14 Nov Clouds
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
I suppose I should start with the basics. My name is Taylor Sant, I’m English of Cameroonian descent, aged 32, and I’ve been mining helium for the Hummingbird Corporation since I left college 16 years ago. My work is pretty exciting on one level – lots of space travel, and the helium platforms are often in some truly epic locations: they’re always positioned just within orbit of the chosen gas giant, and there are usually some incredible views. That’s not to say they’re all great, mind you – I did my apprenticeship on a platform over Jupiter, and between the dull brown clouds and the frequent ion storms it was pretty shit.
The work itself you’ll probably find uninteresting, though. I’m a in maintenance – it’s my job to fix anything that breaks, basically. It can be dangerous, but with health and safety these days that’s rare. There were normally only ever one or two accidental deaths on mining platforms per year, and that’s across the entire of human space.
Anyway, now you know me, here’s the story of why I’ve given up helium mining – and space altogether, really. I never plan to leave Earth again. But anyway, here it is.
Here’s the story of just what happened over Benten.
I was pretty excited when I first heard that was where I was being transferred to. Benten had only been discovered two years previously, and Hummingbird had immediately bought the property rights for the northwest quadrant, and built three top-of-the-range platforms over it. That was great news: the latest model was a marvel of modern engineering, really – comfortable, safe, and it looked awesome – much better all-round than the floating hunks of junk I’d nearly spent half my life on. The planet had a nice name, too – Benten is a Japanese goddess of fortune. The names don’t normally mean much unless you’re superstitious – I spent six months over one called Tartarus, and it was totally fine – but you still sort of feel more optimistic about the ones named after nice things.
And actually, it was all pretty great. I’d been appointed Maintenance Chief, so I got a pay bump. The 24 other crewmembers were fine, the foreman, this big Sikh called Singh, was a real nice guy, the quarters were comfortable, and the view was incredible. I can still say without a doubt that the vista from the landing platform was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The gases were a beautiful pearlescent white, and when one of the other new arrivals said something about how it must be what heaven looks like, I was inclined to agree. I took a photo to show to my wife. I’ve deleted it since.
The new platform was absolutely fantastic – I was used to ones that broke down twice a day, but here I was only needed once or twice a week for anything major. I spent the rest of my time relaxing – an unexpected luxury – or repairing more minor things. One of the main problems on other platforms was the lack of working appliances – the maintenance teams had to spend so much time fixing the platform itself they couldn’t handle every broken dishwasher or entertainment terminal. The first couple of weeks, I was only saddened by the knowledge I’d eventually be transferred away.
Then there was the first suicide.
I was relaxing in my quarters when the machinery all stopped. Immediately I was running for the control room, because there are only two scenarios where all the extractors are switched off – a fatality, or the thing I was more worried about: catastrophic system failure. If the latter had happened, the whole platform was going down with all hands. There would be no time for repairs, or escape. That had never happened before, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t.
This is why I must confess to being slightly relieved when Singh told me that a man had fallen. Apparently Haaning, one of the miners I’d never really spoken to, had been heading along the gantry toward Extractor 03 when he’d just… fallen off. This felt fishy – the gantries all have railings on both sides, and are pretty bloody wide anyway. It was hard to imagine exactly what Haaning could have been doing to go over the side… unless, of course, it was intentional.
Singh asked around, and apparently Haaning’s wife had left him quite recently. The men still seemed pretty surprised, though – he had a reputation as being pretty tough. Still, suicide seemed the most likely explanation.
There was an air of sadness about the place for a while after that, as you’d expect, but it didn’t last too long. There was one small incident that spooked me a little in the days following Haaning’s death. Me and Ken de Groot, this young Dutch lad on his apprenticeship, as I’d once been over Jupiter, were suspended in harnesses over the side of Extractor 02, unjamming a cooling fan. It’s quite scary going out on the harnesses the first few times – after all, you’re dangling over an unimaginably huge drop – so Ken was pretty nervous. No need to be, normally – it’s really safe when you’re somewhere calm, and you couldn’t get more tranquil than Benten. I was just finishing up, when suddenly there was this weird noise. It was like this huge, mournful wail – incredibly deep, and faintly chilling.
‘What was that?’ Ken whispered, before calming himself. ‘Just the machines or something. Sorry.’
