[A new tidbit that might amuse from an older story to be readied for publication someday soon.]
April flowers: 2317
He usually wore an Irish tweed cap. This singular fact had become something of a trademark among his friends when sitting in on vid conferences. ‘Mad Hatter,’ was one nickname. ‘Cap’ was another. However, he referred to himself simply as ‘Keeper.’ His birth name, Dalton Jones, was little known and he wanted to keep at least that much to himself. But wearing the cap was a necessity. At six foot four inches he was three inches over regulation for the corps whose martial needs had dictated construction standards for most spacecraft, and every hatch and doorway was a potential bludgeon for his head. He would bear several of those scars to his grave. But his head was also larger than most and he had always been uncomfortable in the thermal topee favored by most outlanders—never mind the tendency toward fashion with such headgear which greatly added to the deterrent as far as he was concerned.
He ducked beneath the transom of his home and, looking out on the farm, stood still in the quiet for a brief moment. It was April. At last. Knowing where he was headed, he breathed deeply of the smells of the soil and the admixture of new leaves and blossoming. He could hear the bees.
The parahelios had already risen to about 8 o’clock—he guessed the time before looking down at his wrist. 8:05. Close. His dad would have gotten it closer. His father was a pain in the ass about time.
The tread of the sector immediately before him, fifteen inches of the finest loam anywhere in the heliosphere beyond Illinois—or so he was likely to say given the opportunity when jabbering with his friends—was thick with a lush acre of corn planted in February and now almost head high. The lighter hues of three acres of bright green wheat arose on the tread past that. There the rye and oats beyond arced upward like a wall, losing all perspective. He knew it was an acre of dark green winter barley that filled those first upper reaches; above the barly a hops-field darkened the tread surrounding the narrow roof of the drying house, and behind that a second section of corn turned overhead in the dark of night. As he surveyed this he could barely see a rustle in the barley beyond the blaze of the parahelios that told him that Robbie was busy there this morning. With luck they would be roasting by week’s end and hopefully making beer again by the end of the month! He had shipped out too much beer before Christmas and his supplies were pitifully low.
Directly across the tread from him a frill of green revealed itself on the terraces scaling the lower walls. Much of that was his blueberry crop, already gathered. It grew faster because of the lowering gravity and needed to be trimmed back more often—another sore point he had with Robbie. Likely Wilson’s influence. On the terraces immediately over his head he knew there were grapes, still green, but soon to be more time consuming. Directly above and beyond the parahelios, the dark of night enveloped the small plots of carrots and potatoes and onions that would be ready for harvest next. He kept twenty-four acres in all. And it was too much work, even if he liked it. Robbie had been malfunctioning and was not help enough to begin with. And that was his designer’s fault, of course. Robbie had been his first attempt at such things. But now he should be considering the cost of building a third.
Stepping to the near opening at the side wall, Keeper grabbed a strap of the humphrey and caught his right foot at a peg on the steadily moving belt. As he rose, he scanned the field falling below him for the yellowing pattern of disease, but the corn was all a good ‘Irish green’ as his dad would say. Instead, he noticed a darkening in the roof shingles of his cottage where the evening rain had not dried as quickly as it should.
When he released the strap at the hub and stepped off the peg, momentarily weightless, he pulled himself close to the exit hatch before turning the trundle. The seal popped but the oval of the hatch opened on an airspring in its own good time. Just another trial for his limited patience. He ducked in before it was fully agape, grabbed the inner handle and pulled it shut again, turning it tight. And waited. When the green light glared as loudly as a sound, he opened the outer hatch to grab a rung in the alley tube between the ships, and stepped upward. The hatch there closed behind him automatically but he waited, by habit, for the hiss of air that told him the portal was secure. This particular alley was the longest because it joined two old ships built a hundred years apart. Nothing matched up. Not even the electrical systems. Sure, the ‘hoop’ of each section was roughly equal, though the one was about fifty feet wider than the other. But that much had been dictated by technical necessity long ago. Nothing else. He would have been happier if he’d been able to claim the older ship later on in his scavenging, adding it to the lower end of his three donut stack, but that was not to be. The authorities at Bastiat insisted on being sure that ownership was vacant on each ship he found and the process was made endless in some cases because of lawyers collecting fees from unresolved lawsuits for clients who were already dead or at the least could not be found. Lawyers were still asses, by definition. But judges—judges were the handmaidens of the devil. Lawyers fed from the trough and the judges sucked the marrow from the lawyers. He could hear his father’s voice saying the words. In any case, he had secured the rights to the older ship first, it being a remnant of the Earthwars and well beyond any statutes. Just the luck of the draw.
