Last Light

“Woah!” said Summit, as he focused his eyes on what he was seeing through the telescope, “Come look at this!” Dimity shuffled over to the eyepiece and went “Wow! That’s a habitat! Moving right over the Moon!” She yielded the eyepiece to him so he could see more of it. Smiling as he beheld the bright star, its spoke-and-wheel features barely visible in the distance even with magnification, pass over the lunar disk he laughed and remarked “No offense to the lunar cities, but their lights seen from here on Earth are just a shadow next to that habitat.”

Dimity sighed and wistfully said, in the soft sweet voice that he found so charming, “I wonder what they’re doing up there? Looking down at us, maybe? I wonder if the city lights of Utqiagvik are more spectacular from out there? Less atmosphere to impede their vision of the sky, you know; if you ask me outer space is where you see what the sky really looks like. I wonder if there’s another boy and another girl looking down to the edge of that white ice cap that’s all lit up like a star, wondering if there’s somebody looking up at them?”

Summit giggled and, taking her hand, answered “Whoever they are, I don’t think they’re having as much fun as we are!” Both of them giggled at that as he squeezed her hand. Smiling, and taking in the lovely sight of her grey eyes, her lush face framed by cascades of red hair tied in low pigtails, they shared a moment together, before Dimity suggested “How about looking at another planet?”

Nodding yes at her suggestion, she took hold of the telescope’s controls and directed it to swing its great bulk, dwarfing either one of them, to a different part of the sky, already showing the first signs of twilight. Her companion wondered which planet she’d select, but looking at the stars with his naked eye and noticing where the observatory’s telescope was swinging to gave him a pretty good idea. Not wanting to spoil her surprise, he suppressed a grin.

Once the observatory found its target, in a sing-song inflection his companion said “All ready for you!” Skipping out of his way, he then looked through the eyepiece and saw a disk, much smaller than the Moon but still spectacular through the high-powered telescope: “The Red Planet” he remarked. “Looks like a pristine wilderness, though I guess it is, pretty much. As big as the population is there I guess the planet’s even bigger. Amazing to think how vast it all is. Honestly it’s amazing to even think there’s a population way out there.”

The girl perkily said “And some people like further out still! Like a lot further out! Those research centers in the Öpik cloud – you know, the ones that do astronomy using gravitational lensing from the sun – they’re so remote they make even going to Mars look like a walk across the street.” Moving to take a look for herself, her man let her have the eyepiece. Beholding the Martian disk, she remarked “And you’re right: even Mars looks so far away. It’s so pretty, though, isn’t it?” Summit said “There’s a reason it’s always captivated the human imagination. And now, we’re there!”

Smiling mischievously, the girl inputted some commands on the telescope’s control panel, causing the observatory to swing again. Noticing it was orienting itself toward a new target, Summit asked “What are you doing?” Slyly, Dimity answered “I just thought it would be a nice change of pace to see some place where man isn’t.” Winking at him, the man smiled, and as the telescope settled into position his curiosity was aroused enough to take a look for himself. Beholding the target his companion selected through the eyepiece, he went “Wow!” He beheld a globular cluster containing what looked like an infinite number of scintillating stars, arrayed as if spiraling imperceptibly toward each other in a cosmic snow globe.

The girl remarked “Messier 5. Now that’s one place man hasn’t reached yet.” Her boyish companion replied “Key word yet. We’ve already got probes on their way to the nearest stars, and even a manned expedition to Thalassa in the works. Star by star by star it might be, but we’ll reach Messier 5 one of these days.” She added “If the speed of light has anything to say about it not for at least another 25,000 years; by Earth time anyway. But that gives us 25,000 years to find a shortcut to get us there faster; surely we’ll think of something!”

Giggling at each other’s thoughts, they then spent their time swinging the telescope to the Andromeda Galaxy and then to the Triangulum Galaxy, taking in the sparkling stars, dust lanes, and stellar nurseries that call those two swirls of stars home. Noticing twilight was starting to brighten, and having seen most of what they wanted to see with the telescope, the boy took the girl’s hand and led her away from the observatory, telling her “Let’s go down into the tower. There’s something I want to see before last light, and I think we have time.”

Making like a homing pigeon to one of the glass elevators on each of the three arms stretching out from the central axis of the tower the observatory’s telescope called home, the two settled themselves in, still holding each other’s hands, beholding as the elevator descended to their destination a view of the spit of land stretching into the dark icy expanse of the Arctic Ocean, lit only by the few towers between them and the sea, with even the tallest ones looking only as big as anthills from their own perspective.

A gentle ping after the downward motion stopped announced they had arrived. Still holding his companion’s hand, Summit asked “What do you think?” His companion beheld a bright airy – well, it would be bright and airy if it was still as light as summer – environment clad in the darkest finest hardwoods, walls covered in books, floors covered with desks, chairs, and lounges, a full-fledged coffee shop right in front of them.

