by Frederick Rustam
                            First Alarm  

The console beeped. 

Cliff looked up from his videonovel.  It's probably the narrowband 
radiodetection subarray, 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- 
controlled space.  The buoy transmitted its reference signals by 
state-of-the-art frequency 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 and self-destruct. 

                          The Custodian 

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 be lonely. 

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 Evaluation Directorate." 

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 service. 

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 homeworlds. 

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. 

                           Much Misalignment 

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 
itself?  If 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 
out there. 

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 early. 

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 
Custodian's maintenance duties. 

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. 

                             More Alarms 

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 instructors. 

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, here. 

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, 
before now. 

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 
just coincidence?... 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 at all. 

                            Dire Emergency 

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 bunk. 

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 pills. 

He finally fell asleep. He awoke, restless and on-edge, to face the 
next work-period -- and its problems. 

                              Quiet Alarm 

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 
at him. 

He checked the fire alarm panel. The location-indicators showed no 
detected fires. 

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 station. 

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. 



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