By Josh Pearce
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The man on the bandstand is nervous, you can see from here, and not just because that, in order to face the gathered crowd, he has his back to the open pit of a fully populated Dark Lair. The man is stuttering through his opening remarks, leaning forward into the megaphone. He is a minor functionary, a middle manager of the coal company chosen to give the introductions, and he is clearly not prepared for public speaking. His superiors, the coal mine owners, look down on him from their seats in the high watchtowers, from safety.
Even over his amplified voice, you and the thousand strong can hear the Darkness howling from the pit. You shiver. It is a quarter to midnight on the ninth of May, and you can see your breath in the spotlights that illuminate the makeshift stage.
There is scattered applause as the man on stage finally steps aside, and the keynote speaker comes up to the loud hailer, waving both arms. Here is a man unafraid of the spotlight, who directs his thanks at the back of the fleeing bureaucrat, thank you for that simply generous introduction. "Hello. I am Major Dartmouth of the Royal Engineering Corps," he says, but you already know who he is. He's the whole reason you're here. The Major writes books about science and it is these books that you read by weak oil lamp when your husband is at sea and the children have been called up for maneuvers.
"Like the rest of you, I join the people of this great empire in celebrating tomorrow's Fresnel Day!" More, expected applause. "Tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of the brilliant scientist whose improved lighthouses ring our empire's cities, keeping the Darkness back." You instinctively look over your shoulder at the nearest city gate, to check that the lighthouse is still lit. You vividly remember when war between Russia and Britain disrupted trade routes, and your small town on the edge of its landmass ran out of whale oil. When, for seven nights in a row, the Darkness swept through the streets, clawing at shutters and doors, running on the rooftops and screaming down the chimneys. Every day, fewer and fewer survivors, your friends and neighbors snatched from their homes, beds, and cradles. A shipment of oil finally arrived just in time to keep the Darkness from eating everyone and turning it into yet another ghost town.
You lost your youngest children that week, your two daughters. Now you cannot go outside, cannot lie down to sleep, without first looking up at the lighthouse.
"For thousands of years, man has huddled together as the Sun went down, staving off vampires, dire wolves, bogeymen, and other nightmares by keeping the fire going all throughout the night. All of the fairy tales we told each other around the fire could not prepare us for the day when True Darkness broke through and nearly wiped humanity from the face of the Earth."
When the Darkness broke through the lowest, deepest mineshafts from the pits where they dwelt, cutting off the empire's easy wealth. The mine owners, content to watch from above, were finding it harder and harder to find workers willing to go deep enough to find the profitable veins.
You lean into your husband and feel him tighten his arm around your shoulders. His family came here from the home islands generations ago, when the first Dark waves swallowed entire cities whole, before the empire could build fences of light around its population centers. Crude lines of bonfires at first. And then, eventually, refined lighthouses that could light up the surrounding land for miles in any direction. Frightened immigrants fled to the colonies, trying to outrun the danger, only to find that Darkness was everywhere, waiting for them.
"For hundreds of years we have been running from our fear of the Dark, but no longer! Centuries of burning wood, peat, whale oil, and coal has led to severe resource depletion, horrible smog, and leaves the empire vulnerable to these Dark Night Terrors. Realizing that one day we will run out of fuel to burn, and that clouds of smoke reduce the candlepower of our lighthouses and shadow us from protective sunlight, the Royal Engineering Corps is dedicated to advancing the use of solar power in the eradication of the Darkness!"
More cheering, especially from the men, including your husband. Normally he'd be out to sea chasing whales down the Pacific coast. But he wants to be with you this Fresnel Day, wants to take part in the fireworks and the traditional pissing-in-the-pit. Plus there are fewer and fewer whales each year, fewer jobs for a sailor.
"By using chains of mirrors throughout the empire, we extend the range of our lighthouses and bonfires, and even of daylight itself. A single R.E.C. mirror on a hilltop can put sunset off a few more hours for the city in the valley below. Fresnel's last great invention before his untimely death at the hands of Darkness was the lens bomb, one of which you can see behind me." Major Dartmouth gestures at the chandelier, suspended by a crane over the coal pit. "We drop these into every Dark Lair that we find, and they scatter the light into the blackest depths of the Earth."
