- H.K. Slade
Note: Personally, I have always been terrified of the deep ocean. The thought of drifting above a mile of dark water filled with massive, alien creatures that could kill me simply by pulling me a few inches closer to the earth should be a more common phobia, certainly ranked above the fear of public speaking if you ask me. Anyway, I dreamed the following story very nearly in it's entirety one night. That happens to me a lot, but this time the dream hit me so hard I couldn't get back to sleep and I had the good fortune to sit down and write it all out before it faded. I say good fortune because it became one of the first stories I sold. It's a little abstract, but I hope you'll still enjoy it.
This story was originally published by Alien Skin Magazine in February of 2005.
Snow fell. The miner watched it drift down from the sky and splatter on his faceplate. He longed to remove the helmet and catch one single flake on his tongue; he couldn’t remember how to remove the helmet. It was all so complicated. Why does it have to be so complicated?
Soon the falling snow covered him completely. The weight of it grew pleasant, like a heavy blanket, like welcome death, and the miner smiled for the first time in days.
Ten tubes, Failan counted. Wow.
The tubes ran from the beds to the ceiling, each cast of the pure, polished silver that reflected room in concave and showed every little fingerprint. The tubes had no joints, no kinks, no coils, yet gave the distinct impression of flexibility. No, more than flexibility, fluidity, as though they’d been poured rather than crafted.
All of the beds in the birthroom had tubes of course, but some more then others. The average was four. Failan’s twin sister, Gwen, had seven. Failan himself had eight, the second highest in the room. Failan’s idol, his older brother, Victor, was the room's only ten. Victor had forty-eight ounces of Ore to his name, and that made him special, a minor celebrity. It also meant privileges and opportunities for his family. Failan and Gwen were both going to be miners, too. For that, Failan was immensely grateful. He looked at the dozen or so beds with only two or three tubes and shuddered at the thought of a life spent down in the hydroponics caves or in waste recycling.
Failan and Gwen stood proudly in the envirosuits. Gwen looked strange without her curly brown locks, but Failan knew he looked no different. He rubbed his own shorn scalp.
“Don’t let it bother you,” Victor said in his calm, sage voice. Failan turned to face his older brother, a little embarrassed that anyone had seen him touching his scalp. Victor smiled, seeming to sense the tension and apprehension in Failan. He pointed to his own shaven head.
“We all go through it, little brother. It’s the same for everybody.” Victor laughed and rubbed Failan’s head playfully.
“Stop that,” Father said, though not with any anger. No, he was too proud to be angry. “This is a solemn occasion.” His chest swelled as he looked at his three children, his three miners. He’d cropped his own hair as close as was allowed, but Father was no miner. He was only a four.
The mood in the airlock was almost festive. Only Mother’s worried tears rang a disharmonious note. All three children knew how she fretted about them when they left the Mountain. Failan suspected she would have forgone all the status and luxuries afforded to miners and their families if it meant her precious children would never have to go to the surface again. A stern look from Father checked her from voicing her fears. Even Gwen showed signs of noticing the tension between the two.
“Enough,” Victor said, taking charge as usual. “The camels are waiting. Let’s get these two on their way.”
Mother and Father backed out of the airlock obediently. Victor stayed behind, giving the two freshman miners last minute advice and their envirosuits a final check.
“I know you’r both eighteen, and I know your teachers think they’ve taught you all you need to know.” Victor paused, his purple lips curling in a slight smile. They all knew he had nearly twice the Ore of the very best of their teachers. “But listen to your big brother a little bit.
"These suits are your life. They’re smart, and they’re tough, and they’ll keep you from freezing to death even in the middle of the night. Trust the suits. Trust nothing else. The maps aren’t always right. Camels can die. You own minds may not serve you. No matter how much training you think you have, there is no way to prepare for the loneliness out on the surface.” Victor’s voice grew distant, as all miners’ did when they spoke of the cold loneliness of the surface. He punched at Gwen’s respirator unit, making sure it was sealed properly.
