The following story is published with permission of BlazeVOX [books] and Andrew Farkas. The story originally appeared in Denver Quarterly 49.1.
The City of the Sunsphere
At Heliopolis, we saw ruined buildings where the priests had lived. For it is said, anciently, this was the principle residence of the priests who studied philosophy and astronomy. But there are no longer such a body of persons or such pursuits. No one was pointed out to us on the spot as presiding over these studies, but only persons who repeated sacred rites, and those who explained to strangers the peculiarities of the obelisk*.
– Strabo, Geographica (XVII.1:29) [*slightly altered]
And now the new Sunsphere is the cynosure of Knoxville. Standing 6,520 feet tall, its base is a black, cylindrical tower capped by a circular crown that extends well past the parameters of the column accentuated by equally black spires which carry the eye to the orb. The orb is a perfect globe of gold hovering twenty feet above the crown. It rotates thirty times per second, 108,000 times per hour precisely as does the Crab Pulsar, located 6,520 light years away near the constellation Taurus in the center of the Crab Nebula. The Crab Nebula and the Crab Pulsar were created by the Supernova of 1054 (SN1054), although the exact date of the event is unknown. The Crab Pulsar is a neutron star six miles in diameter, far smaller yet much denser than the Earth’s sun. Again, mimicking the Crab Pulsar, the Sunsphere’s orb emits a concentrated beam of light that makes the sphere appear to pulse because of its rotations. If the orb could be decelerated, the light beam would match that of a lighthouse or emergency vehicle. The Sunsphere and the Crab Pulsar also emit radio pulses and X-rays, but only the X-rays are susceptible to Quasi-Periodic Oscillations (QPOs); hence the X-ray emissions vary, the light waves and the radio pulses remain constant. Once the Sunsphere was 266 feet tall, consisting of a green, girder-supported tower and a golden sphere made of connected hexagons. It did not pulse with light. It did not emit radio waves. It did not emit X-rays. It had a red light on a pole at the zenith to warn airplane pilots. On July 4, 2054, an explosion erupted around the Sunsphere, engulfing the structure in red, yellow, green, and blue flames. After the blast, a crimson and cobalt cloud was left behind. When the smoke dispersed, the new Sunsphere stood in place of the former. The orb began spinning. The city filled with light.
To the southeast of the Sunsphere, windows reflecting golden beams, is Knoxville City Hospital. In OR 1058, Yang Wie-Te, a second-generation Chinese-American, a physicist and astronomer, is in critical condition. He proved that the Crab Pulsar and the new Sunsphere are in synchronicity with each other. He is supposed to deduce the meaning of the cosmic alignment. He is supposed to translate the messages being transmitted through the radio waves, light emissions, and X-rays. He lies prone on an operating table. Whether he has solved the mystery of the Sunsphere and the Crab Pulsar is unknown. The operating room, contrary to the rest of the hospital, is painted white and the tables are stainless steel. The doctors, nurses, and assistants surrounding the astronomer wear suits of aquamarine, including facemasks, caps, and gloves. Their hands move rapidly. They speak in curt, terse commands or laconic repetitions. From the celeritous and ever-increasing activity, it can be deduced that the physicist is in a worsening state of dissolution. Should Mr. Yang die, he would be subject to the following penalizations: a $250,000 fine, the incarceration of his entire family in health resorts for the despondent and valetudinary located in Farragut (or Far West Knoxville), the marking of his entire family with the sign of the Theta (theta for thanatos, the death imprint). Yang Wie-Te’s descendants will also be liable for any destruction caused by the physicist’s death which could reach upwards of one hundred billion dollars to assorted insurance companies, banks, law firms, and other public and private interests. Ultimately, Mr. Yang’s family may face the severest sentence: expulsion from the City of Knoxville. These sanctions, and perhaps more, would be effected if the astronomer should pass away because of City Code 529: Thou shalt not die, lest ye release a shock wave. And it is true, whenever a human passes away the corpse immediately releases a shock wave that ranges in power from a quarter ton nuclear weapon to a one megaton hydrogen bomb. On account of these puissant bursts, death is prohibited. With modern medicine, however, aging and dying are purely voluntary. Hence, no one has died in Knoxville in over twenty years. Yet a question arises: how could Yang Wie-Te allow himself to degenerate to his current status? No matter the reason, the penalties and fines to be exacted on Mr. Yang’s family are theoretical, superfluous. At Knoxville’s current population, and given the physicist’s enthalpy and exergy readings, the shock wave from his body would be the genesis of a chain reaction of shock waves that would obliterate each building, that would eradicate the entire population of 100,000,000 Knoxvillians, if not the entire world.
