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Ray of Light
by Brad R. Torgersen


Even if we adapt to dire circumstances, does human nature ever change?

My crew boss Jake was waiting for me at the sealock door. I’d been eight hours outside, checking for microfractures in the metal hull. Tedious work, that. I’d turned my helmet communicator off so as not to be distracted. The look on Jake’s face spooked me.

“What’s happened?” I asked him, seawater dripping from the hair of my beard.

“Jenna,” was all I got in reply. Which was enough.

I closed my eyes and tried to remain calm, fists balled around the ends of a threadbare terrycloth towel wrapped around my neck.

For a brief instant the hum-and-clank activity of the sub garage went away, and there was only a mental picture of my daughter sitting in her mother’s lap: two, maybe three years old, with a delightful nest of unruly ringlets sprouting at odd angles from her scalp. She’d been a mischief-maker from day one—hell on wheels in a confined space like Deepwater 12.

Jenna was much older now, but that particular memory was burned into my brain because it was the last time I remember seeing my wife smile.

“Tell me,” I said to my boss.

Jake ran a hand over his own beard. All of us had given up shaving years ago, when the gel, cream, and disposable razors ran out.

“It seems she went for a joyride with another teenager.”

“How the hell did they get a sub without someone saying something?”

“The Evans boy, Bart, he’s old enough to drive. I’ve had him on rotation with the other men for a few weeks, to see if he’d take to it. We need all the help we can get.”

“Yeah, yeah, skip it, where are they now?”

Jake coughed and momentarily wouldn’t meet my gaze.

“We don’t know,” he said. “I tasked Bart with a trip to Deepwater 4, the usual swap-and-trade run. He’s now—they’re now—two hours overdue.”

“The acoustic transponder on the sub?” I said.

“It’s either broken or they turned it off.”

“Good hell, even idiots know not to do that.”

Jake just looked at me.

I pivoted on a heel and headed back the way I’d come. With my wetsuit still on I didn’t have to change. I’d grab the first sub I could muscle out of its cradle. Over my shoulder I said, “Whoever is on the next sortie, tell ’em I’m giving ’em the day off.”

“Where are you going to look?” Jake said. “It’s thousands of miles of dark water in every direction.”

“I know a place,” I said. “Jenna told me about it once.”

My daughter was four when she first began asking the inevitable questions.

“How come we don’t live where it’s dry and sunny?”

All three of us were perched at the tiny family table in our little compartment. Lucille didn’t even look up from her plate. As if she hadn’t heard Jenna at all. Too much of that lately, for my taste. But I opted not to call my wife out on it. Lucille had become hot and cold—either she was screaming mad or stone quiet. And I’d gotten tired of the screaming, so I settled for the quiet.

Folding my hands thoughtfully in front of me, I considered Jenna’s inquiry.

“There isn’t anywhere that’s dry and sunny. Not anymore.”

“But Chloe and Joey are always going to the park to play,” Jenna said. “I want to go to the park too.”

I grimaced. Chloe and Joey was a kids’ show from before . . . from before everything. Lucille had been loathe to let Jenna watch it, but had caved when it became obvious that Chloe and Joey were the only two people—well, animated talking teddy bears actually—capable of getting our daughter to sit still and be silent for any length of time. We’d done what every parent swears they won’t do, and the LCD had become our babysitter. Now it was biting us in the butt.

My wife stabbed at the dark green leaves on her plate, the tines on her fork making pronounced tack! noises on the scarred plastic.

“There used to be parks,” I said. “But everything is covered in ice now. And it’s dark, not sunny. You can’t even see the Sun anymore.”

“But why?” Jenna said, her utensils abandoned on the table.

The room lost focus and I briefly remembered my NASA days. Those had been happy times. Washington was pumping money back into the program because the Chinese were threatening to land on the Moon.

I’d been on the International Space Station when the aliens abruptly came. It was a gas. I got to pretend I was a celebrity, being interviewed remotely by the news, along with my crewmates.

The mammoth alien ship parked next to us in orbit, for three whole days—a smoothed sphere of nickel-iron, miles and miles in circumference. No obvious drive systems or apertures for egress. No sign or sound from them that might have indicated their intentions.

Then the big ship promptly broke orbit and headed inward, towards Venus.

Six months later, the Sun began to dim . . .

“It’s hard to explain,” I said to Jenna, noting that my wife’s fork hovered over her last bit of hydroponic cabbage. “Some people came from another place—another star far away. We thought they would be our friends, but they wouldn’t talk to us. They made the sunshine go away, and everything started getting cold really fast.”

