Edition 12: Black Smoker Hero by Rachael Acks
Javier Burtke, miner on a distant world stumbles on a discovery that may change how the world sees the ‘smokers’, the black fields of smoking crevices. This is one area in which he cannot fail again. Rachael Acks was runner-up for the Story Quest competition, and undoubtedly you will see why this great frontier science fiction caught our attention. SY
Video log: 04.10.52 1859
The room is plain and small, walls gunmetal gray but partially papered with safety notices, reminders about proper compression procedures, suit checks, what to do in case of hull breach. A man looks into the camera, one rough hand rasping at the black stubble on his square jaw. His hair is in damp, lank curls, glistening with something more viscous than water. The stained name tape over the left breast pocket of his rumpled lime green jumpsuit has ‘Javier Burtke’ stitched into it.
Right, right. Time for my daily talking to myself session. Psych bullshit. I know you assholes don’t watch these in real time. Just here in case I go bugfuck from lack of sunshine. You know what would really help? If you guys let us piggyback a video up to the surface. Even prisoners get a phone call.
He tries to switch the video off; a red light flashes and a buzzer sounds.
At least five minutes my ass. Fine. Fine.
Nothing special today. Went a bit further into the C field, to plot the next week for the mining rig. Fucking environmental regs, man. The hell do they think I’m going to see out there, some new kind of fucking tube worm? The smokers are thick like you wouldn’t believe. Couldn’t see my damn glove in front of the faceplate, nothing but billows of superheated black shit crystallizing in the water. It’s gonna be a pain in the ass plus to get the mower through there, but the boss is probably getting a stiffy just thinking about it. That many smokers, there should be a ton of metals to pick up.
Seems a shame, mowing down the field when it’s still building itself. Used to be we’d only go for the dead fields. Those were less dangerous too. Could see where you were going, and the vent water didn’t half-boil you alive. I think the constant heat’s making the pink shit…the perfluorcarbon fluid go off. My mouth tastes damn funny lately, feels like my sinuses have had someone drizzle lime without the coconut on them. But when I had the tech check my AD suit, he said it was all in my head.
Going to try to make it to the far end of the C field tomorrow. I’m stuck down here another two weeks, but if I get the walkthrough finished I can sit in here and fuck with the network while the mower runs on auto. And who doesn’t like getting paid to do nothing?
Video log: 05.10.52 1902
Javier Burtke dissects a silver ready-meal tray, peeling back strips of foil to reveal the overcooked vegetables and non-descript meat covered in lumpy brown gravy. He pulls out the little biscuit and knocks it around the desktop with thick fingers as he talks, like it’s a plastic puck on an air hockey table.
Didn’t make it as far into the C field as I wanted. Just keeps getting thicker and thicker, out there. Thought I…
He flicks the biscuit again and it skitters off the edge of the desk. He laughs, grimacing.
Shit, thought I saw something. A light; just this dim, bluish glow cutting through the boiling black. I think it’s my eyes playing tricks, trying to look through fluid that’s gone off. There’s nothing down here to glow, other than me and the mower, and that’s still working the B field with…what’s his name. Greg. My best friend, three minutes a day at hand-off.
Maybe I’ll just cash out after this one. Too much time alone in the dark for me. I hear they’re looking for experienced miners out in the asteroid belts. At least there’d be other guys around, then. You got to have a buddy on your safety line if nothing else.
Gotta get off this rock before the water crushes me.
Video log: 06.10.52 1851
Javier’s stubble is back, dark circles around his eyes. He plants his elbows on the desk, leaning forward with energy that belies his tired appearance. The lights are darkened, the room leaning in behind him.
I did see something out there.
Wasn’t the light that gave it away. It’s too easy to lose light in the deep. It was cold, that’s how I found it. One minute the water’s boiling my left leg and arm, my nuts, and then whoosh…Cold. Like slipping into a lake on a hot day, but more profound, a shock that just ran out the ends of my hair. And the cold water was coming out of one of the smokers. Far as I know, geology just doesn’t work that way.
