She stared down from her tower at the center of the world, giving herself a clear view all the way to the rim, where the sky met the encircling water. Whenever the sky would darken, she would press a button on the panel on the topmost floor, replacing the ball of light fallen below the water outside with the beacon at the center of the tower, illuminating the universe from a great glass egg. With her maintained light she would watch the tiny vessels which floated across the water off the rim of the world. The reason had left her memory long ago, but she knew that were she ever to neglect turning on the interior light that a terrible doom would engulf the world. Yet to light the egg was insufficient; she then needed to direct its flashes in an unchanging pattern, sending a signal without words. This had been so since the start of her memories, yet on the longest of nights thoughts came to her unbidden, that maybe things had once been different, and maybe there had once been another being such as her…
As the Sun approached the western sky and the waves lazily went ashore, a man rowed a little boat within sight of a circular islet, with his daughter of four years seated in the stern.
"Where are we going, Daddy?" she asked.
Her father replied, "This is where I go to work. Today I'm allowed to show you."
The girl's eyes lit up, as the shoreline approached and the islet's features were magnified. Upon it stood a lighthouse, which sprouted up from the ground like a cone, and was so tall that she had to crane her neck to see the top.
"What's this place?" she asked.
Her father pointed his finger up at the tapered end.
"This is called a lighthouse," he said. "The light is up there at the top, and it warns ships that they're too close to the shore. Of course, I have to stay up there all night to make sure that the light doesn't go out, or else sailors might crash. But it's nothing you ought to be worried about. Come on, let me show you around the island."
Their boat docked at a miniature concrete pier, and after he tied it to the mooring post, he carefully took his daughter's hand, and lifted her onto the pavement, only to need to reach out for her again, for she took but one step on the ground and stumbled.
"Careful!" he shouted. "It takes some time to get used to dry land again after being on the water for so long. But don't worry, because I'll be here for you the whole time."
This made her smile.
The islet was home to nothing other than the lighthouse and the facilities necessary in order to maintain it. Only the dock was paved, and so they quickly stepped off the concrete and onto the foot of the grassy knoll from which the lighthouse sprang.
She exclaimed, "Wow! It's even bigger than before! I can't see the top!"
"It has to be big so that faraway ships can see its light," said her father. "But we aren't going there just yet. I want to show you around the grounds first. Follow me."
He led her around the rim of the island until they stood at the lighthouse's opposite side from the dock. Here a flat square of dirt jutted out, and just behind it stood a tool shed.
"Normally, we'd be here all by ourselves for a long time, so we would need to grow our own food," he explained. "But first, of course, we need to plant it. Stay here, please."
He walked across the empty field and into the shed, and after a few minutes came out carrying a case full of boxes of seeds in one hand, and a watering can in the other. He set them down and gave one box to her.
"Those are soybeans," he said, "and we'll be growing them so we can eat them later. We also have quinoa, potatoes, and lots of other vegetables."
The girl opened the box, and then stared at the picture in bewilderment.
"These don't look like the picture!" she said.
Her father smiled.
"Of course they don't yet," he said. "They have to grow in the ground first."
He took a handful and sowed them carefully in neat little rows along the furrow nearest to them.
"But we can't just leave them here," he said. "In order to grow, plants need plenty of water and sunlight. Do you want to water them?"
Her eyes lit up, and he gave her the watering can.
"Be careful with it! Here, let me help."
For the next hour or so, he told her about gardening, and continued to plant the seeds until the entire patch was covered in them, showing her the proper technique all the while. By then the Sun was low on the horizon, and clouds began to accumulate nearby.
The child looked at the field and was dismayed.
"It looks the same as before!"
"Of course it does," said her father. "It takes several weeks for plants to grow. But we should probably head inside now. I don't like those clouds."
The edge of the garden farthest from the shore opened up on a stone pathway which led up the hill and to the back door of the lighthouse, where the two sought shelter. Inside the lighthouse looked much the same as any non-light house, except that the room was a circle, and in the center was a spiral staircase which extended far above the ceiling and past where they could see. The ground floor was host to a table and some chairs, but along a stretch of the wall stood all the appliances found in any kitchen, but the cabinet next to the refrigerator stretched from floor to ceiling, and resembled a bank vault more than any pantry. The lighthouse keeper made his way there and opened the door, revealing enough cans of food to make a grocery store envious.
"Since we can't eat the food we planted yet, we have a backup vault of canned goods," he said, turning back toward his daughter and pulling out the nearest can. "What do you want for dinner, stew or beans?"
After they ate, he led her to the staircase, showing her the purpose of each storey.
"Here is where we store our supplies… and this is the bathroom… and here is the bedroom… Aha!"
The staircase opened onto a gallery with panes of glass instead of walls, and in the center of the room stood an enormous egg entirely of glass disks, which pointed outward in concentric rings at the windows in all directions, and was so immense that the girl could have comfortably fitted inside if she could have found a way to open it. Next to this there stood a console with many keys, below a computer monitor which displayed a pattern of bars of varying thicknesses for purposes unknown to her.
