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Understanding Black Holes Through Science Fiction

by David Kyle Johnson

Science Fiction enthusiasts are stereotypically, and perhaps ironically, overly concerned with the accuracy and believability of the science fiction films they watch. From plot holes to scientific accuracy, if there’s something wrong with a science fiction film, they’re likely to tell you about it. Humans couldn’t be batteries, like they are in The Matrix, because we’re too inefficient of an energy source.1 If Earth’s core stopped rotating, like it does in The Core, we wouldn’t worry about the Earth’s magnetic fields—the oceans would vaporize! 2

The same is true for movies that feature black holes—regions of spacetime with gravity so great that not even light can escape them which are generated by singularities (infinitely dense collections of matter, usually formed by collapsing stars). The difference is, because black holes are so difficult to understand, sometimes it’s the complaints that are mistaken (as we shall shortly see). Still, we’ve come a long way in how accurately black holes are depicted in science fiction; and we can learn a bit about black holes by looking at two films which (arguably) contain the most famous and prominent appearances of black holes in science fiction: The Black Hole (1979) and Interstellar (2014).

The Black Hole

In The Black Hole, the crew of the USS Palomino stumbles across another ship—the USS Cygnus—orbiting a black hole. The crew sits down for space-dinner with the Cygnus’ commander Dr. Hans Reinhardt, they discover he’s a little crazy, one thing leads to another, and … (spoiler alert) they’re all pulled into the black hole.

The science in the film is monumentally inaccurate, especially regarding how it depicts its black hole. From the outside, it looks like a spiral galaxy with a dark spot at the center that dips down like a funnel. This artistic choice, it seems, was inspired by grid representations of the effects of a black hole on spacetime which show spacetime funneling in towards the singularity at the black hole’s center. Indeed, just such representation is the background for the beginning credits of the film.

A common grid representation of how a black hole affects spacetime
Illustration by King Stimie (used by permission)

The reason a black hole wouldn’t actually look like this is because such drawings only represent the effects of a black hole on one plane of spacetime—usually the one along the black hole’s equator. But (a) there are other planes that are also affected and (b) the bending of spacetime these drawings depict occurs outside our visible universe, in a higher dimension. So, although we could potentially see the effects of such bending, we could not see the bending itself.

Now, a black hole can have an accretion disk—a collection of matter that orbits it, like the rings of Saturn, just beyond the black hole’s event horizon (the area of spacetime surrounding the singularity from which not even light can escape). If that disk is being fed by another star, it can kind of look like a galaxy. But the event horizon itself would be oblong…or spherical if the black hole is not spinning. It would never look like a funnel to an external observer.

Interstellar’s Gargantua

The most scientifically sound portrayal of a black hole in science fiction came 35 years later, in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. Its black hole, Gargantua, serves as the center of a new solar system that humanity hopes to colonize, and is most notable for its scientifically accurate appearance—an appearance that was generated by relativistic equations, developed specifically for the movie’s special effects software, by astrophysicist Kip Thorne.3

What about its “look” is so accurate? Two of its visual features stand out. First, it’s not a funnel. Second, the entirety of its accretion disk is visible from every angle—even the part of the disk that’s behind Gargantua (from the camera’s point of view). Visually, it looks like a black sphere with a bright ring of matter orbiting its equator, and another around its top and bottom. But what you are seeing around its top and bottom is actually the far side of the accretion disk; and if you were to orbit Gargantua as its planets do, it would look the same from every angle.

An artistic depiction of Gargantua
Illustration by King Stimie (used by permission)

This effect is a result of Gargantua’s enormous mass. The light given off by the accretion disk, just beyond the event horizon can escape—but some of it is bent so drastically by Gargantua’s gravitational pull that it ends up on the opposite side. Light emitted straight away from the disk would escape and be seen on that side of the disk. But light emitted, say at a 90-degree angle from the disk, would be pulled in toward Gargantua, over its top, and then emitted out the other side.

Gargantua’s Time Dilation

Its breathtaking appearance, however, is not Gargantua’s only scientifically sound aspect. It also dilates time accurately.

Einstein’s general relativity shows us that acceleration slows the passage of time. It also shows us that the effects of acceleration and gravity are equivalent. (For example, just like acceleration pulls you back, so does gravity.) Consequently, massive objects like black holes, which produce massive amounts of gravity, also slow time. The closer you get to one, the slower your time would pass. Since your perception would also slow, you wouldn’t notice a difference; but a distant outside observer would see you as moving very slowly. 

A grand example of time dilation occurs in Interstellar when the crew of the spaceship Endurance visits Miller’s planet. It’s orbiting Gargantua so closely that, for every hour that passes on Miller’s planet, seven years pass on Earth. The crew plans to spend only a few minutes there, but ends up spending much more. When Cooper, the film’s protagonist, returns to the Endurance, years of backlogged messages from Earth reveal that his daughter is now older than him.

