The moment is upon us. Suited up and ready, we stand at the outer airlock door. Captain Thorson addresses the voice control over our shared radio channel, “Command. Evacuate the airlock.”
A whirring sound ramps up as the breathable gas in the airlock is reclaimed by the ship’s systems. In a moment, the Investigator’s control system, Aggy, informs us, “Airlock evacuated.”
“Command. Open AL-2.” The captain states. There are hidden sounds of mechanical clamps releasing pressure before a whirring sound begins and the flexible sealing membrane of the door retracts from its space between the rigid ultralight inner and outer plastic door panels. The captain and I step forward and Thorson releases the simple latch in the middle of the door and we each fold our respective inner door panels out of the way. Then the outer. This mundane task distracts me momentarily from the view before us.
Europa is a moon in permanent night, by earthly standards. The sun is visible as a very bright star, but the distance between the sun and Jupiter is such that the sun only provides a tiny fraction of the light which it shines on Earth. “Command. Toggle suit lights.” I say, and on each of our suits, the light on the helmet above the head and the lights at the wrists activate. I can’t see far out into the great darkness outside the door, just a few beams of light illuminating random spots of ice, depending on where we face. Thorson reaches out the door and grasps a rail on the side of The Investigator and steps onto the ice tentatively at first. A fateful moment. Finding steady footing he releases the rail and he stands erect, the first man to set foot on Europa. We had received a set of written phrases or statements that we could make at this moment, it being a moment of great success in the first major manned mission since the moon landing. Dutifully, captain Thorson annunciated, “The Investigator is on the scene at Europa. Now let’s get to the bottom of it.”
Elvers, Kim, Aggy, and I all respond, “Aye Captain.”
With the moment complete, Elvers and I each grab tool bags and step out to join the captain on the moon’s surface. My spacesuit is heavy in a strange way. I can feel the extra mass as I move, but the Europan gravity is such that it doesn’t feel like a normal weight. These suits are armored, and more rigorously sealed than previous EVA suits because the mission has risks beyond vacuum and micrometeors. Each one has its own nuclear RTG for lights, radio, and thermal controls. The prospect of carrying around a chunk of hot plutonium on my back doesn’t bother me. I’ve studied the design and the figures, and I know it’ll be fine.
The ice of Europa around the landing site is all flat and white. Not naturally, of course, but because of the work of Sherlock and Watson, the two robots sent ahead of our mission to make the necessary preparations. It is eerie to think of those large rovers lurking around in this darkness somewhere. None of the exciting data coming back from those machines as they worked had really conveyed the true darkness of this world. Kim had taken control of them when we achieved orbit around Europa, and he can use them in various ways to assist our mission out here, should we require them.
At the edge of the landing site, the natural ice of Europa resumes. It looks like a particularly translucent marble with light reddish bands. It is fissured, and treacherous looking, and I am glad that we will not have to cross it. It is a merciful certainty in a vast expanse of risks. I search left and right, and my headlight illuminates the machine-made path which will lead us to the bore site. Thorson’s headlight, and then Elvers’ join mine at the trailhead and we convene there to make the trek together. “Proceeding to the bore site.” Thorson notes on the radio.
“Acknowledged.” Aggy responds. Kim maintains a professional silence.
The path is 600 meters long. Not far under normal circumstances, but here in Europa’s permanent night, the trek is longer and more troubling than I’d expected. I should have known that we wouldn’t see it on the approach. The bizarre new mountain that had come to this moon. The thought of it out in the dark, looming silently over us, is more disturbing than I would care to admit.
The things had come from the void beyond our solar system. They had been identified as being active objects right away because of the method by which they were first detected. Several years ago, an array of three satellites had been deployed in orbit around the sun to form a device to measure gravity waves. After a year of relatively routine service, the gravity observatory began to detect faint gravitational ripples that were wholly inconsistent with theory, and the signal was growing in intensity. The project team thought that the signal was being caused by some failure of the system until a concerted effort of examining space in the general direction from which the gravity waves were coming revealed some hot objects.
