Beneath a Sponsored Sky
Previously published in Fictionvale volume 2 in 2014. I am pleased with how this one turned out. It's one of those stories that improved thanks to the editing, and I remember this experience was one of the first times I learned how to work with an editor rather than think of the editor as an adversary trying to corrupt my work.
The next generation cares little about what we lose as society progresses.
Beneath a Sponsored Sky
by James L. Steele
The old man sat on a rocking chair on his back porch, staring at the grass. He would have liked to look at the stars, but there were none to see. He refused to look at the animated images and logos in the sky. Decades ago, he convinced himself that turning his head to the ground was an act of rebellion, like the Mute button on the TV once was.
So the old man watched the plain, motionless grass while above him, behind the sparse clouds, animated cartoon characters danced, company logos flashed and rotated and flipped, dramatic text scrolled and zoomed in and out. Five hundred individual regions in this hemisphere, each displaying its own animation against a black background that simulated the night sky of old. Some sequences were as long as five minutes, others as short as a couple seconds, looping again and again and again from sundown to sunup.
As a boy, the old man clearly remembered sitting on the porch with his father under a cloudless night sky and the land would be pale white under the moonlight. The Earth was no longer illuminated by the moon at night. Now the trees and grass glowed faintly red from the light of a corporate logo above. The old man sighed, as he did every night that he pondered it.
Movement out the corner of his eye caught his attention. His new neighbor, Joseph, had slid open the patio door. He carried a telescope gingerly in one arm, a tripod and a small box in the other. He picked a relatively flat spot in his backyard, set the tripod down, and attached the telescope to it. He then walked back inside, setting the box on the patio table on his way.
The old man now had something new to stare at for a while. He gazed at that telescope, wondering what his neighbor expected to see through it.
An hour later—when the telescope would have cooled to the ambient temperature—Joseph’s son ran out the sliding door into the backyard. Joseph then stepped out, gently closing the door behind him. The six-year-old pranced through the yard and stopped next to the telescope. He looked up and scanned the sky as his father hunched over the telescope and calibrated the lenses and the focus. The old man in the rocking chair might have been decrepit in the body, but he still had excellent hearing, and he heard everything they said.
The boy was telling his father how much he wanted to take a look at the Pepsi logo. One of his friends at school told him they added something new inside the “e.” His father agreed, and then the boy turned around three times and pointed up.
“I wanna see that one!”
Joseph glanced where his son was pointing. He rolled his eyes, mussed up his son’s hair, and returned to the telescope. “The McDonald’s logo again? That’s all you ever want to look at.”
“They started a new comic series! It’s hidden somewhere in the arch! I wanna find it!”
“We will, son. We will. Let me get it ready first.”
The boy turned in ten complete circles, looking around the sky.
For the first time in years, the old man looked up too. There were no stars. There was no moon. Instead the sky was aglow with corporate logos, silent commercials, flashing text, and animated cartoons.
Some of the advertisements were understated. Their animations were simple or slow. Others were bombastic and riotous. All of them had something in common: looking at them through a telescope would reveal something else. Text, pictures, or tiny animations hidden to the naked eye. People regularly checked up on their favorite regions for new content.
Some advertisements relied on this. Many companies put a giant green dot in the sky, or a slanted bar, or some other geometric shape, creating a great mystery. Only when someone looked at the logo through a telescope and saw what was hidden inside did it become clear whose commercial it was. Advertisement by discovery. It worked great on kids.
The old man became nauseated from all the movement and turned his head to the boy again. Joseph had finished setting up and now he challenged Robbie to find something new. Robbie immediately seized the telescope and swung it one hundred eighty degrees and peered through the eyepiece at the giant double arch in the sky.
Minutes passed. The father waited, gazing up at the same giant, glowing, yellow advertisement, as if trying to see for himself what Robbie was looking for.
“I found it!” Robbie bounced up and down, keeping his eye still on the viewer. “Dad, it’s not a comic! It’s a cartoon! The panels are moving!”
The kid spent another ten minutes watching the motion comic. Then he rotated the telescope around and aimed it at the Pepsi logo. Robbie searched for a while in silence, completely absorbed in the hunt. Then he laughed. “I see it! I see it!”
“What do you see?” said Joseph.
“The planets! They’re at a party! Jupiter and Saturn all brought generic soda, and the others hate it! So Earth pulls out a case of Pepsi and now the party really gets started!”
The boy danced in place, looking over at his father, obviously proud of his discovery. Joseph laughed.
The old man grumbled. Pepsi added a micro cartoon inside their logo, only visible in the night sky with a telescope. A “stellar exclusive,” it was called—would never be on TV or the net.
Robbie let his father see the new commercial through the eyepiece, and then took the telescope back and swung it at another part of the sky.
“Oh, Dad, it’s beautiful! It’s so beautiful!”
