By Ken Liu
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The rig is two thousand feet tall to
accommodate the telescoping drill. Sitting up here in the cockpit at the
top, I can feel every vibration like the swaying tip of a tree.
Right now the drill bit is about ten miles down, still a couple thousand feet from the magma chamber. But I've got my eyes on the gauges and both hands on the stick. Stovin IV isn't going to beat me.
Dangerous work and lousy pay, magma drilling isn't the sort of job you get if you cared about the things most people wanted out of life. I've got no friends, no family, haven't touched a woman without paying her for years.
But the rush of overcoming nature, taming her, penetrating the crust into a magma chamber that would never have otherwise seen the light of day in a billion years-there's nothing like it in the whole universe.
Just another thousand feet or so to go now.
I've been living in this 10-by-10 cockpit for ten weeks, and not a single shower in all that time. I don't notice the smell because I'm used to it, like I'm used to the monotony and the loneliness. I have to, if I don't want to go insane.
The only part that is a bit hard to take is ... what I see out the window.
The crust on Stovin IV is too thick and the molten core too deeply buried for plate tectonics and volcanic activity. The surface is a uniform gray, all craters and meteor-pulverized dust. Everything should look dead and still. But should isn't the same as does.
I first saw them about a week after the Prometheus dropped off the rig and me on the surface. I picked this spot because the crust is thinner than anywhere else on the planet, with a large reservoir of magma right underneath, ready to erupt if given an opening.
Magma drilling is the first step in terraforming. On planets like Stovin IV, where there's no atmosphere, the quickest way to create one is to drill down to get a few volcanoes started. The eruptions can weaken the crust and start a chain reaction of quakes and further eruptions. In a few hundred years, the volcanoes will spew enough water vapor, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other gasses to support the hardy algae and gene-engineered flora, and then they can complete the rest of the work of making a planet habitable for humans.
As I set up the rig and began to drill, the familiar routines took over and I was completely absorbed by the task. Drilling is an art: what bit to use, how fast to run the head, how hard to drive the shaft, what rhythm and pattern to press-everything matters and has to be adjusted to match the characteristics of the rock. Going too fast might damage the bit and topple the rig, and going too slow might cause the drill to get stuck and waste the whole well. The sensors and computers could only get you so far, and I had to rely on my experience and instincts as I nudged the controls millimeters at a time.
Once the drill was a few hundred meters down and hit a smooth section, I breathed a sigh of relief and glanced out the window.
There was a great golden angel jumping across the silvery moonscape, tracing out a giant arc in the sky.
Yes, an angel. It was maybe a mile or so away, and as big as a house for a rich family back on Earth. It glowed like it was made of liquid gold, of sunlight. It had two legs, two arms, and a pair of long, wispy wings about a hundred feet long from shoulder to wingtip. It also had another pair of appendages coming out of its head like the antennae on a grasshopper-so maybe it wasn't right to call it an angel, but then again, have you seen an angel?
I shuddered and let go of the control stick, and the drill stopped. The angel disappeared.
I rubbed my eyes. I hadn't been drinking. I wasn't on stims. I had been fed and slept well and felt perfectly healthy. So what the hell was that?
I started the drill again. As I gradually brought the bit up to speed, the angel again leapt across the silvery plains, the most graceful sight I'd ever seen.
I tried to take a video of it, but nothing showed up in the footage. I checked the radar logs: nothing. The computer insisted that there was nothing out there.
I stopped drilling and went to bed early. Maybe I was more tired than I realized.
The next day, the angel appeared again. This time, it had a companion, just as beautiful and just as invisible to the cameras and sensors. They pair of them danced together, marking complex spirals and arcs in the air. I had to stop the drill and watch. It was so lovely. I got the feeling that they were trying to say something with that dance. But I didn't know what.
Finally, I started the drill again, and immediately the angels swooped towards me and one of them came right up to the cockpit, looking in at me.
I was staring at a face that could engulf the entire cockpit. It was so bright that I could not bear to keep my eyes open. In the after image burned into my eyelids I could see thousands of eyes as bright as burning stars, all of them arrayed around a maw as dark as space. Was it angry? Was it sad? I could not read the expressions on that alien face.
My heart hung between terror and joy, awe and yearning. I wanted to embrace that face and I wanted to be consumed by it.
When the unbearable brightness gradually dimmed, I opened my eyes. The angels had disappeared again.
I spend the next day in my EVA suit, crawling all over the outside of the rig, examining every piece of equipment. Everything was functioning correctly: the cameras, radars, sonars, heat and electromagnetic sensors-if the angels were real, something other than my eyes would have seen them.
I had to accept reality. The angels did not live on Stovin IV, but only in my head.
But the next day, more angels appeared, and the day after that, even more.
Now the view beyond the cockpit window is full of golden light. Countless angels are dancing and soaring, trying to tell me something that I just can't understand.
From time to time they swoop close to the cockpit, and even though my sensors insist that everything is normal, I have to close my eyes and shake uncontrollably with abject terror, with strange pity, with unspeakable desire. In those times I feel as if I'm no longer myself, but a lone lifeboat tossed in a stormy sea.
I know I'm losing my mind. Maybe I've been out here for too long. Maybe I'm not as tough as I thought. Maybe I need the company of other people more than I admit. I can't even put any of this in my logs. They'll yank me for sure.
So I avert my eyes and grit my teeth. I just drill, drill, drill.
At last, only a thin layer of rock holds back the magma. I stop the drill and deposit the H-bomb.
Outside my window, the landscape is once again peaceful, empty, angel-less, dead. I pray that I am cured. Perhaps accomplishing the drilling has finally cleared my head.
I retract the drill and walk the rig back out of the way until the well is just below the horizon. I hit the detonator. The curve of the horizon jumps slightly. A few seconds later, the ground under me begins to shake.
And the angels are there again, even more numerous than before, even brighter. I close my eyes and then cover them with my hands lest I go blind.
The quaking grows and I'm thrown to the floor. The rig topples and I'm falling, weightless as though I'm in space. I manage to push the emergency eject button just in time, and the safety rockets engage to launch the cockpit away from the rig.
"I beat you!" I shouted. "I beat you!"
As I rise up into orbit, I look down and see a great gash in the landscape. Bubbling red magma oozes out of the crust, along with geysers of gas and ash.
There's no stabilizer on the emergency rockets, and the vibrations rattle my bones. The angels are there again. Billions and billions of angels crowd around the gash in the surface of the planet, weeping.
And I finally understand. Stovin IV is alive, alive with angels who can only be seen when the scales have been shaken from my eyes. And I have killed it, stabbed into its heart until it's bleeding its warm life's blood into the cold, empty void of space.
The rockets continue to carry me up, and I begin to weep too.