“If one of you gets lost,” Victor continued as he checked the contact points on Failan’s helmet, “don’t bother looking for each other. It’s just too… big out there. The suit will keep you alive, and the tracer will lead you back to the Mountain. The Ore,” he said, a touch of reverence in his tone, “that’s the important thing. If you comeback without any, they won’t send out again.”
Gwen and Failan both nodded, showing their older brother that they understood the gravity of his words.
Victor smiled, his thin, purple lips parting. “You two won’t have to worry about that. Everything will be fine. Good luck,” he said, and stepped out of the airlock.
The two siblings donned their helmets, double and triple checking the locks as they’d been trained to. Gwen turned to wave goodbye to their family as the inner door cycled shut, but Failan stared fixedly at the outer door.
We’re going out on the surface! he wanted to shout. His mind swam with visions of glory, of finding enough Ore to power the Mountain for years. The miners talked of a giant vein of Ore far to the south. Failan wanted to find it.
There was a hissing sound as the technicians sealed the inner door. Failan’s envirosuit whirled to life, quickly compensating for the plummeting temperature. A thin layer of frost suddenly appeared on everything, the trace moisture in the air instantly freezing. The airlock was the last intact structure from the colony ship, everything else having been cannibalized to make life in the Mountain possible. Failan remembered from his studies that the reactor itself took up almost twenty percent of the Mountain’s available conductive material. The suits they were wearing were priceless just for the metal in the circuits.
He reached over and grasped Gwen’s hand. She chewed on her upper lip, a sure sign of her mild fright. Failan gave her a wink and a squeeze through their gloves. She seemed just on the verge of smiling when the outer door flew open. The pure, white light blinded them in the second it took the suits to polarize their face plates. Cold air and crystallized gases whooshed into the airlock, slamming into Gwen and Failan like the warhammer of an ice giant.
Failan sloshed about in the snow. The entire landscape was a solid plane of blue and white, broken only at intervals by the gray islands of rock protrusions. Beneath the snow, liquid gases ran in rivers down the curves of the ranges, pooling in fathomless oceans of absolute cold. The envirosuit allowed Failan to swim beneath the snow, down through the river, but he choose to walk the ridges when he could. There were things that could live on the surface. The pack animal that carried his equipment was proof of that. But the blubbery, benign camels were only the most timid example of surface’s native species. The blue darkness of the gas flows frightened Failan. The vast abyss of the oceans terrified him.
Gwen was gone, a minor landslide having left them on opposite sides of a very steep ridge.
“The Ore is what’s important,” Victor had said, and Failan believed him. Gwen was only a seven, but she’d find her way back to the Mountain.
Failan climbed up a spire of rock. Exhaustion weighed his limbs like thick grease. His training had been intense, but there was no substitute for actually going out on the surface. Every movement had to dislodge a pound of snow, and the suit itself was cumbersome. The climb took nearly a quarter of an hour, and in the end, Failan found himself only a few feet above the drifts.
Good enough, he though. I just need one clear reading. I’ve been following this damned source long enough. Probably gone too far south. But it’s one big reading. I could set the bar on my first trip. Not even Victor did that. Failan thought in spurts to match his labored breathing
Reading taken, he dropped from the spire into the soft snow. The camel roared its distaste for the notion of moving anymore that day. The bellows around its mouth expanded, filtering out the body heat and moisture in the animal’s breath before the surface’s air could leach it away. Failan tugged at its leash.
“Come on, you stubborn sack of fat,” he said to the camel, “You’re the only company I’ve got. Just over the river and up the next hill, and we’re on our way back home.” He spoke aloud, though he knew no one could hear him. One of his teachers had said it was the silence that got to most miners. “
Better to talk to you than go crazy, right, old boy?” The camel didn’t answer.