The old man looked where he was looking. He guessed Robbie was looking at the Nike logo. It never changed. It appeared steadfast and solid, but he had heard from other young people that it was made up of an ever-changing mosaic of smaller images and animations. There was always something new to discover inside it. The kid swung the telescope around and around, face glowing with delight and awe.
“All right, that’s enough of that for now,” his father said, hand on his son’s shoulder. “Your grandpa sent you a special present.”
“What did he send?”
Joseph walked his son to the box resting on the patio table. He gave it to Robbie. Joseph had already cut the tape, as Robbie flipped open the box and peered inside.
“What is it?” Robbie asked.
“It’s a new lens, son.”
Joseph walked him back across the yard.
“What’s it do? What’s it for?”
“I’ll show you. Your grandpa wanted you to see it. Be careful with it. It’s very expensive.”
The old man leaned forward, hoping that would help him hear better. Joseph turned the end of the telescope down. Robbie gently picked up the lens and screwed it to the end. Joseph then looked through the eyepiece, adjusted the focus, and let Robbie have it again. Robbie aimed it in the region of the sky sponsored by Dow. The old man waited eagerly.
“It’s broken,” Robbie said.
Joseph was reading a small piece of paper that was in the box by the faint light of the advertisements—“Adlight,” it was called. He took the telescope from Robbie and used the altitude and azimuth numbers to aim somewhere specific.
“Try it now.”
Robbie peered through the eyepiece. The kid stared for a minute.
“That’s your grandpa’s gift to you, Robbie. Saturn.”
“Is that all?” said the boy.
The old man’s gaze fell to his lap and he shook his head.
“It’s the real Saturn, Robbie. Remember what you learned in school about the stars and the planets? That’s what one of them really looks like. When you’re done, your grandpa gave me coordinates for Jupiter and Mars too.”
“But it’s not doing anything.”
“Of course it is. It’s the real thing.”
“It’s boring. I wanna go back to the cartoons!”
Joseph laughed. “All right, all right, but promise you’ll take a look at Jupiter and Mars before your grandpa comes to visit.”
Joseph unscrewed the lens and set it in the box next to the tripod. Robbie swung the thing around the sky again. The glow returned to his face.
The old man braced his hands against the armrests and pushed himself out of his chair. He hesitated only briefly, worried he might come across as a nosy neighbor, but he ignored the self-consciousness. This was important. He shuffled down the stairs, across the yard, and over to Joseph and Robbie. The father was the first to notice him.
“Evening, Mr. Charlie.”
Robbie looked up from the eyepiece. “Hi, Mr. Charlie!” Then he returned to it again.
“Hello, Robbie. Hi, Joseph. Pardon the intrusion, but I overheard you got a new lens for your telescope.”
“We did. A present from Robbie’s grandfather.”
“Is it a planetary lens, or can you see the stars with it too?”
“It’s only planets. The universal star lens was out of my father’s price range. Or...he could have saved up for either, but he thought Robbie would be more interested in the planets.”
“Ah,” the old man said, turning to look at his neighbor’s son. “Robbie.”
The boy turned away from the telescope and stared up at him. “Yeah?”
“Will you do an old man a favor? Will you and your father let me have a look through your new lens?”
“Sure, Mr. Charlie,” said Joseph. “We don’t mind, do we, Robbie?”
Robbie shook his head politely. It was obvious he did mind, but he showed great restraint for the sake of etiquette. His father had raised him well.
Joseph screwed the lens back on and adjusted the telescope to the coordinates on the paper. The old man bent down slightly and looked through the eyepiece. It had been decades since he’d seen through the shell to the planets beyond. Then he himself took the piece of paper and adjusted the telescope to see Jupiter. He invited Robbie to see it, too, but the boy was more interested in the yellow arch high above. The old man smiled and urged Robbie to look anyway, just to humor an old man. Robbie reluctantly walked up to the viewer and looked through it.
“Just look at that,” said the old man. “Beautiful. Imagine that thing is the size of a thousand Earths zipping through empty space at almost five hundred miles an hour. The bands of clouds all move in different directions. The red spot is big enough to fit three Earths inside. Isn’t it incredible?”
“I guess so.”
The old man smiled at Robbie, and then at Joseph. He braced his hands on his knees and lowered himself down to Robbie’s eye level, one inch at a time, trying not to groan in front of the boy. “What have you learned in school about the planets and the stars? What have they taught you about the shell?”
Robbie’s gaze wandered to his feet. The old man gave the boy time to think.
“They said, um, that the Earth was losing all its air, so they built a big eggshell around it to keep it all inside.”
The old man smiled, shook the boy’s shoulder. “That’s right! I was alive for that. Does that surprise you? I was alive before the shell was built. I lived to see it built.”
Robbie didn’t respond. He was too young to realize how long ago that was and how old Mr. Charlie would have to be.
