Remember when The Curtain went up? The only viable solution, extreme as it was, to save humanity from Earth's rapidly hyper-toxifying, invisibly over-saturating air. A superstructure, ten miles up, of floating chemical filters, each a sort of box-shaped balloon, converting noxious chemicals into safer ones. Billions of them, linked together into an edgeless shell spanning the entire globe.
If you didn't know, the reason there's a Day Phase and a Night Phase to the Curtain is because in the day, it has to let in sunlight - without sun we can't survive either - but the scrubbing only works when the scrubbers are sealed together. So they do that at night - they go horizontal and go to work. So now, when you look up between dusk and dawn, all you see is that opaque mosaic, churning and gurgitating in the dark. No more night time moon. No more stars. That's what we traded in for the right to breathe.
I was five when I first heard about it, and nine when construction passed over our little sector of the planet. In commemoration, be it a welcoming of the new, or a farewell to the old, there was to be a great gathering.
I begged my parents to go, probably every day, more than once. I used several tools to break them, including repetition, historical precedent, begging, and plain old bad behavior. One of my best moves mixed bad behavior with guilt: I dumped my whole dinner plate into Trumbo the Tabby's dish, saying "The thing may not save Cats. She should have a good last meal." Finally one night, over dinner - spricket stew and kalery mashers, with authentic orange sauce - the old kind, with the different genetic strains in the mix - Dad caved. I don't remember what I said, except that it was a lot, and he suddenly shifted mood, belting out "Alright, we'll go! Stop bothering me!" before returning to his previous action - calmly scooping out the stew. Mom followed. She warned me to make sure not to mess up in school if this was really to stay a thing, but that was just for show...I wouldn't mess up. I had won! We were going out to see the stars, one last time!
In the garage, I found Dad's old telescope. Ancient, about my height, with a single 9.5 inch reflecting mirror inside the main tube, that did the bulk of the magnifying work. Dad never got rid of anything, and I was glad for that... tho probably half of the arguments between Mom and Dad had to do with Dad's messes. Mom wanted things gone, Dad didn't.
I had to learn how to put it together. There were tutorials floating around, but they were all so old they were still 2D, so were hard to figure out. Eventually I got it. The tube fit into steel rings that came up from the tripod. A plate for eyepieces screwed in below and between the legs. ("For eyepieces?" Dad recalled, "That's where we used to put the tortilla chips and beer!") Hand-sized discs on springy rubber arms moved the tube so you could point it where you wanted. I decided I wanted to see Saturn. And the Pleiades! And the Andromeda Galaxy! And- "Get that thing out of the living room! You're getting twenty years of dust all over the carpet!" Without even looking in Mom's direction, I took the scope back into the garage, to take it apart and put it together a few more times until I was sure I had it.
It wasn't that dusty, really.
One day I was walking home from school, I looked north, and I saw The Curtain for the first time. Far off, a blue blackish line. The edge. My first thought was of a vocab quiz from that very day, and a word I had gotten wrong - incongruent. That's what that line was like, against the otherwise apple orange sky. Incongruent.
I kind of wished that Dad would have been there to see it. But he never came home before sundown. So I got out Trumbo, and held her up, Lion King style. Trumbo mewed and wriggled, and I let her go. Trumbo is no Simba.
I found another old thing in the garage: a book, called "A Trillion Suns: A Survey of The Known Universe". It was giant. Standing on edge it came up past my knee. The cover featured a supernova, a tight pinkish explosion on a field of pinpricked black. More spectacle please! I thought, and opened the book. It started right in with a star map that seemed straight out of an old sea captain's log. It continued in chapters that radiated out from the earth, past the galaxy, into the farthest reaches of the universe, as its title implied it would do. The middle pages folded out into a huge poster of the Milky Way. I could look at that spacescape for hours. Each creamy drop could be a solar system, groups of solar systems, galaxies beyond. I longed to see it all, eye naked.
There was something about touching real paper. You could feel it, solid, like an old lost thing. It connected me with what would soon be other, older lost things. Lots of stars, I came to learn, are so far away that by the time their light gets to us, they're already dead. So we lose them in that way too.
Here's how The Curtain got put up.
Groups of coordinated drones, starting apart from each other at each of earth's poles, began lifting the scrubbers through and above the clouds. They connected to each other, and from there the structure began sprawling out, in two earth circling spirals - east to west in the north, west to east in the south - progressing towards each other in wider and wider arcs. Eventually, they would meet up to make final closure, over the equator. The really big bash, bigger by far than the one we're talking about, was to be in Fortaleza, Brazil. Fitting. If there's any country famous for big parties...
