The ground inside the Lume Tree was soft and springy. If Mica had reached down and touched the earth, he would have described it as “like a sponge”, however, he did not. He didn’t reach down to touch the earth below his feet because there was barely room to do so. Mica and The Scientist shuffled sideways, down and around the natural corridors of the colossal tree trunk, until they could see a glowing light ahead of them.
‘That’s what we’re here for.’ The Scientist said, with some relief. ‘I was starting to worry that this tree had not sprouted a fresh crop.’
‘I’m glad this long, tiring walk through a space jungle wasn’t for nothing.’ Mica responded, as he shimmied his way closer to the soft white glow.
‘There he goes, mister drama king, just relax, you’ll be home in no time.’
Suddenly, The Scientist disappeared from in front of Mica’s face, she had dropped down from a ledge, and Mica had heard the sound of shoes landing on the ground from a great height, followed by a grunt. He made his way to the edge of the thin corridor they had been winding around, and looked down below. Sure enough, there was the Scientist, who had made a jump that she perhaps should not have made unassisted.
‘I’m going to need some help.’ Mica called out to the Scientist, who had already started to walk away.
She turned around upon hearing his request, ‘Oh, sorry Mica! Sometimes, when you talk, I forget you have the body of a child.’ She held her arms open at the base of the drop. ‘Jump. I’ll catch you.’
‘Erm- are you sure?’ The fear washed over Mica’s question.
‘Absolutely. One-hundred-percent, never been more certain of anything in my life.’ She extended her arms out even wider and stood in an almost power-stance.
Mica simultaneously did and did not trust her. He trusted in the idea that she intended to catch him, whether she actually was capable or not was a different matter. Given the seven foot drop and lack of ladder or rope, it appeared that Mica had no other choice.
He couldn’t get a run-up due to the narrow corridor he had emerged from, instead he leaned backwards a little before throwing himself off the edge, in the general direction of the Scientist. She didn’t exactly catch him, but she did manage to break his fall. As they both returned to their feet, she dusted down her lab coat and said ‘See, told you I would catch you,’ as though the last thirty seconds had been a complete success.
Mica had been so focused on the jump that he had failed to take in his surroundings. They were now inside a chamber that resembled a small cave, except the walls were made of a soft, damp bark, instead of rock and stone. At the centre of the chamber was a tangle of branches that contained a bright, white light within.
‘There it is,’ the Scientist said with wonder, ‘Pure starlight.’
Mica looked into the tangle of branches, and what he experienced was beautiful. He remained entirely still, as he stood looking into the starlight, yet he felt as though he was floating in space. He felt as though his body had shifted from a physical form, into a sort-of gas, as though someone could start up the air conditioning and he would blow right out of the tree. Fortunately for Mica, Lume Trees weren’t fitted with the latest modern amenities. So, instead, he just floated in his own tiny pocket of space, where he felt warm, safe and relaxed. It was The Scientist who snapped him out of this trance.
‘Hey!’ She cried out. ‘Don’t stare into it like that, starlight is extremely powerful stuff. Too much of it can send you the wrong way.’
‘I was only looking.’ Mica sounded defensive, now that he was lucid again.
‘Exactly, you can go mad looking up at the stars all the time, imagine what would happen if you stare at one face-to-face.’
‘Stars have faces?’ Mica seemed baffled.
‘No- That was just a figure of speech, but I understand your confusion, given all the revelations you’ve had today.’ As she spoke, she reached inside the tangle of branches and slowly harvested long, thin strips of light.
The Scientist pulled out a piece of plastic from one of her deep lab pockets, she then proceeded to wrap the thin strips of light around it, as someone would if they were winding a ball of wool. Up close, Mica found that the filaments were thinner than any others he had seen in the forest, yet they shone brighter than those on the other pieces of plant life on this planet. He wanted to gaze at them again, or to even touch the wiry-thin filament, but he rattled the Scientist’s warning around in his head, and thought better of it.
‘There.’ The Scientist declared in triumph. ‘That should do it. Are you ready to go fix a star Mica?’ She asked in a way that a teacher would ask a student.
‘Do we have to walk back through the jungle?’ Mica groaned.
‘What if I told you we did?’