On his blog, Astronomer Phil Plait argued that this was impossible; a planet close enough to a black hole to experience such extreme time dilation could not be in a stable orbit and would be torn apart by tidal    forces.4 But he later had to recant because he didn’t realize that Gargantua was a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole (100 million times the mass of our sun).5 This makes its gravitational effects quite different and makes a planet like Miller’s—orbiting where it is, with the time dilation it has, without being torn apart—possible.

What Lies Beyond?

Ironically, The Black Hole may have been more accurate than Interstellar regarding one aspect of black holes: what you would see if you entered one.

Now, this may seem odd if you’ve seen both films. In Interstellar, Cooper enters Gargantua to find a tesseract—a 3 dimensional representation of a four dimensional object (in this case, his daughter bedroom) placed there by “five-dimensional bulk beings.” The idea that all black holes contain tesseracts is not suggested by the movie (and certainly is not entailed by relativity); but if such beings did exist, you could at least imagine them placing one inside.

In The Black Hole, however, what Reinhardt and the crew of the Palamino see is the clouds of heaven and the fires of hell—and that’s ridiculous! Indeed, while Thorne said that Nolan could use his imagination to decide what Cooper would see in Gargantua (since we really don’t know what it would be like), he asked specifically for him to avoid depicting “Satan and the fires of Hades” like The Black Hole did.6

The reason I’m suggesting that The Black Hole is more accurate than Interstellar in this regard, however, is because the afterlife is what you would most likely see if you entered a black hole. Why? Because, despite the theories of crazy ol’ Dr. Reinhardt in The Black Hole, there is no way in hell (pardon the pun) you would survive. The gravitational forces of a black hole increase exponentially as you approach it—so much so that, if you were to approach it feet first, the gravitational pull on your feet would eventually be hundreds (even thousands) of times greater than on your head. This would result in something scientists actually call “spaghettification” because it would turn you into something that looks like one long string of spaghetti. You would essentially be stretched to death.

Now, of course I realize that an afterlife is just as non-scientific as five-dimensional bulk-beings and a tesseract; in other words, although they aren’t necessarily contrary to science, belief in either would require faith. Fair enough. But hopefully my point is clear: Surviving a trip into a black hole, like Cooper does in Interstellar, isn’t scientifically sound. Thorne himself even finds it dubious.7 But at least when you watch the end of The Black Hole, you can interpret the film in a way that aligns with the scientific facts about black holes: “They all fell into the black hole? Oh yeah…they’re all dead.”

###

Endnotes:

1. Wardle, Tammy. “Physics Inaccuracies in the Movie The Matrix.Prezzi, 6 June 2016,  https://prezi.com/d69bz14uki48/physics-inaccuracies-in-the-movie-the-matrix/

2. Plait, Phil. “Review: The Core.Bad Astronomy, accessed 25 May 2018, http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/movies/thecore_review.html

3. Thorne was hired by Nolan as a consultant to make the movie as scientifically accurate as possible. For more on how the image was generated, see Thorne, Kip. “The Science of Interstellar.” W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 83-87.

4. Plait, Phil. “Interstellar Science.” Slate, 6 November 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/space_20/2014/11/interstellar_science_review_the_movie_s_black_holes_wormholes_relativity.html

5. Plait, Phil. “Follow Up: Interstellar Mea Culpa.” Slate, 9 November 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/11/09/interstellar_followup_movie_science_mistake_was_mine.html

6. Thorne, Kip. “The Science of Interstellar.” p. 250.

7. Thorne, Kip. “The Science of Interstellar.” pp. 246-7.

~

Bio

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016) and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream (2011), and the author of The Myths that Stole Christmas along with two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take). Currently, he is editing Black Mirror and Philosophy.

Tales from the Political Void: The Dystopian Turn in Chilean Science Fiction

Dr. Gabriel Saldías Rossel
Dra. Carolina A. Navarrete González

Dystopia’s tight grasp on western civilization is undeniable. Not only in the realm of the symbolic, where it has prevailed for over a century, but also in the material, where more and more often we witness dystopian elements leaking into everyday life, as it was the case with the 2018 march of Argentinian women protesting abortion rights dressed as Atwood’s famous handmaids. In Latin America, it would seem, dystopia feels as, if not “real,” at least an ominous certainty; a kind of perpetual apocalyptic zeitgeist waiting to happen when you least expect it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that much of what we consider dystopian fiction in Latin America is, paradoxically, firmly grounded in reality.

I’d like to take the Chilean experience as a case study on this subject, for it’s quite interesting that a country that has embraced capitalism for a long time and, in turn, has redeemed itself as “one of the most stable countries in the region,” is also one where dystopia has reigned supreme for over 40 years. Because Chile doesn’t write eutopias anymore, at best, we remember them fondly and sigh wishfully whenever we see a utopian novel reedited, as La Pollera publishers did recently with Manuel Astica’s Thimor, the so-called “first Chilean utopia,” originally published in 1932. Dystopias, meanwhile, continue to be published regularly each year.

