Authors: Hugh Howey
Part 4: Company
by Hugh Howey
• 1 •
A billion stars in the night sky—and one of them is winking at me.
Except this flashing light is not a star. A hundred or so klicks away, it belongs to what looks like another beacon, similar to mine. It appeared a month ago when a tug came out of hyperspace and parked it there. I wasn’t sure if it was going to stay or move on—sometimes these commercial tugs use my remote bit of space as a waystation. But this morning, the beacon went operational. It seems I have a neighbor.
I pinged NASA on the QT, but all they’ll say is that the cargo wreck a few months back signaled the need for some
. It reminds me of an intersection in my hometown in Tennessee that got by just fine with stop signs until a chicken truck plowed into that young couple. Our first stoplight went up a few weeks later. That stoplight blinked yellow all night, in deference to the quiet, and the adults about town discussed with grave voices what this unwanted intrusion might mean.
A hundred klicks away, a light blinks at me. I know what it means. It’s a cold reminder of my failure. Of wreckage spilled and lives lost. If stop signs could feel shame, I imagine that one in my hometown felt something like this. Standing there, frozen, watching in horror as that young couple got killed, feathers and dead chickens everywhere, all that squawking, until weeks later someone in an orange vest pulls that sign out of the ground and strings up the newfangled.
My warthen nuzzles against me, probably because of these guilt-laden thoughts. Her name is Cricket. She’s like a cross between a Labrador and a leopard, with moods just as wild as those two extremes. There was a time when she wanted to kill me, but now she just follows me around like a puppy. I’m pretty sure warthens are empaths, that they pick up on moods and even some thoughts. When the bounty hunter who owned her died, she glommed onto me. That’s probably not a good thing, with thoughts as dark as mine.
I’d love to know more about these creatures, but there’s scant information in the archives, and I can’t exactly send off a research request to Houston. Here’s how
conversation would go:
Station Operator: “Sir, could you come here for a minute? I’ve got . . . well, let’s just say it’s an unusual re-rec from 23.”
Chief of Ops: “Lemme see. Hmm. Wants to know about warthens, eh? Hey, isn’t this the guy with the pet rock?”
SO: “Yessir. Same guy. I’ve also got this completely unrelated issue with his beacon. I mean, I’m sure these two things have absolutely nothing to do with one another, nothing whatsoever, but O2 consumption has gone up fifty percent throughout his beacon, and our boy is going through food packs twice as fast as usual.”
CO: “And now he wants a feeding and care guide for a large alien quadruped known to be in the employ of bounty hunters?”
SO: “That’s right, sir.”
CO: “Didn’t this guy have a run-in with some bounty hunters recently?”
SO: “I believe so, sir. He’s had quite a shift.”
CO: “Any chance the O2 and food pack problem started right around the same time as the bounty hunter thingy?”
SO: “You know, sir, now that you mention it, I do believe both issues started around the same time. Same day, in fact.”
CO: “I see.”
CO: “Yeah, I got nothing either. Send him whatever he wants.”
Okay, that last bit is wishful thinking. And yeah, I have conversations like these in my head a lot. But at least I don’t have them out loud anymore. Not as much, anyway.
Cricket rubs her nose against my arm, and I lift it so she can tuck her head against me. I point at the blinking light. “There,” I tell her. “Do you see it? What do you make of that?”
The two of us watch as the black of space swallows the light, spits it out, then swallows it again. I stare at the beacon, mesmerized. Cricket paws at her reflection.
So many questions. Is someone over there? Another operator? I’ve tried the HF twice, with no response. And NASA doesn’t like us to use the QT for non-emergencies, so I haven’t been pestering Houston every five seconds like I want to. Instead, I’ve been up here in the GWB, watching this solitary light flash on and off. I’ve been watching it for hours. How in the world did I pass the time before this intrusion into my routine? When the stars were all fixed, time slid by unnoticed. But now there’s a metronome out there, tick-tick-ticking the day ever so slowly away.
The thought of ticking reminds me to check the time. It’s 2228 local. There’s an army troop transport, bound for the front lines, due to pass through soon. A ship full of guns and the men and women to fire them. Rows and rows of heroes. I remember wearing my fatigues and boarding commercial ships to get back to my company from R&R, how people would thank me and pat me on the back and how good it felt to board a plane before first class. Respect. Only because they had no idea what I did out there. If they did, they would’ve been clutching their children, not sending them over to thank me.
I also remember catching the eye of the few conscientious objectors in the terminal, the people opposed to the war but afraid to speak up. There was no hate in their eyes, only pity. Sadness. Knowledge that I might be necessary, but that we shouldn’t be
that I was necessary. That’s how I saw myself and my company by the end of my second tour. I didn’t hate what we did so much as hate the need for it all. No one should applaud this. We should bow our heads not in thanks but in sadness.
Above the main observation porthole there’s a picture of an old lighthouse keeper. I give him a nod, this colleague from a different era. Then I stick my head into the chute leading to the beacon proper. The Gravity Wave Broadcaster that allows ships to pass through my asteroid field has to be kept away from all the other systems, and so a long tube of weightlessness joins the two compartments. With a single pull from the edge of the tube, I launch myself down.
Direction loses meaning for the few seconds it takes to reach gravity on the other side. I twist in the air, pull my feet under me, bend my legs, fall through into the command module, and land in a crouch—precisely the type of hotshot maneuver the labcoats warned me never to try. Which gave me the idea in the first place.
I get out of the way quickly before Cricket lands right where I was standing. She shakes her head and grunts. Still hates the vertigo, but hates being away from me even more. Hates it enough that she’s learned how to scramble up and down the ladders, and even figured out how to paw her way through the weightless chute.
