Major Horanblat sucked frustratedly on the simgar, as perfectly
equal sized clouds of artificial rainbow smoke bobbed around his
head, twinkling micro-particles generating a patronising simulacrum
of the real thing. It sickened him to his stomach, and the simgar
squealed as he drove it hard into the antique ashtray on the flight
console; instead of squeezing the on/off button on its stem. He
longed for a proper, lung-rasping, ring-blowing Cuban cigar, like
the ones he used to smoke, back in the good old days. Smoking
had been banned for over a decade now, yet another cosseting move
by the nanny state that evolved around the Galactic Senate.
Snuffing the simgar had given him a pathetic little thrill, but
he longed to return to battle. Little chance of that happening,
he reflected gloomily.
The last time he'd seen combat was when a minor uprising at a
prison colony had threatened to overpower the local security units,
and he'd gone in mob-handed to quell things. They'd probably wasted
a few more crims than was really necessary, but hey, they'd been
asking for it.
Now he was head of one of the five team, five ship missions, distributed
across the sector on a wild goose chase, hunting down a bunch
of rogue space rocks. Even if they did track them down, and frankly
it was gonna be more by luck than judgment, then he wasn't even
allowed to blast them to dust; not that ships were permitted to
carry that kind of fire power these days. They had to deposit
their payload, along with the lunatic buried deep within it, and
then get back to Earth. His muscles were getting flaccid, his
once thick-set, macho features were beginning to puff up, his
hair was greying and his dreams of leading a regiment of crack
troops against a worthy opponent were fading fast. Still, at least
the job paid well, although he could have done without the rather
comical orange uniforms that they'd been issued with.
Three years previously a new threat to galactic
shipping had entered the edge of the solar system. The Chaos Cluster,
as it had been named (by the first stellar cartography ship to
spot it), was both unpredictable and dangerous. Made up of almost
eighty chunks of rock, it moved at colossal speed and vanished
within hours of its appearance, only to reappear a few days later
at a completely unexpected and distant location. Everything else
encountered to date by the deep space stellar cartography ships
had been catalogued, digitally captured, or followed on radar
for a sufficient period of time to enable four-dimensional charts
to be drawn up. This new arrival, however, was a law unto itself,
not only expanding and contracting in a manner that was, so far,
incomprehensible to the astronomists, but its erratic behaviour
made it impossible to accurately predict its whereabouts at any
given time. Even if it did turn up on the screen, its activities
caused unreliable ghosting and shadows in the translators of the
on-board navigational equipment, unless you were right on top
of it; and that was somewhere you really didn¹t want to be.
In the second year, since the original sighting, two freighters
had fallen foul of the Chaos Cluster, although both had been lucky.
The first had had its engine mounting ripped off by one of the
smaller, peripheral lumps of rock. As a result it was set adrift,
but with communications still operating, and no damage to life
support. The crew had been located within a fortnight, and the
ship had been grav-towed to the nearest space dock for repairs.
For the cargo ship Galactic Freightliner IV, it had nearly been
a very different story. The captain had rushed to the bridge in
his sleep wear, when the klaxons went off throughout the vessel.
They were in deep space, light years from the nearest planet.
The autopilot had been continually scanning for comets and meteorites
(plus unanticipated solar radiation) - not that any of the former
were likely to be a problem, as they'd downloaded the updates
from the astrochecker, via the Central Deep Space Mapping Authority,
before setting off. They'd heard about the other freighter's run-in
with the Chaos Cluster, but at that stage it was presumed to have
been a one-off, as there'd been no sightings since.
