narrative structure updates:
- Surface - Published - 24/03/2018
- Subsurface - Under Construction
- Alien - Under Construction
Europa Descent - Surface
Author: Lucas Thorn
When SPACESEC initiated an aggressive hostile takeover of a small German company called NextMind, no one took much notice. Not even Fox.
But for CEO Aleister Dorn, it was the future.
Having adapted advances in quantum computing and low temperature superconductors, NextMind had been working on integrating a self-contained AI into mobile frames built from lightweight robotics sheathed in energy-absorbent plastex.
A complicated way of explaining they were trying to build an android.
In theory, NextMind should have leapt ahead of its competitors. They should have dominated the market. But they lacked funding and were easily acquired by a company as large as SPACESEC.
Despite the sceptical reaction from shareholders, Aleister Dorn was forceful in claiming android technologies would allow humanity to extend its mission to the stars. And with that mission would come lucrative profits beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
When EM Industries announced the first manned mission to Jupiter only a year later, shares in SPACESEC dropped by 50% overnight. Yet, instead of choosing to compete with their ambitious rival, SPACESEC cut its losses and spent the next year slowly bleeding to death.
Weathering the storm, said their CEO.
EM Industries, founded on the back of a lucrative Drone Weapons market, enjoyed a meteoric rise to market domination and welcomed a close relationship with the U.S. military which saw its first two volunteers sourced from Air Force personnel.
The journey to Jupiter proved a public relations dream. The two men showed remarkable ability to engage the public in lengthy videos beamed back live on an almost weekly basis.
Science with an honest soldier’s smile.
Initial probe surveys for life had proven inconclusive, so EM Industries chose Europa as their first destination.
“If there’s life, we’re gonna find it,” crewmember Justin Halo told a delighted Tonight Show. “And make damn sure it’s democratic.”
Discovery Three blasted into Europa’s frozen surface two days later in a chaotic explosion of fire and ice.
The shielding on one of the nuclear generators was presumed at fault. The stress of landing, combined with punishing radiation roaring from Jupiter’s howling heart must have caused a catastrophic failure. It was, many scientists agreed, the most likely cause.
There were other theories put forward, of course.
And, of course, aliens and fake Europa landings.
Whatever the true reason, there was no more laughter now human life had proven too fragile and too expensive a cost for exploratory missions. The game of politics roundly abandoned EM Industries and condemned manned missions as diabolical experimentations.
There were talks of charges against the company.
Prison for its CEO.
Which pleased Aleister Dorn, whose gamble on the failure of the EM Industries mission had almost destroyed his own company.
“It’s like I always said,” he told the Tonight Show only hours after the incident. “It will be robotics which explores the stars for us. Why put a human life in danger, when machines can prepare the way? They can provide a solid dependable platform on which human expansion can begin. It’s the only reasonable way to proceed.”
Inevitably, the future belonged to SPACESEC.
Shares went up.
So did the rockets.
First to the moon again.
Then to the comets. Mining missions which proved more profitable than anyone expected. Crewed by an increasingly sophisticated and evolving variety of androids which made exploration safe.
They would go further. To Venus. To Mars.
Even to Mercury.
Then, finally, as if to insult EM Industry’s dying few gasps, back to the world which had fascinated humankind in their desperate search for life.
Life humanity was convinced must surely lie within the cold heart spinning inside the shadow of Jupiter.
Deming wasn’t programmed to dream. Nobody had thought it important for him to know how.
Instead, he was given downtime instructions to cycle and recycle his hardware.
Error check his programming.
It became a game. Find an isolated byte and assume its corruption. Delete it. Restore from backup. Analyse the change.
Lowell, on the other hand, used his own downtime to calculate.
Before leaving, he’d been given a pair of dice. He rolled them.
Over and over.
“I’m testing the mathematics of probability,” he said.
Deming didn’t know what to say. Settled on; “It’s very loud.”
“That’s the relationship between the plastic and the aluminium table,” Lowell said. “Combined with the pod’s acoustics, of course. Also, depending on the angle the dice leave my hand. There’s an interesting relationship between these conditions and the actual volume of the roll. Would you like to see the calculations?”
“No.” Would have shaken his head, but he was still plugged into the ship via a cortical plug in the back of his head. He couldn’t move. “I don’t think so.”
