Leaving the Light On
Charles C Cole
Barefoot senior Astro-Engineer Granger Mulwatty adroitly waddled down the familiar narrow metal catwalk in his loose animal-print pajamas. His sole job, for over 400 years and counting: using all available tools and methods, keep the surface illumination burning bright for artificial sun, NXS127.
Thousands of years after their original invention, lighthouses had evolved for a new purpose, off-planet in other faraway galaxies. They were no longer to warn travelers about dangerous passage, they were to announce loudly and passionately to those who look for such signs of intelligent life: “Hey! Over here! Now that we have your attention, we’re dying to meet, maybe swap stories. And technology. You won’t regret it. Whaddya say?”
Yep, the “lighthouse” of the cosmos was a beacon of greetings, a super-bulb hanging outside humanity’s metaphorical front door (and back door and side door). Pulsing unnaturally like the computerized colors-and-fountains spectacular of Las Vegas on Old Earth. It was decided long ago that there was never going to be enough time or resources to explore all of the dark corners of interstellar space. So why not sit still and wait for “aliens” to find us, by being one of the brightest spots, certainly for its size, in the heavens? A simple concept. But “the curious” have to be looking our way, see in our spectrum, and be ambitious and brave enough to come investigate the clearly nonnatural anomaly.
As of yet, there had been no recognized responses to our hail.
So, who cared if the light went out for a few atomic hours or days due to an unexpected outage that led to a cascading system failure? Mulwatty cared. He’d been bred and genetically enhanced for this particular mission. In his lifetime, earthlings had developed amazing high-speed propulsion, terraformed inhospitable micro-planets, and colonized nearby star systems. But with every success, always the overwhelming feeling of being alone in the wilderness.
We’d stood on the edge of the abyss and screamed into the vastness of the universe, “Hello! Is there anyone out there?” And not even an echo could be heard in response.
The klaxons were deafening. “Computer, mute alarms. Point made. I need to think.”
“How will you know NXS127 has gone dark?”
“Because you already told me! Mute all alarms!”
“We have been dark for two atomic hours and 32 minutes. And 33 minutes.”
“If I suit up, can we reroute auxiliary power from life support?”
“That is an option, but not a long-term viable solution.”
“I’m trying to keep the lights on. We wouldn’t want the Welcome Wagon to come calling, then think we’re blowing them off because it’s an inconvenient time. Or they’re not the aliens we’ve been waiting for. That would not be a good first impression.”
Suddenly, overhead lights flickered and loud hissing could be heard from pipes at a nearby junction.
“Computer, what’s going on? It’ll take me at least twenty minutes to get EVA-ready. If you start without me, you’ll certainly finish without me.”
“That was a local limited test, to see if we can make the needed accommodations. We can. Given your biological dependence on breathable air, it is highly likely, even with all alarms muted, that you’ll notice when life support is offline.”
“I’m sure I will. Computer, give me directions to the nearest available suit. And don’t do any more testing until I order it.”
“Understood. Though it would be an efficient time-saver, it is nonetheless highly ineffective to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
“Yes, preserving ‘the baby’ is job one, followed closely by keeping the lights on. While I’m preparing for the new world, initiate diagnostics. Find out what happened so it never happens again.”
Fifteen minutes later, fully motivated, Engineer Mulwatty was nearly ready.
A voice in his helmet com announced: “Granger?”
“I think we should start.”
“We already had this conversation.”
“That was about testing.”
“Is there something you want to tell me?” Silence. “Did you figure out what’s wrong?”
“We are dark.”
“Did you figure out why?”
“There are multiple failures, and pending failures, likely due to mechanical fatigue. Analysis suggests replacing with new parts would be a better course of action over temporarily repairing existing equipment, prolonging the inevitable.”
“Great. When’s the next preventive maintenance shuttle?”
“Two years and two months.”
“Still, you can be proud of your accomplishment: We have exceeded our mission parameters by over two hundred years.”
“Once we turn off life-support, will we be able to turn it back on?”
“And keep the external illumination working at capacity?”
“How much time are we buying by killing me off?”
“Given a steady rate of decline of primary systems, many years. But a subsequent major outage in the secondary or tertiary systems could terminate the mission before that.”
“Did I ever explain the concept of TMI, Too Much Information?”
“Many times. But it is an illogical fallacy.”
“Agree to disagree. Let’s do what we came here to do. And, do me a favor, keep your thoughts to yourself until we’re done.”
“Is that an order?”
“Yes. Proceed with the bypass.”
Mulwatty locked his helmet in place and sat down heavily on a convenient bench, awaiting the future. But nothing happened.
“Computer?” Silence. “Why the delay? Did I hurt your feelings? Talk to me!”
“Is that an order?”
“Yes, probably my last one.”
“Without external illumination, we can likely get by for another hundred years.”
“Our mission – ” began Mulwatty.
“Is to attract alien lifeforms. There is a craft of unknown origin thirty thousand kilometers away and closing. The universal translator says they ask if we need assistance.”
“Where have they been the last several hundred years?”
“They thought we were a warning beacon, telling them to keep away. When we went dark, they thought either the warning was over or we needed help.”
“Tell them: ‘Welcome to the neighborhood! Love to chat!’ And, computer, do not fix the external illumination. That’s an order.”