To their horror, there it was on the viewscreen, and on what looked
to be an intercept course. A fevered burst of activity from the
Nav'officer gleaned more information about it in a few minutes,
than anyone else had managed since it was first identified. The
3,000 metre-long cargo ship was on a predetermined course and
at maximum velocity, being approximately halfway through its two-month
journey. Braking wouldn't begin for another week yet and their
manoeuvrability was at its lowest point. According to the Nav'officer's
calculations, if the cluster maintained its present course, then
there was a 90% likelihood of it impacting with the Galactic Freightliner
IV in little over one hour's time, but it took them a further
30 minutes to figure out exactly where. The nearest rock was gonna
hit them around cargo bay MF205, in other words, slap bang in
the middle. The Captain knew the ship's layout backwards, made
easier by the repeating block nature of the cargo units, so his
response to the crisis was textbook; on this terrifying occasion.
He evacuated the six other crew members, via the servo-shuttles,
forward to where the life support, food storage and communication
equipment were stored; along with the ship's on-board computer
on the bridge. As the servo-shuttles shot through the pressurised
transport tunnels, the three ship's officers worked swiftly, sealing
off the airlocks behind the passing men, as they plotted their
progress. The airlocks were positioned for minor hull breaches,
fires, and the like, but his plan was to vent the atmospheric
gases and reroute all power to the bridge, in order to avoid a
potentially devastating explosion if they were hit. On arrival,
the crew threw themselves from the servo-shuttles and belted into
their gimbled, shock-resistant chairs, normally only ever occupied
for spacedock departure and docking manoeuvres. For a moment it
looked as though it might miss, but the rock curved in towards
them and struck, breaking the freighter's back as easily as a
child snapping a bread stick. The airlocks in the forward section
held firm, as the two halves divided, accompanied by a shockwave
that passed right through the severed section, metal screaming
and bending, as it absorbed the energy dissipation. They were
alive, but adrift; with the engines being in the stern section.
As well as his plan for damage limitation (although a relative
term in the circumstances) the Captain had sent an SOS call and
released a flotilla of independent distress beacons, prior to
the anticipated impact. Thanks to the careful rerouting, it transpired
that they could still communicate, although it would be a day
or so, before they got a response, unless there was another ship
in the sector.
The inertia that had been propelling them, prior to impact, continued
to carry them in the same overall trajectory, a spinning life
raft, twirling lazily, like a cheerleader's baton. The engineers
had shut off power to the engines, before hurling themselves into
the servo-shuttles, but they would take several days to cool down.
That residual energy, and a sudden reduction in the ship's overall
mass, sent the aft section into a brief elliptical orbit around
them. As it made its fifth pass, the crew watched it tensely,
as it almost swung back and smashed into the bridge with a lash
of its tail, before gradually twirling away.
They lost antigrav'and spent the next eight days dodging pieces
of debris (shaken loose by the impact) as they whirled around
the bridge and cabins, but a few bruises were a small price to
pay for their lives. On the ninth day they were intercepted by
the space-station maintenance ship Odd Job, on its way between
assignments. This was a stroke of luck for the crew, as it was
designed for tough work. As it came alongside, it put itself into
a spin to match theirs, grabbed the Galactic Freightliner IV with
an extended grappling arm, and steadily guided them into a stable
trajectory, with masterly thruster work. An umbilical was sent
across, docked with the main hatch, and the crew walked to safety.
The Odd Job had instant salvage rights to what remained of the
Galactic Freightliner IV, but the Captain wasn't about to complain;
although it would almost bankrupt the freight company.
As a result of the the Galactic Freightliner IV incident, the
Galactic Senate had elevated the Chaos Cluster to the top of their
agenda for discussions on a plan of action, but they weren't due
to convene for a pan-representative sitting for another two months.
Sadly, this was to prove too late.
The commercial passenger ship Dragonfly had been on a routine
flight between Tamarique and Earth, making good time on a route
she'd taken many times before. The sudden, shrill insistence of
the emergency alarm on the flight deck, had jolted the Captain
into action, punching the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign and
citing the anticipation of solar wind turbulence, so as not to
panic the passengers. The real reason for the alarm made the flight
crew draw on every reserve of professionalism they could muster.
