Red at Night
Twice a day for ten years I sauntered down the wide streets of Argen, my eyes flickering as they followed each passing screen. They were stuck to the sides of every building like refrigerator magnets. I remember when we didn’t call him our Lord. I was a child, and my mother seemed terrified. Now, everyone is used to it. We all think, “it’s better this way.”
The sky had been black for exactly seven days. It started with only a freckle in the sky, like a speck that could be wiped away. Each day it grew, bit by bit. At first, nobody noticed it was growing. After half a month, before it visibly expanded, the explanation He gave us on those multitudes of screens was that a jumble of satellites from the past had crashed into each other and collected, their debris stuck in orbit like a new moon. “Incompetent, ancient technology,” He said, his voice echoing from those multitudes of screens which also decorated each room of every dwelling. Retired astronomers and meteorologists from my sector begged our local officials to study it. They pleaded to make an appeal to Him. They needed only a small amount of funding to unite a team and gather old equipment – they were willing to do the research for free. It had been forbidden for at least 30 years to conduct these types of experiments. The officials turned them away immediately. Eventually the dot grew, to the panic of everyone, and each week a new reason came with it. The last had been that the object had simply grown too sizeable and was positioned directly over the sun. He assured us it would be dealt with. Nothing to worry about.
Now, this would be my last day walking down the polished, steely avenues. I would escape or be killed. I didn’t know what was right. I only ever knew what I was told. But the monotony of my daily life no longer appealed to me and a buzz in the underground community had begun. I passed the factory I had turned into every day for a decade, and continued toward the riverbank, my eyes darting back and forth. The streets were mostly empty and people tended to avoid the stench of the river but I could not control my nervousness which had been bubbling steadily since my brother told me his plan. I reached the bridge and found a piece of striped ceramic and stomped my foot down next to it, determinedly. I counted the steps out in my head, once more. “R-E-D-P-L-A-N-E-T,” 18 steps for “R,” turn left. 5 steps for “E,” turn right.
I dug through sand and garbage until my fingernail scraped something metal. It was as he had described, circular with wires. It glinted in the distant, blue lowlight of the overhead streetlamps, somehow preserved throughout time. I don’t know where they kept it, or how. It was massive and heavy in my hand and I knew if anyone noticed it under my shirt on the way back up the riverbank I would immediately be taken in. I scanned the area once more and calmly made my way back up to the street. As planned, a MiniVe pulled up as I took my last step toward the pavement, and in one swift motion I sat inside and we sped off. I watched the white lights of the other ves on the superway as people were trickling back from their jobs – it was brighter at this time than any other. We had to plan each trip for the morning or evening when everyone was allowed out, a double edged sword that both hid us and made us more conspicuous. Each ve was equipped with a precise Universal Positioning System (UPS) and we had to use a homebuilt device to disable it and enable manual piloting on our way to the base. I didn’t know any of the three other men who sat around me. We didn’t speak. I was certain I could hear each of their heartbeats, the sound frantic over the low hum of traffic and the clacking of buttons. I held the object in my lap still. The driver glanced down at it every so often, as if its possible uses were racing through his mind.
We arrived at the base, which from the outside looked like nothing more than a densely crowded jumble of vines and half-dead trees. We covered the MiniVe in any loose branches and leaves we could find after the man, who had been sitting behind me with his machine, detached something from the underside – something to do with the UPS, I guessed. After some digging we located a glass bubble which flipped up and led into the ground. I climbed in third, carefully stepping down on the thin rungs of a creaking ladder, nervously feeling my way downward. I tightly held the object from the riverside against my chest. It was the last piece in a puzzle that so many of us were relying on. At the bottom, when my feet failed to find another rung, I nervously let go, not able to see the ground below. The fall was about five feet and I awkwardly tumbled to my knees, audibly gasping from both the sharp and sudden pain as well the gently lit sight in front of me.
