It was 3:30AM when the little man in his hoary lab coat pounded on Wesley’s apartment door. An emergency, the mousy man said.
At 3:50AM they arrived. At 3:51AM he knew.
The Tyger was dying. Wesley knew it in mere seconds after walking into the room, while standing in the doorway framed by the lights of the hallway. The room was dark, too dark for the room that housed the Tyger.
From over his shoulder, he heard one of the lab techs in a panicked whisper, “It’s so dark in there, sir.” There was a quiver in his voice. Wesley didn’t blame him. He had been shaking when he arrived at Wesley’s door, banging on it in paroxysmal jerks.
Wesley crossed the threshold into the Tyger’s Den without answering as the door slid shut behind him.
The Tyger gave off its own light, brighter and more pregnant with energy than any derivative light they had produced in centuries of effort.
As it revolved in its containment tube, suspended on some ethereal cord they had long forgotten the origins of, its long, prismatic shape seemed to magnetize the darkness of the room towards its body, absorbed it, only to discharge it as golden, nebular light that hovered over the room before it was suctioned into the ducts.
Or it would, normally. Normally Wesley would walk into the Tyger’s Den and the room would be overcast with gilded clouds.
Today it was cavernously dark, the shadows more animate than ever, seeming to converge around the Tyger.
“God of Mercy,” Wesley croaked, flicking the light-switch.
It took nine seconds before they flickered on. Nine seconds longer than they should have taken. Nine seconds of extra effort to gather the power to ignite the fuses that lit the filament which led to switching on the lights. Nine seconds too long.
How many people would die at nine seconds delay? It terrified him.
Wesley hurried to the console in front of the Tyger, the room humming with mechanical life. Slow mechanical life. Poorly oiled gears would have explained it, on a normal day. Maybe, just maybe, a wrench was stuck in a cog and the whole mechanism ground to a snail’s pace as one of the machinists clambered up into the machine to correct the mistake. But not today. Wesley knew. He watched as a fog of light as feeble as a spray of mist emanated from the Tyger, rising towards the tracts of hoses and pipes on the ceiling along with absorption pads to take in the Tyger’s energetic discharges. He knew. The Tyger was dying. And they would die with it.
“How would we die?” Wesley had asked his teacher, Mr. Jean Pope de Saiye during a lesson one day. He was about eleven at the time. He wouldn’t have asked any other teacher, but he liked Jean Pope de Saiye. Nobody called him Mr. Jean Pope de Saiye, though. They called him Mr. Pope or Mr. Jean. Some of the more awnry youths called him other names, like, “Mr. Poop He Say,” or something equally puerile and ridiculous. Wesley just called him Mr. de Saiye, because it was unique and he liked the slithering way the s made its way off his tongue.
Mr. de Saiye had cleared his throat. They had been having a lesson on the history of the Convex and how it protected them from the Dark Outside. A man named Cyrus Hammond had used some composite of quantum science and lost arcana to erect the Convex. Only the power of the Tyger kept it alive. Ergo, Tyger kept them alive.
Some of the children in the classroom snickered and glanced out the window at the distant, chromatic walls of the Convex. It swirled and moved between the scales of colors from blinding white to a deep, velvety black.
“Bet some big monster would come in and gobble you up like a tiny pheasant, Wesley,” one of the kids mused loudly in a nasally voice. Others tittered.
Wesley wasn’t particularly precocious, but he’d always wondered. His family lived in a third floor apartment in the 8th Sector. From his window he could see the shifting hues of the Convex and wondered what was out there. He wondered if the sky beyond the Convex still looked like the sky in the books – if it was still blue, cluttered with amorphous clouds moving languidly through the sky like a herd of cattle. But like all children, he’d been told the same behave or… story. Behave or… the Tyger will run out of energy – only the behavior of good boys and girls powers it. If you’re bad, we die. If you don’t go to bed on time, we die. If you don’t eat your carrots, we die. He had started to wonder exactly how they would die.
Mr. de Saiye tapped his finger on his desk, “Children, it is not a subject to joke about.” He waited until they quieted down to continue, fixing his gaze on Wesley, “I don’t know how, Wesley. And I’m glad I don’t. I’m glad I can’t answer that question. The… the records are very primitive and were nearly destroyed years ago during the malfunction in the systems of 4th Sector. 50,000 people followed Cyrus here to raise the Convex. Only 5,000 lived to see the settlement form. Just remember that,” he gestured to every child in the room, “every one of you doesn’t know what’s out there, I don’t know what’s out there, and hopefully we will never know the answer to what’s out there, because your ancestors and Cyrus Hammond sacrificed to erect the Convex so we wouldn’t have to deal with what’s out there. Does that help, Wesley?”