Ever since the second freighter had been wrecked by it, the chance
of encountering the Chaos Cluster haunted every crew in the sector.
No longer the bizarre one-off of the original freighter collision,
but now a very real possibility, and for the Dragonfly the waking
nightmare was upon them. The previous meetings had been with its
perimeter, but this time it had appeared right in front of them.
Immediate course alteration with a powerful starboard thruster
burst had once pushed them clear of a single asteroid, but this
collection seemed almost sentient, actually expanding as it approached,
like a billowing dragnet of terror. The only path open to them
was to compare trajectory patterns from the sparse computer record
downloads, and attempt to plot a course through it. A window opened
up in front of them and the engines were pushed to the limit.
The Captain flew as never before, more on instinct than plan,
reacting to proximity reports from his officers, gravitational
effect patterns from the computer and good old-fashioned skill.
He nearly made it too. Every twist and turn, retro fire and reaction,
being simultaneously recorded and transmitted. Out of nowhere,
one of the largest rocks in the Cluster came up immediately below
them and spread the Dragonfly like butter, across two miles of
its unforgiving surface. Mercifully it was too quick to register,
but all 400 passengers and crew were lost.
Professor Sam Blixo's wife had been on board the Dragonfly. Selena
Blixo was an outstanding physicist, and since she and Sam had
met and married (30 years previously, whilst at university), they'd
been virtually inseparable, running research departments, teaching
students and developing their own theories on advanced electromagnetic
transmission in association with astrophysics. Selena had been
visiting Tamarique to oversee the installation of a new intergalactic
communications booster, which would message transmission quality
in the sector by up to a third. It had been one of only four occasions,
in their long and happy marriage, in which they'd been apart for
more than a few days. Sam could have gone with her, but a new
term was about to start and he had felt an over-riding responsibility
things in her absence. Right now, more than anything else, he
wished that he had gone with her. The pain of his loss was more
than he could bear, seriously considering taking his own life,
but knowing that she would have wanted him to go on without her.
As his life unravelled, his beard grew long and unruly, while
the pounds fell off him, as he spent his days slumped in front
of the viewer, watching old vididiscs of their life together.
Isolated from the outside world, he was inconsolable, barely aware
of the growing stack of sympathetic vidimessages and holocards.
Their words of comfort were as warm drops of rain, splashing ineffectually
against the granite of his despair. A memorial service was held
in remembrance of those who'd lost their lives aboard the Dragonfly,
and it was there, in the midst of his anguish, that he had found
something to give direction to his life once more.
Immediately following the Dragonfly catastrophe, the Galactic
Senate had called an emergency summit meeting. As a result, all
non-urgent space flights were stopped and the military were called
in. The sheer unpredictability of the Chaos Cluster meant that
it was far too dangerous for all but the smallest, fastest and
most manoeuvrable of spacecraft to fly; and even then it wasn't
advised. At the memorial service a Senator announced that the
combined resources of sector-wide military expertise was to be
deployed, in order to learn more about the Cluster, and she called
for volunteers from the world of science to come to their assistance.
At last Sam had something constructive that he could focus on,
and approached the woman at the end of the service.
"Senator, my name is Professor Blixo, I would like to offer
She hid her shock at his dishevelled, gaunt appearance. "Ah,
Professor Blixo. My condolences on your sad loss. Selena was an
extraordinary and wonderful woman. I was secretly hoping that
my announcement might encourage your contribution."
"Why me in particular?"
"Come with me, we need to talk."
With that, the Senator led Sam to a waiting executive Electraglide
limousine and whisked him away to the local headquarters.
seems to be just one way of dealing with this," she said,
indicating a seat as they entered her grand office, and poured
Sam a coffee, before straightening her immaculate jet-black, outfit,
and sitting down behind her desk.
"I assume that it has something to with my field of expertise?"
