I stepped into the cubicle. It was a strange feeling and one that I had never got used to, though it happened every day now. Again I felt my whole body as if suffused, saturated with warmth and – but this I could only imagine, for the protective goggles clung tight to my eyes – with light. How would I look, I often wondered, from outside – a man standing naked, irradiated in a beam of light – surely an angel, a light-being. But a blind angel, I reminded myself, for I dare not take the goggles from my eyes and see.
I remembered the doctor who had first told me of the treatment. ‘Thirty seconds,’ he said, ‘thirty seconds per day will do it nicely. Can’t risk any more – it’s toxic stuff, you know, UV – but thirty seconds will be just fine. Top you up on Vitamin D and all that. You never know,’ – he chuckled – ‘you might find it rather pleasant, being soaked in light in that way. Invigorating.’
He looked a little downcast, though, as he packed away his instruments. ‘I remember a time,’ he said vaguely, as if talking to himself, ‘when I would spend a whole day in the light. Yes! A long, summer day, sixteen hours or more. In the mountains, it was. We would set out on the hill, see the sunrise, climb all day through the high shining noon, and see the dusk and sunset again before we slept. A whole summer’s day.’
That had been years ago in Siseley, before I had come out to the desert. Back there in the centres and metropoles, of course no such system of natural light was needed. The ambient electric light in which we lived was calibrated, like so many other aspects of our
environment, for optimal health. The doctor had been preparing me for the more primitive conditions to be found in outposts like this.
These latitudes, where the sun was at its fiercest, had been all but abandoned by civilization after the great climatic shift. And now we were part of the great programme of reclamation, establishing the stations of what was to be a far-reaching network of agricultural and mining stations, across the abandoned wastelands and deserts. It was hardly necessary, at this stage, it had to be said – the northern and southern temperate zones provided more than enough scope for the surviving civilized peoples. But it was the product of a vision, a dream, of an earth once more wholly populated and productive – of human civilization prospering once again after its great failure, the ecological collapse and subsequent descent into chaos and war.
Prospering in reduced circumstances, admittedly. For that freedom we had once had, to bare our skin to the sun, was now lost and could hardly be regained. Since the great heatwave and the massive increase in ultraviolet light, the unshaded world had simply become unsafe. With protective suits to cover the entire body, and particularly the eyes, it was possible for some to venture out into the light; but it was hardly necessary in any case, now that the compounds had become capable of fulfilling all our wants. Among the old and old-fashioned there were those who, like that doctor, still felt a nostalgia for the sunlit existence of the past. But to my
generation, born and raised in these shaded realms of comfort and abundance, this had come to seem a strange romanticism, a wilful blindness to the benefits our new technologies had brought. The only ones who still braved the rigours of the natural world were the outlanders, living entirely beyond the compounds of civilization – which they occasionally raided.
Semi-nomadic, subsisting in the most primitive of ways, we had little contact with them, and exactly how they survived the heat and the poisonous light was not clear. They generally went heavily robed, and their lifespan must presumably be far less than ours. I was no expert on them, but I remembered speaking, over in Dhara, to Cyril Lavenham, who was. ‘They seem to enjoy the sun, actually,’ he had said. ‘Or at least it is a matter of pride with them that they can endure it in its full vigour.’ He laughed in a dry sort of way. ‘I shudder to think what they would make of our periodized sunlight exposure treatment. The idea of rationing out the light of day in thirty-second instalments, in that calculated fashion – they would think it abhorrent, unnatural.’
‘Unnatural?’ I said, a little puzzled. ‘What do you think they mean by that? Surely it is natural to make the best use of our resources, to take care of ourselves and our health.’ ‘It is hard to explain,’ said Cyril. ‘I think at the bottom of it there lies a belief in fatality. Things are the way they are meant to be, as decreed by God or nature, and our efforts to control and measure and prescribe are a kind of presumption.’ He smiled a little wryly. ‘They endure so much out there that hardly any other philosophy would do, I imagine.’ I agreed: surely, I began to say, this must be a mere rationalization of their own failures to exert such control, to gain our degree of balance and ease – but Cyril seemed struck by another idea and interrupted me, continuing:
‘That is, I believe, the real reason for their attacks on our communities, their attempts to shut down our power systems and sunshields. You will notice the reports hardly ever mention them taking anything of much value, or physically assaulting the people. They are not greedy for our machines or even the goods we produce. They do not hate us. They wish rather to strip us of technology, to force us to see the world, even for a little while, as they see it themselves. I believe they really think they are bringing us a gift.’ Again his dry laugh. ‘I sincerely hope they never succeed – I think you’ll agree it’s a gift we can well do without. Sunlight, nakedness, heat.’
