December 2007 Volume One Issue Five
Lighthouse at the Edge of the Universe - C. A. Casey
"You're too close." Mitch switched off his communicator and gazed out the window behind him to visually confirm what his hoverscreen displayed. "A souped-up X5-SP. Some fool kid playing chicken with the tide."
He adjusted the warning beacon and flashed it at the X5-SP. The lights of the ship blinked back in sharp irritated bursts. The ship then skirted the inside of the invisible cosmic wave for a few moments then jerked and stuttered toward the lights of Edge City.
Rick aimed his holocam at the circle of windows to capture the small ship doing the equivalent of backing off with an attitude. "Does that happen a lot?"
Mitch smiled at Rick's efforts to keep his holocam steady from the unrelenting breaks of the cosmic waves against the lighthouse. "Often enough. It's one of those rights of passage for youngsters growing up in Edge City."
Mitch sat back in the easy chair that matched the rest of the decor in the lighthouse -- all meticulous replicas of the furnishings from ancient times when lighthouses were residences for the keepers and their families.
He picked up a thermo canister and re-filled their mugs with as muddy and as bitter a substance as he knew how to brew. Visitors seemed to expect the amenities to be as hostile as the space outside the lighthouse and it amused him to oblige their expectations.
"But the danger," Rick said.
"We've lived next to danger all our lives." Mitch waved at the black outside the windows that was so deep it muted the glow of Edge City. "We respect The Dark and understand its dangers. That's why Edge City was built, after all -- to monitor The Dark and to keep ships away from it. But we don't have the same fear of it that outsiders have."
Rick took a sip from his mug and grimaced. "So what do you think about all the publicity this lighthouse and Edge City has been getting lately?"
Mitch chuckled with amusement. "'Cosmic waves lapping upon the shores of the unknown.' Or my favorite: 'The city without stars to guide its destiny.' Kinner probably never set foot on a planet hopper, much less made the journey all the way out here."
"Lighthouse at the Edge of the Universe has been a bestseller since it came out," Rick said. "It's captured everyone's imaginations."
"Reminds me of those writers and artists who lived in New York City all their lives and rarely ventured across town much less across a continent, yet they wrote all kinds of fanciful tales and painted exotic pictures of the American West," Mitch said. "It didn't take long for people to think up ways to profit from the more adventurous souls who believed those lies."
"The travel designers have certainly believed Kinner's novel and have painted this lighthouse and Edge City as the ultimate exotic adventure." Rick replaced the full data slide on his holocam with a fresh one.
Mitch snorted. "The people who believe that have too much money and not enough brains if you ask me. Would you believe they come here expecting excursions into The Dark? They want to pack a picnic and commune with nothingness, I guess. Old Yonters -- he runs the Edge City Inn -- wants to have a chat with whoever is spreading the story about some kind of fantastical planet in The Dark with a hollowed-out center filled with light and all kinds of natural wonders." He chuckled as he ran his finger over the tuner of an old model Cosmic Communicator. "You think we'd live in this dismal black if something like that was close by?"
"I know I wouldn't," Rick said. "I can't understand how anyone can live in Edge City."
Mitch glanced back at him. "It's home. We've never lived anywhere else."
The echo of a broken audio signal bounced a few times before it settled into a monotone voice that identified a flipball announcer in any language.
"The Edgers are playing. Never miss a game," Mitch said.
Rick grinned. "The secret to having the best team in the league is a topic for a whole other story."
"No real secret to that." Mitch glanced at a faint blip on the hoverscreen. "Not much else to do in Edge City. If you're good at flipball, you can devote all your time to being really good at it."
Shouts and cheers crackled from the Communicator. The flipball announcer launched into a rapid play-by-play of the first score of the game -- by the Edgers, of course.
"Mac does it again. Nothing can keep that girl away from a goal." Mitch relaxed in his chair and took a sip of the wicked sludge.
Rick stylused a few notes into his digipad. "A lot of people feel this lighthouse is here to give the rest of the universe a false sense of security. Something the Federation Directorate can point to when the opposition party asks why nothing is being done about the dangers of The Dark."
Mitch rubbed the bristle on his chin. "I've heard about that. In my humble opinion, anyone who thinks that is as crazy as those tourists. If this lighthouse wasn't doing a proper job, there'd be accidents and lost ships."
"Your perfect record has been enough to keep the lighthouse detractors from pushing too hard with plans to bolster protection in this sector," Rick said. "But they refuse to stay completely quiet about it."
Mitch nodded and glanced at the hoverscreen. The blip was brighter. "I think they just have problems believing something as simple as a lighthouse is able to prevent ships from getting caught on those gravity waves and being pulled into The Dark. Can't say I blame them. But it's worked so far, so there must be something to it."
"Any close calls?" Rick asked.
"Hmmm." Mitch tapped the zoom icon on the hoverscreen. "The closest call I can remember was when a Marnarian freighter got caught on the shoals -- that's a rough bit of space right out there." He nodded to the side view window. "It wouldn't have been the fault of this lighthouse if that freighter had washed into The Dark. Some of those captains are pretty foolish when it comes to what their ships can do."
Rick chuckled. "I did a story on the Marnarians. Let's just say, foolishness seems to be a dominant trait for them."
