Author : Jim Wisniewski
At first I thought it was the viewscreen. The tiny, flickery viewscreen from a public matterfax at the Sont Mikaal gate station, with its scratched plastic case and the smudged dust of a dozen systems. A dozen systems’ cargo terminals, anyway. Free patterns are public-domain and ancient, made with semicon electronics big enough to see instead of rod logic or something sensible. Sometimes there’s a faint electric whine, just barely detectable if you put your ear up to it.
But this one was clean. I turned it off regardless; one less thing to worry about. The hum must be coming from something else. Not too many candidates left. Cyclers travel light. I cast about our dingy compartment, giving each battered piece of equipment and dirty sock and empty half-crushed drinking bulb a good long look, as if one might stand up and admit its guilt if I stared hard enough.
Hab must’ve noticed me looking twitchy, because he sat up and looked at me funny. I’d have to keep an eye on him, I thought. My thoughts were racing now, had been for days. He asked me what I was looking for, the words raucously loud to my straining ears. “That hum,” I said, distractedly, begrudging every echoing syllable. “Can’t you hear it?”
He shrugged and lay back in his hammock. We had gravity on this run, a rare luxury on the long fall upwards to the distant gate metric. Our room was a maintenance node on a helium-3 tanker which rotated slowly to even out solar heating on its hull. A tenth of a gravity won’t keep your soup in the bowl, but it’s enough to tell up from down.
It also meant that the machinery of the ship was shut down dead cold to save energy, passive radiators keeping the helium liquefied. The more I looked around, the more the hum seemed to come from all around me. It was like… oh, like the flickering pinpoint lights you see when you close your eyes. They’re always there, hiding underneath the lower edge of perception.
Now it was the sonic quality of the hum that drew my fascination. It was an infinite basso profundo note, penetrating every corner of my mind. I crouched down to look out the tiny porthole set into the floor. Was this the music of the spheres? Or maybe I was hearing the cosmic background radiation, the echoing rumble of the Big Bang.
Every other noise seemed a defilement now. I tore at the casing of our airmaker, desperate to shut off its clattering fans. Hab shouted and jumped at me, but what choice did I have? I couldn’t think in such a racket. A tenth gee isn’t enough to hold a man down against the deck and crush his throat with your knee, but I managed to brace myself against the low ceiling. When I hit the airlock emergency cycle button, the escaping puff of air gave Hab’s body a little extra boost. He’d reach the gate ahead of me.
It was still too much. Even with Hab gone and the airmaker and heating unit off, I could hear my breathing and my heartbeat and the blood roaring in my ears. I stripped off my heat blanket and shipsuit. No need for them anymore. The outer door of the airlock was cold on my feet as I hit the cycle button and gritted teeth through the alarms. Finally the hatch irised open and I dropped out into that cool silent blackness, with nothing left between me and the hum.