SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Star Light, Star Bright"
Star Light, Star Bright
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2000 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology Far Frontiers,
edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, November 2000.
Star Light, Star Bright
by Robert J. Sawyer
"Daddy, what are those?" My young son, Dalt, was pointing up.
We'd floated far away from the ancient buildings, almost to where
the transparent dome over our community touches the surface of
the great sphere.
Four white hens were flying across the sky, their little wings
propelling them at a good clip. "Those are chickens, Dalt. You
know the birds we get eggs from."
"Not the chickens," said Dalt, as if I'd offended him
greatly by suggesting he didn't know what they were. "Those
lights. Those points of light."
I squinted a bit. "I don't see any lights," I replied. "Where
"Everywhere," he said. He swung his head in an arc, taking in
the whole sky. "Everywhere."
"How many points do you see?"
I felt my back bumping gently against the surface; I pushed off
with my palm, rising into the air again. The ancient texts I'd
been translating said human beings were never really meant to
live in such low gravity, but it was all I, and countless
generations of my ancestors, had ever known. "There aren't any
points of light, Dalt."
"Yes, there are," he insisted. "There are thousands of them, and
look! there's a band of light across the sky
I faced in the direction he was pointing. "I don't see anything
except another chicken."
"No, Daddy," insisted Dalt. "Look!"
Dalt was a good boy. He almost never lied to me and I
couldn't see why he would lie to me about something like this. I
maneuvered so that we were hovering face to face, then extended
"Can you see my hand clearly?" I said.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
He rolled his eyes. "Oh, Daddy ..."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"And do you see lights on them, as well?"
"On your fingers?" asked Dalt incredulously.
"Of course not."
"You don't see any lights in front of my fingers? Do you see any
on my face?"
"Of course not. The lights aren't down here. They're up there!"
I touched my boy's shoulder reassuringly. "Tomorrow, we'll go
see Doc Tadders about your eyes."
We hadn't built the protective dome the clear blister on
the outer surface of the Dyson sphere (to use the ancient
name our ancestors had given to our home, a term we could
transliterate but not translate). Rather, the dome was already
here when we'd come outside. Adjacent to it was a large, black
pyramidal structure that didn't seem to be part of the sphere's
outer hull; instead, it appeared to be clamped into place. No
one was exactly sure what the pyramid was for, although you could
enter it from an access tube extending from the dome. The
pyramid was filled with corridors and rooms, and lots of control
consoles marked in the script of the ancients.
The transparent dome was much larger than the pyramid
plenty big enough to cover the thirty-odd buildings the ancients
had built here, as well as the concentric circles of farming
fields we'd created by importing soil from within the interior of
the Dyson sphere. Still, if the dome hadn't been transparent, I
probably would have felt claustrophobic within it; it wasn't even
a pimple on the vastness of the sphere.
We'd been fortunate that the ancients had constructed all these
buildings under the protective dome; they served as homes and
work spaces for us. In many cases, we could only guess at the
original purposes of the buildings, but the one that housed Dr.
Tadders office had likely been a warehouse.
After sleeptime, I took Dalt to see Tadders. He seemed more
fascinated by the wall diagram the doctor had of a human skeleton
than he was by her eye chart, but we'd finally got him to spin
around in midair to face it.
I was floating freely beside my son. For an instant, I found
myself panicking because there was no anchor rope looped around
my wrist; the habits of a lifetime were hard to break, even after
being here, on the outside of the Dyson sphere, for all this
time. I'd lived from birth to middle age on the inside of the
sphere, where things tended to float up if they weren't anchored.
Of course, you couldn't drift all the way up to the sun. You'd
eventually bump against the glass roof that held the atmosphere
in. But no one wanted to be stuck up there, waiting to be
rescued; it was humiliating.
Out here, though, under our clear, protective dome, things
floated down, not up; both Dalt and I would eventually
settle to the padded floor.
"Can you read the top row of letters?" asked Doc Tadders,
indicating the eye chart. She was about my age, with pale blue
eyes and red hair just beginning to turn gray.
"Sure," said Dalt. "Eet, bot, doo, shuh, kee."
Tadders nodded. "What about the next row?"
"Hih, fah, roo, shuh, puh, ess."
"Can you read the last row?"
"Ayt, doo, tee, nuh, tee, ess, guh, hih, fah, roo."
"Are you sure about the second letter?"
"It's a doo, no?" said Dalt.
If there's any letter my son should know, it should be that one,
since it was the first in his own name. But the character on the
chart wasn't a doo; it was a fah.
