Bright Lights

By Robert Reed

The water fountains are low. The lockers are empty. The summer air is warm but there are people in the classrooms. People are talking, are moving. A female emerges from the nearest classroom. She is fully grown. She has dyed hair and competing odors and all of her teeth. Showing her teeth, she asks, "Are you the teacher?"

"YES. YES, I AM."

She wants to believe those words. What she sees isn't what she expects, but this woman believes in authority. She wants to get along with others. Showing her teeth, she says, "My son is thrilled to get into your class. He loves the outdoors and doing outdoor things . . . fishing and all that. . . ."

"GOOD."

"You'll do the field trip Thursday, right? To the woods?" She waits a moment and then says, "I can take some of the kids, if you need an extra car."

"I DON'T NEED A CAR."

"But I'd like to come along. I mean, I've heard such good things about you. My friend Rita . . ." She stops talking, trying to find a reason for her nervousness.

"I MUST GO AND TEACH YOUR SON."

"Of course, yes, good . . ."

Eleven partly grown people are sitting in the classroom. Seven are male, three female. One is somewhere between. When they look up, they see a teacher. But mostly they focus on texting devices and electronic games.

Every machine stops working.

"Hey," one male says. By look and by scent, he is the offspring of the nervous woman walking down the hallway now. "My phone just died."

"Mine too," says a female.

"THIS IS A CLASS ABOUT SURVIVAL. WHAT THE HELL DO YOU NEED WITH THESE UGLY USELESS DEVICES?"

Every face looks up. Caution and curiosity exist inside each person. They stare at the teacher, and when nothing happens, they glance at each other, sharing emotions. A tentative union has been built from this shared confusion.

"I WILL RETURN IN A MOMENT."

A grown male is in the hallway, hurrying toward this classroom. He carries a father-son bow and a homemade knapsack full of primitive devices made by his hands and his teeth. He wears a beard and sandals and shorts with a big belt carrying a compass and an empty knife sheath. His wary expression matches his worried mind. "I'm sorry, I'm late. My car battery died."

"BETTER THAT THAN YOU."

Puzzled, the man says nothing.

"THERE HAS BEEN A CHANGE OF PLANS. YOUR CLASSROOM HAS BEEN MOVED UPSTAIRS. TO ROOM 211."

"Oh?" He looks at the ceiling.

"I MUST GO NOW."

The man looks through the door's glass. "What are you teaching?"

"NATURE'S LAWS."

The adult male leaves, but only for a while. Confusion and the bureaucracy will deliver a gift of several minutes. Several minutes is a long enough time to win over the students. What is necessary is a compelling gesture.

"NOW LISTEN AND I WILL TELL YOU ABOUT YOURSELVES."

Everybody listens. Each child hears his or her name and a brief description rich with details pulled from their own minds. Only an idiot wouldn't be intrigued. But most of the children are put off by the frank, intrusive music. It is immediately apparent who is useful here and who must be sacrificed.

"AND NOW, WE NEED TO LEAVE."

"The field trip isn't till Thursday," says the male with the dyed mother. "Where are we going to go?"

"ANY PLACE IS BETTER THAN THIS SHITHOLE."

Two other boys laugh, as well as the person that is not quite a girl.

"COME WITH ME NOW PLEASE."

Six of the creatures stand, but only four make the walk to the door. One girl in that group of four is scared. She wants to stay with the brave people, but instincts tell her not to follow a teacher that knows too much and doesn't act normal.

"IF YOU DON'T HAVE THE FIRE TO COME WITH US, STAY."

"Yeah, I don't know," she says, hunting for excuses. "I forgot my sunscreen, and these aren't the right shoes."

"THEN YOU WILL STAY BEHIND, AS A SACRIFICE."

The declaration produces panic and cerebral acuity. Nobody is certain what to believe. Even the bravest, most stubborn boys are uneasy about following. But three children end up in the hallway, and that's when the boyish girl says, "I thought this was going to be a boring class. Making damned baskets out of grass, shit like that."

"BASKETS WOULD BE AN EXCEPTIONAL WASTE OF TIME."

They reach the school's back door, and the biggest boy stops. "You've got to tell me where I'm going," he says.

The attrition rate is disheartening, but there is only one appropriate response: "IF YOU NEED TO KNOW, YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO GO WITH US."

The boy braces himself. "Then I'm not going," he mutters.

"Then you're sacrificed," says the girl/boy, laughing as she pushes open the door.