“It was over eighty years ago,” said the old man, looking at both Robbie and his father. “Earth’s magnetic field became too weak to protect our atmosphere from the solar wind, and it was slowly blowing the atmosphere into space, just like it did to Mars. They said we had less than a hundred years before Earth would be barren.”
Robbie’s attention wandered around the sky, from one logo to another. The old man rose, adjusted the telescope to the coordinates of Mars.
“Scientists had a solution. Build a shell around the planet that would allow light to pass through, but keep the atmosphere where it belonged. There was only one problem. Nobody could agree on who should pay for it.”
He bent down and peered through the eyepiece. The sight of the former god of war inspired him. He spoke with one eye closed, the other eye gazing on the red planet.
“The plan was too expensive, so the governments of the world agreed to convert the shell from a simple sphere to a massive LED grid. A sight like this takes me back many years. Before they sold ad space in the sky to any company who paid for its construction. Before you had to be superrich to see past the ads. Before the shell. Before the future.”
The old man realized he was hogging the telescope and looked away. Robbie stared at the double arch, partially obscured by clouds now. Joseph watched Robbie. The old man backed away.
“Thanks, Robbie. Thanks, Joseph. I haven’t seen the real planets in many years. It was good to look again.”
“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Charlie,” said Joseph.
Robbie ran to the telescope, removed the lens, set it in the box, and pointed the objective lens toward a new region. The old man turned, followed where the telescope was pointed, and guessed Robbie was looking at the Reebok logo. Young people were always talking about the serial cartoon hidden inside it. The kids kept up with it like adults used to keep up with soap operas. He backed away a little more, watching Robbie.
“Joseph,” he said.
The father looked at him, took the hint, and walked to meet him, just barely out of earshot of Robbie. They stood close and kept their voices low.
“Joseph, make sure he learns.”
“Oh, he’s learning. They teach it in school.”
He shook his head. “They don’t really teach it. I remember when I had a telescope, and seeing the stars and the planets filled me with wonder. There was a time when it was called looking up at the heavens.”
The old man turned from Joseph and watched Robbie, who was entranced by the animations and motion comics and stellar exclusives buried in the logos. The boy grinned, mumbling about a new cartoon he had just discovered inside one of them.
“Nobody says that anymore,” the old man continued. “Nobody remembers. Now to see something real you have to pay a fortune for star lenses, planet lenses, nebula lenses, even a special lens just to see the moon. Robbie isn’t filled with wonder looking at a real planet. An animation by a graphic artist holds his interest more. It’s been happening since that shell went up. We’re not exploring. We don’t go into space or the deep ocean. Nobody has invented anything new in decades. Nobody wants to. Our wonder is fed to us and used to sell shoes.”
“Oh, please don’t tell me you buy that research about how the shell is a conspiracy to crush the human spirit,” said Joseph.
“It’s not a conspiracy, but it happened, just like we were afraid of. All those old news broadcasts of riots in the streets and people waving signs that said Save Our Stars and The Sky Is Not for Sale. I was one of them. I’d still be doing it today if I could.”
Joseph smiled. “Charles, it’s because of the ads we’re still alive. All those protests, what was everyone upset about? Would they rather have died? Those companies paid for the shell to be built, and they pay for its upkeep. They deserve those ads in the sky. If they can entertain people while they’re at it, that’s a bonus.”
“We didn’t want to die, Joseph. We just didn’t want them to sell the sky.”
“The world didn’t come to an end. We weren’t enslaved or anything. Things worked out just fine.”
The old man’s heart sank into his gut. The fruit of a lifetime of protests and petitions hung right in front of him. “Please, Joseph. Teach him.”
Joseph nodded. “I will. Thanks, Charlie.”
They shook hands, and Joseph walked back to Robbie. The boy turned to his father and began telling him what he just found inside the Burger King logo.
Mr. Charles slowly walked across the yard back to his porch. The grass flickered red in the light of an animation above. His gaze wandered up, and he saw he had a computer company to thank for lighting his way.
He was glad he tried, but he didn’t hold out any hope that Joseph would teach his son anything. People like Joseph weren’t around before the shell. They had no idea what actually happened. The longer Charles was alive, the more he marveled at how much people did not care about how they got where they are. He had seen so much history, so much change, so many extraordinary things that were now accepted as the norm, and yet nobody cared. Charles was a living witness to history, and nobody was listening.
The old man shuffled up his steps, sat down in his chair, and stared at the grass, trying not to cry. As a young man protesting the shell, he had often looked up at the stars in the sky. They filled him with determination and reminded him what he was fighting for.
He raised his head and tried to rekindle that inspiration. Dancing corporate logos greeted him. Happy animations, steadfast logos, scrolling text, bouncing cartoon characters against a black background. It almost looked like the real night sky, but to Charles, it was like a television screen in place of the vastness of space. Charles imagined the stars were back where they belonged.
He imagined something real.
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