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Beacon 23: Part Five: Visitor

Hugh Howey

  Beacon 23

  Part 5: Visitor

  by Hugh Howey

  • 1 •

  I hated Sundays as a kid. From the moment I woke up, I could feel Monday looming, could feel another school week all piled up and ready to smother me. How was I supposed to enjoy a day of freedom while drowning in dread like that? It was impossible. A pit would form in my chest and gut—this indescribable emptiness that I knew should be filled with fun, but instead left me casting about for something to do.

  Knowing I should be having fun was a huge part of the problem. Knowing that this was a rare day off, a welcome reprieve, and here I was miserable and fighting against it. Maybe this was why Fridays at school were better than Sundays not in school. I was happier doing what I hated, knowing a Saturday was coming, than I was on a perfectly free Sunday with a Monday right around the corner.

  I call this the Relativistic Weekend Effect. We live in the present, but our happiness relies heavily on the future. Our mood is as much expectation as experience. Just like in the army, where life in the trenches worked the same way. It was the quiet that jangled the nerves. It was the lead-up before the push more than the push itself. To this day, I grow more faint at the scent of gun oil than I do at the sight of blood.

  Maybe this is why it feels like a waking nightmare, living the galactic dream. I’ve got it all. I’ve got my own place[1], a steady girlfriend[2], a loving pet[3], a decent-paying job[4], a reliable car[5], peace and privacy[6], and the best view of the galactic core that doesn’t require a lead vest[7].

  Yup, I’m truly living the dream.

  So why do I feel like someone is about to pinch me?


  Merchants and pirates pass through my sector now and then and leave behind trade goods and news of the war. Everything’s changing. The items I now barter for betray the fact that I’m in a relationship with the girl next door. I score flowers, a wedge of cheese, and two small blocks of chocolate from a gentleman I’ll call a “merchant” if he’ll promise not to laugh. I also learn from him of the first battle in sector eight, a small skirmish a couple light years along this arm of the Milky Way. I can imagine how it went down, having been in more than a few dogfights myself. A Ryph scout cruiser meets an exploratory force that has broken off from the main fleet. Shots are fired. One of the small navy ships goes down. Just another casualty of a war that’s taken billions on either side.

  But then some cleric in the navy’s offices back at Sol logs the coordinates and notifies the kid’s parents of the last known location of their son’s or daughter’s atoms. And that cleric or that parent or some intrepid reporter notices that technically, the ship was just over some arbitrary line and that technically, the war has now moved into sector eight, and that technically, this means the galaxy proper is now well and truly fucked.

  Talking heads blather across the holosphere. Young men and women gather outside recruiting centers, chests thrust out, to sign their noble death certificates. Thirty-two settled and semi-settled worlds across sector eight tremble. Sectors two and three start voting out doves and voting in hawks. Everyone on Earth wonders when sector one will get their turn. All the other sectors wonder the same goddamn thing.

  Meanwhile, the Ryph advance. Meanwhile, war gets closer. There’s no stopping it.

  These are my pleasant and cheery thoughts as I drive chocolate and flowers over to the neighboring beacon for a date. It’s Sunday out on the edge of sector eight. A day of rest. But I don’t know how anyone can.

  • 2 •

  It’s been so long since I’ve dated that I can’t remember exactly how. But Claire is a patient teacher. She’s already reminded me how to cry in the company of another, and that’s a big thing to learn. As a boy growing up in Tennessee, you learned never to cry where anyone else could see. Crying was a sign of weakness. When we were kids, tears made the other boys around us brave.

  In the army, it was different. You still went off and found a place to cry alone, but you weren’t scared of your brothers and sisters in arms. In the army, tears made everyone else afraid. You didn’t want to spread the weakness. Tears are contagious things.

  I saw my father cry once and only once. It wasn’t when I left for war, and it wasn’t when Mom died. It wasn’t when my brother got out of rehab and we both saw that look in his eyes and knew he’d never drink again. It wasn’t when our sister married an officer from Cyphus and we knew we’d be lucky to see her every other holiday. Those were all times when I felt like I might explode, keeping my grief or relief all locked up. Those were times that sent me off to my room, alone, to weep into my palms.

