J. Dianne Dotson
Mira Celestus grew perplexed. She tapped her left arm bracelet, and it glowed a soothing, ethereal purple. Her harvester bots had not reported back from the root gardens, and her dinner prep would be delayed.
“Mira!” called her mother, Tam, eyeing her daughter’s glazed eyes and half-raised hand, which held a vegetable peeler above the compost bot. The bot hooted expectantly for its quarry.
That startled Mira, and she continued peeling carrots.
“Sorry, Mom!” she called, grinning absently. She heard her mother sigh.
Mira was distracted by the previous evening’s events as well as by the harvester bots having gone missing. The final invitations for the Glowworm Ball had been delivered dutifully in the night by opossums wearing the radiant, fuchsia-tubed helmets of the Gallant Twilight Society. The opossums had passed her house by and ventured on to the next along the lambent, ghostly glow-roads of her neighborhood. There, she knew, Amber Glistenad must have received hers, and she would, of course, attend the city’s most illustrious event. But Mira could not because she was not yet fifteen.
The worst part of it was that Mira had, in her younger days, never paid much mind to the Glowworm Ball. That was where other people went when they reached fifteen, to promenade and preen and cavort, and who knows what all. That was not her business…or so she thought, but deep down, she viewed her coming of age with trepidation. She used to think such frippery meant nothing to her. But upon her fourteenth birthday, something changed. She found herself reading The Biolumen Pen, which was delivered to subscribers, including her mother, as a folded bud that bloomed after sunset into a newspaper. Upon completion, the Biolumen collapsed into itself and formed a seed, and these would be placed in baskets outside the door for collection by press workers, starting the whole process anew.
The Biolumen was all the rage, and whoever made it into its columns had, indeed, made it, so far as the town of Glimmerbight was concerned. Even across the bay, where the promontory with the lighthouse jutted above all else, the Biolumen’s news breached the more remote and placid village there. So Mira knew that her cousins must have word of it as well, though she suspected they collectively had far less interest in the Glowworm Ball than she.
Mira seethed with the unpleasant prickling of envy that traveled from the base of her neck down her spine, and she shivered. But it was not simply because she was left out, and her city friends were all attending the Ball. It was also because she and her family were moving in two months, well ahead of her fifteenth birthday, and she might never have the opportunity to attend the Glowworm Ball. She would be “out” in the far lands of the Northwest, in the bowl-like valley town of Umbradene. She knew that Umbradene offered deep canyons filled with lush, night-blooming flowers and that natural caves pocked the earth beneath it, and that appealed to her nature-loving side. But she knew she was changing.
She had grown interested more in the vibrant beat of a city, pulsing each night after the sun’s rays dipped, a celebration of people and animals under starlight and moonshine and radiant neon: a revelry of civilization at night, not of the wilder lands of the Northwest, where the population was sparse. The Ball was a culmination of harvest, resplendent with song and dance, of moon exaltations and flowing potables that glowed softly. She wanted to go to that Ball, and she wavered between feeling irritated and depressed that she could not.
She finished peeling the purple carrots, and the compost bot, Blep, clucked indignantly and said as it waddled off, “Well, that took long enough! The earthwork team won’t be pleased at my being late, no they won’t!” Blep trundled out into the dark yard and down its little trap door into the cave gardens below, where the home’s fungus farm grew.
Mira set her peeler down. “Mother, do you think I could work as an assistant at the Ball later?”
Her mother blinked in surprise and turned to look at Mira with her soft hazel eyes. “Sweetness,” she said warmly, “you know you’re not old enough. Anyway, I’ve got work starting in a bit, so I need your help.”
“Yes, I know,” Mira interrupted. “I know there’s such a lot to do, but I don’t…we won’t…it’s just that I won’t be here for the next one. And Umbradene is so…it’s so very dark. Wild-dark. I know you and Dad love that, but I just…I love being out in the city at night. It’s different from being in the country. And the Northwest gets so much colder at night since it’s not near the sea.”
Tam lowered her chin and looked into her daughter’s eyes, dark brown like her father’s.
“Glimmerbight has been a good home for us,” her mother said, “but you’ll have your own space to make night music and create the sculptures we don’t have room for here. It’ll be good for your art. Plus, the School of Astronomy offers so much more than the local schools here for deep-sky viewing. It’s so essential for your future science studies!”
Mira sighed. “What if I don’t want to study science?” Tam widened her eyes. “What if I want to be an artist, but not in sculpture? What if…what if I want to work at the sea? And anyway, Umbradene doesn’t have anything like the Glowworm Ball. There’s no real society out there. Even the Biolumen doesn’t reach out that far!”
