“We are in a world where you have to pay for sunlight. This is when you think capitalism can’t get any worse,” Tom said.
I looked at him and his SunMaster tanning bulbs. We left the store and looked at the artificial atmosphere above us, simulating dark grey clouds. The sky looked like a giant flat TV, but it was just another hot September day in England – nothing special.
“You don’t handle it well, do you?” I said to Tom. “Think of the Scandinavians.”
“Yes, I feel for them!”
“Their suicide rates are shocking.”
“Nothing new there,” he said.
I wished Tom cared more. There should be something that we could do. The government took the sun from us seven years ago, requesting a fee to see her. And only a year ago, they’d suspended the rental until further notice. Apparently, they were experimenting.
Tom and I went to his place to play some video games. It made us forget about the outside.
When staring at the clouds, I couldn’t really tell where the sun was. Being a winter person, I had no problem with daylight on cloudy days. My skin had always absorbed the sunlight well. People like Tom were overreacting. They would swallow numerous vitamin D pills every day to avoid any deficiencies.
“Do you realise that they want the suicide rates to go up here too?” I said.
“What good is humanity anyway?”
Tom didn’t understand, and he never would. He was a smart kid, an engineer-to-be and happy enough to live under these circumstances. The panic of others made him go with the flow.
“My uncle is making big money at his funeral home…” he said.
“I assume that cremation is a must these days.”
There were many cemeteries in town, and the government planned to either get rid of them or build on them. We’d already survived the purge period, but the greedy government would always have more in store to wipe out the poor. The number of homeless people had gone down, but nobody would ever mention where the homeless went.
The resistance group was active last night. I’d seen some of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks. People referred to them as “What’s left of Anonymous.” Since they fed the poor, they weren’t criminals in my eyes. They did light up illegal fireworks in an attempt to destroy the screen. The police caught two of them, but the newspaper would never broadcast any news on who was behind the masks. No one knew what happened to them after the arrest.
We found Tom’s mum on the sunbed. His little sister, Lily, was watching an old animal documentary on the discovery channel. As soon as the African sun rose on the screen, she approached the TV and touched it. She had never been in the sun. Before the suspension, the price to see the sun went up to £100 per minute. Tom’s parents had long stopped paying for the sun. We all complained about how the train fare went up every year, but nothing would ever compare to this.
“Thomas? Is that you?” his mum said from under the sunbed.
“Yeah. Jamie’s here, too.”
His mum shouted hello. Lily jumped up, running towards me. “Jamie!”
She always insisted on me holding her up when we greeted each other. Sometimes I wonder if she loved me more than her own brother. Before Tom and I entered his room, his mum came after us. Her tan looks terrible, as if she had overdone a roast by twenty minutes.
“Did you get my bulbs, hun?”
He passed them to her.
“Cheers, darling,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek, then she took Lily from me.
“It’s your turn, sweetheart,” she said to Lily, who pouted at her mum. I wouldn’t be surprised if she found her own mum ugly.
“I don’t want to. I can’t move in there!”
“It’s only for two minutes. You want to look tanned and pretty for grandma later, don’t you?”
“Yes, but in the real sun.”
After sunset, you would often see the real sky. It’s at night-time when everything felt more natural. And when it wasn’t cloudy, they would sometimes let you see the moon, the stars, Orion’s belt. But there had been no sign of stars in weeks.
However, I spot the moon on my way home. It appeared to be red but not in the style of an eclipse. Something looked different. For an early autumn night, it felt unpleasantly warm, too.
“The sun is dying,” a voice said.
A bloke in a hoodie stood next to me. He was half a head smaller than me—his long blonde hair covered under his hood.
“What?” I said.
Then, I noticed a few more people around us. A couple of them were leaning against a pole; another one was playing coin toss. They were all wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
“What’s the value of money if there is no more sun?” he said and looked at me.
The dim street lamps threw a mysterious light on him. His eyes were grey-blue.
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with the sun?”
