By Will Greenway
Imagine a morning when the sun failed to rise. Millions awaited the glimmering on the horizon that never came. Now, the world lives in twilight. Some call it the work of Satan, others God. A few cite aliens or rifts in the space/time continuum. Who’s right? I don’t know. I’m certain of one thing. I was born at 5:23 a.m., the exact time of that never-to-come sunrise. To honor the moment, Mother named me Ebondawn.
Oily mud from the banks of the Rio Grande clings tenaciously to my bare feet as I lean into the last few steps up the hill. The breeze smells of ash, chemicals, and desert sage. My heart pounds and I don’t know why. It can’t be exertion. The trek north from Guadeloupe is, for me, a short jaunt, yet the alloy staff drags in my hand. I tap on the rocks, picking through the hulks of shriveled cactus, and other long dead greenry.
Rolling my shoulders, I try to loosen tight muscles. I shift my pack and pull at my damp blouse. Glancing up, I expect to see a giant hand pressing on me from the iron gray heavens. So strange, it’s like Earth has been shut away in a box, there’s warmth, and enough illumination to tinge the sky gray. Someday, I hope to see the stars my mother told me about.
Coming down off the ridge, I stop before the grimy signal-flare encircled limits of El Paso. Beyond the illumination, it’s nothing but bullet riddled buildings, and the skeletal remnants of bombed and burned out structures. At first, the twilight terrified people and countries, making them lash out and destroy. Millions perished. After a year or so, reason finally took hold.
I shift my pack again, hearing the ceramic pieces of the Ar-Mek clunk together. The ancient shards are a bounty of weeks spent wandering in vast composted waste that used to be the Yucatan.
The outlines of the greenhouse domes resolve out of the distance and the thrum of the thermal processing plant grows louder. Glowing in eerie pastels of blue and orange, the half mile tall truncated cone of the convection plant dwarfs the mesas west of town. Beacons and strobes wink in the churning fog that surrounds the summit where evaporation, condensation, and heat transductance create pure water and clean energy.
Imminent death is a powerful motivator. A world without a sun does not long have plants—or life. Earth needed to manufacture millions of substitute suns and carbon-dioxide processors, then create perpetual power sources for them. Dozens of ‘new’ energy production techniques became available in weeks. Clean abundant power had been discovered decades ago, but greed kept them from becoming reality.
Killing a living tree now carries a stronger penalty than murder.
Ironic. Humans had been slowly killing themselves through ecological genocide for a century. It took imminent extinction to make them stop.
In town, the smooth asphalt relieves my weary feet. The ten mile hike from Guadeloupe has been routine, but the tension has sapped me.
My joints ache as if I’m a hundred instead of a forth that. I run a hand through my long hair, pulling it so it hurts. What’s wrong with me?
As I cross the east plaza, I note more closed shops. People who’ve left for the comfort of the bigger population centers like my parents did ten years ago. The walk is quiet, aside from a few police, mail and delivery trucks, not many people are about.
Heading down an alley, I sense a presence and stop. My stomach tightens as I turn and see the dumpster at the street side shoved to obstruct the opening. The alley goes black.
There’s a whir-snap-click of metal on metal; butterfly-knife. It’s done for effect, to scare me. It works. My heart speeds, and I grip my staff. I hear boot heels hit the pavement behind me.
I see him as a green silhouette against the bin, the bulbous outline of night-goggles and carbo-mask distort his profile. Ahead, the knife man advances, face also shrouded. They think the dark scares me.
I sidestep when the rear man lunges. I ram the staff between his legs. He squeals. A pig sound emanating from a pig. The knife-man is startled. Fast motion blurs the image in a cheap infra pickup. I thrust my staff between his eyes. His visor crunches on his face with a hollow thud. The empty melon sound seems appropriate too. He falls.
I take the knife. Korean Wai-Jen chromium steel, a nice one with bearing hinges. Whip-flipping it closed I put it in my belt. I leave his partner mewling in the shadows.
Sad. I wish I could say it had never happened before. Moments like this make me think humans deserve to live in the dark.
Keeping to better lit streets, I head north toward the main drag. The central plaza is bathed in halogen construction lights. On the far side, fifty yards away, two civ-engineers in orange overalls and carbo-masks labor over a street-side transverter.