It did not, but he acted like it did.
His fingers dashed across the keys, entering coda and data requests for prismatic output since he had left the previous day.
Wesley ran through the log files, checking it off.
When he had left yesterday, they were at exact requirements for energy output. Alpha 30 figures – meaning every Sector of the city was receiving a proportionate allocation of the Tyger’s energy to power their homes. It kept night lights on, kept dish washers running… It made sure that the beam that kept the Convex alive fired at full power at exactly 7:30Pm.
It had to fire at exactly 7:30PM. Had to.
It kept the Dark Outside from getting in.
“This can’t be happening,” Wesley repeated over and over, hoping that the repetition would somehow make it real. Make this this not real. His fingers continued blazing across the keyboard.
One button conjured a small, robotic arm that slide down into the Tyger’s tube from the rafters.
They’d had issues with power consistency from the Tyger before. Being how old it was, dating to an antiquity Wesley and his colleagues couldn’t even identify, they didn’t know a ‘proper’ way to restore it. Through tests, they’d found that merely changing its angle could help though – like rolling up a tube of toothpaste to keep squeezing every drop out of it. They’d done it for years, even before Wesley took his station – a 90 degree turn to the right. 180 degree turn to the left. Invert it. A 30 degree turn. A 10 degree turn. A five degree turn. They’d turned and turned in a myriad of angles, almost like a countdown until there was no new position the Tyger could assume. They’d been doing it for hundreds of years. At one point they even turned it back to old angles and were able to juice it for about a quarter of its previous output.
In all the years, though, its output had never fallen so far. Nine seconds of delayed circulation. Nine seconds was too far. Nine seconds meant there was no beam at exactly 7:30PM. There was a beam nine seconds after 7:30PM. The lowest it had fallen before was a four second output delay. He never forgot it. The four-second delay made him pursue his career.
Wesley had taken his girlfriend, Delia, out for a walk through Lake Fantasia. He was fifteen, she was fourteen, but she had the breasts of an eighteen year old.
Lake Fantasia was a massive body of water, the largest inside the Convex. Its appeal was the diamond affixed to a pillar that stood straight out of the water, like a giant finger crowned with a polished nail.
It wasn’t really a decorative piece, though. The diamond of Lake Fantasia was for refraction. From the Tyger’s Tower, miles high, at the zenith of the Convex, they would discharge a beam of the Tyger’s golden light directly into the diamond. The diamond would ricochet the Tyger’s light, amplified, into the Convex and cause it to explode with new energy. The effect was a spectacle for anyone who wasn’t used to it.
Meaning, it was a place teens loved to get up to teen business; where enchanted young girls were beguiled by the romance of it all. They had no stars, but they had the spectrum of colors exploding in full glory across the surface of Lake Fantasia, and the iridescence of the Convex with a burst of vitality.
It happened every day, like clockwork, at 7:30PM. Never a second earlier or later. It had always been that way. Wesley had intended to wait until the spectacle to make a move on Delia, so they had passed the time walking the circumference of the lake, hand in hand. That is, until they took a break near some bushes on the outskirts of the lake, close enough to touch the surface of the Convex.
Next to it, Wesley was reminded of holograms his teachers had shown him of supernovas. The variegation that shifted between pinks and reds and purples and greens and yellows, and darker and brighter aspects of each. It was like they were living inside a supernova. They lived surrounded by light, from the retina searing white to the occasional deep black. Deeper and blacker than any ‘midnight’ he’d seen in holograms of a world where they could see the sun, deeper and blacker than the shadows that had terrified him as a child into never sleeping.
Like a supernova, they were the center of light in a black endlessness; a single white pearl on a midnight tide.
He also wondered if there were stars, up there, beyond the Convex and the Dark Outside.
He was going to tell Delia about these deep, personal thoughts. They had been dating for a few months and, at his age, he thought it was about time he got serious about these things. He was about to, until he felt her mischievous hand skitter across his fly, tugging it down, then felt her thin, cool, moist hand slip into his trousers and find his skin. He was accommodating.
They had been in the bush, grunting through gritted teeth with full, un-tempered exertions of youth, when his watch began to beep. It was 7:30PM.
The people around the lake waited with baited breath. Delia and Wesley paused their animal antics to look up at the diamond.
That was all it took. It took seconds and the light of the Convex was gone. Seconds and Lake Fantasia was rendered a pool of deep, shifting blackness that reminded Wesley of the legends of River Styx, with souls clamoring to the surface, begging for escape from its Stygian depths.
