At 16,400 feet on the Chajnantor plateau high in the Atacama Desert in central Chile, Sybyl fell off her saddle when the light went. The muted sun expired.
Darkness should’ve prevailed. She was prepared for that—the immensity of emptiness. But it was not so. Even in the protection of the array, she was surrounded, as if in a snow globe, by a blinding turbulence that threatened to sweep her off the plateau in a vast, foaming eddy of interstellar light.
She grasped her mule’s leg to brace herself against the sudden vertigo, the countless swirling suns, spinning overhead, pulling her into their luminous vortex. She sensed an upward tug on her shoulders as gravity swooned. Nowhere to hide. Ages and mere milliseconds ago, she’d thought the ALMA antennas, long abandoned, would provide some kind of stability, an anchor that might secure her when night arrived and the fiery cosmos tried to burn her breath and soul away.
So foolish to have come. So foolish to ignore the tales. Sybyl had been warned. Yet, who could fathom such bottomless light still existed in a world gone dark. In the choked world below where smoke and grit ate the sky, few would believe there was a way through it, but Sybyl had been given the key. A simple talisman, keepsake from another time, another world.
A star chip.
An ancient, etched crystalline city, its markings too complex for the naked eye, redolent of delicacy, purity, divinity. A product of finer elements, manufactured of dreams, not of the fouling furnaces of industry.
Earth was a fuming mess, and Sybyl had braved the high hallows of smoldering air to reclaim the dream. But the effulgence of the universe had taken her breath, threatened her sanity, more than the toxic bloom humanity had unleashed in the atmosphere over a thousand busy, busy years. A world blighted by its ever-dimming star, the result of the Edi-son. Sybyl knew the tales. Knew of a brighter epoch when suns like her own were harnessed like great steeds to conquer galaxies.
Her mother had said Sybyl could set it right. That the Atacama was beyond the blight. That great machines and their masters could call back LightTime. Free them from the blackness. Make them whole.
The star chip.
It hung at her neck. Still, she hesitated. Questioned. Was the darkness so bad? Maybe better to drown in smoke, sink into the particulates, become bottom dwellers: blind and insensate. But insulated, not naked to the stars, bared to eternity, every eye of matter upon her.
She clasped the star chip. Felt the hum of her history. The cellular urge to expand, grow. Neither the darkness nor light would suffocate her. She had a duty to earthkind’s greatest legacy: guilt. It had to be spread. She must remind those that had fled or adventured from their obligations to their homeworld.
The quiet domes of ALMA, silos of an old harvest, would awaken with her touch. Her fingers tingled as she moved them from the star chip to the frosted railing of the nearest array's steps. She lowered her eyes from the riotous skies, focusing upon each step, conscious of her tribe, her people, below in the darkness. A making understood and not fully regretted. A time for calling out.
As she stepped onto the wide platform and faced the formidable gleam of polished metal barring her entrance to the array, her eye perceived another creature. A large, looming dark form next to the door. Sybyl threw herself upon the grating in fear. What was there? A Nether? Could it really be one of those brutal creatures from folktales meant to keep curious young ones from venturing into the high passes and succumbing to toxic shock?
She must think. She must stand tall. This is what she had come for. No enemy of the past or future would stop her. Lifting her eyes, she peered against the fiery aurora towards the other. Where had it gone? Then she perceived its form had shrunk. It had cowered from her!
Was it frightened of her? The thought heartened Sybyl. She snorted at her ridiculousness. She was already dead. Twice over she had killed herself: by leaving her people and braving the Atacama. She should never have survived the climb through the upper toxicity. She stood and laughed and saw the other mimic her movements. And finally understood.
Her shadow. She had been forewarned of such self-spirits appearing in the burning heavens mocking her every move. In first shock, she’d forgotten. Now, she greeted the hunched, dark shape with upheld hand, mastered her other self, and felt stronger against the light. She rose and approached her shadow, which diminished as she advanced. The mute form on the array door waited on her touch. A silent, cold greeting against the bleached metal.
“Well met,” Sybyl whispered. “Well met.”
She turned to the small sensor panel next to the door. Foretold of this, she removed the star chip from her neck. Felt its hum. Its hunger. She offered it.
Without fuss. The gleaming door retreated and a blackness, the wholeness of possibility, presented itself. Sybyl stared into the darkness. She knew this. Had grown up with it as had generations. She was there to reclaim a world. Call back the Edi-son, builders of ALMA and starry empires, to light the backfire.
Star chip in hand she entered the array, turning a last time to witness the vast firmament’s radiance and acknowledge that her shadow, darkness of the long past, was unwilling to follow her steady steps into the black wholeness beyond.