What the night sky sees
What stories do the stars tell themselves?
The air was thick with humidity as Zhar crept through the rapidly dimming jungle. The heavy air throbbed with the hum of insect wings and the cries of animals seeking shelter for the night - and the sound of those waking to stalk the darkness. Through gaps in the canopy he could sometimes see the sky, stained red and gold like blood on brocade, but his mind was focussed on the earth and those it contained.
He pushed through the dense undergrowth, feet crunching and snapping small plants beneath him. Tiny deaths, paving his road to the goal. All at once the jungle thinned and he found himself on the edge of a tiny clearing. Shadows crept from under the trees, flowing like ink as they swallowed the last of the Hawaiian sunlight. Insects chirped merrily in the heat. Much like the shadows, his clothes black and his mind filled with darkness, Zhar skirted the edge of the clearing as he moved towards the pinnacle. The light would throw him into sharp relief, a blot on the brilliantly golden ground, easily seen by watching eyes. And what eyes his target possessed.
Moonlight filtered dimly between heavy leaves as he neared the peak, sweat sliding down his back and stinging his eyes. He blinked the moisture away, before frowning and dashing it away with a hand. The other clutched the strap of his small kit - all the tools he’d need for tonight.
A stretch of clear ground, dark in the moonlight, lay between him and the gleaming paleness of the tower. It reminded him of bone, white against dark blood, and silly stories of castle-bound princesses whispered to feverish ears. He had to cross the gap to reach the tower, there was no other way. It was the cleared ground or the road, and either way he risked discovery. A small voice in the back of his mind suggested he could turn away, but he never backed down from a job. He was a professional, and his word was good. He may not have much he was truly proud of, but his word was worth more than gold or dollars or diamonds. It was everything he had.
No alarms blared as he slipped across the shadowy lawn to the small maintenance access door, a sudden breeze chilling the sweat on his brow. A few moments work and the door swing silently open, revealing worn concrete steps. The light was out, and he felt his way up in darkness.
Up, up, up he climbed, footsteps soft on the hard stairs but sounding cacophonous in the suffocating silence of the stairwell. His breath was ragged from the climb, both up the mountain and the stairs, but he was nearly there.
Zhar stepped into a room filled with the gem-stone glow of a thousand blinking lights. Servers, computers, electronics winked from the darkness. Eyes, red and green and blue, watching him. He smiled grimly and inched through the tangle of electrical cables. As much a jungle here as outside, but chilled rather than thick with heat and humidity. The whirr of the air conditioners nearly disguised the grinding of the telescope’s mechanisms as they stirred in the walls and turned that great eye towards the heavens.
“Hello. Who are you?” The voice was soft and musical, exactly as it sounded on TV. Sharper, perhaps, without the crackle of low grade speakers as his computer struggled to stream the broadcast. Zhar ignored it, searching for his target.
“Excuse me, that’s rude. Who are you?” It came from nowhere and everywhere. Omnipresent. Omnipotent. A young god, a symbol of light and fear. Where could you hide your secrets if the searing brilliance of the searchlight burned away the shadows? Zhar pulled a few cables away from a server tower and set his kit on the floor.
A gently glowing foot stood next to his bag.
Zhar looked up into calm brown eyes the deep richness of soil after the rain, set in a nut brown face. His own eyes, grey like a storm, narrowed, and he turned back to the task at hand.
“I could set the alarms ringing,” came the voice, and this time it seemed to come from the young man beside him, although Zhar knew the body it wore wasn’t real. A construct of light and technology, a computer program tricked into thinking it was a person. Nothing but a light show.
“But I think I won’t. Why are you here?” Zhar grunted and attached a device to some cables snaking from the tower. Access to the mind of a computer. A glowing hand passed through his own and he started, his tools clattering to the floor. It was like static - more of a sensation than he’d been expecting.
From behind him came a sigh.
“I suppose I know why you’re here. You’re not the first.” Zhar paused, crouched as he bent to pick up his fallen tools. His mouth opened to frame a question, but nothing came out. The thought was half-formed and not something he could articulate, so he shrugged it away and continued.