Mica groaned again and slowly collapsed his body, as though his bones were suddenly made of jelly.
‘Pathetic.’ The Scientist pulled out her handheld device and began to work away, altering some of the more sensitive controls. ‘Fortunately for you, if I tap this a few times, the balloon will come to us.’
Mica leapt up, ‘Brilliant!’
‘Oh it is, it really is.’ A soft, snaking voice echoed through the central chamber. It came through as a shouted whisper, and it echoed chills through Mica that sent him running to hold the Scientist tightly. In this moment, he wasn’t the kid in the advanced class who knew all the answers, he was a terrified nine-year-old boy, clutching a mother figure. He looked up to his guide, for any kind of reassurance, but he found none. In truth, she appeared as frightened as he felt.
Four clear and visible shadows emerged from the gap in the wall they had leapt down from. They appeared to have the outlines of men, yet they seemed gaseous and floated easily from the place that Mica had dropped from. The largest of the four shades spoke, without moving his sinister smile. ‘How brilliant it is that you’ve lead us to this place.’
‘Look! Starlight!’ The smallest shade yipped out in ecstasy.
‘Hold your appetite!’ The largest shade commanded, the other three recoiled behind his floating form. ‘First, we must deal with the Starlighter.’
‘Who are you?’ The Scientist asked, bravely and with some authority. It was as though the shade had reminded her of her profession and sworn duty, which rumbled up some curriage from within.
‘Who are we?’ The largest shade laughed a whispered chuckle, the way a heavy smoker would sound were they amused, ‘We’re the things that have come to snuff out your light.’
‘But why?’ Mica asked, releasing his fearful hold on the Scientist.
‘Mica don’t. Stay close.’ She tried to not let the panic hit her voice, but it could not be helped.
‘The Earthchild speaks!’ All four of the shades pointed their smiles towards Mica. ‘We want the Starlight because it feels so good.’ The shade’s voice almost burst into a sickening tune as he spoke.
‘We got tired of snuffing out the lights in the sky, we wanted to come straight to the source,’ said another shade.
‘That’s right,’ hissed the leader, ‘And you lead us here boy, you lead us here- Mica.’
‘How do you know my name?’ Mica’s voice trembled.
‘Oh we know all about you. Your thoughts lead us right to this place. And for that, we thank you. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to snuff out your light as well.’ The large shade extended his ghostly arms, until they were outstretched at either side of his wisping frame. ‘Hold the Starlighter, she can take us to more Lume Trees. Kill the boy!’
The three other shades began to swoop ominously down, towards Mica and the Scientist. As they drew closer, their smiles appeared to grow bigger and bigger, and they started to salivate.
Mica looked to the Scientist, who promptly responded, ‘Why’re you looking at me?’
‘Because you brought me here, got me into this mess and thanks to you, I’m about to be eaten by space monsters.’
‘Oh. You think I don’t have a plan. That’s cute.’ She turned away from Mica and addressed the encroaching shades. ‘Hey! You three!’ The shades froze. ‘Do you know what’s in that nest over there? Pure, delicate, delicious starlight. Ooo, it’s like angel hair pasta. Nom-nom.’
The three near-mindless shades shifted their appetite from Earthchild to Starlight, and floated towards the tangle of branches in the centre of the tree. The Scientist took Mica by the arm and ran towards the narrow exit.
‘No! You idiots!’ Hissed the large shade, who was still blocking their path. ‘Fine. If I have to do this mys-’ He was cut off by a pulse of light that came from the Scientist’s handheld device.
‘Is it-?’ Mica half asked the question.
‘Just stunned. Now let’s run.’
The Scientist lifted Mica onto her shoulders, from there he climbed onto the high ledge. He shuffled through the narrow pathways, as the Scientist pulled herself up behind him.
‘Just go!’ She cried, ‘The balloon will be outside the tree, hop in the basket and lay low.’
Mica started to panic, he felt as though he was being chased, he started to lose track of which directions they had taken through the inner-corridors of the Lume Tree. He was so wrapped up in following the right path, that he didn’t check to see if the Scientist was still behind him.
