Summer of War

Every night, they fought in the skies. At first, the people below thought that the bursts of light were stars shooting closer than ever before, or planets spinning near enough to threaten them. The sparks would clash and fly above them without sound, fizzling out before reaching the ground, and the people eventually decided that whoever it was—stars, aliens, planets, gods—they were battling in the night skies above the land.

Thomas lived in a village where the plains met a river. On its banks, his parents ran an inn where boats could dock for the night and boatmen could come inside to eat a meal. That summer, every person who passed through seemed to have their own story about what they had seen.

“It’s aliens,” cried the young ones, “Tall and silver men in the skies, bloodless and soulless, fighting each other and someday coming to fight us.” The young people had so much time still to live, and they clenched their hands over their years, afraid of the stars above taking them away.

Old women declared it was a farce. “It will be over soon,” they said, as the old men nodded along. Yet life would be over soon for them, so how much could they believe in anything except that all things come to an end?

On most summer nights, Thomas sat on a window ledge above the water wheel on the river, listening to the water move in great gulps, breaking up the sound of clattering conversation from the tables inside the inn. Now, he began sitting on the inside of the window, where it jutted into the roof of the restaurant. From his perch, stories drifted up to him, and he learned everything that he and his sister weren’t supposed to know about the battle in the skies.

Pieces sometimes fell—small rocks from the sky, chunks of metal and ore. People swore that they were being watched and that the battles were ploys to take over the land. Others said it was a cyclical shower of stars that only came every so often, and that it would pass in time, like the thirteen-year cycle of cicadas had the summer before.

Thomas remembered the cicadas. It was the only summer that the water wheel was unable to drown out every sound around it. The shrill hum of the bugs followed him from street to street in their town, mocking him from the trees. He had never seen a cicada until his friend found one legs up on the ground, pawing at the air, unable to flip over.

His friend had kicked it, and it landed on its back again. He poked it with a leaf, and it moved its legs faster. His friend grabbed a smoldering stick from a fire nearby and stabbed the cicada’s shell at the center of its squirming legs. The legs shivered with kicks, and it shrieked a hundred times louder than before, piercing through their ears. Thomas and his friend laughed, horrified at the noise of death. But there was no way to stop it now. It screamed like a balloon of infinite air slowly being released.

In the battle between the boys’ amusement and the insistence of the cicada’s scream, the insect won. Thomas finally kicked it off the stick and stomped it in the grass until the squeal wore away to nothing.

After that, the sound of the cicadas was vile to Thomas, and he begged the noisy water wheel to keep it away. The buzz from the trees now sounded like a small shrill of a coming death, and Thomas was responsible. Thomas did not believe that the battles above were like cicadas, coming and going every thirteen years. Surely the flickering stars would either leave and never return or kill them all tomorrow.

At the end of the summer, Thomas’ family left the village for a week away. They left early one morning by boat, following the river to the lake it spilled into below. They stayed in a small cabin on the lake, fastened to its edge by wide fields that sat around it on every side.

On the second night, his sister came into his room. “Thomas, come see,” she whispered. They snuck out to the nearby field and sat on the remains of a tree trunk that lay dead in the grass. She pointed up.

“The wars.”

Thomas looked. It was not what he imagined or what he had seen from the town, where the wars were vague stars, shooting longer than normal. Here they were spinning silver specks, closer than they ought to be. They shot but did not fall or fade. They raced toward each other and clashed with a noiseless light. Then they raced apart to return together again.

As they watched, Thomas saw what the boatmen described: the stars at war. Specks of light that could only be stars attacking each other with no true winner, just blinks of greater light.

His sister breathed deeply. “I think it’s pretty,” she said.

Thomas looked again. “It is,” he said. But in the silent streaks of light, he heard the noise of cicadas, squealing out the last of their life. There was something unsettling about the way the lights never went out or seemed to merge and disappear. “Do they ever leave?” he asked.

“I heard one teacher say he thinks that they don’t—that even in the day they flash like this, but we can’t see it because of the sun.”

