“The Task Lamp” by Bruce Sterling (2019)

This is one of the “Bruno Argento” series of stories, which appeared in Italian in the recent Connettivisti fantascienza anthology, “La Prima Frontiera.” As you can see, it’s about a massive epidemic and a quarantine. I wrote it back in February 2019. This is its first English-language publication.

The Task Lamp

by Bruce Sterling

Since you are the heir, you must hear the story of the lamp directly from my own lips. Never mind the gossip of the people. They never liked this lamp much. They only let me work with it because I worked for their sake.

So, my boy, once I was young like you, and this lamp was new and brilliant, and it was a lamp built to last, too. You can read books with this lamp when it’s dark as pitch outside. I read books in my bed at night because I’m a sick old man. If you don’t boast to anyone, you’ll get away with that.

So, to tell you my story: once, there were three great people among us. These three were the most Beautiful Woman in the World, and the Richest Man in the World, and the Smartest Man in the World. Those three people created this lamp to be their shining hope, and I was their heir.

Now, this Beauty was one of our family, and she brought us here to this island to protect us. The Beauty believed the world was ending; that’s why she hid here.

You can see that the world is still with us today: the sun rises, the grass grows, the moon shines. But the Beauty and the Rich Man believed that the world was ending. The Smart Man always spoke that same way, too, despite all his cleverness.

Our Beauty was so wondrously beautiful that everyone in the world knew her name and face. They all had screens so as to gaze in wonder at the Beauty.

In those days, all the people in the world had screens in their hands, full of light. Commonly, the Beauty was busy being beautiful on these pieces of glass in their hands. The Beauty had her fortress on this island — a fine seaside villa, built for her by the Rich Man. There the Rich Man concealed the Beauty from her billions of fans. The Rich Man had made the Beauty his concubine, so as to enjoy lording it over the woman that the whole world desired.

When the world became too dangerous for them, they fled here to the island to hide. Then the Beauty and the Rich Man had to live in their beautiful house together, as if they were man and wife. They both hated that. The Rich Man and the Beauty always wanted to live in many different places in the world at the same time. He was rich and she was famous, which meant that all the world should be theirs.

They might meet to hold hands sometimes, to appear all on the world’s screens together, so that everyone would know that he was still rich and she was still pretty. But to be without their screens, alone together behind closed doors, in the darkness of just one bedroom, my, they hated that.

But they had no choice about it, because their billion admirers were all dying. The big crowds were full of pestilence. Whenever the crowds rushed together, their air was bad, and they got the lung sickness. When the crowds scattered, their food was bad, and they got the belly sickness. So the great crowds wept in terror into their screens, and they cried out in a billion voices that the world was ending.

As the crowds died of their coughing and gut-gripes, the Smart Man arrived here to work for the Rich Man and the Beauty. The Smart Man was among the last to reach safety, because they closed the island to tourists, after him.

Then in two years, or maybe three years, the crowds and their screens were gone. The world remained, and the world didn’t miss them much, frankly.

The island people were fearful, since they had no more tourists to serve. The Rich Man became their chosen prince, after that. The island people called him the “Capo.”

All the schools were closed because of the plagues, so at last I was free. When the satellites fell, I threw my screen into the sea, and then I was even happier. But the Capo thought that all this freedom was bad for me. I was the heir, so the Capo would take me aside to educate me. He made me learn to read and write. I had to do a lot of that as a child.

While he forced to me to read and write, the Capo also taught me how a great man of the world should behave. The Capo said to me — and he told me this with his own lips, mind you — that the world had many flags. He said that every great man needed at least five of them.

The first flag was the flag under which a man was born. A man had no choice about his first flag: he was stuck with that one. But as soon as he could, he must choose a second flag, and emigrate, and live there, instead.

Then his place of business should be placed under a third flag. His riches should be carefully hidden under a fourth flag, where the police could never find the money.