  But not my dad. No, the only day I saw him bawl was the day he pushed in the clutch on the old tractor, and the brake lines were dry, and the tractor lurched backward down the hill before he could get it in gear again, and there was just a muffled yip from our dog, who always followed too close to that tractor, and then she was gone.

  I never asked Dad why it was that time. This was after Mom was gone, and Shelly was in Cyphus, and Tyrese was clean, and I’d already enlisted and finished boot camp. This was after all of that. But there he was, clutching his dog, who was already old and had lived the kind of long and leisurely life that any dog in the galaxy would dream of, whose coat had grown white and whose eyes had gone rheumy, and who hadn’t suffered a bit—had just gone out doing the happy thing he loved best: following my dad around the property.

  I watched my father cry for half an hour. This was two days before I deployed. I came to his side, and I stood there, feeling more shocked and confused than sad. I mean, I loved the dog, but I loved my dad more, and I didn’t know what the hell to do to comfort him. The navy had just taught me how to pull a Star Swift out of a flat spin in atmo and get her back into orbit, but no one had taught me how to put my arm around my bawling father. No one.

  I retreated to the porch and watched from there. After a while, I felt angry. He never cried for me like that, not once. Not for Mom. Not for Shelly. Not for Tyrese.

  I think I’ve held on to that anger for too long. Never understood what my father was crying about. Not until Claire told me it was okay to let go, and when I did, I found myself crying for everything. And everyone. And even myself a little.

  I wish I’d known what my dad was going through that day. I hated him for crying about the wrong things. But I get it now that he was crying for everything. He was crying for me. Crying because I was going off to war. Because the chances were better than even that he’d never see me again.

  I guess those dry brake lines broke more than his pup’s back that day. Whatever was still holding my father together snapped as well. I’ve felt that. It’s something deep in the chest that goes. A rupture between the part of us that pulses and the part of us that breathes. To hold that together, you need an embrace from someone who cares. My father needed that embrace. He needed it that day, rather than the perfunctory and chickenshit one I gave him on my day of deployment. The day his pup died was the true day I went off to war. It was the day my father really needed me. And I sat on the porch and was angry at the world.

  This is the story of my life, I suppose: always in the right place at the right time, and then I don’t do anything. I stand there. Or I rock back and forth in my grandfather’s chair. Or I go find a place along the trenches where it’s nice and quiet, and I fill that place with hot tears.

  So this is the thing I learned from Claire: Crying isn’t simply about opening the floodgates to some private trauma and letting it out—crying is just as much about letting those around you know you’re hurting. Our tears are trying to serve a purpose, but we rarely let them. I don’t know how we got started with subverting that purpose—maybe it st
arts with bullies in middle school, or parents telling their kids not to cry ’cause it embarrasses them in public—I just know that it takes a bit of courage to unlearn that shame, and to be there for others when they try to unlearn that shame, and that it all gets easier after you feel how healthy it is.

  Beacon 1529 fills my lifeboat’s canopy while I muse on these things. I swing to the side and dock up to the magnetic collar that leads to the airlock. It’s a ten out of ten on the pilot-o-meter. When I pop the hatch, Cricket goes bounding inside, looking for Claire, who shouts down from the life support module to come on up. NASA did not build these ladders with boyfriends holding flowers and chocolate and cheese in mind. I climb with my elbows and even employ my chin once or twice. Above me, Cricket’s tail happily thwump-thwumps against the pumps and gensets and machinery that fill the cramped module.

  “Honey, I’m home!” I call.

  This is something I’ve heard people say in holocoms. Claire laughs every time. Almost like she can imagine the two of us sharing a home together. A normal life. Planetside. As soon as I get my head above the grating, Cricket turns and licks my face. If my warthen can read minds like I think she can, she has to know how much I hate this. And yet she does it anyway. Maybe she hates me. Maybe that’s why she does it.

