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Beacon

K. S. O'Neill lives with his lovely wife, the writer Joy Kennedy-O'Neill, on the Texas coast. He is delighted to be making his third appearance in Daily Science Fiction.
There was a survivor.
Sarah heard Elena calling from across the wreckage, and saw her daughter's lantern waving in the dark and the driving rain. The sound of the storm's wild surf wafted in from the tip of the Cape a mile away. She went striding, skirts soaked, across the grass and mud of the field.
A survivor. She looked down at the broken body and tattered clothes doubtfully, but it wasn't the way to let some poor soul die in a field. They got it out from the wreckage and around the remnant of the engine, black and burned, mated forever to the charred pine log that it had sucked up and been destroyed by. Then, carefully, onto one of the sleds and out to the road. Bart's old cart was the next one in line to carry the bigger parts into town, and they loaded the thing into the back. He drove them the mile into the village in silence.
"It'll be your house then," Bart told her without looking back from his seat at the front of the cart, stopping by her door to make his point.
Sarah agreed silently, and slid off the back and motioned to Elena to help her carry it inside.
She bundled it on the couch and made soup for it, adding salt and pepper and cooked beets and onion to the stock she kept on the stove, and Elena fed it small spoonfuls. After a few moments it looked up at them, from one to the other, and fiddled with something at its ear. It tried to speak, making gibberish sounds once, then twice. Sarah pressed her lips together. She'd not seen the thing at its ear, or she might have left it in the field. Elena was seventeen, a bad age for doubts and second thoughts and heart-tugging argument.
Finally it seemed to find the right setting.
"You hear me?"
Elena grinned delighted. "Yes."
"My family?"
Her smile faded, and she looked down at the soup, then back up again. "No," she said. "I'm sorry. No."
It fell back on the pillow. "My sister, it was. And her man, and their young. Four of them, one near majority, three very small. My sister was a pilot, fine and sure, and her man was a trader. Much luck had we trading this round, until we fell here, and your beacon told us wrongly where to land, and that the ground was hard and clear of debris."
It looked up at Sarah. "We heard your call, and were pleased. Organics, you said, and subtle spices. Rare recordings of songs and poems, new flavors and scents to delight." It looked around at the bare room and small fire. "But you have no organics here to trade, no spices. No songs or poems."
Its skin was mottling fast, and it lay back and took a harsh breath. Sarah pulled Elena away. "Fetch me some firewood, and oil for the lanterns. We have to go back out tonight. That field will be empty by morning."
As it slept she took the callbox apart. The most precious thing in the village, her father had salvaged it from the first crash, fifty years ago. The power source and the controls fit in a space under the floor. The rest was antenna, and sat in the open, disused, like an old satellite uplink. Any government man out here would find only what it said on his maps, a remnant of old tech that had never been scavenged or repurposed. That bit of misinformation had been inserted into the maps in Sarah's father's time, and had cost as much as the entire village made in a year. And worth it, as well.
She checked its neck, then peeled its eye open. Cold, and still. She'd thought the beets were right for this one. The pebbled skin and yellow eyes were the clue; her mother had drilled into her, at this fire, what to look for and what to add to soup or tea or mash. Pebbly skin and yellow eyes, add beets for betanin. They fall asleep peacefully, and what's needful is done.
She looked up to see Elena at the door, staring. Oh God. Every year it was harder; they were on the webs, on phones, watching vids and reading and less isolated every year.
How to say it? Did it matter, still, that their people had set lights on the Cape for hundreds of years? That this was how they had survived, in the days of roaring bonfires calling sailing ships onto the rocks, of false RDF beacons calling yachts and small trading ships, and now this, the box and the satellite antenna calling in... these. Was it different now? Did it matter that they were no longer really isolated, that they had phones and the web, and that their neighbor, James, a year older than Elena, had gone away to college in Toronto last fall?
"This is what we do," she started, but Elena cut her off.
"Hurry and help me get him onto the cart," she said. "They're cutting up the hull at Jean-Michel's shop, and I want our share. And the electronics are going to Montreal tomorrow, but I think some of them might work, I want to put a battery on them before that idiot Denise just sells them off for nothing." She grabbed the body by its feet, and numb, Sarah took the arms and they got it out to the cart.
She looked up at the stars. How far to have come... She put it out of her head. A wrecker can't think such things. We call them in and we cut them up and that's how we live in a place like this, that's what her grandmother had told her. That's what she told Elena. That's what they all said.
Her phone chimed in her skirt pocket; the mainland paper had another unconfirmed report of strange lights and noises over the Cape. Atmospheric scientists had given the usual quotes about heat lighting and inversion layers. The police would take a boat around to investigate in the morning.
She put the phone away. Jean-Michel's sons would be plowing the field by eight, and nothing would be left of the furrows and burned grass by noon, when the mainland police launch arrived and the two genial coppers took a leisurely walk around the quiet village.
"Come on!" Elena sounded impatient. She climbed up on the running board.
As they rocked along the path in the dark Sarah slipped the gadget off the dead, cold ear. Useful thing. Half the time the box called up a contact she was unable to lure them in with the current translation package. This should help.
The horse clopped on towards the cape. He knew where loads went in the middle of the night, knew where the cliffs started and how far along them to go, knew where to stop so his load could be hauled down, dragged across the grass and dropped off the cliff into the swift tidal race that led out to deep, cold water. And he knew he'd get fed once they got back to his stall.
The phone chimed in her pocket again. Denise already had an offer on the electronics, same people that bought the last lot. God knew what they did with them, but some little companies in Montreal were starting to make a dent in the global phone markets, she'd noticed.
Not her business. They asked no questions, nor would she.
She settled back in the cart, and looked up at the black sky. Above her the stars gleamed, hard and silent and distant.
Elena could complain, but it was a good price Denise was getting. Maybe they could afford a new washing machine, finally, when the trading boats started again in the spring.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 2nd, 2015


I've been fascinated by stories of wreckers since I was young. The tangle of myth and legend and hidden guilt are endlessly interesting to read about and try to tease the truth out of. I started to wonder how such a tradition could continue, how it might adapt, and what it might eventually lead to, and this story popped out.

- K. S. O'Neill

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