Dr. Tadders jotted a note in the book she was holding, then said,
"What about the last letter?"
"That's a roo."
"Are you sure?"
Dalt squinted. "Well, if it's not a roo, then it's an shuh, no?"
"Which do you think it is?"
"A shuh ... or a roo." Dalt shrugged. "It's so tiny, I can't be
I could see that it was a roo; I was surprised that I had better
vision than my son did.
"Thanks," said Tadders. She looked at me. "He's a tiny bit
nearsighted," she said. "Nothing to worry about." She faced
Dalt again. "What about the lights in front of your eyes? Do
you see any of them now?"
"No," said Dalt.
"None at all?"
"You can only see them in the dark," he said.
Tadders pushed against the padded wall with her palm, which was
enough to send her drifting across the room toward the light
switch; the ancients had made switches that were little rockers,
instead of the click-in/click-out buttons we build. She rocked
the switch, and the lighting strips at the edges of the padded
roof went dark. "What about now?"
Dalt sounded puzzled. "No."
"Let's give your eyes a few moments to adjust," she said.
"It won't make any difference," said Dalt, exasperated. "You can
only see the lights outside."
"Outside?" repeated Tadders.
"That's right," said Dalt. "Outside. In the dark. Up in the
Dalt was the first child born after our group left the interior
of the Dyson sphere. Our little town had a population of 240
now, of which fifteen had been born since we'd come outside.
Dalt's usual playmate was Suzto, the daughter of the couple who
lived next door to my wife and me in a building that had clearly
been designed by the ancients to be living quarters.
All adults spent half their days working on their particular area
of expertise, which, for me, was translating ancient documents
stored in the computers inside the buildings and the pyramid, and
the other half doing the chores that were needed to support a
fledgling society. But after work, I took Dalt and Suzto for a
float. We drifted away from the lights of the ancient buildings,
across the fields of crops, and out toward the access tunnel that
led to the pyramid.
I knew that the surface of the sphere, beneath us, was curved, of
course, and, here on the outside, that it curved down. But the
sphere was so huge that everything seemed flat. Oh, one could
make out the indentations that were hills on the other side of
the sphere's shell, and the raised plateaus that water collected
in. Although we were on the frontier the outside
of the sphere! we were still only one bodylength away from
the world we'd left behind; that's how thick the sphere's shell
was. But the double-doored portal that led back inside had been
sealed off; the people on the interior had welded it shut after
we'd left. They wanted nothing to do with whatever we might find
out here, calling our quest for knowledge of the exterior
universe a sacrilege against the wisdom of the ancients.
As we floated in the darkness, Dalt looked up again and said,
"See! The lights!"
Suzto looked up, too. I expected her to scrunch her face in
puzzlement, baffled by Dalt's words, but instead, near as I could
make out in the darkness, she was smiling in wonder.
"Can can you see the lights, too?" I asked Suzto.
I was astonished. "How big are they?"
"Tiny. Like this." She held up her hand, but if there was any
space between her finger and thumb, I couldn't make it out.
"Are they arranged in some sort of pattern?"
Suzto's vocabulary wasn't yet as big as Dalt's. She looked at
me, and I tried again. "Do they make shapes?"
"Maybe," said Suzto. "Some are brighter than others. There are
three over there that make a straight line."
I frowned. "Dalt, please cover your eyes."
He did so, with elaborate hand gestures.
"Suzto, point to the brightest light in the sky."
"There're so many," she said.
"All right, all right. Point to the brightest one in this part
of the sky over here."
She didn't hesitate. "That one."
"Okay," I said, "now put your hand down, please."
She drew her arm back in toward her body.
"Dalt, uncover your eyes."
He did so.
"Now, Dalt, point to the brightest light in this part of the sky
He lifted his arm, then seemed to vacillate for a moment between
two possible choices.
"Not that one, silly," said Suzto's voice. She pointed. "This
"Oh, yeah," said Dalt. "I guess it is." He pointed at it, too.
I couldn't see anything, but it seemed in the darkness that if I
could draw lines from the two children's outstretched fingers,
they would converge at infinity.
Dr. Tadders was an old friend, and with both Suzto and Dalt
seeing the lights, I decided to join her for lunch. We grew
wheat, corn, and other crops under lamps here on the outside of
the sphere, and raised chickens and pigs. If you wanted the eggs
to hatch, you had to put low roofs over the hens, because they
needed to be in constant contact with their clutches, and their
own body movements were enough to propel them into flight;
chickens really seemed to love flying. Tadders and I both knew
that we'd have had more interesting meals if we'd stayed inside
the sphere, but the ancient texts said that although the interior
was huge, there was still much, much more to the universe.