Second only to the Sunsphere, Knoxville City Hospital is the tallest manmade structure in the city (since the aforementioned tower can no longer be considered manmade). From the roof of the sanatorium, the entire megalopolis is viewable, with the exception of parts of the Northern Wasteland blocked by the former World’s Fair tower. Here one can see that the majority of the population has clogged the streets, parks, bridges, sidewalks, riverbanks, and other open spaces of the city. Although the Knoxville Health Commission (KHC) inundates the airwaves, satellite signals, Internet, newspapers, magazines, etc. with calming broadcasts and Public Placation Announcements (PPAs), the news of Yang Wie-Te’s condition has been disseminated by some means. Utterly docile, the citizens understand that if Mr. Yang expires, Knoxville, but more importantly the Sunsphere, will cease to exist. Yet the soothing tones, the conciliating reports, and the optimistic premonitions do nothing to alleviate the tension. In spite of the danger, such masses of people moved to Knoxville because of the new Sunsphere. Being a neutron star (although comparatively infinitesimal) like the Crab Pulsar, it supplies the megalopolis with an almighty source of energy. Hence electricity is inexpensive. The citizens, however, are also filled with this vigor. No one in Knoxville needs to sleep any longer than three or four hours per night; only those who fight against their own inherent vivacity (which is also illegal) go without exercise; only those who eschew their intrinsic verve fail to accomplish their goals. Lassitude, as are aging and death, is a voluntary condition. Moreover, the Sunsphere provides the city with a constant heat source. The mean temperature in Knoxville is 85º F. Finally, much as neutron stars generate the most powerful magnetic fields in the universe, the Sunsphere’s magnetism is due to its mystery and the mystery inherent in its connection to the Crab Pulsar. The answer to this enigma is what each citizen of Knoxville hopes to learn. Yang Wie-Te had been attempting to deduce the answer for over eight years when he was checked into Knoxville City Hospital by his assistant. He was found on the outskirts of the Northern Wasteland.
East of the Sunsphere, along Summit Hill, are Market Square and the Old City, until Summit Hill becomes Martin Luther King (MLK). Market Square and the Old City are an entertainment district composed of subterranean clubs: literally subterranean. Aboveground, this recreational zone is constructed almost uniformly of red brick. The streets are older, still molded from asphalt in most places down to limestone in others. Meticulous care has been taken in this borough to preserve an aged appearance of no particular year. Gas lights line Gay Street. South Central is made of brick. Advertisements for products no longer in use, whose use is no longer remembered are still prevalent. A structure rumored to be a saloon and a bordello in the middle to late 1800s continues to be both to this day. Past the Old City, the houses are concatenated, and yet most Eastern Knoxvillians still live underground. Whereas the citizens of Knoxville hope to solve the mystery of the Sunsphere, or to have the mystery solved for them, there are three cults whose beliefs find their origins in the exact date of the occurrence of SN1054, which explain their interest in the World’s Fair Tower. The East is home to the Believers, also known as the Doomsdayers or the Apocryphites. They believe SN1054 was first observed by Sadiae Fujiwara, a Japanese poet, on May 29, 1054. Astronomers have proven that such a viewing would have been impossible because Zeta Tauri, the closest observable star before the supernova, was in direct proximity to the sun, therefore invisible. Furthermore, Sadiae Fujiwara was not yet born in 1054, since he made his astronomical hypothesis in 1235. Although the evidence is against their claim, the Apocryphites continue to believe that Fujiwara was teleported back in time to a position where he could witness SN1054. Along with this belief, the Apocryphites assert that whatever the pulsar message may be, it will encourage humans to die and be transported to Paradise, located in the Crab Nebula, to live with Sadiae Fujiwara and James Agee. The reason humans began erupting into shock waves and the reason the old Sunsphere became the new: so more earthlings would die simultaneously and be delivered to Arcadia. At this hour, while the city of Knoxville awaits the outcome of Yang Wie-Te’s surgery, the Apocryphites have concluded that Mr. Yang induced from the X-rays what the Believers