It took seconds for the light of the Convex next to him to evaporate and for the darkness to swell, like a bubble, asserting its dominion. It ran over him like cold water, soaking through the fibers, through every hair. Tiny tendrils seemed to pull at him, draw him out into the great, Dark Outside. The Dark Inside.
There was no sound. There was the cool silence, like when he used to put his head under water in the bathtub and hear the way water lapped at his eardrums. Now it was the Dark, its oily ebony tide licking him. He gripped at anything his hand could touch, screamed with a throat that filled with Black. He felt nothing. Heard no scream.
Then it was gone. With a great, massive roar of light the Convex resurfaced, the supernova teeming with color again.
It took him a moment to realize Delia was gone.
He found out later that day that a four-second delay had slowed the Tyger’s light distribution. The total number that went missing was pegged at one hundred and fifty two. Three of the vanished were toddlers. One was Delia. There were no bodies.
His mother, Catalina, and father, Wilson, divorced when he was sixteen. His father remained in 8th Sector, but his mother moved to 1st Sector and made it clear Wesley could come live with her, if he wanted. At sixteen he was in the awkward phase – already working as a junior machinist while study Tyger Theory under Professor Jentry at the Academy. The Academy happened to be in 1st Sector, so he told his father he would visit soon and left.
Not that his father cared much. Wesley had become a sore spot of disappointment for him since the year of the 4 Second Delay. They put it in the new textbooks as 4D-Day. He was in it: “It was black and cold. I didn’t even feel her leave but she was gone, like she’d never been there at all” was his contribution.
His father didn’t blame him for it. He blamed the Tyger theorists for tampering with the Tyger and screwing up its pulses – for trying to suck more energy out of it than was necessary,
“If they stopped fussing with it, we’d be all the better. Just leave it alone to do its thing. Stop milking it.”
“But the improvements in output led to better light radiation and better crop yields, dad,” Wesley would say, “We couldn’t have fed all the people inside the Convex if they hadn’t figured that stuff out.”
“Tell that to your girlfriend and those other people on 4D-Day.” And the conversation would end.
It wasn’t these conversations that made his father resent him. It was how enthralled he was by the history of the Tyger, the mechanics of it. He’d written a 40 page dissertation on light spectrum and how the Tyger did not create a light we, on any other medium, could replicate.
It was not pure, total light. It was not yellow, as its golden color implied. There was something else to it – particularly the way it seemed to form like fog. Professor Jentry told him it was fantastical, and fantastically wrong, but thoughtful. He said what intrigued him was a question Wesley proposed on page 35, last paragraph.
“’What if the black color we see isn’t the Convex. What if the black color is the Convex showing us what’s on the other side?’”
“It’s a good question,” Professor Jentry had said amiably, then patted Wesley on the back, “But here’s a question that’ll vex the devil. If that’s the outside, where are the stars?”
That question had earned him admittance to the Academy. It led to him moving in with his mother. He didn’t see his father again for a decade, when he was assisting professor Jentry as Caretaker of the Tyger’s Den.
His father had moved to 4th Sector, which loomed near the edge of the Convex. Some lofts actually had windows that opened just outside of arm’s reach of the Convex.
“I figured you would have come sooner,” his dad said when they saw each other again, “We’re all stuck in here, in the bubble, and there isn’t much bubble. I would have figured…” and he trailed off.
“How do you like 4th Sector?” He’d asked his dad. He didn’t tell him, but he came to 4th Sector often, just to examine the possible effects of the Convex on infrastructure. In some places, he noticed the masonry looked like it had been dyed in a splash of washed out colors.
“I have nightmares here,” his father said, staring into a cup of water. “Me, old man, having nightmares. But I can’t help it. Me, Hyao upstairs, Eileen next door, we all…” He looked up at Wesley, eyes ringed with purple and black, “I just have these nightmares about all the black in my room swallowing me up, gulping me down like I’m a grape and I’m just screaming as I fall into the dark. And when I look up, it’s not like those books where there are stars, it’s just black everywhere.”
Wesley tried explaining to his father that was trauma from 4D Day – and then he explained how the delay had been caused because some clerk hadn’t hit the exhaust switch and the absorption ducts had been clogged, and all manner of excuses.
“It won’t happen again, pop,” he said.
“You know, I hear it sometimes… even when I’m awake. So do Hyao and Eileen,” he breathed deep and seemed to shake, “I just hear it, from every nook and cranny, and from outside my window when the Convex goes black. It just says, ‘Wilson, Wilson, Wilson,’ like a whisper.” He started crying, “And sometimes it sounds just like you when you were a boy, and it just says, ‘Come and see, daddy, come and see.’ And God help me, I’ve gone out there and pushed against the Convex to get out and see when I was alone and…” He shuddered, his once large shoulders slumped, “And I swear, something was out there… out there knocking.”