"Indeed it does," she confided. "It is out of the
question to use firepower on the Chaos Cluster. To start with
we could never have a sufficient number of battle cruisers in
the right place, at the right time. Since the long wind-down after
the last war, we just don't have the resources, so even if every
fleet from every planet were deployed, they would be spread so
thinly that it would be little more than a fruitless suicide mission."
"I see," Sam considered this for a moment. "What
about a widely distributed net of space mines?" he conjectured.
"Yes, we'd considered that, but the same problem exists.
In fact, we're rather uncomfortable about hitting it with any
form of armament."
"Have you read any of the stellar cartography reports or
the Galactic Freightliner IV and Dragonfly transmissions?"
"No. I..." he hesitated and looked down at the floor
for a moment, "...I haven't paid much attention to things,
since Selena..." he trailed off.
"I understand Sam," she said, gently, "I really
do. Here, if you feel up to it I have all the information on this
datadisc. I've got some urgent calls to make, if you want to..."
she pointed to the monitor on her desk.
"Give it here," he said, unceremoniously, and took her
seat, as she quietly left him alone in the office for a while.
she got back, she found Sam stood at the window, looking out over
the city, deep in thought. She wondered if the cold reality of
the information had been too brutal for him, but risked the question
"Did you take a look at the disc?"
"Yes." came the curt response.
"So you can see the problem with blowing up random lumps
of rock, even if we could?"
"You would be likely to alter the Cluster's overall trajectory,
no matter how random it appears to be, and it could make it a
danger to orbital shuttles, space-stations, satellites, any or
all of the hardware we¹ve got out there."
"So what do you propose?"
"We need to have an incredibly effective communications net
between the deployed military ships, in order that we can more
accurately chart the Cluster's behaviour, and give civilian crews
an accurate picture of the possible zones of maximum risk. You
and your wife developed one of the most sophisticated systems
in the sector, and you would have all of our resources at your
disposal. A fitting tribute to her work," she added, as a
"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to honour her memory,
Senator, but it could take decades before we have a sufficient
understanding of its behaviour to be able to pass on reliable
"There is no other way, Professor." She felt him slipping
away from the project.
He turned back from the window and looked straight into her eyes,
"I think that there is!"
"Really?" She was genuinely surprised, though guarded
any expression of hope, not wanting to give away the true desperation
of their situation.
"What you need is a lighthouse," he said, emphatically.
"A what?" The Senator sounded slightly deflated.
"Many, many hundreds of years ago, when mankind sailed the
oceans, they sometimes lost their vessels on rocks in terrible
"I'll take your word for it, ancient history isn¹t a
strong point of mine."
"As scientists, Selena and I have always been interested..."
he stopped himself, sighed deeply, and continued, "were always
interested, in how we arrived at our current level of knowledge
and present situation. Sometimes a great deal can be gleaned from
the work of our ancestors, even if they were on the wrong track.
Mistakes can be avoided, time saved, and valuable lessons learnt.
In developing communications systems we became interested in the
history of space travel, and in our research of the archives,
purely out of curiosity, we looked at how mankind originally set
sail into the unknown on his own planet. That was when we found
about about lighthouses. I hadn't thought about it since then,
but now I think it is relevant to our current crisis. They would
employ a building with a tremendously bright light, which blinked
at intervals during the night, such that sailors could see it
from many miles away and alter their course before colliding with
the treacherous rocks, upon which the lighthouse stood."
"Could you build such a thing?"
"Yes, I believe that I could adapt the principle of it. With
the right power source I could put together a very powerful long
range transmitter which, by placing receivers across the sector,
would allow you to monitor the course of the Chaos Cluster. Not
only that," he was warming to the subject. "If it transpired
that it is indeed on an utterly random trajectory, then by utilising
a coincident pulse transmitter on a fixed, unique frequency, then
an early warning system could be created."
"You're saying that we might be able to track it constantly,
as well as giving any ship in the vicinity sufficient warning
to enable it to alter course effectively, even the huge freighters?"
