The secondary valve of the unit stuck out against the ocean floor like a sore pectoral fin. Its metal had rusted completely over the cycles, but it failed to blend in with the ivory Shotan corals or azure water-fans. The surrounding area was dense with invertebrates, but they instinctively knew to steer clear of the metal. It had been bred into their pinhead-sized minds by generations of deadly encounters.
Metal belonged to the Gurgeon, the smartest creatures of this ocean, of this planet, and of this system. Their civilization was unchallenged in all directions by a third of a galaxy arm. Unchallenged by rivals at least.
It had taken a Gurgeon platoon, fifty-five strong, to install the valves and the machinery beneath them in the first place. The massive metal pipes connected to the grumbling layers deep beneath the seabed and shifted that grumbling off to their metal towers, to power their lights, their cranks, and their ripple-readers. The rust had come because the fifty-five were mostly gone. Only one remained who could check.
Uldo the Gurgeon was in the worry phase. While some life forms matured immediately, or went through a juvenile stage or two, Gurgeons had a hundred and two phases to their lives. They were very social creatures who used these phases to take up the emotional burdens of others. Uldo, at this time and for the last five cycles, was a worrier. He worried about how quickly he was losing the silver luster of his scales. He worried about how quickly his six mates were losing their luster. He worried about the grumblings beneath them as they grew louder. He worried about the valve and its kin.
He swam over the valve nervously, checking for bubbles. Of the original fifty-five, three were supposed to monitor the gas leakage. Now it was just him. He didn’t have the time to swim home and rest in his algal tubes. He hadn’t even seen the city in twenty days. Occasionally its silver peaks showed over a purple seamount, but he couldn’t swim up. Every moment mattered. Every push of his fins needed to be forward or back along his routes.
A giant creature, a guzzling gurmax, swam overhead. Uldo had to ignore it. The gurmax, with its mouth the size of a drifting sky-bloom, and its tentacle-like thousand teeth, did occasionally eat Gurgeon, especially those distracted by their work. He knew his luck when he passed under its shadow and felt nothing. The first valve needed to be checked. Then he had to rotate back to the fifty-fifth. Uldo’s spirit grew thinner, his thoughts an endless chain of valve-checking.
No bubbles here. No trouble here. Someone will come and take me off duty. Someone from my city. I will remember what it looks like. Then time will pass and I can shed this parasite of worry. To expel it will be so grand. The mates and I will swim in wonderful circles. The current will keep us going, propel us with our own joy. Soon. Soon as the worry is gone and the grumbling stops.
Uldo swam by the first valve, just under a folded ridge of teal star-sponges. Rusty, but solid. He swam on. Wait. Uldo turned around, nearly smacking himself with his tail fin. He hurried back. There, next to the left edge of its base plate. A string of bubbles so thin, a luminous filament from far below.
No. No, no, no, no… It was happening. The worry wasn’t just biological, it was underneath him in stunning quantities. It was happening now, without any regard to the Gurgeon’s staffing predicament. His mind didn’t have time to wonder if the two were connected. The grumbling was his disaster, the bubbles his street fires, so they weren’t the concerns of the rest of his species. They were off dealing with something else. Surely they hadn’t fled. Surely they hadn’t died and left Uldo all alone with his dreams of bright scales and bouncing eggs.
Uldo stuck his face in the bubble stream and tried to blow them back in. They merely blew out to the sides and headed for the surface, where the methane would worsen their atmospheric disaster. There was only one thing he was trained to try. He reached out to the valve with his barbels and tightened them around its edge. He swam as hard as he could to the left, trying to force it tighter.
The metal groaned, almost as much as the pressurized gas underneath. The bubbles stopped, but as soon as he loosened his barbels the metal plate was blasted out of the rock. It concussed Uldo and sent him streaming upward with a geyser of bubble rabble. He was barely conscious, but he stil had the energy to worry. Where… where are they going? Why are they going? Supposed to stay underground. Supposed to like it there. Is the city not using them fast enough anymore? Oh where did everybody go? My shift is over…
Uldo was pushed so high by the stream that he finally saw the city. His mind filled with hope, even though the hope phase was still seventeen phases away, but it drained out of him as the details became clear. Several towers had fallen. The schooling traffic of his people, the halos of their buildings, was gone completely. It was abandoned. Did the bubbles do that? Or did they leave because of me? Did I not check the valve closely enough? If I was a good Gurgeon, would the rust never have grown?
Uldo’s heart was close to stopping. The worry phase plus the real worries were far too much for his sytem. His body still rose limply with the bubbles. He went higher. The pressure lowered. His big yellow eyes felt strange, like bubbles were dancing inside them. He could still see though, even through the jabbing rays of light in his mind. He saw another volcano of bubbles in the distance. It was clearly on his route. Probably valve thirty-one. It lives near there. Another column blew out of the rock, tossing boulders coated in life around like shed scales.
I failed. All the valves are going now, off to wherever my mates are. Maybe the schools are in the sky now. I did hear them say it was much warmer there than it used to be. I can’t go, because I failed. No… the bubbles always rise. How is a Gurgeon like me supposed to stop that? I’m not. I’m supposed to drown in them. So here I go! Weeeeeeeeee!
Even as civilization collapsed, the methane deposit too explosive for the Gurgeon to survive, Uldo’s phase shift came at the perfect time. The worry phase was over. He was in revelry now. He shed his scales all at once, looking newly hatched. He dove down, against the streaming forces of the broken valves, and swam among the chaos. The current tossed him, spun him,tore his muscle tissue, but Uldo could only enjoy it in the throes of the change.
What a fun ending! What a rapturous body of water! Goodbye Gurgeon! Hello bubbles! Goodbye worry! You were so awful to me! Uldo swirled to the center of a bubble stream. They popped against his head and concussed him again. He drowned in bubbles, in his greatest phase. Nature could not stop nature from frolicking, even in its last.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by givemeallthecoffee during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!