††by m. james moore
††From the look of the rebroadcast dishís installation plans, the job seemed it might be simple enough, though tedious, depending on what the problem was. His maintenance pod hissed out of its docking station and gathered speed toward the next teleport beacon in the series.
††Richard Halsey had once been in high demand for his engineering prowess, able to take on repair jobs for the major corporations whose own techs were left scratching their heads.
††This job, however, didnít seem so tricky, but it was a living and he hadnít had many terrific offers lately. Richard really wasnít even a big fan of the decade-old technology of teleporters, despite their rather intriguing complexity. He was all for efficient travel though space, but preferred the security of a real vessel, albeit a cramped maintenance pod.
††Richard read over the schematics and technical manuals though and through. He checked through his assortment of specialized tools again and again. He felt ready and confident, but depressed. Heíd had so much time to himself, he began to worry excessively over impending problems of all variety. He had been mulling an idea over in his mind to just end it all quickly and painlessly, and decided he would on this very assignment. He knew just how, too.
††An hour later, the pod came within regulation communication range and Richard held down the appropriate button.
††"Tech pod Epsilon Seven to Beacon 83, do you copy?" he spoke.
††"Beacon 83 responding to Tech Pod Epsilon Seven, loud and clear," came back the reply by a soft female voice.
††"Docking ETA ten minutes."
††"QSL, Epsilon Seven."
††Moments later, the podís stabilizing air jets hissed on, slowing and maneuvering the miniature craft into the next available dock. There was an awkward pause before the hatch opened, and just inside the lower levels of Beacon 83 stood Savia Loviglio, the watchman.
††"Yes, sir, you must be Mr. Halsey."
††"Call me Rick," he said, offering a hand.
††"Savia," the woman returned, shaking Rickís hand.
††"So I hear you have a rebroadcast dish malfunction."
††"Yes. Itís a bit beyond my expertise, but at least you wonít have to go outside to get it done."
††"Thank goodness for retractable hardware!"
††"Most certainly. It took the liberty of lowering it in already. Its giant cubby leaves plenty of room for comfortable workspace.
††"Well, Iíll let you get to your duty. I still have to run the diagnostics for the day. Iíll show you the way," Savia said. "Need any help with those?
††"Yes, actually. Take that," Rick said, offering a somewhat heavy toolcase, replacing his empty hand with a nearby case of similar size. "You never know what youíll need on these Beacons. They sure seem an awful fuss if you ask me."
††Rick followed Savia down a short corridor and up some stairs to a larger area with a number of seats like an airline terminal.
††"Well, as you might guess, my job here is rather drab. It is actually a great privilege to talk to someone face to face during watches. Spans of six months, you know."
††"I didnít realize it was quite that long. When I was reading the beacon feature list I did notice living quarters, but perhaps it just didnít register. It certainly is quite a distance out in the middle."
††"Not so far in terms of beacon hops by teleport, of course, but looking out the windows too long does give that impression." Savia set the toolcase down and rummaged through her wallet for a card. "Oh, wait. It should be open." She nudged the door with his foot and it creaked ajar.
††Rick pushed the opening wider the rest of the way and a light came on. There was the gigantic rebroadcast dish before him. The retractable door towered high above it, securely locked down.
††"Thatís a beauty," Rick awed.
††"That it is. Hundreds of lives depend on that very unit to safely broadcast their photo-digital bodies to the next beacon and so on, though our quad-ring grid."
††Rick thought this ironic that it would be from this very dish cubby where his own body would be most intentionally be released into space.
††"It still amazes me you can be scanned and sent places like that, even though Iíve just done it myself a few times, even just hours ago," Rick noted, still gazing at the white-plated monstrosity.
††"The quad-ring array has been operative for four years now, though the capability has been around ten. It was just a matter of getting the beacons assembled and aligned just so. Having your own solar orbit between Venus and Earth takes a bit of calculation, as you might guess."
††"Yes, Iíve read the research for the whole mess had begun even years before the technology existed."
††"And Watchman Loviglio gets Beacon 83," Savia said, leading Rick to a diagnostics panel near the base of the dishís widening stem. She set the load down again. "Iíll leave you here for your work. If you need anything, Iíll be in the large room just back out the door, over to the right."
††"Actually, though, if your diagnostics-running isnít too high priority, I could use some company. Plus I may have a lot of questions for you, working out the kinks with your particular beacon." He really did need company. He didnít know the authorization codes to raise the beacon, and himself, into space.
††"Not a problem. And conversation is always welcome. It does get rather boring around here with just the database to run through. Let me get some chairs," Savia said, trying not to sound too eager. She had indeed been long overdue for a real chat.
††Savia returned a short while later with some collapsible chairs, to find Rick had already begun working, but sitting on the floor. It seemed Rick had also discovered the panel for raising the dish, and had it open ready for codes to be entered.