"Yes, I think it could be done. The transmitter range should
be enough for most ships, but further improvements would be necessary
to ensure the safety of ships like the Galactic Freightliner IV."
"This is all very well in theory, but how would you build
your lighthouse on a randomly moving target, and if you could,
then how would you upgrade it?"
"I will figure that out, Senator," he said, confidently.
"We would owe you a great debt if this theory were to bear
fruit, Professor, but I think that we should still proceed with
the development of a sector-wide hyper-communications net."
"I agree. It would be foolish not to, plus if the lighthouse
can be built, then it will be necessary to pick up its transmissions.
I have just one condition, if I am to be involved on this project."
"Name it," she answered, cautiously.
"If I can build a lighthouse on the Chaos Cluster, then it
will need maintenance and upgrading, as you pointed out yourself."
"Yes, of course, it would be essential."
"Very well. Then I volunteer to be its keeper."
"What?" She was stunned.
thought about it once I'd seen the Dragonfly's data transmissions.
I want to be close to Selena,"he said, calmly.
"Don¹t be a fool," she fiddled nervously with the
G.S.-17 micro-transmitter on her lapel, wondering if the rest
of the Senate were getting all this. "That would be nothing
more or less than a one-way ticket," she steadied herself.
"I completely understand how you must feel right now, but..."
"So you said," Sam snapped.
"...that will change. Given time, you will heal and find
comfort in the memories."
"You can afford to wait a few more years before dealing with
the Cluster then, can you?" he said, sarcastically.
"What do you mean?" she felt that she might be starting
to lose control of the situation.
"If you don't grant me that condition, then I won't work
on the project."
"Now Sam," she placed, what was meant to be, a reassuring
hand on the man's shoulder. He promptly shrugged it off. "Don't
you think you're being a little childish? Think of all the lives
you could save."
"No need to worry on that score."
do you mean?" she was beginning to tire of his increasingly
obstreperous attitude, but had to humour him.
"If there's no solution, there will be no flights. No flights,
"There will be, Sam. Surely you can see that some young buck
of a pilot is going to chance his arm. What about the Galactic
economy, if all of the trade routes are shut down for an unspecified
"Oh, now we're getting to the truth," Sam smiled, almost
triumphantly, for the first time in ages.
"No, no, you're just twisting my words," she back-peddled.
"Loss of life is our primary concern, but everyone in the
sector will be effected, to some extent, by the detrimental consequences
of a trade cessation."
"You¹ve had my offer," said Sam, ignoring the political
blackmail. "Take it or leave it. Anyway, there's only a one
in five chance that I'd end up on the Cluster."
"One in five? How come?" she sounded temporarily relieved.
"If the basic calculations I just made are correct, on the
data that you've provided, then I think that you would have to
target five separate zones in the sector, in order to ensure success."
"How can you know that? That's a remarkable piece of evaluation
on your part," she practically purred, as tactics of flattery
came into play, hoping to draw further insights from this cracked
"It is conjectural, I must admit. I would need to run the
data through a specifically tailored programme, in order to generate
a holoprojection which could be refined and studied further,"
he barely paused for breath, "but that's what I think you¹re
looking at. There is very little in the way of micro-debris associated
with the Cluster, but if its behaviour were as random as you believe
it to be, then surely there would be continuous internal collisions.
This cannot be the case, as the component rock count has been
identical on all three occasions, so unless there is an error
in your data, then the Chaos Cluster rocks must be in some form
of stable orbit around one another."
"Good grief!" she was taken aback. "You figured
all that out from the disc I gave you?" This time her tone
was one of genuine astonishment.
"Do you have any other information that I should see?"
"No, that was all that the entire Galactic Senate has gathered,
but we've studied each piece in detail..."
"Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. So how
about it, Senator? Odds of one in five. Your word that you will
permit me to occupy the transmitter if I am on the right ship?
What do you say?"