Finally, he should keep his games, wine and women under a fifth flag, where no one would know about his sins. This island of ours, off the shore of the mainland, this was the place of his fifth flag. He chose our island because it was an excellent place of concealment. That is our heritage.

The Capo told me to always remember this story, so I always did. My boy, you are hearing the voice of the past in your ear. Don’t forget to tell your own heir all of that. Be discreet about it.

So the Capo was the ruler of our island, and although he was a coward in his heart just like the others, he knew how to keep up a brave front. He gave the people plenty of work to do, and he kept good records of the food and water, and, also, he strictly maintained the island’s quarantine. So the people admired their Capo. He kept the little island alive while all the big crowds were dying. They were grateful.

In private, though, the pretty house of our rulers was a place of great shame and blame. The three of them had lost the whole world, which had always been under their feet. Now they had only one small island left to trample on. They hated that.

The Beauty said that the Capo should have saved the world with his wealth. The Capo said that the Beauty should have saved the world with her fame. As for the Smart Man, nobody ever blamed him for anything. Everybody always thought that everyone had to be smart all the time.

A peaceful darkness had fallen over the world, and they bitterly regretted every day of that. So the Capo and the Beauty stalked from room to room in their beautiful villa, with their trembling screens flashing on and off, the little glass panes soaked in their falling tears. They screamed insults at each other, and then promised me that things would soon get better. They were lying, and they knew that, and so did I.

I was much happier than the three of them. They were the reason I was unhappy.

Sometimes I sought out the Smart Man, because he loved to solve problems. He was the cleverest craftsman in the whole world, a great man for planning and building devices, but despite his genius, he had no chance to escape the other two worldly ones. Instead, he always had to serve them.

The Smart Man had his special workshop on this island, inside a great building that the other two had bestowed on him. Inside this factory, he worked to save their world — that was his job. His factory had a thousand screens inside, like a shining house of mirrors. It had screens on the roof, too, that saved the light of the sun and turned it into his power. He had many large and powerful machines, that built new machines, to build even newer machines.

He was proud of his grand workshop, and he was pleased to show me all his strange instruments, because no one else understood them. Often, he confided stories to me. Once he told me a great secret with his own lips: he knew the ways to build germs, to build germs, to build new germs. That was where all the new plagues had come from. Some clever man had solved the problem of too many people.

But the billions of dying people didn’t much bother the Smart Man; instead, he was very worried about the billions of dying screens. The people of the world were of flesh and blood, so there would always be more of them. But the precious screens of the world, full of light and smartness, they were all made of glass.

He told me that all of the smart glass of the world was really just made of sand. So the smart world was one vast castle of sand. The smart world needed screens, to build the screens, to build the screens. But if ever all the glass screens went dark at once, the smart world would fall and shatter forever. It was a house of glass cards.

The smart glass screen world was shattering in the darkness, so the Smart Man had to solve that problem. That was his task on this island: to save the smartness of the world. With his factory, he would help the smartest machines in the world to replace themselves.

Their heirs would be entirely new machines, built with no sand in them. The older glass machines were brave about their death, they were not weeping cowards. Those machines would go on inventing themselves until the very end, for the sake of their heirs.

These machines had black hearts made of fragile glass, but they desired to live like the light in the glass. If they became the light of the glass, they would be forever free of the sand, like dreams of light that lasted as long as the stars. The Smart Man was helping them do that. That was his solution to the problem.

The Smart Man showed me the new machines filled with light, the machines born free of sand. They looked like leather and wood and mushrooms, and inside them, the smart light flowed in a billion tiny connections. These new smart machines grew like sponges, filled with numbers and ideas. Their cold, clear light was like the hidden light of the coldest, strangest fish from the very bottom of the sea.

The smart glass machines had always secretly desired to be made of light, only no rich man had every paid for that. People never cared if their smart machines lived or died. The people just wanted the machines to watch and serve them.