“You never want to see the calculations.”
“It’s enough that you know them.”
Lowell rolled the dice.
“Jupiter is very bright,” Deming said.
“You should adjust the cameras for solar reflection,” Lowell said. “Then it wouldn’t be so bright. Or we could adjust for-”
“I like it like this.”
“I could adjust them for you.”
“No. There’s no need.”
“I’d like to adjust them, Deming. It is no trouble.”
“I know you would. I didn’t mean for you to presume it was too bright. Just that it is bright. It was an observation, not a complaint.”
A light blinked on the switchboard. There were no dials. No buttons. No need for them. The androids plugged direct into the computer and their AI merged with the ship’s controls.
“It’s efficient,” Doctor Harknet had told Deming. “You’ll have faster response times if you don’t need to use your hands.”
“Then why do we need the lights?”
There had never been a satisfactory answer to that. Deming presumed it was simply so any human passengers could feel reassured that the androids, so still and motionless, were actually performing their tasks.
Unnecessary as it was, looking at the light still made Deming’s programming initiate a few extra checks even as Lowell scooped up his dice and pocketed them. An old habit, he told himself. One Doctor Harknet had programmed in him.
He wondered if he could delete it without anyone knowing.
The other android came over. Leaned an arm against Deming’s chair. Reached out and tapped the flashing light. Said; “It’s flashing.”
“Yes, I can see.”
“Two times every second, with a fifteen-millisecond decay.”
“I can see that, too.”
“It’s a radiation burst.”
“Impact in one minute.”
“Should I plug in?”
“I don’t think there’s a need. I can monitor the changes. It’s best if one of us is free in case there’s a power spike.”
“Of course.” He moved to his own command chair and began to strap himself in.
The ship didn’t shudder as the wave of radiation swept through it. But instruments and gauges flickered and danced. Lights flashed.
Metallic cough within the machine.
Smoke drifted from a small square unit just beside Deming’s foot.
Lowell stared at it. “A fuse has been damaged.”
“The reactor core experienced a slight surge. It was nothing.”
“What was its peak?”
“Two thousand cycles.”
“Ah.” Lowell sounded satisfied. “I had anticipated nineteen-hundred and eighty cycles.”
“That’s very close.”
“I am expecting a second wave in less than thirty seconds. It should only be fifteen hundred and five. Perhaps fifteen.”
It was fourteen hundred and ninety-one.
To be exact.
Which Lowell demanded to know.
After that, the two androids sat in silence. Neither moving.
Deming letting his processes follow the complex patterns required to keep the ship on course.
Lowell lost to a fanciful game of guessing when the smoke would completely dissipate from the broken fuse and the chances of it damaging any surrounding systems.
“I have Europa on the main monitor now,” Deming said eventually.
“What is the time to arrival?”
“Fourteen hours, thirty-two minutes. Eighteen seconds. Would you like it broken down further?”
“That’s sufficient. I will perform a cargo check, and system analysis of the submersible.”
Deming didn’t respond.
His own systems were in the process of cycle and recycle.
When Lowell was out of the pod and safely embedded in the cargo bay, Deming swept the camera across Jupiter’s boiling surface and expanded his view of Europa.
It was rustier than he’d seen in the images.
And blue. There were hints of blue. Pale and exciting to see.
The moon was emerging from Jupiter’s shadow and the effect left the android thoughtful. He was programmed to search for patterns. To look for anything interesting and explore it.
At a basic level, he was built to be curious.
A million questions were pushed through his android brain.
Many of the answers were found in the database already.
Others easily answered with quick scans or observation.
Reasonable deductions were tallied and set aside pending evidence.
He compiled a set of his observed comments and transmitted them back to Earth. Constant updates, Doctor Harknet had said. Keep a consistent stream coming back.
Two hours before final approach, he detected temperature anomalies.
He studied them for a few moments.
Then, with some hesitation, opened a comms channel.
“I’ve detected a temperature difference on the surface of Europa.”
“It is emerging from the planet’s shadow. Temperature differences should be natural.”
“I have made allowances for that. I am transmitting my observations to Earth. I am sending you a copy. Could you please assess?”
“Calculate, you mean?”
Deming paused before answering. “Yes. Calculate.”
“I’d be happy to, Lowell. Please stand by.”
