By R. E. Rule
The laws of the universe state that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It exists and is consumed and is expelled, changing shape and form, but never more and never less. All that will ever be, is. And all that is, is all that will ever be. And all that is, is enough.
The red sun of Thyrn was at its zenith, and we lay below it like a strange, amorphous flora. A hundred figures spread over the gray sands, waxy skin stained rosy.
I stretched out on the warm earth, feeling no boundary between it and me, one with existence. My body pulsed with warmth, thick and slow with energy. I turned my face to the sky, the sun a red glare through my closed eyelids. Harvest always made me drowsy.
A nudge on my arm and I turned to catch the glimmer of Kryk’s voice out of the corner of my eye. “Can’t you keep your eyes open when I’m speaking to you?”
The shimmer of the crystalline protrusion in Kryk’s chest was all but lost in the red glare, and I felt only the throb of the sun against my skin.
“I can’t hear you over the sun,” I said, rolling onto my side and blinking tiredly.
“They are late,” Kryk repeated and held out an arm to measure the sun’s position in the sky. A dark shadow stretched out below it. “We are wasting our time out here.”
Across the sands, crystals glowed brightly, winking under the brilliant sun as figures moved and shifted. The veins under our thick skin were alive with energy. We could carry no more, and the sun was soaking through us now or reflecting into the sky.
“If they come, we’ll have to get up,” I said, letting my eyes close again, but it was only a moment before Kryk nudged me.
A row of figures was pacing toward us, slow and weightless, wavering in the heat rising from the sands. Vsh was among them, searching for me, the familiar flicker of my name on their voice. “Mryn.” Vsh pressed three fingertips to my crystal, laying their forehead a moment against mine. “You are needed in the birthing house.”
The flora stirred and rose, returning with their light, and the others stretched out in the sun’s warmth, turning their crystals up to its rays.
The city of Xth was formed out of the gray sands, a clump of stacked and bulbous buildings. They were our shelter against the blinding, blowing sands and the bitter chill that followed when the sun set. Near the center stood a low dome: the birthing house.
It was dark within. Blinded by bright sunlight, I saw only the dance of breath and life, the flicker of crystals, until forms emerged, gray against the darkness. The bearer lay in the middle of the room, the sinewy muscles in their sides already beginning to flex and tremble. The other mate, also swollen with new life, sat close, their fingers intertwined. Their children would be as Kryk and I, born of the same bodies but not the same womb.
We drew closer as the struggle of new life began.
No life is created alone. Two Thryn may, by drawing close, give light to each other with every breath and every word, and in this way, can survive even several days of darkness. Many Thryn, together, can share in the same way, living from the light that hovers around us until it is lost to the sky. It is how we protect the young and very old, whose eyes are weak and skins too thin to bear the glaring sun. In the labor of birth, the bearer’s light dims, expelled in pain and effort. Even in the brilliance of sunlight, they are left weakened. So we gather. They draw from us and us from them, and the respiration of life continues.
It was a small thing that came into this world, wet and naked and grasping. A small face set only with large eyes, still closed, and a translucent, delicate patch on their chest. The crystal was so thin, not yet hardened, looking as if it might tear at any moment. We watched for the first shimmer, the wordless cry, a first spark, and the child would have a name.
Arms trembling with exhaustion, the bearer drew their child against their chest so the little one might see and feel the first flickers of their voice.
It was an arrival to be celebrated, but Kryk’s mood was dark as we passed back through the city, a red pulse impossible to ignore in the growing darkness of the setting sun. I joined our hands, a wordless invitation to speak.
“Every day more is lost,” Kryk said. “To the earth, to the air, to each other. More than the sun can give back. Now there will be another.”
“And more to harvest,” I argued.
“And more to consume. The young cannot harvest. The old cannot harvest. Do you not notice we are weakened with every birth?” We had reached the edge of the city, and Kryk gazed toward the red flame on the horizon.
“What would you have us do?” I asked.
Kryk turned. A shadow stretched behind them, blanketing the quiet city in darkness. “I do not know, but soon, we may not have a choice.” Their hand slid from mine. “I will sleep with the others tonight.”
Kryk’s lean form vanished into the darkening streets as the harvesters came back across the sands. Vsh touched my face, a familiar pulse of energy against my skin. “You are troubled.”
“It was a long birth.” And the conversation with Kryk weighed on me, but I would not waste my light on empty words.
Vsh drew me closer, pressing our crystals together. I could taste the lingering rays of the sun on their breath. We slept chest to chest that night, keeping our light close in the darkness, but I thought of Kryk somewhere in the silent city and hoped they had found a light to share through the night.
Dawn came, but with it came heavy clouds that kept the sun from the earth. Harvesters went out but found nothing more than a few beams and lost more than they brought back in the search. With no way to refuel what we lost, work for the day was abandoned. The city gathered closer, preserving what we had between us.
For three days, the darkness persisted until we stopped wasting our light looking for the sun. The buildings on the outskirts of Xth emptied as the city gradually pulled in on itself, and we came closer together. On the fourth day, we discovered Kryk was missing.
A group went out to search, Vsh among them, huddled together against the cold. I watched the flicker of their light disappear into the blackness. Vsh had begged me to stay behind. I had not been among those last to harvest.
They came back with Kryk’s still form held between them. The crystal in Kryk’s chest was dimmed, almost void of light, their skin drying and cold. I held my womb-mate close as if we were children again, whispering their name and hoping that my voice might reach through the darkness. At last, Kryk’s eyes opened.
“Where did you go?” I asked.
Kryk sat up and looked at the others gathered around us. “To see.”
“Moon breather!” Vsh’s voice flared against the walls. “Foolish! You cost us all!”
