Starless Planet

By: Paiton Stith

When we finally start talking to each other after the fall, huddling on the side of the island where the black-eyed humans can’t hear us, we all tell the same story. A day that started with the sun rising and waking up and going off to whatever it is we do during the day. Then the holes swallowed us up. All at the same time, as far as we can tell.

Anya’s the only one who tells it differently. She says she wasn’t swallowed up. She was walking the road to work, fallen leaves soggy on the ground, and it opened a solid foot in front of her. People passing by didn’t notice. She thought she was crazy.

She shakes her head, the shine of her eyes is desperate across the width of them. “My life was perfect. A thing like that had no place in perfect.”

We nod in agreement, slowly in the semi-darkness. Anya says she could’ve kept walking. She could’ve left it behind. She hadn’t fallen, she was just standing there, but it called to her somehow and before she could think to resist, she’d jumped.

“Worst decision of my life.”

I give her a sympathetic look, but to me, that still sounds like being swallowed whole.

• • •

The underground is only mostly dark. A landmass surrounded by cavewater, clear and fresh, moving like a stream, though we don’t know where it goes to. There’s no sunlight, but some kind of grass grows. I only call it grass because I don’t have another word for it. It’s not like real grass at all.

The slender stalk is black. Impossible to see in the dark. The tip is weighted by a fleshy bulb, sticky like a peeled peach.

Michael says it tastes sweet, thought I can’t for the life of me understand why he’d put that shit in his mouth. He’s like a baby. I keep glancing at him, waiting for him to drop dead, but he doesn’t.

The bulb lights up on a twelve hour cycle, like day and night in the world above. Dim light, faintly blue in a way that I find dizzying, but it’s better than total blackness. Maybe it’s only dizzying because they move, swaying like there’s a breeze even though there couldn’t be wind this far beneath the crust of the earth. It makes the shadows swing back and forth, waving on the layered sediment of the rock walls and shifting across the planes of our faces. The shadows run back and forth, leaping over our noses like they’re afraid of the light, trying to hide behind the bridge. The others notice it, too. How the stalks move as one.

“Maybe they’re more like an animal than a plant,” Eren says. “One big organism connected in a way we can’t see.” Eren’s some kind of plant scientist. Not sure. Out of everyone, she talks the least. Spends all her time examining the grass and the bulbs. When she found out about Michael, she was thrilled and hounded him with questions about the taste. Most I’d heard her say, but she talks more now.

Lillian sighs through her nose, nodding toward Eren without looking. “Then what we see isn’t real.” She has her head tilted back, staring up to where the cavern walls disappear into a shroud of darkness. Her eyes shift to meet us for the first time since we fell. “The blades are lying to us. Playing at being individual.” Her irises are a honey colored brown, almost yellow, and bright against her pale skin. Black hair so straight it looks wet. Her expression remains vacant, then she goes back to staring up.

Nobody says anything. The grass covers every inch of ground, so we trample it when we walk or sleep or sit down. I can’t stand the feel of the bulb on my skin, so I try not to sleep. When I do, I wake up sticky. The others don’t seem to like it either.

The only people who don’t seem to mind are the black-eyed humans at the other end of the landmass, huddled in a tangle of pale limbs. We didn’t think they were human at first, but now we think they’re like us. They’ve just been here long enough to lose most of their hair and for their skin to become translucent.

Eren says that’s not possible. I say she’s only a plant scientist.

“What do you think they do over there?” Lillian asks. “They never talk, but they’re always moving.” She wrinkles her nose. “Crawling over each other like bugs.” She says the whole thing without looking at them. I almost doubt that she’s ever looked at them, but she’s exactly right. Compared to them, we talk constantly, straining to be heard over the rush of the water streaming around us. Though, sometimes I feel like we’re talking about nothing. Passing the time away on noise.

Eren’s still fussing around Michael. Anya’s at the edge of the landmass, staring into the water like she wants to dive in, stroking an idle finger through it. I turn back to Lillian, my arms loose around my knees and suddenly I want to know her. I want to lean against her shoulder and tell her things. Real things. Ordinary and deeply embarrassing, torn straight from my core.

Instead, I say, “They probably don’t have anything to say. Nothing much happens down here.”

Lillian sighs through her nose again. I stare at the jeweled ring there, hanging in a point toward her upper lip. The air smells damp and sweet, heavy with moisture that sticks to my skin. No sound, but Michael’s tired voice explaining to Eren, and the rush of water.