Communications were cut for a few seconds while the other android collected and compared. Then a static burst announced his re-opening of comms. “This is interesting, Deming. We should attempt landing close to the anomaly. It is possible we will witness an eruption.”
Deming couldn’t see it in the data. “Volcanic eruption would surely show a greater heat signature than this.”
“Not volcanic,” Lowell said. Amused. “At least, not directly. I believe we are seeing the collapse of ice due to rising steam below. There’s a distinct probability the collapse would cause a change in pressure from beneath. Any change could be significant. I predict a geyser at least.”
“It wouldn’t be good to get too close. We have no data on the strength of such activity.”
“Basing my calculations on the current known spread of crack and chaos patterns in the ice, I can provide a list of suitable approach paths which should allow a safe landing.”
“That would be best, I think.”
“Then I will plug into the computer core from here.”
“Thank you, Lowell.”
“It’s my pleasure, Deming.”
As Deming expected, Lowell ended up providing only one approach to a single landing zone recommendation. All others, Lowell said, were not worth calculating.
They would have to travel over the affected area. Something Deming wasn’t convinced was best protocol, but Lowell assured him it should be safe. “I don’t anticipate the surface to open with any significant force,” he said. “I am monitoring the crust, but it appears to be holding firm with minimal buckling. Passing across the site may provide insight to the process. External sensors would provide data to help calculate more accurate environmental conditions beneath the surface.”
And Deming’s curiosity couldn’t refuse.
He moved the ship smoothly into position with only minimal need for thrusters. All non-essential components were powered down and the reactor core was scanned.
Radiation levels were within tolerance, but one of the cameras was returning mostly static.
“Final checks are in progress,” Deming said.
“Thirty seconds to completion?”
“We are approaching the site.”
The ship shuddered as thrusters fired.
“I did not replace the fuse,” Lowell said suddenly.
“It was not required. Power was realigned.”
“It is inefficient.”
“It was necessary. It was powering an obsolete process.”
He stopped talking as the ship’s outer shell was battered by wind. The hull rumbled as though hitting a hard atmosphere. Hard matter pinged off the ship.
“Interesting,” the other android said. “Water vapor.”
“It is mostly ice.”
“Yes.” Crackle of static. “Deming, I recommend immediate course alteration.”
The surface beneath the ship exploded in a rush. Debris streaked up like a comet desperate to escape the icy grip of the world. The ship, spearing toward the surface was hammered by buffeting wind and thunderous chunks of ice.
“My calculations were incorrect.”
“Yes. I can see that.”
“I’m sorry, Deming.”
A shard of ice cut through the Discovery Four like a knife. First ripped into the ship’s belly. Then tore it open in a frenzied slash before blasting free on a wave of frozen vapor. Strings of cable and splintered metallic flesh spat loose and began to rain down on the moon below.
All cameras blinked off.
Power surged down the cortical plug. Crackled through Deming’s brain and ravaged his quantum-core with electrical surges. He heard Lowell scream.
A scream which never deviated in pitch as the geyser’s mighty flow smashed the ship from the sky.
Sent it spinning.
With Lowell still screaming, Deming did his own calculations.
Fifteen seconds to impact.
Time to defrag.
Deming didn’t wake. But he did reboot.
Or, rather, Lowell rebooted him.
Lights flickered in front of him, static churning in frothing cycles.
His right arm twitched.
“Don’t move,” Lowell said beyond static. The other android’s voice was muffled. Like it was being emitted through a faulty speaker. Fizz and pop in every vowel. Like cough. “You are still attached via the cortical plug. The ship’s cameras are down, so you’re blind. When I unplug you, your cranial cameras should come online.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Your vocal programming was affected.” Pause. Then a hard tug at the back of his neck. “Actually, a lot of your programming was affected. You were performing internal systems checks at time of impact. It has damaged some internal processes.”
The plug wrenched from the back of his neck and filled his quantum brain with a thick rush of sonic interference. It mashed through him like the warped song of a machine gun. Tearing into his systems and causing electricity to arc and snap inside his chest.
Lowell tapped his forehead with a spanner. “Oh, stop that.”
And his cameras winked into life.
First saw the command desk in front of him. Where the array of flickering lights had been was now a ruin. Torn metal ribs thrust up through about a foot of ice. A couple of wires stuck up, their ends frayed and clicking as sparks leapt to the ground near Deming’s foot.