First order of business, then, would be to properly conceptualize this apparent “death” of eutopias in Chile. Let’s discuss the deceased: it’s imperative we have a discernible body upon which to enact our autopsy of the utopian genre, yet this particular entity eludes any forensic endeavor, firstly because it would seem it never existed in the first place, while those that attest to the contrary, usually admit utopias in Chile were never really anything more than imitations of foreign trends with hardly anything original in them.

There’s certainly some truth to this claim, however, not entirely. Chilean utopias published during the 19th century by authors such as Francisco Miralles (Desde Júpiter, 1877), Benjamín Tallman (¡Una vision del porvenir!, 1875) and, to some degree, Jorge Klickmann (La ciudad encantada de Chile: drama patriótico histórico-fantástico en cuatro actos, 1892), José Victorino Lastarria (Don Guillermo, 1860) and Juan Egaña (Ocios filosóficos y poéticos en la Quinta de las Delicias, 1829), were certainly inspired by republican values, futurist literature such as Verne’s and European positivism, yet, their main concern was always related to Chile and its overall improvement as a country and society. This continued during the first half of the 20th century, with the emergence of Astica’s “classical utopia” Thimor (1932), the surprising popularity of “lost civilization” narratives, such as Hugo Silva’s Pacha Pulai (1945) and Manuel Rojas’ En la ciudad de los césares (1939), as well as the continued trend of futuristic fiction by authors such as David Perry and his Ovalle, el 21 de abril de 2031 (1933) and Julio Assman’s Tierra Firme (1927). Eventually, more complex and experimental works of fiction began to be published with mixed reception by critics, such as Vicente Huidobro’s La Próxima: Historia que pasó en poco tiempo más (1927) and Juan Ermar’s Ayer (1935).

All this just to say that whatever it is that supposedly “died” with Chilean utopian fiction cannot be so easily pinpointed, as utopianism certainly didn’t cease to exist after the 1950s. Something did happen, true, but it wasn’t the end of utopia, but, instead, its transformation. At some point in time, probably between 1960 and 1969, Chilean writers stopped thinking in terms of a “better place” or even a “better life,” and started concerning themselves with what would happen if such a scenario never came to happen. This paradigm shift is what Tom Moylan has called the “dystopian turn” of utopian fiction; not exclusively a shift in narrative format, but also in the way of approaching and interpreting utopianism and hope for the future. The history of this phenomenon has been well documented, with experts usually pointing to Yevgueni Zamiatin’s Мы (We;1924) as the first formal dystopia. Huxley, Bradbury, Orwell, Vonnegut and many others would follow, thus allowing for dystopia to take shape and flourish all over the world, leaving classical eutopias as little more than a vestige of history.

Chile, as it has usually been the case, arrived late at the party and only started embracing the dystopian mindset well after the Anglo-Saxon world had already developed it beyond its original limits. To give an example of how disconnected Chilean imagination was with English and North American sensibilities, two years after Huxley published A Brave New World (1932), where he directly hyperbolized and criticized a social model based on Fordism, Huidobro, one of Chile’s finest poets, published La Próxima, a novel where he explicitly and non-ironically praised Ford for his contribution to mankind.

Thus, Chile’s delayed dystopian turn was probably encouraged by two factors: influence of foreign authors already publishing dystopias in English, and the Latin American political context, constantly on the verge of dictatorships and/or revolutions. Indeed, the first Chilean dystopias seem very much concerned with the political dimension of society, especially after Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973 and his subsequent dictatorship. This is why I think in order to understand the dystopian turn in Chile, one has to take into consideration how dystopias represent politics and the political in the country, for this is the soul of the Chilean dystopian imagination; not the social or even the personal experience, but the organizational, the flawed structural frame upon which to develop an idea of society. This is what dystopias in Chile are all about and I’d like to explain how and why.

To what extent the “political” constitutes the heart of dystopia can be debated; however, it’s important to remember that, unlike eutopia, there’s nothing natural in the way dystopian fiction organizes society. Dystopias are, by definition, an idea of order that never fully becomes what it’s meant to be; they’re a false promise of well-being that denies its own falsehood, a bad joke (or a joke gone bad). It’s from this standpoint that dystopia articulates itself right in between the intersection of what Claude Lefort would call “the political” and “politics.”

We’re certainly familiar with the many images of dystopian politics dystopian fiction has provided us with, such as The Big Brother or Bradbury’s firefighters; yet, we’re not so accustomed to think about the political ramifications of these expressions of power and control. Even if we don’t see it at first glance, there’s always a philosophical substance behind these narrative elements that justify their existence and validate their abuses; a certain kind of “intuition” about the world we live in that explains why, at that moment in time, those particularly terrible, unjust and inhuman politics make absolute and perfect sense. For Lefort this is quite evident if we consider monarchy as an example, for monarchy is not only the reign of kings and princes, but also the world they exist in, from tax collection to the black death. All these apparently incidental occurrences were philosophically interpreted in such a way as to explain why kings were needed to organize society, for without them there could not exist a society in the first place. It just made sense. Politics, then, do not determine the political, but the other way around: what we see and consider as the expression of politics, depends on the tacit philosophical agreement by the majority of the population that the way in which we organize society corresponds with the perception and definition of the world we’re currently living in.