Her mother smirked. “Well, of course, being a pioneer town at night has a very different flavor than a bay city. But you’ll make new friends, and you can have your cousins visit any time.”
Mira washed her hands and sighed again, and watched her father adjust the lights to pale purple inside the house. She knew that, outside, her home looked like a small dome with little circles for windows that glowed purple from dusk to dawn, when everything shuttered against the savage sun that they all found unsettling. Glimmerbight thrived at night. Would Umbradene have anything remotely sociable or fun at night? She doubted it.
Mira walked outside into the soft darkness, which was lit only by wavering cables of egg-sized cobalt blue lanterns strung over the front walk of the house. These lights emitted a special hum to biting insects that did not harm them but essentially told them through sound that this home had nothing good to offer; so those insects would move on. Her mother stepped outside to join her. She followed Mira’s upward gaze at the waxing gibbous moon above.
Her mother took three empty husks from her apron pocket. “I have an errand for you.”
Mira squinted at them. “What are those?”
“Old Biolumen seed husks. I saved them for Doc Bozzard on the quay. He needs them for a special gibbous moon incantation. I was going to deliver them myself, but I have a work deadline. Can you take them to him?”
“To his home or to his lab?” Mira asked, taking the small basket of husks in her hands.
“To his lab,” answered her mother, the corner of her mouth twitching. “Now, hurry on, he was expecting me, but I will send a phial of else-liqueur with these to make up for not being able to chat. He can be long-winded, so you might not want to stay too long.”
She winked at her daughter and tucked a dark amethyst-hued little bottle into the basket next to the pod husks. Mira noticed a little note was folded carefully and tied around the neck of the bottle, but she did not unravel it.
Mira sighed, nodded, and said, “Very well. I know I’ll feel a little miserable walking past the Glistenad house because Amber is getting ready for the ball…”
Her mother kissed Mira’s forehead and said, “Have a lovely walk, Mira.”
Mira hoisted the basket and walked along the path, which lit as she stepped, one foot in front of the other, in a soft, pale pink circle. From above, the circles looked like a string of glowing pink polka dots that would eventually fade, but for now, they set the trail alight, and little glow-drones bobbed about in the air above the trail past the Glistenad home. It indeed buzzed with activity, echoing with laughter and fussing and squeals, and out of the home burst Amber, dressed in all her finery for the Glowworm Ball.
“Mira!” she cried, breathless and fanning herself with her hand. “Oh, I wish you could go, Mira! We’re about to set off to the Ball.”
Mira smiled at her friend, wincing a bit inwardly, knowing Amber would never intentionally snub her. Amber looked completely transformed, from the conventionally pretty cheerleader type of teenager to a suddenly regal and sophisticated socialite, her hair magnificently coiffed in glowing orange bows, her gown sparkling with real amber gems radiating from lights embedded beneath them. Her skirt rotated and shimmered in shades of fire and gold. Her arms bore radiant bangles of copper and bright orange. Indeed, Amber lived up to her name and seemed remote from the girl Mira had known most of her life. Until her face creased in a smile, and she laughed.
“I look ridiculous, don’t I?” she snickered, and Mira would have said something, but a carriage hovered up, coated in dark violet lights and paler blue neon. “Ah, here I go! Bye, Mira!” and she was whisked away to the Ball.
Mira walked on, under wavering magenta lanterns along the trail to town, until she eventually made it to the quay, where the wind lifted its twinkling turquoise fairy lights and set them dancing. Along the quay, excitement bustled, with emerald-lit boats arriving every second, and bedazzled and bedecked Ball attendees stepped carefully onto stable ground to then walk toward something most extraordinary: the Glowworm Pavilion, the site of the Glowworm Ball. Mira tried not to get distracted, promising herself she would deliver Doc Bozzard’s materials before taking a better look at the glowing dome in the distance.
The apothecary kept a laboratory-pharmacy at the corner of Fourthlight and Lux in the Twilit District, and there he sold potions, wrote incantations, and made crystal communicators. He was a busy gentleman in his ninth decade, with tufts of white hair poking out of his ears and a wild white shock of hair. Bright green spectacles made him look like a barn owl. Mira wove in and out of the crowds heading for the shop. In the distance, the buoys of the outer bight chimed the arrival of the evening fog, and everyone picked up their pace to try to make it to the ball before the fog would shutter out the gibbous moon. Doc Buzzard stood at the doorway of his shop, with its iridescent window panes softly emitting light and endorphins that attracted beneficial insects to the window gardens for night pollination. He waved.
“Best be quick, young Mira!” he called to her. “Let’s see what you’ve got there.”
“Hi, Doc!” she said, cheered by the sight of him. He used to give her Glo-Tarts when she was a little girl. He kept them next to his cash register, wrapped in iridescent cellophane made from leaves. Every child would receive one if they behaved well inside his shop.