††"Yes, thatís more comfortable. Oh, and I see theyíre MagZone compatible, too."
††"Just about everything is starting to be these days. With as much time to piddle around in all the jobs Iíve had, itís a wonder I didnít think it up myself."
††"Yeah. Just like gravity, in some respects. Beats magnetic boots in my book any day. And that reminds me: I was thinking to ask you if you caught much word on anything new in the technology scene. The database doesnít get updates much out here."
††"Not really, just your usual combinations of existing devices." Rick sat down in one of the chairs and began using his specialized tools in one particular panel, occasionally glancing back at the interface to raise the dish. "You know, this comes inside this, or that inside this."
††"But back on MagZone, my brother-in-law had an idea really close to the inventorís, but I guess if you have the right connections, things get done faster."
††"Like you being here, for instance."
††Rick looked at him, wondering if Savia knew what he was planning. His heart beat more rapid. "How so?"
††"Word had it in the Beacon rings that you were the most talkative tech, so I actually put you on as a preference, even though this job is below most of your league."
††"Oh really?" he sighed, relieved. His hands were shaky. "So Iím famous, then?"
††"At least among watchmen. The database message system makes for a tolerable way to discuss matters between other watchmen, but it doesnít beat the real deal. I never go through the drive-thru back on earth. Itís too impersonal."
††"So you seem fairly apt for real conversation, and you seem to enjoy it way out here. Why the watchman post? Wouldnít you rather some position that at least had some companionship?" Rick was the same way. The days without projects left him too alone for too long. "I donít see how you could stand it out here."
††"Honestly, the pay is the main draw. Just about all my career has been solo-work, from the alarm system monitoring to database maintenance to this. I was a chief qualifier for watchman."
††"You said database management. Ever work with an Elgin Tatum?" This presented a problem. If this Savia lady knew any of his relatives, sheíd would be the focus of incessant questioning and interrogation. He wanted a clean job with no big fusses.
††"Sure did. You know him? Hard to forget that name."
††"Heís my brother-in-law," Rick said, tapping away on a pad. "I donít seem much problem here."
††"I donít remember the exact work order. Try the throughput manifold?"
††"Ah, here it is. Yes, itís way out of alignment. That shouldnít take long. You can even help."
††"Might as well."
††"Looks like youíll have to. Itís prompting for an access code to let me even get inside."
††"Oh. Alright." Savia leaned over to the panel where the manifold latch was sealing it in. There was a numeric keypad nearby requiring input. She began to cover her hand to type the numbers.
††"Savia. Donít worry about covering up, I wonít remember them anyway. Youíll have to enter them a few more times anyway, and with your weird position, it doesnít look very comfortable."
††"Yes. Right." Savia uncovered the keypad and punched in a series of seven digits. She could feel Rickís light of sight right at the keypad. When she looked back Rick was reading the next step in the manuals.
††"Thanks. So how well do you know Tater? Uh, I mean, Tatum?"
††"Tater? Does he enjoy being called that?"
††"My sister started calling him that before they married. Now she and I can both call him that, too. Kind of a running joke."
††"Well, ĎTater,í as you put it, was in the next cubicle over. Weíd chat only now and then. Boy did he have some ideas then."
††"And those ideas landed him in development for MagZone."
††"Impressive! Any big ideas in particular?"
††"Well, Rusk, the so-call real inventor, came up with the initial concept, based on, of all things, ice skating."
††"I donít know much about that. Seems one of the silliest sports to me."
††"I would have to agree. But the cooling devices for the newer rinks can chill the ice within a few inches of the actual surface, instead of requiring the whole arena to be an icebox. Rusk thought a magnetic field just around the floor would allow easier movement than that feeling of trudging through mud with the magnetic boots. As long as at least one foot was within the magnetic zone, or MagZone, only shoes with a few special metal implants were needed."
††"Yes. Tater discovered a certain resonance of that field that could trap certain varieties of metal mixtures, and ignore others. If you dropped your data disc on the floor by accident, your entire term paper wasnít history."
††"He should have gotten a partnership for that."
††"Yeah, well, head of research isnít half bad."
††"Hold that," Rick said, pushing a lever over. Savia grasped it, so it wouldnít spring back into Rickís way. Rick pulled a special alignment tool from a case and positioned it onto the manifold. "Now let go." Rick took the lever back and pinned the tool into place. He sat back in his chair.
††"So, Rick, what sort of projects have you done before? Mostly simple labor things like this, or anything exciting?"
††"A couple of high-end processor circuitry redesigning, maybe a transport thruster job here or there. Mainly just gigs their own techs canít manage. Iíve had quite a lull in business lately, though. Thought about dropping in on Tater to see how heís coming along."
††"This your first beacon assignment this far out?"
††"This far out, yes. This seems it would be the most unnerving, to me. What do you do all day?"
