I always think of rainy nights as dull and gloomy, but every part of this one shines before me, glittering and brilliant. The lights of streetlamps and rocket-motors and swishing headlights glance in angled pieces off the wet glimmer the rain paints across every surface, like fragments of a broken mirror, an infinitely fractured panoply of light.
The rain isn’t heavy, but it’s everywhere at once, in falling streaks and slashes dancing at the periphery of my sight, placing an unearned halo on every streetlamp’s head as the sodium-vapour bulbs creak grudgingly from red to orange. It turns the landing lights of jetliners above into glowing cones of white as they fall below the clouds, and the jets chase after them like backwards comets. On the water of the bay, the wind-ruffled waves reflect the floodlights of the port in a flickering, uncertain zoetrope as they rise and fall.
Every time a rocket goes up from the port, the sun-bright flames of its motors are solid fire, their sharp definition unique among the rain-shaken uncertainty of the night. The rockets rise, atop a billowing column of exhaust lit white-gold from within, and the rain brings out a nimbus, brighter than bright, that makes everything else feel insipid and ethereal. It grows as the rocket rises, casting black shadows along the coast-road bollards and just as quickly shrinking them to stubs. They live and die in those first staggering seconds before the rocket punches through the cloud-cover, and the clouds all light up with its passing; a dull, bruised glow that fades, imperceptibly but inevitably, like the deceptive solidity of the exhaust plume or the afterimage of the flames.
If I could stop time, I would watch the rocket held there, see it hanging in the sky on its pillar of frenzied, frozen flame. If I could hold that moment forever, I would see the world caught in every raindrop, each one a reflected universe in distorted detail, a trillion points of light made infinitesimally different by the raindrop’s place in space and time. Too much to see in a frozen lifetime; enough detail to be lost in its fractal beauty, forever finding new intricacies, until they flooded my consciousness and overwhelmed my memory so that even the familiar seemed new, until all I had ever seen was their twinkle.
I wonder what people back on old Earth would make of this, back before any of it was a glint in inventors’ eyes. I wonder how they felt as they looked at all the lights in creation and gave them names and legends, whether they wondered at the silver-ripple of moon on sea, what magic it was that they thought animated the simmering stars. Before rockets and arc-lights, there were glimmers in the night. Before fire and language, there was rain and reflection. And darkness is older than light itself.
I know there’s no magic there. The waves shimmer because the water’s surface moves and changes angle faster than my eyes can perceive, the reflections coming and going in strobe-flashes of perception like the sweep of a ladar beam. The streetlamps wear saintly halos because the raindrops catch their light, and reflect it back to the world in fleeting, broken scatter. Reflection and refraction, intensity and incidence, particles and waves bending and stretching, passing and bouncing at different speeds and angles before they are at last contorted by the lens of my eye, and photon acts on retina, nerve winds round nerve and neuron touches neuron.
I understand all the processes and I know all their names, and still I can feel that little touch of magic, that certain sense of wonder, that last shiver of perception as the final pieces coalesce into the rain-slick totality of understanding. Perhaps because there’s so little wonder left to find that every time I feel the magic it leaves an indelible memory, a unique touch above all the mundane, scientific certainty that other men have felt and known and written down, and stared at until they couldn’t see it any more. Clarity, wonder, lucidity, call it what you want. Magic; its rarity itself makes it precious, the slimmest supply in a world of depthless, desperate demand.
Even a faint light shines brightly, against a dark background.