They reached the edge of the river and plunged in. Failan’s suit kept him buoyant just below the snow, and the camel had its own mechanisms for floating. Despite his excitement over the rich load of Ore he was so close to finding, Failan felt ill at ease in the liquid gas. Darkness ran like a river beneath the flow, the blue light that filtered through the snow not being enough to illuminate its depths. Failan unstrapped his spear rifle from the camel, the only weapon he had against the rare but deadly predators of the surface.
Midway through the flow, a gap formed overhead in the snow. Failan surfaced with the camel, feeling an intense need to see the bright white of the open sky. He bobbed in the gap, the four feet deep crust of snow walling him in and blocking most of his view. Beside him, the camel relaxed, allowing the folds of its flesh to drift to the surface.
The loneliness found him an easy target, floating in the gas flow. In the Mountain, people were everywhere. Solitude had become an abstract concept. There, too, were always the walls. Below and beside and, most importantly, above. Failan had grown to manhood in caves. The surface offered none of those comforts. He felt as though he might fall off the world at any point.
“Enough of this foolishness,” he said to himself. “There is Ore to be found. If I can only keep my mind on that, the rest doesn’t matter.” Failan rolled over…
…and blood sprayed the air and froze on his faceplate. The camel screamed in pain, the terrible noise overcoming the suit’s sound dampers. The river roiled around Failan, and the camel churned it further by trying frantically to drag its half severed body on top of the snow. A set of jaws as wide as a man erupted from the liquid gas and clamped around the camel’s mangled legs, dragging the helpless beast under.
The training took over. Failan dove, condensing his suit’s ballast. Twenty feet below, he spotted the nightmare creature, it’s hideous, tentacled body tearing its latest meal apart. Failan brought the spear rifle to his shoulder and took aim.
He never fired. In one instantaneous flash of insight, he realized the hopelessness of his predicament. Everything had been strapped to the camel: the stasis sphere, the mining equipment, his food, all his maps, and, most importantly…
“No,” Failan cried. “NO!”
… the tracer, his only way back to the Mountain.
He watched, powerless to do anything, as the creature sunk down into the darkness. Failan briefly considered diving down and recovering his equipment, but he couldn’t make himself. He feared the darkness more than death, which were exactly his options.
“Never detach your tracer from your suit,” Victor had said. “And no matter how much Ore you think you’re going to find, don’t let yourself be lured too far south.” Failan had broken both rules, and now he was going to die for it.
He dropped the spear rifle, letting the flow carried it down and away. The doomed miner didn’t even watch it go.
After two days, Failan began to die. True to all predictions, the suit did not fail him. It recycled his body wastes, kept him warm and hydrated, but it could not make food. The food had been on the camel, along with the stasis sphere. Even if he had a four course meal packed neatly in a tight little bundle, Failan had no way to eat it.
This damned suit has one failing, he thought. It won’t let you die quickly.
Failan let himself drift in a gas flow. He’d given up trying to make is way back to the Mountain after the first day. He was too far south to know any landmarks and, from a distance, all mountains pretty much looked the same. So he’d given up and let the surface have its way with him.
The deep blue monotony of the environment and the gentle, weightless sensation of drifting in the river lulled the lost miner into one last mistake: he fell asleep in the gas flow.
When he awoke, so did his numbed sense of terror.
He’d been washed into an ocean.
Failan became so frightened he nearly went catatonic. All the envirosuit’s instrumentation declared that his body temperature was within acceptable limits, yet he shivered violently. He ordered the suit to begin emergency treatment for hypothermic shock, but the suit insisted it was unnecessary.
“You stupid husk,” he screamed through chattering teeth. He tried the overrides, but his memory failed him, too. In desperation, Failan made his faceplate opaque.
Slowly, the cold receded. Without the void of the deep ocean weighing down on him, Failan began to breath normally again. He reverted to the child part of his brain that believed if he could not see it, it wasn’t there. He slept again.