Gently, her father pulled her away from the computer, and directed her to the glass egg.
He stretched out his arms, and then said, "This is the light! Once it gets dark, the computer will send its signals to the lamp, instructing it to flash in a pattern unique to our lighthouse, so that sailors know precisely where they are. But I have to stay here, and make sure that everything is running smoothly, and that the light has not burnt out. Also, if it is ever foggy, I need to sound the horn. Pay attention, but don't touch anything; it's dangerous."
His daughter watched as he pressed a key on the console and the glass egg split open, revealing a fluorescent light tube coiled in upon itself repeatedly. He stepped back to the keyboard and confirmed that the light still shone, then closed and locked the hatch, and resumed the normal settings.
Even as he did these, the weather deteriorated. It began as a few raindrops falling from the clouds, but turned into a torrent pouring down within minutes. And as the storm increased in power, the sky darkened and the waves were whipped into frenzy by the ever-increasing winds. The master of the light turned around, and beheld the flooding of the pier, tossing their ride up and down on the arbitrary whims of nature.
He shouted, "Oh no, the boat! Stay here! I'll be back soon, but make sure that light shines!"
And with that, he ran downstairs and out the door into the storm, locking the door behind him, and approached the dock where the boat was tossed about furiously. From the safety of the lighthouse interior, his daughter could not see what went on below, but the noises grew louder and louder, becoming crashing waves and thunder strikes. She huddled close to the lamp, hoping it would end.
He did not come back. When the storm passed and the sky cleared the following morning, she went down to the island to look for him, but found only the pieces of the rowboat.
She waited for him to come back. The days stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, before she lost track of time altogether. But he did not come back.
She had to maintain the light. That was what her father told her to do.
She had to maintain the light. She knew that somebody wanted her to.
She had to maintain the light. It was required.
She had to maintain the light. Or else…
She slept in the day, and woke in the night. While awake, she stood at the top of the tower and lit the egg, keeping the rhythm that was on the screen perpetually. Only when the Sun rose and she felt hunger would she descend the stairs and approach the garden, where she would gather her crops, and replace them with spare seeds. There were food cans within the lighthouse, but they were too dangerous to open. The fingers on her left hand bore witness to that fact.
Sometimes she woke up and felt ill, or feverish, and could barely leave her bed. Yet she always made her way to the observation deck, for she could not abandon her nightly watch no matter what, even as she felt weaker. It was her sole purpose in life. Nothing else existed. And so would it be, for ever.
But now, on a day the same as any other, one of the floating platforms on the water below steered a course directly at her tower, unlike all its priors, which had curved away. Long ago, on a night when the water was empty, leaving her time to inspect the console screen, her hand had accidentally touched upon a key which sounded such a tremendous noise that she had lifted her hand in an instant. She had no choice but to use it now, or else catastrophe would strike.
Her ears were ringing, yet the signal was ignored, as the mover on the water glided inexorably to the edge of the land. Before she could plan her next move, a different sound emerged from her console, strange and yet so vaguely familiar:
"—Hello? Is anybody there? Do you read me?"
Terror descended upon her. No sound had ever come from it unless she had pressed the button, which was always louder and without modulation. It continued no matter what keys she pressed. For as far back as she could remember, the light went on when she bade it, and the horn sounded when she bade it. Nothing ever happened without her control. And yet the thought came unbidden to her that these new sounds must have had some meaning to her, long in the past, though what that may have been, she could no longer recall.
She stood, unsure of what to do, when she heard a sound like that which her feet made when walking. It was on the staircase. And it was getting louder. She wished to run, but there was nowhere she could go. She could not leave the room except by means of the staircase which was now occupied.
The novel sound commenced again:
"What happened to the food? It's as if someone ransacked the place."
And then a second voice distinct from the first:
"But there isn't any sign of anyone here. I have a bad feeling about this…"
And the first:
"—I know someone's here. They sounded the foghorn!"
And then, before she could do a thing, the source of the sounds rounded the staircase and stepped on the landing. It had a face like hers, and arms and legs like hers as well, but the face contained an expression of shock and horror.
"—How long have you been here?! Are you okay?! Where are your parents?!"
They told her she was lucky to be alive.
After all, she had been isolated from every other living soul for who knows how long, and had been discovered malnourished and covered in dirt. The island's only food source had deteriorated so badly that her rescuers were amazed that she could harvest any at all. But what was even more shocking was the rest of her condition. When the suppliers found her and brought her back, they discovered that she knew nothing of the world outside the island, and could barely even understand their words to her. It was only now, after a year of heavy supervision, that she had regained her faculty of speech to some extent.
Yet she had been terrified. She had had no idea where she was or who these people were, and was bombarded by experiences she could not recall ever having had before. They had kept her mostly in a white room with a bed, and others would regularly appear and try to speak with her. All she wanted was to go back to the light.
She had to maintain it. She had to.