The motion of these hot, gravity wave emitting objects was studied, and it was found that they were decelerating in a decidedly unnatural way. The news ignited a frenzy across Earth. Although the precise nature of the approaching objects was unknown, they could be remotely controlled drones, for instance, it was concluded that the decelerating objects were proof that alien life must exist. The trajectory of the objects was changing, but it was doing so in a regular fashion. With some study, it was concluded that the objects were adjusting course to intercept Jupiter. This caused no small amount of relief because humanity was and still is ill-prepared to meet interstellar travelers on a level playing field. Probes were produced and dispatched to fly-by the objects. The probe images revealed fifteen huge lozenge shapes, covered in ice, with great blue ion beams shining ahead of them. At a certain distance along the beam there is a strange bright node. These are believed to be the main drives of the objects.
The objects were occasionally emitting pulses of radio signals which would be responded to by the others. One analyst commented that these were similar to whale calls and a journalist coined the term “Voidwhales” for the objects which was taken up across the world. The calls of the Voidwhales were sufficiently rich in possible data and variability that scientists were unable to deduce anything about the meaning of the communications. When probes were used to transmit some of the calls of the Voidwhales back at them, those calls were completely ignored.
The voidwhales settled into orbit around Jupiter, and then altered course to intercept Europa and began to orbit that icy moon. It was observed that when the voidwhales turned off their strange beams, the gravity waves would cease, suggesting that the gravity waves were for some reason a consequence of their odd drives.
In Europa’s orbit, the fifteen lozenges lined up and grouped together side by side. After some time in close contact, the icy coverings of the lozenge shapes was seen to be growing together, and the fifteen objects became one huge object. This great amalgamation then decelerated from orbit and landed on the surface, creating a huge unnatural mountain. And that was it. There had been no additional activity observed from the voidwhales for the past five years.
We earthlings, of course, had not been so passive. Our mission was improvised on an expedited schedule from the plans that were in place for Mars exploration. The remote controlled robots Sherlock and Watson were sent for preliminary investigation and to quite literally pave the way for us. They had created a bore site into the icy covering of the creatures, continuing until they reached a carbon shell. With a smaller drill, they continued into the shell of the voidwhale until they passed through and reached a gas-filled void that started to evacuate through the drill hole. Anticipating this, the machines had sealed the hole. Gas analyzers revealed that the gas is a mixture of 25% oxygen, 11% carbon dioxide, some trace elements, and the remainder is nitrogen. This mixture is very intriguing from a biological perspective, because although the carbon dioxide levels are far too high for us to be able to breath the gas, the composition still shares some properties with the atmosphere of earth. A fiber camera was also applied to the boring, it revealed a wide space with smooth curved walls, stretching far into either direction. People naturally assumed the space to be a corridor of some sort, but scientists suggested that it wasn’t so certain that that is the purpose of this space, because, for instance, there is no rail or walkway.
With this basic information gathered, the robots were used to widen out the bore in the ice and construct a flexible airlock. The machines would have been used to enter the voidwhale fully, but there was a problem with the airlock. When installing it, an operator was patiently controlling it directly, despite the long time delay. Trying to save time, the operator overshot a motion and accidentally pinned part of the airlock material under one of its treads. Then, when the operator went to pull the material up, the material was ripped. Patch material was a part of the kit for the airlock, and it was applied, but the patching reduced the flexibility of the material, and secondary rips formed around the patch when installation was completed.
A long debate ensued on whether or not to continue to penetrate the voidwhale despite the possibility of damage to it from decompression. Eventually, the cautious side won out because our mission was ready to be launched and we would be able to replace the air lock and then provide real time control of Watson and Sherlock. So the two machines were used to surface the landing site and the bore site for our use.
Ahead of the three of us on the dark icy path, the surfaced area suddenly widened out. We have arrived. Thorson stops for a moment and Elvers and I pause as well. We can see some shapes in the far dark that seem likely to be the bore site. Thorson starts up again, keeping his head light on those shapes, while Elvers and I sweep around and just ahead on our path.
As we get closer, the ice wall of the voidwhale becomes apparent. This ice is markedly different from the Europan stuff. It is translucent, but there are large cracks and fractures through it that prevent any clear view of the carbon shell beneath. As had been previously determined by the machines, the voidwhale was not simply set on top of the Europan ice. Rather, the carbon shell extends below the ice. According to our mission brief, several hundred feet of the voidwhales have penetrated below the surface. I try to look up the side of the voidwhale, but I find that my light fades from distance before I can find the top. The voidwhales are estimated to be a mile and half long. In person, the immensity is daunting.