“They turned off the Sun?” Jenna said, incredulous.

“Nothing can turn off the Sun,” I said. “But they did put something in the way—it blocks the Sun’s light from reaching Earth, so the surface is too cold for us to live there anymore.”

I remembered being ordered down in July. We landed in Florida. It was snowing heavily. NASA had already converted over—by Presidential order—to devising emergency alternatives. The Sun had become a shadow of itself, even at high noon. We cobbled together a launch: NASA’s final planetary probe, to follow the path of the gargantuan alien ship and find out what was going on.

The probe discovered a mammoth cloud orbiting just inside of Earth’s orbit: countless little mirrors, each impossibly thin and impossibly rigid. No alien ship in sight, but the cloud of mirrors was enormous, and growing every day. By themselves, they were nothing. But together they were screening out most of the Sun’s light. A little bit more gone, every week.

“So now we have to live at the bottom of the ocean?” Jenna asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the only place warm enough for anything to survive.”

Which may or may not have been true. In Iceland they’d put their money on surface habitats constructed near their volcanoes. Chancy gamble. Irregular eruptions made it dangerous, which is why the United States had abandoned the Big Island plan in Hawaii. Besides, assuming enough light was blocked, cryogenic precipitation would be a problem. First the oxygen would rain out, and then, eventually, the nitrogen too. Which is why the United States had also abandoned the Yellowstone plan.

People were dying all over the world when NASA and the Navy began deploying the Deepwater stations. The Russians and Chinese, the Indians, all began doing the same. There was heat at the boundaries between tectonic plates. Life had learned to survive without the Sun near hydrothermal vents. Humans would have to learn to live there too.

And we did, after a fashion.

I explained this as best as I could to my daughter.

She grew very sad, a tiny, perplexed frown on her face.

“I don’t want to watch Chloe and Joey anymore,” she said softly.

Lucille’s fork clattered onto the floor and she fled the compartment, sobbing.

Number 6’s electronics, air circulator, and propulsion motor blended into a single, complaining whine as I pushed the old sub through the eternal darkness along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally I passed one of the black smokers—chimneys made of minerals deposited by the expulsion of superheated water from along the tectonic ridge. The water flowed like ink from the tops of the smokers. Tube worms, white crabs and other life shied away from my lights.

I was watching for the tell-tale smoker formation that Jenna had told me about. It was a gargantuan one, with multiple chimneys sprouting into something the kids had dubbed the Gak’s Antlers. Dan McDermott had joined the search and was two hundred yards behind me, his own lights arrayed in a wide pattern, looking.

We both spotted our target at the same time.

I could see why kids might have liked the spot. In addition to the bizarre beauty of the Antlers, there was a shallow series of depressions surrounding the base—each just big enough to settle a sub down into. Cozy. Private.

I saw the top of a single sub, just barely poking up over the rock and sand.

I asked Dan to hang back while I pinged them with the short-range sonar. When I got no answer I motored right up to the edge of the depression, turned my exterior lights on extra-bright and aimed them down through the half-sphere pilot’s canopy.

I blushed and looked away.

Then I flashed my lights repeatedly until the two occupants inside got the hint and scrambled to get their clothes on. One of them—a girl, I think, though not Jenna—dropped into the driver’s seat and flipped a few switches until my short-range radio scratched and coughed at me.

“Hate to ruin your makeout,” I said.

“Who are you?” came the girl’s tense voice. Too young, I thought.

“Not your father, if it makes any difference,” I said.

“How did you get here?”

“Same as you.”

A boy’s head poked into view. He took the radio mic from the girl.

“Get out of here, this is our place,” he said, his young voice cracking with annoyance. I was tempted to tell him to shove his blue balls up his ass, then remembered myself when I’d been that young, coughed quietly into my arm while I steadied my temper, and tried diplomacy.

“I swear,” I said. “I won’t tell a soul about this little nookie nook. I just want to get my daughter back alive. Jenna Leighton is her name. She’s about your age.”

“Jenna?” said the girl.

“You know her?”

“I know her name. She’s part of the Glimmer Club.”

The boy tried to shush her and take the mic away. “That’s a secret!”

“Who cares now?” the girl said. “We’re busted anyway.”

“What’s the Glimmer Club?” I said.

The girl chewed her lip for a moment.

“Please,” I said. “It could be life or death.”

“It’s probably easiest if I just show you,” she said. “Give me a few minutes to warm up our blades. I’ll tell you what I can once we’re under way.”

