by Simon Kewin
The light of the seventeen suns washed the sides of the purple mountains as Efemi, breathing heavily, calf muscles burning from the climb, slumped to the flat, rocky surface of the peak.
Seventeen suns: the single, larger disc of the true sun, setting now, flattened and orange as if dropped onto the horizon, and then the sixteen smaller red stars arcing overhead across the sky. He climbed the pre-dawn hills every year to see it. The Blink. The moment when the artificial stars flashed off and on in sequence, a celestial lightshow to match anything the natural world offered, up there with solar eclipses or the aurorae. Every year, at the moment of the solar solstice in the southern hemisphere, midwinter in the northern, they flashed once in a complete circuit. You could never see all of them, of course: the Halo surrounded the Earth; you had to be in space, positioned above the poles on some satellite or platform, to see the full circuit. But you could take in eight on a clear day, especially when you were high up and near the equator. As he was now.
“So, ready for the divine display?” she asked.
Oni arrived to slump beside him. She was also panting from the long climb, but less than he was. The setting sun made the yellow fabric of her tunic glow. His father had brought him up here to see the Blink when he was ten, but since then he’d made the journey alone. Until today. Today, he and Oni had come together. He had wanted her to see it from this place.
Efemi breathed in the cool mountain air. Distantly – tiny, tiny sounds – he could hear the drums being beaten for the festival as the moment approached. Down in the valley, verdant from the irrigation system’s network of underground pipes, his people were gathering – as they would be the world over, in field and street and square. He held out his hand and she took it, lacing her fingers through his. She was teasing him with her question. She planned to go to University in Lagos in a year; her head was full of engineering technicalities and the explanations offered by physics and mathematics. He, on the other hand, was the one who saw the world through the lenses of metaphors and the transcendent. He was the one who wanted to write, to sing. He was the one who had time for the divine.
He played along, amused at her words. “God blinks to let us know he’s still up there. I am ready to witness that.”
She smiled and nestled her head against him. He was intrigued to know what she thought, what explanation for the phenomenon she saw. She was clever, so very clever. They’d grown up together, and he’d lost track of how many times their teachers had sighed, and stopped their teaching, and said, Oni, I’m sorry, there is nothing more I can give you to learn over the years. She was driven, too. Maybe that was the real difference about her. Most people, himself included, graced a life of minimal effort, drifted through life. She, though, strove constantly to understand. It was a wonder she was with him. He sometimes thought he was no more than another puzzle she was attempting to unravel.
She shrugged. “You really want to hear mundane technical reasons?”
“If they’re coming from you, yes.”
She sat up to look at him, directly into his eyes. She stroked the side of his face. “The stars in the Halo, you do know they’re fusion reactors in geosynchronous orbit, yes? They’re not eyes or fires or angels; they were built to supply us with all the energy we need. The desalinators, the decarb plants, the lights, the irrigation pumps, everything.”
“Oh, sure. That’s what they say.”
“But they’re just machines,” she continued, ignoring him, “and machines need to be tested from time to time. This is a power cycle. The reactors go offline for a second and diagnostic routines kick in. Maybe software updates get applied, relays tested. That’s all we’re seeing. It’s perfectly logical.”
“There’s no poetry in your soul,” he said. “Billions of humans the world over stop and gaze in awe at a power cycle?”
“Just because you know what’s going on doesn’t make it any less breath-taking. More, if you ask me. We did this. People like you and me. Well, like me, anyway. We built the Halo and we saved the Earth. Without the secondary suns up there, beaming down all that energy, what would we be? I’ll tell you. We’d be clinging to existence, starving and frozen, a few million people at the most, a few thousand, killing each other for resources. More likely, we’d be dust, all dust. The Halo builders saved us.”
“Only after they nearly killed us all.”
This was one of her favourite subjects. “They? Who are they? Corporate greed and a system geared towards overconsumption nearly destroyed us. Countries slaughtering each other over scraps of land. It was the collective effort of thinkers and campaigners and builders that saved us. Scientists, yes. The simple cooperation of people across the world.”
