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Beacon 23: Part One: Little Noises (Kindle Single)

Hugh Howey

  Beacon 23

  Part One: Little Noises

  by Hugh Howey

  • 1 •

  They don’t prepare you for the little noises. They put you in a centrifuge until you pass out, ride you up and down parabolic curves until you puke your stomach lining, poke you with needles until you know what an addict feels like, and make you learn three fields of physics and get a medical degree while training for triathlons.

  But they don’t tell you what it’s like to live with the clacks and squeaks and little, distant beeps. Or how the deadness of space for light years around can be felt like a great, crushing weight. That silence seems to build and build, like the darkness I saw once in a cave in West Virginia. Darkness you can chew. Darkness you can feel for miles all around you. Darkness you’re not sure you’ll ever crawl out of.

  The silence of deep space is just like that. Which makes the little whirring gizmos in my beacon a nightmarish clatter of nerve-jangling assholes. I hate every one of them. Everything that moves in this place. Every little gear and piezo buzzer and alarm. It’s not just that they’re discordant, it’s that they’re unpredictable. And so I spend the gaps in between bracing for them, waiting for them, expecting them. As soon as you loosen up, they hit. Little pricks on my eardrums.

  They are devilish bastards, too. Like deer, they seem to know when you hunt for them. I crawl through the duct-like work spaces of my beacon with a flashlight, wire snips, duct tape, and bits of foam. I stalk the fuckers. I set traps, thinking some of the noises are scurrying away from me, that they must be little critters that came on board with a batch of poorly sterilized fruit.

  They seem to hear me coming, and the beeps and buzzes go quiet. Scarce as bucks on the first day of open season. As soon as I crawl out, there they are again, making a racket. Like that same ten-point buck, the day after season, standing in your yard, chewing your tulips with that idiot look on his face, like, “Whut?”

  Yeah, I’m coming for you motherfuckers. I’ve set traps. Microphones with recorders to nail down the locations of the beeps. Squirts of oil everywhere for the squeaks. And every kind of cockroach hotel made for the clickety-clack, moving little noises.

  NASA would be proud of my efforts and ingenuity, right? All that training. For this. But what else am I gonna do? I’m the meaty center of this rusted metal popsicle out here on the edge of space. I’m here because they ain’t made a computer yet that won’t do something stupid one time out of a hundred trillion. Seems like good odds, but when computers are doing trillions of things a day, that means a whole lot of stupid. And I’m supposed to be smart enough to sort them out.

  Most of my time not spent hunting down squeaks and creaks is spent up in the lighthouse. I know that’s not what we’re supposed to call it, but c’mon. At the long end of a tunnel that stands off the rest of the beacon, there’s a small cavity with portholes on all sides. The gravity wave broadcaster is in this puppy. It’s the business end of the beacon; everything else is just here to make sure it stays running, and that includes me.

  The long arm sets the GWB apart from the rest of the beacon, because its waves fall off with the fourth power of distance. Those waves will scramble the wires of anything within a five or six meter radius, including mine. You’re not supposed to spend too much time around the GWB according to NASA, because it does funny things to your head, which is another way of saying it gives you a nice mellow, but what do they expect us to do when they post us two years at a time out here in the middle of nowhere? I doubt I’m the only one who sits with my back to the machine, letting it soothe my head like a straight-up whiskey, while I gaze out at the dull gray stones of the asteroid field that makes an awful mess of astral navigation.

  Across from the GWB, and right above the best porthole for watching the asteroids twirl in space, there’s a faded picture that some former resident put up, which is why I suspect I’m not the only one who sits here. In the picture, a man in slickers is standing outside an actual, Earth-based lighthouse. A wave taller than the lighthouse looms behind him, must be twenty meters high. The wave is slamming into this tapered pillar of stone, and you figure it’s the last shot of the lighthouse or the man, that this tidal wave utterly destroys both of them in the next fraction of a second, and that the man is smoking his pipe and squinting up at what must be a drone with a camera or something, like he’s thinking, “That’s the most curious thing,” and has no idea his ticket is about to get punched from behind.