One notices me and nudges the other; probably thinks I can’t see for the glare. He whispers, not knowing that were I at twice this range I’d still understand him. “Lane—check it. The ghost girl I told you about.”
Observing them discretely, I walk as though I don’t notice.
Lane glances up. He has hazel eyes; beautiful. They widen. “She’s not wearing a mask!”
The other’s voice sounds admiring. “Nope. Seen a few; CO2 tolerant.” His voice drops. “Great lungs, and look at those legs, whew. How’d you like those wrapped–“
“Knock it off, Brent,” Lane smacks his shoulder. After the two muggers, I find his resistance to Brent’s dirty mind refreshing. “She does look like a ghost, all that silver hair. Why’s she barefoot?”
Brent shrugs. “Doesn’t slow her down. Jerry, my supervisor, has seen her in Austin, Lubbock, Sante Fe. The babe gets around.”
“Yeah. No breather, shoes, jacket. Hell, we’re not sure she eats!”
I want a closer look at Lane. Is the rest of him is as nice as his eyes? I need to talk to someone.
Lane looks at the other man. “Know her name?”
Brent grins. “Why don’t you ask her?” He points to me.
Lane shakes his head. “No, I—” he stops, noticing my approach.
I tap my staff and wave. Brent has blue eyes. I recognize him from his eyes. They’re coarse blue, for a coarse man, lewd, but fairly harmless.
He nods. He’s big and our gaze meets level. “Hi.”
“Brent.” I smile and look to his hazel-eyed friend. “Lane.”
The breather covers their mouths, but I’m certain their jaws drop. Lane’s gorgeous eyes are round. His voice would be nice too if it didn’t shake. I’m used to it. I do that to people.
“H-h-have we met?”
I toss my silver hair. “Think you’d forget meeting me?”
He shakes his head.
“Me either.” In the bright halogens I see subtle traces on his irises; corrective laser surgery. Beneath the orange fabric he’s thin, a boy often chided by his mother to finish supper. The hand that grips his forgotten net-sniffer has short deft-looking fingers with tidy rounded nails. The alumni ring he wears is Cal-poly ’28. His lack of accent, the healed over earring hole in the left ear, the bolt tattoo on his wrist, and the black tennies make me guess he grew up in California. I bet he misses the waves.
Brent looks wary. “So, where’d you come in from?”
“South. Chichen itza, Uxmal, Ixiichen, Tachiixin.”
Lane’s eyes narrow. “Mayan ruins?”
“Olmec, actually.” I glance at the open housing of the transverter, circuit boards, relays, and fiber-optics all exposed. “This hub down? You should work fast. Otherwise, re-syncing the phased backups takes hours.”
They’re both startled, as if power distribution is a knowledge reserved to men. “You know this stuff?” Brent asks.
“The University of Sante Fe says all I know is archeology. Like you say though; I get around. I best let you do your work.”
Lane looks disappointed. “Yes.”
I tap the transverter’s housing with my staff. “Power spikes?”
Looking unsure, they both nod.
“EM feedback from the tower.” I point to looming silhouette. “When ten million tons of metal starts transducting, the copper and zinc plumbing in these old towns pick up the magnetics and act like a big antenna.” I nudge the access panel on the ground. “Shielding is flimsy.”
“Damn,” Brent says, rubbing his chin. “That’s worth checking.”
“How do you learn all this stuff?” Lane asks. “And still have time to walk everywhere?”
I grin. “Don’t sleep much. Hey, a favor?”
“I’ll be at Rosa’s over on Main. Come tell me how it went?”
I like the sparkle in his eyes. It’s interest and not lust.
“Fine. See you.” I start to walk off, but Lane touches my arm. His hand is warm. My skin tingles.
“Wait. I don’t know your name.”
Walking off, I feel—different. I rub the place where he touched. The skin still tingles. I don’t believe in magic. Why is life always trying to convince me otherwise?
The walk to Rosa’s is about a mile, the shop windows and cross-streets quickly become a blur. Abruptly, I realize someone is walking beside me. A short balding man in a red checked flannel shirt, loose jeans, and silver-toed hobnail boots. He, like me, wears no carbo-mask. His face is unfamiliar, but his gold eyes are unmistakable.