The air lock is a large rectangular welded pipe skeleton with the dusty white flexible material fastened to it within. I sweep my gaze to the left of the airlock and I’m startled to see some motion from unexpected shapes. These are Sherlock and Watson, and the motions were cameras that Kim must be using to keep track of us.
“Alright, let’s inspect the exterior of the airlock first and then the interior. Then we’ll head back to the Investigator with Watson and load up the necessary materials.” Thorson says.
The pipe skeleton of the airlock looks good. The welds were executed well. At the wall of the voidwhale, the pipe had been heated and driven into the ice, and oddly, the ice seemed to have flowed up and around the edges of the pipe, encasing more of it. It looks unnatural. I couldn’t think of a way that it could have occurred. If there is some natural weather mechanism causing ice build up, then I would be expecting to see similar build up around where the pipes are similarly driven into the Europan ice, but there is none around the base of the poles. “Kim,” I begin, “Did they do anything about ice build up around the base of these pipes? The buildup around the wall insets doesn’t match the buildup at the base insets.”
“No, nothing like that.” Kim’s deep voice came clearly through my helmet radio, “Just one resurfacing sweep and then nothing. I’m seeing what you are seeing. The difference could be because of some weather or event that happened only between the time of initial construction and the time of the resurfacing.”
“Perhaps.” I note, and I begin to inspect the flexible material.
From the other side of the airlock, Elvers says, “I can certainly see why they couldn’t get a seal. The rip was so long that they’ve got multiple overlapping patches and there is a little fold under one of them that looks to be the cause of the secondary ripping.”
“As expected.” Thorson says. “The Europa-side seal looks to be in good shape. For what it is worth. Let’s check the interior.” I circle around to him and see him working around the door, releasing velcro and folded over material. The flexible door seal that had been developed for this airlock is quite a marvel. It is entirely fashioned of flexible material itself, and it is designed to form a very high quality seal when pressure is applied from within. I’m impressed that the robots hadn’t damaged it. Elvers joins me behind Thorson as he pulls the flexible door away and sets it down next to the entrance. The interior of the airlock is pretty spacious, long enough for both of the large robots to be inside, end-to-end. There is a strange ice plinth to one side and at the other end I can see the carbon black shell of the voidwhale.
“Thar she blows.” Elvers says.
“That’s not right.” Thorson states, looking at the plinth. “That is the ice that was cut off of the wall, it was a solid rectangular block.” The plinth did bear some resemblance to a block. It was as if the block of ice had been made of salt and then exposed to a regular misting of water. The plinth had a sort of melted appearance, despite still being frozen solid, and the ice that formed at its base seemed to be reaching back towards the wall of the voidwhale.
“That’s definitely not right.” I agree, “In here there is no exposure to the elements, no heat source.” I double check my suit readouts on my wrist, “No. No heat in here. How sure are we… that that is just water ice?”
“The briefing seemed pretty sure.” Elvers said.
“But we don’t have to be until we’ve checked.” Thorson directs, “Elvers, get a sample.”
I move around Thorson and Elvers, being careful to keep my distance from the suspect ice, and I shine my head and wrist lamps at the carbon shell of the voidwhale. There is a blemish on the otherwise smooth black that I decide must have been the bore hole. It looks to have grown over strangely with carbon, like a scar. And as I examine that closer, I realize that there are several inches of very clear ice covering the whole area of what I think is exposed carbon. “Captain.” I exclaim. “We may need to re-evaluate.”
The captain moves to my side. “So it would seem. Kim, ready Watson to give us a lift back to the Investigator. We’re putting airlock repairs on hold to further investigate the voidwhale ice and carbon.” He looks at me. “Get a sample of the carbon, carefully. Try not to touch the ice, keep the tools used on the ice and carbon separate until we know what sort of contamination we are dealing with.”
“Yes, Sir.” I open my tool bag, and root around for sample containers and a drill. We had expected to encounter some level of alien life contamination, but not so soon. It is critical that we adhere to all containment measures, because if we become contaminated ourselves, we will end up in orbit around earth’s moon, living out the rest of our days as research subjects. It sounds draconian, sure, but we had all agreed to it, because we all know that humanity has precisely one Earth and certain types of contamination can endanger it.