  I’ve spent more time looking at this poster than I have at the field of stars and rocks out the window. For a while, I assumed it was computer generated. You can never tell with these things. Sometimes the real looks fake, especially when you’ve looked at the fake for so long. But why would anyone hang up some CGI with such reverence? The paper is slick, not like the thermal crap we print on here. And there’s not a crease on it, which means it was brought flat packed or in a courier roll. Either way, someone took some care in getting it here. So I assume the damn thing is real. I assume this guy is real, that he’s having his last toke there at the end of his tiny world and his tiny life.

  I get a good gwib buzz staring at this photo, sometimes for hours, while I wait for a CPU to need a reboot or some ship to come out of hyper and ask for directions or give me some news of the war. This man is taking a hellstrom with a shrug and a deep drag like he’s such a boss. Such a cool customer. Meanwhile, I lose my shit over some distant, infernal clicking sound. That lighthouse keeper was my hero for the longest time. Until I learned more about that photo.

  Turns out there’s a dozen variants of similar shots. And yeah, they’re all real. I sent a research request to Houston after I couldn’t turn up anything in the archives, and I could easily imagine the conversation on their side, because I’d had my share of them when I worked ground support during training:

  Chief of Ops: “I’m sorry, 23 wants to know what?”

  “Uh, sir, he wants the history behind a particular photo. And no, it’s not a spectral chart. Or anything . . . uh, scientific. It’s . . . well, here. He sent a digital cap.”

  Long pause while the Chief stares at a handlet.

  “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”


  “And he used a research request on this? Has he got any left?”

  “First one he’s ever used, sir. Guy has a clean record. Served on the front before he got his red badge and was reassigned.”

  “Lemme guess: blow to the head?”

  “Nossir. Had his guts shot out by a Lord. Was given a quiet beacon out on the edge of Sector Eight.”

  “So he’s probably hugging that GWB like she’s some dollar hooker at the end of two tours.”

  “Probably, sir. Would be my guess.”

  “Ah, fuckit. The boy’s a war hero for crissakes. See what you can dig up.”

  Of course, that’s probably not how it went down. Some lackey most likely got the request, Binged that shit himself instead of sending it to the actual research department, and fired off eight pages of search page results and their targets back to me. Probably took him two seconds. I got the response three months later from a tug grabbing an ore load that didn’t belong to them. Said they had something for me, then went into the belt and took billions of dollars of something for themselves. It’s a crazy world out here on the edge, but enough shrugging and looking the other way, and it all seems to sort itself out.

  And as it turns out, my goddamn hero-of-the-mist lighthouse keeper was just as batshit scared as the rest of us. The whole history of that photo is well documented. The shot was from a manned helo, of all things. While the photog was gra
bbing the pic, the onboard pilot was waving his fool head off for the old lighthouse keeper to move. Move! Supposedly, just after he got his picture taken looking like a complete granite badass, the old man was shitting his drawers, dropping his stogie, and leaping through the lighthouse door just in time to save his ass from getting washed away.

  This is the thing about being a hero: It’s all about when you get your picture taken. I’ll be a hero for the rest of my life, I suppose. So long as I spend it in here with the door shut, hugging my knees, and staying away from any more cameras.

  • 2 •

  My twelfth level of hell consists of a small steel marble dropped from a height of two inches, smacking a solid block of concrete.

  That’s what it sounds like anyway: the worst of the little random clicks that only come out when I’m in my bunk, trying to sleep. This one particular noise is like a cockroach. Not that it sounds like one—that’s the other noises—just that it only scurries out to play when I shut the interior lights off, and then it disappears when I’m up and moving about. My footsteps literally scare it away. Explain that to me.