Past the silhouettes of my teammates I saw it, jutting upward like a metal titan. My eyes soon came into focus as I clambered to my feet and waddled down the tunnel toward it. I recognized several faces in the dim light – my brother’s, and many of the old scientists who had made the appeal to study the sky. There were over fifty people crowded around this hulking steel giant, and one old gentleman silently took the object from my hands while a large team quickly gathered around the base of the vehicle with robotic tools and flashlights to assemble the last of it. My brother tried to smile but his face looked pained. Every step of this endeavour was uncertain, and years of work could kill us all, in the end. We were so close to success. It would be several hours until the project was complete so the team of test-pilots – me, my brother, the three men who had accompanied me, and five women I hadn’t met, sat around a small space heater and drank root juice. Our thoughts were mostly too full to sleep or to speak, and we didn’t want to disturb the technicians, but once in a while we would whisper our imaginings for the new world.
My brother began to ask me if I remembered our mother well. I did. I had only been 7-years-old when she went away but it had been long enough to permanently etch her kind, crooked smile and dark eyes into my memory forever. My father was born in Argen and the children who survived him were allowed to stay but my mother was sent back to her home country which was disease-ridden, war-stricken, and particularly unkind to women. She left us with only each other for company because she knew the difficulties we would face here couldn’t compare to those back home. Despite only being allowed to speak English, my mom often refused to do so at home, and consequently did not say many things to me in the language. We only sometimes understood each other. Her love for me always came across though, and she is one of the brightest things I can recollect from my time on Earth.
“Do you remember how she always said ‘ch-‘“ I began, but was interrupted by a loud explosion of cheers and cries. We quickly looked over to the workers who were laughing, hugging, and tearing up. It was complete. We all exchanged hugs and reiterated instructions. We had to do this as quickly as possible – once the systems were fired up we would quickly be located by officials. There would be no turning back. Half of ground control would evacuate to a remote location to monitor us and the other half would disperse to find new lives if they were not tracked. We began stepping into our gear – suits I had only seen in old illustrations; it felt like stepping into dinosaur skin – and groups of people crowded around us to attach small machines and tubes. I was receiving a million instructions a minute, the same ones I’d repeated to myself over and over, but I couldn’t make sense of the words at that moment. I let the arms around me guide me into the machine and into my seat, nodding as they strapped me in. Each crew member was quickly put into position and the scientists waved and said final goodbyes as they pushed the heavy door closed. Each of their faces were shining with tears. My eyes too suddenly brimmed with the nervous anticipation I’d felt these past years as we sat in the dark. I could not see him but I strained my neck in my stiff suit to look over to my brother who was behind me and to my left. Suddenly the emergency lights flooded the cabin. My brother’s eyes were shut tightly with the same anxieties I was feeling. The countdown was shorter than I knew it was in the forgotten eras. There was a sense of urgency. I heard yelling, and then the heavy groan of the engine, and then nothing. First my ears rang, and then my vision went blank. I fell into a thick, nauseated dream and my mind was filled with dancing lights, scattering across the inner walls of my head, and transformed into the sunshine of my youth which streamed between the wind-rustled leaves of apple trees. I remembered my mom’s smooth, dark skin and the way she’d cock her head as she looked down at me. Contrasted against the bright, fragrant happiness of our favourite park, we were surrounded by the terror and anticipation of the changing world. Despite the nightmare we knew was coming, she’d smile, saying over and over to me: never be afraid to change your life.
As we lifted toward the uncertain obscurity of the permanently black sky, these words echoed over and over, drowning out the sounds of heaving and clacking, sounds I could not identify, until an all-encompassing immensity crushed my face and chest and my mind went entirely dark.
visual work by Graeme Kennedy | response by Allee Omu
Using four panels and a call-and-response format, Sketch Wall features works by members of SHIFTWORK, a Fredericton-based artist collective.
SHIFTWORK’s upcoming art exhibition “Shift, Work, Repeat.” will be open for 24 hours, starting at 7:00pm on Friday, March 3 in the SHIFTWORK Studio, located at 384 Queen Street, third floor. All are welcome.