“Michael!” He is a strange old coot I’ve met all over Texas, New Mexico, and in the South. I’m not sure, but I think he used to be an anthropologist. When he’s not babbling on the lunatic fringe his knowledge of Central America is phenomenal. He’s pointed me to important finds.
He raises an eyebrow. “You’re late.”
I slow down. “I am?”
“Yes. Shouldn’t dally. There’s a time table to keep. You found the other three pieces, correct?”
“Well, yes… How did you—?” I stop myself, it’s pointless to ask an eccentric like Michael how he knows something. His sense of time is—odd. He acts as if our chance encounters are planned.
“The Ar-mek can be completed now.”
“They don’t seem to fit—”
“No excuses. The Ar-Mek, Ebon. Do it.”
“I don’t even know what it does.”
“Celestial Services is disappointed. This is a simple case of quad-dimensional static disrupting a temporal-phase transducer. It should be fixed by now. We don’t have eternity.” He sighs. “Finish up. It looks terrible on your resume.” He turns down a side street and is gone.
Strange, like our other meetings. The knot in my shoulders has found its way into my entire body. I need a drink.
As the air hatch seals behind me, I see only a few customers sitting in Rosa’s picnic style dining room, decorated with clowns, bullfighters, and seaport scenes. The scent of fresh tortillas, roasted peppers, and refried beans makes my stomach rumble. It’s been days since I’ve eaten anything solid.
Following my nose to the order counter, I notice Lane has arrived ahead of me. Without his carbo-mask I see that his jaw is weaker than I like, but his smile makes up for it. I wave. He waves back.
Fishing my billfold from my pack, I drop a twenty on the counter in front of a harried looking Mexican counter girl. “Number seven; extra orders of rice and tortillas.”
She pulls the money toward her slow. “All for you?”
Smiling, I take my change. “Every bean. Extra basket of chips and salsa, please?” I point where Lane sits.
I lean my staff against the wall, unshoulder my pack and set it on the bench. Lane studies me, chin propped on his fist. I can tell from his expression he isn’t quite sure what to make of me.
“Aren’t many people who can finish that number seven,” he says.
I shrug. “They don’t have my kind of metabolism.”
“What kind is it, exactly?” He asks, picking up a glass of water.
The glass pauses. He laughs. He’s slow to sip, considering it.
He smiles. Some of the tension relaxes.
“You finished fast, so it must have been faulty shielding.”
“Dead on the money. Appreciate it—heaps.”
The counter girl comes with the chips and Lane’s order. I scoop up some hot sauce. The bite is sharp and welcome on my tongue.
“So, what were you doing in those ruins?” he asks.
I pull over my pack and start setting odd shaped pieces of the Ar-Mek on the table and unwrapping them. “Unearthed these. Today, the Yucatan is one gigantic compost heap, forty feet of decomposing wood and vegetation. It’s so hot in places, the rocks glow.”
“Lot of jungle plants don’t need much light, took years to die. Now, there’s mushrooms in the south of Tabasco ten feet tall. A forest of spotted caps has sprung up where trees used to be.”
The giant number seven is thunked down in front of me and I scoop up some beans and rice before unwrapping the rest of the thirteen pieces of the Ar-Mek. Pieces of metal, jade, and wood chips are embedded in the polished ceramic surfaces.
Lane is fascinated. He points to a piece that looks like an elongated pyramid with angled chunks taken out of it. “Those Mayan symbols?”
“Olmec, remember?” I crunch down on a taco, and steal a sip from his water. “Predates the Maya a thousand years.”
“You risk your life for these?” He asks, incredulous. “What have you learned from them that’s worth getting killed for?”
Forking some enchilada into my mouth, I point my knife at him. “For one.” I swallow. “This isn’t Earth’s first twilight. Academics hold that Mayan twilight accounts are lunar eclipses.” I point to the pieces. “No. It’s also maintained, based on iridium counts, that a meteor killed the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.” I tap a piece with fingernail. “Buzz that. A twilight like the one we’re in right now.”
“Incredible! Have you told anyone?”