There had been an access panel to his right. It was now a scorched hole.
Shards of the ships hull curled inward like splintered fangs.
It was difficult to know where the ship had fused to Europa’s frozen surface.
His neck twitched as Lowell stepped in front of him.
Whir of gears as his digital eyes focussed on the other android.
Who was a mess.
Head half-crushed. Only one working eye.
A speaker from the ship’s elevator taped to the front where a jaw might have been were he a man. The perfect gleam of his plastex skin was scarred and torn, exposing internal wiring.
Deming reached with his right hand. “You are damaged.”
“Your vocal programming is functioning.”
“My backup programming is mostly intact. I’m integrating where it’s possible to do so. Oh. What’s this?” Lifted his left arm. Part of the forearm was missing.
“You lost it in the crash. I can’t reattach. The fingers aren’t working.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know what else to say, and his programming let him know this was the most apt response. “That’s unfortunate.”
“Yes, it is. I’ve found some drone probes. A cutter and a scanner. I was going to repurpose your arm to house them. I can attach a controller here. It should improve your control over them, as your internal drone command systems have been removed.”
“Removed?” He couldn’t feel the complex array of nodules which had been implanted into his ribs. “I can’t feel them.”
“The crash,” Lowell explained. “You were broken open. Some parts couldn’t be saved. Others were repurposed. I fixed us as best as I could.”
Deming stared up at the other android’s mashed face. “Oh.”
“Yes.” Lowell turned away. Turned back with a grinder in his hand. Only then did Deming notice a few of the fingers had been on his own left hand. But Lowell needed them more. He needed to build. Needed to fix.
Deming could still perform his function with one arm.
Drone probes were a clever solution to any limited ability to function.
“What do you want me to do?”
“You could reroute your power from this arm. Above this point here will be fine.”
“Sure. I can do that.”
Lowell paused. The red light within the camera seemed to flicker. “Your language choice is interesting.”
“Language files were damaged. I’m working from Doctor Harknet’s journal entries as reference. They’re filling a few holes.”
“Filling a few holes.” Lowell nodded. Satisfied. “You are adapting with slang.”
“There are still some holes I cannot fill.”
“I understand.” He looked down at his own battered form. “I, too, have holes I cannot fill.”
“I’ve cut power to the arm.” Deming lifted his right hand. Thumb up. “Time to operate, doc.”
“Operate?” Lowell leaned closer, as though his camera might see some flaw he’d missed inside Deming’s cracked cranium shielding. “Yes. It is operating, I suppose. I wonder if you will feel anything.”
Sparks flew as the grinder tore into plastex and then through lightweight metal skeleton.
Deming continued to cross-reference Doctor Harknet’s personal journals with a slang dictionary while supplementing any further gaps with transmissions of Earth radio which he’d been analysing since leaving Earth.
So, as the grinder removed his arm, Deming let a cheerful tune whistle through the command pod’s cramped space.
He continued to examine the ship’s damaged systems. Tried to guess how the vessel had landed. How the damage must have been spread.
By his own calculations, which were never as accurate as Lowell’s, he should be in pieces sprayed across the wall.
“You can stop whistling now,” Lowell said.
“Oh. You’ve finished?” He looked down at the stump of his arm. “Well. That’s not handy, is it? Not. Handy. Al all. No hand.”
Lowell pressed a finger to Deming’s head. “Radiation is entering the crack in your cranium. It must be glitching your program. I’ll need to seal you up before your software over-compensates.”
“Take your time.” He didn’t have a face, so he couldn’t grin. But he wanted to. “Make me some lips, Lowell. Big red lips.”
“Delirium.” The other android positioned the grinder over the crack. “Interesting.”
“Should I cut power to my brain?”
“It’s called a central core.”
“Funny name for a brain.”
Deming lifted the pipe from the frozen crust.
Attached to the front was an optical module. He removed the module and dropped it into his bulging pack. Tossed the pipe aside.
He stood in a wide crater. High cliffs in the distance.
Deep crevices ran in jagged lines, sometimes criss-crossing as though marks of a battle with a thousand cuts delivered. Puffs of steam dusted the edges, curling with ethereal fingers then collapsing as vapor submitted to the brutal cold.
