YOU AND I ALONE
i: Anson is Alone
He had unscrewed, had cleaned with solvent, had checked the filament. He had unbolted the console panel, had rummaged within and checked the internal wiring. On hands and knees he had crawled on the corrugated aluminum deck beneath the silent control-board, had tightened and loosened, had cursed and prayed, had pulled things out and had put them back in in different places, and had generally deconstructed and reconstructed the logic boards in as many ways as were physically possible.
And after all that, the orange light on the otherwise-dark panel had remained lit. Every three minutes and eighteen seconds – Anson had timed it – it would wink out for a moment, then light up again. It was, in short, driving him slightly insane.
Not that Anson wasn’t already insane, by any standardized definition. He had been on the station, alone, for the past twenty-seven years, and that time largely spent fixing small failures in wiring, plumbing, and – on one frightening occasion fourteen years ago- a ventilation array that had almost ejected him into deep space as he’d tinkered with the external monoxide scrubbers. That had been the most excitement he had had since he’d set a magnetically-booted foot on the glossy industrial tiling of the floating outpost Susan-3. Whatever problems he had faced, he had at some level been glad to face them, because they had, at least, broken the monotony.
…And yet this tiny flickering light was doing his head in, because it was the first time that something had gone wrong, even something minor, that he hadn’t been able to fix. Years of practical engineering should have prepared him for anything. Hadn’t he almost entirely rebuilt the lavatory just six weeks ago? Hadn’t he replaced the Central Display with a sheet of translucent polycarbonate from the windshield of a disused landing-pod? Had he not ingeniously employed a series of plasticine retainers to seal off a leaking inflow hose when he had run out of epoxy sealant, and hadn’t he succeeded – even while under the influence of the hallucinogenic fumes that had been slowly filling the bridge? If he could jury-rig a solution to refasten critical life-support systems to their mountings while surrounded by flashes of imaginary colored light in a gradually-rotating cubicle, upside-down- a cubicle whose walls appeared, to his oxygen-starved brain, to be actually melting – was it so much to ask to fix a malfunctioning lightbulb?
Unless, of course, the bulb was just doing what it was supposed to. For his first ten years on Susan-3, Anson had checked that bulb almost religiously. Back then, that bulb had meant something. It had been important. But after a lifetime of steadfastly remaining dark, this bastard bulb had suddenly gone and done what it was built for, and now Anson was furious. Furious, and certain that something was wrong. Perhaps it was corrosion on the terminal contacts, though that was the fourth thing he had checked.
Once again he consulted his portable terminal. The manual stated that the bulb would illuminate, periodically, in the event that the station’s remote sensors detected any of a short list of phenomena. The remotes were positioned at distant perimeters from the station hub, connected by nearly-unbreakable microfilament carrier leads. If something happened nearby, they would dutifully compute the event against a list of known criteria, and – in a cost-saving measure – would transmit a simple binary signal to the main station hub console in the event that specific conditions were met. This binary signal would travel along the microfilament, and it would trip a circuit that would illuminate a small bulb on the upper right quarter-panel of the primary console.
And after that, Anson would have to figure out why. To Anson, after years in space, desperately alone, the most likely reason was that yet another small thing had gone wrong somewhere. After all, that was his life on Susan-3. Things – small things, usually – would go wrong, and he would fix them, and then he would go back to sleep for another twelve hours, or rehydrate a plate of edible protein, or read “Don Quixote” for the hundredth time. To Anson, at this point in his career, there were two types of things: things that worked like they were supposed to, and things that did not. And his job was to convert the things from the latter category into the things in the former category. Until, presumably, he died, either in a station accident or quietly in his sleep, or while reading in his bunk, probably when he was on page 337 and things were just starting to get good.
The light winked out again. Anson stared at it. For nearly two whole seconds, it looked like whatever he’d done, he’d finally solved it. The bulb lit again. Blinkblink. Was it Anson’s imagination, or was it blinking just a little bit faster? He set his portable terminal to timer mode, waited, and started the timing again. Three minutes and fourteen seconds. Where did those other four seconds go?
And though he tried to avoid it, had spent years buttressing himself, building psychological walls to defend against that most insidious invader, Hope – Anson felt a stirring in his stomach, and employing basic diagnostics to determine that it wasn’t hunger, he realized he knew this feeling, had a name for it, and the feeling was excitement. Because the bulb was blinking faster now, and that meant it was a proximity signal, and that meant that whatever the remotes had detected, it was something moving.
And whatever it was, it was getting closer.