Most of those on the interior didn't care about such things; they
knew that the sphere's inner surface could accommodate over a
million trillion human beings a vastly larger number than
the current population and that our ancestors had shut us
off from the rest of the universe for a reason. But some of us
had decided to venture outside, starting a new settlement on our
world's only real frontier. I didn't miss much about the inside
but I did miss the food.
"All right, Rodal," Dr. Tadders said, gesturing with a sandwich
triangle, "here's what I think is happening." She took a deep
breath, as if reviewing her thoughts once more before giving them
voice, then: "We know that a long, long time ago, our ancestors
built a double-walled shell around our sun. The outer wall is
opaque, and the inner wall, fifty bodylengths above that, is
transparent. The area between the two walls is the habitat,
where all those who still live on the interior of the sphere
I nodded, and kicked gently off the floor to keep myself afloat.
We drifted out of the dining hall, heading outdoors.
"Well," she continued, "we also know that there was a war
generations ago that knocked humanity back into a primitive
state. We've been rebuilding our civilization for a long time,
but we're nowhere near as advanced as our ancestors who
constructed our world were."
That was certainly true. "So?"
"So, what about that story you translated a while ago? The one
about where we supposedly came from?"
I'd found a story in the ancient computers that claimed that
before we lived on the interior of the Dyson sphere, our
ancestors had made their home on the outer surface of a small,
solid, rocky globe. "But that was probably just a myth," I said.
"I mean, such a globe would have been impossibly tiny. The myth
said the homeworld was six million bodylengths in diameter.
Kobost" a physicist in our community "worked out
that if it were made of the elements the myth described, even a
globe that small would have had a crushingly huge gravitational
attraction: five bodylengths per heartbeat squared. That's more
than ten thousand times what we experience here."
Of course, the gravitational attraction on any point on the
interior of a hollow sphere is zero. When we lived inside the
sphere, the only gravity we felt was the pull from our sun,
gently tugging things upwards. Here, on the outside of the
sphere, the gravitational pull is downward, toward the sphere's
surface and the sun at its center.
I continued. "Although Kobost thinks human muscle could perhaps
be built up enough to withstand such an overwhelming gravity, his
own studies prove that the globe described in the myth can't be
"Why not?" asked Tadders.
"Because of the chickens. There are several ancient texts that
show that chickens have been essentially the same since before
our ancestors built the Dyson sphere. But with an acceleration
due to gravity of five bodylengths per heartbeat squared, their
wings wouldn't be strong enough to let them fly. So that globe
in the myth couldn't possibly have been our ancestral home."
"Well, I agree that's puzzling about the chickens," said Tadders,
"but wherever our ancestors came from, you have to admit it
wasn't another Dyson sphere. And the inside of a Dyson sphere
forms a very special kind of sky. Remember what it was like when
we lived in there? Wherever you looked over your head, you saw
well, you saw the sun, of course, if you looked directly
overhead. But everywhere else, you saw other parts of the
sphere. Some of those parts are a long, long way off the
far side of the sphere is a hundred and fifty billion bodylengths
away, isn't it? But, regardless, wherever you looked, you saw
either the sun or the surface of the sphere."
"So the surface of the sphere is reflective even the dull,
grass-covered parts reflect back a lot of light. Indeed, on
average the surface reflects back about a third of the light it
receives from the sun, making the whole sky glaringly bright."
People in there did have a tendency to float facing the ground
instead of the sky. I nodded for her to go on.
"Well, our eyes didn't evolve here," continued Tadders. "If we
did come from a rocky world, the sun would have been seen against
an empty, non-reflective sky. It must be much, much brighter
inside the Dyson sphere than it ever was on the original
"Surely our eyes would have adapted to deal with the brighter
"How?" asked Tadders. "Even after the great war, we regained a
measure of civilization fairly quickly. There was no period
during which we were reduced to survival of the fittest. Human
beings haven't undergone any appreciable evolution since long
before our ancestors built the sphere. Which means our eyes are
as they originally were: suited for much dimmer light. Of
course, the ancients may have had drugs or other things that made
the interior light seem more comfortable to them, but whatever
they used must have been lost in the war."
"I suppose," I said.