I have to admit, having her around is nice. That’s probably why I hid her up in the GWB when the navy came to haul off the bounty hunter’s ship and the bounty hunter’s lifeless corpse. After they left, I found her acting loopy up there, which must mean the GWB messes with her head just like it does mine. For all I know, it’s worse for her. She can pick up on thoughts, or pheromones, or
. Maybe her brain is just more sensitive. All I know is that NASA still has me on quarantine, and here I am taking in aliens.
Like I said, I’m not very good at this job.
The debris across the asteroid belt attests to that.
Makes me wonder if NASA’s putting this new beacon in not for mechanical backup but for
redundancy. Maybe my being a great big war hero makes it difficult for them to recall me. Maybe they hope this’ll be my outpost for life, somewhere out of the way. Maybe this beacon is my pension plan. My forced retirement. Where they put heroes who have nothing left to give.
Cricket growls at me for thinking these things, and I force away the shadowy thoughts. That’s the good thing about having a warthen around. It’s why I’ve stopped thinking about jumping out the airlock with no helmet on. The last time I sat in front of the airlock door and keyed in the first three digits of the override code was the day I adopted this strange creature. The next time I even
about going down there, Cricket acted like she was going to maul me. Paced around the ladder hissing and growling and swiping at me if I approached her. Maybe this is the ideal remedy for depression: a gun that can read your mind and is forever pointed at your head. Gives you some good practice in bottling up those dark wishes.
Of course, bottling shit up doesn’t fix what’s ailing you at the core. But I’ve given up on the idea that anything can fix what ails me.
I check the scanners and readouts across the command dash, then glance at the time again. The troop transport is due. I wait, standing at attention. My old company is on this ship, some of the brothers and sisters I bled with, the few who are still alive, still serving, still have all their limbs. As soon as I see the faint ripple across the grav scanner, I salute them. The ones I let down. The ones I betrayed. And all the ones who can’t be on that ship anymore.
I told Scarlett, an old war fling of mine, the truth of my heroism right before she died. Right before she died here on this beacon. I told her that I could’ve taken out a hive of alien buggers with the press of a button. I could’ve killed a trillion of them. The blast would’ve taken out me and two companies of troopers as well, but companies have died for far less. I might’ve turned the tide in sector six. Eight planets have fallen since then, and the war is pushing through sector seven and heading this way right now. The Ryph are on the offensive.
But for one day, we saw them in retreat. The day I won my medal. The day I did nothing. All I did was wimp out when I could’ve killed all those unborn monsters. It just seemed to me, in that moment, that the hive was full of little buggers who hadn’t done anything wrong yet.
Guess I’m not very good at the big picture stuff. I can barely maintain this little tin can that’s become my world. I’m nothing more than a washed-up soldier from a small town in a backwoods corner of an old planet. And now I’m just a beacon operator.
Just not a very good one.
• 2 •
Cricket whines and turns in circles, and at first I think it’s from me being hard on myself, but I’ve never seen her act quite like this. I notice as she turns that she keeps glancing at one of the portholes. Maybe she can feel the troop transport passing by, that carrier filled to the brim with dark thoughts. I go to the porthole and peer out, craning my neck to look down the length of the asteroid field.
At first I don’t notice it. It’s not until the long flashes come that I realize the beacon isn’t so much winking anymore as palpitating. Dot-dot-dot. Dash-dash-dash. Dot-dot-dot.
“I see it,” I tell her.
I grab the HF and key the mic. “Unknown beacon operator, this is Beacon 23, is everything okay over there? Over.”
I wait. The QT is still showing the last message from NASA. I key in:
SOS w neighbr
, then hit “Send,” “Confirm,” and “Yes I’m goddamn sure.”
I watch the light.
Two or three seconds go by.
I could pace in circles and wait for NASA to tell me to check it out, but you don’t need orders when there’s a distress call in space. I served in the navy before I was forced groundside. If anyone hails for help, you help them. None of us could survive out here without a system like this in place.
So by the time my operator in Houston is seeing my message and setting down his coffee and wiping his ridiculous mustache, my feet are already hitting the living module deck one level down, my palms burning from the fast slide. The next ladder drops me into the life support module, then one more ladder takes me to the lock collars. I grab my walk suit and helmet from their hangers and dash inside the lifeboat. Before I can key the door closed, Cricket bounds down from the module above, landing on the grating like a large cat.
“Stay,” I tell her, holding out my palm. “Stay.”
Cricket tilts her head and cries. She takes a step toward the lifeboat.
“No,” I say. “You stay.”
Normally she does whatever I ask, or whatever I really concentrate on her doing. But this is one need she seems to always put before mine: the need to follow me. Before I can give her another order, or lock her out, she dashes through the open airlock door, brushing against my leg, nearly knocking me over. By the time I get the airlock secured and get up to the cockpit, she’s sitting in the navigator’s seat, peering through the canopy like she knows we’re going somewhere, like she’s done this a thousand times. Or maybe like she knows what happens next.
I wiggle into my walksuit while the autopilot steers us toward the beacon. The throttle is at max, which ain’t much in this bucket. And maybe now’s a good time to admit that I haven’t been in a very good state lately. But this is progress, I think, to realize I’m going a bit mad. The dangerous phase is when that’s happening and you can’t see it. When you
you’re sane, so the crazy is all invisible. As a reminder of my propensity to lose my grip on reality, I wear a rock on a lanyard around my neck. For a time there, I thought the rock was talking to me. I’m getting better, I swear.