Peter’s feet pounded against the metal, his thick-soled shoes that typically held him firm against the low gravity of the moon, now a burden. The pack on his back was full, its seams straining with food from the farm that rested in the center of the circular habitat. The massive farm, with its enormous glass dome, was the center of the wagon wheel that made up the habitat, each long spoke leading to and from the farm. It was one of these spokes that Peter fled through, away from the farm and into the habitat proper.
Behind him, the lights flickered on and off with increasing urgency. With each flicker, his eyes grew more panicked and also less focused. He could see the door to his family’s room at the end of the long corridor, the lights on the door twinkled menacingly. He slowed his pace, his chest tightening in dread, but then the porthole opened in the door and he could see Raina’s face. Her eyes were squinting through the thick glass. She used her sleeve to wipe away moisture from her breath and her eyes grew wide as she noticed him. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. Peter didn’t look behind him, but ran, his legs burning with the exertion. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes as he approached the door and found it locked. He pounded on the door.
“Raina,” Peter said into the door mic. “Please, honey.” The lights flickered faster and the light behind him faded, his shadow less distinct against the door. He slowed his breathing and tried to calm himself. “Raina,” he repeated, trying to sound calmer than before. “Raina.”
“I can’t, Dad,” came her slight voice, barely audible over the crackly speaker. “I’m scared. I can’t move.”
“If you don’t move, I die. And you die too, but not today,” he exhaled sharply. “I have the food.”
The door hissed and a hand reached out and pulled him in, the door hissing immediately behind him. “Sorry,” his wife said. “I fell asleep.” She added that last bit not making eye contact. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Maggie,” he said, placing his hand on her shoulder. He handed her the pack of food and turned to Raina. “Are you ok, honey?”
“I couldn’t let it in.”
“It’s too bright in here,” he said, uncertain if he was telling the truth or not. “The light pushes back the dark.” Raina pulled a blanket around her and turned over in her cot, cocooning herself away. “Honey,” he said. When she didn’t poke her head out of her cocoon, he spoke again, softer this time, “Raina.” She poked her head out and Peter asked, “What do we say, Raina? What do we always say?”
“Without the light the darkness swallows. Watch out for those it follows,” she said finally. It was a rhyme the teachers taught the kids of the habitat.
“She saw it,” he said to his wife. “The darkness.”
“I know,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry.”
Peter gritted his teeth at her apology, biting back months of words born of fear and frustration and helplessness. “I know,” was what he was able to say back, finally.
He left them then, taking his pack to the kitchen. Opening the pack made his mouth water involuntarily. There were quite a few ears of corn, a head of lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. Potatoes were the one thing they had plenty of. As he pulled everything out, he brushed the red, dusty soil off and into a pan which he emptied into the refuge chute. The red dust from the soil was everywhere. It collected in the corners of the habitat, in their shoes, their hair, and their clothes. They dug into it to find the elements and minerals they were paid to mine. It collected on their skin, gathering along the banks of their salty sweat streams. It permeated their life and the auto-cleaners had choked themselves on the stuff within months of the colony’s establishment, even as the last of the transport ships had escaped the moon’s gravity. For as dry as the red dust looked, crops thrived in the soil, growing at a rate that was alarming only to the science staff.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said again, this time more pleading, more insistent and Peter squeezed his eyes together and tears dripped from them.
The next day came, but not the same way it did on their home planet. Here, darkness perpetuated for many days at a time, testing the solar batteries, which were also battling the constant insurgence of the fine, powdery dust that infiltrated into its circuitry. Technicians cleaned them when the light allowed.
They lost so many to the dark that rules had to be enforced. Families typically stayed inside during the dark periods with runners assigned to either groups or specific families. Peter was a runner for his family and their group of four families. Robert, Misha, and Evelyn were the closest neighboring family. They vanished during the dark, their food still in their cabinets and soup in bowls on their table. A few symbols were scratched on the walls and everyone seemed to agree that the family had fled out on their own, at least aloud.
In whispers while working in the rows of corn, hunched pulling beans off their stalks, and as they plunged spades into the loose soil, they suggested something else: the darkness. It had no name, but everyone feared it nonetheless, the darkness that descended for days at a time, the darkness that strained the lights, making them blink out. There were less than twelve hours of light between periods of darkness, and the furious speed at which bulbs and circuit boards were replaced was a wonder to Peter. As he packed food back to his home, wordlessly pushing his cart along the corridor, he saw the maintenance staff hastily changing lights and opening the walls to get at the circuitry and wires powering them.