He loved to hear her talk. A light came into her eyes when she explained the achievement of the Halo. She was fearless. Of course, he knew the truth of it. They all grew up being taught about the old tech and power corps holding the world to ransom. He liked to hear her describe what had been achieved. He envied her the depth of her understanding, in truth. But, among the many things the builders had given them fifty years ago had been the freedom to pursue other paths in life. Five decades previously, humans had been concerned only with survival. Dwindling food supplies; the floods and droughts of environmental destruction; mass population migrations; pandemics sweeping the globe: all had taken their toll, and humanity’s long story had nearly petered out. Limitless free energy had solved many problems. Now they were thriving, comfortable, at peace, and one such as he could waste away his days writing words rather than fighting for food or trying to save the world.
“Ten seconds,” he said. “Whatever the Blink is, we don’t want to miss it.”
She nodded, her head back on his shoulder. He hoped they could always come up here, an annual pilgrimage. Perhaps, in time, if the world unfolded as he hoped it would, they could bring their children to see.
He hadn’t mentioned this to her yet. He had no idea if her plans were in any way similar.
The true sun was only an orange glow in the western sky, now. In the valley below, pyres were flaring as the festivities continued. Even on a planet made viable by technology, people liked to gather around fires and sing and talk and stare into the flames. This was what they were.
She gripped his hand tight as the first star, low on the eastern horizon, blinked out, followed by the next, and the next. Overhead at the zenith, then down the western sky. For a moment, the stars came out, a speckle and scatter of the hard white lights that were normally lost in the glow of the Halo. There were so many of them, their patterns familiar and strange. He had witnessed the sight every year of his life, but still it was unexpected, alarming, beautiful beyond his power with words.
Efemi held his breath, as he always did, for the moment, the brief moment, when all the artificial stars went dark. The pause. The Blink. He turned his gaze back to the east, waiting for the first to blaze back into life.
He waited. And waited.
It was Oni, finally, who moved. Afterwards, he often thought he might have stayed there forever, frozen, holding his breath. Reacting, saying anything, was to acknowledge the truth.
Instead, Oni – pragmatic, sensible Oni – was the one to speak. “They’re not coming back on.”
“They will,” he said. “They must. They always do.”
“No,” she said. “It’s too long. Something has happened.”
“What could have happened?”
He couldn’t see her features, but he could hear the alarm in her voice. “I don’t know. Something. Something bad.”
She hid in the shadows of the doorway while the mob raged past, shouting their chants, their ugly battle songs. The smoke from their torches smelled of petrol, an acrid tang catching in the back of her throat. She knew what would happen if they saw her. It wasn’t safe on the streets. People the world over were clubbing together, fragmenting into us and them, forming their gangs and their nations to fight against other gangs and nations. The world unravelling to what it had once been.
Heavy, thick rain began to fall, splatting into the mud of the Lagos street. That would help, keep some of the crazies off the streets while she searched.
“Oni! Where are you? We need to go now!” Dr Wu’s tiny voice sounded in Oni’s inner ear, relayed to her cochleas via her neural implants. Comms networks were failing the world over, but the local Lagos loop was running. For now. The sound was clear to Oni, but the mob wouldn’t hear. She didn’t respond, stayed back in the shadows.
A scrawny cat wound itself around her feet, begging for food. She had no food to give it. No one had enough these days, not since the suns went out. She thought about Efemi, that day nearly three years previously when they’d climbed the hills to see the Blink, all delighted, all excited. She often let her mind drift back to those precious moments. How happy she’d been to have beautiful, witty Efemi to herself. Efemi who was always happy for her to be herself, who would do anything for her. Three years? It seemed more like thirty. Three long years. They hadn’t seen it, but their contented lives had been built on straw. How quickly everything had fallen apart.
Some said it was divine retribution – the sort of nonsense Efemi might have talked about – but she knew there had to be a real reason. That was why she was cowering in the shadows of this backstreet when she was supposed to be suited up for the launch of their cobbled-together, desperate mission. The builders would not have done this to them. How could they?
“Oni!” Dr Wu sounded angry now. As she might: she and the others would be at the launchpad, the launch threatened by endless technical headaches and the anger of marauding packs. If they didn’t leave now, there was every chance they never would. It still seemed mad that she, Oni, was even a part of the mission; she hadn’t learned enough in her time at the university to justify her slot. There were experts and specialists better suited to the work, but they were mostly frail relics from the old days, the construction of the Halo. It was up to people like her, now.