There’s a splash. I look around, but I don’t see anything.

“I knew she’d be first,” Lillian says. She grimaces.

“Anya?” I whisper. She’s not at the water’s edge anymore. She’s not anywhere.

Michael and Eren have stopped talking. Their eyes are wide, looking at me, at each other.

Movement at the other end of the island. The black-eyed humans slink into the water. When they come back, they drag Anya between them. I catch flashes of her dark skin between their naked bodies, then she appears fully. They peer into her face, and I don’t know what it means, but she shakes her head at them and they throw her back with a splash. The humans swarm over each other and, eventually, they still.

Later that night, we hear Anya sobbing, like an echo binding itself to the walls. We’re all awake, unseen, but there’s the sound of four people breathing sharply. Her voice rises to a scream, and then I’m crying too.

I reach out in the dark, hoping for a person nearby, but all my fingers find is empty air.

• • •

Days go by. We have water, but our stomachs growl to each other from across the island. We all have places now. Alone. After Anya, I thought we’d want to be close.

The black-eyed humans stare at us. Blinking occasionally, so they make a chorus of flashing black dots. We talk as little as they do now.

Eren studies the grass, hardly looking up and only then to stare off in thought. She seems to have forgotten we exist. Retreating into herself. She strokes the stalks, moving her mouth like she’s muttering to herself, but if she’s actually making any sound, I don’t hear it.

Michael lies on his back with his hand on his stomach. He was thin at the very beginning. Hunger has made him gaunt. With each of them, I try one more time to strike up a conversation. Michael doesn’t even look at me. Eren at least shoos me away. Lillian only smiles to herself, always looking up like she can see the world we fell from.

“Come on,” I say to her. Different sort of hunger in me. I want to know who these people are. We’re stuck together on this floating mass of earth and we have no idea who we are. “Look at me,” I say. “Lillian, please look at me.”

“I’m sorry.” Lillian’s face, sharp and cold and covered in a foggy expression. The blackness around us is like being stranded on a planet in the middle of space, only without stars. The gleam of teeth in a faint smile. “I don’t know how.”

• • •

I make up stories about the others. They change by the hour, but in every version they are successful and normal. They seem happy, but they are as alone up there as they are down here. In every version, they fall.

I dream about falling. Falling again into something further below than this. The island cracks open and when I sink through it the water comes shooting after and there are more people sliding in on the waves.

These people touch my skin. These people say my name.

• • •

I sleep so I don’t have to think about how hungry I am. Sometimes I wake up in darkness. Sometimes in soft blue light. Once I woke to the sound of snuffling and frantic chewing. In the dim light, I see Michael gorging himself on grass bulbs.

I choke and look at the others to see if they notice. Lillian sits with one leg stretched and the other bent, resting her arm on her knee, watching with eerie calm. Eren crouches near Michael, but she only moves her mouth some more, like she’s talking to the grass.

I fumble with my voice until I finally manage to scream out at him to stop.

He looks up, panting like an animal with grass hanging out of his mouth. My chest heaves. “Michael, what are you doing? That could be toxic.”

His wide-eyed stare flattens. “You don’t have to care.” He ducks his head and eats, plowing on until Eren acknowledges his existence and starts howling at him to leave her subject alone.

Michael keeps eating, when I glance at the black-eyed humans, they’re frowning. I stand, hands shaking. “Stop that.” I start to cross over to him when a glossy black claw shoots from the water and grips Michael between sharp pincers. It pulls him underwater and the cavern lapses into silence. The grass moves slowly back and forth, a visual lullaby, a rocking chair, a swaying serpent that wants to lull us back to calm.

In a daze, I walk to the patch of ground he exposed. It’s hard like a carapace when I brush away the dirt. It moves beneath us, convulsing, and I hear something crunching within it.

The shaking moves from my hands to my whole body. I meet Eren’s eyes behind the glare of her glasses. “Don’t you care? Doesn’t it matter that he’s gone?”

I didn’t know him.”

“Neither did I.”

Eren turns around, fussing with the grass, mumbling about how this is hers. I feel something on my shoulder and flinch, but it’s only Lillian. Her hand is bony and pale. “They aren’t really themselves,” she says, pointing at the grass, at Eren. “They aren’t their own, and she’s given herself away.”