“You heard him,” a female voice said. I turned and saw a frowning girl holding a Fawkes mask in her hand.
“Oi, guys! Nightwatch!” one of the masked boys said.
The next thing I knew, they started running. I had no reason to run with them, but I did. We ran three blocks down the street, away from the approaching sirens.
“This way,” Blondie said, and we turned left into a dead-end street with the others. One was going crazy, shouting and bending the rear mirrors of expensive cars that we passed.
“Stop it, Mitch, you fucking idiot!” a girl said.
“What does it matter?” Mitch said.
It was too dark to see where we were, but judging by the rows of townhouses, we were in a quiet residential area. We gathered behind a bush, where Blondie pointed his LED light on the ground. One of the boys lifted a maintenance hole cover. I watched one climb down after the other. The girl looked at me briefly before she disappeared into the hole. Blondie was next in line but pointed the light at my body and said,
“What are you waiting for, Jamie?”
I didn’t know why I ended up going with them. They knew my name, no big deal. Yet, it had felt natural to me to trust them with my life. I didn’t even know them.
“You don’t look comfortable, my friend,” said Blondie at the bottom of the ladder, his hood no longer covering up his head.
He looked young, but it could also be his height. Everyone had their headlights on while walking through a tunnel where rats were squeaking. I saw a light at the far end.
So, they were what remained of Anonymous: three hackers and a bunch of wannabe rebels. They took off their masks and didn’t seem older than seventeen. Their workstation was a vast cave with a high ceiling—walls equipped with large touchscreens, sensors and cameras. The computer guys were in the far corners, working in front of large monitors. One showed a computerised version of our sun, which was blood red.
“The scientists have been lying to us,” Blondie said. “They’re with the government. The sun doesn’t have billions of years; its hydrogen supply has run out.”
He touched the screen to show the current position of the swollen red sun and our solar system. I spotted Earth, a tiny dot on which we were all standing.
“Wait for a second…” I said, “Where are Mercury and Venus?”
“Well, at this point, the helium phase has already taken place.”
“Our sister planets have already been swallowed by the sun,” one of the hackers said.
I began to pace, not believing a word they said. I didn’t understand how they remained so calm. Of course, I was one of the last people to find out about it.
The hacker said, “The expanding sun wasn’t supposed to reach Earth’s orbit for several million years. But all this is happening now. Coronal mass ejections are evaporating the oceans, and soon we will be molten.”
“Shouldn’t you be warning everyone?” I said.
“Oh, we will. And now is the time,” Blondie said. “The government has kept this a secret.”
“To minimise panic, Jamie. And to seek a solution that doesn’t include saving us.”
They showed me the world map on the screen, highlighting the House of Parliament in London, the White House in Washington DC and other major government locations in Europe, Asia, etc.
“This is what we will tell the world: The rich are planning to leave Earth, however, without us.”
The screen showed giant spaceships that someone was filming for them.
“Someone in the government works for you?” I said.
“It’s not just someone…” Blondie said and pressed a button on his remote.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Tom on the screen. He looked solemn. It was not how I knew him. Had he been working for the government all this time?
“Hi lads, are we ready?”
“Yes, Jamie. Listen, I don’t have time to explain. My mum is at work and Lily is at my grandma’s house. We are showing the world the state of the sun. That way, our army will grow, and we can stop the power administration from determining our future, although there might be none…”
“Army? You mean chaos. Tom, we have to talk to the government.”
Tom laughed, and so did everybody else. “Don’t be daft, Jamie. I knew you’d say that; that was why we included you last. It’s already happening…”
The screen changed to an internal news channel, outlining the government’s plan to gather the rich in spaceships to leave Earth before the sun touched our atmosphere. When that happened, the Earth’s magnetic fields would no longer protect us from solar flares. They were also leaking secret NASA videos of the dying sun, which had already expanded into a red giant. It had already lost a lot of mass and heat through stellar winds, yet it would still eliminate the oceans and turn Earth into a lava ball. The Pacific Ocean was already evaporating, and most of the Eastern part of Asia and Australia was no longer.