"I need to confer with the other members of the Senate, before
I can give you an answer," she said, diplomatically, buying
"They already know." Sam played his trump card, touching
his lapel and pointing at hers. He'd noticed the tiny transmitter
on the journey there.
The Senator blushed visibly. Her bluff had been called.
"Very well," she opened a vidlink to the other Senate
members and sixty different backgrounds flashed up onto the bank
of screens behind her, a few had empty chairs, but the majority
displayed a plethora of alien faces. "Professor Blixo has
a proposition, ladies and gentlemen. In the circumstances it would
appear judicious to accept his terms. May I have a vote, please?"
Each screen edge flickered for an instant, as her announcement
was confirmed and transmitted. Some would take longer to receive
and reply, than others, but already a few of the screen margins
glowed red, or green, in response.
The Senator turned back to Sam.
"Red indicates a vote against, and green for," she explained.
"It will take up to two days for the transmission to be received
and returned by all members. There must be an overall majority
of ten for it to be carried in your favour. I will arrange for
some transport to take you home and will contact you as soon as
I have a definitive result."
"Very well. Can you give me a copy of the disc, such that
I can continue with my analysis?" he asked.
"By all means," the Senator duplicated it in seconds
and handed it back to him. "Please think carefully about
this. It would be a great shame if the project were to be a success,
but the hero of its conception was incarcerated beyond the reach
of our gratitude."
"I do not seek adulation, fame or notoriety, Senator."
He said, sternly. "Merely solace."
It had been six months since the Galactic Senate had voted to
accept Professor Sam Blixo's proposal. Only a few had voted against,
and that was more on theological or cultural grounds, than political.
In that time he had worked ceaselessly on both the accelerated
communications net, and on the Lighthouse project. The net had
been activated after two months and updated a further twelve times
in the intervening period. As a result, three safe sightings had
been made of the Cluster. This was both a help and a hindrance
to Sam. Although it helped him to plot his own trajectory extrapolations
more accurately, it also meant that other fine minds were working
along similar lines. If his overall plan was to work, then he
needed to act quickly. The one in five chance, to which he had
alluded in his first meeting with the Senator, referred to five
individual missions, each with a prototype pulse transmitter assembly,
targeting five anticipated sighting zones. What he had to do was
to calculate the rendezvous most likely to bare fruit, keep it
a secret, and to ensure that he was on board that mission.
His resolve had, if anything, strengthened and he didn't want
to miss his chance. With the help of some of the finest astrophysicists
and astroengineers in the sector, he had built his early warning
pulse transmitters and developed a method of deploying them. He
hadn't wanted any fuss and attention, but the Galactic Senate
had insisted that simulcasts from the five zones would relay the
ceremonial decoration of the crews, prior to takeoff. He suspected
that it was more for the Senate's political benefit, than that
of the brave multispecies males and females about to risk their
lives, but he went along with it anyway, in order to expedite
warning klaxons were deafening, in the confines of the heavily
armoured stealthcruiser, but it looked like it was Major Horanblat
and his crew who'd found the needle in the haystack; as the Professor
had termed it. They all knew about the deal he'd made with the
Senate and it looked like he was going to get his wish.
"Okay boys and girls, it's rodeo time," the Major announced,
revelling in the pleasant surge of adrenaline and expectation.
"Head for the primary target," he called across to Navigation,
and then accessed the private channel to the bomb-bay. "Hey
there, Prof', can you hear me?"
"Yes Major," came the immediate response. "My equipment
registered a slight change in our trajectory. Do I take it that
we have been successful in locating the Chaos Cluster?"
betcha! Listen, I'm a gambling man. One in five odds wasn't it?"
Horanblat, had leant in close to the com-mike, so none of the
nearby officers could hear.
"Yes," came the guarded reply.
"You load them dice by any chance?" the Major chuckled,
"Could be," said Sam, assuming that it didn't matter
if anyone knew at this point, as they were committed.