“Hell, no.” I shake my head. “An independent researcher, exploring Olmec ruins no-one’s heard of, or seen. It’s edification for yours truly. Santa Fe’s Archeology department has seen the photographs, the faculty know me, they won’t acknowledge them. Damn political baloney.” I chomp down on my taco. “Screw ’em,” I utter with my mouth half-full.
Lane picks up a couple of the ceramic shapes. “So what are these?”
“They’re part of a figure called the Ar-Mek.”
Lane brightens. “It is all part of the same thing. I was going to say it looked like a Chinese puzzle. I have a collection. These all seem to fit.” He grabs four pieces and fits the notches together. He tests more pieces, after many tries finding another that fits the cleft.
I flash on what Michael told me. “Think you can put it together?”
I plow through my meal, concentrating on Lane and the Ar-Mek. It takes shape slowly. Sometimes it’s a dead end and he has to pull out the pieces and start again to progress toward the finished product.
Wiping the last of beans and rice off the plate with a tortilla, I pop it in my mouth.
Perspiration is running down his cheek. “And you say the finished object is like a twelve pointed star?”
I nod. He takes a sip of water, and eyes my conspicuously empty plate. “Want some of mine?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Are you ever going to explain?”
“How you survive out there?”
I look away. “I just do. I never was a typical kid. I was born the day of the twilight. I was made different by it. My hearing, my sight… I finally gave up pretending I was normal.” I sigh. “I am as you see me.”
He’s focused on me now. I find myself drawn into those hazel eyes. “Barefoot and beautiful. Your kind of different I’m all for.”
Pursing my lips, I look up at the ceiling. “Lane, different is having a weird name, or a disability, or being another color. I’m more than different. I’m always compensating, acting as if I’m like everyone else.”
“Do yourself a favor and stop trying. It might sound trite, but what you are is magic. You know you’re special. You just don’t want to say it and sound arrogant. I’m okay with that.” He shoves my arm. “Obviously, you’re not perfect. You can’t do puzzles worth a damn!”
We both laugh.
We fall into a silence. I rub the spot on my arm where he first touched me and remember the tingle. There always seemed an intimacy barrier between myself and men. An invisible line, a tough muster no-one had passed yet. A hard look at Lane says he doesn’t measure up.
Most of me doesn’t care. That protective feral instinct is, for the first time, giving the ‘go’ signal. Damn it. If I had to be only half human, why did I have to inherit the part with conflicted feelings?
“Heavy thoughts,” Lane says. “Like storm clouds in your eyes.”
I smile. “Puzzles and poetry?”
“We try to please.” He pushes another piece into the Ar-Mek, and looks at me hand on fist.
Damn his eyes, they started this. Stop staring at me. I’m returning the look like some mooning teenager. Hell. Where’s my maturity? I know I left it here someplace. Focus. I see how the Ar-Mek goes together now. He’s done it. But what exactly has he done? What is it a key to?
Your heart? Oh please. I don’t want the conflicted feelings or the damn hormones. One more inane cliché and it’s a cold shower for you.
To think of it, a shower wouldn’t be so bad. Stop it.
Rather than say something I know will sound stupid, I pull the mostly assembled Ar-Mek to me, and start fitting the remaining three pieces. The ceramic is heavy and strangely warm. Lane watches me place the first two pieces. I reach for the third.
Don’t you do it. Don’t—
His hand is on top of mine. My heart is pounding. This is silly! He’s staring again. He frowns.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh-h-h.” I push a hand through my hair. “Nothing…” I wish. I pull my hand from under his. My arm is covered with goose bumps. Traitor. That’s it. Cold shower. Soon as you can get away without making a fool of yourself.
I look at my hand. “Yes, look at that,” I say, my tone sharp with irritation. I can’t believe this. “Let’s look at this instead.” I take the last piece of the Ar-Mek and work it into the hole where it goes.
“What are you afraid of?”
I continue wiggling the ceramic shape, slowly working it into position. I don’t meet Lane’s eyes, I can’t do it—not now. “Annoyed, yes. Unprepared, yes.” The piece gets part way and resists further insertion. I shove harder. “Frustrated, yes. But, I am not afraid!” The piece refuses to go in and I hastily put the Ar-Mek down and push it away, to keep from throwing it. “Damn it.”