Thomas and his sister watched the discs above them. In the clear night, they looked almost like fireflies attacking each other for their light. Behind them, the still sheet of stars looked on without comment.

The children snuck out the next night and the next to watch the skies. Their parents did not know or did not care—the lake was a place for adventures, and the silent stars were far away.

After the third night, Thomas’ sister stopped coming. The lights were beautiful, but less interesting than days by the lake, picking out minnows in the shallows and looking for the shadows and splashes of fish.

The night before they left, Thomas slipped out of bed by himself, determined to see the lights above one last time, in case they never came back. He slipped out of the cabin and crossed the field to the tree trunk.

Above him, the skies were calm in every direction except for the usual patch of stars racing and clashing. As he watched, he saw that the lights were not independent sparks—they were attached to shadowy flecks, a bit darker than the sky itself.

He glanced away to see if anyone had followed him out of the house. The cabin was in darkness with only the pale fringe of the shutters glowing under the moonlight. Below him, the tree trunk was rough on his legs, and he flicked a finger along one crevice of the bark.

Suddenly, he heard a cicada screaming for its life, piercing the silent night. He looked up and saw one fleck sailing toward him, growing larger, coming closer, bringing the shriek to his field.

In a streak that filled his view with only smoke and metal, the fleck soared down, landing on the other side of the field, shaking the ground so hard that the immovable trunk lost its grip on the ground and rolled backward, throwing Thomas off onto his back.

Thomas peeked over the trunk at the fleck—now a round pod of metal, dented so deep into the field that only to top third was visible. He ran toward it without a thought, drawn to it like one light to another in the skies above.

Reaching it, he put his hand to the metal; it was smooth and hot, scorching his palm before he could pull his hand back. He looked around the pod, making out what he could in the moonlight. There was only the round slick surface, like the stones in the lake that had been beaten smooth by time.

But as he circled, he saw a spot that was different, where a handle poked out among the long blades of grass. He tore off his shirt and wrapped it around his hand, using the fabric to protect himself just as his mother did with dish towels when she took food out of the oven. He tugged at the handle and a hatch opened.

From the dark interior, a hand reached out and, in one pull, a head and shoulders emerged out of the pod and into the grass. A woman looked up at him, not registering anything but his shirtless torso shining in the moonlight. She looked around without moving her lower half and coughed for a long time, finally coughing up blood. She twisted for one last look at the grass around her and the trees on the lake in the distance.

Thomas tried to speak, but couldn’t. He bent down to look at her face. Her eyes roved over the field, looking past him for someone else. He reached out his hand, and she grabbed it, finally meeting his eyes. Her face widened in surprise, registering that Thomas was here in the field with her, crouching in the long grass.

Thomas’ sister had run out to the field as soon as the scream of metal had reached her ears. She saw the trunk of the tree rolled out of place and looked across to see a gleam of white in the field. Thomas stood shirtless in the moonlight, his pale body looking otherworldly as he stood over a large black stone, holding the hand of an unknown woman who had crawled out from inside.

The next day, Thomas and his family buried the woman. The pod remained in the field, a stone too large for anyone to move. Years later, scientists would discover it and decide that it was a farmer’s failed invention. At first, Thomas tried to tell people about the woman in the field who they had buried. But they were ungrateful for the dead, who held no answers, and for Thomas, who was too young to be believed. A woman had gone missing from a town upriver, they said, and she was the body they had found.

For three weeks after they left the lake, the lights above continued in their mercenary games. At the end of summer, the flashes stopped, and they did not restart again, not even after the cicadas returned thirteen years later.

From A History of the Great Wars

It is well-documented that at the end of the Fifth Great War, the fighting was taken to a new, controversial battlefield: the backlogs of the past. The Charlestown Convention declared that while the historic people may see the wars, no interaction would be allowed between the present war and past civilizations. To this day, there are no known cases of soldiers or debris reaching the surface of Earth past. The fighting in the skies became known to the common people as the Summer of War, though scientists of the time believed what they saw to be a seasonal meteor shower.

Story by Natalie Mills

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Vol. 2, Story 2: We Keep the Lamps Lit