So excited was she to see all that, along with the buzz of all the people on that floor of the tower, that it took her a while to notice “Wow, it’s so warm in here! Hadn’t realized how cold it was out there, I was so wrapped up and heated. Just like a warm blanket.” He asked her “I don’t suppose you’d like to get a coffee?” She giggled and replied “Of course, I’d love to! Let’s go!”

She led him around by the hand for a change, into the coffee shop, and he let her choose the coffee from what he thought was the rather bewildering menu, which included some coffees he hadn’t seen before. She ordered, in a sing-songy inflection, two cups of “Caffè Sagavanirktokense”; he tried to do the gentlemanly thing and order for the both of them, but even after she tried whispering it to her companion four times it was too much of a tongue-twister for him, so she just had to order it. 

As they walked up the ever-so-gentle spiraling library, permitting access to books and media on many floors of the tower without any need for steps, steep ramps, or elevators – though the latter were available, and widely used as they saw in the easily-visible center of the structure – Summit asked her “How can you pronounce that Caffè…uh, whatever it is?” as he sipped on his coffee, taken aback by the strength of it. 

“Caffè Sagavanirktokense” she said, answering “Don’t feel bad about getting your tongue twisted; I’m a travel companion, so I’ve had a lot longer to practice.” He remarked “Strong stuff, isn’t it? The coffee, I mean.” She smiled and went on “It’s like a super-strong and super-warming kind of coffee that arose among the first settlers of Sagavanirktok, hence the name. When they were building all those oil pipelines and drilling those wells and building up the whole city back in the old days they had to have something to keep them warm in those fifty below zero nights. This being Alaska, naturally coffee shops were one of the first things they built out; I’ve heard it said that without guzzling all that coffee 24/7 the Alaskan people couldn’t have ever done anything. So many different varieties come from this region.” 

Making themselves at home, they explored much of what the library had to offer, as they looked out the window at the ever-brightening sky, keeping track of the time, for today was one sunrise they didn’t want to miss. The minutes, even the hours, seemed to fly by for Summit in stimulating conversation with his companion. Despite him having brought her along for his trip, it was his companion who had to pry him away from just sitting and talking in the library, by saying “I think it’s time now. We really should get going.”

Practically skipping into their elevator again, they felt like they were flying up, floating on air in the transparent elevator, up, up, and up some more, until they were deposited with a gentle ping to the main observation deck, some ways below the telescope, which was at the very top of the tower. They had ample room to roam hand in hand, and as luck would have it they were able to simply saunter over to the very edge of the deck, looking down toward the tundra and out at the endless flat expanse to the south. Leaning herself and her copper pigtails over the railing, she eagerly awaited what Summit and everyone assembled at that tower had come there to see.

Squinting and gazing out, they waited and waited as the glow at the horizon became ever-brighter, the stars having long since been washed out by the approach of dawn. Then – it hit! The first flash of light from the rising sun, eliciting applause from the assembled crowd. Smiling as he squeezed her hand in his enthusiasm, she turned toward him and remarked “Last light! The last sunrise of the winter here.” Beholding her fair redheaded grey-eyed visage in the soft warm light of the rising sun, he sighed and dreamily told her “You look so beautiful in last light”, prompting a bashful smile from his companion.

Taking her in an embrace from behind, he rocked his companion back and forth, taking in all the sights and sensations of what she later said was “a freakishly clear day for November 18 on the North Slope.” The day lasted briefly, but they made the most of it, relishing the last of the sun as it started to sink again toward the horizon, finally going away for the rest of the winter, but not before farewelling Utqiagvik with a green glow. Everyone thought that was spectacular, with Dimity saying “The universe is smiling on us.” Taking her arm in his and escorting her off the observation deck, Summit said “The night is ours!”

Speeding downward once again, his companion told the elevator to go to a specific floor which he wasn’t familiar with; locking eyes with each other, he grinned and said “You’ve got a surprise for me, don’t you?”, eliciting a giggle from Dimity, which he found just adorable. Finally the motion stopped and they arrived at their destination, yet another one of the tower’s habitable segments scattered throughout the glass-and-concrete needle stretching two miles into the sky.

As he walked out, he beheld a circular chamber ringed by rich woods and metals, especially copper, all in patterns evocative of traditional native clothing, big airy portholes letting in the last of the day’s twilight. Even with the sun down the beams from the sky were striking enough to highlight in warm, rich, stark fashion an object in the middle: a somewhat abstracted and streamlined form of an inuksuk, its sheer size dwarfing either boy or girl, stretching up toward a sublimely tall ceiling, reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral. Looking up toward the ceiling its twinkling star-like patterns in a black expanse, created to replicate the night sky with the North Star at its center, were easily visible, the twinkling light dappling on the inuksuk-like form.