‘No,’ I said, looking down. ‘It came from beneath us…’
Ken looked at me, and then looked down as well. Suddenly, the seas of mist didn’t seem so nice. We hurried the rest of the job, and quickly got out of there.
After getting over the initial creepiness, Ken was pretty excited by the noise, and told anyone he could about it.
Most told him he was being silly, and it was just machinery. A couple wondered aloud if there could be something down there. One reaction particularly surprised me, though. Me and Ken were fixing the coffee machine in one of the observation lounges, and we noticed a miner, Borach, had been standing at the window and looking out at the mist the entire time we’d been working. When we’d finished up we went over and joined him, and Ken mentioned we once heard something in the clouds. Borach turned to him.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘There’s something down there, man.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I can feel it sometimes. There’s something down there. I think I caught a glimpse of it once.’
‘What is it?’ Ken asked.
‘How should I know? But it’s there. Down there.’
A week later I was rebooting one of the control room computers – some idiot had managed to infect it with a virus while on a seedier corner of the internet late one night – when I noticed Singh and some of the other control staff gathering around the main console.
‘Who’s on station there?’ Singh was asking as I sauntered over.
‘Jonah,’ one of the other staff replied.
Singh jabbed the comm button. ‘Jonah? What’s going on down there? Jonah?’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked Prager, Singh’s right-hand man. He was a right twat, but a good friend of mine.
‘Core temperature’s rising on Extractor 01. Guy posted to the local coolant station isn’t responding.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Jonah something-or-other. I don’t know him too well.’
‘You want me to go take a look?’
‘…Yeah, someone ought to. Singh, Sant’s gonna go take a look.’
Singh gave a vague thumbs-up. ‘Shut everything off, see if Borach’s alright.’
‘Borach, that was it,’ said Prager. ‘Jonah Borach. Weird guy.’
I didn’t connect what was happening to the odd conversation Ken and I had had with Borach until after I’d hurried over and shut the extractor down, and saw the open door. The coolant control rooms are about the size of a crane cockpit, and dangle out over the edge of the platform. They’re designed with a door on either end, so that when the platform’s being constructed you can put the gantry leading to it on either side. This means that in most, one door leads onto the gantry – and the other leads to a 10,000 mile drop. It was the latter that was open.
Two suicides in such a short space of time was hugely unnerving – for obvious reasons – but at the same time rationally explainable. No-one knew much about Borach, so he could have been suffering depression. Maybe Haaning’s suicide just gave him the push he needed to take his own life. I’m sure I’d seen the idea of copycat suicide on a cop show or something, so that’s what I told myself. It was what Singh went for too, and the men accepted it. What other reason was there?
As a whole, the platform got over Borach’s death much quicker. He wasn’t as respected or liked as Haaning had been. Singh had given Prager, Doc Bargas (the platform physician), and myself the instruction to watch out for any odd behaviour.
I didn’t see any. That’s the weirdest thing. There was one particular event, a week or so after Borach’s death, that stuck in my mind. It was when I began to realise – to some degree – what was going on.
Me and some of the other maintenance guys had a game of poker in one of the lower observation decks. Me, Ken de Groot, Valya Proskurkin and Yunus Menderes – all men I’d gotten to know very well during my time there. They were good people, skilled technicians, nice enough guys. We were enjoying ourselves. We were happy.
And then Valya said: ‘You know, I saw something real weird when I was working on Extractor 01 the other day.’
‘Really?’ asked Ken. ‘What?’
‘I was in harness, doing the usual thing. Jammed fan, you know. And I fucking dropped my spanner – I hate it when that happens.’ We all nodded, sharing his feeling. It wasn’t just the irritation of having lost a tool. Whenever you dropped anything, you couldn’t help watching it fall. And that got you thinking about how high up you were. I’ll admit, I’ve had panic attacks over that in the past. Most men in my profession have. Anyway, Valya’s story:
‘Anyway, so I’m… so I’m watching it go down,’ he was saying. ‘And then…’ He breathed.
‘What, man?’ said Yunus. ‘Come on.’
‘Something moved. In the clouds. I saw something moving down there.’
Me and Ken looked at each other.
‘What was it?’ asked Yunus.
‘I don’t fucking know. But it looked pretty big. Moved like it was alive. You think something could live down there?’
‘I guess something could. But you’d think they’d have picked it up when they were surveying the planet.’
‘Yeah, you’d think. Maybe it was nothing.’