Three bodies move into the summer sun, crossing the playground at a pace just a little short of quick.

"Something is different," says the final boy.

"No shit," the girl/boy says, walking faster.

"I don't mean us." He is slender, his face defined by eyes and protruding ears. "It's quieter than usual. Don't you think?"

She considers the possibility.

"I hear the wind," he says.

"Yeah, but no traffic," the girl/boy says, one hand above her eyes as she watches the adjacent streets. "And I don't hear any air conditioners running."

"SURVIVAL IN THE WILDERNESS, LESSON ONE."

They look up, jaws set, waiting.

"THERE IS LITTLE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TOP OF THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN AND A THREE-BEDROOM FRAME HOUSE. EACH PLACE IS WILDERNESS. EACH IS PRIMITIVE AND RICH WITH DANGER. BUT ONLY AN IDIOT HUMAN WOULD TRY TO ENDURE THE MOUNTAINTOP. RESOURCES ARE ESSENTIAL. GO WHERE THE RESOURCES ARE ABUNDANT. THE HOUSE IS CONNECTED TO POWER SOURCES, AND IT IS INFUSED WITH PURIFIED ELEMENTS, AND MUCH CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED BY THE LONE ENTITY DETERMINED TO SURVIVE."

The children blink and then look at each other.

"You're an alien," the boy says. "Aren't you?"

"Damn, he is," the girl/boy says.

"SURVIVAL IN THE WILDERNESS, LESSON TWO."

"All right, we're listening," the girl/boy says.

"ONCE SURVIVAL IS ASSURED, ENERGY AND MATERIALS CAN BE APPLIED TO LOFTIER TARGETS. RETURNING HOME IS ONE POSSIBILITY. BUT SOMETIMES THERE IS NO HOME. SOMETIMES THE TRAVELER MUST SUFFOCATE HIS DEEPEST DESIRES TO GIVE HIS PRECARIOUS EXISTENCE A WORTHWHILE PURPOSE."

A brief grassy slope leads off the playground and down to a small arterial street. No traffic lights are working. Several drivers stand in front of dead cars, hoods up, faces puzzled. One driver lifts an arm, asking, "Do you know anything about cars?"

Students and teacher press on.

"You're doing this," the girl/boy says.

Her teeth are small and yellow.

"Are you organic or robotic?" asks the boy.

They walk. Emerging from the school behind them is the man wearing a beard and carrying a homemade bow but no arrows.

"He looks organic," the girl/boy says.

"I don't know," says the boy.

The girl/boy giggles. "You caused this blackout, didn't you?"

"He could be both," the boy says. "Meat and machine, you know?"

"This is wild," she says.

"How big is the blackout?" the boy asks.

"LESSON THREE."

They fall silent.

"WILDERNESS IS PRECIOUS. WILDERNESS MUST BE PROTECTED. THE MORAL TRAVELER HEALS WHAT HE CAN AND GRIEVES FOR THE DAMAGE THAT CANNOT BE AVOIDED. SACRIFICE CANNOT BE AVOIDED."

"What damage are you doing?" the boy asks.

Delighted with everything, the girl/boy giggles again.

A cracked driveway rises to a three-bedroom home. The front door stands open. They enter one by one, the boy lingering on the concrete porch, looking back at the bearded man who is running hard now.

"Come on," the girl/boy says.

"I don't know," he says.

"Neither do I. Come on."


They stand inside the house, except there are no interior walls. Two children are standing with several thousand other young males and females. Scattered houses and abandoned factories are linked by various means, weaving the illusion of a single room. But there is only one teacher.

"TARGETS HAVE BEEN SELECTED. EACH OF YOU WILL BE COMPRESSED AND INSERTED INTO SHIPS THAT WILL RIDE LASER LIGHT. THE BRIEFEST JOURNEY WILL TAKE TWENTY THOUSAND YEARS. MOST VOYAGES WILL BE LONGER, AND ALL WILL BE DANGEROUS. SUCCESS RATES WILL BE LESS THAN TWO PERCENT."

The boy starts to cry.

The girl/boy is terrified that she might throw up in front of strangers. Yet she punches her classmate in the arm, telling both of them, "Be brave."

"FULL TRAINING AND COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENT WILL OCCUR DURING THE JOURNEY. NONE OF YOU WILL BE COMPLETELY PREPARED FOR YOUR TARGET. I WAS NOT READY FOR THIS HUNK OF MUD AND SALT WATER. BUT I WAS READY TO MAKE MYSELF READY, AND I WAS PATIENT, AND THREE HUNDRED YEARS OF PREPARATION HAS MADE THE WORLD READY FOR THIS CULMINATING MOMENT.