  “No,” I tell her, warding her off with lilies, appledots, butterflaps, and three other alien varietals not listed in the archives. Cricket turns in excited circles while I hand the flowers to Claire. One of the appledots is broken and leans over like it’s given up on life.

  “For me?” Claire asks. She wipes the sweat from her brow and takes the flowers, sniffs them, tries to straighten the stricken appledot.

  “Yeah, and I don’t think any are toxic,” I say.

  She leans in to kiss me. Her lips taste of salt and grease. “They’re beautiful. And your beacon is officially under the worst quarantine in the history of quarantines. Why don’t you take these back to the lifeboat? The last thing I need is mites getting loose in here. Or roaches.”

  “The trader said they were clean,” I protest.

  Claire shoots me a look. I show her the chocolate and the cheese. The look persists. Like I said, I’m not very good at this whole dating thing.

  “Should I put Cricket out the airlock as well?” I ask. “She might have fleas.”

  Cricket growls at me. Claire scratches the alien behind the ears and gives me that look I used to see on my CO when he gave orders that he knew contradicted both reason and his last set of orders. “Whatever damage sweet Cricket has done has been done,” she says.

  Cricket turns and cocks her head at this, like she can’t imagine ever doing an ounce of damage. I leave them both and put the flowers and the rest of the contraband back in the lifeboat. When I return, Claire is wiping her hands on a rag and putting her tools away. I give her another kiss before heading up to the galley to put dinner together.

  Our days are a lot like this, all the little boring bits in the holocoms between the laugh tracks. There’s a lot of anticipation that something is going to happen, something really funny or tragic, but it rarely ever does. It rarely ever does, but you can still feel it coming.

  • 3 •

  “On or off?” Claire asks.

  It’s after dinner, and Claire and I are up by the gravity wave broadcaster, which is the business end of the nav beacon. I sit still and concentrate before I answer. How am I feeling? Stressed out? Depressed? Mellow? Content? I want to get it right. I’m trying to prove a point here. I’ve been trying to prove it for over a week.

  I rest my head against the dome of the GWB, which has always relaxed me in the past. I’m supposed to guess if Claire has the power to the dome on or off (and yeah, we only do this when there’s no traffic passing through). She keeps the results tallied, won’t tell me how I’ve fared thus far, doesn’t want me to have any feedback. Claire contends that I’m imagining the effects of the GWB on my brain, says she doesn’t feel anything when she sits in the same spot. But I know I do.

  “The power is . . . on,” I say, giving her my answer. “I think. I’m pretty sure.”

  “How sure?” She makes a note on her tablet.

  “It’s . . . there are confounding variables.”


  “You,” I tell her. And it’s true. Just being around her, I can feel my pulse race less, my breathing grow deeper and more relaxed, my limbs feel free of the trembles and shakes.

  Claire leans over and kisses my cheek. “I think that’s enough for today,” she says.

  “So how’d I do?”

  She laughs at me for asking. Like I should know better. Cricket burrows her head into my hand, reminding me that I’ve stopped scratching her. I resume. “I swear I can feel the difference,” I say. “I can tell when it’s on. It feels so soothing.”

  Claire puts the tablet away. She takes a deep breath, like she’s contemplating something. Then she turns to me, her guise suddenly serious. “I believe you,” she says. “I do. I’m starting to believe you. I’m just curious if it’s really the GWB or something else.”

  “Like . . . you think it’s all in my head?” I touch the rock I wear around my neck, which I thought for a while was an alien life form capable of communicating with me. I even named the guy Rocky. Ever since a cargo out of Orion bound for Vega splashed into a trillion pieces across my asteroid field, I’ve had a pretty loose grip on reality. Looser than normal, I guess I should say.

  “I don’t know.” Claire bites her lower lip. “I guess I just know the spectrum the gwib works on, and they’ve been tested like hell to make sure they don’t have any biological effects, otherwise we wouldn’t let you all come up here while they’re running and even get close to them—”

  “Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” I say.