  NASA says everything in the beacon is necessary, that if I’m hearing a noise, it’s just a gizmo doing its job. The subtext here is for me to shut the hell up and just do my job. Heh. Maybe me and every other beacon operator drive Houston nuts with all our squeaks and requests. Maybe this is them getting back at us. I can see the scene down in Mission Control right now: a man in a white shirt and black tie checking my vitals on a readout, his chief inquiring if I’ve hit REM sleep yet.

  “Affirmative, sir. Sleeping like a baby.”

  “Excellent. Queue up the machine that goes bing!”

  Or the machine that sounds like a steel marble impacting concrete.

  This little jewel in my trillion-dollar watchwork beacon is giving me fits while I spin around in my bunk, looking for a pocket of cool and a period of silence. And this is when a different sound reminds me that sounds can be truly bad. Not just annoying, not just discordant symphony to my carefully orchestrated silence, but a sound like the old sounds, like plasma fire and shard grenades, like suicidal orders from men too slow, old, and wise to wear a jocksuit, noises like bombs going off and air raid sirens. Those kinds of noises.

  I know what it is the moment I hear it: complete GWB failure. The beacon going dark. I know, because I’ve run through the simulator beacon in the Mojave a bajillion times. I know, because those simulations still give me nightmares—nightmares with gray-bearded faces peering in through flimsy fake portholes while I try to figure out how they fucked me over this time.

  We used to have a joke at SIMCOM: NASA screws its ’nauts up the bum when we’re Earthside, because in space, no one can hear you squeal.

  GWB failures don’t happen. The redundancies have redundancies have redundancies. It gets all incestuous up in beacon 23’s innards, I’m telling you. In order for something to go wrong, an alarm has to be out, and a backup alarm, and two different modules built to do the same thing and checked every few seconds to make sure they’re capable of doing that thing. All the chips and software are self-healing and able to reboot on their own. You could set off an EMP in this bastard, and she’d be back up in two shakes. What you’d need is two dozen random breakdowns to strike at once, plus a host of other coincidences too mind-boggling to consider.

  Some brainiac at NASA calculated the odds once. They were very, very small. Then again, as of last week, there were 1,527 GALSAT beacons in operation across the Milky Way. So I guess the odds of something happening to someone keep going up. Especially as the beacons get older. And now I guess that someone is me.

  With this little snafu, the noises are suddenly hoping to be found. They’re calling for me, little alarms everywhere. I scramble from my bunk and climb the ladder to the command module in my boxers. The first thing I check is the power load, and all is kosher. I check the nav gyros and the starfield scanners, and the beacon’s not confused about where we are. I check the quantum tunneler, but there aren’t any messages. While I’m there, I put in a quick note to Houston, even though I’m sure they’re getting an auto relay with error codes out the wazoo.

  Outage. 0314 GST.

  They’ll get this minutes after the beacon has already warned them, but at least they’ll know I’m up. Their man on the scene. The chewy meat center of their big ol’ spacesicle.

  I grab the edge of the tunnel that leads to the lighthouse and launch myself down the chute toward the GWB in the distance. Done this so many times, I just have to brush a finger against the wall to course-correct. Red lights pulse up and down the length of the chute. There’s an alarm screaming ahead.

  Spreading my arms, fingertips squeaking across metal to slow my arrival, I grab the last rung and swing into the lighthouse.

  The GWB is cool to the touch. That means she’s not emitting her safe passage corridor to transiting ships. Nor is she being her usual, soothing self. It’s like a favorite lager has transmuted into an energy drink. “You’re starting to stress me out,” I tell her, pulling the hexagonal panels off one by one.

  I set them aside and study the smooth dome beneath. There’s a clacking somewhere, like a loose bolt tumbling into a recess. I check all the thumbscrews and don’t see any missing. More of the random noises. At the base of the GWB, I check all the wires and connections. The first things we’re trained to try are the same things I assume we would try without the trillion-dollar education. I begin unplugging everything. Count to ten. Plug it all back in. Make sure everything’s seated properly.