Neither me or Ken mentioned that Borach claimed to have seen something too. I can’t speak for Ken, but personally I just didn’t want to spook Valya. He seemed to think it was exciting, more than anything else. I am certain he was not thinking of killing himself any time soon.
And yet, the very next morning, he went out and – in full view of the control room – threw himself over the side.
‘So no-one has any bloody ideas?’ Singh shouted, pacing up and down in front of the platform’s remaining crew. He seemed angry, but I think he was scared. I was.
‘He didn’t seem depressed,’ I said. ‘He seemed the same as ever. I played poker with him last night.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed Yunus. ‘He even… I mean, when we were going back to our quarters, he mentioned something about how he couldn’t wait to get home. Why would he say that if he was going to… you know?’
Ken tapped my shoulder. He was too nervous to speak up about it himself.
‘There is something else, boss,’ I said. ‘I mean, it might be a stab in the dark, but…’
‘Before Borach killed himself, he mentioned to me and Ken that he’d thought he’d seen something… in the clouds.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Prager.
‘He thought he’d seen something moving down there.’
‘I remember,’ said Doc Bargas suddenly. ‘He asked me if I thought something could be alive down there.’
‘And could something?’
‘In theory, yes, but it would have been picked up when they were surveying the planet.’
‘Right,’ said Singh. ‘And what you’re saying is, Proskurkin had seen something too?’
‘Yeah,’ said Yunus. ‘He did.’
‘… Right. Fuck.’
There was a silence.
‘Okay,’ Singh continued. ‘Has anyone else, uh… seen anything.’
Very slowly, a man at the back raised his hand. ‘I, uh, think I did.’
‘Okay, Nakao. Anyone else?’
‘Right, you can all go. Doc, Prager, Sant and Nakao, I need to talk to you.’
We waited for everyone else to file out.
‘I think some of them were lying,’ Doc Bargas said. Singh’s face twitched.
‘You can understand why,’ I told the physician.
He grunted in agreement, and turned to Nakao. ‘Genjo, have you had any suicidal thoughts recently?’
‘No, Doc, I swear.’
‘How long ago did you see it, whatever it was?’
‘A couple days. I’m certain it was something, not just a trick of the light. I saw a solid form. And there was this noise. It was… I guess it was like whale-song.’
‘Huh,’ I said. ‘Me and Ken de Groot heard something like that a while ago.’
‘I think I’ve heard it too,’ said Prager. ‘I assumed it was just machinery.’
‘Well,’ said Bargas. ‘I have no idea what we should do. I don’t think we’ve got enough evidence for the company to accept there’s any danger. I’m not fully sure I accept it myself.’
There was a pause.
‘I guess we have to wait for something to happen.’
Doc Bargas placed Nakao on a suicide watch, which Nakao seemed thankful for. He definitely didn’t want to die.
The day after Singh addressed the crew, a miner jumped. It was Woods, one of the ones Bargas had thought were hiding having seen anything. After Woods’ death, two more miners approached Bargas and admitted to having lied the day before.
Two days after that, Singh disappeared.
It took a while for anyone to notice, everyone simply assuming he was somewhere else on the platform, but after a quick scan of the platform it was clear there was now only 20 living people on board, all of whom were crew, four crewmembers registered deceased, and one crewmember unaccounted for: Foreman Singh.
‘Okay,’ Prager said once I arrived in the control room the next day. Bargas couldn’t come because he was still watching over the other three to have seen the thing below. ‘I’ve contacted the company, and they’re going to send people to investigate. Until then, we have to keep working – they were damn hard to convince. Also, I’ve been looking at Singh’s logs. Here are the ones that stand out.’
He turned the monitor to me.
FOREMAN’S LOG – CYCLE 3E012, ORBIT 0003 – EARTHDATE 03/08/2368
Two deaths in such a short space of time. Fuck, that’ll look bad on my record. If they really were both suicides, though, I might just get away with it.
Everyone still slightly on edge. Told Bargas, Prager, Sant to keep eyes out for anyone else thinking of jumping.
Thought I saw something while I was inspecting Extractor 01. Something in clouds. Probably trick of light. Looked pretty solid though. Could something live down there?
Fan jam on E02, sorted. One broken key on E01 coolant terminal keyboard, not yet replaced.
‘That’s when he saw it,’ Prager said. ‘Here’s the one from yesterday evening.’