* * *

Jenna was six when Lucille went to live on Deepwater 8. At the time, it had seemed reasonable; a chance for my wife to get away from her routine at home, be around some people neither of us had seen in awhile, and get the wind back into her sails. It certainly wouldn’t be any worse than it had been, with all the bickering and chronic insomnia. The doc had said it would do Lucille some good, so we packed her off and waved good-bye.

On Jenna’s bunk wall there was an LCD picture frame that cycled through images, as a night-light. I originally loaded it with cartoon characters, but once she swore off Chloe and Joey I let her choose her own photos from the station’s substantial digital library.

I was surprised to see her assemble a collection of sunrises, sunsets, and other images of the Sun—a thing she’d never seen. At night, I sometimes stood in the hatchway to the absurdly small family lavatory and watched Jenna lying in her blankets, eyes glazed and staring at the images as they gently shuffled past.

“What are you thinking about?” I once asked.

“How come it didn’t burn you up?” she said.

“What?”

“Teacher told us the Sun is a big giant ball of fire.”

“That’s true.”

“Then why didn’t it burn everyone up?”

“It’s too far away for that.”

“How far?”

“Millions of miles.”

“Oh.”

A few more images blended from one to the next, in silence.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?” I said, stroking Jenna’s forehead.

“Am I ever going to get to see the Sun? For real?”

I stopped stroking. It was a hell of a good question. One I wasn’t sure I was qualified to know the answer to. Differences between the orbital speed of the mirror cloud and Earth’s orbital velocity, combined with dispersion from the light pressure of the solar wind would get Earth out from behind the death shadow eventually. How long this would take, or if it could happen before the last of us gave out—a few thousand remaining, from a population of over ten billion—was a matter of debate.

“Maybe,” I said. “The surface is a giant glacier now. We can’t even go up to look at the sky anymore because the ice has closed over the equator and it’s too thick for our submarines to get through. If the Sun comes back, things will melt. But it will probably take a long, long time.”

Jenna turned in her bunk and stared at me, her eyes piercing as they always were when she was thinking.

“Why did the aliens do it?”

I sighed. That was the best question of all.

“Nobody knows,” I said. “Some people think the aliens live a long, long time, and that they came to Earth and did this once or twice before.”

“But why block out the sunshine? Especially since it killed people?”

“Maybe the aliens didn’t know it would kill people. Last time the Earth froze over like it’s frozen now, there were no people on the Earth, so the aliens might not have known better.”

“But you tried to say hello,” she said. “When you were on the space station. You told them you were there. You tried to make friends. They must be really mean, to take the Sun away after all you did. The aliens . . . are bullies.”

I couldn’t argue with that. I’d thought the same thing more than once.

“Maybe they are,” I said. “But there’s not much we could do about it when they came, and there’s not much we can do about it now, other than what we are doing. We’ve figured out how to live on the sea floor where it’s still warm, and where the aliens can’t get to us. We’ll keep on finding a way to live here—as long as it takes.”

I was a bit surprised by the emotion I put into the last few words. Jenna watched me.

I leaned in and kissed her cheek.

“Come on, it’s time to sleep. We both have to be up early tomorrow.”

“Okay, Daddy,” she said, smiling slightly. “I wish Mama could give me a kiss goodnight too.”

“You and me both,” I said.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Is Mama going to be alright?”

I paused, letting my breath out slowly.

“I sure hope so,” I said, settling into the lower bunk beneath my daughter’s—a bunk originally built for two, which felt conspicuously empty.

The clubhouse was actually a restored segment of Deepwater 3, long abandoned since the early days of the freeze-up.

Each of the Deepwater stations were built as sectional rings—large titanium cylinders joined at their ends to form spoked hexagons and octagons. Deepwater 3 had been stripped and sat derelict since a decompression accident killed half her crew. We’d taken what could be taken and left the hulk to the elements.

The kids had really busted their butts getting it livable again.

I admired their chutzpah as I motored alongside the revived segment, its portholes gleaming softly with light. They’d re-rigged a smaller, cobbled-together heat engine to take advantage of the exhaust from the nearby hydrothermal vents, and I was able to mate the docking collar on my sub with the collar on the section as easy as you please.

The girl and boy from the other station didn’t stick around to watch. They took me and Dan just far enough for us to see the distant light from the once-dead station, then fled. I didn’t ask their names, but I didn’t have to. I’d promised them anonymity in exchange for their help, and was eager to get onboard and find out what might have happened to my daughter. So far as I knew, I was the first adult to even hear about this place.

Only, nobody was home.

Dan hung around outside, giving Deepwater 3 a once-over with his lights and sonar, while I slowly went through the reactivated section.

It was a scene from a fantasy world.

