The console beeped.
Cliff looked up from his
videonovel. It's probably the narrowband
again, he thought. For some reason, it was
drifting out of alignment
a lot, lately. He was almost at the point
of attributing the problem
to sabotage, but he couldn't figure out,
for sure, how someone could
have done that.
At the time of installation,
maybe.... But all the installers were
Service people with TOP
SECRET clearance.... Maybe it was done, more
artfully, at the factory.
Cliff knew, from reading
spy thrillers, that every man has his price.
Someone may have been bribed
to do a little "modification," to ensure
that the subarray wouldn't
stay properly oriented, thereby creating
an off-coverage hole that
specially equipped infiltrators could use.
Somehow, though, that just
didn't compute. If misalignment had been
someone's goal, they should
have modified the alignment sensors, too.
Cliff did his readout checks
religiously, but "they" might have
reasoned that, if a Custodian
disabled an annoying alarm, he would
slack off on his readings,
too -- maybe because he was going 'round
the bend, as some did, despite
their careful screening.
If this were the case, they
failed to include Cliff's nature in their
calculations. He was right
for Outer Array 74, and it was right for
He arose and checked the
readout on the control console.... Yep.
The usual problem."
He input the correction command, and watched
his monitor as the subarray
was brought back into alignment with the
small secret reference buoy,
Var74, that was just inside Varmool-
The buoy transmitted its reference signals by
hopping, but the Service judged it dis-
coverable and sacrificeable.
Cliff thought it should have
been discovered by now, but its low-
observables and spoofing
countermeasures had shielded it from Varmool
scoutships. He knew that,
if they found and tried to tamper with
Var74, it would alert him
The nameplate on his desk
said "S/1c Clifton O. Harman," and "Custo-
dian." It was an unnecessary
piece of display, but all the Array
stations had them. It even
had a standard Service stock number, like
the rest of his supply items.
There was nobody around to be impressed
with his title, though.
Except for a rare supply visitor, he was quite
alone---and presumed to
Candidates for Array Custodian
were rigorously screened by every
valid test, physiological
and psychological, to ensure they wouldn't
become psychotic and damage
the expensive equipment in their charge.
All the candidates had been
under casual observation, since their
graduation from Basic Training,
by a screening organization with
the innocuous name, "Material
Those who exhibited genuine
self-sufficiency were watched, closely.
Tests of stability were
covertly given them as they performed their
regular duties. If they
measured up, they were persuaded to train for
the Array Service as Custodians.
Cliff was that kind of guy.
Raised in a stable traditional family,
he was nonetheless a natural
loner. He could get along with people,
if he had to. Loners who
couldn't were considered unsatisfactory for
Custodial duty. As it was
said in the training school, a Custodian
had to be somebody who could
-- as far as people were concerned --
"take 'em, or leave 'em."
Loneliness was not, for Cliff,
a yearning for companionship and bright
lights. It was a subtle
thing: a lack of the encouragement that a cap-
able worker gets from his
co-workers and bosses. Loneliness also meant
fewer opportunities to grow,
intellectually. Out here, he received no
praise in the routine Ultrad
messages that rolled out of his printer.
And he had to create his
own opportunities. Later, after his tour was
up and he returned to civilization,
he wouldn't be lonely. But for
now, he would just do his
job, and do it well.
In addition to technical
duties, he had a security responsibility.
The Varmool -- among Star
Service personnel, they were known as the
Varmints -- had tried to
remove more than one Array station. They didn't
want to be watched by the
Empire, or anyone else. But policymakers
assumed that the Varmool
intended to invade the outer regions of the
Empire. The official policy
was to contain them, at least on this side
of their dominions.
When the Varmool attacked
an Array station, the Empire attacked one
of theirs. The stations
of both sides were so far out and widespread
that they couldn't be continuously
guarded. As a result of Empire
retaliation, the Varmool
eventually ceased their direct attacks on
the stations. Since they
couldn't very well sneak up on one and make
its destruction look like
an accident, they constantly hatched elabo-
rate schemes to put them
out of action, while evading the blame.