FOREMAN’S LOG – CYCLE 3E143, ORBIT 0003 – EARTHDATE 15/08/2368
No major incidents. Bargas says men on suicide watch are still normal. I feel fine. Company finally coming round – four suicides too many to not be suspicious. Sant’s theory disputed – they say they would’ve picked up any life forms ages ago. I agree.
Broken microwave in Lounge 04, sorted. It screams. Mariani dropped a screwdriver over the side, accepts liability for costs.
‘Seems normal,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ Prager replied. ‘Except that.’ He tapped the screen, and I read the sentence he pointed at: It screams.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘What the fuck does that mean?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think I want to.’
The next morning, I was doing my exercises in my quarters when Doc Bargas ran in in a panic, his nose bloody.
He’d gone into the med-bay at about 5 AM, to wake up his three wards – they were all on an early-morning shift – and found one of them missing. The other two men didn’t realise he’d gone. Bargas was embarrassed when he told me this – he had cameras on their room, and should have noticed one of them get up in the night and go outside. But he hadn’t – Dahan had killed himself. He was still talking to the other two when something seemed to come over them. Before he knew what was happening they made a break for the exit. Nakao managed to make it, and went over the side as well. Bargas grabbed the other, Vilmos, who managed to punch him in the nose but was held down by two other miners who’d heard the commotion and sedated. As soon as he’d been restrained, Bargas had run to wake Prager and myself.
This was it – a chance to find out what was going on.
Prager had called the company again, and they’d agreed that seven suicides probably meant there was some external factor causing them, and that the platform would be temporarily shut down. The shuttle to evacuate the remaining men would arrive that evening. In the meantime, we were going to talk to Vilmos.
He was frantically struggling against his restraints when I got there. It was quite terrifying – he was clearly insane. I don’t think anyone in their right mind could show such ferocity.
‘We tried asking him stuff,’ one of the two miners with him said. ‘He won’t say anything.’
Bargas sedated him again, and the struggling stopped.
‘Vilmos,’ said Prager. ‘What’s going on?’
Vilmos didn’t respond.
‘Why do you want to kill yourself?’
Vilmos opened his mouth. ‘… I don’t.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
He didn’t respond. Prager shook his head.
‘Do you know who you are?’ asked Bargas.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Where are we?’
‘Benten, we call it.’
‘What do you mean, ‘we call it’?’
‘Benten is not its name.’
‘What is its name?’
‘It hasn’t got one.’
‘… Okay.’ Bargas looked at me. Apparently it was my turn to try and get some sense out of him.
‘Alright, Vilmos,’ I said. ‘In his log, right before he jumped, Singh said something about it screaming. What…?’
‘It does!’ shouted Vilmos, interrupting me. ‘It screams!’
He looked at me, but did not answer.
‘What does it scream about?’
He didn’t answer.
‘Why do you want to kill yourself?’
‘I told you, I don’t.’
‘Well, how come you want to jump over the side then?’
Vilmos sighed. ‘How come you don’t?’
That was it. He stopped speaking altogether after that. I don’t know what happened to him – they put him in a separate compartment on the shuttle, and when Prager last emailed me he said he couldn’t find any information on a Rajmund Vilmos anywhere after that day. As the shuttle pulled away, I breathed a sigh of relief, and looked at the disappearing form of the platform. Without thinking, I looked down at the clouds. There was something moving down there.
I still don’t know what happened on Benten. Prager emails me a lot – him, Doc Bargas, Ken de Groot and one or two of the surviving miners are still trying to find out what happened there, but getting nowhere. Apparently every other platform on the planet was shut down about a year later, and Benten was declared a no-fly zone. I don’t know why. I don’t know what happened.
But that’s why I’m never going into space again. There are too many unknowns. Some people like that – I once did, back in the days when they were constantly discovering these new, incredible things: I remember the pictures of planets made of diamond, planets with seas of liquid metal, and other astonishing, unbelievable things. There was a real beauty to the universe, and that’s what people think of nowadays when they think of space travel.
But there are other things, the things that can’t be explained. There’s reportedly a system on the outer edge of Chinese space which no ship has ever returned from. There’s a planet in Orion’s Belt where the colony had to be abandoned after consistent reports of “whispering” in the night, and poltergeist-like occurrences. And then there’s a planet named Benten, where seven men jumped to their deaths after seeing something in the clouds.
These things terrify me more than you can imagine.
Credit To – George Sherlaw