“The world is listening,” Tom said as his picture came back on, “And it’s only a matter of minutes until the government will locate me and take me away. But you guys have all the access codes. You will break into headquarters and eliminate the fake sky for good.”
“But Tom, they will punish you for treason!” I said.
“Jamie, Jamie,” he shook his head. “Listen, I only have one job for you. You have to save Lily for me. Otherwise, they will take her and gas her, like they did with the homeless. There is nothing more I can do. Once they take me, they will go to my grandma’s house next.”
The hackers were busy typing and keeping an eye on what was happening in the streets. Through Tom’s screen, we heard the sound of sirens in the background.
“For fuck’s sake, Jamie! What are you waiting for?” he said. “Sophie, go with him. And the rest of you know what to do.”
“What the fuck, Tom? Why can’t I go with them!” Sophie said.
Tom remained silent for two seconds and then smiled. “No one is leaving Earth.”
And like that, he disconnected himself. Blondie turned around and said, “Go! Now!”
Sophie and I began to run.
People were sprinting down the main roads, yelling and swearing. I heard sirens from a distance, and Sophie’s sobbed behind me while we were running along with the crowd. She slowed down and covered her mouth with her hand. I put my arm around her, telling her to speed up.
People were rioting as they did in London in 2011: smashing windows with sledgehammers, setting cars on fire and looting local shops. They knew something was wrong, as though expecting the apocalypse.
The television sky was flickering and pixelating, and we heard static grainy noises above us. They must have turned the fake cloudy sky back on. We weren’t supposed to see the red moon. We were only a couple of hours before dawn.
“We’re going to burn; we’re going to burn…” Sophie mumbled.
Outside Tom’s grandma’s townhouse, I saw a black car taking off. Some hooded street kids were throwing rocks at it and began chasing it down the street. The house door was unlocked. We walked into a mess of broken photograph frames, knocked over tables, chairs and broken cupboards and plates.
“Lily!” I shouted.
I searched the rooms, walk-in closets and the basement.
“Jamie!” Sophie shouted from the back door. In the backyard, I found Sophie holding Lily in her arms.
As soon as Lily saw me, she came running and crying. “I want to see my mum, Jamie!”
I lifted her and looked at Sophie, who felt sorry for Lily. Hell knew what they were doing to Tom. Were they going gas him?
“She was under the porch,” Sophie said, her lips trembling.
Before she shed a tear, a static white noise pierced through our ears, and we crouched down to the ground, pressing our palms against our ears. It seemed that the sky had lost signal. A few seconds later, the dead channel disappeared, and above us—we saw the clear pink sky.
“Oh my God…” Sophie said, pointing her finger east.
A giant lava ball was breaking into our atmosphere—the shine was gone. An uncomfortable heat was pushing towards us.
I looked at the sun because I remembered doing so as a kid. I would have blinded myself if my parents hadn’t covered my eyes. Eventually, they bought me some solar eclipse glasses, and I would be wearing them for most of the day every day. The sun was no planet but a star – uninhabitable, unapproachable and unpredictable. The only way to look at her was through a pair of dark shades. It was the only way to be close to her. I would pray to her, talk to her, do anything to draw her closer to my orbit. Staring at her used to give me hope and energy. It still did.
When the government blocked our view, I thought I had lost all hope. But all those past sentiments returned that very moment.
I didn’t need protection to look at her now. She was dying—but the radiance of her beautiful face dispelled all my fears.
A giant lava ball was breaking into our atmosphere. The earth’s magnetic field would soon cease to exist. I watched magnetic filaments burst from her surface, something I never thought I would see.
Lily gripped tightly at my shirt while staring at the red giant with her mouth wide open. Sophie came closer, and I put my other arm around her.
No one was leaving Earth.
by P-chan (c) 2017
Inspired by Neuromancer’s opening sentence.