At least the mob had now moved out of earshot and she could speak. “I’m here, Dr Wu. I’ll be with you in an hour.”
“We need you here, Oni. There is no time for your nonsense; we’re running our final preps.”
“There are answers here, answers we need.”
She could hear the exasperation in Dr Wu’s Voice. “And I told you, you’re chasing phantoms with your nonsense. The answers are up there, on the Halo. That’s where we need you. This is an engineering problem, nothing more.”
“I’ll be with you. I promise.”
“Our blast-off window is confirmed for 22:00. We’re leaving with or without you – her supervisor’s voice softened – but… I’d prefer it if you came. Please come, Oni. No one can program a fusion array controller like you.”
“McTavish can. Seng understands the physics better than anyone.”
“None of them has your breadth of understanding, and you know it. You see patterns in the numbers no one else does. Not McTavish, not Seng, not me.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Be sure you are. Please.”
Dr Wu closed the connection. Time to move. Oni pushed off from the wall, hurried down backstreets, around blind corners, across muddy urban streams strewn with empty food cartons and the occasional carcass of a dead dog. The map in her head showed her the way.
Ten minutes later, she found it. The house must have been grand, once: the stone-built villa where Professor Amuna had lived, raising his family while working on the focused beam propagators that had supplied the planet with energy. Now the building was a ruin, half-collapsed, burnt out. She’d been delighted to learn that one of the revered builders of the Halo had lived for a time in Lagos, had worked at the very university she’d come to. Of course, he’d disappeared early on in the effort. People said he’d succumbed to the mental health problems that had plagued him all his life, and his contributions had been largely forgotten. But she, delving into the designs and early calculations, the core routines, had seen the dazzling genius of his work. She felt like she knew him, catching glimpses of him in the elegance of his code. A quiet, self-effacing man who had calmly gone about the work of saving the world.
Shattered glass crunched underfoot as she walked up the path to the dark house. She pushed through the sagging wooden door. She’d brought a torch, because they were all used to the darkness, now. The interior was a shattered ruin, everything destroyed. She crept into a hallway, a sitting room, shutters still hanging over the windows.
She didn’t notice the concealed switch she triggered by stepping on it. Didn’t detect the radio signal it sent out.
Instead, as she passed from room to room, she saw that Dr Wu had been right. There could be nothing here, no answers. She’d been so sure. Because Professor Amuna had been the perfectionist, had written beautiful multithreaded code that couldn’t have malfunctioned. And then he’d left his flaw in the core routines. The fundamental weakness. It was subtle, a timing bug, easily missed, but once you saw it, it was obvious. It couldn’t be a mistake, because Professor Amuna didn’t make mistakes.
To Oni’s eye, it looked clearly deliberate. It also looked very, very carefully concealed. And the effects had been catastrophic. This was the weakness that had been exploited, she was sure of it. This was how someone had hacked the Halo, uploaded their own routines during the brief outage of the Blink, and broken the world.
Her light picked out a picture frame on the floor. Picking it up, careful of the cracked glass, she saw Professor Amuna and his family as they’d been: happy, smiling, posing in the sun. The man himself tall, a shock of hair about his head as if his brain was fizzing with electricity. They stood in front of the house, this house. It was huge; much more than she’d thought had been destroyed. The sight confused her, even as the warmth of the smiles delighted her. His parents, she knew, had been tailors, a skilled-enough trade, but certainly not one to make you rich. University professors did not make a fortune, either.
“How did you afford all this?” Oni said out loud. Professor Amuna, in the picture, refused to reply, simply smiling back enigmatically.
She was about to return the picture to its resting place when her fingertip felt something underneath. A metal object, taped to the back of the picture. She knew what it was: a key. Before the Halo lit up the world, in the bad old days, people had used such devices often, locking away everything that was theirs, keeping others out, hoarding. Another artefact of a world where energy resources were limited. She removed the key, held it up to her light. The question was, where was the lock?
Ten minutes later, she found it: a cavity in the stone floor with a little hinged metal door. It had been covered by a moth-eaten, faded rug, worn by the damp so that the outlines of the stone flags had become visible through it. The flags, and the perfect square of the safe.
