And a small taste from the first chapter:
My great-grandmother, Alexandra Snow, was one of the last of the great astronomers. She developed the Rip-Tide Theory of Universe Expansion, the theory that some celestial bodies spin out into deep space traveling and existing alone, while others are swept along in a current of sorts, of influence on, and action and reaction to others. Her theory was popular in her day, and she was close to proving it definitively when the stars disappeared completely from view. The deep black night sky was replaced by a grey mess of brightness and lights that never went out.
Alexandra Snow’s daughter, my grandmother, wanted to be an astronomer when she grew up, but the trouble was you have to see the stars to study them. You have to want to understand them, to be willing to pay for the exploration. Even with the best telescopes, the people of her time lost the desire to see. The world was too full of ambient light, so my grandmother tossed her dream away. The people of our times are used to tossing old things in favor of the new.
I can vividly remember the first time I saw the stars years ago. My father, Frederick, came into my room and said, “Estelle, here’s something I want to show you before it heads to the trash.” He carried what he told me was a book. It was big enough that it took up my entire lap, and he had to help it balance there while I flipped through the pages. It was full of big black photos of tiny pinpoints of light.
“What is it?” I asked in a whisper because for some reason I was a little bit afraid.
“This book was your great-grandmother’s. She was an astronomer named Alexandra. It’s full of photos of the sky and stars and constellations–or groups of stars.”
I nodded as if that explained everything, though really it explained nothing, and went back to studying each of the pictures. I couldn’t read very well, but under one of the photos I made out the word, majestic, and under another one, the word, mysterious. Majestic and mysterious. Even years later I remember reading those words.
When I made it to the end of the book, Frederick said, “I forgot I even had this. I don’t know why I kept it so long.” He looked down and patted the cover almost affectionately. “Well, we have to make room for what’s new, don’t we?” Confused by the whole conversation, I nodded back. Of course we had to make room for the new. Even at the ripe old age of six I knew that.
Ever since those photos I longed. I longed to go back in time to before our improvements came along and see that endless black sky with infinite tiny pinpoints of light. I couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing it would be to look up and see it, in person. Since that night I had become the kind of person that wanted the words majestic and mysterious to describe my sky.
I sat in my window seat six years later when Frederick came into my room and said, “See anything interesting, Estelle?”
By way of an answer, I asked, “Was your mother sad she couldn’t see the stars?”
“Not really,” he replied. “She told me, ‘City life has just become too bright, and there’s no going back to the ages of the dark.’” He thought telling me that would be comforting, but it wasn’t. It was like knowing something precious was lost and would never be found again because no one even bothered to look for it. I wasn’t consoled at all.
“Frederick, do you still have that book?” I secretly hoped that maybe he had tucked it away in a closet again.
“That old book, from your great-grandmother? No, it’s long gone. What makes you ask about it?”
“I was just thinking about the stars and wishing I could see them. I’d like to see that book again.”
Tonight’s sky was a paisley sky. It meant it was Saturday night, and was supposed to look frivolous and joyous–a party sky. The designs were green and purple teardrop shapes with the color of steel grey in-between, sprinkled with tiny flecks of gold and silver. The sky designers described it as, “Beautiful and delightful.” I heard it said the designs were “a great improvement over the black sky of old.” Looking out, I wasn’t so sure.
“You don’t like the paisley sky, Estelle? It’s one of my favorites.”
“It’s not really that I don’t like it. It bothers me I have no choice in the matter. The patterns were picked by vote before I was born.”
“I can remember the sky before the projections, Estelle. Believe me, they’re an improvement. The night sky was a hazy mass of glowing air that was close, oppressively close. Stiflingly close, Estelle.”
“Like that comedian said, ‘We need to wear a hat to keep the sky out of our hair.’ Huh, Frederick?”
“We think it’s funny because it’s almost true.” We both looked out at the shifting decorations.
“Look Frederick, there’s the Congloms’ logo. The projection’s loop is starting again.”
“Somebody has to pay for it. It’s expensive to project on the sky.” He looked at me as if sizing me up. “You know, if it bothers you, you could just not look up.”
“What bothers me is everybody seems to love the projections. Just because the sky is new and improved, they think it means it’s better than before.”
Frederick sighed as if dealing with me was hopelessly difficult. “You know, that’s why we get rid of our old things, like books, because living in the past causes pain and regret. You can’t do anything to change the past. You can only improve on your future, Estelle. Remember that.”
“What if the past was better, Frederick? Is everything we do always an improvement?”
He chuckled. “I wondered if I should have shown you that book all those years ago. I don’t know why I did.” He shook his head. “The night sky is what it is, Estelle. You can’t change it. You can’t make the stars come back. You’ll have to get used to that. Here’s an idea, maybe you could design a pattern for the projections. Wouldn’t that be great? You could have your very own design up for all the inhabitants of New City to see.” As if it was decided, he said, “What I’m trying to say is don’t think about it too much.” Sadly, I think about the long-lost stars just about every night.