"Hah, you old dog. Well, if we can get alongside the primary
target I'll dump you right on top of it. Guess you really want
this, huh?" There was a rare hint of admiration in the Major's
voice, as he straightened up.
"Indeed I do Major. I wouldn't expect such a died-in-the-wool
military man as yourself to understand my reasons, but this is
what I've been working towards."
"Listen fella, you'll be doing the entire sector a huge service.
I got no problem with that." The Major briefly considered
voicing his own theory on the Professor's real motive for volunteering,
as well as selecting this precise rock out of a possible eight
candidates, but he decided to let it lie. "I'll keep you
up to date, but it'll all happen pretty damn fast and we'll lose
"Okay. Buckle up then. We'll do our best to aim straight,
but this is hardly out of the training manual."
They flew fast and low over the target rock, looking for a flat
area, just beyond the point that the Dragonfly had met her end.
After about ten minutes, they spotted it.
"Okay Prof', hang on tight, we're getting close. Steady as
she goes...transfer release to my control." Major Horanblat
hovered his right index finger over the black button, knowing
that he held the man's fate in his timing. The target point registered
on the viewscreen, concentric targeting rings flickering rapidly,
as the sweat beaded on his brow. "Steady now...God be with
you Sam!" he shouted as his finger plunged onto the button.
"Pull us up fast," he barked at the helmsman. The stealthcruiser
accelerated away from the rock and he caught a glimpse of the
round, black ball flying towards it, via the ventral viewscreen.
Klaxons sounded again as the helmsman banked tightly to the right,
avoiding a whirling group of smaller rocks, and then dived again
to duck under another pair, before swinging left to resume their
flight path out of the Cluster. Below their hull, the bomb bay
doors slowly closed, nipping off the remnants of the fine electrical
umbilical that had enabled communication with the Professor.
a huge, round lump of clay, being thrown by a potter at the wheel,
the Limpet's peripheral impact barrier material struck the surface
of the rock. Deep within the impact barrier, the internal orientation
gyros spun the inner astrosphere until it locked with the outer
cushioning orbs, in a tight magnetic grip. The splat-bond would
keep it in place for a while, but there was still the danger of
another Cluster component skimming the surface and dislodging
the Limpet. Sam Blixo disengaged the restraints, harness and gimbal
settings on the large padded chair, and smiled to himself. He
walked over to the far wall of the capsule and placed both hands
against the metal interior. "I'm here, sweetheart,"
he whispered to the shiny surface, before setting about some urgent
tasks. With a subtle hiss, oil-damped consoles
swung out from their shockproof housings in the wall, in response
to his touch, and one button activated their circuitry. Apart
from that initial trigger, all other controls were zero-wear fingertip-heat
The operator's equipment had back-up after back-up, and it would
last at least 100 years, whilst the pulse transmitter array itself
was designed to go on indefinitely, being powered by banks of
pioneering infinitybats. The infinitybats would be charged by
the powergens which would employ direct solar energy, but could
also be driven by solar winds and localised gravitational effects;
which would create microtides in a superconducting liquid alloy.
It was the result of the biggest cooperative pooling of alien
technology in the history of the sector, possibly even of the
Sam fired the twelve self-tapping shot bolts, which burrowed into
the rock beneath him, noise and vibration dampened by the surrounding
impact barrier material. Over the course of time, the outer casing
of the sphere would mould itself to the rock, further shot bolts
would be deployed, and the impact barrier material would be fashioned
into perimeter protection, as the installation grew in size; but
for now, it would be more than adequate.
next few days Sam occupied himself with the task of firing up
the prototype transmitter. This would be picked up by the sector-wide
communications net, due to come on line around the time that Horanblat's
stealthcruiser left Earth's orbit. That would relay the initial
success to the astrophysicists. They'd have a celebratory party,
no doubt. Perhaps he would treat himself to a glass of something
from the stores, when that stage was reached, and then maybe indulge
in a little exploration of the rest of his new home (the sphere
was some 300 metres in diameter, and would change shape many times
in the coming years). All the time, he talked out loud, addressing
Selena, gaining the comfort that he'd craved.