“Ebondawn,” his saying my name makes me look up. “Is that your way of saying you like me?”
I cover my eyes with my hand, massaging my forehead. “You know, Lane, it—” This is such a cop out. I have never been this transparent in my life! “It’s getting late…”
Oh hell, don’t say you understand. Lose control, freak out, storm away, please don’t just sit there and be sensitive too.
He picks up the Ar-Mek and the remaining piece, reverses the direction I was trying to put it in, and slowly slides it into place. He puts it on the table in front of me. “There.”
I look at the many faceted star inlaid with metals, wood, and jade, glyphs and other carvings glistening on it’s surface. It’s beautiful. So is Lane. “I hate you,” I mutter.
“I said,” I hold the Ar-Mek up between us. “I hate you!”
The opaque surface of the Ar-Mek shimmers and becomes transparent. A pinpoint of light appears in its center then grows in brightness. As the light brightens the ceramic grows hot. I almost drop it. I feel the device begin a low rhythmic pulsing. I sense something else.
Lane frames it with a single word. “Wow.”
A revelation rips through me like a bolt. “Oh my God. I know what this does. I need a temple… High up. Slanting walls—like a pyramid.”
“Hold on,” he takes my arm. “Slow down. Temple?”
I ignore him. “A temple, something big…” Now, I’m babbling. It hits me. “The tower. Can you get us on top the convection tower?”
I grab my pack and staff. “Get your mask. Let’s go.”
Outside, the frosty oxygen-poor air hits me like a slap. I take a slow breath, adjusting. It’s a hard down after the giddiness I’ve been feeling. Maybe all that out-of-control emoting was too much oxygen. My mind whirls as Lane leads me to his truck. What if I’m wrong, and this is just lunacy? What if I’m right?
I toss my staff and pack behind the seat, and swing up into the cab cradling the Ar-mek in my lap. I close the door and listen to the hiss of air seals pressurizing the cabin. More oxygen to make me stupid.
Lane pulls off his mask, his gaze on the Ar-Mek. “What does it have to do with the tower?”
“Just get us to the tower.”
He looks at me for a long moment before flipping the mains. The cab fills with the hum of the exciters spinning up. I smell Ozone mixing with carbon filtered air. He cranks the main centrifuge, the truck rattles and lurches as the heavy clutches wind up to speed. I am so conscious of time that when we finally rumble onto the street it feels like a year.
On the open road heading out to the power station I lay my head back against the seat. The aches, the pokes, the strange pains, they’re all gone. Through my slit lids I look at the star-shaped Ar-Mek leaned against my belly. I don’t believe in destiny either.
My arm tingles. “You okay?”
He’s touching me again. I look down at my arm. Briefly, I consider breaking his fingers. Why, because you like it and don’t want to? Because it makes you stupid? “Fine. Just excited.”
Lane has to use two pass keys and a code to get us into the power-station compound. At the base of the convection tower, I feel like an ant. The gargantuan structure seems to scrape the sky. The pounding of my heart, the twist of my stomach say this is the right place. The groaning maintenance lift is so slow I consider using the stairs, all four hundred flights. Lane is stoic behind his mask, brown eyes studying me.
Some strange feeling in me says I’ve lived my whole life for this moment, to stand at the top of this man-made monstrosity with this odd device in my hand. Maybe I am crazy. Crazy to believe a lunatic. Crazy to wander around in the dark alone. Crazy to pretend I’m sane.
The whirring lift stops with a clank. The wind blows cold and wet against my face. Fog churns around us. Pumps chug steadily and water hisses as it is sprayed at high velocity over the half mile deep metallic chasm. Black and yellow striped rails are everywhere. Red and blue beacons send shafts of light arcing through the mist.
The metal causeway clanks as I step off the lift and move down it. Even with rails all around it’s hard to feel secure. We’re a half mile up with a vertical drop on both sides. Lane stays behind me. I can feel his concern. He’s holding his tongue though, willing to let me play this out. I’m grateful, even if I end up being the goat.
About quarter way around the rim I see a booster station where the water pumped up the side of the tower is redirected around the periphery. It’s wide there, room to move—to breathe—to find out if I’m right.
Stepping onto the broader hem of metal, I feel less confined. The pulsing of the Ar-Mek seems faster now, as if it senses that I’m going to use it. Something inside me knows what to do.