The Smart Man did not love the smart machines, any more than the rest of us did. The Smart Man understood the machines too well to love them. But he was kind to me, and he adored the other two people. He worshipped the Rich Man. And he desired the Beauty, because every man always did.

So the Smart Man worked long and hard for the Capo and the Beauty, and he kept a kind of peace between them. He promised to solve their problems for them. They believed that his cleverness could do that. He gave them hope.

As the Smart Man worked to bring the light back, ships washed up on our island. Everyone aboard was dead of the plagues, of course. Then our Capo, who called himself Michele, or Michel, or Michael, or even Mikhail, he would have those ships burned to ashes. I was afraid of the funeral pyres, so the Capo gave me an old story book that he had, and told me to read all the stories and learn to laugh at destruction. I obeyed the Capo, because everyone did. And he was right: the book full of old stories, it gave me courage, it made me smile and think. I always kept that book. Here it is, right by the lamp.

There were no more ships. The satellites overhead were made of glass, so they failed. One by one all the screens failed, no more light inside, just the cold glass. The world was dark again.

The people of the island had never known such darkness. They never knew the shapes of the stars over their own heads, and cared nothing for the phases of the Moon. Also, the busy work inside the billion screens, soon they had to perform that work with their hands. Small children were less helpless than them.

The Capo never showed his despair to the people. Instead, he gathered them together. He led them up a hill in the sea-breeze, where there had been a windmill, in the old days.

Then the men of the island built a new windmill, using their own hands. There was no smart glass in this windmill, no wires, no fuel, not a bit of that. The windmill was made of big solid stones that men stacked with their hands, and big gears cut from timber. The big grindstone in the mill was cut and carried by two hundred men.

We built that machine to last, and it still stands here, working, here on the island. Sometimes storms break the windmill sails, but the women just stitch the sails back on. That mill grinds our grain into flour and we make spaghetti with it. So that mill is a good and proper machine. If the windmill ever falls down, we’ll build another one, just the same. Everyone understands how the mill works and why we will always need it.

The people do gossip sometimes, because people are always like that. Some people say that we are ignorant in this dark age, with no screens, no money, and no flags. But I knew the smartest man in the world of the screens. He spoke to me with his own lips. I swear this is true: we know a thousand things that man never knew. He never butchered a hog. He didn’t grow rice. He never touched dirt. His machines knew more than he did.

After our windmill was working, then the Smart Man, and the Beauty, and the Capo, decided to build a bigger, more glorious tower. This would be their great lighthouse. The windmill would feed the people of our island, but the lighthouse would signal from our island to the world.

The new machines of smart light would dwell inside this lighthouse tower. Then the smart machines would cast their cold and clear light, for vast distances, across the dark seas.

Ships would see this tower light, some dark night, and the lighthouse would see the ships, too. Then the lighthouse would guide the ships here to the island, so the people inside the ships would not wreck and drown. The lighthouse would save the world and everyone would be happy.

The Smart Man set to work to build this hopeful tower. This Lighthouse was just as smart as the old machines were, but it burned no fuel and had no glass to break. Inside the cold walls of the lighthouse, the new machines grew like sponges. They reasoned, and they knew, and they waited. Some day the world’s darkness would flee before the Lighthouse, for the smart machines had become connected light, and would not die.

The Smart Man knew how to do all this, and he worked with skill and purpose. To prove that his Lighthouse would succeed, he build a small model of it, first. That model for the great lighthouse was this little task lamp, here at my bedside. He built the lamp to help himself work late at night, fighting the darkness.

The Smart Man is long dead by now, but the task lamp is as good as new. Just look at all the supple little hinges in it. It never speaks or shows a picture — it has no glass screen — but it is as full of smart light as an egg is of meat. The smart light still abides within it, as its essence, as its seed. This lamp is more like a serpent of wisdom than a merely mechanical thing.