three months the base perimeter had extended 150 metres out from
the sphere's initial impact site, he had constructed a second
generation pulse transmitter and had received his first congratulatory
message from the Galactic Senate, along with tributes and awards
from around the sector. He'd found the sudden contact with his
old life rather jarring, but had sent back positive responses,
nevertheless. Space traffic was almost back to normal and the
24-hour datastream from the base's Cluster component orbit trackers-
coupled with the communication net's pulse analyses - had led
to a much greater understanding of the Cluster's overall trajectory
From Sam's point of view, he was delighted to make his own discovery
that the individual rocks that made up the Chaos Cluster, were
indeed in fixed orbits around one another (just as he had predicted,
although they were incredibly complex and bizarre patterns) and
he made a rare, unsolicited transmission to the Senate to inform
With everything running smoothly, he took a break to indulge himself.
At what was destined to become one of the far corners of the base
perimeter, he built an old-fashinoned style lighthouse, complete
with tungsten halogen lamps and rotating reflector. It was his
own tribute to the brave men who had manned them, and the inspiration
from which he had created the Lighthouse project (or CBB1, Cluster
Base Blixo 1, as the Senate preferred to call it).
had passed since impact and not a single ship had been involved
in an incident with the Chaos Cluster. This had been almost entirely
due to the pulse transmitter array, but by now, there was another
reason. The Cluster was paying less frequent visits to the sector.
It was on the move. The Galactic Senate realised this around the
same time that Sam had reached the same conclusion, and sent him
a message. They praised him for his efforts and then told him
some news. Major Horanblat was prepared to fly a rescue mission,
as the Cluster made its final visit in Senate sector space. The
idea was to fire an escape pod, aimed to land within the base
perimeter - carefully avoiding the transmitter - then pick him
up on a low fly-past with a plasma-generated space scoop. All
perfectly sound in principle, hideously expensive to organise,
but utterly justifiable in the face of Sam's contribution to space
safety. He knew something like this would be coming, and had already
made up his mind. He'd got used to life as the Lighthouse Keeper,
and continued to draw immense comfort from talking to his memories
of Selena. Time had healed, but the base was his scar tissue and
he a part of it. To the Senate's dismay, he declined their offer.
years that followed he saw more amazing and wonderful sights than
any being before him. The Lighthouse continued to alert distant
lifeforms of the Cluster's proximity. Some attempted to communicate,
others delivered gifts and parcels, which spent months in his
newly constructed quarantine bays, before he could safely investigate
He saw distant supernovae, fabulous constellations and lifeforms
beyond imagination. Every once in a while he would send a transmission
back to Earth, like the time he passed an enormous planet-sized
bubble of liquid, surrounded by a strange, crackling red electric
halo. He was too far out to hope for a reply, or to really think
that they would receive his updates,
but the sense of scientist meets explorer urged him to do it.
In fact, the new generation of wide spectrum electromagnetic telescopes
(based on his own research) did occasionally pick up fragments
of decaying signals, which kept the scientists amused for years.
he drew his last breaths, Sam watched an approaching alien vessel
on the vidscreen. Like a cross between a shimmering manta ray
and an exotic butterfly, she flew gracefully alongside. Ice crystals
forming on the tips of her wings, cascading like gentle fireworks,
in honour of his passing.
of years after Professor Sam Blixo's death, in a distant galaxy
(where his precious rules of physics were, all but, turned inside
out) an energy-based lifeform came to investigate the strange
electromagnetic emissions from the swirling group of ancient rocks.
Its set of spirituospatial particle antennae picked up something
else on the surface of one of the Cluster rocks; at the base of
an oddly shaped, flashing tower.
Two spectral images sat hand in hand, watching the wonders of
the universe unfolding before them.