But then there was the ‘farm’ itself. He had never intended to be a farmer. Certainly not like his father and grandfather before him. He had wanted to build things. He had trained for that at ‘B’ Tech before he headed off to the war with the rest of his class. Unfortunately, chemically recombined air made him sick—or more accurately, he got sick too often when breathing that alone. ‘Traveller’s hack’ they called it euphemistically. The plague of the spaceways. And then the farm was the trick against that.
As he climbed deeper into the dark of the tube, and the passageway gradually turned, he realized again that he could guess the rung he was on at any point—it was 48 just then. Halfway. He had only climbed this several thousand times. The calculation was instinctual—just another gift from his dad.
In fact, too late for his youthful dreams, he had found himself to be a hash of such health problems. He had volunteered for service after the attack by Earth on Lagniappe, but soon enough was re-assigned to the 712 watchpost at Deimos. A dead end. And yet. That assignment had changed everything for him. It was at Deimos that he had discovered his one unique talent. He did not mind being alone for long periods of time. He could fairly well live alone in the very space of his own head.
Before him now he could see the illumination at the next portal and suppressed his desire to move more quickly, though it wasn’t the time lost in transit that he truly begrudged. Not so much. There was always some problem to consider and just as easily studied when moving about. It was the restraint. He was claustrophobic too. Always had been. The diameter of the tube passage was a full three feet, but in the dark, and especially as it turned, it seemed to be closer still. The distance between his ears might be just shy of eight inches but at least it was a universe of its own. In the three foot width of the tube the impulse to pull too quickly on the rungs was great, and he well knew the danger of that, while weightlessness. It would take more than a tweed cap to save his scalp.
At the next portal he had to lever the release, another remnant from an age gone by, and entered the safe room. Waiting again. The seal finally hissed on the inner portal and he opened the hatch there into the ‘the caverns.’ This oldest of his three ships had been well stripped by other scavengers by the time the absence of ownership had been established. There were many such derelicts left over from the war at the time, more than were wanted, but the equipment inside was always portable and convertible by any handy denizen of the outland. And analog equipment, more common on the ships, was wanted wherever the virus had festered.
After securing the levered hatch, he grabbed the next humphrey downward. This was now a slow decent into crepuscular light toward the orderly chaos of row after row of ‘junk.’ The air here was sour with rust and the remnant of decay. He often thought that there was likely blood in that mix, but he had never tested the odd stain he found here or there. There was no good to be found in that.
The only sound, other that the crack of metal still contracting after the heat of day, was the low droning whine of Wilson’s servo, somewhere close-by. If the farm were heaven, this would be his hell: the collected remnant nightmare of countless dreams past, here torn asunder. Where the humphrey reached bottom, the steel of the tread was bare and rutted with abuse. Close by, segments of various kinds of internal structuring were stacked pyramid fashion and lashed by strapping against movement, and ready for removal. Above him, the parahelios, already past daylight on this sector, illuminated the far tread in a swath of rust that he had often thought looked like a map of old Mars, as if riven by canals, but simply telling him that he still plenty of room there for any new finds. No need yet for another vessel. Only small parts were being sorted there now. But perhaps he might use that for a few more acres of wildflowers. But why then was he so interested in the P-4 derelict he had been tracking for nearly two years? He wasn’t sure. Compulsion. Just a collector’s compulsion? But more room couldn’t hurt. You never know what might fall into your lap.
On his way across the tread in the surrounding twilight he moved up one path and then another, avoiding rough edges. Most of this segment was storage. Parts big and small—the pieces to puzzles he had not yet determined a place for. He had sold off forty odd tons of it the year before to a colonist in the Hildas, but it looked little diminished. Each of the three derelicts he had already salvaged for his own use had been filled with their own odd assortment of internal debris, dross, and detritus, never mind the remaining biological matter, human and otherwise, as well as the stains. Removing unnecessary interior structures was always the greater aggregate of junk in any case. And yet, the found debris from other lost ships still amounted to the most of what he had. And too often there was something new coming his way. Collecting it all into useful categories—functioning or non, aluminum, titanium, iron, the various finished steels, copper, whatever, and then by weight and thickness, was the first chore he had taught Wilson to do for him. It was tedious work at best. A perfect job for a bot.
Keeper stopped and listened. Wilson’s servo stopped almost simultaneously. It was a game he played.
Keeper tossed his words to cross the several aisles of debris between. “You dumb-fuck volley ball. What are you doing?”