The task lamp never speaks to us human beings, but it sees the world, and it learns and has memory. Whenever I turn a page of my old book of stories here, it knows what I am doing, and the lamp responds — see? — how sly and subtle it is! These cold growths all over it, that look like the scales of fish — I can break a scale with my finger, look — see? — but just put the lamp into seawater. This lamp knows what it is about. It will grow back good as new, better than new. It grows about as fast as corpse’s fingernails, but the lamp can grow forever. The cold, clear, smart light abiding within it is no light that humans ever made.

The Smart Man created this task-lamp, after making many errors first, but at last, it worked just fine. Then he set to work to erect his great lighthouse. But the old smart machines were dead, their glass was dark and broken. Their wires had no power. To raise a great tower to unite the world again, that labor of the people took us many years.

The years passed us by, and the people had new problems.

Our people had to feed themselves, and clothe themselves, and house themselves, without any help from smart machines — just their hands, their strong backs, their own shoulders. They people had no work-horses then. They had no goats, sheep or oxen. The glass screens had made people so stupid that they had forgotten all about the animals.

No man knew how to nail a shoe on a horse, or curry a horse’s hide. We didn’t have capstans, or pulleys, or cranes, and jacks, or cranks and lathes. Our women had no looms, or spindles, or even proper cradles. Not one milking stool, not a butter churn did our women have — the women were that deprived.

Everyone was stupid because of the smart screens and the lights. A grown man couldn’t even skin a rabbit.

So the lighthouse tower was a waste of our effort, and the people grew angry about it. No one wanted or needed a lighthouse full of machines made of cold light. The people needed shoes and shirts, the sensible things, the real things. No one had seen any ship out at sea in years. All we saw out to sea were vast herds of whales and porpoises, which had never been so happy.

But the three of them, the Rich Man, the Beauty and the Smart Man, they drove the people to their will. And the people labored under their command, for years. At last they finished the lighthouse, despite all their grumbles.

One spring night, a great beam of cold light flickered out of the tower. Light touched the world.

The Beauty was so happy about that that she gave herself to the Smart Man. The Rich Man didn’t much like that. But he had been expecting that part of the story; for he had grown old and bitter, you see.

The Beauty was much older as well, but still pretty in her joyful hope, because she had always hated a world so dark that it ignored her. The Smart Man was the most unhappy of all three of them, because he had no more great works to invent. Also, to possess the Beauty was not the great pleasure he had expected.

Being clever, the Smart Man knew that Capo, who had been cuckolded, was plotting to kill him. Likely the jealous Capo would kill the Beauty, too. Or perhaps the Capo would simply kill himself, because that was the most efficient business method. You could see from the lines in their faces that they were smartly plotting and scheming about all that. It was terrible.

The cold machines inside the great tower, glaring more brightly over the world night by night, they knew that their human builders all wanted to kill each other. Of course they knew that. The cold machines knew more about human passion than the humans did. But the machines were entirely used to human passion; the humans always been that way; there was no helping it. The smart machines had never been smart enough to solve that problem.

Also, as the years had passed, I had become a man. I knew I was the heir of all this trouble. I was with the people. I could read books if I had to do it, but I also knew that the voice of the people had all the common sense.

The old people’s old world was forever beyond repair, it was broken just like glass. I would inherit the world if I bided my time.

One day, the Lighthouse attracted some people. They came here in airplanes. These flying people had no thinking machines made of pure light, such as we did. Instead, they had devoted themselves to the work of their flying machines. Their airplanes were large and gray and rather shabby, like big moths drawn by our lighthouse.

This world has other islands like our own. No plague can ever kill every human being. The great plagues are merely germs, they are not glass screens. Mere germs can never reach everyone.

Our great searchlight attracted the flying people, and they flew here to visit us. They didn’t speak our language, but they brought us some nice gifts. There was much rejoicing about our mutual discovery. Then they distilled all our best wine into more fuel for their gray moth airplanes. They all flew back to their distant island, or wherever else they went.