  Claire nods. “Maybe.” Somehow she misses the very loud and obvious cast from my rod as I go fishing for a compliment, or for reassurances. Or hell—I’d be happy with a little bit of a pause before acknowledging that, indeed, there might be something wrong with my head.

  And then it hits me like a frag grenade with its fuse delay set to max. I finally get that she’s sharing with me the results of our tests, that she’s admitting I’ve been getting them mostly right.

  “So I’ve been scoring pretty good?” I ask. Otherwise, why would she be worried about me?

  Claire bites her lip.

  “How good? Have I gotten many wrong?”

  Claire glances at her tablet. She’s back to biting her lip. There’s no way she’d worry something was wrong with me unless I’m nailing it better than chance would dictate. Something statistically significant. I reach for the tablet. “Can I see? Please. C’mon, Claire.”

  And she can see that it’s important to me. Cricket licks my arm as I lean over and take the tablet from her. Claire lets it go. There’s a spreadsheet on the screen. I scroll up, seeing all the check marks from our past dinner dates, and it takes a moment to see where the Xs would even go. Because there aren’t any. I’ve been right every time.

  I feel an immense sense of relief. I might be crazy, but I wasn’t wrong. I’ve always known the GWB messes with my head, and I’ve always assumed it messes with everyone’s head, but Claire really had me going there for a while. She really had me thinking it was just the act of sitting quietly and thinking it was working that was calming me.

  “Maybe it’s something you came into contact with in the trenches. A toxin, perhaps—”

  I nod, thinking this is likely. Lord knows, I’ve sucked in enough alien atmo and bioblasts. No telling what’s been in my lungs. I never got Nile teeth syndrome or the blue cough like a lot of soldiers, but perhaps I got something the docs missed.

  “Or maybe it’s neurological,” Claire offers. She’s puzzling through this the way she tunes beacons, getting them ready for service. Looking back at the tablet in my hand—which she uses to get these nav beacons sorted—I wonder how much of my appeal to her is that I’m broken. I wond
er what she’s doing here. Why she stayed. How NASA would’ve allowed a tuner to become an operator.

  “Neurological how?” I ask.

  “Well, it’s just that . . . maybe it’s more of an experienced trauma, rather than a foreign body. You have all the signs of . . . you know—”

  “Trench rot,” I say. “Blast shock. War weariness. Soldier syndrome—”

  “Post traumatic stress disorder,” Claire says, opting for the clinical rather than the descriptive. Lots of dirty truths hide in those clean syllables.

  “What would that have to do with this?”

  Claire shrugs. “I probably know as much about how the gwibs work as the people who invented them, and nothing I know accounts for why you would feel anything from what they do.”

  “Should I be worried?” I feel like I should be worried. Claire is a whole lot smarter than me, and she looks worried. She places her hand on my arm, and I see a brave smile on her face, the one she keeps plastered over her concern for me.

  “Everything’s going to be fine,” she says. “We’ll figure this out, you and me. Everything’s going to be perfectly fine.”

  But I know she’s wrong. I heard it from the man who sold me the flowers and the chocolate and the cheese. I know something bad is coming. I know it’s near. There are rumors of two fleets amassing on either side of this galactic arm, rumors of the navy collecting all its ships, and of the Ryph stockpiling all their ships, and no one knows whether these rumors are true, but we tend to spread and believe the worst of what we hear. It’s so much easier to believe the worst.

  I don’t know what I believe. I’ve learned to doubt my mind. I need evidence. Facts. Like the sound from the proximity alarm, which begins to emit its soft blare, which in Claire’s beacon sounds similar to the old air raid sirens the army uses. We have a visitor. And it’s no great coincidence that bad things arrive while I’m thinking about them. No coincidence at all. Because I’ve been thinking about this for over a year now. I’ve known that this was coming for longer than I’ve worked here in sector eight. I’ve known it because there’s no escaping it. War is always coming—it’s only ever a matter of time. And right now, beyond our porthole, the time comes.