The Array stations operated
with state-of-the-art technology. A Cus-
todian had to have more
than an ability to live alone in deep space.
He needed a natural talent
for troubleshooting complex, computer-
controlled equipment. Cliff
had early been the kind of kid who took
things apart to see how
they worked. From that stage, he went on to
become a computer nerd,
then an electronics whizkid. The Star Service
scouted him, then sent him
to a good tech college, all expenses paid.
For his high-priced education,
he had to serve two enlistments --
eight standard years of
As inducements to volunteer
for the Array Service, he was guaranteed
a promotion to warrant-rank,
a big bonus payment, and the assignment
of his choice -- upon completion
of his two-year Array tour. Satisfied
as he was with his life
on Outer Array 74, Cliff nonetheless looked
forward to the day when
he could write his own ticket. He didn't need
that expectation to keep
him sane, though.
Cliff returned to his
desk. The supply ship that had arrived two
weeks ago had brought him
a box of new videonovels and ezines. He
was digging into them now,
not only to be entertained by fictional
situations, but to catch
up on Empire news. He was curious to see
if the Empress would crack
down on Princess Deirdre's antics. He
was tempted to jumpsearch
his browser to follow the story, but he
restrained himself. He would
ration the news and view it just as if
he were back on one of the
The supply pilot-tech had
tried to give him the news when he and Cliff
were stowing the new supplies,
but Cliff shut off the man's recitation
with a curt, "Don't spoil
it for me. I've got a lot of time to catch
up.... It's my recreation."
The guy sure was a blabbermouth.
After the rebuke, he had changed to
Service gossip -- the kind
the zines didn't have. Cliff listened to
that. Most of the supply
guys had a tendency to spout off. They spent
a lot of time alone, themselves,
making the rounds of the stations.
Some of them really saved
it up during those long trips out, and
weren't easily squelched.
This guy was an odd type,
though. After the supplies were stowed, he
had asked for a tour of
the station. Although surprised that the guy
hadn't taken such a tour
before, Cliff took him through his quarters
and the access tubes which
connected the subarrays with Control
Central. He demurred only
when the guy wanted to suit-up and have a
look at the external hardware.
Cliff had to remind him of the rule
that the Outside was to
be accessed only in case of a malfunction.
Eventually, he got the man
back into his ship and off to the supply
planetoid, Warehaven. He
seemed glad to start home, though. Who
wouldn't be, Cliff
thought. Only someone like me.
Later, during his sleep-period,
Cliff was awakened by the alignment
alarm beeping from his bunkside
monitor panel. The problem was ap-
parently growing worse.
This was the first time it had sounded while
he was sleeping.
He sat up and keyed the alignment
readout. What he saw caused him
to rub his eyes. The readout
was normal. Did the problem correct
it didn't, he might have to file a report about it. He
didn't want to do that because
Custodians were expected to take care
of equipment problems without
bothering the Service about them. They
didn't like dispatching
a couriership to take a maintenance team way
Cliff was afraid that, if
he had to call out a team more than once,
Personnel might record that
he had not "satisfactorily" completed his
tour. That meant that the
inducements offered him for volunteering
would be withdrawn.
Tomorrow, he would get on
the alignment problem, in earnest -- again.
* * *
Next day, after a fruitless
and tiring effort spent trying to diagnose
the problem, he retired
That "night," the alignment
alarm sounded, not once, but twice....
Each time, the readouts
on the narrowband subarray were normal: no
misalignment. He took his
optical instruments to the inspection port
and sighted the hardware
alignment-marks, to be certain.
What the heck is going
on? He was uncharacteristically annoyed
with the problem.