A voice immediately came back.
“What my dumb-fuck boss told me to do.”
This was said in the tones of an ancient movie star that Keeper recognized but could not name. He appreciated that, at least. Too often, Wilson was given to speaking in the Keeper’s own voice if only to disconcert him.
Keeper continued on his way to the far side of the chamber, caught another humphrey, and rose again toward the center hub. Below him now he could see into the aisle Wilson was working, dismantling a curved shell of tarostele that they would be able to flatten for better storage and then sell off for someone to melt down to a usable thickness when it was needed. That one had been taken from the remains of an M-12 fighter that simply came his way several months before. He had charted the debris for many months previously in the hope than no other junkyard dog would grab it first. Odds were, given the alloy, that it was also a piece left behind from the war. Certainly, and sadly, a Martian military ship. There were not so many of those lost, but at this point, there was little interest in such scraps by the authorities.
Above him, in the full daylight of the parahelios, the wildflowers bloomed in their own special chaos all the way to the grey rock walls of the graveyard and the little stone chapel close by. Looking down the gravestones punctuated the green of newly trimmed grass like random perforations. The randomness, as if those human remains had been buried over centuries and not in one terrible month just a few years ago. He liked that touch, most of all. He would never know if those buried there would have cared. But that was the point of it, wasn’t it. To do it right. The photos of graves he had seen, planted in rows and files like corn, did not seem right.
On Mars they reduced the dead to ashes and mixed the ashes with the soil, not as fertilizer he had been told as a boy, but as a token toward making that world theirs. Symbolism. And like most symbolism he had ever encountered, phony. He had read the text of the meeting where it was decided during the early years of that colony. They needed the fertilizer and they had to find a way to overcome a negative public reaction. Just more politics.
From his perch, the contrast between the two halves, one with the neatly ordered skeletal remains of what men had made and lost and the other, the disordered remains of what men were, served as his own definition of heaven and hell.
At the center now he pulled the lever on the safe room hatch, and entered, closing himself into the total darkness beyond. He would have to fix this. He had in fact already fixed this, several times before. But the circuits at this side were still broken in too many places from the damage done when the old ship was originally hit by something—likely a Martian projectile. This old ship was Earth-made, almost certainly fabricated at the Moon base there. For the present, green light on, he opened the outer hatch and felt his way on the rungs of the next tube. It was an endless climb with his stomach tightened the entire way. 98 eight rungs later, he was at the end of it. Actually one rung too far because, without illumination, he struck his head against the stop. Tweed cap or not, this stung. He grabbed angrily for the handle he knew to be close-by as a red light came on there with the pressure and he turned the trundle, opening the safe room hatch to the dim light beyond. He entered stiffly and trapped in that small enclosure for several minutes, the walls of which were now visible at all sides, he spent himself on suppressing the growing irrational knot of his phobia as he waited for an alignment. The light went green at last, and he opened the oval hatch to the fresher air beyond. Always, this was done with a feeling of escape, and the sense each time that this was accomplished just in time, as if his breathing had stopped sometime well before.
At least the air was better here. Not sour. Immediately before him was the console. The pattern of lights told him all else was well and no greater emergency was waiting. He pulled out a meter and looked up toward the parahelios. At this time of night the illumination caught the wildflowers and grasses in sector 14 directly opposite him on the tread, making for a gaudy sky. That was the first lot he had planted in corn years ago and replanted when he had secured ownership of the craft for his third section, and it was always good to see, like a familiar face.
Odd thought, that: a physical place having a face of its own.
The edge of a disk shield walled off the parahelios at one side and it was there that he concentrated his attention. The lanthorn and service room was dark, as it should be, but he had received a message that something there was amiss. No. ’Out of whack’ his dad would say and then note that a ‘miss’ was an unmarried woman. Such correction still came easily to mind after all these years.
Keeper walked quickly across the yards of open tread between to grab the strap of a moving humphrey there and rose toward the enclosure of the lanternroom above. When nearly weightless at the center, he pressed the release on the door. This was an airspring to avoid damage if released carelessly and faster by half than the trundles. But again impatient, he slipped through the opening as soon as he might and pulled the hatch shut behind, before immediately dancing around the great phallic instrument, scanning every facet for any quick answer. Something loose. Something out of place. But soon enough, his eyes were caught instead by the mottled array of space beyond the marglass at either side.