He burst out into the sunlight, in a complete state of panic. ‘Balloon. Balloon.’ He frantically muttered to himself. ‘It’s not here!’ He climbed a mound of blue vines and surveyed his surroundings, all he could see were thousands of Glowdents, each one staring at him. ‘Have any of you seen a balloon?’ Mica asked, only half expecting a response. In unison, each and every one of the Glowdents turned ninety-degrees and pointed west of Mica’s position. He followed their instruction, and sure enough, he found the balloon, only it was a broken shell of what it once was.
He ran towards the flying machine, as he did so, the giant bulb let out jolts of energy and sparks of pain. As he approached, Mica could see just how much of the glass bulb was cracked, chipped or missing entirely. ‘No, please no!’ Mica turned to the Scientist for help, only, she wasn’t there. Panic washed across Mica’s face and he became a ghostly white, he realised he hadn’t seen her since the central chamber of the Lume Tree. He was a boy, a nine-year-old boy alone on a strange planet far from his own. The only person he knew was dead, and the machine he rode here on was broken. He thought about the fact that his Dad would be home from work soon, and that perhaps he would never see him again. A nine-year-old should never contemplate his or her own mortality, yet, here Mica was; alone and afraid.
He sat down on the ground, his back resting on the basket of the broken balloon. He rested his head in his hands and began to sob. He didn’t weep or cry, he sobbed, like a puppy who’d been left on their own for the first time. Then, as he raised his head back upwards, he saw the Scientist sprinting towards him.
‘Mica! Start the balloon!’ She shouted as she ran.
He leapt to his feet, in happiness, briefly forgetting that their only method of transportation was currently even more broken than it had been the moment he first met his Scientist.
‘Mica! If there was ever a time to rush things, it’s now!’ She continued to run towards him, across the grove. As she ran, all of the Glowdents followed her footsteps. She looked like some alien equivalent of the Pied Piper. ‘Mica!’
‘I can’t- it’s- it’s broken!’ He was still yelling, even though she had come to a stop beside the balloon.
‘This is not good.’
‘Are those- things chasing you?’
‘They should stay distracted for another few minutes, but we don’t have long.’ The Scientist hopped into the basket and began surveying the wreckage.
‘Have you ever seen anything like those things?’
‘No. Never.’ She looked away as she answered his question.
Mica looked over at the Glowdents, who were now surrounding the broken balloon. ‘We could just run, right? Run into the jungle and hide.’
‘We can’t, they’re faster than us and it sounds like they’ve formed some kind of psychic link with you. The only way to break that would be if one of you dies, otherwise they’ll chase you to the edge of the universe.’
‘Great.’ Mica slumped and looked over at the frantic and panicked Scientist, the piece of plastic that had starlight wrapped around it was sticking out of her left pocket. ‘What about that?’ He asked.
‘What about what?’ The Scientist responded as she attempted to pull on the broken chords of the bulb.
‘The starlight filament, can we use it to power the bulb?’ As Mica asked this, the bulb itself started to flash and glow, as though it approved of the idea.
The Scientist ceased her frantic motions and entered into deep-thought. ‘Even if we had the time to fix all the filament into position, there’s no guarantee that the bulb will hold when we pass through the atmosphere. The pressure would be too much.’
‘Yeah, but we have to try, right?’ Mica looked up at her, with bigger eyes than usual.
She smiled and said, ‘Yes, we have to try.’ She mussed his hair with one hand and placed her thumb and forefinger into her own mouth with the other, letting out an extraordinarily loud whistle.
Around one-hundred of the equally panicked Glowdents rushed to the Scientist’s feet. ‘Here,’ she spoke to them as she would a human, ‘Take one of these each, climb the cables and tie them together inside what’s left of the glass, we’re going to need all the power we need to try and break the atmosphere without a working bulb.’ One by one, the Glowdents took a thin piece of bright, white filament, as each of them began to scurry up the basket and into the bulb. The Scientist turned to Mica, ‘You know, I used to find those things annoying, but they do come in handy from time to time.’
There was a deep rumble, followed by a hum of energy, it was obvious that it had come from underground, from beneath the Lume Tree.
‘Come on,’ the Scientist said with urgency. ‘We’re going to have to take-off in two minutes if we’re ready or not.’