I hold the device overhead and close my eyes. Concentrating, I push my hands together, tensing my arms, focusing the heat and power of my body into that glowing pinpoint of light at its center.
Standing poised, pushing my will into the thing, I continue until my arms ache. Nothing happens.
“Ebon?” Lane says behind me, his voice muffled by the mask.
I lower my hands. A joke. A jest I played on myself over some fancy chemical reaction in some pieces of ceramic and metal. The trickles that run down my face burn. How could I believe I might single-handedly solve the most devastating threat that mankind has ever faced? It isn’t a strong testimony to my sanity.
“Ebon?” There’s concern in his voice and in his eyes.
I can relate. I’m concerned for myself too. There’s something wrong with me. “Let’s go. It was stupid. I was stupid. Here.” I hand him the Ar-Mek.
The device flares strobe-white. Lane reels back a step holding his eyes. I jerk back too, barely catching the Ar-Mek before it falls.
Lane shakes his head, rubbing at his eyes. “What the hell?”
Perplexed, I move the Ar-Mek toward him. As the device comes close it grows brighter.
I shake my head. “Guess it takes two to work it. Take hold.”
“Something good.” I think. I raise the Ar-Mek over my head.
Shielding his eyes, he reaches up.
The Ar-Mek goes blinding white, forcing me to avert my eyes. My heart jumps and my stomach tightens. It feels like something is sucking the strength out of me. Lane grunts and his legs start to buckle. He grabs the rail to keep his balance.
The light is so bright I can see my bones silhouetted in my arms. Shafts of blue, yellow, and red lance out from the Ar-Mek seeming to etch a pattern. In a few more instants, the light dims and I can see again. The Ar-Mek has returned to normal, but an area a yard square appears to have been carved from the air. A soft yellowish glow shines from within.
The Ar-Mek was indeed a key. It had opened a panel in space. But into what? Sparkles dance through dozens of web-like structures within the small area. Darker shapes that resemble bugs, cylinders, and pyramids grow out of arrays of crystalline-looking plates. To one side are dozens of spheres. All but one glow with a soft green light, that one is blackened and cracked.
“It’s some kind of machine.”
My heart flutters. “Gives celestial mechanics a new meaning, huh?”
“This thing can fix the twilight?”
“According to my—source, fix it, and our sun and stars come back.”
“Unreal. If it’s not magic, it might as well be.”
There’s something round laying to one side in the workings. I reach for it. Lane draws a breath and grabs my shoulder.
“What are you..!”
I pull out a small green globe, the same size and shape as the blackened one. I hold the insignificant appearing crystal in my hand. “Hard to believe I could be holding mankind’s future.”
Lane’s voice trembles. “Just in case, be careful.” He points to the blackened globe. “Let’s switch them.”
“That’s what bugs me, Lane,” I say.
“It’s simple. Too simple. Just because we can, should we?”
Lane’s eyes go wide. “Why not?”
“Right now, people are working together. People fight with one another, but the nations are cooperating. That’s never happened before. Humans are protecting the Earth. What if we turn on the lights and everything goes back to way it was.”
“Ebon, that’s not for us to decide!”
“Isn’t it?” I hold the jewel up between my fingers and let the light catch it. “I don’t see anyone else here.”
“Don’t be crazy.”
“Am I, Lane—crazy? You can honestly say you can’t foresee the Earth back in the same mess it was in twenty-five years ago?”
He hits his forehead with his fist. “But it’s a mess now!”
I close my hand on the jewel. “So, it’s a question of which mess is worse.” I point the Ar-Mek at the panel, and imagine the panel closing.
Like some glowing door, the aperture narrows.
“What are you doing!?”
“You’re right. It isn’t for us to decide.” I put the sphere in his hand, and close his fingers on it. “At least, not right now.”
The light from the celestial panel is gone. Lane stares at it then looks at me. His eyes are wide. “But—”
I put my hand over his mask. “Lane, we have time. The world won’t die overnight.” I put my hand on his. “For whatever reason, you and I were both given this responsibility.” I lean over and kiss him on the ear. “Let’s not blow it. Let’s plan our dawn, and make it something special…”