When classical dystopias emerged, they subverted this conviction through irony: at some undetermined point in time, we learn when reading Bradbury, Orwell and Huxley, something happened in the world, and harmony between the political and politics broke. That’s the main revelation most classical protagonist go through, that something is amiss with the way the world works, something’s wrong and they’re the only ones capable of perceiving it. That’s their epiphany and their burden.

This sense of a fleeting philosophical substance probably springs from the experience of World War II, when the political apparently “retreated” to a realm beyond politics, as Jean Luc-Nancy posits. This means we’re left with political action without political substance; organization without explanation, a Big Brother that cannot stop watching over us, despite its non-existence, a firefighter that cannot stop burning books, despite his love for them. This probably was classical dystopias most nuanced and problematic prediction, the idea of a society that has no reason to be the way it is, yet cannot be anything else. What to do, then, confronted with the self-fulfilling prophecy of politics without the political? Nancy and Lacou-Labarthe have interpreted this “retreat”, in classical derridean fashion, as a “re-treat,” meaning a new opportunity to re-signify the political in the historical progression of the West. But what if there’s no coming back from this retreat of the political? What if this permanently elusive meaning dilutes to the point of becoming unrecognizable, or even worse, antiquated? Maybe there’s no political to be found anymore, maybe dystopias are, in their own philosophically twisted way, correct.

I find this philosophical uncertainty and unrest constitute a key component of the Chilean dystopian imagination. Following Tom Moylan’s famous taxonomy, we could argue “mythical dystopias,” forever closed-off to any potential change, preclude the political to ever coming back into contact with politics, while “epical dystopias,” slightly more optimistic and open to change, would argue the opposite, that there is indeed a potential way of coming back from the retreat of the political and recovering the lost meaning behind our societal organization. It’s between these two opposite poles of interpretation that the Chilean dystopian turn takes place sometime during the 1960s and 1970s; constantly negotiating, through fiction, a way of think and re-think politics in a country that seems very much devoid of a visible and coherent political dimension.

In accordance with Moylan’s methodology, I would also like to consider Chilean dystopian fiction in terms of co-existing narratives, instead of one main “evolving” narrative form that takes different shapes over time. The first one of these would be the “classical” type, a kind of dystopias produced very much within Lefort’s original theoretical frame, considering the political as a kind of intrinsically positive force capable of providing meaning where there is none. Miguel Arteche’s El Cristo hueco (1969) and Patricio Manns’ De repente los lugares desaparecen (1972) replicate this narrative trend, presenting us with protagonists obsessed with recovering the political meaning hidden behind dystopia –generally identified with ideas of “social justice”, “fairness” and “equality”– that would allow for the implementation of a new political system; one that would be indeed guided by incorruptible moral principles and universally agreed upon social values. This essentialist predisposition, despite its generally good intentions to re-orient society towards a better life, forcefully leads the protagonists down a very dangerous road, one where their own moral arrogance can become the basis for a new system of dystopian oppression.

We can see a very good example of this ironic dismantling of political meaning at the end of Manns’ novel, where in order to overthrow the dystopian government, the already “woke” protagonist enacts a massive genocide that kills innocents and oppressors alike. He then goes on to justify his actions and proclaim a new system of laws that explicitly discriminates between those that lived within the confines of the previous dystopia and those that didn’t. In the end, after his laws basically exterminate most of the population, he deems society unworthy, and nonchalantly sails into the sunset with his woman by his side and the promise of a new world somewhere else.

There’s a tremendous irony in this whole final act that’s completely lost to Manns. The narrator truly believes “drastic measures” like this need to be implemented in order to improve humanity, a conviction that, instead of recovering the political substance of societal organization, utterly destroys it, as Derrida explains in “The Force of Law”: every new law introduced in society requires we forbid, forget or break a previously established one, for every new law produces a new rule that didn’t exist before. Thus, if the prerequisite of creating and enacting the law is that we break the law, every new system, such as the one Manns’ protagonist creates, is necessarily grounded in injustice and should be irredeemably be considered unlawful and undesirable.

Critical dystopias, on the other hand, follow a different path. These narratives, as Moylan points out, are fully aware that no binary dissection of the world can truly reflect the complex nature of human society. If we accept dystopian politics as evil, we also have to come to terms with the fact that they, too, spring from a specific political interpretation of the world; one which, at some point in time considered these practices and rules as lawful, just and in harmony with a particular weltanschauung that may be lost to us. “How did we get here?” is the question that echoes through critical dystopias, an inquiry that mostly goes unanswered.