themselves already knew. Yang, who perambulated in the direction of the Old City about once or twice per month, was aiming to bring about the apocalypse when his turncoat assistant committed him. Asked how they are keen to such information, Believers will say that the X-ray QPOs “told me so.” They will also say that the number 529 in City Code 529 is no coincidence. It signifies that the Apocryphite belief in May 29 is correct, that their convictions are also correct. Because of their obsession with death, Apocryphite temples are the aforementioned underground speakeasies. Here they lure Tellers, Ramponans, and their own kind to dine on deleterious cuisine, imbibe alcohol and other drugs, fornicate randomly, smoke cigarettes, brawl with their fellow citizens, etc. With their goals they are successful, although modern medicine, if consulted soon enough, can cure all of the effects of these activities. On occasion, since the diversions in these clubs are prohibited, the police launch cleansing campaigns, sending those who are found to health resorts; the subterranean caves, however, are labyrinthine and the Apocryphites have never been completely reeducated. Instead, they continue their rebellion, speaking of their apocalyptic revolution in hushed, deferential tones, pointing to the new Sunsphere which they feel was created when the ghost of James Agee rose from his grave to make possible the transfer of all humankind to Paradise. The QPOs told them so.
The Northern Wasteland was demolished by the only shock waves that have occurred. It is composed, solely, of rubble. There are no brick buildings. There are no skyscrapers. There are no cinderblock structures. There are no actual streets. There are no people. There is nothing but the reminder of what happens when a human being expires. There are sections where the detritus has been itself destroyed, leaving a view of the Appalachian Mountains far in the distance. The shock waves did not obliterate all of Knoxville because there were fewer people living in the city at the time. Before the explosions, the North was home to a fourth Sunsphere Cult: the Free Thinkers, also known as the Sunsphere Haters. Even with the radiating charm of the propaganda and the menace of death, the other Knoxvillian groups despised the Free Thinkers to an almost self-destructive degree. The reason the Free Thinkers were hated, the reason they were called the Sunsphere Haters: they claimed the message the Sunsphere was emitting meant nothing at all, that the alignment of the Crab Pulsar and the World’s Fair Tower was a cosmic event of astounding, yet nonsensical proportions. The light waves, radio pulses, and X-rays were not a code to be decrypted, but even if they were they could be studied from the antipodes where there was no peril. The date of SN1054 is inconsequential, or was so to them. The Free Thinkers, therefore, worked to get Knoxvillians to apostatize, proclaiming there would be no revelation from the Sunsphere, that it was merely beautiful and dangerous. A scandal would have arisen if any of the Free Thinkers had lived: who caused the shock waves? Since the Sunsphere Haters were eradicated, they were blamed. The Tower, according to the other groups, had its vengeance. The one surviving invention the Free Thinkers imparted on Knoxvillian society is the Enthalpy/Exergy Meter (EEM). Exergy is the amount of energy that can be extracted from a system. Since this energy is ejected as a shock wave when a human perishes, exergy is the measure of a person’s explosive potential. Enthalpy calculates internal energy, pressure, and volume (in the case of humans, weight). Keeping enthalpy low is the goal of all human beings who are not Apocryphites. A high enthalpy score means your body contains too much energy, too much pressure, or too much weight. Energy and pressure can add to exergy, increasing explosive potential. Weight cannot add to exergy, but an obese individual could still erupt into a shock wave equivalent to a quarter ton nuclear device. Furthermore, a corpulent human probably has a high energy reserve (since the Sunsphere energizes all), probably is under excessive physical stress, and both of these properties lead to a higher exergy rating. When enthalpy reaches a predetermined level (calculated by doctors for each individual) a person will either go into cardiac arrest or will immediately die; Yang Wie-Te was in cardiac arrest when he was discovered. The Free Thinkers, to simplify the EEM, wrote a song to explain its value:
Enthalpy and exergy work together to instill harmony,
Without them your deaths would destroy this here fine city.