There was a story Wesley came across in the archives of the academy. It was a badly translated fragment of something written by a friend of Cyrus Hammond.
Some people said it was a flight of fancy, the writing. The consensus of the scientific community was that some sort of environmental apocalypse had rendered the world outside uninhabitable. Somehow, through engineering beyond them, Hammond and his group had created the Tyger – the artifact, the bio-crystal – and set down the schematics for their swath of livable land.
The author of the ancient few lines would disagree, Wesley thought. It was only a few lines, but he never forgot them especially because of what came later.
“Jonas says we let Them in. We let Them in. Cyrus says They were already here, we just let Them out.”
Wesley was thirty-two when he received stewardship of the Tyger’s Den from Professor Jentry, then a respectable eighty-year-old man.
His father had passed away, as had several people along 4th Sector and other sectors close to the edge of the Convex. Mass suicide. It was grief like a bucket of cold water flung in the face of the population. Even dwellers in 1st Sector, miles and miles away from the edge of the Convex, began to get superstitious.
“It’s coming in,” they’d say, “The Tyger must be getting weaker.” So they polished the diamond at Lake Fantasia, they did a diagnostic of all the machines and equipment in the Tyger’s Den. Nobody found an issue. Nobody knew the truth.
We let them Out, Cyrus Hammond had said. He remembered and wondered, “Let out what?”
On the day Professor Jentry retired, he told Wesley a terrible truth.
“When I started studying the Tyger forty years ago, it averaged Alpha 60 daily,” he said, chewing on a root of sugar cane. It was a luxury he enjoyed, having been raised a farmer in 9th Sector. “It is now down to 35. Within the decade, it will be down to 30 and below.” He sighed, “We are finding less optimal geometrical angles for it, Wesley. Do you understand? We have almost exhausted every inch of the Tyger’s surface – each part of its surface is like a white hole, each new shift of its body exposes each angle in a new way, and it triggers the white hole. It absorbs darkness, it grinds light out of darkness, and spits it out.”
He had chewed his sugar cane in silence for a span of time. They were sitting on a bench near Lake Fantasia, the polychromatic grass soft under Wesley’s boot. Some children ran by with a dog. Someone else fished and whooped as they jerked a writhing, flopping black bass out of the water. They circled around it and held it down while the boy pulled the hook out of its mouth and tossed it into a cooler. The Convex permuted to a shade of red, deep and rich, and then unfurled into a brighter crimson, a fire engine red, then bright orange and then abruptly shifted blue.
“It’s… it’s getting weaker,” Professor Jentry said after a while, “The Convex is letting more of the Dark Outside in, though we can’t see it. But I think it’s around us, filling the darkness, turning every shadow into a nest, every nook and cranny into a hive. The Dark Outside is coming in.”
He didn’t say the other part: It killed your father. He didn’t say it because they both knew it.
He gave Wesley a file full of equations to memorize – unused geometric angles and permutations for the Tyger.
It was over a fortnight before he heard from Professor Jentry again. Mrs. Jentry, to be exact.
Her voice had a hoarseness to it over the comms box. She spoke in a deluge of half formed words before tapering away, muttering inaudibly.
“He’s always out there, by the Convex, by the edge of the world, Wesley, by the edge. He comes home and he stands in the corner of the room naked as the day he was born and he says, ‘Come and see with me, Myrtle, come and see.’”
Wesley had gone the next day to find him. Myrtle said he went to 4th Sector. The ghost sector.
He found him in the middle of a congregation of people, digging. Dozens of people crouched at the edge of the rainbow, digging, digging, digging, burrowing like animals, all of them murmuring.
Wesley grabbed Professor Jentry by the shoulders, hauled him to his feet, “Please, professor, what’s wrong, what’s happening here?” There was black under the professor’s fingernails. The wicks were grimy and caked with mud. He looked pale and his eyes had a feverishness to them.
“It was here, Wesley, it was here. Cyrus started here and the walls come down. Must find the bottom, must find the bottom, it’s the only way to see.”
They all looked at him then, owl-eyed, “The only way,” they said, like a chant, and kept digging. But it wasn’t their looks or Professor Jentry’s words that sent him away trembling.
It was the strange susurration just near the walls – just when you got close enough to see the colors changing, like shifting pixels. You could hear something, whispering.
“Come and see…”
They never did find the bottom.
Six months later, when a three-second delay resulted in ten children vanishing near 6th Sector, they found Professor Jentry in his apartment. Myrtle was crocheting in the next room.