Something in her eyes asks me to understand.

• • •

We lay near each other, on our backs, staring up. I ask her why she does this. Is there something she’s looking at?

She won’t let me touch her. She doesn’t look at me, but she speaks. “If there were stars up there, I might be convinced that this is the night sky.” Her hand lies at her side. I see her fingers tapping. Close to mine. “I miss the stars,” she says. “There’s so much space between them. A collection of isolation.”

“Isn’t that sad?”

She whispers to me, “Well, if they were all too close together to see the space between, then there wouldn’t be any stars in the sky at all. It would be a blanket of light. Too bright to see. Are you saying you wouldn’t miss the stars?”

I have her attention now. There’s that hunger in me rising to the surface, pacing under my skin and bristling beneath my tongue. But I falter, and all the things I want to tell her about myself stay hidden. This is how it happens every time.

At some point, Eren goes still, and the black-eyed humans gather around her. I think they’re going to eat her, I don’t know how they could possibly live down here otherwise, but when they back away, the grass has covered her completely. She sinks into the island.

“It’s just us,” I tell Lillian. Her cheeks are deeply shadowed. “Tell me about yourself.”

She crosses her arms over her chest, like she’s keeping herself contained. I stare at the slope of her sharp, freckled nose and the hunger in me grows, creeping into my skin from the outside, a murmur filling my head. “There’s a choice coming up,” I say.

Her voice is hoarse. “Fine.”

I try to talk about myself again, but it’s hard to give away pieces of myself when I don’t have anything of hers.

• • •

At the end, when the black-eyed humans finally come to meet us, we’re too starved to move. They stand over us, every one of them the same height.

Bright spots in my vision, flares of light with streaking spokes. I turn my head to the side and it’s Lillian’s low-lidded eyes, burning like the sun. She ignores the humans.

Their faces, so round and milky and formless. They make no move to swarm us, but we are surrounded. Their voices. I can hear them as a hum inside me, running along every bone in my body. I let it in.

I am afraid and I want to take Lillian’s hand, but I am so weak and she’s so far away, lying right beside me. “Lillian,” I say, pain in my voice.

My vision darkens as the chittering hum grows inside me. I see her move so that both her eyes come into glaring view, facing me. “Go back up with me,” she says, “and we can tell each other everything.” The end of her sentence is met with total darkness.

In this instant of connection, she gives me something, white and bright like the core of a star it opens up in my palms, wraps me in a sky of deep blue. There’s soft grass beneath me, a cup of something warm in my hands.

To my right, a woman offers me a dried apple slice and I take it. It’s tart in my mouth, but sweet. She smiles at me, hair dark and long like Lillian’s. This is her mother. In this memory, she is also my mother.

I pick at the skin on my hands as we sit side by side, looking up at the stars. There’s something scraped about the memory, like the moment after a fight, something trying to piece itself back together.

The gift cools and shatters. She is waiting for something in return. I search through everything I’ve ever been, looking for what is perfect, but she fades before I find it. Without her in it, the darkness is heavy.

The grass hasn’t gone out. It’s not night. This is something different. Only the black-eyed humans remain, so white they nearly glow. “What are you?” I ask them.

“Human.” Humming inside me.

I cannot run. “Lillian,” I say. “Lillian, where are you?”

“She is apart.”

I don’t listen to them. I keep whispering her name. The only name I know. That’s all I know.

The hunger is still there, still growing. The brush of a hand on my cheek, one of their cold, clammy hands. Through it I feel presence, being, existence. My eyes widen. Dozens of beings, not all belonging to the one who touches me. The man and the women I fell with. They are echoes, not real people, not really here, not a part of this. They have stayed in place. Not moving to death, but not back up to life either.

They linger in the cavern’s stagnant air. They have not changed. They have not chosen, and they line the striated walls, hunch within the sticky bulbs, waiting for the day they are forced to follow me.

Others are full, the essence of an entire being coursing through me. Dozens of lives filling my hunger, seeping into the part of me that wanted, filling until I am full.

“Is she coming, too?” I ask before I am gone.

They do not answer. Distantly, I hear her voice calling my name, growing fainter as if she were rising. At the bottom of the huddle, the swarm, the single mass, I cannot see the dark ceiling through the net of bodies and arms and legs, but that’s fine.

Not a single one of us, of this mangle, had ever liked the stars that much. Too much space between the one bright spark and the others.