They’d used cutting torches to rip out all the bulkheads, leaving only a few, thick support spars intact. The deck had been buried in soft, white, dry sand and the concave ceiling had been painted an almost surreal sky blue. Indirect lights made the ceiling glow, while a huge heat lamp had been welded into the ceiling at one end, glaring down across the “beach” with a mild humming sound. Makeshift beach chairs, beach blankets, and other furniture were positioned here and there, as the kids had seen fit.

Several stand-alone LCD screens had been wired into the walls, with horseshoes of disturbed sand surrounding them. I carefully approached one of the LCDs—my moist suit picking up sand on my feet and legs. Cycling through the LCD’s drive I discovered many dozens of movies and television programs. Informational relics from before the aliens came. Videos about flying, and surfing, hiking, camping, and lots and lots of nature shows.

I went to two more LCD screens and found similar content.

I walked to the middle of the section—realizing that I hadn’t stood in a space that unconfined and open since before we’d all gone below—and used my mobile radio to call for Dan.

He hooked up at the docking collar on the opposite end of the section, and came in under the “Sun,” stopping short and whistling softly.

“Can you believe this?” I said.

Like me, Dan was an oldster from the astronaut days. Though he’d never had any children, or even a girlfriend, since his wife had died in the mad rush to get to sea when the mirror cloud made life impossible on the surface.

“They’ve been busy,” Dan said. “Is there anyone else here?”

“Not a soul,” I said. “Though it looks like they left in a hurry.”

“How can you figure?”

“Lights were left on.”

I looked around the room again, noting how many teenagers might fit into the space, and the countless prints in the sand, the somewhat disheveled nature of the blankets.

“Frankie and Annette, eat your hearts out,” I said.

Dan grunted and smiled. “I was at party or two like that, back in flight school.”

“Me too,” I admitted. “But something tells me they didn’t just come here to get laid. Look at what they’ve been watching.”

“Porn?” Dan said.

“No . . . yes. But not the kind you think.”

I flipped on the LCDs and started them up playing whatever video was queued in memory. Instantly the space was filled with the sound of crashing waves, rock music, images of people sky-diving and hang-gliding, aerial sweeps of the Klondike, and the Sahara, all shot on clear days, very few clouds in the sky. It was non-stop sunshine from screen to screen to screen.

Dan wasn’t smiling anymore. He stared at the heat lamp in the ceiling, the false sky, and then back at the sand.

“You ever go to church when you were a kid?” Dan asked me.

“Not really. Dad was an atheist, and mom a lapsed Catholic.”

“I went to church when I was a kid. Baptist, then Episcopal, then Lutheran. My dad was a spiritual shopper. Anyway, wherever we went, certain things were always the same—the pulpit, the huge bible open to a given scripture, the wooden pews. But more than that, they all felt a certain way. They had a vibe. You didn’t have to get the doctrine to understand what the building was meant for.”

“What does this have to do with anything, Dan?” I said, getting exasperated.

“Look around, man,” Dan said, holding his arms wide. “This is a house of worship.”

I stared at everything, not comprehending. Then, suddenly, it hit me.

“The club isn’t a club.”

“What?”

“The ‘Glimmer Club.’ That’s what she called it. She said many of the younger teens and a few of the older ones had started it up a couple of years ago. Not every kid was a member, but most of the other kids heard rumors. To be a member, you had to swear total secrecy.”

My father had tended to consider all religions nuts, but he’d reserved special ire for the ones he called cults: the cracked up fringe groups with the truly dangerous beliefs. He’d pointed to Jonestown as a textbook example of what could go wrong when people let belief get out of hand.

I experienced a quick chill down my spine.

“They’re not coming back,” I said.

“Where would they go?” Dan asked.

But I was already running across the sand to the hatch for my sub.

Jenna was ten years old when her mother committed suicide.

Neither of us was there when it happened, of course. Lucille had moved around from station to station for her last several months, until the separate crew bosses on each of the stations got fed up with her behavior. Ultimately she put herself into a sea lock without a suit on, and flooded the lock before anyone could stop her. By the time they got the lock dry and could bring her out, she was gone. And I was left trying to explain all of this to Jenna, who cried for 48 hours straight, then slept an additional day in complete physical and emotional exhaustion.

For me, it was painful, but in a detached kind of way. Lucille and I had been coming apart for years. The docs mutually agreed that sunlight deprivation might have been part of the problem. It had happened with several others, all of whom had had to seek light therapy to try to compensate for their depression. In Lucille’s case, the light therapy hadn’t worked. In fact, nothing had seemed to brake her long, gradual decline into despair. I’d kept hoping Jenna—or a mother’s instinctive selflessness for the sake of her child—would pull Lucille through. But in hindsight it was clear that Jenna had actually made things worse.

