Fire Watch by William Suboski

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I oversleep but it does not matter. I have no work hours. Or maybe, viewed another way, every hour is a work hour, even when deeply asleep. I am the lone inhabitant of Lookout, an artificial station on the fringes of the solar system. I am the furthest human from home. So it really doesn’t matter if I oversleep, does it? The station would wake me if I were needed. It never has.

I slept on the way out. Well, not really sleeping, I didn’t dream, it was cold sleep. It is a one hundred and fifty-one year journey, from Earth to this Lookout along a Hohmann transfer orbit, and then almost ten years on station, and another one hundred and fifty-one years home: three hundred and twelve years in all. I have been here seven years and am just two years past the half-way total of ten.

Lookout – I stand on this great height and I watch. I monitor the station and I am trained in servicing techniques. I am the humint portion, the flexible mammal adapted to the unadaptable. It is a good life – a beautiful view. I am four billion miles from home, half a billion miles past Pluto, and one day I will go back again to the homes of men on the cool green hills of Earth. But for now the sun is merely a bright star and much less than a disk. Until then I have the quietude of creation as my constant companion and I view all things from this great height.

Now then, what for breakfast? Corn flakes would be the wise and prudent choice. Routine is everything. Good habits are important. I usually have corn flakes, and again today. A small side of fruit salad and a modest coffee. The news from earth is already playing. I have programmed my days, else they might run together. The morning news always begins at nine in my morning, despite being already nine hours old, and it is always changing yet nothing ever really changes.

How odd that is, like life itself, a seeming paradox that with time and experience and years becomes merely ordinary and finally unnoticeable: the ever-changing pattern of sameness. I take care to wear clean clothes. I will wear a shirt a second day, and no need for socks or shoes. But I dislike how the fresh scent of clothing fades on the third day. And although it does not matter here, I could walk about naked if I wished; but one day I will return to Earth. So it is important that I maintain good habits. Routine is everything.

After breakfast I view Orion. The great nebula, at one hundred times magnification, is a stunning swath of indigo. This is where stars are born. It is splayed out across the window, a mighty purple amoeba fissioning and birthing in the cold of space. This is where it starts and this is where it ends, Alpha and Omega, where nuclear fires are tamed into a mere glow that nurtures life.


I came out here when Karen ended our marriage. I was happy, and I thought she also was. And I think I am correct, and she was wrong. She was happy for most of it, almost all of it. But being happy did not make her happy. I think that that is the key. She was happy, but not happy being happy. Not really for any reason – it was not a sense of unworth, or ambition for greater things. I think she simply feared the ordinary and the good.

I wanted her to stay. I wanted to stay. But Karen was always stubborn, and once she had an idea in her head – well, she wanted to go. It was ugly at the end, we were cruel to each other, and she more so to me. But when I realized that it was truly over, I decided to go, too, as far as I could. The stubborn Karen would say that this is to punish her, but she is wrong.

I will not see Karen again. I hung around Earth a year until approved as a station master. Despite the very good compensation, due to the isolation, these solitary posts have little competition. Karen will still be alive, and due to geriatric treatments, still young and healthy, but I will be three centuries forgotten. That has been my plan, until this morning. Now I have no plan; the future is always unknown.

In my love for you I offered you anything, and you requested only my absence. This is not punishment, it is an ultimate act of love and mercy to us both. It is mere luck that I was sent here, this furthest station, but so be it. From this great height I see that this was right. I miss you, Karen. But I feel a great peace here, aloneness but not loneliness. For now, I am in a beautiful limbo, crunching cornflakes and admiring nebulae. When I returned to Earth I would be a wealthy man, good compensation and compound interest in tandem, such was my plan.


Between this station and Earth is a string of pearls. In three years my relief arrives. That next lighthouse keeper left Earth one hundred and forty-eight years ago. And ten years behind them, departed one hundred and thirty-eight years ago and already enroute, is their relief. And so we all are, a string of pearls so tiny and fragile on the black velvet of space, strung along a necklace of Hohmann transfer orbit, hanging from beyond Pluto to Earth. Beautiful symmetry coming and going to Earth, tiny tiny pearls strung so long across so much more than the solar system.

One hundred and twenty years ago there was an accident and one of those pearls was damaged. The passenger was killed and the person on watch was given a choice; await the next pearl with more compensation or return and face a fine for desertion. They left the station unwatched, and sued and won full compensation when back earthside. Since that time, the contract has stated that, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the almost ten-year watch might be extended to almost twenty” – or something like that. I accepted without blinking.

This great distance, four billion miles, is still less than one tenth of a percentage of a light year. And yet it is still to humint, to we human ants, vast, so greatly vast, and some of the clever ants have performed a miracle worthy of the Gods themselves. They have made of this great distance a single telescope, with an eyepiece billions of miles across. And life is everywhere.

Think of that: everywhere. We can see what must be housing units and roadways on planets halfway across the galaxy. The cosmos is teeming, filled with ants, all scurrying about busily. Somewhere, perhaps, are two such ants, James and Karen, living a happy idyll. Sometimes I watch the feeds. Even squeezed through my tight beam infotube, there is still a thousand times more each day new than can be seen. The station dutifully records all such, and sometimes I call it up, and learn what new anthills have been found. And when watching these, I sometimes find myself thinking of wasps’ nests, and the fear such infestations inspire.

Almost every pearl in this slowly rotating necklace brings a new piece of equipment and operator to install and use it. Mine was a probe that travels about collecting gas samples. After two hundred years there is a swarm of probes that regard Lookout as the home hive. Despite being so far and so isolated, we are still rather busy out here.

I have had time and solitude to consider this station. It is truly a marvel. Although isolated, the technology is breaking edge, and I am safer here than anywhere in the Earth Luna system. What puzzled me was the Higgs field perturbation detector. What an odd device! I studied, I taught myself higher physics, to understand this unit. My curiosity was born in the station summary. Almost everything here has three or four uses – except this one unit. It has only one, the detection of pulse-flashed perturbations in the Higgs field. Why only one unit, with only one use?

And that is where and why I needed to study. What would that mean, a pulse-flashed perturbation? Six intensive months of study, far more than I had imagined, giving up for weeks at a time and resuming. Perhaps Karen wasn’t alone in her stubbornness. Six months of study, disrupting my routines, for this simple summary: a PFP of the Higgs field is agreed by most physicists to be the likely footprint of a faster-than-light drive.

Hum. So there we have it. Yes, Lookout is key to tremendous scientific discoveries – that is all true. But the Higgs field perturbation detector was one of the earliest installed devices. Lookout, indeed, or perhaps the Night Watch, or maybe just a fire watch. I wait here, routine duties on a remote outpost, designed to ring the alarms if I see company coming.

The intensity of perturbation – frequency and amplitude – is a function of distance from and velocity of the generator. These two components can be disentangled. This morning, while I was asleep, at my six-thirty, the PFP detector found a signal. Because I studied this unit I was able to understand the readings. After my breakfast I did the math. There is something 3.7 light years away, moving at twenty-three times light speed toward us. They will be here in fifty-eight days, give or take.

I’m hungry again or maybe still. I am going to break routine and have more cornflakes. Lookout – get ready – company is coming.

BIO: William Suboski is an aspiring fiction writer with a background in computer programming. He is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Born in Indiana, he is a transplanted Hoosier living as a Buckeye by way of Canada and the Netherlands. Contact him at