June 2005

FICTION

A HEALTHY
BREATH OF MORN

Ralan Conley

 

 

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-hair'd Saturn, quiet as a stone.
Hyperion, bk.i,1.1 John Keats, 1847-1907

I ets of hot, smoky fluid rippled through the vast stand of giant tube worms. Like spectators at some pivotal undersea sports event they dipped and rose in waves.

It struck Ebram that with their white stalks and red tips it looked more like a crowd of blind people waving their canes. Not a bad analogy, come to think. The tubers possessed no eyes, no visual sense of any kind. Blind, indeed.

Could they smell or taste? Was mere existence enough? With his own personal and financial life in ruins, was he any better off?

Ebram focused on the black smoker, a seven-meter high cone of minerals vomited up in venting fluid. His eyes narrowed as he caught the glint of golden flecks, gold, mixed with copper, zinc and silver. On land, mounds like this, massive sulfides, were all but mined out.

A sharp thud brought his head up. He glared at the curved walls of his tiny metal tube of existence, feeling vulnerable. Two hundred and fifty atmospheres pressed against every square centimeter of his one-man submersible, the Eureka. Moans, squeaks, even small leaks were normal. An experienced diver ignored them. Thuds, however, meant trouble.

When the sound didn't repeat, he let his breath whistle out. He'd designed Eureka to withstand more than three hundred and fifty atmospheres. This depth was nothing.

He glanced at his outside thermometer: 2,513 meters below sea level, over a mile and a half down. At that depth seawater boiled at 388 degrees Celsius. In the nearby fissure the temperature reached 403° C.

He peered out through the thick glass port and spied a half-meter long Bathysaurus fish round a tube worm stalk and stop, facing the submersible. It seemed to grin at him from the sea floor.

He found himself grinning back. Did the pressure give it that expression, or was the fish chuckling to itself at the clumsy machine that had invaded its home? Amused by the fragile, comical visitor inside, unable to survive without his elaborate, exorbitant shelter.

This was virgin territory. Untold wealth waited for him out there, riches for him to salvage. He thought of his wife, at home, trying to hold off the creditors and loan sharks. This seamount looked like the salvation of Ebram Krestis.

Life, in any form, is tenacious. He believed that. Even his own.

His first visit to this site was a little over two years ago, days after a volcanic eruption had flattened and scorched a nearby oasis; shrouding it in thick gray ash, with tube worm carcasses lying everywhere like spent roman candles. But new vents had opened here. Already then a sheet of white bacteria had clung to the fissure walls.

On his next visit, sixteen months ago, brachyuran crabs had arrived to feast on the bacteria. Half-meter long Jericho worms, resembling thin clothes-dryer hoses, had bowed toward the vents as if making obeisance to a new master.

By this trip giant tube worms had overrun the place. Only a few Jerichos survived. Crabs darted around the stalks, snatching bites off the fleshy tube worms. Tiny shrimps and other crustaceans gobbled up microbes grown fat on the bacteria. And pale pink Zoarcidae eelpouts slithered through the tube forest, seeming to languish in the glistening fluids.

Life is tenacious, and this site teemed with it once more.

Too bad he must destroy it all before its time, but his creditors wouldn't wait.

He readied the arm to sever one of the giant tube worms and stow it in the pressurized specimen tank. Despite his looming monetary needs, his greatest driving force was still science. These were the largest tubers he'd ever encountered.

With the ease of long practice he snipped off an immature specimen and stowed it in the storage tank that would maintain this pressure after he rose to the surface.

The Eureka shook as another thud jolted the sub. A chill slithered down Ebram's spine. All that water held at bay by his hurried design.

He gripped his joystick controller and executed a vertical spin. An eye as big as his fist floated past the port. He halted and backed up, centering on the red/black orb. Another thud jarred him as the eyeball plastered itself to the glass.

He tried to thrust the submersible away from it, but it stayed glued to the port.

Octopus, a big one. They grew large down here. They also grew libidinous, known to attempt sexual intercourse with octopods of the same sex, or even with other species.

He placed his hands on the external arm controls and extended them. Not knowing the exact position of the creature he waved them about blindly, striking at anything.

He felt one slam into something soft and springy. He hammered at that for several minutes. Finally the port turned black and the eye shot away. The cephalopod had decided Eureka was not a proper meal after all and it departed in a cloud of jetted ink.

