The Lighthouse Keeper
by DJ Burnham
forum: The Lighthouse Keeper
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Lighthouse Keeper


          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 to oversee
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 my services."

          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.

         "There 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?" he enquired.

          "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.

         When 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 anyway.

          "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."

          "Exactly so."

          "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 sweetener.

          "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 information."

          "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 storms."

          "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.

          "I 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."

          "What 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, no casualties."

          "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 period?"

          "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 genius.

          "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 some time.

          "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 matters.

         The 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?"

          "You 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, conspiratorially.

          "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 contact instantly."

          "I understand."

          "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.

         Like 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 touch-sensitive.

          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 universe.

          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.

          For the 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.

          Within 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 and behaviour.

          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 them.

          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).

          Two years 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.

          In the 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 the contents.

          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.

         As 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.

          Hundreds 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.



copyright 2005 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham
David Burnham is a Health Service worker living in Brighton (UK). He recently retired from the exciting sideline of concert promotion, and this has freed up some spare time to get back to the fun of writing and artwork. 

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