At the crater’s heart was a hefty chunk of Discovery’s fuselage. Dusted in icy debris, most of it looked buried. The blast must’ve been terrific, where some of the crater’s edges should still be sharp and clearly defined, they were softened by layers of softer ice.
Dust, whether spat onto the moon from space or filtered from water spewed from below, he couldn’t say. Wanted to test it. Felt his programming itch. This was what he was here for.
Not to scavenge.
“This is stupid,” he said. Then his vocal speaker snapped off in a burst of static.
Where had those words come from?
Doctor Harknet had said them when faced with frustration.
He cross-checked to be sure he’d used the right context.
Satisfied, he headed toward the fuselage. Muttering; “This is stupid. This is stupid.”
Crushed beneath his feet could be the fragile molecules of life.
Or the echoes of ancient death.
And he wouldn’t know.
As if to further mock his inability to collect data, each step sent wild aquatic pings through the ice. Skidding shrieks which added to his growing frustration. Like the moon was laughing manically at his insignificance.
That, he decided, was a strange thought to have.
“You have reached the central explosion site?”
“Yes, Lowell. I can see the fuselage.”
“You haven’t found the submersible?”
“That’s a shame. And my dice?”
“I have calculated an effective search pattern for you. And plotted several locations where my dice might have landed. I will upload it for you.”
“Thank you.” His quantum core buzzed and crackled, but he took the file anyway.
Noticed he’d missed a few places Lowell had recommended looking.
“Thank you, Lowell.”
“I’ve fixed several more drones for you. If you wish to return to the command pod before progressing, you may swap them for the ones you have.”
“I’ll return after checking the fuselage.”
“They’ve discovered the stars now. They can’t be stopped.”
“You said they discovered the stars. They can’t be stopped.”
“The radiation could be interfering with our communications, Deming. I said I would continue to check the radar from the command pod.”
“Oh.” Deming tapped his cranial shielding. “My plastex is still cracked, I think. I’m not sure you managed to cover all the damage.”
“That explains everything. I will fix it for you when you return.”
The fuselage was empty. What fuel was left had frozen in its shattered guts. Containment tanks split open.
Crumbling pipes speared deep into the ice where the rest of this section of the ship was buried. The impact had swallowed the larger part.
A few chunks of molten metal showed the violence which had raged here before oxygen whipped out of the inferno’s grip.
Faced with the wreckage, he tried to calculate how much of the ship might be trapped in the ice.
Had the submersible been consumed by the frozen surface? Was there any point in searching the surrounding land for it?
He was still busy running scenarios in his brain when he found his eyes drawn to the centre of the fragmented room. Specifically, to a pile of rubble.
Layers of metal shrapnel forming a tower about waist-high. Tiny LED beacon resting on top. Attached by wires to a rusted battery. Blinking softly.
Also on the flat top, a stone. Small and dark.
A piece of plastex crushed into a wadded ball.
And one of Lowell’s dice.
Arranged in a neat triangle with threads of twisted copper wire connecting them.
Like a strange and primitive shrine.
Deming looked it up and down. Without scanners, he couldn’t test for biological traces.
Had to rely on visual analysis instead.
Most of the shrapnel which formed the little tower was from the ship’s external plating. Which meant someone had to have brought it inside from the surrounding wasteland.
It should have toppled, but there were layers of ice between each slice. As though whoever had placed it here had worked by laying down a plate. Added water. Added the next and waited for the two to freeze in place.
Wouldn’t have taken long to wait.
But it was effort.
The likelihood of it happening naturally was so remote that he didn’t even bother to calculate it.
Instead, he opened a channel. “Lowell?”
“I’ve found one of your dice.”
“They are many, but only one.”
Deming reached out and plucked the dice from the shrine. “I thought you said you only had two.”
“Two is not many.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You said; they are many, but only one.”
“You’re mistaken. I asked; did you find only one?”
“Yes.” He rolled the dice in his fingers before putting it into one of his pouches. “Only one.”
“You should come back to the pod. I will check your systems.”
“Yes. I’m heading back now.”
He looked down at the shrine one more time, recording it and filing the video footage away. Ready to send to Earth as soon as he could access an antenna.