There was a stalk of sugar cane on the wall. The toe of his loafer bumped it as he wavered where he hung. His fingers were caked with dried mud.
When the next 4 Second Delay day came, the blood thirst came too. During his so far brief tenure, Wesley had witnessed two delay days. They blamed him and he said all experiments with the Tyger would end. Crop yields would suffer, but better than risking more lives. Better than losing them to the Dark Outside, even as it slowly crept in.
They didn’t have another accident for six years. Six years without a delay, without a suicide, without a tragedy.
Wesley quickly typed out an equation for the robotic hand to fulfill. With a whirr and click of gears, it gave the Tyger a delicate touch, like the first caress of a newborn.
A fraction of a fraction – a movement so infinitesimally small it might as well not have existed – the unperceivable lifespan of an amoeba. But it was enough of a shift.
The Tyger roared with new light, the darkness of the room vacuumed away through the tiny funnel of the new angle and vomited out in a great gush of aureate fumes. For a moment the Tyger was the centered Sun of a galaxy of golden dust; it was like the heart of a supernova.
He flicked a switch on his panel and the exhaust fans overhead blared a siren alarm before pulling in the gaseous light with an inhalation like a giant’s lungs.
The room was bright again; unnaturally empty of shadows.
The output levels read 25.
He was shaking uncontrollably, his hands twitching anxiously. He used the back of his wrist to wipe away salty beads of sweat making their way down his glossy forehead.
- Only 25. How many homes would go without power? Hundreds, he estimated. Hundreds without light. But the Convex would stay up, at least for a day. The Dark Outside would stay outside for one more day.
But how many would they lose in the nine second delay at 7:30? How many would silently slip away into that blackness in the eternity that passes when a person blinks? How many would vanish into that night without stars?
His legs vibrated out from under him and he collapsed, shaking, his head pressed against the polished metal panel of the console.
He was consumed by his thoughts, his mind racing through formulas and angles and geometrical calculations. He’d memorized them all, over the years. All the formulas Jentry had given him, all the ones he’d thought of – anything he could do to keep the power from falling.
“Oh God,” he whispered there, kneeling in a poise of near worship before the faintly pulsing Tyger, “Oh God. We don’t have any more.”
Wesley glanced up, seeing the Tyger shudder as it revolved, its golden symmetry swelling with light. It neared an apex, a nearly blinding radiance, and stopped short, its effulgence plummeting until it looked like a great, grey rock, only to begin the gradual brightening again.
Only each time it got less and less bright. Each time, it stayed grey just a little longer.
The Tyger is dying, Wesley thought, and we’re all going to die with it.
It was 7:29PM and he was sitting on a bench next to Lake Fantasia, staring at the diamond shimmering high above. It reflected the ever shifting colors of the Convex, cast them on the surface of the lake in a kaleidoscopic array. He smiled, staring up at uppermost edge of the Convex, where colors seemed so distant he could scarcely make them out.
He looked down at his digital watch and watched the seconds moved by. 30 seconds before the beam was supposed to fire.
He’d set it on automatic.
He resigned from it. There would be a delay tonight and tomorrow? Tomorrow there would be no delay. There simply wouldn’t be.
The Tyger had turned stone grey before he left work at 5PM. It would make a fitting mantelpiece. It had stopped floating and simply fallen with a heavy crunch on the floor of its tube.
The Tyger was dead.
Wesley walked towards the overgrown bush where he and Delia had had their dalliance. In the distance he heard hushed whispers of other teenagers repeating history.
So much history to repeat.
Life had kept Wesley busy. He’d never married, never had children. His mother chided him for it frequently, but he was happy about it. Now, at least. He wouldn’t have to watch them go into the night.
He caressed along the surface of the Convex. It felt like gel. It gave gently from his side, but then pushed against something hard, like rock, when he tried to push his finger through. Like climbing out from the inside of an orange.
“I wonder if there will be stars, out there,” he whispered, his watch beeping an announcement. As good as a trumpet, he imagined. “Or maybe clouds, beyond all the darkness, ambling across the sky.” He smiled, despite himself.
Onlookers at the park gasped. A tsunami of darkness washed over them. Or rather, it simply became, as if it was always there.
When he listened, listened very closely, Wesley thought he heard something. He listened closely as the darkness rolled across him, familiar and cold, and he thought he heard, “Come and see, Wesley, come and see.”
The Dark Outside was in.
We let it out, Cyrus Hammond had said.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Jinn Zhong…
“Royals” – Composed by Lorde
Mashedup & Performed by Pomplamoose using
“Loser” by Beck & “California Dreamin'” by Tupac
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Jinn Zhong and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.