The dust robbed the food of its flavor. Not while it was growing, but after harvest. If the dust got to their food stores, it left behind a tasteless husk, so harvesting had to happen almost daily, which was possible given how well everything grew in the grainy earth. Food didn’t last long, but it seemed like the darkness lasted longer, so people like Peter had to make a choice: risk the darkness, or hunger for a few days until relief was found?
There was constant anxiety about whether the crops would last, whether the next darkness would reveal their farmland to be destroyed. Ships passing through this region of the galaxy were scarce, aside from their regular re-supply of mechanical and medical equipment. When status was reported to the supply ship officers, no one ever mentioned the darkness or the missing families. Many of the families watched longingly as the supply ship broke the thin atmosphere of the moon and faded into the star field. For Peter, he had nowhere left to go. This adventure cost his family everything, same for many other families. It provided a fresh start.
Peter walked into the light of the dome covering the farm. Emerging from the relative darkness of the corridor and into the huge glass dome was as breathtaking during the light as it was frightening during the darkness. It protected the farm from the thin atmosphere and the winds that often whipped across the barren landscape. The huge lights that spread throughout the dome revealed the glinting evidence that the red dust was in the air, being breathed in by the people and the crops. Peter went straight for the cornfield, which occupied almost a third of the massive farm. With the husks on, corn tended to last longer, being able to keep the dust off for a bit longer.
The corn offered Peter a problem, though: it terrified him almost as much as the darkness. The tight rows allowed very little room for his wide frame. The stalks brushed his arms and the back of his neck and his ears, making him uneasy, as if invisible fingers were reaching out to lightly grab at him. He also heard whispers amidst the corn. His mind rationalized that it was the sound of his footfalls crunching and the rustling of the stalks against his shoulders, but it didn’t make his hackles settle in the slightest. He thought he could hear conversations that quieted as he approached, as if the corn were keeping secrets from him.
As he grabbed corn from the stalks and placed it in his cart, he found himself humming to drown out the quiet noise. Almost as if in response, the noise grew in volume, drowning out any internal music he was creating in his head. He put his hands over his ears and drew a deep breath, keenly aware of the dust that was likely settling in his lungs. He coughed in response. When he looked up, the father of a missing family was standing in front of him, staring at him. Or, not staring at him, but maybe past him, because his eyes didn’t seem to fix on Peter.
“Robert?” Peter called out, unsure of the man’s name, only recognizing his face. The man cocked his head a little, as if trying to tune in to his voice, but otherwise did not respond. “Hey!” Peter said louder.
The man’s eyes locked on to him, but they still seemed far away. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but his jaw fell open and remained that way, as if he had no control.
The action unnerved Peter, who started to back away, but then, as he took a tentative step forward to grab his cart, he heard a noise behind him and turned to see Robert’s wife, Misha, standing there, jaw slack, head cocked, eyes locked on to him in a way that was too direct to be recognition.
Peter’s heart thumped, blood filling his ears with a deep, rhythmic thud, the musical beat of a song titled “RUN!” Being a slave to the beat, he ran into the rows of corn, perpendicular to the pathways in-between. He felt apologetic even as his legs thrashed through the stalks, his arms in front of his face. When he reached the edge of the corn and the field opened into an area of shorter crops–beans and peppers, he stopped short. Workers in the fields were all faced with the same: people, their faces slack, moving slowly toward them. Some tried conversation, some ran, and a few, Peter noticed, had taken to violence, swinging their farming implements wildly in front of them.
A rustle from behind reminded Peter that he had chosen to run, so he did more of that in the general direction of the corridor leading to his family’s rooms. His leg became tangled in the thin wire of a tomato plant’s cage and he fell into the dust. The air was suddenly filled with a low hum that turned into a low roar and Peter saw now, as he scurried on the ground, that it was coming from the people, from their slack mouths, as if the noise was just rolling carelessly out of them, like unchewed food from a baby’s mouth. Then the sound modulated to a higher, shriller squeal, almost like the cry of a bird. Then, it modulated lower and higher, almost as if trying to tune in to a signal.
Peter stood, brushing the dust away from his face. The missing people stood slack-jawed, gathering into a group. They stood, choir-like, in front of the colonists. The colonists stood baffled, staring at the missing people, their mouths as agape as the bizarre choir gathering in front of them. Peter stared at them, but continued backing towards the corridor door. Then, in unison, the choir said, in a multitude of voices, “We have missed you.”