††"Well, I get plenty of sleep, for sure. Run diagnostics on systems, report anything weird to central. Mostly easy stuff. Also some scientific things on the side like meteor shower monitoring. Then the rest of the job is basically just surfing the database until bed."
††"Ever come up with your own ideas for things? I could run them by Tater and see what he could whip up. Might even land you a job under him."
††"As a matter of fact, I have. My cousin who works for Pioneer Partnership is developing a new fuel-less propulsion."
††"Yeah, he said itís a chemical reaction that doesnít stop in any real definable time period. Just keeps at it."
††"That sounds interesting." Rick continued to spot check other areas of possible malfunction through the dishís systems, distracted somewhat by the plan lingering in his mind.
††"Yes. Theyíve mined a new sort of ore from the moonís depths, and it reacts with another they found, in an explosive way, but neither depletes. Somewhat like a magnet stays charged, but chemically."
††"I bet that itís pretty hush-hush, then."
††"Oh, it is. My cousin couldnít tell much more, but he sounded really excited. Iíve been thinking up design concepts for a ship. Thereís still a lot of testing to do, but it makes the time pass faster here, anyway."
††"Speaking of time, that manifold should be done by now. Iíll need you to re-enter the code so I can pull the lever back up and get the tool out."
††Savia leaned over and re-entered the code. Rick watched to see if heíd remembered the code properly. It was the same seven numbers, all right.
††Rick pulled the spring lever back with one hand and unhooked the tool with the other. A powering up sound came over the whole dish, and Rick closed the hatch to the manifold.
††"Looks like that did it. Thanks for your help, Rick."
††"Thatís my job, Savia. Grab that other toolcase and Iíll be out of here."
††"I certainly welcome the company. If youíre ever lacking on jobs, hop on over to Beacon 83 and Iím sure I can find something you can fix."
††"Like that manifold bit you sent for."
††"What do you mean?"
††"I can tell it was much too far out of alignment to be normal wear. Someone had to have really tugged at it. There was a scratch mark on it, anyway."
††"Guess I wasnít careful enough, then, huh?"
††"Right. But, it was a job for me, and I could certainly use the pay."
††Savia picked up the toolcase and lugged it out the door. Rick followed, noticing the panel to extend the dish still open. He eyed it as they both walked out the door, and Savia saw him.
††Rick did follow Savia to the maintenance pod, and put his own toolcase in first. He stood there for a moment, his heart beginning to patter quickly.
††"Savia," he stammered slightly. "Put that case in the empty slot there, I think I left my manuals in the cubby. Iíll be right back."
††"You wonít squeal on me, will you?"
††"About the manifold?"
††"Yeah. Iíve never really been in much trouble before."
††"Donít worry about it. Donít squeal on me, either."
††Savia heard no reply as he watched Rick walk back into the gigantic room in which the dish stood ready to be extended out into the dark void. There was some clattering, then the sound of keypad beeps. Savia dashed into the main control deck and deactivated power to the cubby. He slowly walked around to the door therein.
††Rick was sitting on the floor, back up against the wall where the dish extending panel was.
††"Listen, buddy. I did you a favor. I had an idea what you were planning."
††There was a moment of silence between the two.
††"I honestly couldnít do it, Savia. I got to the seventh number and I hesitated. Thatís when the power went out."
††"Iíve heard the feeling of decompression isnít a pleasant experience, anyway. Why would you want to do that to begin with? You sound like youíve got your whole life in order. Youíve got a great family, too."
††"Thatís why I hesitated. Being alone at home with no jobs to do got me worried over little things. Stupid stuff. And the way you reacted to the mention of Tater was just too good to pass up. Thanks for shutting the power off. It made my decision to stay all that much more affirmed."
††"Iím not sure what to say."
††Rick stood up, and Savia looked at him for a moment, in silence. "Anything I can do? I have another cousin, Winston, who..."
††"No, Iím sure thatíll be all right," Rick said, walking toward the maintenance pod. "Thanks for your conversation. It really turned the tide for me. I bet my plan would have gone much smoother if you hadnít been there. Thanks for ruining everything."
††"You are so welcome, Rick. Stop by anytime."
††"Not a word of this to Tater."
††"Right. Why was I here again?"
††"Iím not sure. Everything seems to be working just fine here. Perhaps you got the wrong beacon?"
††"Not likely. Iím sure Iíll remember Beacon 83 for a lifetime. And Watchman Loviglio."
††Rick got into the pod and in the brief awkward hesitation, he watched the woman who just saved him from a tragic mistake. The pod then hissed out of its dock and sped off toward the next dock.
††He watched the beacon become smaller in the rear exterior viewscreen, and saw the giant dish being risen into place. Two collapsible chairs twinkled in the distance, floating out into the vast vacuum of the cold, dark nothing.