Ducked my head in and out of the cold water, felt around for it—but careful, since I’ve seen some pretty decent-sized crabs in the field; they might look weird but they can still punch a hole in your glove if they’re feeling pissy—and found the vent for it about halfway around the smoker. I scraped out some rocks and that blue light came out. Blue like the way sunlight looks on a lake bottom.
I tried to look down into that part of the chimney but the damn helmet. It’s too bulky; I couldn’t get the right angle. So I just fucking reached my hand in. Like every dumbass in a horror movie. And—
He stares at his hand, fingers curling and uncurling.
Something touched me. Wrapped around my fingers. Let go when I yanked my hand out, though, so I don’t know what it looked like. But…
Reminds me of this time, on the Clarette field, when this octopus came up to me and just, like, shook my hand. Like a dog. Never thought octopi were cute ’til that moment. It wasn’t like a person grabbing my hand. Because a person, you know they want to say hello, or ask for help, or whatever. An animal could mean anything. Maybe they’re curious, or think you look tasty.
But maybe it’s harder, too, because you’re reaching for some ugly fucker that doesn’t even look like you. Right across the species line.
He stares at his hand, and then scrubs it over his face.
And then I ran over his house with a fucking mower and probably turned the little guy into a cloud of meat.
The mower’s moved on to the C field, but I’ve got a week before it gets anywhere near the area. Not going to report it, yet. I don’t know what it is. Other than it’s mine.
Video log: 07.10.52 1835
More stubble, dark rings around his eyes like they’re drawn on, but there’s a hectic light to Javier. He grins and his teeth flash white. He turns a digital recorder, a scarred silver cuboid the size of a box of cigarettes over and over in his hand, and then drops it to skitter across the desk.
Took my recorder out there. My personal one, so it’s not auto-uplinked. Just fit down the vent, and I was smart. Tied a rope to it. And just fuckin’ look.
He scrambles the recorder back into his hands, and turns it to display the images. There’s blue light, like the bottom of a lake or a clear, shallow sea. Pale, whip-like creatures curl in the water, decorated with patterns of orange and red. Jade green animals with black button eyes and clouds of tentacles curiously orbit the image, thin tendrils obscuring the lens now and then as they touch it.
I’ve been all over the oceans, diving. I’ve never seen anything like that. Not on Earth. And shit. One of those little guys touched me. I touched a fucking alien. Oh my god.
He turns the recorder screen back toward himself, sparks of color reflected in his eyes.
I know, sounds crazy, just saying that. But I can’t help but think; when I took oceanography, before I dropped out, there’s one thing I always remember. With all the currents, the sinking and rising, gyres, all that shit—all the oceans on Earth are connected. The water goes everywhere eventually. It’s one big ocean.
Maybe all oceans really are connected, not just on Earth.
I have to show someone. Maybe Greg. Or maybe if I ask nice, they’ll let me have a video stream to the surface. I could…call mom.
She could pray for me.
Video log: 08.10.52 1847
Javier is clean-shaven again, but his eyes are bloodshot, his hair sticking out in spikes. He has the digital recorder in his hands again, turning it over and over as he leans his elbows on the desk.
Wouldn’t give me a video stream up to the surface. Too expensive. Only in case of emergency, need all that data for the facility. They couldn’t explain to me how I’d know if there was an emergency going on if they won’t let me talk to anyone. Pencil pushers. Might as well just come out and say, “Shut up, grunt.”
And I didn’t show Greg either. I was going to, but…I don’t know. It’s mine. Minute I show it to him, he’ll want to go crawling all over it, and then who else will he tell? The boss, probably. Maybe I should tell the super. That’d stop the mower on C field, I bet. Or at least that part, and the pay will keep rolling in.
But then I was thinking last night, right before I went to sleep…Well, who am I kidding, I didn’t sleep a wink, just watched the video over and over. But I was thinking.