During his next sleep-period,
the alarm sounded three times.... Each
time: no misalignment. Cliff
was now annoyed and fearful. If the array
actually became misaligned,
he would be violating a serious rule. When
the station was designed,
the engineers even considered installing a
sealed circuit that would
automatically send an Ultrad message if an
alarm were disabled, so
they could query the Custodian about it.
They had finally rejected
the idea as being too restrictive on the
He didn't get much sleep
during the next period. He mostly lay awake,
waiting for the inevitable
alarm. Each of the four alarms which
sounded proved to be false.
One -- then, two. Then, three.
Then, four times.... Cliff was now sus-
picious. The problem was
beginning to seem almost programmatic.
Groggy as he was from lack
of sleep, he worked all the next day,
installing a jury-rigged
misalignment detector on the outside hard-
ware. He tied it into the
computer, so that both detectors had to
indicate misalignment before
the alarm would sound.
That night, he almost got
a full period's sleep.
He awoke at the shrill
blast of the power alarm, to find himself
floating under his blanket.
The gravitoid net had failed; that demon-
strated a general power
failure more forcefully than any alarm. Just
his luck, though: his airjet
reaction unit was in Control Central.
He was supposed to carry
the ARU with him when he moved between CC
and his quarters. His failure
to do was one of his few lapses of
He laboriously pulled himself
along the handrail to Control Central,
his trusty flashlight flapping
slowly from his belt. He felt a little
sick now in the unaccustomed
absence of G-pull. He usually did, but
he had managed early in
Basic Training to resist its effects well-
enough to look good to his
In the dim standby-light,
he found that the power monitor had tripped
the main circuit breakers.
He reset them. The compartment's lights
stabbed his eyes, and he
was pulled to the deck as the power returned.
He did a power monitor diagnostic,
sitting at the console in his
skivvies. There was no indication
of why the power had been turned
off. It must have been a
surge of some kind. If so, it was the first
one he had experienced,
Returning to his bunk, he
tossed and turned, wondering if the align-
ment and power problems
were related. But he couldn't relate them
in any meaningful way. He
finally fell asleep for a couple of hours.
The next day, he dozed off
in the afternoon while he was reading a
videonovel. But not for
long, though. He awoke suddenly to a warning
horn, almost falling out
of his chair. The radiation alarm was roar-
ing. Rushing to the console,
he saw there seemed to be a small reactor
core-breach. He did a quick
check, typing as fast as he could, making
mistakes, and retyping.
There was no doubt about the readings.
When Cliff arrived at Outer
Array 74, he found that his predecessor
had programmed the computer
vox to a sexy young-woman voice. Cliff
first changed it to a older
contralto, then muted it altogether --
after finding that it reminded
him of his old grammar teacher, and
seemed an intrusion into
his privacy. He preferred to dvorak his input
with his skilled fingers,
anyway, and depend upon nonvox alarms to
alert him.... His fingers
had never had to perform with such urgency,
He raced toward the reactor's
Manual-Control Chamber to check the
situation, firsthand. Before
he got there, the warning horns ceased
their blaring. The resulting
silence seemed very loud.
He entered the chamber and
checked the instruments which were direct-
ly connected to the reactor.
They indicated no radiation leakage and
certainly no core-breach.
He returned to Control Central
in a state of confusion and frustra-
tion. His mind raced around
the possibilities. Is all this trouble
Or, is there a single cause?
Then, he experienced a dark
thought -- and an idea.
He sat at his desk and keyed
off the videonovel he had been reading.
He checked some online tech
documentation, first. Then, he began
typing to activate a rarely
used program which had a disguise-name.
When he had finished, he
looked at his work for a while with some
satisfaction. He blanked
the screen and returned to the console.
But after he dozed off again
and hit his head on a console switch
handle, he quit for the
day. He knew he had to get some rest or he
wouldn't be able to function
The air screamed as
it rushed through the ragged hole.
Cliff frantically tore off
his T-shirt and stuffed it into the small
opening in the hull. The
whistling stopped, but he was only able to
slow the leak of his precious
air into the vacuum of space. He could
hear it being pulled through
his wadded shirt.