"This is way busier than normal," said Dad, looking out the window as the Cariot car slowed. We were away from urban lights now and just getting into the darker and sparser landscapes of the desert. But the road itself wasn't sparse, it was full of Cariots, equally spaced and all looking exactly the same. This was the first generation, remember - the domed ones, with the bench that ringed the inside, around a center table. The first ones, I think, that people didn't drive themselves.
A slowdown like this was rare. And unpleasant. Was it my first traffic jam? I opened the glideroof, stood on the table, and looked up. All I could see were some blurry specks in a blue black haze.
"Don't keep it open too long," said Mom, "We're still close to the city, and I don't want to have to put on a mask."
I asked Dad to lift me. He protested. I asked again. Mom protested. I protested back. "But we're not moving! It's totally safe!" Dad: "You're nine. I don't need to lift you!" Me: "I'm short! I can't see!"
Dad relented. (And in case you think I always won when it came to getting what I wanted from my folks, you should know that I'm only telling you the good parts.) I stretched my head upward and outward, deep into the crisp and slightly tangy air. There were a few more specks, but it was nothing like the torrent of light from the center of the Trillion Suns book. More like a sprinkle.
There was shine on the horizon behind us, and there was shine from the domelights of the cars - through their open windows I saw a family playing Spurnz (remember that game?), teens kissing, an old man sleeping - and there was shine from their headlamps. I couldn't understand why those existed. Cariots talked to each other and could see in the dark. Why did they need outside lights?
"It's not for the Cariots, " Dad said, "It's for people to see the Cariots. So there are no accidents."
"But there are never any accidents."
Anyway, I really really hoped it got darker. And that it stayed clear.
Mom asked what I wanted to see with that scope of mine and I told her. I listed each celestial object that came to mind. Connor's Comet, The Horsehead Nebula, Venus... When I got to Venus, she reminded me that Venus was the evening star, and was....
"Oh no! About to go down!" The sky to the north was already opaque - eerily so. The sky to the west was- there it was. Right above the dim outline of a mountain peak, the brightest biggest silver ball in the entire moonless sky. Unmistakable. Venus! "Let's get out!"
"We are moving." It was the aqua monitone voice of the Cariot. "Please sit down, for your safety. Thank you."
"Shutup, Cariot! .. can we stop?"
"Venus comes out in the day too, bug, " said Mom.
"But not every day."
"But not no days."
Venus was already touching the mountain. Even if we stopped, I'd have to get out the scope. Put it together. Legs. Eyepiece/Beer stand. Tube. Arms. Too many parts - we'd miss it. And it was true what Mom had said... of all the bodies up there except for the moon, Venus was the one bright and big and close enough to shine sometimes while the sun was still out. She was the one who would make herself seen, Curtain or no Curtain. She was a goddess, after all.
We did not stop. Venus disappeared.
Here are some other things I learned about the stars.
The stars we can see are different depending on where you are on the Earth, and when. Different stars for different seasons, because we're going around the sun. And people in the southern hemisphere see mostly different celestials than people in the northern. Orion is probably the easiest constellation to spot. It has a bright three-star belt with a three-star sword. It's had different names and mythologies from culture to culture, and over centuries... it's even appeared in ancient cave art. Some of its stars are pretty important - Betelguese because it's big, and red, and kind of close. Rigel, because it's bright, and used for navigation. And the horsehead nebula is there too.
The stars of a constellation have little to do with one another, really... two stars next to each other along our line of sight may actually be a thousand light years apart, one behind, way behind, the other. Whoever wrote those myths about the stars being pinpricks on a dome, I guess just never thought about depth.
I often wonder if our sun, Sol, belongs to a constellation revered by some far off alien civilization. Maybe they study us in their alien schools. Maybe they've got superpowered advanced telescopes that can actually see what we're doing down here on the surface!
And sometimes I wonder if there are aliens that grow up without stars...maybe under a big Curtain of their own. Maybe there is an alien civilization with no myths of starry domes or winter hunters. Maybe there was a race that built a Curtain, that failed to protect them, and so they died off. And a few million years later, on that same planet, a new alien race came about that only knows a Curtain for their sky.