After a while taking it all in, the girl remarked “I know you’re thinking this is a work of art, and it is, but this sculpture also serves as the biggest tuned mass damper in the tower. Without this to stabilize the structure we’d be hanging on for dear life up here instead of skipping around like we’re on terra firma.” Appreciating it for a good long while, when the boy finally decided he’d had enough of it he took his companion’s hands and summoned the glass elevator again.

Taking it down all the way to the lobby, they were once again on terra firma, beholding a spectacularly airy space with Inupiat motifs surrounding them, but with the walls made out of local stone, curving toward the high ceiling in a way reminiscent of an igloo. The most striking aspect of all, however, was the glass floor, giving a transparent view to rippling water right under them, blue lights from the pool’s floor providing the primary lighting in the lobby, suffusing everything with a blue glow, ripples from the pool visible in the bright ribbons of light endlessly dancing around the walls and onto the people.

And onto the centerpiece of the lobby – a stone sculpture of a native hunter harpooning a bowhead whale, all to scale with the whale under the glass floor, drawing the eyes of both Summit and Dimity to the pool under them, practically mesmerized by the whole sight. “Wow, that’s beautiful” he said, adding “I wouldn’t mind staying here for the rest of the evening.”

His companion replied “There’s a whole city to see before it gets dark, and we could get a twilight dinner together. You’re the traveler, I’m the companion; it’s up to you.” After gazing at the sculpture for a few moments longer, he decided “Let’s go see the city.” Dimity clapped and said “That’ll be so much fun. They’ve got a metro station adjacent to the lobby, in fact. Let’s go!”

Letting himself be guided by his companion down to the metro station, which had a similar design to the igloo-esque lobby, they held hands as they waited at the platform for a train to come by. Silently, the train approached out of the tunnel and came to a stop at their platform. Opening up its doors, they skipped into the car, sprawling themselves out in reclining leather seats as they sat back and relaxed after so long on their feet.

The thought of summoning a robot to bring him noise-cancelling headphones or even a drink crossed his mind, but the gentle hums and ambience of the train, not to mention the tunnels going by through their window, and the presence of his sweet companion, were all so soothing to him he decided to just rest until…well, until they felt like getting off.

The stations themselves, every one like an iced-in far-north take on a Gothic cathedral yet distinctly different, were fascinating enough to see out their window, all the different people coming and going at each platform, each with their own little world centered on their life, their own little course intersecting with his and hers in a kind of spiritual spiral that became one there, in the underground of Utqiagvik. As with so many other cities the rapid transit network was a destination unto itself.

Circling around and under the whole city, the couple doubled back on their course, taking the same line they’d started from northeastward, until reaching a station nearest a restaurant his companion said was the best place to have a twilight dinner. Finally departing from their train, they practically skipped across the platform and onto an escalator, a sign telling them it would take them up directly to the seaside restaurant Dimity had selected.

Emerging above ground right in the middle of the restaurant, Summit talked to the host at the front desk, and they were promptly seated at a table furthest away from the ice-covered sea, providing an unobstructed view of all the mile-tall glass-and-concrete needles that made up the city, interior lights already coming on across the Utqiagvik skyline. Strings of white lights suspended above them provided illumination as day faded into night, and both the boy and the girl sampled far and wide across the menu: as rich and appetizing as it was authentically Arctic.

But the mainstay of their meal that tanked them up was eggs, the highlight being the beverage they washed it all down with: a blend of cloudberry wine designed to be evocative of the twilight and setting sun, only served during the Last Light festival. After passing the time enjoying each other’s company over a good hot dinner, they decided to make the most of twilight’s last gasp by taking the escalator back into the metro station, skipping onto a train that went to the very end of the line.

Taking the escalator up from the northernmost station, they beheld the mostly-preserved-and-pristine park that occupied Alaska’s northernmost point: Nuvuk. In the faint glow of the late-twilight sky, walking along the path to the very northernmost tip of land, they beheld the great statue of an Inupiat man looking northward, arm outstretched precisely toward the North Pole, the inscription at the pedestal reading “North to the future” in Inupiat.

Holding hands, they went to the very northernmost point that was accessible, beholding the ice that surrounded them, dimly lit by the dusk, hoods, jackets, and faces buffeted by bone-chilling winds blowing off the Arctic Ocean. Taking in the sights and sensations for a while, they soon had their fill of it, and looked back toward the city.

Past the North to the Future statue, they saw the Utqiagvik skyline in the distance, but between hither and yonder they saw the northernmost building in Alaska, and possibly the most aesthetically pleasing in Utqiagvik: a building shaped from top to bottom to look like a sail, as if taking off into the vast expanse of the sea, but forever remaining on the terra firma of Nuvuk, host to the leading Inupiat museum and cultural center, a hotel, and – and this is when Dimity’s face beamed a smile of revelation – a big ballroom that harbored the Last Light Dance.