The major leans very close to his bullhorn and you go silent, anxious, anticipating. "I am a man of light, and I carry the light man's burden--to secure the home islands by providing them with sunlight twenty-four hours a day. Our transglobal mirror network has been slowly encircling the entire world from both ends, starting from the Westminster lighthouse, coming to reach this joining spot where we stand today. By using outposts, light towers, mountaintops, dirigibles, buoys, and the tall ships of our navy, we are able to capture a ray of sunshine on the opposite side of the planet and send it completely 'round by heliograph anywhere that our engineers have installed mirrors.
"We want to thank the tireless efforts of our colonies in the Americas, Australia, the Orient, India, Palestine, and Africa for their instrumental work in forging the links in this monumental chain. And I want to thank _you,_ the brave subjects of British Canada, for bearing witness tonight!" The crowd is deafening. The light changes, and you check over your shoulder to see that the lighthouse has gone out, extinguished to enhance the effect of the demonstration. You feel your chest tighten. Your voice is lost among them as Dartmouth takes hold of a giant lever with both hands. He pulls it, swinging the linchpin mirror around to face the East. You turn your head to look. Nothing happens. Dartmouth waves to an assistant and placates the crowd as you murmur.
"The Royal Engineering Corps does not regard today as the end of our labors. Rather, we work towards realizing Fresnel's ultimate dream. One day soon we shall have made such a large mirror, and suspended it high enough in the sky--perhaps by balloon or rocket--that night will be banished forever! Man will walk freely at all hours, under the celestial light that he has made! Truly, never again will the Sun set on our empire!"
Dartmouth's assistant is frantic at the heliograph, communicating by faint flickering flashes with someone far beyond the range of your vision. The howling Darkness is getting louder. They can sense you gathered there at the edge of their pit, an easy meal. Some of the people at the back of the crowd peel away and trot quickly towards the gates of town, and the major calls out, "I beg your patience, please! We shall have the issue resolved quickly."
The assistant turns from his communications. You overhear him say to the major: "Two of our ships have been lost at sea, sir. The uplink has been broken."
The audience begins to panic at the edges like a spooked herd of cattle. You and your husband are nearer the center of it and have nowhere to go. "There is nothing to fear," says the major. "The sun mirrors are placed in a network, not in a single chain. Engineers are working right now to route the sunlight around the interruption. The whole system was designed with this in mind, and we shall learn shortly what the problem is."
"I'll tell you what the cause is," shouts a man near the stage. He breaks through the picket line of constables and climbs up on the platform. You do not recognize him, even though you have lived in the same town for your whole life and know all of its inhabitants. "The ships were sunk, on purpose, by friends of the Earth! This system of mirrors is a danger to us all. The natural cycle of day and night is the way that God intended, for all of his creatures!" The man is shouting into the bullhorn. "Millions of animal species will die if their way of life is disturbed. Plants will wither on the vine. Snow will melt and lakes will dry up if the Sun is out all the time. Not to mention the cost in money and human lives as the empire spreads its colonial shackle over every nation in order to maintain these mirrors! My comrades and I have smashed enough nodes between here and the East coast that no sunlight will reach us until morning, the way it's supposed to be."
"You stupid zealot." The major wrestles with him for control of the loudspeaker. "You've killed everyone here." But the saboteur is too quick--he pulls out a pistol and fires once into Dartmouth's chest. You scream, louder than the mob. Dartmouth touches his chest in shock, staggers backwards, and topples over the stage's edge. His body tumbles down, into the pit, and there is sudden silence, as though the Dark creatures below are as surprised by it as you are. Stop shouting, stand paralyzed in shock.
Then the crowd surges forward, with fists raised, ready to tear the stage apart to get at the saboteur. You see your husband press forward into them, and the crowd swallows him from your view. The front rows of the audience have reached Dartmouth's murderer and he is pushed to the ground. The beating stops only when the Darkness swarms up from the coal mine and washes over the stage in a seething wave. You scream your husband's name, but he is lost to you. Run. The constables rush in with phosphorus lanterns, unhooding them in quick flashes at the creatures. Run faster. The creatures from the deep go up like flash paper, and their flames guide a path for you through the frayed edges of the crowd and back into town.