Two hours later we were still creeping. We were in a single file line of cars, on a hastily made path off the main road. We couldn't even see what was up ahead. I had to get out. The parents stayed and let me go by myself as long as I promised to "be careful" and to "come back soon". Well what else would I do? I made the boring promises and walked ahead to see what this was all about. We were in a mountain-ringed valley that should have been serene, quiet, and black as pitch. Instead, the traffic led to a single booth that acted as sentry and gatekeeper to a makeshift campground that had the feel of a music festival. I walked past the booth without issue. I saw cars jostling for parking spots - headlamps on. People, some with atmomasks, some without, ambulated around food stands and beer tents. Old ladies perched in lawn chairs by their RVs.
There were synthofires and barbeques and the smell of roasted quasage. Vids were projecting onto big rocks, sides of cars, any blank surface... some even hung right in the air. And then there were some old-style glows leaking out of classic handhelds. Some people used flashlights as they walked. Flashlights, despite that overhead, there were rows of lamps hanging from low-slung, crisscrossing ropes. How much light did some people need?
"Happy Darkening Day!" sung a tall girl under porcelain and azure hair twirled like a waterslide, as she danced and bounced with a posse, all as colorful, down the central walk. Some of her mates repeated it as they went, in high childlike tones, even though they were all older than me.
I looked up and gauged the sky. It was not dark and speckled with glorious milky ink, like in the book. It was just milky. Diffuse. Worse than it had been from the car roof. Washed out behind a film of light from the campground. I would never make out Andromeda through this.
Suddenly a little girl's voice: "I see it!" People nearby hushed, and followed her finger. The human made roof was creeping forward, simulating a growing hole in the sky, eating up every twinkle on its ever progressing edge.
"Mom, Dad," I said, as I got back into the Cariot, "We have to get out of here."
Mom: "We just got here."
"But we can't see anything."
At first they didn't understand.
"There's too much light," I continued. "From all the people."
It took some more doing. They reminded me how I had begged and cajoled and pushed them into taking me out here. They brought up, as if I didn't know, that we had just waited for hours in an unprecedented traffic jam, and that-
"I know, I know! But this is the last time ever we'll see the Milky Way like it is in the pictures. If it's not dark, we don't get to see anything!"
"But don't you want to be out here with everyone? And see the Curtain come in?"
"I've seen The Curtain. I want to see the stars."
They looked at each other. They got it. But that didn't mean they were on board.
"Where will we go?"
"I don't know. Anywhere. Just somewhere where there's no people." They continued to look at and talk to each other with their eyes. I saw exasperation in their faces, but understanding. This was usually at least a hopeful sign.
"This is the last time, maybe ever, we'll get to see them," I added, with as much gravity as I could muster.
Finally, Mom said the magic words. "Cariot, setup new route."
"Describe your route please."
"I guess," Mom continued, "the least populated area we can get to before sunrise. Correction. That we can get to and get home before sunrise."
"And not going north!" I interjected.
"Finding route," it complied. It gave us a list of options. Dirt paths, unnamed spaces, wilderness parks. We had to narrow it down. Finally we got to something. There was an old hiking trail right off the big highway, a couple of hours away to the southwest. We set off.
The parents slept. I stayed awake, keeping the roof open and looking up, trying to see if it was getting darker. I couldn't tell for sure, but I thought so. What I did know was that with every minute, the Curtain was filling more of the sky. I found myself looking at its edge, as more and more stars fell beneath its belly... more and more stars? That means it's getting darker! Darker, but less and less to see. The irony! Irony. Another vocab word. Finally we arrived. I had to tell Cariot to pull to the roadside twice, because of all its fussing about safety if we parked in a non-standard blah blah blah. The parents were groggy.
I got out the scope. I realized I would have to put it together right there and carry it, fully assembled, down the path, because there'd be no way to do it in the dark, and I didn't want to have to turn on any lights. So: legs, tube, rings, arms, eyepiece/snack holder. And the eyepieces themselves, which came in a canvas pouch.
"C'mon!" I had to press them again.
It was cold. The path went up over a small hill. The folks wanted to just stay by the side of the road. They weren't even thinking about the fact that cars could come by, shooting glare at us. Nor that it'd be much better down the path.. if it went down into a lower part over the small hill, things could get even darker! So we had to walk, we had gone this far, no sense stopping here. I moved, and they followed. We crested the hill, and followed its descent on the other side. At the low point, we stopped.
I put the scope down, and looked up.