She knelt to study it. The key from the picture slid easily into the keyhole, and to her surprise it turned, but there was also a combination. The lock wanted her to enter twelve digits. She had to leave, had only minutes, and knew well that it was futile to try combinations at random. Even if she could enter a different number once a second, it would still take her – her brain ran through the maths without being asked – getting on for 32,000 years.
Then it occurred to her what the numbers had to be. She’d spent long enough immersed in his algorithms and theories to know what number he’d pick. The golden ratio. Surprising how often it had shown up in his work. It was irrational, of course, never-ending, but she knew the first twelve digits of it (and more besides) without having to think about it. The little dials were stiff with rust but she got them all to turn eventually.
There was the softest click and the safe door opened to her pull. Inside was a crystalline data fleck, the sort they’d used on the Halo to store code and data. She had several with her, those she was carrying to work on, one or two she wore as jewellery simply because they were beautiful. The crystals were a non-degrading storage mechanism; the sort she’d spent the last two years studying, programming, testing. The Halo’s systems depended on them, but why was there one here, locked away? It made no sense. The live systems and stores were obviously fully backed-up; there could be no need to keep this copy offline.
She held the little sliver of glass up by its edges as if she could read the data it held by her flashlight.
The crystal glowed red as the aiming lights of three guns picked it out. The voice from the darkness was metallic, amplified. “Hand the fleck over.”
Damn. She slipped the object into her closed hand, used her other to shade her eyes to try and see into the gloom. Her heart pounded as she spoke, but she tried to sound calm.
“What’s on it? Who are you and why do you want it?”
“Hand it over and no one needs to die here. In fact, scratch that, we’ll just shoot. No one is going to come looking for you. No one is going to care.”
She persisted. She had to keep them talking. If they talked, they weren’t shooting. “Why is this fleck so precious to you?”
“Precious?” There was a fuzzy, guttural sound that it took her a moment to identify as laughter. The shooters who’d come looking for her, the soldiers, appeared to be enjoying their moment of triumph, their power over her. “No, no. It’s not precious, not at all. In fact, we’re going to destroy it. There was always the chance he’d left other copies lying around; he resisted us to the end. And you: we should thank you for finding it.”
“It wasn’t that difficult to track down. How hard did you look?”
“Bait too well-concealed doesn’t attract the vermin it’s intended to destroy.”
“This is his original code, isn’t it?” she said, taking a guess. “The version without the flaw, the loophole. He couldn’t bear the thought of destroying all copies of his work, could he?”
“Doesn’t matter; we’re going to destroy it now.”
“Why? Isn’t it obvious? So the Halo stays dark. So the world remains lost in these new Dark Ages.”
“Why would you want that?”
The laughter came again. “Limitless free energy. Do you have any idea how troublesome that is to the power and energy corps?”
“There are no power and energy corps.”
“You know nothing. We’ve been… quiet, it’s true, but we’ve been here, biding our time. These fifty years: we’ve given humanity a glimpse of paradise, and now we’ve taken it away again. Do you have any idea how much people are prepared to pay for reliable electricity these days? I’ll answer that for you: it’s a lot. It’s a hell of a lot.”
“This is all about money.”
“What else is there?”
“You can’t hope to produce even a fraction of the power the Halo gave us.”
“No. True. But scarcity is good, drives up the prices. Once the mothballed fission reactors are running, people will pay any price for what we have to offer, now that they’ve glimpsed the possibilities.”
“So, I don’t get it. Why haven’t you killed me?”
There was, she thought, a pause. A brief pause. Maybe they were conversing among themselves, these three high-tech soldiers in the darkness around her. Maybe they were receiving orders from someone far away.
“We know who you are, Oni Yahaya.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed by that?”
“You’re like him, like Professor Amuna. He was ferociously intelligent, too. He proved useful. Our hope is that you do as well. He took our money, lived a life of comfort and luxury. You can as well. Is that so bad? Someone like you will always be useful in our new world. Your life can be filled with delight.”
“He died young, far too young. Was that you, too?”
“If he’d stayed true to us, he’d have been allowed to live out his life. Consider that to be a lesson.”
Oni forced herself to laugh. “Well, you’re too late. I’ve copied the fleck already. Uploaded it while you were babbling on.”