Frederick was like that–if presented with a problem, he could come up with a solution. He worked for the Institute of New Improved Brands and Technologies, an arm of the Organization of Conglomerates, as a scientist in development. He thought everything could be improved. My mother, Sylvia, on the other hand, thought nothing was ever wrong. She accepted it all as absolutely perfect, which is why she was perfectly fit to work for the Organization of Conglomerates in the Office of Governmental Oversee. She helped to manage the Institute and well, everything. The truth was when the Office of Future Affairs picked the best jobs for Frederick and Sylvia, they were completely right. Of course, they always were.
I sat in my window seat about two weeks later, when Sylvia bustled into my room to see me staring out at a different sky. This one was a green and blue plaid.
“What on earth are you looking at?” Her tone was exasperated, a common state when she caught me at the window. She came over and peered out at the street. “There’s nothing there.” That was true. There wasn’t a soul to be seen.
“I wasn’t looking down at the street, Sylvia. I was looking up at tonight’s projection.”
“Oh.” She peered back out, looking up this time. “I just never look up, so I forget it’s there. Our towers are built so tightly together that most of the sky is blocked anyway. I don’t know why they even bother with the projections. This one is lovely though,” she said, looking again.
“I think they thought it was depressing, so they decided to cover it up.” She looked at me questioningly. “I mean, I think that’s why they bother with the projections,” I said.
“I suppose so. Some of the other workers in the Office of Governmental Oversee said it was ugly–the way it had that red-grey glow–but I think it was an improvement over the dark. I think we can all agree on that.” Sylvia put a tray of multicolored pills and a tumbler of water in front of me. I gulped them down, then handed the tray back to her. “You know, Frederick designed this window to be a showcase display for some of your things. We didn’t expect you to sit there staring at the sky every night.”
“It’s my favorite place to sit,” I answered. “Sylvia, are you afraid of the dark?” I climbed into my bed.
Sylvia leaned over to tuck me in while I leaned back against the bank of bubblegum pink pillows. “That’s a silly question. Everyone is afraid of the dark, Estelle.”
“Because it’s dark! You can’t see. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything is out of your control in the dark.” Sylvia looked at me long, remembered I was young, and tempered her reply accordingly. “You know, at first we rejoiced that the night was so well lit, but the red glow was unsettling and scary–some said depressing. It felt like it was too close, like it could swallow you up.” Sylvia visibly shivered, trying to turn it into a joke. “We needed to master and control the way the sky looked, to keep from being afraid. So the great minds among us, inventors from the institute, like Frederick, came up with the idea to project giant, colored lights onto the grey. Lights that move and slide across the sky. We came up with the projections, so we don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
“So, we aren’t afraid anymore.” I said it like a statement. “How come nobody goes outside at night?”
Sylvia looked at me with her exasperated expression. “You know, whether we’re afraid or not is immaterial. It’s all lit up out there now. There’s no night to be afraid of, but no, we still don’t go out at night, Estelle. It’s just not done.” Sylvia stood up and headed for the door. “You’re certainly full of questions. When’s your next appointment with your doctor?”
“Good, make sure you tell him you’re asking about being afraid at night. He can give you something to quiet your fear. Good night, Estelle.”
Two weeks later, we celebrated my twelfth birthday. Frederick put a blindfold on me and walked me up to my bedroom.” Ta DA!” He flourished the blindfold off my eyes. My room had been completely transformed, like it was every year on my birthday. The new popular color was kelly green, and my decorations were all in different shades and configurations of the color, with splashes of grey and royal blue throughout. Sylvia and Frederick walked me to the bed–the big present. It had a canopy and curtains you could pull closed around you.
“Check this out.” Frederick pointed at the ceiling. It was covered in a tiny flickering constellation of stars.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” I said, absolutely delighted.
Frederick said, “After our conversation the other night I wanted you to be able to see them. I looked up some images and designed an intricate projection system. Now you can have the stars twinkling down at you every night.” He beamed at me, proud of his present.
Sylvia added, “It’s Frederick’s own idea. He presented it over at the Institute, and now one of the Congloms plans to produce them. You’re definitely a trendsetter. Stars will be very hot this year. You’ll have to make sure you tell your class about it at school tomorrow. Tell them you were the first. Make sure they want one.” She smiled at me proudly.
I tried to smile back, but during her explanation, I had noticed the pillows and cushions had been taken from my window seat. Now there was a shelf across the window. A display with a new doll and small dress forms were arranged there in full view of the streets below. I felt tears well up in my eyes. I really liked my window seat. Why did they do that? I told them it was my favorite place.
My parents showed me the special features and designs of all the new parts of my bedroom, while conveniently skipping over the missing window seat and the new doll. They didn’t want any negative emotions, and would do anything to avoid a scene. They excused themselves, so I could spend some time enjoying my star projections.
I sat on the bed, by a large pile of my new clothes, fiddling with the remote control. I was surrounded by everything new and improved, and all I could think about was what had been taken away. I was the most ungrateful kid in the world. Frederick was right–I did live too much in the past, and it only made me sad.
I laid back and turned on the projector. It was beautiful. The stars twinkled and danced around, shooting and sliding across the canopy ceiling. Did stars move this fast? There was so much ambient light the background was at best a murky grey color. This didn’t seem as amazing and wonderful as I wanted it to be. After about an hour I turned it off and went to sleep.