A warning light flashed red on his instrument panel. Damn octopod had damaged some piece of equipment. He'd have to surface empty-handed, check it out, and dive for the gold again tomorrow.

Sweat dripping down his face, Ebram pulled the lever that dropped Eureka's two ballast tanks. The trip to the surface took ninety-three minutes.


VILLY OLSTEIN HANDED OVER the hypo.

"Armed and ready to fire."

Ebram examined the clear liquid inside.

"This will work?"

"Ya." Villy shrugged. "Nein. No. I don't know. I extracted the DNA, and several enzymes from the small octopus you found Tuesday and the tube worm from yesterday."

"The test?"

"One angel fish survived two hours of heavy pressure."

Ebram nodded. "Without this serum it wouldn't last a minute."

"Don't take it, doctor, unless you must."

Ebram packed the hypo in a plastic case and slipped it into his shirt pocket. "Don't worry. Now, let's get to work."


EBRAM INSPECTED THE SEAMOUNT habitat again. A color-splashed oasis of reds, yellows and greens, bright with chunks of minerals. A bluish-white fog of fresh water, laden with minerals, wafted from scores of vents. Shimmering like waves of heat across dark Saharan sands, it nourished life and warmed the frosty seawater to tropical levels.

A silver streak flashed past the port and the sub pitched as the interior lights blinked off then back on.

That big octopus was back. A huge thud rocked the sub. The port went dark. Something dark and rubbery moved across it until the black and red eye-orb peered in at Ebram. Another shutter shook him. The lights flickered.

What did it want?

He must get the sub to safety. Ebram pulled the lever to ascend, but nothing happened. The twin safety lights on the ballast tanks glowed a steady green. His world lurched again and he knew it wasn't the tanks uncoupling. Something was horribly wrong.

He jerked the eject lever up and yanked it down, hard. No effect. Fear stung his eyes as he checked the pressure gauge. It read three hundred atmospheres. How? He wasn't that deep.

Ebram glared at the vid-cam monitor screen. The sub had settled to the ocean floor, surrounded by four-meter high tube worms. They wavered in the hot currents as if caressing the metal globe, their sickly white flesh stroking the thick hull.

His eyes flicked back to the pressure gauge. Three hundred twenty-five. The sub rocked again. Three-fifty.

Ebram remembered the serum. Snatching the case from his pocket, he snapped it open, grasped the hypo, and jabbed the needle into a vein near his wrist. Bracing himself against the wall with a knee, he plunged the injector down.

A great thump smashed him forward. At its limit, the tiny sub groaned in protest. Ebram dropped the empty hypo and wrenched the tank release lever up and down. The green safety lights glowed balefully at him.

A knocking sound came from outside. 'Shave and a haircut...' Ebram wet himself.

Four hundred atmospheres. Tiny cracks appeared in the glass. The hull pressed in on him. Water seeped through the cracks, like tears squeezed between tightly shut eyelids.Pipes wreathed like snakes, popping their joints and hissing air.

With the sound of a sonic boom the globe split open at the top, spitting Ebram out like a pumpkin seed. His dive suit emergency pack immediately enclosed him in polymer bubble of atmosphere. He gasped air into his lungs in desperation. The bubble held, rising up and away from the grasping arms of the tube worm community.

Relief flooded Ebram. The serum worked. He might survive after all.

Then, like a silver missile, the octopus shot out of the gloom on a jet-black tail of ink. As silent as a specter it pierced his bubble of air. Water engulfed Ebram, the pressure mounted. He fought to right himself, to head for the surface, impossibly far above.

The octopus rounded and hit him in the side. The impact almost caused him to inhale. Blinded by the inky cloud of the octopod's jet, he stroked. Up or down, he didn't know.

Out of the blackness a red-tipped tube worm swayed at him. Inconceivably huge, it stretched and engulfed his foot.

The worm was hollow with thousands of tendrils, like thick hairs, fluttering inside. Tendrils pulled at him, sucking the other foot in.

Ebram struggled to swim away from it, while the worm pulled him relentlessly in.

Up to his waist. The interior felt warm, almost inviting.

To his chest. He thought this must be a better way to die than drowning.

To his neck. So warm and secure.

As his head was sucked into the depths of the worm, the tendrils penetrated his skin, drilling into his body, his head, his brain.

The urge to breathe vanished. The tendrils satisfied his need for air. He felt himself becoming one with the tube worm. His senses extended to his new "skin."

