Authors: Robert Charles Wilson
Tags: #Cults, #End of the world, #General, #Science Fiction, #Human-Alien Encounters, #Fiction
Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel 2006
One night in October when he was ten years old, Tyler Dupree stood in his back yard and watched the stars go out. They all flared into brilliance at once, then disappeared, replaced by a flat, empty black barrier. He and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, had seen what became known as the Big Blackout. It would shape their lives.
The effect is worldwide. The sun is now a featureless disk—a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain. Not only have the world’s artificial satellites fallen out of orbit, their recovered remains are pitted and aged, as though they’d been in space far longer than their known lifespans. As Tyler, Jason, and Diane grow up, space probe reveals a bizarre truth: The barrier is artificial, generated by huge alien artifacts. Time is passing faster outside the barrier than inside—more than a hundred million years per day on Earth. At this rate, the death throes of the sun are only about forty years in our future.
Jason, now a promising young scientist, devotes his life to working against this slow-moving apocalypse. Diane throws herself into hedonism, marrying a sinister cult leader who’s forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses.
Earth sends terraforming machines to Mars to let the onrush of time do its work, turning the planet green. Next they send humans…and immediately get back an emissary with thousands of years of stories to tell about the settling of Mars. Then Earth’s probes reveal that an identical barrier has appeared around Mars. Jason, desperate, seeds near space with self-replicating machines that will scatter copies of themselves outward from the sun—and report back on what they find.
Life on Earth is about to get much, much stranger.
Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere. So we rented a room on the third floor of a colonial-style hotel in Padang where we wouldn’t be noticed for a while.
Nine hundred euros a night bought us privacy and a balcony view of the Indian Ocean. During pleasant weather, and there had been no shortage of that over the last few days, we could see the nearest part of the Archway: a cloud-colored vertical line that rose from the horizon and vanished, still rising, into blue haze. As impressive as this seemed, only a fraction of the whole structure was visible from the west coast of Sumatra. The Archway’s far leg descended to the undersea peaks of the Carpenter Ridge more than a thousand kilometers away, spanning the Mentawai Trench like a wedding band dropped edge-up into a shallow pond. On dry land, it would have reached from Bombay on the eastern coast of India to Madras on the west. Or, say, very roughly, New York to Chicago.
Diane had spent most of the afternoon on the balcony, sweating in the shade of a faded striped umbrella. The view fascinated her, and I was pleased and relieved that she was— after everything that had happened—still capable of taking such pleasure in it.
I joined her at sunset. Sunset was the best time. A freighter heading down the coast to the port of Teluk Bayur became a necklace of lights in the offshore blackness, effortlessly gliding. The near leg of the Arch gleamed like a burnished red nail pinning sky to sea. We watched the Earth’s shadow climb the pillar as the city grew dark.
It was a technology, in the famous quotation, “indistinguishable from magic.” What else but magic would allow the uninterrupted flow of air and sea from the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean but would transport a surface vessel to far stranger ports? What miracle of engineering permitted a structure with a radius of a thousand kilometers to support its own weight? What was it made of, and how did it do what it did?
Perhaps only Jason Lawton could have answered those questions. But Jason wasn’t with us.
Diane slouched in a deck chair, her yellow sundress and comically wide straw hat reduced by the gathering darkness to geometries of shadow. Her skin was clear, smooth, nut brown. Her eyes caught the last light very fetchingly, but her look was still wary—that hadn’t changed.
She glanced up at me. “You’ve been fidgeting all day.”
“I’m thinking of writing something,” I said. “Before it starts. Sort of a memoir.”
“Afraid of what you might lose? But that’s unreasonable, Tyler. It’s not like your memory’s being erased.”
No, not erased; but potentially blurred, softened, defocused. The other side effects of the drug were temporary and endurable, but the possibility of memory loss terrified me.
“Anyway,” she said, “the odds are in your favor. You know that as well as anyone. There
a risk… but it’s
a risk, and a pretty minor one at that.”
And if it had happened in her case maybe it had been a blessing.
“Even so,” I said. “I’d feel better writing something down.”
“If you don’t want to go ahead with this you don’t have to. You’ll know when you’re ready.”
“No, I want to do it.” Or so I told myself.
“Then it has to start tonight.”
“I know. But over the next few weeks—”
“You probably won’t feel like writing.”
“Unless I can’t help myself.” Graphomania was one of the less alarming of the potential side effects.
“See what you think when the nausea hits.” She gave me a consoling smile. “I guess we all have something we’re afraid to let go of.”
It was a troubling comment, one I didn’t want to think about. “Look,” I said, “maybe we should just get started.” The air smelled tropical, tinged with chlorine from the hotel pool three stories down. Padang was a major international port these days, full of foreigners: Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, even stray Americans like Diane and me, folks who couldn’t afford luxury transit and weren’t qualified for U.N. approved resettlement programs. It was a lively but often lawless city, especially since the New Reformasi had come to power in Jakarta.
But the hotel was secure and the stars were out in all their scattered glory. The peak of the Archway was the brightest thing in the sky now, a delicate silver letter U (Unknown, Unknowable) written upside down by a dyslexic God. I held Diane’s hand while we watched it fade.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“The last time I saw the old constellations.” Virgo, Leo, Sagittarius: the astrologer’s lexicon, reduced to footnotes in a history book.
“They would have been different from here, though, wouldn’t they? The southern hemisphere?” I supposed they would.