"GO AND MAKE YOUR NEW MUD SHINE, MY CHILDREN."


The bearded man feels heavy. He feels winded. He slows at the dead cars and tells the drivers to call 911. He slows to rest. "They just walked past you," he says. "Did you even notice them?"

One driver lifts his phone and says, "Nope, not working, sorry."

"Nothing's working," says the woman standing beside him.

"Everybody's walking," says the man cheerfully.

The two drivers return to their conversation, heads filled with thoughts of future dinners and images of sex.

The bearded man is furious, particularly about those two kids. They aren't little ones; how could they be so stupid? Running again, he steers for the house where he saw them go. The bow is in his right hand. He made the father-son bow this morning. Two limbs of green wood are lashed together. The bowstring is woven from the back tendons of a whitetail deer. These are easy bows to build and surprisingly powerful, and he wishes that he had sneaked just one arrow onto the school grounds. That fantasy helps carry him along, showing what he would do with one arrow and any fair shot.

A figure emerges from the house.

The bearded man slows. He isn't certain what he is seeing. What walks down the driveway is not what he talked to inside the school.

A sound begins, distant at first and almost pleasant. Then a brilliant blue slash of light passes across the sky, bringing a terrible shrieking roar that knocks him off his feet. He wasn't looking up, yet he is rendered temporarily blind. He sits and blinks, listening to faraway shouts, and as his vision clears, he finds the figure kneeling before him.

The hot summer air is even hotter than before.

"I GRIEVE FOR THIS DAMAGE, BUT NO ACTION IS PERMANENT. WITH COORDINATION AND SACRIFICE, YOUR ELECTRICAL NETWORK WILL FUNCTION IN ELEVEN YEARS AND NEARLY ONE QUARTER OF YOUR POPULATION WILL ENDURE."

Smoke rides on the hot new wind.

"I WOULD HAVE INVITED YOU. BUT YOU HAVE TOO MANY HABITS TO ADAPT."

"What the hell are you saying?"

"THAT I AM SORROWFUL AND GUILTY OF MUCH, AND TO MAKE SMALL AMENDS FOR THE DESTRUCTION, I GIVE YOU THIS."

The figure handed him a single arrow, black and perfectly sized for the bow lying between them. It felt like no other arrow in the world, quivering under his shaking fingertips, and he studies it and his nervous hands, asking, "What do I do with this?"

The figure stands again.

"SHOOT ME."

"You want me to?"

"IT IS MY TIME, YES."

The bearded man sits on the sidewalk, deliberating what to do.

"AND FIELD DRESS MY BODY, MY FRIEND. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED IN THE TREASURES WAITING INSIDE."


Robert Reed

Robert Reed is the author of more than 200 published works of short fiction plus a smattering of novels. He won a Hugo for his novella, "A Billion Eves." Reed lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his reporter wife and 5th grade daughter. For more about him and his work, see his website.

Comments

I love it when I come to a story with no connection whatsoever to the author, and the story is excellent. This is such a one. I was intrigued by the lure in the SH twitterfeed ("It is immediately apparent who is useful here and who must be sacrificed"), and the story entirely paid off.

Nice!

Terrific short story! I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Great story: I was wondering if I would have gone: I am guessing I would not have, however!

Robert Reed is a master of the underwritten story, i.e., sometimes he uses the barest minimum of words to tell a story that, on the surface, reads like a dry recitation of facts but is actually an emotionally compelling narrative. "Bright Lights" is, however, too underwritten in the sense that there seems to be no strong emotional hook for the fate of any of the three major characters: the girl/boy, the alien, or the bearded man. Yes, the alien is on a mission but I need to care about somebody in the story to make it meaningful for me. But this is just my personal opinion, mind. Three other readers liked the story as is, so am probably wrong and nit-picking too much.

Briliant. The CAPS were a dead giveaway to something odd. Just what that something was became insignificant once the dialogue progressed. Masterfully tailored. Very nice work, Mr. Reed. Incidentally, I am jealous. I still have an unfinished story brewing on an old laptop somewhere called "After Hours" that deals with a similar theme involving a late-night urgent care center in an aging strip mall. Looks like it can grow mold; you have beat me to the punch, sir.

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