He sensed his surroundings; the warmth of the lava-heated jets of water, the companionship of hundreds of other tube worms snuggling around him.

He even saw the octopus, swimming around, still seeking him. But he was safe.

Safe, until the volcano below woke, as it always did, to belch magma over the tiny colony now basking in its slumberous bounty. Then it would open a new chimney, a new oasis all over again, down-range on the mid-ocean ridge, leaving the dead community to freeze.

The security of his surroundings began to quiet his human fears. A tube worm did not share them. Time was nothing. Only the now existed, and now was enjoyable. He waved the top of his tube into a cloud of nutrients, feeling elation as energy coursed through his new body.

But the feeling of security around him wavered. He sensed the other tube worms in distress. He searched with his new senses to find the source. And found it.

What was left of the Eureka was spinning out of control, a leak in an air tank propelling it. The long knife arm stuck out like a scythe.

His own creation was cutting a path through the forest of tube worms. He heard and felt their terror, their pain, as the edge took them down, dozens at a time.

Ebram watched, unable to move or even scream, as Eureka spun toward him, a dervish of destruction in a garden of peace. It reminded him of his former life.

The blade severed his new body at the base. In a rush of seething pain he began to ascend. He felt his vermicular body bloating and expanding as the pressure decreased.

Then the octopus flashed in and gripped his tubular body in its tentacles. Erupting in a spasm of movement, it copulated until it ejaculated its seed into the opening in the top and over Ebram's pale flesh.

Sensing the lessening pressure it finally let go, tentacles waving to him as he rose above the depths it had grown used to.

Blackness enveloped Ebram as he felt his new body release fertilized eggs that rained on the ocean floor. Perhaps a part of him might survive.


ON THE DECK OF the surface research vessel, Pacifica, Villy Olstein stood gazing at the sea as the ship readied to return home.

"Wonder what happened down there."

His associate, Ned McCarthy shrugged. "Guess we'll never know. Maybe he got too greedy, took a risk he shouldn't have."

"Hey, in spite of his love of the Blackjack tables, Ebram was a damn fine scientist."

"Yeah, and our ticket to wealth and happiness. We'll have to make do with old man Perimandt for the rest of the term."

Villy glanced down, squinting against the setting sun. "What the hell's that?"

"Where?"

Villy pointed below them. "Damn me if it isn't a tube worm. Big one."

"Floating?"

"You don't suppose?"

"It's got something to do with what happened to Doctor Krestis? No. God no."

"I've never heard of one floating to the surface before."

The tube worm bobbed, lifeless, on the waves.

"Ugh," Ned scratched his head. "Looks like a corpse.

"Let's ask the captain to fish it out. Might be interesting."

The Pacifica's horn sounded and the deck shifted as the ship got under way.

"Too late."

"Damn, look. The prop's sucking it in."

"Guess we'll never know now."


THE EELPOUT WEAVED THROUGH waving stalks of tube worms. Warm, nutrient-rich waters supplied his every need. He'd lived a carefree existence; having never met a predator, or any rival for his niche in the grand scheme of the seamount community.

He swam past crabs and small shrimp, busy chewing the flesh of the giant worms. Rounding one especially large tuber he stopped dead in the water. A new creature faced him.

It looked somewhat like a large octopus, except its body was longer and white. Instead of eight tentacles, it had four. It stood on two of them. The other two, which projected from under its oversized red-colored head, had eight short, opposable appendages at each end.

The newcomer studied the small eelpout, then reached out with one hand to grab it and stuff it into its mouth.

As it swallowed the fish whole, the lava vent gave a short belch and a wave of heat billowed across the community. The new creature stared at the venting mount a moment. Deciding trouble was on the way, it jetted away, leaving an inky black trail.

Others of its kind did the same, followed later by most of the crustaceans and fish, just before the lava vent finally blew, destroying the place of their birth.

Some days later they assembled around a blizzard cloud of bacteria being spewed high above the ocean floor by a newly opened fissure. The cold of the surrounding waters hadn't bothered them, nor had the pressure, though they were able to live in shallower waters. But they enjoyed basking in the warm, fertile tides around the newly rising seamount.

Besides, food was on the way to their new home. Unlike them, the other life forms at this extreme depth had no choice. This was the only habitat around.


 

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June 2005 Issue, Updated

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"A Healthy Breath of Morn"
Copyright © 2005 Ralan Conley, all rights reserved.

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