From the treatment chamber I walked back along the corridor to the workstation. The soft carpet, the low hum of the power systems, the carefully modulated light wrapped around me like a protective layer, after that half-minute of pure exposure. On the station there was little enough to do at present – simply a few checks, an anomaly in the outside weather patterns to plan for, and the usual humdrum chat with the other workers. There was a momentary flutter of interest when something showed up on one of the outpost-sensors: human activity, it seemed, a party of outlanders passing by a dozen miles away. We were on the point of sending a message through to Heliopolis, the central desert-station, and putting our defence forces on alert – outlander raids were rare in these parts, but you could never be too careful – but they soon disappeared from sensor-range. They were not paying us a visit, it seemed, today.
After an hour or so I decided to go for a walk into the agricultural compound – for no reason, really – workers were not required there at this stage in the process – but simply from a feeling of restlessness. I walked through the rows of growing crops, between feeder tubes and moveable light dispensers. These were turned off, as the crop room was in a light-fallow period – a simulation of night. Light was supplied in these outposts, not by the more normal electric system, but by capturing the sunlight of the outside world. By an intricate system of mirrors, prisms, battens and lenses we could capture the burning light and bend it to our will,
providing just the right amount for any given crop to grow. Most of our electricity was supplied by the same means, by photoelectric cells. We were not able to withstand the light ourselves, I thought, but by these devices we had made it our servant. I reflected on this as I walked back from the agricultural unit to my quarters. We had not done so badly after all, as I saw it. We now knew at least how to live within our natural means. Whatever other mistakes we might make – and I could think of many – we would not make that one again, for which we had paid such a heavy price: of thinking the earth and its atmosphere would stand whatever strain we put upon them. Our way of living was more careful now, better planned, the point of optimal health or efficiency calculated with
precision. Even these harsh climates would submit, with time, to the reclamation of which we were the pioneers.
That night I woke in my quarters – or I seemed to wake, but I was unsure whether I was in a dream. I was struck at once by an immense darkness, an enveloping silence. The dim electronic lights that glowed all night had gone out, and still more strikingly, the noise of the great machine in which we lived had died away. A wild thought rose in me: had they succeeded in the end? The barbarians, the nomads, whose efforts we had heard so much about? What if they had found a way at last of penetrating our defences unknown, and switching off our vast life-support system? I dressed quickly and went through to the Central Atrium, feeling my way by memory and touch. Others were gathering here, shadowy figures in the deep gloom around me. And I felt rather than saw that all their attention was centred on a single point in the canopy above us, where shone through a pinprick of light, immensely clear in that dead darkness. As we watched it grew, to a patch, to a tear – and somethingflashed dully in the aperture. It was a bare human hand, holding a knife. Another rip appeared and then another until they were everywhere, dappling the whole ceiling above us with patches of greyish light. They grew by ragged stages, revealing hands, arms, finally whole swathed and shrouded forms, working busily with long blades at our canopy. They were shredding it, destroying our layer of shade, opening our world to the outside and the terrible light. Our machines, our defences, our communications, were dead; we stood and watched, for there was nothing else we could do.
They worked on as the light gathered itself out of gloom, until nothing but a few shreds of fabric remained, clinging loosely to the naked spars. The silent robed figures melted away, congregated somewhere at the sides of the tattered canopy to settle and wait. We waited with them.
The light was gathering. Slowly in the east it grew, out of its initial greyness – a red-pink tinge like coral fringed with delicate blueness, giving way to greens, yellows, and then a pale orange-blossom rising beyond what we could now see as the outline of distant hills. We
watched on, in awe, as the vision unfolded itself – the barbarians’ gift, the sight they had wanted, above all, that we should see – this rising, blinding, killing thing, in its terror and its beauty.
It was the dawn.