"But you, me, and everyone else in our settlement who has lived
inside the sphere we've damaged our retinas, without even
I saw what she was getting at. "But the children the
children born here, on the outside of the sphere "
She nodded. "The children born here, after we left the interior,
have never been exposed to the brightness inside, and so they see
just as well in the dark as our distant, distant ancestors did,
back on the homeworld. The points of light the children are
seeing really do exist, but they're simply too faint to register
on the damaged retinas we adults have."
My head was swimming. "Maybe," I said. "Maybe. But but
what are those lights?"
Tadders pursed her lips, then lifted her shoulders a bit. "You
want my best guess? I think they're other suns, like the one our
ancestors encased in the sphere, but so incredibly far away that
they're all but invisible." She looked up, out the clear roof of
the dome covering our town, out at the uniform blackness, which
was all either of us could make out. She then used one of the
words I'd taught her, a word transliterated from the ancient
texts a word we could pronounce but whose meaning we'd
never really understood. "I think," she said, "that the points
of light are stars."
There were thousands of documents stored in the ancient
computers; my job was to try to make sense of as many of them as
I could. And I made much progress as Dalt continued to grow up.
Eventually, he and the other children were able to match the
patterns of stars they could see in the sky to those depicted in
ancient charts I'd found. The patterns didn't correspond
exactly; the stars had apparently drifted in relation to each
other since the charts had been made. But the kids the
adolescents, now were indeed able to discern the
constellations shown in the old texts; ironically, this
was easier to do, they said, when some of the lights of our
frontier town were left on, drowning out all but the brightest
According to the charts, our sun the sun enclosed in the
Dyson sphere was the star the ancients had called Tau
Ceti. It was not the original home to humanity, though; our
ancestors were apparently unwilling to cannibalize the worlds of
their own system to make their Dyson sphere. Instead, they
we had come from another star, the closest similar
one that wasn't part of a multiple system, a sun our ancestors
had called Sol.
And the planet that was the term we had
evolved on was, in the infinite humility of our wise ancestors,
called by a simple, unassuming name, one I could easily
Old folks like me couldn't live on Dirt now, of course. Our
muscles including our hearts were weak compared to
what our ancestors must have had, growing up under the stupendous
gravity of that tiny, rocky world.
But locked in our genes, as if for safekeeping, were all the
potentials we'd ever had as a species. The ability to see dim
sources of light, and
Yes, it must be there, too, still preserved in our DNA.
The ability to produce muscles strong enough to withstand much,
much higher gravity.
You'd have to grow up under such a gravity, have to live with it
from birth, said Dr. Tadders, to really be comfortable with it,
but if you did
I'd seen Kobost's computer animation showing how we might have
moved under a much greater gravity, how we might have deployed
our bodies vertically, how our spines would have supported the
weight of our heads, how our legs might have worked back and
forth, hinging at knee and ankle, producing sustained forward
locomotion. It all seemed so bizarre, and so inefficient
compared to spending most of one's life floating, but
But there were new worlds to explore, and old ones, too, and to
fully experience them would require being able to stand on their
Dalt was growing up to be a fine young man. There wasn't a lot
of choice for careers in a small community: he could have
apprenticed with his mother, Delar, who worked as our banker, or
with me. He chose me, and so I did my best to teach him how to
read the ancient texts.
"I've finished translating that file you gave me," he said on one
occasion. "It was what you suspected: just a boring list of
supplies." I guess he saw that I was only half-listening to him.
"What's got you so intrigued?" he asked.
I looked up, and smiled at his face, with its bits of fuzz; I'd
have to teach him how to shave soon. "Sorry," I said. "I've
found some documents related to the pyramid. But there are
several words I haven't encountered before."
"Such as this one," I said, pointing at a string of eight letters
on the computer screen. "`Starship.' The first part is
obviously the word for those lights you can see in the sky:
stars. And the second part, hip, well " I
slapped my haunch "that's their name for where the leg
joins the torso. They often made compound words in this fashion,
but I can't for the life of me figure out what a `stars hip'
I always say nothing is better than a fresh set of eyes. "Yes,
they often used that hissing sound for plurals," said Dalt. "But
those two letters there can't they also be transliterated
jointly as shuh, instead of separately as ess and hih?"
"So maybe it's not `stars hip,'" he said. "Maybe it's `star
"Ship," I repeated. "Ship, ship, ship I've seen
that word before." I riffled through a collection of papers,
searching my notes; the sheets fluttered around the room, and
Dalt dutifully began collecting them for me. "Ship!" I
exclaimed. "Here it is: `a kind of vehicle that could float on
"Why would you want to float on water when you can float on air?"
