Short story: Scratching the surface


As soon as I saw the theme for this submission, the idea for a story came to me. I didn’t manage to finish it by the deadline but here it is for you to read and enjoy.

Scratching the surface

John2 and Matthew9 checked the control panels, acknowledging their accord with a time honoured thumbs up. John2 pressed the ascent button and the small metal craft rose slowly through the cold, dark water. Matthew9 turned on the forward lights, illuminating the ring of identical craft, rising towards the surface.

Inside his glass helmet, John2 sweated, his greying dreadlocks prickling his neck. A few months left, that was all he had, until one final year on supervisory, equipment check and personnel before returning to his family. He chuckled at Matthew9’s eager face, pressed to his helmet, watching the light beams of forty nine mining craft. And they weren’t the only team. Three identical details rose with them at five mile intervals and each drill point had three craft, rising and falling, never stopping like determined spiders on a home spun thread.

Matthew9 pointed as he switched on the top beam of the craft, locating the tunnelling entrance, twenty metres above them. John2 flicked to manual control and edged their nose into the gaping mouth. The path of the ice tunnel zigzagged, forward fifty metres then vertical for fifty, until they reached the orange marker buoy. John2 plunged the drill into the ice. Green lights rose on the dashboard and he applied power to the thrusters and the drill bit began its work. The time clock was started and John2 sat back in his worn, patched chair, feeling the rhythm of the engine through his body.

Rock chunks in the ice were their enemy. At best, they could return to base with a damaged drill bit, while worst scenarios involving the drill being ripped away, allowing the weight and pressure of the ocean to consume them, were the real worry. In the thirty years since Galaxy Sea Base began operating, almost a thousand personnel had lost their lives to the water. Safety had improved. Sea Base Metals Inc were synthesising knew craft with stronger hulls and more durable bits but still people died. The world may have had one hundred years to build a world beneath the ocean but in John2’s opinion, they hadn’t thought about the little things. Even with freezing temperatures, sending the world into chaos, he remembered the history he had learned at school, of the millions of ordinary people who were commanded to sacrifice themselves by so few.

But John2 knew his job. This was his second ten year work placement on the drills and, with any luck, his last. Blinking sweat from his pale blue eyes, he remembered Sarah’s words as she held him, almost nine years ago.
“You’re nearly there, John. Galaxy played a statement over the base. One more year, that’s all so you make damn sure to keep your eyes open. They’re sending unmanned craft to break the surface.”
She’d been so sure, his Sarah. Images of his wife, nursing their children and lying naked beside him in bed brought a familiar lump to his throat. Weekly five minute links were no time to tell her how he felt about her, no time to extract from the emotional chaos in his head, the appropriate words of solace for Sarah. For seven years he’d been with her, first bringing his son into a synthetically aired underwater world and two years later, his twin daughters. And then his work was called in a second time. Sarah’s tears wetted his cheeks every night. Sarah was right. This was the final detail.

Two circuits of the time clock completed, they plugged into the feeding station, switching on their comms as they relaxed.
“So you volunteered for this caper?”
“’Course man!” Matthew9 laughed, his big black face crinkling with delight. “I knows the score, man. My brother on the inside, he tells me ‘Get your ass on a drilling detail and start life on land with a million!’ We’re nearly there! I’m gonna be rich!”
John2 smiled and nodded. Twenty nine years of being told they were nearly there made him do that. The company were always promising a million to the craft that cleared the final stretch to the surface.
A tremor ran through his seat. Focussed on his dashboard, he checked the instruments for discrepancies in the settings. Thrusters were on full but forward motion had stopped. Heat sensors on the bit were high but not critical. Was it rock or something else stopping them proceeding?
“We got problems?”
“Not sure.”
“We drilling rock?”
“Could be but there’s no debris being thrown back. Look.”
Matthew9 turned the craft’s side lights up, illuminating the trail of slush sluicing past their rear.
“If there was rock in it, you’d hear it and feel it as it went by, don’t worry.”
“I’m cool if you are, man.”
John2 smiled. “I’m cool.”

The third circuit of the time clock was almost complete and the bit had sped up as it carved its way through the dark matter. Ice continued to flush past the craft and yet John2 knew with a certainty that alarmed him that he was no longer drilling through frozen water.
The pointer on the time clock showed one more circuit before descent and John2 was glad. His gauges showed him the temperature outside the craft was getting colder, even though the drill bit was heating up. Taking the bit speed down a few notches sent the craft juddering so he gave up on that idea to cool the bit and resigned himself to studying his dashboard.
Twice Matthew9 boosted power to the lighting but a dark, eerie gloom fell on the cabin. John2 typed into the crafts log his actions in the second circuit and the readings from his dashboard until the vessel began to shake and he turned back to his dials. Before his gloved hand reached a single switch, the drill stopped and the lights went out. Through the hatches they saw nothing in the inky blackness.
“What happened?”
“I don’t know, Matt. We’ve no thrusters, yet we’re maintaining position. Try the comms to MC14.”
“No response. I’ll try a general.”
John2 unbuckled himself from his seat, feeling his way to the back of the craft. From a metal cupboard at head height he brought out two torches.
“They’re not responding, John. What the fuck’s going on?”
John2 switched on one of the torches, clipping it to the control panel, illuminating the water around the drill but he couldn’t see if the bit was embedded in the ice or they were floating free.
He turned to Matthew9 and spoke, ignoring the tears streaming down the big man’s face. “I’m going to check the boards, find out if there’s a loose connection to our thrusters but I need you to get on the emergency band and contact base.”
Matthew9 tried to nod but crumpled in his seat.
“I need you, Matt, do you hear me? I need you to contact base. You can do it. Assemble our co-ordinates and set it on repeat, okay?”