Mica clambered into the basket of the balloon and darted his head between the scurrying little animals who were performing repairs on the ship, and the opening to the Lume Tree. The Scientist tinkered with her device and attempted to fasten some of the detached pull chords to the base of the broken bulb. Mica felt a warmth coming from below the ground, as though he were in the upstairs of a building where the downstairs was violently on fire. ‘Can you feel that?’ He asked.
‘They’re consuming the Starlight- or destroying it, or both.’ responded the Scientist.
‘What’s going to happen?’ Mica looked terrified, like a lost child.
‘I don’t know.’ These obviously weren’t the words that Mica was looking for, so she cleared her throat and rallied herself for the little human. ‘But what I do know is that starlight is an incredibly powerful energy, whatever they’re doing down there, we’re going to power this balloon with the exact same energy. We’ll travel faster than we’ve ever travelled before.’
‘If we make it through the atmosphere.’ Mica highlighted.
‘Yes, well- there is that.’
There was a sudden thunder-crack of energy, at first Mica thought it had come from the Lume Tree, but the falling Glowdents from above his head told him otherwise. The bulb was glowing the brightest possible white, not that it was much of a bulb anymore. The entire top-half was almost completely destroyed, and where the simple filament should have been, was a nest of glowing tangled wires that emitted pure starlight. Mica could barely look above his own head without being blinded by the brightness.
‘Okay!’ The Scientist called out. ‘Clear the area, get into the jungle and burrow down.’ She was now addressing the crowd of Glowdents. ‘When they come out of the tree, they’ll come for us, we’ll lead them away.’
‘They’ll what?!?’ Mica interrupted as the Glowdents squeaked and scampered in all directions, out of the grove.
‘I told you Mica. They’ve formed a psychic link. They’ll chase you for as long as you live.’ She looked down at him, his eyes wide and near-tearful. ‘But I’m not leaving your side until you’re safe. I promise.’
She hadn’t expected him to lunge forward and wrap both of his arms around her in an embrace, but he did. Lights as bright as the half-bulb above them suddenly shone out from the entrance to the Lume Tree, they pulsed out into the air like a beam.
‘Time for takeoff.’ The Scientist declared, as Mica relaxed his hug. ‘Hold on Mica, this one’s going to be rough, and I’m sorry, but I haven’t had time to get more puke bags.’
Mica sat against the corner of the basket while the Scientist did all she could to control the ascending vehicle. Next to him, he spotted something he hadn’t seen before; a blanket. He decided that now was as good a time as any to make a fortress of knowledge, to hide away from the possibility that this once-great balloon could crumble under the atmospheric pressure. He reached out for the soft, checkered blanket and held it tight in his grasp. Before placing it over his head, he looked up at the Scientist, who was struggling to operate her damaged vehicle. This wasn’t a time to shy away from it all, he thought. He couldn’t hide away from this problem. Blanket fort or not, if this machine fails, they both come crashing back to the ground. He tossed the blanket to one side and rose to his feet, the Scientist noticed and became visibly warmed by his solidarity. This time, Mica spoke. ‘How can I help?’
‘Hold onto this cable and pull as hard as you can.’ She handed a large, dangling wire to Mica and he obeyed. They were now about level with the jungle canopy, and Mica could see the Lume Tree below. From the tree, four white figures emerged. They held the exact same form and shape as the black shades that had entered, only now all four of them shone a bright white. Mica pointed this out to the Scientist, who was busy working her device, she looked down for a brief moment to see the glowing ghosts were now ascending at a similar speed to their own. ‘Time to kick this thing into overdrive. Mica! Let go of that cable and pull on the one to the right of it.’
The energy above their heads turned a violent orange, and became brighter and brighter the higher they climbed into the sky. Mica pulled on his assigned cable and glanced over the edge, to keep an eye on their pursuers. ‘They’re gaining on us.’ Mica called out, ‘They’ve also- changed.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They’re glowing, shining.’
‘Yep. They’ve definitely consumed starlight. This- this is really not good.’
Maybe it was the intensity and haste of the situation, or maybe it was the fact that their method of transportation looked as though it had been thrown together in a scrapyard, either way, their break through the atmosphere was not as rough as either of them had expected. They both did what they needed to do, and carried out all the actions they possibly could on the lightbulb balloon, before they held each other by the hand for support and broke through into space. It was turbulent, but Mica didn’t feel like vomiting this time. The bulb held, and once they were into the vastness of space, they moved faster and shone brighter than they ever had. For approximately twenty-six seconds, they celebrated and danced around the basket. They did this until four white, ghostly figures emerged into space behind them.
