It’s nighttime, so we all wear sunglasses.
I know it sounds absurd. Only a week earlier, we all would have agreed. Why do you need shades when there’s no sun?
It happened six days ago. The Mayor had wanted to take action earlier. She had campaigned on energy reduction, promised us that she would work day and night to ensure we didn’t run out of power or money. But from the day since she took office, she faced opposition. Hundreds of angry handmade signs marched around City Hall. Some demanded she act now, others threatened she could have our electricity when she pried it from our cold, illuminated hands.
The Mayor sponsored bill after bill, and every time they shot it dead on the council floor. She tried to raise taxes on energy consumption. Then she tried to curb it without a tax, and when that failed, she tried to issue an energy curfew. I remember our professor, taking time out of our lecture to vent about it. He even worked his opinions into our weekly quizzes.
“A photon has energy 2 x 10 to the -19 Joules. What is the wavelength of this photon, assuming Mayor Greenfield has not shut off the power?”
Professor Maxwell had flatly denied writing the question in particular, and insisted that it was his TA.
But after weeks of gridlock, with no new taxes or spending cuts passed, we finally ran out last Thursday afternoon.
Imagine. Cars backed up all the way to the horizon, still full of gas, but blocked by swarms of protestors and police trucks. One woman with a baby strapped to her back had crawled on top of her car, screaming at no one in particular for them to turn the electricity back on. Her baby was wailing loudly, although this might have had less to do with his opinions on the energy crisis and more to do with the fact that his bottle lay cracked on the asphalt below.
The riots continued for hours. People hurled bricks through windows with no alarms, as others recording the destruction on slowly dying smart phones. In more primitive times, they might have stormed the City Hall, dragged the Mayor out and stoned her to death, or tossed her into a volcano to appease the electricity gods. But we were in the enlightened twenty-first century, so we had to make do with aggressive hashtags.
As the sun drenched the evening sky with orange, the cell service went down. Police carried hand crank radios as they rode horses through stagnant lines of traffic. The horses themselves wore blinders, focusing only on what lay ahead of them, ignoring the chaos from behind.
And then the sun dipped below the horizon, and night fell on the dark city. And, for the first time in a hundred years, we looked up and saw Them.
During the heated bustle of City life, you don’t know what you are missing. With every skyscraper and billboard screaming colors at you, the night sky is washed out, and only a handful of stars can force their light all the way through. But when the power is out, when the light of Man fades away, and the sun and the moon are hiding below the Earth, there is nothing to stop a billion white, blue, and green stars from looking you directly in the eye.
We had heard of constellations in textbooks. We had seen pictures of the seven dots that made up the Big Dipper, the five pinpricks that comprised Cassiopeia. We had read about them, and seen them dimly from within the City. But tonight, they blared down at us, almost as bright as the billboards that had choked them for decades.
They were monstrous, and they were alive.
Etched in the night sky, written in a billion dots of light, the gods of the old times leered down at us. They grinned hideous, crooked grins that had teeth but no lips. The lights flickered, and the stars crawled back and forth, heaving deeps breaths. They had eyes without pupils or eyelids, thick clusters of galaxies that accused us of ignoring them this past century. The eyes followed you no matter where you ran, and the clouds of space dust that made up their fingers never ceased to point at your guilty face.
And what did we do? We reacted as any reasonable people would: we lost our minds. The riots against Mayor Greenfield stopped. People leapt off the tops of their cars and hid inside them, or even wedged themselves underneath, the asphalt scraping their chests, the rusty axles cutting into their backs. Police hid under their horses, enduring the impatient hooves rather than stare at the sky anymore. Some of the protestors gave up hiding, and instead kneeled like members of a doomsday cult, confessing their sins and pledging allegiance to the celestial race. I saw a woman take her baby off her back and hold it up, pleading for the stars to take it as an offering, as her baby writhed and screamed in her shaking hands.
Somewhere I ran into Professor Maxwell, who had lost his glasses and torn off his shirt. The same man I had seen in lectures for a whole year, who worshipped only atoms and photons, and assured us that the methods of science could solve every quandary— this man knelt on the asphalt until his knees looked like pepperoni, and screamed for hours before driving two ballpoint pens into the sockets of his eyes.
Now we know why our primitive ancestors threw their virgins into volcanoes. Our elders weren’t superstitious, they were every bit as sane as the night sky allowed them to be. Why else were we so eager to build up skyscrapers, to shine as much light as it took to reduce the heavenly demons to mere pinpricks in textbooks? Our great-grandfathers built this city, and forced themselves to forget about the night sky. Every person who has gone camping in the mountains has gone through the same experience: you see the true stars and either go insane, running around until a bear makes you her dinner, or you return to civilization, convincing yourself it was just a bad dream.
The first night ended, and when we were safe again in the clutches of the warm sun, we fled. We stampeded over cars, through abandoned fruit stands, crushing sweet plums under our feet. We poured over the bridge, some spilling over its side and collecting flies in the bay. We heard Mayor Greenfield’s voice over hand crank radios. The same woman who had endured months of gridlock and vicious riots outside City Hall, broke down and sobbed for all of us to hear, begging us to escape while we still could.
And those of us who couldn’t escape, we chose to hide in dumpsters full of wet rats instead of facing another naked night sky. The rats squeaked and hissed, covering up the screams of anyone who had failed to seek cover. Some of us tried to go outside, holding their hands tightly above their eyebrows, but the slightest puddle would reflect the sagging grins and empty eyes that shone from the sky.
It wasn’t until the third night, when someone tripped over a horse, so hungry that they felt around the swarms of flies for something to stuff in their aching bellies, that they found the horse’s blinders. They tied it over their eyes, blocking out the stars but letting in just enough light to crawl around the city. And the rest of us quickly learned that sunglasses, even cheap ones in abandoned gas stations, made the sky just murky enough that we could wander around without having to see those creatures.
It’s been six days now. The vending machines have all been smashed, and empty Doritos bags blow past motionless faces with red eye sockets. I’ve had three people try to kill me for a pair of shades that only last week some college was handing out for free. Some radios still work, and the outside world promises to send us relief. Until then, we’ll crawl around, foraging for cans of dog food and ignoring the bright faces leering above us.
Image – Pixabay.com