Peter froze. His legs refused to continue. His hand went instinctively to his mouth, a pantomime of stifling a scream. “We are legion,” the choir then said, and everyone began to scatter, tripping over plants, tools, and each other. Peter watched as one woman held her face, feeling it with her fingers, digging into her skin as if testing its realness. Then, her mouth fell open and the word came from her, without her mouth even moving: “Legion.” People clutched at religious symbols, kissed them, even as their mouths, too, slacked and repeated “Legion” over and over again. Peter turned to run and heard behind him: “Please don’t run. I’ve said the wrong thing,” then, as the portal door began grinding shut, he heard, “The light is so warm, so pleasant, so–,” then the door shut out the choir, leaving Peter panting, his hand resting palm-flush against the cold metal of the door. Someone on the other side was pounding on the door, but Peter backed away and turned and ran, not looking back.
As his family’s door clicked shut with a satisfying finality, he sighed. “I’m sorry,” Maggie said behind him.
“Maggie,” Peter half-shouted. “I know!” He shouted that last bit, spittle flying from his mouth, spraying over the now-closed door.
He turned and Maggie and Raina stood, mouths opened, their eyes as blank as buttons.
“No,” he pleaded. “Please.”
“We are legion,” the voices echoed out of their throats. “We love you,” the voices said, both in the sounds familiar as Maggie and Raina, but also not. As they walked closer, it was then that he noticed that at the corners of their mouths was the glinting evidence left behind by the dust. It gathered at their eyes too, which Peter noticed were now dry, cracked, unmoving. As he backed up against the door, his palm found the door release and he fell backwards clumsily into the corridor. He scooted backwards away from the door, watching his wife and daughter shamble out of their home, like amateur marionettes. The tears welling in the corners of his eyes did little to slow his drive to live. He stood and turned, his heavy boots echoing loud enough in the passageway to drown out the words his family was saying to him.
He reached the maintenance area, where he spent most of his days during the light running diagnostics on the filtration systems and every other aspect of the life support systems that maintained life inside the habitat, against the raging environment outside. He stopped briefly and opened a cabinet with a key that was on a chain around his neck. He pulled several levers, pausing at the last one for a moment, mouthing a silent prayer to himself. Then, after pulling it, a clamoring series of alarms erupted throughout the habitat, echoing up and down the hallways. Flashing lights strobed the darkened hallways. Shadows danced on the walls, cast from further along, adding urgency to the means by which Peter put on his environmental suit. As the seal of the helmet hissed and stale air wafted across his face inside, he opened the emergency airlock and stepped outside, sealing the door sadly behind him. He looked through the tiny window in the center of the door and saw a slow-moving crowd lurching slowly towards him.
As he left the habitat, legs trudging through the loose dust, he looked back and saw how much of the habitat was actually obscured by the dust on the outside–it had been cleared just days before when the last resupply ship had rocketed away. Now, it looked as though the habitat had been abandoned for years.
Suddenly, the strength left his legs and he sat with a thud into the soft powder, watching the habitat. It was almost visibly succumbing to the red dust swirling in the air, disappearing under the sea of red. He stood then, and walked the way he came, unable to find any evidence of his trek away from the habitat. As he approached, he saw the face of Raina, staring lifelessly out the tiny window of the emergency airlock. I great crack vibrated through his body and he looked up to see a hole collapsing in the dome, dust spilling in behind the falling glass. He looked back at the tiny window and saw Raina was still looking at him, undistracted by the collapse of the dome. He breathed deep and looked down at his hands, the red dust already staining the white of it. He laughed and then reached up in a fluid, deliberate motion and snapped loose his helmet, felt the thin atmosphere suck out the remaining oxygen surrounding his face, and had a tickle at the back of his throat as dust found its way in. “Oh,” he said, though the sound was lost in the wind. He reached out, as if to receive an embrace, and then fell, face first into the dust.
The moon was soon alone again. The dust again was unblemished. A rogue star, untethered in a universe of order, chaotically drifted by, dragging the moon away, depositing it in the orbit of a stronger star, promoting the moon to being a planet all its own. Then, after time, footfalls sent a shiver through the planet, even as the words “NASA, we have touchdown” echoed, awakening something very old from its slumber.
Jarrod Withers was born and raised in Kentucky, where very little happened. Making up stories passed the time, turning boring hills into troll lairs and abandoned houses into lairs of much more dangerous things. Anyway, he writes stuff when he is able.