One of things we will have to do now before retiring for the day is set up the external decontamination shower. I smile at the thought of it. Shower is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a plasma stream emitter, so in my opinion, it’s more of a flame thrower than a shower. Of course, it won’t look like flames here on Europa, at least not until the stream hits something. The ions of the plasma stream are highly reactive and quite capable of destroying any living tissues. In fact, if sustained, the plasma stream is quite capable of destroying our armored suits or the hull of the Investigator as well. Our suits have been thickened to accommodate plasma damage from around fifty decontaminations each.
I prepare a sample container and then examine my drill before plugging its cord into one of my suit’s outlets on the chest panel. I depress the trigger and the drill spins up while my suit lights dim from the voltage drop. It’ll work. I position the drill over the original bore and trigger it. Ice is hard at these temperatures, very hard, and as I spin up the drill the first time, the bit slips out of place. I sigh and return to my tool bag to obtain a pick hammer. I tap in a small indentation to stead the bit and start again. The ice is hard, but it is not immune to the physics of a drill.
After what seems like too long, the drill bit reaches the carbon and the chips coming out of the hole turn black. I use my left hand to hold a sample container below the bit. The carbon is a little easier to drill through then the ice. Satisfied with the depth of my hole, I retract the drill, unplug it, and set it down next to the wall. Then I seal the sample container containing the drilling chips, and set that down. I check over my hands and suit to see if I have any bits of the stuff on my suit. Looks OK. I bag the sealed sample in a separate bag intended for that purpose.. Then I hold my sample bag open for the sample from the ice plinth prepared by Elvers, and I set the samples near the door. I think I’ll leave my tool bag here, but I move it closer to the door and well away from the suspect voidwhale wall and the troubling plinth. The drill that I’ve left on the ice by the bore strikes me as being untidy, but I suppose it’ll be fine.
The captain is closely examining the ice plinth and its strange ice puddle on the floor while Elvers watches him. Holding his helmet close may help his integrated suit cameras to catch additional video for us and the folks back home to analyze. I announce, “Ready when you are, captain.”
Thorson moves back from the plinth carefully. “Right. Elvers?”
“Yeah…” She answers, “I think that that stuff moved. Not much. Just a tiny bit.”
“Hard to believe anything could move in this cold.” Thorson posited, “At least in terms of the organic chemistry with which we are familiar. We can move, of course, because we have nuclear heat.”
“Sherlock and Watson get around all right.” I note, “Extreme temperature bearings and all.”
“Have to be some very small bearings in this stuff.” The captain says incredulously, “That would be micro or nanotech. But this is just speculation, we’ll get a better look by The Investigator. First let’s get decontaminated and take a break on board. It’ll give mission control some time to mull it over and recommend a course of study. Elvers leave your tools here as well.” He heads out to the large robot waiting outside.
It’s a bit unnerving that the machine would move nearby without making a sound, but that is the way it is supposed to be in space. We’ve been linked by radio in our suits, and it provides a small link to normalcy. But really, we’re out here in a terrible cold night, probing at sinister giants from the infinite cosmos. I took a drill to it, to this enormous and ancient thing, and I hope that it doesn’t turn its unknowable attentions my way. I climb up Watson’s back with the captain and Elvers, and I sit with them in the storage bin. “Ready Kim.” The captain says.
“Welcome aboard the Watson express.” Kim replies, “Next stop, home base. I brought Sherlock back to the ship and I’ve been using it to set up decon for you.” The machine rumbled into motion beneath us.
“I didn’t order that.” The captain states flatly, “We need to consider that these machines have been exposed to some contamination out here. It’s not your fault, Kim, but if these machines are contaminated, then we’ve got a serious problem.”
“What’s that Cap?” I ask.
“Well, these machines did all of the site prep after they worked at the boring. So they could have spread traces of this stuff all around out here.” The captain explains.
“Could be.” I agree. “That’s what the plasma is for, we’ll just have to burn the ice around the ship a little.”
“I thought of that, sure.” The captain continues. “But the thing is, we landed on the surfaced area. The procedure was that we would prevent any possible contamination from touching the ship.”
“You’re saying we can’t go home.” Elvers concludes. “We didn’t even have a chance.”
“I don’t know if it’ll be that way.” Thorson clarifies, “But we have to accept that we might be together for longer than we expected.”
“Indefinite quarantine in lunar orbit.” I say. “Damn.”