I had been wondering what I would want to train my gaze at first, but seeing it all, I forgot to decide. It was the sky itself, the whole thing, that mattered first. The scope couldn't zoom in on it all. And there was enough to see everywhere, in general and all around and all at once. It looked better than the foldout from the book. It was a wizard's wand's worth of sparkles. A foam in an ocean. A trillion suns and more. Bright ones, faint ones, twinkly ones, and steadies - those were our neighbor planets. There were isolated points, smeared groupings, stretches of otherwise bright celestials veined by dark fingers of black - these were the humongous dust clouds of our galaxy. But the sky itself was only half a sky. There was still that other black, human-made black, scrubber black, Curtain black - filling, or hiding, the rest of the vault.
The folks and I didn't say much. Now I worked quickly, methodically. I found Saturn. I found the Pleiades. I found Andromeda. I looked and they looked. I got them oohing and aahing a bit, which made me feel good. I even found Conner's Comet. That one would be soon gone anyway, curtain or no curtain.
Two people came down the path. We heard them before we saw them. One was laughing loudly and talking quickly, without pause, as if he had recently escaped from a library and had been waiting to burst the whole time. The other's voice was periodic, terse, muffled and bassy. I couldn't understand a word he said. Soon they got close. The muffled voice belonged to a lanky bald man, whose face was obscured by an Atmomask. The other one was big and sweaty, his visage plump and unencumbered. He wore a tee-shirt and carried an open box of beer.
"Ghosts!" said the big man, and he laughed at himself.
"Aren't you cold?" I asked.
"Naw, I don't get cold. What's that?" and he turned a flashlight right in my direction, at the scope. The light blinded me.
"Could you turn your flash off?!"
"My flash off?"
"It ruins the dark!"
The big man didn't seem to get it. The muffled man chimed in.
"The dark! The kid's trying to see! Your light is ruining his eyesight."
Thank you, masked one. This time I understood him fine. The big man turned off his flash.
"This thing's something, huh?" the big guy said, referring to the Curtain above.
Yes, yes it was. Quite an observation. That sort of small talk continued a bit. In any case, both he and his friend looked through my scope and I showed them a few astral objects. They were nice about it and the big man made some comments, but I didn't feel there was any sort of revelation...neither was going to run off and join any astronomy club any time soon.
Eventually, they continued on their way. I saw their flashes turn on again when they were down the path a bit. Suddenly I burst out myself. I must have been holding it in since the campground.
"Why do people come all the way out here just to turn on their flashlights? And their headlights? And walk underneath big lights hanging from ropes??! Isn't it enough that there are lights in the sky? Don't they want to see those? Why else would they come to a party in the desert?"
"Well," Mom said, "some people just come to be with other people."
"But they can be with other people anywhere."
I didn't get it. I still don't get it. I accept it now. But I don't get it. People will go to a concert and talk through it. People will go to a beach and wear a cap so their hair doesn't get wet. People will go to a gathering to say goodbye to the stars, and shine lights in each other's faces.
"Maybe," Mom answered, "they didn't come to say goodbye to the stars, but hello to the Curtain."
"How much longer are you going to be?" asked Dad.
"A bit," I murmured.
And so we stayed a bit more, until half the sky was starless, and all of us, even me, had caught ourselves yawning more than once. Mom pressed, "Have you seen what you wanted to see?"
I wasn't sure. I really wasn't. But it was cold, I was tired, and they had let me stay out way later than I ever could have asked. Soon the sun would be rising again. We called it an evening
I remember almost nothing about the drive back. I fell asleep most of the way. We all did. When we got home, faint sunlight was coming from the east, a light diminished and colored by our new over sky. Before finally going inside, I looked up again. The Curtain filled almost everything now, save a band of streaky clouds to the south, above still barely unshadowed roofs, antennae, and towers.
Before going in, I decided to put together the telescope one more time, and point it towards that faraway disappearing edge. In the early light I could just make out, dimly, the rows upon rows of thousands of floating scrubbers, and the touches of drones, like pollen to a big black flower, carrying new ones up to meet those already locked in the flexing and floating grid. I rotated the tube to point directly overhead. I saw the scrubbers start to change their orientation. Horizontal to vertical, just like they were supposed to. I felt things get brighter and warmer, just a bit. At one point while disassembling the scope, I looked down and noticed I cast no shadow.
The Curtain, as you know, is still with us, and still doing its job. We don't need masks now, and there are less people dying, and less fires, and a consensus that things are safer, and cleaner. But nobody knows for sure how long it will stay up there, or if it will ever come down at all. Maybe we are that alien civilization. The future is unknown.