Chilean critical dystopias published during Pinochet’s dictatorship, both in Chile and abroad, clearly reflect the despair that stemmed from the uncertainty left after the quite literal extirpation of any political dimension from the country by the military. The protagonists of novels such as Ariel Dorfman’s La última canción de Manuel Sendero (1982) and Claudio Jaque’s El ruido del tiempo (1987), while also obsessed with recovering a long-lost, abstract and even mythical political sense, are also haunted by the intuition that their quest might lead them nowhere or, even worse, return them to where they started from. Let’s take La última canción de Manuel Sendero as an example: here, the narrative/counter-narrative paradigm Rafaella Baccolini identifies in her analysis of dystopian narrative, is relativized by way of portraying a fractured resistance, one that doesn’t necessarily agree on what political meaning they’re trying to recover. They agree dystopia needs to be resisted, while, at the same time remain awfully conscious of the fact that the dystopia they’re trying to overthrow didn’t appear out of thin air, but was instead a product of its time, something their own resistance might end up replicating. What’s the correct way, then, to resist the imposition of unfair politics? How can we make sure our own political convictions won’t end up creating unfair and oppressive politics after they become the norm?

The terrifying realization of critical dystopias is that we can’t ever be sure we’re doing the right thing. Since there’s no “good” political, there can’t be “good” politics either; everything is relative to its own conditions of possibility and critical dystopias show this impossibility of truly recovering what we strive for, while, at the same time, expressing the unavoidable stubbornness of hope, even at risk of self-destruction.

Finally, I will briefly mention a more recent and less explored variant of Chilean dystopian fiction I’d like to call the “infra-political dystopia”. These narratives represent a change of attitude towards the political that seeks to diminish its importance and destabilize its non-place at the heart of societal organization.

Instead of lamenting the retreat of the political and seeking its return, infra-political dystopias assume its absence as an opportunity to redirect resistance towards politics themselves. In these narratives, protagonists don’t identify as “political beings;” they don’t protest, they don’t create manifests, they don’t plan how to overthrow dystopia and impose a new way of life, but prefer, instead, to exercise subtle and nuanced resistant practices through their daily lives that can’t be fully described or even identified as political. It’s all in the details: the way in which one pays, walks by a police station, or the tone one uses when addressing a superior, all apparently minor and insignificant personal quirks dystopian politics would normally dismiss as flaws of character incapable of truly impacting society in any meaningful way. This is, however, the infra-political aim, to lead authorities into believing there’s no need to restrict, there’s no reason to redirect political attention, all the while creating what James Scott calls a “hidden transcript” of popular discontent that, at some point in the future, will become its own political substance.

The novel that best encompasses this way of looking at the political void is 2010: Chile en llamas (1998) by Darío Oses, where a group of ragtag individuals, all with different agendas, seek to steal the cryogenically preserved body of “the General” that led the country into becoming a cyberpunk dystopia and capitalist paradise. The entire odyssey is marked by futileness, for the protagonists are all aware that even if they indeed manage to steal the body, nothing would change. They know their efforts constitute a way of exercising a symbolic resistance against the world as it is, a kind of rebellion against everything that can’t be successful simply because it doesn’t adhere to any political interpretation of success. Yet, they exercise resistance, they create a hidden transcript of society that could eventually lead to some new political meaning not yet discovered. One can only hope, and that seems to be the infra-political way of looking at things.

In the end, these questions remain unsolved. Whether we assume an essentialist view of the political, become paralyzed by our own agency, or assume there’s no political meaning to recover yet, it all goes to show how the dystopian turn has impacted Chilean utopian imagination. It’s hard to believe we could go back to a eutopian mindset, with such innocence and confidence as that of 19th and 20th centuries authors, not yet completely jaded by distrust, fear and skepticism. However, it’s necessary to clarify that it’s not that dystopian writers have forgotten or renounced hope, that still remains, even if in tatters and shambles. No; the question dystopia asks today is even more unsettling and unresolvable: what are we hoping for?