Everyday this was visibly different. Every day the unintentional art of the heliosphere was a surprise. After twelve years he was no less awestruck. Given the protrusion of the lanthorn beyond the body of the craft and the continuous ring of marglass panels surrounding his position, this was indeed the bow of his ship, even though he was unable to see the further reach of the machine at the center due to the outer most ring-shield that blocked feedback from all direct wavelengths. Were that not in place, of course, he would be fried. A comforting thought. But to be as close to a device so deadly that could not be looked at—a medusa of sorts—always had an element of enticing danger to it.
In truth, this medusa was not a single lanthorn but several. Seven in fact. Each emitting various frequencies extending from mere radio waves, through several variations of light—one portion of which he could in fact see prismed at the rim of the marglass—as well as the invisible gamma rays. This was the amalgam of instruments he must attend to now, or loose a paycheck.
He had read once of a pilot named Lindbergh who had flown over an ocean on Earth, some thousands of miles, without being able to see where he was going. He had often imagined himself like this. It did not matter that he was not traveling ‘forward,’ per se. From the very first he had considered this enclosure as the ‘bow,’ rather than the ‘top’ of his ship and he had dubbed it ‘the bridge’ soon after the construction, as if it were the forward most part of his vessel. It was a matter of balance. It was his own need for perspective. He wanted for a geography to his hodgepodge portmanteau of derelicts. And, though it mattered to no one but himself, he used these directions when corresponding to others, and this also had become a trait. There were now several other lighthouses in the asteroid fields between Mars and Jupiter. But his was the first and still the largest and had set the example. Actual space going vessels found his posturing an amusement, but then again, they were only jealous. Without windows, their only sense of direction was wholly artificial in any case.
There were eight consoles here, one at each on the octagonal facets of the lanthorn, with one being the mother to all. He began there, pulling a small meter from its place and tapping at the keyboard below a screen. In seconds he saw a yellow marker—something at the gamma spectrum. This was likely the result of an impact. Something small. Not uncommon. But, he thought, this was unlikely to be the cause of his warning signal. There was no red warning there in any case. He was sure something else had tripped the system.
He flipped a toggle switch. “Wilson!”
He heard a hum. Wilson hummed incessantly.
“Survey section seven in the forward lanthorn. Looking for impact damage.”
Keeper then surveyed the recent record for near-area debris. What he was looking for was a collision somewhere beyond the lighthouse, but in proximity; something that may have caused an increase in uncharted particulate matter. But there was nothing yet detected.
After twelve years there was an enormous quantity of loose matter still to be found. The band of space he had claimed was at least as free of such debris as any, but there was no way to calculate all of the potentially dangerous matter in tangent areas where collisions were still constant and made for the very necessity of his lighthouse to exist. And the fact was, the careless activities of miners was always the cause of something new to be concerned about. If something had struck him it could be the result of a new danger to the near spaceways. His patch. His responsibility. Nevertheless, he metered each sector for any variations in signal.
Seven hours later he was tired and hungry and returned the way he had come. Normally he might eat at the bridge. He enjoyed taking a break there, but he had anticipated nothing that morning and Robbie could not be trusted with preparing food.
He had indeed found a stem of particulate matter—mostly raw iron ore. Almost certainly it was created by a mining accident that had gone unreported. The incident could be several years old, but the root would ultimately be traceable. The fines were quite heavy for such stupidity, and it could only be hoped that no other vessel had encountered the weed of it. But given the corruption of the Outland Confederation, this might require another interested party—perhaps Mars, to enforce a penalty. Not Ceres, certainly, as they were currently installed as the officio leaders of the Confederation and were without scruples. In the mean time, at least, there appeared to be no blossom likely as the path this trouble had followed was relatively clear. It might be good luck, however, that the Lighthouse had taken a small hit, because the entire plant could now be charted and warnings posted. At least that process had now begun. In fact Mars might, given other recent behavior on the part of Ceres, be interested enough to find the culprits themselves and levee the fine as a direct confrontation to the Confederacy, given their lackadaisical attitude. The cleanup would probably bankrupt whoever had caused the problem and serve as a renewed warning.
Being as late as it was, after returning, he took his usual walk before dinner, once around the tread. Wildflowers greeted him at the edges of the tread with a toss and wave in the evening downdrafts. The pines he had planted at the far side, simply to be smelling them in the mornings, were mixed into this evening perfume with a bodily pungence. He smelled apple blossoms too, though they were still unseen in the dark beyond the parahelios. He stopped to pull truant grasses from the rose beds around his cottage before going in when the parahelios had finally turned away and darkness suddenly fell. That was something he had always wanted to mitigate, perhaps with more mirrors, but had not yet found a good solution for sudden night. The steady drizzle of rain began almost immediately.