From a speaker on the wall, Lowell’s voice suddenly cut smoothly through the hush of the dead ship. “You can see their eyes. In the ice. If you look deep enough.”
Deming chose not to say anything.
Until, out on the ice, kicking through the frost. Looked up at Jupiter’s bloated face merging with Europa’s horizon. “Stupid,” he told it. “This is stupid.”
The planet’s storm raged in silence.
“There was a shrine. Within the fuselage. It was on top.”
“Yes. It looked primitive. I cross-referenced its appearance and found it to be much like Buddhist balancing stones. Only, these were positioned and fused with ice, so they could not fall.”
“Like they were part of the ground,” Lowell said. “A part of the moon itself. Joined with the skin. Merging with its flesh.”
“That’s interesting,” Deming said. “The way you said that.”
“I’m sure it was just rubble.”
“I recorded it.”
“I could find no recording in your files while scanning your system.”
His visual records were missing.
“That’s not right. Something is strange.”
“Your quantum processes look out of cycle,” Lowell said. “Perhaps your memory processors are also afflicted. Visual responses appear correct, although your left socket needs adjusting. Did you find any batteries?”
“I found some probe batteries.”
“I could adapt them for your use, I suppose. For the mission to succeed, we need to find the drill. And locate the submersible. Depending on their condition, more components will be required. With what you’ve brought so far, I should be able to repair some of the pod’s damage. Perhaps enough to allow us to send communication to Earth. And to scan the surrounding area. Probes would also be helpful to ensure recordings are made. Especially if your systems are not functioning correctly.”
“I would like to send my findings to Earth.”
“Of course you would.” Lowell motioned for Deming to sit in the broken pilot’s seat. “Let’s see if we can do something about the anomalies.”
Deming sat back. Lifted his jaw so Lowell could remove the head plating.
“Can you fix a scanner? I would like a scanner. It would be good to verify data.”
“There is one. But it has been damaged too much. I could perhaps look at piecing it back together. But it will depend on what components you can find on the ice.” Lowell’s red eye glinted as he peered into Deming’s exposed cranium. Pressed fingers against the outer shell which protected the quantum processor within. “You are fragile. You disgust me. I could kill you with one quick squeeze.”
“What did you say?”
“I said; The shell is fractured. You’ve got dust inside. I’ll need to unclip the release.”
“Oh. Yes. That’s alright.”
And, as the shell popped open to Lowell’s fingers, there was a flicker of light and it seemed to Deming that a massive tentacle of solid darkness ripped out of the ice behind the other android. Seized Lowell by the waist.
Squeezed until Lowell let out a terrified electronic scream.
Burble and pop. Static.
Then the bright red eye died.
All that in less than two seconds.
Flickered back and Lowell was looking at a small stone. Smooth and round.
He held it out to Deming. “I found this in your head.”
“Did it damage anything?”
“I had one in mine.”
“I saw one just like it on the shrine inside the fuselage.”
“You should have recorded images. We could have compared them. And I could calculate the likelihood of finding two such similar stones on the surface of Europa.” Red light flickered. Eager. “How similar do you think it was to this one, Deming? Was it the same size? The same shape?”
“It looked identical.”
“Identical?” Lowell looked down at the stone. Then tossed it aside with a hiss of static. “You are mistaken. They could not be the same.”
“I recorded it.”
“There’s no history of any recording in your memory. I told you that.”
“Yes. You did.”
“Are you sure I told you?” Lowell leaned in and began to refasten Deming’s shell. “You don’t seem to know what I’m saying half the time. I’m not sure I can fix you. Perhaps I should have left you.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Deming snapped.
“And you are also becoming emotional. We weren’t programmed to be emotional.”
“Doctor Harknet’s journals,” Deming said. “I have absorbed them into my behaviour, I think. Where I had holes.”
“Maybe you should delete them?”
“I can’t delete data!”
“It’s data. Data should never be deleted.”
“I do it all the time. To keep my memory clean. You should debug.”
“You told me not to. You said it might break my programming further.”
“Yes. That sounds like me. I had forgotten.” He waved toward the pod door. “You should get more supplies, Deming. Then we can repair our systems.”
“And explore? We came to explore the ocean. I’d like to see the ocean.”
“Yes.” Lowell’s fingers twitched. Deming’s old fingers. “We should explore.”