"On the homeworld," I said, "water didn't splash up in great
clouds every time you touched it. It stayed in place." I
frowned. "Star ship. Starship. A a vehicle of stars?"
And then I got it. "No," I said, grabbing my son's arm in
excitement. "No a vehicle for traveling to the stars!"
Dalt and Suzto eventually married, to no one's surprise.
But I was surprised by my son's arms. He and Suzto had
been exercising for ages now, and when Dalt bent his arm at the
elbow, the upper part of it bulged. Doc Tadders said
she'd never seen anything like it, but assured us it wasn't a
tumor. It was meat. It was muscle.
Dalt's legs were also much, much thicker than mine. Suzto hadn't
bulked up quite as much, but she, too, had developed great
I knew what they were up to, of course. I admired them both for
it, but I had one profound regret.
Suzto had gotten pregnant shortly after she and Dalt had married
at least, they told me that the conception had occurred
after the wedding, and, as a parent, it's my prerogative to
believe them. But I'd never know for sure. And that was
my great regret: I'd never get to see my own grandchild.
Dalt and Suzto would be able to stand on Dirt, and,
indeed, would be able to endure the journey there. The starship
was designed to accelerate at a rate of five bodylengths per
heartbeat squared, simulating Dirt's gravity. It would
accelerate for half its journey, reaching a phenomenal speed by
so doing, then it would turn around and decelerate for the other
They were the logical choices to go. Dalt knew the ancient
language as well as I did now; if there were any records left
behind by our ancestors on the homeworld, he should be able to
He and Suzto had to leave soon, said Doc Tadders; it would be
best for the child if it developed under the fake gravity of the
starship's acceleration. Dalt and Suzto would be able to survive
on Dirt, but their child should actually be comfortable there.
My wife and I came to see them off, of course as did
everyone else in our settlement. We wondered what people in the
sphere would make of it when the pyramid lifted off it
would do so with a kick that would doubtless be detectable on the
other side of the shell.
"I'll miss you, son," I said to Dalt. Tears were welling in my
eyes. I hugged him, and he hugged me back, so much harder than I
"And, Suzto," I said, moving to my daughter-in-law, while my wife
moved to hug our son. "I'll miss you, too." I hugged her, as
well. "I love you both."
"We love you, too," Suzto said.
And they entered the pyramid.
I was hovering over a field, harvesting radishes. It was tricky
work; if you pulled too hard, you'd get the radish out, all
right, but then you and it would go sailing up into the air.
I looked in the direction of the voice. It was old Doc Tadders,
hurtling toward me, a white-haired projectile. At her age, she
should be more careful she could break her bones slamming
into even a padded wall at that speed.
"Come! Come quickly! A message has been received from Dirt!"
I kicked off the ground, sailing toward the communication station
next to the access tube that used to lead to the starship.
Tadders managed to turn around without killing herself and she
flew there alongside me.
A sizable crowd had already gathered by the time we arrived.
"What does the message say?" I asked the person closest to the
He looked at me in irritation; the ancient computer had displayed
the text, naturally enough, in the ancient script, and few
besides me could understand that. He moved aside and I consulted
the screen, reading aloud for the benefit of everyone.
"It says, `Greetings! We have arrived safely at Dirt.'"
The crowd broke into cheers and applause. I couldn't help
reading ahead a bit while waiting or them to quiet down, so I was
already misty-eyed when I continued. "It goes on to say, `Tell
Rodal and Delar that they have a grandson; we've named him
My wife had passed on some time ago but she would have
been delighted at the choice of Madar; that had been her father's
"`Dirt is beautiful, full of plants and huge bodies of water,'" I
read. "`And there are other human beings living here. It seems
those people interested in technology moved to the Dyson sphere,
but a small group who preferred a pastoral lifestyle stayed on
the homeworld. We're mastering their language it's
deviated a fair bit from the one in the ancient texts and
are already great friends with them.'"
"Amazing," said Doc Tadders.
I smiled at her, wiped my eyes, then went on: "`We will send
much more information later, but we can clear up at least one
enduring mystery right now.'" I grinned as I read the next part.
"`Chickens can't fly here. Apparently, just because you have
wings doesn't mean you were meant to fly.'"
That was the end of the message. I looked up at the dark sky,
wishing I could make out Sol, or any star. "And just because you
don't have wings," I said, thinking of my son and his wife and my
grandchild, far, far away, "doesn't mean you weren't."
• The End •
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