Mitch grinned and turned his attention to the hoverscreen. He switched on his communicator. "Galaxy Cruiser, GC-612. This is the Edge City Lights." He swiveled the screen so Rick could see the soundings from the invisible cosmic waves washing around the ship. "You're surfing in too fast. Cut speed and turn to starboard."
The communicator crackled from the disturbance kicked up by the tide. "Edge City Lights." The voice was tight with panic. "The tide is too strong."
"Galaxy Cruiser," Mitch said. "Don't try to slow down, just cut to starboard, then slow to thrusters until you're in the Edge City channel."
The ship made a sharp turn and slowed down. It then spurted in a steady line until it entered the calm channel that flowed to the City.
"Thanks, Edge City Lights," the relieved voice crackled.
Mitch sighed and jotted an entry into his log. "Under any other circumstance, the captain would have known what to do, but The Dark frightens the logic out of them. Many of us out here have had a ship grabbed by the tide and yanked out from under us. It's pretty scary to be suddenly surging too close to The Dark. 'We are humbled by such cosmic strength, we know that fate awaits the opportunity to crash our souls against our living nightmare.'"
"You could do some fiction writing yourself," Rick said.
"A poet from Edge City wrote that. He also wrote: 'Fear and danger are best spoken of with words of beauty.'"
A gentle melodic tone sounded.
"The transport is almost here," Mitch said. "Is there anything else I can tell you about the lighthouse?"
"Just one thing." Rick adjusted the holocam to follow Mitch as he gathered his things into a soft bag and signed off of his shift. "What keeps the lighthouse from getting caught in the cosmic tide and being pulled into The Dark?"
Mitch ran his fingers across a display of lights that changed color and then settled back into the chair. "The brave souls who explored this part of space found a channel of calm. They built Edge City at one end of the channel and the lighthouse at the other end. This channel also allows us to safely transport to and from the lighthouse -- a lot safer than the journeys to and from many of the ancient lighthouses on earth."
"An interesting analogy," Rick said. "At least footage of those old lighthouses will liven up this story. You know, my producer's not going to be happy to find out there isn't any truth behind Kinner's book."
"Mr. Kinner has a great imagination," Mitch said. "But fiction is fiction."
"Thank you for the tour and for letting me interview you," Rick said.
"As long as we set the record straight on what we're really all about out here, I'm happy to help in any way I can," Mitch said. "We've been lucky so far that there haven't been any accidents from some of the foolish things those tourists have tried."
Rick snapped the holocam off and slipped it into its case. "After seeing the reality behind this lighthouse and Edge City, I think they'll look for more interesting places to visit."
"Nice job today, Mitch." Jim patted Mitch on the back.
"Thanks." Mitch stopped at the main workstation of the Edge City Special Security Unit and pressed his hand into the ID pad.
"You do that folksy down home act so well," Jim said. "How'd you ever get that old Cosmic Communicator to work, anyway?"
"I put the latest model chips in it and then programmed them to imitate the reception of the old model." Mitch settled at his workstation.
"Those references to old earth were right on the mark," Jim said. "And all those quotes. They had us rolling on the floor."
"Why make things up when someone else has done it for you and were nice enough to put it in conveniently accessible datafiles." Mitch sat back, laced his fingers behind his neck, and grinned.
"That's why you're the operative and I'm just the humble team leader," Jim said. "But I have to tell you, you scared the starlight out of us when you mentioned the planet. But it was a brilliant move when you tacked on the Edge City comment. Watching you out there was like watching an artist at work."
Mitch whipped an imaginary holo-brush through the air. "Just give me a holocanvas and some gelcells and I'm happy. Here comes the rest of the team. Looking overly proud of themselves I might add."
Megan and Barb stepped through the entryway together -- grinning and joking as they signed in and turned in their logs.
"So, chief. How'd we do?" Megan asked.
Jim put his hands on his hips and gave her a stern look. "I have only one question for you."
Megan matched his stern stance. "What's that, chief?"
Jim relaxed. "How'd you ever learn to fly like that?"
"I used to skip school and surf at Oser's Beach," Megan said. "That X5-SP is as easy to handle as a Luxar compared to the home-made jalopies we used to surf."
"That explains why you volunteered for chicken duty." Mitch turned to Barb. "You should have seen Rick's expression when he heard the panic in your voice."
Barb shrugged. "I've been studying your approach to building characterization."
Mitch laughed. "Good answer."
"Time will tell how successful we were today, but just between us, I think we had a successful mission," Jim said. "No one will want to come within a million light years of here after that story airs."
Mitch nodded and gazed out the window at his world.
He thought about Rick, who had to spend the night in the drab Edge City Inn. What would the journalist do if he saw this miracle of worlds? If he knew the hollow planet ablaze with a perennial light that glowed from the native rocks really existed.
Mitch silently thanked his ancestors for creating the dismal Edge City and the lighthouse. He doubly thanked them for spinning believable stories about the dangers of the gravity waves and The Dark so they could keep their hidden paradise to themselves forever.
- END -
C.A. Casey lives in Northern California. She's been a musician and a librarian and is currently an editor for a publishing company. Her writings include covering the Sacramento Monarchs for SportsPageMagazine, articles in library journals and in Strange Horizons, and stories in Aoife's Kiss, The Lorelei Signal, and Beyond Centauri. She also penned two novels for kids, Dragon Drool and Top of the Key, available at http://www.dragonfeatherbooks.com. Her blog is at http://cacasey.wordpress.com.