focus on slowing my breathing, but it speeds up again when Natalie slides her hand down the length of my arm and grasps at my fingers, entwining them with hers.
“Haven’t you ever just closed your eyes?” she asks.
“Only when I’m sleeping.”
“Alex,” she says, my name a soft and lovely thing on her lips. “Close your eyes.”
“Seriously? Why? I can’t see anything anyway.”
“Just do it,” she says. “Please.”
I do as she asks and as expected, it makes no difference except that I can sort of convince myself that it’s dark because my eyes are closed instead of it being some unnerving external force.
Natalie pulls me to my feet and I can’t help but ask, “Wait, can you see?”
“Well enough,” she assures me. “There’s more to the night than darkness, as you’ll soon see for yourself.”
She keeps my hand in hers as we walk, carefully navigating sections of uneven ground. I flinch as I feel the tips of leaves and branches brush against me, but I trust Natalie to not walk me off a ledge.
A few minutes pass before she speaks again. “Okay,” she says, placing her free hand on my chest to stop me. “Open your eyes and look up.”
I give my eyes a moment to readjust. I can barely make out the shapes of trees in the surrounding forest.
“Look up,” she repeats and I do. A sliver of brilliant light slices through the black night, surrounded by hundreds of stars.
“Is that the moon?” I ask.
Natalie gives my hand a squeeze. I glance at her and see that I can actually make out the features of her face, illuminated by the open sky. She’s smiling and beautiful.
“But that’s not why I brought you here,” she says. “Look behind you.”
I turn and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. The forest is filled with stars. Dozens of them, right here on Terra2, blinking off and on like signals. They float with such grace, dancing among the trees.
“What are they?” I ask.
“I think they’re like fireflies. I remember reading about them once. They were a species of insect back on Earth.”
“No way,” I say, my eyes shifting from one to the next. Everything I’d read about insects had involved creepy pictures featuring far too many legs. Nothing like this. These were breathtaking. Remarkable. A collection of stars that only we could see.
“Thank you,” I say, turning to Natalie, who still stares in awe at the glints of light among the trees. “For bringing me here. For helping me feel more at home.”
She smiles and then tilts her head toward mine. “Close your eyes,” she says.
“Why?” I ask and my heart is racing again.
“Just do it.”
The world goes dark once more and I take a deep breath. And then something warm and soft presses against my mouth; Natalie’s lips, more wonderful than the stars. The kiss makes me hungry for more, but there’s a sweetness to it that I want to savor so I kiss her back slowly, earnestly, without seeming too eager. I refuse to screw this up.
“And just think,” she says, her lips lingering against mine as they curve into a smile. “This is only the beginning.”