The Sunsphere Haters hoped to preserve as many humans as possible until they could remove them from Knoxville. Members of the other cults now walk to the edge of Henley Street, which used to become Broadway in the North, whenever they question their own beliefs, whenever they lose hope in the Sunsphere. These questioners stand at the extremity of the city and ponder the expanse of the wastes beyond. In the distance, there are the mountains.
Fort Sanders, the University of Tennessee campus, and parts West are home to the Tellers of the Truth. Here there are mostly skyscrapers made of steel, aluminum, and prismatic windows which cast kaleidoscopic patterns. The streets are made of an advanced polymer that transmogrifies according to the climate to instill optimal traction. Along Kingston Pike, the largest thoroughfare in the megalopolis, are uplifting aphoristic billboards, appeasing colors, and tranquil professionally landscaped gardens. On each street corner is a speaker that broadcasts confidence-building adages and PPAs. Far West Knoxville is home to the mammoth KHC building, the third largest structure in the city. Contrary to the East, most Westerners live aboveground, as far aboveground as humanly possible, in order to be closer to the Crab Pulsar. The Tellers of the Truth, simply called the Tellers (or the Tattletales, depending on who one asks), believe the original Yang Wie-Te was correct (the Yang Wie-Te being attended to by rapidly moving, aquamarine-clad doctors is a far distant relative). He claimed that SN1054 took place on July 4, 1054. Since this date is widely accepted by the scientific community, the Tellers are completely confident in their assessment. They are also confident that, whatever the message may turn out to be, it will undoubtedly be found in the radio waves and it will undoubtedly encourage humans to live longer and longer. The radio waves hold the secret because they are the most easily deciphered. The secret is obviously to live longer because of the destruction corpses cause. Furthermore, the Tellers hold that their conclusions are correct because the old Sunsphere became the new on July 4: the date, they claim, of SN1054. They also claim that the Sunsphere metamorphosis was caused by a blast from the Crab Pulsar itself. The fact that such a blast would have taken 6,520 years to reach earth from the Crab Nebula does not deter their doctrines. While the prognostication becomes grimmer for Yang Wie-Te, a one-time native of the West (who departed after the Northern Wasteland was formed), the Tellers believe he had yet to deduce the answer to the World’s Fair Tower Enigma. He had been working too hard. He had worn himself down. What Mr. Yang needs to do, once he has convalesced, is to check into one of the health resorts, which are also the Teller temples. Citizens either choose to enter these sanitariums for their own fitness related reasons, or they are incarcerated into them when caught engaging in harmful activities often in insalubrious parts of town (the East). The propaganda from the city address system and the consumption of attitude adjustment pills, both Teller inventions, are not militarily enforced. A human who remains morose for an extended period of time, however, is considered to be engaging in antisocial (and therefore dangerous) behavior and may be subject to surveillance by the Knoxville Police Department (KPD). On this day, the propaganda and the pills appear to be inoperative, insufficient, since the general mood is one of consternation. Yet perhaps the propaganda is working, since the message transmitted for the past two days has been that the mystery of the Sunsphere was about to be solved.