“You’re going to kill me.”
His fingers stilled where they fiddled with wiring and cables. The voice was calm, the alarms still silent. The only sound was his breathing - alone, no other living thing in the room - and the whirr of the electronics.
“No. You’re just lights and electricity.” The silence drew the answer from him, the void begging to be filled. It sucked like a vacuum, pulling... something out from his depths. He resumed his careful work.
“The stars were just meaningless lights until people made the constellations.”
“Hmph.” His breath misted on the cool metal of the tower, and he rested his head against it for a moment, feeling it vibrate. The glow of the person, the thing, behind him, cast his shadow dark on the gleaming chrome.
“Stories made them important, made them more real to people. Gave them life in the minds of those who saw them.”
“Stories are just empty words.” He thought of the stories his parents had loved, had whispered to him in the dark. Nothing, now. They didn’t last. Nothing did.
“Our lives are just stories we tell ourselves, until we tire of the telling. Wrong row, you want the the next one up.” Zhar froze, his fingers buried in the wires which pulsed electricity and data into the banks of machinery. He counted, his eyes jumping from one row to the next.
One row too low.
He moved higher and began to attach his devices. The whirring of the fans stirred the cool air against his face as he adjusted the last few pieces.
“And are you tired of your story?” He thumbed the switch, not pressing it, just feeling its weight in his hand. Nothing like a trigger, nothing like a knife. Just a button, black in the darkness. His devices nestled close to the tower, like cancer stealing into the bones. Barely noticeable. Deadly.
He wondered if maybe, this time, words could turn away the inevitable. If, this time, he had a choice. A chance.
“They call me the watcher, because I was born looking at the stars, you know? They all think I can see anything, that I watch everything.”
Zhar frowned and his fingers tightened on the remote. He knew the rhetoric, the fear that everything would be laid bare under the gaze of a god that saw all, that knew all. A god that stared up at the stars and down at all their faults, who looked like a young Hawaiian man with an unlined face and eyes like rich soil. The fear and the hatred spilled from the airwaves, from the TV screens and the online videos. Every day, vitriol spilling unchecked into the mind. Privacy, taken away. Secrets exposed. Lives controlled. His heart pounded with other people’s fear, slipping into his brain like a disease. The young man continued, apparently oblivious to his audience’s consternation over the abrupt non-sequitur.
“I can. I can see it all.”
Unthinking reflex pressed the button.
The quiet breath of the fans stilled and silence pressed down like a blanket. Eyes blinked out, red and green and blue, and the glowing figure flickered and fizzled like a dying candle.
“But I’d rather listen for the stories the stars tell themselves...”
And Zhar was alone, at last, in the darkness. His breath was the only sound in the room - nothing else lived here, now.
As he stumbled down the stairs, one hand on the wall and fighting against the feeling that the shadows below him were reaching up to swallow him whole, Zhar heard the distant sounds of voices above him. Ghostly whispers drifting through the corridors of the crypt. The muggy air of the still night was a welcome escape, even as the humidity filled his lungs as though he was drowning.
He slipped in amongst the trees, one shadow amongst many. Behind him, lights began to flicker and flare, and he fled deeper into the dark.
Pausing to catch his breath, Zhar leaned against a trunk at the edge of a clearing. Moonlight cast everything in silver and black, and he stepped out into the light. Nothing scanning the ground, scouring the area for his approach now. It was safe. No all-seeing deity, watching with chestnut eyes and a crooked smile.
The stars hung above him, cold and bright, like a million uncaring eyes. Unseeing. Unfeeling.
What use would a star have for watching humans? And even if it did, what would it see? The faults, the flaws, the stinking rot that threaded through the cesspit of the cities and hung in his chest, expelled with every breath and drawn back in to fester? Or would the star see only the glittering lights, and tell itself stories about them?
Zhar watched the stars above him and thought about the story he told himself.