“And you cost more in anger,” I said, laying a hand on Vsh’s arm.
Vsh was silent after that, though I thought more from necessity than desire, and a red pulse of anger lingered.
“To see what?” I asked quietly, sitting beside Kryk and joining our hands. The familiar energy against my skin was a relief though I could not understand the grief and fear I felt there.
“This is a prison,” Kryk said at last.
I tightened my grip, reassuring. “As long as the sun rises, we endure. And it will rise. Until then, we are together.”
But Kryk yanked away, turning to me with fierce eyes. “Why can you not see? My life is bound to yours, to theirs. And if you cannot breathe then I must suffocate.”
I didn’t understand, but Kryk would say nothing else and only sat, sullen.
Despite my words, the sun did not rise. During the search for Kryk, Vsh had noticed that the air was changed. It was thick and swirling like the storms of sand that battered against Xth, but it was ceaseless and impenetrable and if the sun rose and fell, we could not see it.
By the sixth day, we were all hungry. Eventually, the city came into the birth house, the largest of the domed buildings. And we sat, a silent group, softly glowing but ever dimmer. Bearers held their children close.
“We must try again,” Vsh murmured faintly, and I squeezed their hand in silent agreement.
Five of us gathered at the door into blackness. I had not yet gone out into the sands, and my chances would be better. At the last, Kryk joined us. We could not waste our light on farewells, but Vsh pressed their forehead against mine, an ache of sorrow against my skin.
The land was darker than night. No moon or stars, no glow of the cosmos, lit our path. We passed through the deserted city and into the open gray stretches. The air was thick, stinging and drying our skin, and the sand shifted uneasily beneath our feet. There was no sense of motion, of progress, only floating through unending blackness, and only when rocks rose jagged and black against the sky did we see that we had reached the edge of the harvesting plains. The ground turned from sand to rough, sharp rock.
A hand on my arm and I looked into exhausted eyes, the flicker of voice barely visible through the thick air. “If we go further, we will not have the light to return.”
In every direction, night stretched to the horizon where outlines of mountains surged up black against the darkness. I lay my fingertips against their chest, a moment of wordless assent, and we continued forward in understanding. Hope lay before us, not behind.
Kryk was walking a little apart from the others, and I fought my way to them, joining our hands as I had in the nights we huddled together, afraid of the dark, and on the days we first went to harvest, wide-eyed in the light.
“This is useless,” Kryk said, a faint glimmer in the blackness. “We are wasting our light.”
“We have no other choice.”
“There is one solution,” Kryk said quietly. “Solitude.”
When we grow too old and weak to carry light, like at birth, the Thryn gather, and where light was given, light is returned in the final breath. Our final journey is made in solitude, the only journey we can take without another at our side to be our light, but I refused to accept that yet. “We will keep looking.”
Kryk turned to face me, but where I expected to see fear, the same fear I felt in their touch, I saw anger. “Should we continue to wander, blind and choking, until we have nothing left to breathe?” Kryk asked. “The others, they take life from our destruction, our weakness. There is no escape from it, and when we take our final breath, they will be strengthened.” Kryk’s hand tightened painfully on mine. “We must consume or be consumed.”
Kryk’s gaze snapped up, eyes wide and dilated, as the others emerged, gray, through the darkness. When the nearest reached us, Kryk lunged, digging with long fingers at their chest, and together they tumbled into the sands.
“No!” I shrieked, a blinding strobe in the blackness.
I fell to my knees, gasping at nothingness. My voice had taken all my strength, but I forced myself forward on hands and knees, dragging Kryk away. We were scattered in the blackness, our lights dimmed and hidden, and shadow swirled around us. Kryk’s light pulsed erratically, gasping and finding nothing. I tried to share what little I had left, but Kryk shoved me away and stumbled into the blackness.
I barely had the strength to stand, but I followed, faltering, falling onto the cold sands and struggling to rise.
“Kryk…” It was little more than a whisper.
The darkness took shape around me, swirling, pulsing, shoving at me and taunting me with familiar shapes that dissolved to nothing. Ahead of me, lights flickered dimly, gold and blue. I struggled toward them, trying to call for Kryk, but I could only breathe and even that was growing harder. I stumbled then crawled until I fell to the sands and lay still, alone, a hand outstretched and full of only cold sand.
The blackness suffocated. It would take the last of my light and leave nothing but an empty shell. The last of me would be lost, and not even Vsh or Kryk would carry me on, drawing me in and finding their voice in my light. The darkness whispered to me, pushing my eyes closed, and there was only coldness.
A touch on my arm. Faint lights hovered over me in the blackness, dim and hazy through my hazy vision. I could breathe weakly again. Four faces looked down at me, but when I examined them through burning eyes, Kryk was not among them.
I let out a wordless cry, a flicker of plea, but there was no strength, no light left. We sat in a huddled circle, moving closer as breathing grew harder. I could not stop the shudder and ache of grief in my chest for Kryk. Hands took mine. I found grief there for what we’d lost in the darkness, a loneliness and yearning for those we had left behind, those we would never see again. And I found comfort there.
“As long as the sun rises, we endure,” a voice whispered, barely a glimmer next to me.
“As long as there is light to speak, we endure,” I murmured.
In blackness, in silence, together we awaited our inevitable solitude. Foreheads leaned together, every breath exhaled was drawn in by another. My eyes were growing heavy, my sight dim, my body weak and numb from starvation. The darkness crackled, light like voices glinting around us. I couldn’t tell whether my eyes were open or closed.
When I looked up with the last of my strength, the sky cracked open, and the first shafts of dawn came golden against the earth.