The gate is open when you reach it, abandoned. It takes you a full minute to gasp up enough air and call to the lighthouse for them to reignite the beacon, but no one responds. The lamplighters have abandoned their post as well. Where is everybody? Either hiding or running toward the fight, you hope. You are too old to run quickly, or to turn the tide of the fight. You could relight the tower, every town citizen is trained in the operation, but you lean against the stone side of the lighthouse, fatigued, and cannot possibly fathom climbing all of those steps. Hands tremble, heart hurts.
There is movement beyond the gate, the shape of Darkness coming closer. They will soon be upon you, unless you can get the tower lit. Fucking do something. Think. The wooden warehouse nearby is stacked high with barrels of oil, fuel for the lighthouse. Perhaps the lamplighters are out of fuel, and that is why they haven't rekindled it yet. You try another high-pitched shout, voice breaking, up the spiral stairwell, and again no answer.
The Darkness screams at you, much closer than you thought it was. Find a weapon. There is a hand-axe by the door, which the lamplighters use to chop up firewood. It feels good and solid when you take it up, doesn't it? But step outside of the lighthouse to face the Darkness, and see just how clearly inadequate it is against them. You yell for help but there is no one else around. The village has locked itself behind its flimsy wooden doors, huddled with its children in the root cellar, praying for the Darkness to pass them over.
You are alone, and there is only one way to save the town from being eaten by the Dark. Make what few preparations you have time for and face the monsters head-on. You wouldn't be able to outrun them anyway.
The first monster is close enough for you to see its teeth, mouth open to rip out your soft belly flesh. It is moving fast; hold still. Just as it coils to leap, strike a matchstick against the handle of the axe, and drop the flame into the puddle in front of you. The puddle of whale oil, a trail of it leading all the way back to the open warehouse, where you've broken open a cask with your axe. The lead creature is standing in the oil when it lights, and its skin goes up like a torch.
The rest of the Dark creatures pull up short at the flare of light because it hurts their eyes. The quick flicker of fire darts into the warehouse, just as you duck around the safe side of the stone tower. The explosion, all of the gallons of oil, blows the warehouse apart like a dandelion and flash-ignites the Darkness. Above you, the lighthouse leans over from the blast and the sharp rain of its shattered lens falls all around you. Now the buildings around the warehouse are burning, and so is the wooden stockade wall that surrounds the town.
The Dark monsters that survive the explosion are running from the growing halo of light and the slowest ones catch fire in mid-step. The tower groans under its own weight and you hobble out of its shadow just as it collapses sideways, crushing several homes and a long section of the fence. You hear screaming--the shrieks of the Darkness, of course, but also the cries of the families trapped in their homes, burning alive.
The firelight grows bigger and bigger, creating a false dawn, and it crawls far enough to touch the linchpin mirror that Major Dartmouth installed near the stage. The mirror beams it straight into the lens bomb suspended over the pit. The bomb descends on its cable into the darkness. It is an orrery of mirrorballs and magnifying lenses on gear tracks orbiting the honeycomb Fresnel lens in the middle. It scatters spears of illumination everywhere, cleansing all the way to the bottom of the coal pit. The crowd cheers to the firework sound of superheated bodies popping into flame.
The town burns through the night, and in the morning your husband finds you digging through your neighbors' ashes. He has survived the fight with nothing more than scratches, and he folds you up in his arms. You cannot stop weeping enough to speak.
The first day after the fire, Fresnel Day, is hell--tears and river water making mud out of the dead. As the shadows lengthen, the survivors huddle closer and closer together, for the lighthouse is destroyed, and there is not enough fuel left to make a protective bonfire. The handfuls of Darkness that survived the previous night have fled into the hills, and you hear them howling as dusk sets in. The townsfolk lie down together near the bandstand, where there is room enough, free of rubble, for them to fit. It will be the first time you have slept outdoors, ever. Your husband lies next to you and whispers in your ear that he is glad for one last night with you.
The darkness is nearly complete. You put your faith in faraway engineers, praying that they can deliver a shipment of photons to your town before it is too late. Pray, also, that all of the sacrifices you've made to the Darkness in a lifetime of fear will keep it away, just this one night. Keep your eyes on the Fresnel bomb, on the mirror high above you, and wait, and hope for the Sun to come up soonest.