Telling her man about it, and asking if he’d like to go do that with her, he beamed a smile too and said “I’d love that! Let’s go!” Walking the distance arm-in-arm, they went under the sailboat-like envelope of the building and joined the partying crowd on the dance floor, spinning in the soft, rippling lights, color after color dancing over them – or were they dancing over the colors? Neither knew or cared, as the girl was dipped down at dramatic moments, embraced by her companion from head to toe, and paralleled each other’s moves as if one was a shadow of the other – whatever the musicality of the song demanded.

He might not have been as well-traveled as his companion, but he impressed her by knowing his way around a dance floor. It being a party, a Last Light party at that, one of the North Slope’s biggest holidays, there were many others there, who both of them took the opportunity to dance with after they had been in each other’s arms to their satisfaction. Mingle with boys and girls alike they did, many of them natives or locals, but the bulk being visitors like themselves, from all over the world, even off-world in a few cases.

They barely even noticed that it had gotten dark on them, but they did notice their weariness after hour upon hour of dancing. It was fun, but as evening turned into night Summit felt like he had had enough. Taking his traveling companion with him, there was one more thing they wanted to do, a part of their trip together he’d been planning from the start.

Taking the metro again, disembarking at one of the stations near the middle of Utqiagvik, sauntering across the platform and onto an escalator, they emerged in a deep-underground parking garage, ornately decorated like a cathedral, only with Inupiat motifs rather than Western ones. Summoning their vehicle, they waited for the whine of the nearly-idling jet to alert them to its presence.

After a few moments they heard it, and then it pulled itself right up to them, opening its two rear-hinged doors as the big wheels came to rest, letting them inside. Lifting his girl up onto the running board and then onto the rich leather bench seat, then seeing himself in, they mad themselves at home in their car for the night, a convertible, top open, exterior decked out with a gold-and-black flaming paintjob.

Pushing the button to close the doors, Summit admired the interior and exterior of his car: just like how he envisioned it. Giddy with anticipation for driving the thing on the open road, he took command of the steering wheel, pushed the throttle, and saw them out of the parking garage and onto the highway, ensconced in an underground tunnel, the gentle curves and the straightaways with their full-spectrum lights making it seem like he was in outer space, piloting a spaceship through a corridor of a thousand little suns, little tunnels branching off and branching in as if the city was an organism and they were cells pumping through its arteries, along with the rest of the drivers on the road.

As the reactor throttled up and they reached full speed, “200 miles an hour!” he shouted, beaming a smile, he said “God, I just love these nuclear cars!” Barreling through on the straightaways and hanging on for dear life in the curveaways, Dimity held her driver’s hand and squeezed it as she beheld the expanse of underground Utqiagvik.

It didn’t take too long for them to see the sign pointing to the “Arctic Coast Highway” and for Summit to merge onto that ramp, after a short while exiting the tunnel into the open air of a North Slope night, Dimity’s pigtails fluttering in the pure northern wind. Both boy and girl looked back at the rapidly receding skyline of Utqiagvik and Nuvuk, bidding it farewell, before Summit pushed the throttle up and up on the straighter roadway, shouting with glee “300!” and finally “400!” as he reached the maximum speed that felt comfortable. Despite her apprehension, the girl started to miss the feeling of acceleration after it went away – it was such a thrill!

But the wonders didn’t cease – no. Downrange from the city, the stars came out in all their glory, a sparkling blanket surrounding them from horizon to horizon, captivating Dimity as she beheld it: there was nothing else quite like a dark northern sky. Apprehending it himself, Summit told the car to put on Jean Sibelius’s “Night Ride and Sunrise”, the perfect accompaniment to a furious moonlit drive to Sagavirniktok.

Dimity beamed a smile at that, and then opened the glove box, revealing an entirely different, but just as perfect, accompaniment: a bottle of the finest cloudberry wine, and two glasses. Smiling at that, Summit pushed the button for autodrive, and, abandoning the controls, snuggled closer to his companion in the bench seat, pouring the both of them a glass of cloudberry wine.

Feeling the invigorating wind run through their hair, classical music blasting, stars sparkling above and around them, the moonlit ice of the Arctic Ocean visible in the distance, they looked into each other’s eyes. Raising her glass, Dimity said “To the best traveler in the solar system!” Clinking their glasses, they sipped their wine, thinking about their trip.

Sagavirniktok might have been over a hundred miles distant, but it may as well have been over a hundred light-years away. None of that really mattered: what mattered was they had a happy time together. Yes, for both the traveler and his companion, Last Light was a very good day.

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