He looked around for the
nearest emergency-patch storage box.
It was down there where
the tunnel curved to the left.
He ran to it and yanked at
the access door. It wouldn't budge. He
strained and pulled with
both hands. As he did so, another alarm
sounded. There was another
pressure drop, somewhere. He raced for
the computer terminal at
the next intersection.
After a run that almost dropped
him to the deck with exhaustion, he
arrived at the intersection.
The terminal wasn't there!
What the heck!...
As he stood there in complete
frustration, his problems ceased.
He awoke, sweating, in his
He knew it had been a dream,
but he sat up and checked the panel be-
side his bunk, anyway. Everything
was normal. He felt like a fool, or
worse. Now, he was imagining
trouble -- creating it in his mind. He lay
back on the bunk with his
hands clasped behind his head.
What's happening to me?...
Am I losing it, now, after all?
No! I didn't imagine those
alarms! They happened. Why, he didn't
know. But they actually
occurred. His mind just used recent events
in making up a dream to
keep him asleep. He'd experienced such termi-
nal dreams before, and he
remembered what they'd taught him in the
Custodian training school
about the function of dreams: they were his
body's way of trying to
keep him asleep by diverting his mind from ir-
ritating stimuli like an
uncomfortable sleep-position or a distended
bladder.... It was nothing
to worry about.
But what'll I do if the
real problems continue?... How long can I
keep myself from disabling
the alarms to give myself some peace and
He was terribly alone, here.
He couldn't send for help while things
were so uncertain, like
this. He might lose everything he'd volun-
teered for, and they might
even reassign him to a "facility" for
He tried to fall asleep again....
He couldn't take a pill. They were
against the rules, and they
hadn't given him any. Stable, resourceful
personnel don't need sleeping
He finally fell asleep. He
awoke, restless and on-edge, to face the
next work-period -- and
Cliff sat, irritably,
at his desk. He was too keyed-up inside to read
anything or play a videogame.
Despite his condition, he had to stay
alert during the work-period.
It was his duty to do so.
He shifted in his chair.
He put his feet up on the desk, and clasped
his hands behind his head
in a posture of relaxation he knew was not
genuine. Now was the time
for something to happen.
When nothing did, he got
up and went over to the console. He was about
to check all the readouts
when the red word, "FIRE," began blinking
He checked the fire alarm
panel. The location-indicators showed no
What the hell's going
on?! There should be some indication of where
the fire is. And why
isn't the bell ringing.... If I hadn't been at
the console, I might've
missed the alarm.
He straightened up.... He
could smell something burning -- a vague,
smoky odor which gave him
no clue about its source.
He typed at the keyboard
to start the ambient temperature readout
cycle. The display showed
no higher-than-normal temperature for any
telemetered area in the
He held onto his flashlight
as he ran from Control through the open
door. When he reached the
first tube intersection, he stopped and
sniffed the air like a dog.
He couldn't tell which branch led to the
fire.... He continued down
the main corridor.
At each intersection, he
had the same lack of success in pinpointing
the source of the odor.
It never seemed to get stronger. In a panic
now, he raced through the
tubes, frantically trying to locate the
Finally, Cliff dragged himself
back to Control Central, and checked
the readouts. He was ready
to drop, and had to hold himself over the
console with both hands.
There was nothing to indicate the source of
the fire -- or even if there
had been a fire. The red "FIRE" light
was dark, now.
He sniffed. "Dammit! I can't
even smell it, now!" His voice cracked
with disuse. Cliff had never
been one to talk to himself, even out
here in Nowhere, and rarely
cursed in the usual Service way.
He returned to his desk and
tried to relax, but his mind churned in
search of a simple explanation
for his problems. There didn't seem to
be any -- any that he could
face, squarely.... Every logical path led
to himself. He was
the greatest variable here on Outer Array 74.