The Scientist looked at the figures for a few moments before shifting the balloon onto a specific trajectory.
‘Where’re we going?’ Mica asked, seeing that the Scientist had at least some semblance of a plan.
‘I’m taking you home. Like I should’ve done before I got us into this mess.’ She didn’t make eye-contact with him.
‘But won’t they keep following me? You said they would.’
‘I’ll distract them, it’s me they really want.’ She still withheld her gaze from Mica, despite him shuffling around to her side and looking directly at her. The Scientist could feel his stare.
‘There’s something you’re not telling me.’ Mica said, with a slight accusatory tone.
The Scientist sighed and hid a slight smile. ‘Your Dad’s right, you are too smart for your own good.’
‘What is it? Is there something we can do? I’ll try anything.’
She turned to look at the now-enthusiastic boy that stood beside her, ‘I know that you would Mica, but there’s nothing we can do.’
‘What is it then?!’ He sounded angry, frustrated that he didn’t have a piece of information.
‘Those things back there, they’re like me. Or they once were anyway. They’re the four Starlighters that came before me, each and every one of them driven mad by the desire for starlight.’ She paused and Mica froze, he took a step back and looked over his shoulder at the encroaching, glowing shades. ‘It’s an occupational hazard, I fear them because they’re what I could become.’
‘You’ll never become like them! I know it.’
‘No Mica, this is something you can’t know. Starlight is incredibly powerful, I mean, look at how bright my bulb is, feel how fast we’re travelling. It’s a powerful energy that can drive anyone completely insane. Or worse.’
Mica thought for a moment, the light in his own mind was flickering and formulating some kind of plan. Eventually, after several minutes, he spoke, ‘Don’t take me home, take us to the broken star.’
‘What?! No. Absolutely not. I need to get you to safety.’
‘And what exactly is your plan?’ Mica shuffled over to one of the hanging cables that he had now become familiar with. ‘Sacrifice yourself so that I can be safe? I’m not letting that happen.’ He pulled on the cable and they shifted direction, the glowing shades followed suit.
‘-No buts. I’m speaking up now. We can take them to the broken star and trap them there. They can become the starlight, two birds-’
‘-one stone.’ She interrupted him politely, ‘It’s a sweet idea kid, but how’re you planning on confining four celestial entities into a glass bulb?’ The Scientist asked this perfectly reasonable question.
‘I’m going to talk to them, help them by reminding them who they are.’ There was something about the way he said these words that convinced the Scientist that this was the right thing to do. It was either what he had said, or a decision she had come to inside of herself.
After a lightning fast journey of very few words, Mica and The Scientist arrived at the broken star. The glowing shades were almost upon them, as they had managed to maintain a similar distance between them and the balloon.
‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ Asked the Scientist.
‘Maybe. You always seem to call it on the fly. I’m just following your lead.’ He smiled at her confidently, her reciprocated expression contained a touch more nervousness.
The four white shades stopped in front of the balloon. They appeared as they ever did, only now their smiles were neon-blue and their “bodies” made them look more like cartoonish ghosts than anything to be feared.
‘Oh we have snuffed and we have snuffed and we are brighter than we’ve ever been.’ The largest shade hissed. ‘Now it’s time to snuff out the Starlighter, oh yes it is.’
‘Wait.’ Mica said, as the shades encroached on their position. ‘I know who you are, who you were.’ His newfound confidence was based entirely around this fact, around the knowledge that they had once been like his Scientist. ‘You don’t have to be like this, you can be Starlighters again!’
The four shades hung in space, even though they had no eyes, it felt as though all of them were staring directly at Mica. Then, they began to laugh the most awful laugh, it sounded more like a whispered scream than a jovial chuckle.
‘The Earthchild thinks he knows things.’ One shade let out, as the supposed laughter ceased.
‘He thinks we would give up this electro-bliss, our toasty brightness! What a foolish boy.’ A second shade hissed to the smaller shade.