Failan dreamed of returning to the Mountain. He brought with him no Ore and slunk in through the airlock like a beaten child. Father would not look at him. Mother sat in the corner of the birthroom and cried to herself. In his dream, Failan looked up and saw that all the tubes were gone from his bed, all but one. Victor stood by Gwen’s bed. He helped her to stand, and Failan saw the cold scars all over her once pretty face. A blank visor covered her eyes. Failan knew what that meant. One of the old miners wore such a visor. His eyes had been frost burnt. Victor turned from Gwen, his lips drawn in a thin, purple line. He walked over and unhooked the last tub from Failan’s bed.
Failan awoke in a start. He’d bumped into something.
Maybe I’ve drifted into land, Failan thought. He fumbled with the controls, and the faceplate gradually cleared. No, he was still in the deep ocean. Then what did I hit? A shadow rolled over the lone miner, blotting out the false sky of snow.
He’d hit nothing. Something had hit him.
They were leviathans, creatures larger than anything Failan had ever imagined. Their skins were like the walls of the Mountain, craggy and pitted, and they slid through the liquid gas with a grace that utterly defied their impossible size.
Tears poured down Failan’s cheeks. The suit cleaned them as quickly as he could cry them, but he did not notice. Fear was finally beginning to detach Failan’s mind from his body.
Let them notice me, he thought. Let them smash my body like a mite’s. Let it be over.
No! screamed another part of him. It was a primitive consciousness, attached to the physical body of Failan and not so ethereal as an ego or a personality. It was closer akin to the heart or his glands than any sequential firing of synapses. It was the need to survive, and it took control of Failan’s arms and rapped them around the passing giant’s fin.
He rode with them for hours, though it seemed like days. Fatigue finally unlocked his limbs, and he fell away, drifting to a stop. The pod of massive creatures never even noticed him.
The ocean’s tide washed the lost miner up on a shelf. Starving, exhausted, an more than halfway to a dissociative mental state, Failan broke through the snow and crawled from the ocean. In the near distance, a mountain loomed. It looked like every other giant protrusion of rock on the surface with only the slightest variations. Failan knew those variations. He knew he was looking at home. Failan could almost swear he saw the glint of the airlock’s outer door. A sheet of gray clouds blanketed the sky, making such a glint impossible.
Is my mind lying to me? he wondered. He no longer bothered speaking aloud. The familiar variations drifted in and out of focus. Failan tried to order the suit to dry his eyes, but he didn’t even have the strength for that.
It doesn’t even matter. The mountain could be on other side of the planet, or I could be on top of it. I’ll never see the inside of it again. Better to believe I see it. It’s almost as good as making it. Better, in some ways.
Snow fell. Failan watched it drift down from the sky and splatter on his faceplate. He longed to remove the helmet and catch one single flake on his tongue; he couldn’t remember how to remove the helmet. It was all so complicated. Why does it have to be so complicated?
Soon the falling snow covered him completely. The weight of it grew pleasant, like a heavy blanket, like welcome death, and Failan smiled for the first time in days.
“If only I had been this content in life. If only we were all this content. What does ambition bring but misery in the end? The two’s and three’s have it right. How perfect is a life spent amongst growing plants? Or in the mindless oblivion of a factory?”
“The plants would die without heat,” a voice said. “The reactor would shut down if it ran out of Ore. And who is going to get more Ore if not the miners?”
“Victor?” Failan could no longer tell if he was speaking out loud or thinking to himself. He wasn’t sure if Victor’s voice was in is helmet, or in his head.
A glove swiped the snow from Failan’s faceplate. Victor stood above him. Night had fallen across the surface, leaving the sky a rich purple. The lights on Victor’s suit shone like small, orange flames against the background of cold darkness. Seen through his faceplate, Victor’s face betrayed neither shame nor anger, only concern.
“Come on, little brother,” he said, lifting Failan to his feet. “You don’t get to give up just yet. It’s time to go home.”