~

Desiccation

The day came when Amos walked out across the flats, and the brine pools were gone. He stopped and stared around him, through the thin slit in the fabric he had wrapped round his head to protect him from the sun.  It was setting now, swollen and red, sinking towards a distant range of hills that marked where the oceans had once ended and the land begun. Even so the reflection and glare from the white crystals of halite beneath his feet was blinding, and he adjusted the thin strip of tinted Perspex that he used to protect his eyes. It was scratched and old. But it was better than nothing.
He turned and looked back towards the people, now merely a cluster of black specks in the distance. The mush of crystals crunched beneath his feet as he moved. There was still some moisture here, but that would soon be gone, leaving only a dry white crust and the bodies of the last few creatures, rotting in the sick red light of the dying sun.
There was nothing to stay here for, and Amos started the long walk back.
They had finished packing and started to move away as he arrived; all their belongings on a few old carts that the men pulled before them. The women and children straggled alongside. Amos fell into step beside them. The salt flats still shimmered in the heat of the evening. Soon it would cool.
Somewhere there had to be more pools, more water. But the pools had been getting further apart over the years, and whenever they found one the evaporation was further advanced. Amos ran his tongue over dry cracked lips. They tasted of salt, everything tasted of salt.
He quickened his step. The first of the moons was rising, its amber glow replacing the glare of the angry sun. It was full, enough light to see by. Tonight they would make good progress.
“I’ll scout on ahead,” he said. The man beside him nodded, but did not speak.
Amos strode out leaving the group trailing, a thin line of desperate people in the moonlight. He removed the cloth and home-made visor from his face. The warm breeze was refreshing, but his breathing was laboured in the stale air. He scanned the horizon as he walked, his eyes sharp, but it was the same as always, smooth, endless.
And then he paused and blinked and looked again. Had something moved? He stared hard, eyebrows furrowed, eyes straining until they hurt. There it was again. A light flickered, and then was gone.
Amos drew in a sharp breath and his pulse picked up speed. People? It was roughly in the direction they were heading. Maybe there was water there.
He slowed and let the rest of the group catch him up. Some of the older ones were struggling, weak and tired. A woman dropped to her knees as the others limped past. Amos paused, then, since no one else seemed to be bothered, he went to her side and knelt beside her in the crystalline sand. Her breath was shallow and rattled in her throat.
Amos pulled his water bottle out from beneath his robes and pulled the protective fabric back from her face. He blinked in surprise. She was young, but her eyes were sunken and lined from the struggle to survive. He held the bottle towards her.
“I can’t.” She shook her head. “It’s yours, you need it.”
“No, you need it more.” He pushed it between her lips, salt caked and cracked, and when she had drunk he helped her to her feet.
“Thank you,” she murmured, though her stride was uneven. Amos noticed for the first time the bulge of her stomach and sighed. This was going to be a slow journey.
He glanced towards the horizon but he didn’t see the light again. Perhaps he had imagined it and he licked the salt from his lips. The thirst ached inside him, but there were others in more need. Better not to mention the light—just in case.
But as the moon set and the dawn lit the sky with a pinkish glow Amos paused and stared, for there was something there.
The people had stopped walking now and were setting up their shelters; pools of shade on the desolate salt flats, the only protection from the heat of the day and the glare of the sun. But beyond them, rising up from plain, was a mountain. Amos squinted at it as the light around him brightened and the heat mirage began to blur its outline. That mountain had once been an island, and he sighed. They wouldn’t find water there. The only pools that remained were in the deepest parts of the ancient oceans that had once covered much of this world.
He didn’t know much about those times. He had only ever known the salt flats. But the women still told the stories to their children that he himself had heard as a child:
We came from the stars. One day those who brought us will come to take us back.
Amos had stopped believing it a long time ago.
He moved across to where two men had nearly finished their shelter and were making the final adjustments to the canopy.
They looked round at his approach.
“Do you see that,” one of them said nodding towards the horizon.
Amos nodded. “An old island. I’m going to take a look.”
“Why?” said the other. “We won’t find water where there once was land.”
“I know,” said Amos. He hesitated a moment, and then added. “I saw something last night.”
“You did?”
“Yes, I saw a light blink on and off. I think there might be people there.”
The two men exchanged glances.
“Perhaps you imagined it,” said one.
“Perhaps.”
The other gestured towards the lightening horizon.
“You’ll only have a couple of hours before you have to shelter from the sun.”
“I know. I’ll catch you up tonight.”
Amos hoisted one of the lightweight portable shelters onto his back and picked up an extra water bottle. The woman he had helped was sitting on a rock gnawing on a strip of dried fish.
“Good luck,” she said as he passed. Amos didn’t answer her. He adjusted his perspex visor and fixed his gaze on the island ahead. If he walked fast he might just be able to make it before the heat became too intense. There might be better shelter there too.
His feet beat a steady rhythm on the crystal sand and he drank only when he had to. The island drew nearer and the heat was beginning to burn back at him off the bare rock as he started to climb the lower slopes.
He peered up at the land looming above, dark against the glare of the sick ochre sky. There was no sign of life, no sign of people. The heat was almost unbearable now. He had to stop.