Along Chapman Highway, south of the Sunsphere, live the Ramponans. The vast majority of their structures are made of cinderblock, but there is no architectural consistency. The roads are made of polymers, asphalt, cement, brick, and other substances. Some Southerners live underground, while an equal number live above to far aboveground. In sections their buildings are concatenated, in others they are sparse. The Ramponan ideology is that human beings can never really know anything at all. Facetiously, they uphold the SN1054 date “discovered” by Giovanni Lupoato, who backs the only Western recording of the occurrence which appears in the admittedly questionable Rampona Chronicle. The Rampona Chronicle itself includes an error, accidentally listing the supernova year as MLVIII (1058), instead of MLIV (1054). If this document can otherwise be trusted, and according to the Ramponans no one knows if it can, then the date of the supernova was June 24, 1054. Since irrefutable knowledge is solely mythical, however, the Ramponans proclaim they are ignorant of the actual date, but that the rest of humanity is also ignorant. Yang Wie-Te, vying to display his exergetic reserve, was equally benighted but had yet to construct a nihilistic detachment from his situation when his assistant committed him. Since nescience is the controlling factor for Ramponans, they have no theories as to what the mystery behind the Sunsphere could be, any more than it is possible to infer the exact date of SN1054 (which might not have occurred in 1054). Moreover, while discussing humanity’s witlessness, Ramponans will often declare that a doctrine of utter ignorance is itself a dogma, so humans cannot aver peremptorily their de facto state of naïveté. When dealing with Apocryphites or Tellers, Ramponans will frequently dismiss the X-rays (especially the QPOs) and the radio waves and point to the light, asserting that it is Morse Code. When asked what the Morse Code means they answer that no one will ever know. Often lacking congruity, the Ramponans feel their system is correct at this hour because Mr. Yang, who last resided in South Knoxville, is in OR 1058: a strictly ironic coincidence. The Ramponans remain in Knoxville to harass the other cults, to sow discord. Mockingly, they broadcast the radio waves emanating from the Crab Pulsar and the new Sunsphere. The sound, which is repeated ad infinitum, is a chopping sound, the sound of a helicopter, the sound of an overturned lawnmower. They intersperse these transmissions with belittling pleas of what it could all mean. In spite of their nihilistic detachment, the Ramponans also await the outcome of Yang Wie-Te’s operation.
6,520 light years away, shrouded in a cloud of gases extant from SN1054, the Crab Pulsar sends forth its message encrypted in X-rays, radio waves, and light. For now, the Sunsphere relays its esoteric message, not yet deciphered, perhaps indecipherable. Yang Wie-Te was often known to gaze in the direction of the Crab Nebula. When asked what he was pondering, Yang would say that he was imagining himself near the Pulsar, he was imagining himself as an antenna, he was preparing to disseminate the directive that would one day surge forth from his brain. He claimed the Pulsar and the World’s Fair Tower were made to speak through him. And they would. But now Mr. Yang is in the hospital, silent, perhaps awaiting his explosive transubstantiation. Yet in the Crab Nebula, the neutron star’s nature does not change. It continues to pulse. It continues to transmit.
And now the new Sunsphere. Even below the structure, in what was once World’s Fair Park, and what is now Sunsphere Place, people are compacted and waiting. They wait to learn of Mr. Yang’s condition. They wait to learn about the mystery behind the new Sunsphere and the Crab Pulsar. They search for answers. They are told over a loudspeaker by a soothing, relaxing voice that the physicist, the astronomer is fine, that the mystery will soon be solved. Above them all the orb of the Sunsphere pulses signifying doom, nothing, joy, nescience. Like the eye of a god it sees them all, the tower beneath standing as if a monolith to someone or something’s past or possibly future demise.
Andrew Farkas is the author of two short fiction collections: Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and a novel: The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He had a Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University.
Image: Flickr / Jacob Ian Wall