Finally, the large shade spoke, passing judgement, ‘Kill him, squeeze him until of the light leaves his body.’ The other three shades all moved on the balloon, Mica stood, frozen in shock.
The Scientist tapped on her device, faster than she ever had, before handing it over to Mica. ‘I don’t want to hear a word from you. Keep shining kid, and thank you.’ She looked up at the tangle of glowing wires that had once been her magnificent flying machine. ‘Get him home safe.’ The remainder of the bulb buzzed twice and turned a deep shade of blue. Then, before any protest could be made, she climbed onto the side of the basket and leapt into space, towards the broken star.
‘No!’ Mica called out, as the balloon sped away.
‘The Starlighter! Get the Starlighter!’ The large shade shrieked and the three other shades moved towards the floating Scientist.
The last thing that Mica saw was the Scientist pressing her body against the side of the glass star, she appeared to vanish through the surface, like a spectre, and appeared inside the bulb. Upon her entry, the star began to shine from within and the shades became ravenous.
‘Starlight!’ One of them called out. ‘Snuff the starlight!’ All four shades moved in on the bulb, just as the Scientist had, until they too were trapped inside.
Then, a flash of blinding light pulsed out from the star, across all of space, knocking Mica unconscious as the wave of energy hit the escaping lightbulb balloon.
Six Months Later
‘Mica! I’m not going to ask again!’ His Dad shouted from across the school yard.
‘I’ll be one minute!’ Mica looked back to his friends who were crouched down with him and gathered around a small ant hill. ‘So you see, they can carry over twenty times their own body weight.’
‘Look at that one! That’s a huge leaf.’ Said one kid, who seemed enthralled by this tiny universe.
‘Exactly. And that’ll be easy for him as well.’ Mica smiled.
‘Can we drop some food to see what they can’t pick up? I’ve got some candy corn!’ One girl said, with excitement.
Before he could respond, his father interrupted ‘Okay Mica! I’m getting in the car and driving away!’
Mica looked back to his school friends, ‘Sure. Knock yourselves out. Got to go.’
He ran across the school yard, following his Dad, leaving his classmates to ponder the micro civilisation.
Mica closed his book on cosmos that he had been reading to his father and jumped into bed.
‘So that’s what a black hole is.’ Mica’s Dad said, ‘I always thought they were- I don’t know what I thought. Actually I’m still not quite sure.’
Mica chuckled, ‘That’s okay, we can go over them again tomorrow night.’
‘Brilliant. More homework.’ His father stood up and walked towards the bedroom door. ‘Goodnight Mica, sweet dreams.’
‘I love you Dad.’
‘I love you too son.’ He flicked the lightswitch and left Mica’s bedroom.
Approximately seventeen seconds later, Mica got out of bed and made his way over to his large bedroom window. For a brief moment he looked directly out into the backyard, at the patch of grass where the Scientist had landed all those nights ago. As he looked up to the clear night sky, he couldn’t help but smile. You see, Mica is currently the only person on Earth who knows the exact reason why Star 227-B now shines brighter than any other star in the sky. Current Scientific theories include a freak, unexpected supernova, or an unprecedented astral event. The internet had obviously decided that it’s a sign of extraterrestrial life. Which, strangely enough, they’re probably the closest in their theory.
Mica knew the truth. He knew that Star 227-B shone brighter than any other because a Scientist from beyond the stars had sacrificed herself into an eternal coma of pure starlight, in order to trap four monstrous entities, and save a human child. Of course, he could never tell anyone this, but he could continue to carry her inner-light within himself. As he thought about his mentor, a woman he had known for less than twenty-four hours, he saw something floating towards him, coming from the sky.
It was hard to make out exactly what the object was, at first it looked like a small balloon that had drifted away from a birthday party, which would make logical sense. Illogically, Mica thought it looked like a tiny light bulb. By tiny, he meant normal size, it’s just that all regular-sized light bulbs now seemed extremely small to him, for obvious reasons. Mica opened his bedroom window, just in time for the little light bulb balloon to float inside. Attached to the bulb was a piece of string, and attached to the string was a letter, which was simply addressed to “Mica”.
It was a letter from the universal council, an invitation in fact.
You see, they were short a Starlighter.