He lowered his pack and drank deep, draining the first of his water bottles. Then he set to work setting up the awning, a pool of hot shade on this God-forsaken rock.
He worked hard and fast, and never heard them approach. When he looked up they were watching him, crouching on the rocks and boulders. They had him completely surrounded. He could only begin to guess at how long they had been sitting there and cursed his lack of caution. They were so still; figures shrouded in rags as he was. But from the set of their shoulders and the angle of their heads it was clear that their mood was hostile.
He straightened up and turned towards them, the sun beating down on the back of his head. His shelter was ready, the shade inviting. But not yet.
“Greetings,” he said, and stood waiting. They didn’t answer. Two of the figures nearest to him exchanged glances. Then one stood up, pushing back his robes. Amos swallowed hard. The man was armed, the barrel of a gun pointing at Amos’s chest. He glanced round the group. The others probably were too.
At last one of them spoke, the man who was nearest to him, the man who appeared to be in charge.
“Where are the rest of your clan?” he demanded, and his voice echoed off the cliffs above.
“There is only me,” Amos lied.
“No. Your kind is never alone. You are a scout. We ought to kill you.”
“Why?” Amos’s heart beat fast and his brain whirred, trying to think. These men were defending something. There was only one thing that could be. Water.
“Leave, now,” said the man.
Amos scowled, then gestured towards the shelter behind him. “Let me shelter from the sun. I’ll leave as evening approaches.”
The man snorted. “I think you’ll leave now.”
Two more of his companions rose to their feet and now three weapons were pointing at Amos. He turned to his shelter and reached to start dismantling it.
“No.”
Amos looked round and the man was shaking his head. “Leave your shelter. You’ll have no need for it.”
“But I’ll die…” Amos faltered. That was what they wanted. He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists. The weapons still pointed.
“Go,” said the man, and Amos began to move away, slow steps, glancing back as he went. The men stood ready, watching him. Amos fumed in silence. At least he still carried water, not that it would do him much good out on the salt flats. He would never make it back to the rest of his people, and his body would rot like the bodies of the last of the fishes as the brine pools evaporated around them. He ground his teeth and clenched and unclenched his fists.
“I will not die,” he muttered as he walked.
The heat was unbearable, and his body poured with sweat beneath his robes. His tongue seemed to swell in his mouth and he reached for his water. No. Make it last. He looked back towards the island. The strangers were lost in the heat mirage that blurred the salt flats into a shimmering haze.
And then he saw it; a lone figure drifting in and out of the heat haze. Following.
Of course. They weren’t going to leave things to chance. If the heat and the salt flats didn’t kill him first, this man would make sure that he never returned to his people.
He couldn’t blame them. What little they had they would kill to preserve. Anyone would.
But Amos wasn’t ready to die. Not from the desert heat or at this man’s hands. He turned and continued on his way, slowing his pace so that his pursuer drew nearer.
And then, passing through an area of boulders, he had his chance. He doubled back, crouching low behind the rocks, waiting.
The man came on, forgetting caution in his haste to get the job done and return to the shelter of his island. He didn’t want to be out here either.
Amos watched him approach, his breath shallow. His fingers closed on a jagged piece of rock jutting up amongst the crystals.
Amos waited until the man was almost on top of him—until he was passing by, and then he struck.
The rock thudded against the fabric that the man had wrapped around his face and head as protection from the sun, and the man stumbled sideways. Amos pressed forwards and stuck again, an upwards blow—rock against bearded chin, and a red blood splattered the crystal dust by his feet.
His moment’s advantage was short-lived though. The man sprang forwards with a roar of hurt and rage. His fists struck and Amos folded. Maybe this hadn’t been wise. Maybe he should have tried to outrun him.
The man’s hands were around his throat, choking his breath from him. His visor was knocked to the ground and he screwed up his eyes against the glare of the sun, as the man forced him back and down onto the salt crystal sands.
No.
Not like this.
Amos wasn’t ready to die.
The rock, it was still there, still in his hand. He clasped his fingers round it, sweeping it up into the air. Then he brought his fist slamming down onto the man’s head. Hair ripped and flesh tore and the man fell sideways.
Amos coughed and rolled onto his hands and knees. His visor was near and he crawled to it, fumbling the tinted Perspex back over his eyes, and at last he could see properly. He could look around.
The man lay, blood seeping into a red stain on the white crystal sand from the hole in his skull. He was quite still and Amos knew at once that he was dead. He let out a slow breath and staggered to his feet.
The man had come to kill him—but maybe he had just saved Amos’s life.
There was a portable shelter strapped to his back. That was good. And a water canister over his shoulder. Even better.
Amos took the canister and unscrewed the lid, tipping back his head to let the water through his cracked lips and onto his tongue.
And he froze.
For he had never tasted such water in all his life. This water was sweet and clear. This water was pure. Water never tasted like this—however much they treated it to take out the salt from the brine, they never got rid of all the impurities—water was never so good.
Amos stared at the canister in his hands. Then he looked back towards the island.
#
With dusk Amos dismantled the shelter he had taken from the dead man—a man who’s body was already starting to stink after a day of being baked by the sun.
Amos wrinkled his nose and headed away, back across the salt flats.
It didn’t take long for him to find his people. They gathered around as Amos struggled to catch his breath.