John2 grabbed the other torch and stumbled out of the cabin into the power room. He strapped the torch to a hand rail before working through the circuit boards systematically.
Nineteen years, scratching the surface. As his work brain checked for faults, he allowed his mind to wander and he knew. With the birth of hope came a future and that was what Galaxy Sea Base fed the populace. Hope for a future on land, beneath a warm benevolent sun. If one had hope, giving up ten years of your life for the future of mankind was a much easier task to adhere to. John2 sighed as he prised off another panel, inspecting the tubes and wires beneath the light from the torch. He remembered life upon the earth and the climate was untrustworthy. He had always kept to himself his biggest fear, that they would break through the surface to find an ecological disaster and a planet that no human being could live on. No one else need bear the weight of his personal horror.
He continued checking the panels as he thought back to the years before the freeze and how he, sixteen years old, bright, fit and naïve had been granted a place on the base, without his parents. It had been a lottery, of course, and though his parents had not been eligible for entry, they had insisted he take part. As he’d boarded the coach to the port, the news reported increased meteor strikes, unprecedented volcanic activity and rain pounded the windows so the last time he saw his parents, they were a murky blur through the glass. None of the panels showed any fault so he hauled himself back into the cabin.
“I sent our co-ordinates, John. Do you think they’ll find us?”
“Maybe but the next crew will be along to take our place, won’t they? If nothing else, we can attach a tow and they can get us back before they start their shift.”
Matthew9 nodded. His eyes were red and his broad bottom lip trembled but he tried a smile. “So, what we gonna do now?”
“I think we should try and find out what stopped the drill. We’ve enough juice to operate the grabber on manual.”

Matthew9 shone the torch towards the bit as the arm unfolded itself from the mining craft and stretched towards the nose. Once at full extension, John2 closed the grip and brought the hand round to the dumping hatch above them. With the torch clipped back on the dashboard, Matthew9 opened the hatch with the manual wheel and John2 released the grip as Matthew9 turned the wheel the other way.
“You reckon we got it?” Sweat dripped into Matthew9’s eyes as he turned the final rotations.
John2 checked the dashboard. “Dumping hatch box is still showing below freezing. We could be in luck.”
Half the final time circuit had been completed by the time the box was moved from the dumping hatch to the analysis compartment and as the computer tested their haul, John2 and Matthew9 examined the contents on magnified visual on the main screen.
“There’s rock.”
“Very little more than usual. No, I’m interested in the ice. There’s great chunks, look, with rock fragments still attached.”
“What does it mean, John? Are we near the surface?”
John2 stared at the printout, spewed from the computer.
John2 laughed and then shook his head at the bewildered boy, wide eyed with fear in front of him. “It’s okay, Matt. I know what this is.”
“You do?”
“You know any earth geology?”
Matthew9 shook his head.
“Do you know what diamonds are?”
“No, man. What you on about?”
But the laughter had John2 in its grasp and great belly laughs escaped from him as he hugged his sides. He was rich! They were rich! If they weren’t floating powerless beneath miles of ice, he’d be a happy man.
John2 wiped his eyes and grinned. “Diamonds are rare minerals, found deep in the earth. They’re not created from coal, as you might imagine.”
“What’s coal?”
“Never mind but know that on earth diamonds were rare, valuable, often made into jewellery or used to decorate a royal crown and we’ve hit an enormous one, somehow, below the sea.”
“You mean, we’re rich?”
“It wouldn’t be us, Matt. It would be the company but what use are diamonds to us, in a world below the sea?”
“They’d be rarer still? Worth more?”
“Not if every craft on our detail has hit diamond. Don’t you see? This must be the biggest diamond ever dreamed of but with the market forces of demand and supply, assuming this diamond could be mined, its worth nothing.”
“Hard enough to stop our drill and worthless?”
“Its discovery will undoubtedly be useful to someone, but it will hold up progress to the surface.”

As the final quarter of the time circuit ticked by John2 updated his report, entering the findings of diamond in the ice. He glanced at the air reserve gauge before focusing his torch beam towards the nose. They were drifting, away from the ice, away from the tunnel entrance and without power, there was nothing he could do about it. Away from their rise point, it was unlikely another craft could locate them.

John2 sat shivering, Matthew9’s sobs echoing in his helmet. Like so many before him, John2 had given so much of his life to the company but while they drifted in darkness below the ice, he wondered at his own naivety. Diamond would be discovered in the water, probably from a zenolith, brought up from the earth’s mantel by a volcanic explosion but he doubted the benefits of such a find would reach the ordinary people on Galaxy Sea Base.
They breathed the last of the air in the craft. Matthew9 was unconscious and John2’s eyes began to close. His final thoughts were of his wife and children and a massive drill bit made of diamond, breaking through the ice into a world of sunshine, trees and new wonders. He smiled his knowing grin as, doubtless, this world too would be organised by those with money and power, to the detriment of the masses.


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  1. Pingback: Welcome New Moon | Wendy Steele

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