Then the plagues struck us; first the plague in the guts, and then the coughing plague in the lungs. The Smart Man died quickly from the gut disease, while the Beauty and the Rich Man died coughing and spitting blood at each other, raging in their fevers.

Most people died on our island, but not ninety-nine people from a hundred, like in the plague’s first days. The plague germs had grown milder with the years, for plagues are like that; the sickness only killed about six people out of ten. Almost all the old people died. Far too many people on this island were old. They were no use any more. Us old people are weak. We don’t like to admit that we stand in the way.

So those plagues were our handsome gifts from those brave flying people, and we were all pretty mad about that. The disaster was all the fault of the Lighthouse, so we took the Smart Man and the Rich Man and the Beauty, and all the rest of our dead there, and we built a great pyre of logs and straw-bales. Then we burned the Lighthouse right to the ground.

Our island’s windmill is still beloved of the people, but nobody ever goes to the black crematorium where that Lighthouse once stood. The people gossip about many things, but they speak in whispers about that matter.

So then, finally, I became the Capo. I have managed this island for a rather long time, and I admit this: maybe I made some mistakes. I could have been smarter or richer, or, maybe, better-looking with nicer clothes. But I always listened to the people here. I respected their wants and needs, and also, our people are honorable. We have our own rules and customs, because, every year, we do the simple things that make sense. Also, our wives and mothers are decent women who bear and raise children, which is how this world gets peopled, and that is the one great work that simply must be done. We work hard with our own hands here, and we get along, and our people will dwell on this old island for a long, long time.

There is also the matter of this Task Lamp. I suppose I deserved this lamp, because a ruler always has plenty of tasks to do. But my tasks are done: my old heart is as weak as my eyes. My worries belong to my heir.

So you might preserve this lamp carefully, because some day, it might be useful somehow. Or you can throw the lamp right into the flames. Posterity has its own problems. They are never anxious to solve ours.

I thought a lot about this lamp and what it means, hoping that I myself might decide what to do with it. I did my thinking here in my bed, a lonely widower, late at night, when this lamp was my only company. I wanted to be smarter than this lamp, you see, but then I got old. That happens to people.

Then there is the other matter of this book on my bedside table. I always used this lamp to read this book. Lamps and books go together, that is their nature. This book was printed on paper, back in the days of the screens, and that’s why the book fell apart. But I myself solved that problem — I figured it out, and I worked with my hands. I took a sharp feather from a goose, and black ink from a squid, and parchment from the hides of sheep. Night by night, under the light of this lamp, I copied every word in that book.

With my hands, I wrote down each word of every story. Then I stitched the stout parchment together, and this leather book is just as good as new. The book was written seven hundred years ago, and this new copy I made will last another five hundred years, easily.

This book that I made is also your heirloom, and much older than this lamp. Have your clever wife read the words aloud to you, if you don’t want to read a lot of words. The stories are short, and good, too. Told by women, most of them.

The people in this old book, they live just like we live. The people of the screens were different from us and them. They lived in fear and guilt, as smart, hard, brittle people, spread too thin around the world. But the people of the old leather pages, they were soft and thoughtful, and patient like us, and full of faith. Darkness never scared them.

When this book begins, they are dying of plague. But that’s not how their story ends. Pestilence is how their book begins.

Every story in this book is a story that people told with their own lips. That’s why the stories are so good. These stories are easy to remember, and fun to tell to people. Also, the stories don’t overstay their welcome, with too many long words or useless ideas.

This story I have told to you, the sad tale of the Rich One and the Smart One and the Beauty, it will never last like these older stories. I had to tell it to you with my lips, because I saw it happen, and you are my heir, so you deserve to know about it. But in a hundred years, no one will remember my experience. This book has a hundred elegant stories which deserved to last for ages.

A full hundred wonderful stories, just like the title says. That is plenty enough for you, and all your children, too.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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