“What did you find?” asked one.
“Water,” he said, as he unscrewed the lid on the water canister and passed it round for them to taste. They stared at him with wide eyes.
“But we’re going to have to fight for it,” he said.
The men nodded and Amos’s skin prickled with the tingle of excitement that comes before a battle. His men handed out stones for their slingshots without speaking. They were used to fighting. They’d had to drive a hostile clan away from the last pool they had stopped at. These days there was no room for compassion.
Amos sucked in the dry air between his teeth and looked back across the salt flats. The island loomed like a giant shadow in the moonlight. They would soon wonder why their friend hadn’t returned. There was no time to waste.
“Follow me,” he said, and started back.
The men and some of the women fell into step behind him, leaving the very young and the old and infirm huddled together in the night. They ran over the salt crust which broke and crunched beneath their feet, back towards the island, and followed Amos in silence over the rocks and boulders of the lower slopes. And there, above them, looking like a shadow in the moonlight, was a cave.
There was no sign of anyone waiting for them. Just silence and yellow moonlight. Amos crept forwards, towards the cavern, and the others hung back, letting him take the lead. This was too easy. They had to be here somewhere, watching. He swallowed at the thought of those guns.
And then the strangers showed themselves. They emerged from behind the rocks and bombarded them with stone projectiles.
Amos ducked as a fragment of stone splintered against the rock behind him, and lifted his slingshot to take aim. They were fighting with stones and rocks, just the same as his own clan were. Amos blinked. So their other weapons were useless, just for show.
He smiled. This was going to be a much fairer fight that he had expected.
He loosed off a shot and someone near the cave mouth fell with a grunt to lie still in the sand. Near him another man cried out in pain.
Amos straightened up to stand tall among the boulders.
“Forwards,” he shouted and his heart thudded at the sound of movement behind him as his men followed. The men on the cliffs above fell back into the caves, still throwing the occasional rock down. But nothing could stop the charge of Amos and his people.
The battle was already as good as won. Amos pressed forward their advantage, leading his men into the caves.
They were waiting for them though, and their counter attack came out of nowhere. One moment Amos was running, and the next someone had jumped him. His feet vanished from underneath him and he rolled over in the dust, his assailant with him, a tangle of limbs and rage; the same man who had tried to send him out into the salt flats to his death, the man who was clearly the leader of this clan. Fists pounded his face and Amos lashed back, striking the man a firm blow on the jaw that knocked him back.
But the counter attack was quick. Amos ducked a vicious blow that left his assailant off balance—just for an instant, but that was enough. He sprang and grabbed him around his thighs bringing him down, head smashing against the cavern wall.
Amos stood up and kicked the prone body which groaned once and then lay still. He looked around. Men were still fighting, tussling in small knots. And then a figure ran forwards into their midst, a young boy, thin and pale.
He ran over to the man lying at Amos’s feet and cradled his head in his arms.
Amos turned to the boy. “We only want water. We only want to survive, the same as you.”
Amos’s people now had control, more bodies lying in the sand, and others, prisoners, struggling in their clasp. But their fight was gone. Their leader was dead.
“So where is your water?” Amos asked.
The boy looked up at him, face smeared with dirt and tears.
“It’s a borehole. It pumps the water up from the depths beneath the planet’s crust to the surface to irrigate the fields.”
“Fields,” Amos heard someone murmur behind him and he lifted one hand for silence. Could there really be fields? The fighting was stopping, people listening. Amos knew what they were all thinking.
“Is there much water then?”
The boy nodded.
More people were emerging into the chamber now, women and children. They inched towards the figures on the sand and started to tend to their injured.
“Show me these fields,” Amos said to the boy, and reached out a hand to help him to his feet. The boy nodded. Amos signalled for two of his comrades to join them, and followed the boy into more tunnels, hewn rock, in some places lined with concrete and steel, taking flaming brands from the alcoves in the rock to light their way.
“What was this place?” one of Amos’s companions asked.
“It was built by the people who brought our ancestors here,” the boy replied. His feet rattled on metal stairs as they climbed ever higher.
“From the stars?” Amos asked. “It’s an old legend. I’ve never really believed it though.”
The boy shrugged and led the way along a wide corridor.
“Can they come and take us away then?” his companion asked.
The boy laughed. “I don’t think they’ll ever do that.” He paused. “I’ll show you.”
Ahead was an open doorway and beyond it the moonlight and stars. Amos guessed that it led to the surface and fields. But the boy was pointing down one of the side passages. It was in shadow but the boy moved towards it, holding his torch high, the flame casting flickering shadows across the walls.
Amos followed, peering into the gloom.
The end of the corridor was screened with metal bars, broken and bent, and the boy pushed between them. Amos hesitated a moment, then slipped through after him. Along the corridor were doorways, each leading into a tiny room.
Amos shuddered.
“This is where our ancestors were kept. This is where they were brought to stay,” the boy explained.
Amos looked closer at the tiny cells. The doors were broken. More bars, more metal—signs of scorching—a fight—a breakout.
“The fields are this way,” said the boy.
The boy led them up towards the light, and the stars that would for ever be beyond reach. For their prison was now an entire planet and their bars were the rays of that dying sun.