  In the back of my mind, while doing all this, I’m thinking of shipping schedules. There’s a clock on the wall, a brass one that has to be wound once a week or it’ll stop working. Anything on batteries up here or with a CPU is toast with the GWB on. I stopped winding the clock when the small sounds started driving me crazy, because I couldn’t take the ticking anymore. My guess is it’s been five minutes since my note to NASA, so probably right around 0320. There’s an 0330 cargo out of Orion, bound for Vega, if I remember correctly. Crew of eight, probably, on a ship that size. And then the beacon seems to spin around me and I have to brace myself as I think about the Varsk. An 0342 luxury line transit. What does she carry, five thousand passengers? Plus crew?

  I leave the panels off the GWB and thrust down the chute again. Terrible trajectory. I crash into one wall, my bare shoulder skidding, squeaking, burning, which causes me to careen and tumble and bang my head and my shin before I arrest myself. “Calm down,” I tell myself. “One thing at a time.” This is what I used to say out loud when I was a soldier, when doing things too fast could get your guts blown out.

  Pulling myself down the chute’s handholds, I pick up momentum again in the zero-gee. When I hit the edge of gravity leaking from the beacon proper, I turn and float feet-first, falling the last meter and landing in a crouch.

  The power station is two flights down. I skid down the ladder, zipping past the living quarters, palms burning. The clang of bare feet on metal grate. The main relays are nasty cusses, large T-bars with rubber grips. The best way to throw them is to do it with your legs. I squat down, get a shoulder braced under one side of the T, and strain upward, spinning the bar ninety degrees, while unseen contacts on the other end of the bar lose connection.

  I repeat this with the other relay. There’s a deep thump from the cut power, and the room goes full blackout. Emergency battery lights flicker on as their photosensors startle at the void. I count to ten again, letting the power drain from the system, all those little capacitors that can keep a memory of whatever’s ailing the processors. I want them to forget. When they power back up from a hard reset, they should restore themselves to factory conditions. Little newborn babes.

  The relays are harder to turn back on, now that the T-bars are vertical. I brace a foot on a railing and give a good tug. There’s a twinge of pain in my belly from being a hero once. I remember a SIMCOM test years ago, making sure I could turn these relays ten times,
back and forth, and thinking my guts were going to spill out of my knotted scars. I remember telling the graybeards after: “Nope, feels great. Never better.” Then pissing red for a week.

  The lights come back with the first relay. I throw the second. There are no alarms. Everything is rebooting, circuits sorting themselves according to protein-based memories, software reloading from hardwired references. I’m mostly upset at my sleep having been disturbed, and I’m not looking forward to the paperwork and error logs I’ll need to wade through.

  Up the ladder now, sweating, feet hurting, wishing I’d put on my boots, I check the time. 0326. Two minutes or so for a full reboot. Leaves two minutes of margin for the Orion cargo. Cutting it damn close. I’m thinking about the cargo bound for Vega, and the mess a wreck like that will make for the asteroid field. But it’s the Varsk that’s haunting me. There are five thousand souls watching in-flights right now with their earbuds in. Laughing at that comedy. Ordering another gin and tonic. Snoring. Fumbling for their seats in the darkness as they return from the head. A baby crying, someone sneezing and scaring the hell out of everyone else with that crowded, recycled air.

  There’s a chime from the QT. A message from Houston. I go over to the screen to read it, but before I get there, the alarms go off again. Screaming at me. The red lights, throbbing. Full GWB failure a second time. After a hard reboot.

  The impossibility of this is banging against my skull as I stare at the words on the QT, the message from NASA. I blink, but they don’t go away. I’d hoped for some solution, something like help up in this joint. Instead, all I get from them is:

  What outage?

  • 3 •

  99% of my time working with NASA is spent bitching that I know more than they do. The other 1% of my time is spent trembling, pissing myself, realizing I might actually be right. Now is one of those latter times. Houston should know everything wrong with my beacon, especially the fact that it is no longer doing the beacon-like things beacons are built for.