Then, in the full darkness of the night, we went back into the room. I switched on the room lights while Diane pulled the blinds and unpacked the syringe and ampoule kit I had taught her to use. She filled the sterile syringe, frowned and tapped out a bubble. She looked professional, but her hand was trembling. I took off my shirt and stretched out on the bed.
Suddenly she was the reluctant one. “No second thoughts,” I said. “I know what I’m getting into. And we’ve talked this through a dozen times.”
She nodded and swabbed the inside of my elbow with alcohol. She held the syringe in her right hand, point up. The small quantity of fluid in it looked as innocent as water.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.
“When we looked at the stars that time.”
“I’m glad you haven’t forgotten.”
“Of course I haven’t forgotten. Now make a fist.”
The pain was trivial. At least at first.
I was twelve, and the twins were thirteen, the night the stars disappeared from the sky.
It was October, a couple of weeks before Halloween, and the three of us had been ordered to the basement of the Lawton house—the Big House, we called it—for the duration of an adults-only social event.
Being confined to the basement wasn’t any kind of punishment. Not for Diane and Jason, who spent much of their time there by choice; certainly not for me. Their father had announced a strictly defined border between the adults’ and the children’s zones of the house, but we had a high-end gaming platform, movies on disk, even a pool table… and no adult supervision apart from one of the regular caterers, a Mrs. Truall, who came downstairs every hour or so to dodge canape duty and give us updates on the party. (A man from Hewlett-Packard had disgraced himself with the wife of a
columnist. There was a drunken senator in the den.) All we lacked, Jason said, was silence (the upstairs system was playing dance music that came through the ceiling like an ogre’s heartbeat) and a view of the sky.
Silence and a view: Jase, typically, had decided he wanted both.
Diane and Jason had been born minutes apart but were obviously fraternal rather than identical siblings; no one but their mother called them twins. Jason used to say they were the product of “dipolar sperm penetrating oppositely charged eggs.” Diane, whose IQ was nearly as impressive as Jason’s but who kept her vocabulary on a shorter leash, compared them to “different prisoners who escaped from the same cell.”
I was in awe of them both.
Jason, at thirteen, was not only scary-smart but physically fit—not especially muscular but vigorous and often successful at track and field. He was nearly six feet tall even then, skinny, his gawky face redeemed by a lopsided and genuine smile. His hair, in those days, was blond and wiry.
Diane was five inches shorter, plump only by comparison with her brother, and darker skinned. Her complexion was clear except for the freckles that ringed her eyes and gave her a hooded look:
My raccoon mask
, she used to say. What I liked most about Diane—and I had reached an age when these details had taken on a poorly understood but undeniable significance—was her smile. She smiled rarely but spectacularly. She was convinced her teeth were too prominent (she was wrong), and she had picked up the habit of covering her mouth when she laughed. I liked to make her laugh, but it was her smile I secretly craved.
Last week Jason’s father had given him a pair of expensive astronomical binoculars. He had been fidgeting with them all evening, taking sightings on the framed travel poster over the TV, pretending to spy on Cancun from the suburbs of Washington, until at last he stood up and said, “We ought to go look at the sky.”
“No,” Diane said promptly. “It’s cold out there.”
“But clear. It’s the first clear night this week. And it’s only chilly.”
“There was ice on the lawn this morning.”
“Frost,” he countered.
“It’s after midnight.”
“It’s Friday night.”
“We’re not supposed to leave the basement.”
“We’re not supposed to disturb the party. Nobody said anything about going outside. Nobody will see us, if you’re afraid of getting caught.”
“I’m not afraid of getting caught.”
you afraid of?”
“Listening to you babble while my feet freeze.”
Jason turned to me. “How about you, Tyler? Want to see some sky?”
The twins often asked me to referee their arguments, much to my discomfort. It was a no-win proposition. If I sided with Jason I might alienate Diane; but if I sided too often with Diane it would look… well, obvious. I said, “I don’t know, Jase, it
pretty chilly outside…”
It was Diane who let me off the hook. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Never mind. I suppose a little fresh air is better than listening to him complain.”
So we grabbed our jackets from the basement hallway and left by the back door.
The Big House wasn’t as grandiose as our nickname for it implied, but it was larger than the average home in this middling-high-income neighborhood and it sat on a bigger parcel of land. A great rolling expanse of manicured lawn gave way, behind it, to an uncultivated stand of pines bordering a mildly polluted creek. Jason chose a spot for stargazing halfway between the house and the woods.
The month of October had been pleasant until yesterday, when a cold front had broken the back of Indian summer. Diane made a show of hugging her ribs and shivering, but that was only to chastise Jason. The night air was merely cool, not unpleasant. The sky was crystalline and the grass was reasonably dry, though there might be frost again by morning. No moon and not a trace of cloud. The Big House was lit up like a Mississippi steamboat and cast its fierce yellow glare across the lawn, but we knew from experience that on nights like this, if you stood in the shadow of a tree, you’d disappear as absolutely as if you had fallen into a black hole.
Jason lay on his back and aimed his binoculars at the starry sky.
I sat cross-legged next to Diane and watched as she took from her jacket pocket a cigarette, probably stolen from her mother. (Carol Lawton, a cardiologist and nominal ex-smoker, kept packs of cigarettes secreted in her dresser, her desk, a kitchen drawer. My mother had told me this.) She put it to her lips and lit it with a translucent red lighter—the flame was momentarily the brightest thing around—and exhaled a plume of smoke that swirled briskly into the darkness.