I kept these thoughts strictly to myself in the weeks and months that followed Lucille’s departure from the living world. I poured myself into my role as Daddy and held Jenna through many a sad night when the bad dreams and missing Mommy got to her, and there was nobody for Jenna to turn to but me. Eventually the nightmares stopped and Jenna started to get back to her old self—something I was so pleased about I had a difficult time expressing it with words.

For Jenna’s twelfth birthday I gave her a computer pad I’d squirreled away before committing to the deep. My daughter had been going nuts decorating half the station with chalk drawings—our supply of paper having long since been exhausted. The pad was an artist’s model, with several different styli and programs for Jenna to use. It liberated her from the limited medium of diatoms-on-metal, and fairly soon all of the LCDs in our little family compartment were alive with her digital paintings.

It was impressive stuff. She threw herself into it unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Vistas and landscapes, stars and planets, and people. Lots of people. Lots of filtered representations of Lucille, usually sad. I dutifully recorded it all onto the family portable drive where I hoped, perhaps one day, if humanity made it out of this hole alive, Jenna’s work might find a wider audience. She’d certainly won over many of the other people on Deepwater 12, and was even getting some feedback from some of the other stations as well.

In retrospect, I probably should have seen the obvious.

All of Jenna’s art—with rare exception—had one thematic element in common.

It all featured the Sun, in one form or another. Sometimes as the focus of the work, but more often as merely an element.

All kids do it, right? The ubiquitous yellow ball in the crayon sky, with yellow lines sprouting out of it? Only, Jenna’s suns were warmer, more varied in hue and color. They became characters in their own right. When she discovered how to use the animation software on the pad, she went whole-hog building breathtaking sequences of the Sun rising, the Sun setting; people and families frolicking beneath our benevolent yellow dwarf star called Sol.

If ever the aliens who’d taken our star from us entered Jenna’s mind, it didn’t show up in her work. But then, few of us thought of the aliens in any real sense anymore. They’d come, and so far as we knew, they’d gone. Dealing with the repercussions of their single, apocalyptic action had become far, far more important to all of us than dealing with the aliens themselves.

I remembered this as Number 6 creaked and groaned around me, the pressure warning lights letting me know that I was coming up too quickly—risking structural damage if I didn’t bleed off pressure differences between the inside and the outside of the sub.

Dan wasn’t with me. I’d convinced him to go back and let the others know about the Glimmer Club, and what the kids had done with Deepwater 3 behind our backs. He’d also been tasked with explaining why I’d disobeyed direct orders from a crew boss, risking my life and the old sub to chase a wild hair through the vast, dark ocean.

I couldn’t be sure I was right. All I had to go on was a short conversation I’d had with Jenna on her fifteenth birthday, just a few months earlier.

At that age she spent most of her time with the other teens on the station, as teenagers throughout history have always been prone to do. Old me had stopped being the focus of her attention right about the time she’d hit puberty.

Which was why that particular conversation stood out.

“Dad,” she said, “Does anyone ever go check anymore?”

“On what?”

“On the surface. Up top.”

“We used to send people all the time, but the thicker the ice got—especially when the equator closed over—the less point there seemed to be in it. So I don’t think anyone has tried in several years.”

“Why not? We can’t just give up, can we? I mean, why are we doing any of this if people aren’t going to ever go back to the surface?”

She had a good point. I am afraid I hemmed and hawed my way through that one, leaving her with a perplexed and somewhat unhappy expression on her face. If any of her friends had gotten better answers from their parents, I never found out. Though I now suspected that our big failure as adults had been our inability to imagine that our children wouldn’t be satisfied to just scratch out a living on the ocean floor.

We who’d been through the freeze-out from the surface, we’d seen the destruction and the death brought by the forever night. We felt fortunate to be where we were. Alive.

But our kids? For them, the ice layer on the surface had become a thing of myth. An impenetrable but invisible bogey monster, forever warned about, but never seen nor experienced. For the Glimmer Club, I suspect, it got to the point where they wondered if all of the adults weren’t crazy or conspiring in a plot. How did anyone really know that the surface was frozen over? That aliens had blocked the Sun?

To blindly accept a fundamental social truth upon which everyone agrees is just part of what makes us human.

But in every era, however dark or desperate, there have also always been hopeful questioners.

 

Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in our December issue,
on sale now.

 


 

...

Copyright © 2011 Brad R. Torgersen