Doc Bozzard waved Mira inside, and little teal lights sparkled on, illuminating the many shelves, making the rows upon rows of small bottles gleam like a bioluminescent algal bloom in an ocean wave.
“Did Mother tell you I was coming?” asked Mira, handing him the basket.
He plucked out the husks and said in his craggy voice, “Ah! Yes, just what I needed,” and pushed his spectacles up his nose. “Not as such, dear. Your mother said she’d send the husks, but I expected her to deliver them. Ah, but I see there’s a little bit extra in here!”
The old gentleman’s eyes lit up as he withdrew the little phial. He curled the paper around the neck, took off the stopper, and sniffed. His bushy, white eyebrows shot up like two small, startled doves.
“Well, that ought to clear the mind!” he exclaimed. “Now, what have we here?”
He thumbed through the little scroll of paper, and then looked over his glasses at Mira. His face rose into an accordion of wrinkles, all of which formed a smile.
“Right!” he said. He pulled out a pocket watch that looked like a violet button mushroom and opened it. “We’ve little time. The Ball starts at midnight, and it is eleven thirty-six now.”
“I had better get back,” Mira said.
“Not if you’re going to the Ball,” said Doc Buzzard, opening drawers throughout his little lab shop, and leaving them ajar.
Mira laughed, “No, I can’t go to the ball, you know that! I’m not old enough.”
Doc glanced up. “Well, for tonight, you will be. Just this once. I know you’re leaving. Your mother asked me to help.”
Mira gasped. “What! She did? When? In that note?”
Doc grinned and brought forth bolts of what looked like cobwebs.
“She did indeed. I owe her a bit of a favor, as she’s helped me over the years. Oh, how I will miss your dear family! Consider this a parting gift.”
He held out the diaphanous, soft grey cobwebs to Mira, who wore only a simple skirt and top, and clunky boots. “That ought to do,” he murmured.
He pulled out the mushroom watch again and held it over the cobwebby cloth. It lit up in bright purple, activating the fabric’s tiny nanowires, and then the cloth began to march and warp and fold. Finally, the engineered gown stood rigidly on its own in the middle of the shop.
“When you put the gown on,” explained Doc, “it will warp time around you very briefly, and offset the age detectors at the ball.”
He opened the back of the dress as if it were a door, and said, “Step in while I call a carriage for you.” Doc walked over by the door and pulled a cord with a sapphire at its end, and a little “toot-toot” rang through the shop.
Mira stepped in, fully clothed, and the gown stretched and twisted and covered her outfit completely, only showing the radiant purple. Part of the gown then snapped off and made its way to her hair, combing and tucking, until it was bound up in ribbons of the same fabric, and she could see it softly irradiating among her dark curls, reflected in the shop’s mirrors.
The carriage pulled up, pilotless, ready and waiting to whisk Mira to the ball.
“Oh, Doc!” she cried, and she hugged him.
“No need, no need,” he said gruffly, smiling, and he slipped her a Glo-Tart. “Eat a bit of something along the way, child. Have fun!”
And so it was that Mira was carried just above the ground in a bobbing, bejeweled carriage, toward an immense, pale green-yellow sphere with offshoots like octopus legs. The dome had been charging all day, every day, in the harsh sunlight no one could bear, and the reward was this wondrous sight, toward which hundreds streamed. Dazzled, Mira made her way to the entrance, where a little arbor of night-blooming, garnet-black roses hung, which were embedded with age detection technology. They shimmered like dark little eyes when she stepped under them, but they tinkled an acceptance, and she walked through.
“What will the Biolumen have to say about this?” she whispered to herself, her face beaming in glee.
All throughout the glowing, vast realm, people promenaded toward the Infinite Ballroom, filled with purple light-bubbles. The roof of the great, glowing dome opened to reveal the waxing moon at midnight. Voices began singing as Mira gazed up, full of longing and gratitude and grace, and the lights dimmed, and the moon shone high, filtering out the stars around it. Mira smiled up, knowing she would never see this place again, and she realized she was more excited about her future move, where the moon would glow more brightly in the night, among the innumerable stars.
J. Dianne Dotson (she/her) is the science fiction, fantasy, and horror author of THE SHADOW GALAXY: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (March 3, 2023, from Trepidatio Publishing), THE INN AT THE AMETHYST LANTERN (YA SFF Lunarpunk, Autumn 2023 from Android Press), and the four-book space opera series THE QUESTRISON SAGA®. Dianne’s short fiction is featured in anthologies and magazines. She holds a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and spent several years working in both ecological and clinical research. Dianne is also a science writer and an artist. Dianne is represented by Laura Bennett of Liverpool Literary Agency.