She showed him two crystals to prove her point: the two she’d slipped from her bracelet with her hand by her side. Perhaps not many people in the world habitually carried a fleck-reader around with them, but she did: a fact that they might well believe if they knew anything about her. She just had to hope they didn’t know comms were currently down, the damned Lagos loop offline.
“Ah, that’s disappointing,” said the disembodied voice. “Well, no matter. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us. Now it’s time for you to die. One more sad death among so many. I told you: no one will know. No one will care.”
Oni opened her mouth to shout as the shots splintered the flecks she held into shards before – the bullets’ velocity barely reduced – thudding into the soft flesh of her body. The pain of it was incredible. She was thrown backwards, thumped to the ground by the momentum of the rounds.
She lay gasping for breath while the three soldiers stood over her, their boots filling her world.
“Dr Wu.” She spoke inside her head with the last of her strength. The conversation ran quickly, at the speed of thought. Finally, gloriously, comms came back online.
“Oni. Where are you?”
“I’m not going to make the launch after all. I’m sorry.”
“Where are you? Are you near?”
“Stop talking. I’m uploading a fleck image to you. Take it with you. You have to take it with you.”
“Take it with you, you’ll need it, I’m sure of it.”
Then the universe faded, and Oni talked no more.
Efemi sat on the top of the hill. He still liked to keep up his routine, his ceremony, even though it had been three years since the suns of the Halo had blazed. Three terrible, gruelling years. At least he was fitter now, the climb nothing to his muscles. Once, the ascent had been an effort, but three years of labouring in the fields, pumping water, fighting off marauders, of lifting and digging, had made him strong. He’d barely written a word, and the loss of that part of him burned, the frustration of it, but survival obviously came first.
He thought about Oni. So much for his naïve dreams. She’d left soon after the Blink – the Long Blink as they’d called it at the time, in their desperate optimism – had begun, determined to help with the effort of restarting the Halo. They’d never made the pilgrimage together again. But then, everything had broken that day, and his small sadness barely mattered. People had lost too much. God hadn’t blinked; he’d closed his eyes permanently, turned his gaze away.
He heard steps behind him. Instinctively he reached for the iron bar he carried with him at all times for defence. If he had to fight, he’d fight.
“You won’t need that, idiot.”
He stood frozen, unable to understand. Oni stepped into the light of his little fire, the one he lit every year because it felt like the right thing to do.
“What are you doing here?” he managed. “I thought you were… gone.”
“Been busy. But that’s over, now.”
“I don’t understand. Last time you got through, you said you were going on the Halo mission.”
“Yes. That didn’t work out.”
She sat on the ground. He saw the wince of pain on her features as she talked.
“It’s fine, don’t stress. I… got shot.”
“Three bullets, but none hit anything vital. I’ll survive. I’m lucky they let me live. Although, they probably didn’t think they were, to be honest.”
“What happened? Where was this?”
“They bribed him, you see, threatened him, too. That was why he did it. One way or another, it killed him in the end, but not before he left a little counter-exploit of his own. An unflawed copy of his code to replace the compromised algorithm. He couldn’t bring himself to turn away from his ideals completely. And, now they’ve shown their hand, stepped back into the light, people aren’t going to let them get away with it, are they? They’re gone for good. People will make sure of it.”
“Who are they? What are you even talking about?”
“We stopped being afraid of them, you see, reduced them to clichéd villains in our stories of the bad old days. But they were still there, all along, waiting in the shadows.”
“Who?” His thoughts were still reeling, trying to catch up with everything that was happening.
“Hush, now. Stop talking. Come sit beside me to watch.”
They sat in silence, her head resting on his shoulder as it had three years previously. Fires burned in the valley, but they were no longer for celebration. Fires burned constantly now.
After a moment, she spoke again. “One day, we should bring the children up to see.”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought. It’s time for fresh beginnings, the return of life.”
“But I don’t…”
“Quiet, now. Watch. Put what you see into words, the beautiful words you have in your head. Capture the moment to preserve it for ever. I’ve done what I could, now it’s your turn.”
Overhead, above the eastern horizon, a single light flickered, then flared red into fulgent life.
A moment later, the next artificial sun in the Halo lit up. Then the next, and the next.
Simon Kewin is the author of over 100 published short and flash stories. His works have appeared in Analog, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex and many more. He is also the author of a growing number of novels. He lives deep in the English countryside. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.
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