Once upon a time, the black smoker fields were the most alien thing anyone had ever seen, right? I watched some of the old documentaries, when they sent that little tin can sub—what was it called? Alvin? Like we don’t anthropomorphize shit enough. But when they sent it down here, they didn’t know what they’d find. It was like walking on the goddamn moon. The final frontier, a mile underwater.
He puts the recorder down with a final click on the desktop.
And now every day, we’re chewing is apart. I’m starting a new row tomorrow.
Fuck, man. This is above my pay grade.
Video log: 09.10.52 1845
Javier has his face in his hands. His fingernails are ragged, nibbled down to the quick.
Went to look again today. I’m far enough ahead on the course that it shouldn’t matter, right? And…
He fumbles the recorder from his pocket, drops it, picks it up again and shows the video. It’s that same serene, alien landscape. This time a shadow grows in the distance, drifting closer. Its shape is indistinct, waving with tentacles. It grows closer and closer until it blocks out everything, until all that’s visible is a single, black eye, bigger than the vent in the smoker, regarding the recorder with unreadable intent.
Didn’t know what was there ’til I pulled the recorder out. But I knew something was wrong. The water coming out of that vent wasn’t cold any more. And it went red. Just.red, like billows of blood. It stained my ADS. Don’t know how the fuck I’m gonna explain that.
He drops the recorder and puts his face in his hands again.
Should have known better. Nothing’s ever just cute and small; there’s always a spot of ugly and scary that’s bigger than you’ll ever know. Grows and grows like the bruise on an apple.
What…what if that thing gets through?
Maybe if I just have the mower run it over, grind the thing to hell, the—whatever it is, portal, link, whatever—maybe it’ll shut down.
I could be Javier Burtke, the greatest hero no one’s ever heard of.
Video log: 11.10.52 1905
Javier leans back in his chair, staring at the ceiling.
I figured out how to look straight in, today. Just had to climb up on the smoker. I burned my hand a little, but it was worth it. The recorder isn’t like looking with your eyes. You can’t really feel it reflect on the back of your head. It’s beautiful. It’s just fucking beautiful. And maybe there’s big Cthulhu-looking motherfucker in there, but that’s not everything. Guess I was just shitting myself yesterday, but I looked again and…
Reminded me why I went to sea.
He twists slowly in the chair, back and forth.
So what happens? Am I Javier the explorer? The hero? I could stop all this in a heartbeat, just call in the EPA, right? The fucking UN even. And I’d probably get fired, but I’d be famous. Savior of the last major field on Earth, discoverer of…whatever the fuck they call that planet. Or am I the billionaire because I find us new fields to mine? The murderer? Am I going to make it the Americas all over again, discovering a place where people already live and bringing them death? Or that stupid asshole Javier, who let the monsters in because he thought he was so damn clever?
I don’t know.
I should have reported it. But that’s like saying they’re right, I’m just a college burnout and I can’t do anything but leash myself to a machine and walk it in circles. And what if they pick the wrong thing?
What if I pick the wrong thing?
This would be easier if I had a kid. If I had a wife, even, and saw even the shadow of a baby in my future. It’s seems so fucking easy, when you can say you did it for them. So much less selfish. Like it’s okay even if you made a bad choice, because you did it with the best intentions.
Road to hell and all that.
He finally sits forward and looks ahead, eyes wide. But he’s looking at a point beyond, perhaps into an alien sea where blue light ripples.
Whatever I choose will be wrong.
Video log: 12.10.52 0557
Javier has his elbows planted on the desk. Wordlessly, he holds up a data pad, showing a memo. The words ‘RICH VEIN’ and ‘SPEED PRODUCTION; SECOND MOWER WILL BE SENT’ are highlighted.
And a PS, just for my copy of the memo, not Greg’s. The supe wants me to focus on my job. Quit screwing around. My performance review is in danger.
My performance review. Like that’s the only thing that matters.
He drops the data pad on the floor and stands.
Fuck it. Just, fuck it.
I know who I’m going to be.
Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to her steampunk novella series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Waylines, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra, and more. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bicycles, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her husband and their two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website (http://www.rachaelacks.com) or watch her tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.