“Might not be that bad. Let’s let mission control mull it over. They’ll have plenty of time before any of us need to worry about that.”
“Welcome back.” Kim says without any of his previous levity. He would have been listening.
Thorson climbs down first and then Elvers. I follow. The dark, cold ice around the ship is mostly as we left it, except for the presence of Sherlock and the unit with the plasma shower wand hung on its side. Thorson approaches it. “Command. Activate the decontamination shower.”
“Initiating plasma stream.” Aggy replies, and some bluish gas startes to come out of it. Thorson runs his gloves and arms through the stream. Where the stream hits the suit, it turnes orange and little sparks appear. After scorching his gloves and arms, Thorson picks up the wand and starts to work it methodically around the rest of his suit. Then he does the same to Elvers, then me.
I call up the sensor display while he decontaminates me. The electric sensors are located all around the suit to detect if the plasma has thoroughly washed the area. The display shows me a wire frame view of my suit with translucent red areas where I haven’t yet been decontaminated, and translucent green areas where I am clear. The captain can see the same thing. I watch as he spreads the green around. It is comforting to think about getting out of the suit and back into the relative comfort of the familiar ship.
When my decon is complete I move towards the airlock to find Elvers standing in front of Watson which has been positioned in front of the airlock, blocking it. “Kim?” Elvers asks on the radio.
“Aggy has been updated with new contamination parameters.” Kim said. “I’m updating your displays now.” The display of my suit pops up in my helmet display. The bottoms of the boots are red now.
“Of course.” I say. “Do we have a fix?”
“Standby on that.” Kim says. “In the meantime, you can start in on some analysis of the samples.”
“Alright.” I say, moving towards the external storage where our equipment for external analysis of the samples is stored.
Behind me, Elvers argues, “No. That’s not right. This isn’t our fault. They’re not going to let us back in.”
“Whoa now, calm down Elvers.” Thorson says. “Let’s keep it together. We’ve got a job to do.”
“No… wait…” Elvers sounds distressed.
I retrieve the large case of equipment and close the storage bay hatch. When I turn around I see a nightmare.
“Easy there, Elvers.” Thorson says in such a kind and calming tone, but she is struggling in Watson’s gripper arm which is holding her above the ice while Thorson is jamming the plasma shower head into the back of her suit. She probably can’t even feel it. She won’t feel it, not until it finally burns through her armor and it begins to incinerate her flesh. I watch in horror.
“Okay.” Elvers says, giving up on the struggle. “Okay, I’ll calm down. I’m sorry. It’s just a shock is all.”
“No worries.” Thorson says in the same kind tone, as he continues to burn through her suit. “It could happen to anyone.”
I drop the equipment case.
“Oh, what’s th… Ahhhhh, Nahhhh…” Elvers briefly makes incomprehensible sounds of pain and terror as the plasma burns through her chest cavity.
I understand what is happening, I really do. But at the same time, I divide myself from it. Separate myself from it. That’s what Elvers couldn’t do, and I didn’t want to end up like her. “Where should I set this up, captain?” I ask. “We can still try to do some good here.”
“Alright, you get that set up over there. Kim, I want you to have Sherlock dig us some graves. A modest memorial.”
“Can do captain.” Kim’s voice responds. He is trying to keep emotion out of voice. I realize that I’ll never lay eyes on him again. I’ll never lay eyes on lots of things again. I’ll never leave this frozen sphere of endless night and madness. Europa. Unless… Maybe…
“Actually, Captain.” I say, “I’d like my arrangements to be a little different.”
“I want to be interred in the ice of the voidwhale. Perhaps to be carried on to countless worlds far from here.”
“We can do that. Right, Kim?”
“I’ll make it happen.” The man in the radio says.
The captain and I swap out our air supplies and CO2 scrubbers and then set about to analyze the samples. It really is fascinating. These are things we never could have imagined and our short studies would fuel new areas of research for what could be years or centuries to come. Heat really brings this stuff to life, there are questions about what precisely it would have wreaked upon us if we had taken it into the ship, but it certainly would not have been inert. I find a tiny sliver of comfort in that. As to the manner of my death, I choose to freeze. I walk over to the thing from beyond. Sherlock has carved out a small alcove for me. I remove my RTG heater and I lean into it. It won’t be long in this cold.