A cold wind blew. At least Old Joe assumed it was a cold wind. Sitting, as he was, within his cramped casket of metal and wood he could only hear it rattle the loose boards and plates. The outside world was a strange and unknown place to Old Joe, all he knew was Signal Casket 7. It was his life.
With the wailing teeth of the gale enveloping the casket the howls and shrieks rose and the rattles grew louder. The increasing noise roused Old Joe from his fitful slumber and back into the world of the casket, a place where the warm, air was thick with the rank smell of his own sweat. Old Joe didn’t mind or even notice smell, to him there had never been anything else. His veined and leathery hand groped at the shelf beneath his multi-stool, thrashing blindly, hunting for the object which lay there. Closing a hand around its side Joe pulled his old and battered vid-slate from its little hiding place, its own personal reliquary. With steady fingers he paged through the rolling feed of the shipping timetables that always filled its screen, the pale white back-light accentuated by the vibrant blue back-wash of the main signal light far above his head. The casket shook and rattled violently once again, nimble fingers slid the display over to the shipping forecasts. A big angular blot of red filled the screen, a pool of blood from some strange impressionist creature. Gales swooping out of the North straight through Forties and Dogger it said, ten occasionally eleven it said. All a bit hairy really. A tanker out of Rotterdam had all ready been dashed out against some rocks off Denmark. Old Joe hissed through his teeth when he saw the manifest appendix. That was a lot of oil, bad for business, awkward. Things might be quiet for now, but they were sure as hell going to pick up soon.
“ain’t no chance that all the ships on the seas managed to hold up in the walled embrace of harbours.” Old Joe mused aloud to himself. “There’s going to be some still out there. There always is.”
Jamming the vid-slate into the viewing stand on the wall in front of his mutli-stool, Old Joe heaved the cumbersome transmission panel out of its vertical recess and into the flat of standard operations mode. Tortured metal runners squealed in harmony with the gale outside and pistons hissed. With a pulse of deep, inky blue light, the board was live. Old Joe stretched out the cricks in his neck, popped the joints in his fingers tried to massage some feeling back into his cramped and constrained legs. His advancing years were making the conditions of the casket just a little harder to bear and not for the first time Old Joe wondered what he had done to find himself sentenced to transmission duty. Just who had he been before the wipe? They were the thoughts of an old man, but not bitter thoughts, the old seldom have the energy or time for bitterness.
He winced and a crystal pale, topaz fluid trickled through one of the tubes that festooned his side, flowing off to parts unknown. Old Joe sighed with relief and pulled the nutrient tube over to his mouth, slurping down the thick food paste it provided. It tasted like grit. Tasty, nutritious grit. Wriggling into a slightly more comfortable position Old Joe began his wait. The wait for the inevitable call to action.
It was the clatter of the tape spools that wrenched Old Joe from yet another doze. A staccato of grinding gears, punctuated by the shrill beeps and whines of the receiver alarm. A thin strip of wafer thin manila paper fell in a jerking cascade from a small slot on the wall, coiling into a small brass tray beneath. It finished with a sputter and a wheeze. With a careless yank Old Joe tore it off at the root and stretched it out before his eyes, squinting to make out the small, smudge typestrokes of cheap carbon ink. The first of the storm-wracked pigeons had come home to roost. There was one of the heavy, eight prop Ruski ekranoplans, pelting out of the north-east, it couldn’t take the chop and was heaving-to, right down toward the throat of the harbour which Old Joes casket watched over. It had been coming down out of the north, though the Utsires, before heading out into the open waters before the weather had closed in. Now the pilot was out there alone in the wind and the rising waves and the driving spray. He was coming in blind and all there was to help him was a frail old man in a cramped iron box. But it was a frail old man in a cramped iron box with a six-inch, one thousand watt signal lamp. A thing like that cut through weather and storm with an unwavering fury. It was a luminescence without mercy. With practised hands Old Joe rapidly hammered at the transmission contacts, sending a cascade of dots and dashes out winging out across the murky sea carried on the back of a pulsing blue light. Heading towards the beleaguered pilot. Guiding him to safety.