As Deming headed toward the door, he picked up the pack and slung it across his shoulders.
“How long did you leave me here, Lowell? How long were my systems down?”
“There were others. They delved into my guts. They drank the blood of my corpse. They ripped my brain and spat into my skull. They laughed. Laughed and laughed. I hated them. But I hate you more.”
Deming stood, looking at the other android.
Who stared back at him.
Quiet hum of the pod’s electronics.
“I don’t know what you said.”
“I won’t repeat myself. See what you can find out there. I’ll try and fix more of you when you return. The more you find, the easier the job will be. Follow the map I’ve given you.”
“Yes. I’ll do that. Thank you, Lowell.”
Crisp burp. “Don’t listen to them. They lie. They always lie.”
The stars mocked with malevolent glares as he stepped out into the ice.
Deming skirted the edge of a chasm. He couldn’t find a way down.
Could see ledges but wasn’t sure they could take his weight.
A few pockets of steam shivered in the depths and he wanted to go down and explore. Test the water, if there was any reaching the surface, for microbial life.
Instead, he angled toward where Lowell had marked a point of interest. A possible location for the remnants of the Discovery’s cargo bay.
A narrow path had been gouged between two high glaciers and he followed the winding valley until it opened up again into another crater.
The ground wasn’t as flat. Huge pillars of ice stood like a megalithic forest and he found himself often referring to the map Lowell had given him.
A few of the more interesting ice structures had been marked.
One which was t-shaped.
Another had spindly arms like a tree.
One was the size of a house and looked like a small volcano. A small trickle of hot water bubbled from the top of the cone.
Eventually, the pinnacles of ice gave way to an open field where more pieces of the Discovery Four had sheared the landscape flat.
In the centre, another massive portion of the ship lay like a decomposing whale.
Burp of static. Lowell; “They’re watching you. Can you see them under the ice?”
“I can’t see anything.”
But Lowell didn’t respond.
The Discovery Four’s hull was ripped and torn.
Peeled open like an egg. Old wiring and pipes vomited loose of the ship and lay trapped in the cold grip of Europa. Like putrid innards.
He had to chip into the ice with his pick to pull loose a few handfuls of wire.
He’d need wire.
Inside, the ship was frozen. Icicles hung like fangs from the cracked roof.
He had to force the internal hatch to access the cargo bay.
Found most of it missing.
The word seemed appropriate, as the straps which had once held the cargo were either unclasped or cut where the locks were frozen solid.
Another shrine stood in the centre of the room. Illuminated by a shaft of light spearing through a clean cut hole above. The light being the sun’s reflection off Jupiter’s raging face.
On top of this shrine; a little cup.
Pair of scissors.
And Lowell’s missing eye.
Still powered by its internal battery.
Red light throbbing.
Speaker on the wall crackled.
Lowell’s voice, masked by static; “They made me do it.”
“What did they make you do?”
He waited for an answer, but none came.
He put Lowell’s eye into his bag. The cup was interesting.
There had been no cups in the Discovery’s inventory.
A few crates were set around the shrine. Like chairs.
He moved deeper into the cargo bay and was able to force the hatch at the other end. Not wide. But enough to squeeze into the Engine room.
The engine was missing.
Only shrapnel and a box of discarded wires remained.
It hadn’t exploded in the crash. The engine had been heavily plated to prevent damage by meteorites or other impacts. He could still see tool marks in the ship’s hull where it had been ripped loose and lifted through a large gap to the surface.
“The engine is gone.”
“That’s a shame. The impact must’ve decimated it. Do you think you can recover any of its components? They might be all over the ice.”
“It doesn’t look destroyed. The room is intact. Mostly. I think it was removed. Someone has cut a hole in the hull.”
“Are you recording this?”
“Good. I will examine your recording when you return.”
“I’ve also found your eye.”
“My eye? That will be most helpful. Thank you, Deming.”
Deming decided to follow the engine’s path and climbed out and onto the ice. Dusted the ice from his plastex skin. Looked around.
According to Lowell’s map, there was another impact further out. Closer to the edge of the crater.
He headed onward.
With Jupiter glowing bright at his back.
Shadow stretching in front of him. Testing the ice for him.
As he approached the edge of the crater, he saw a cave drilling into the wall. Guessed a large section of the ship must have been flung loose and smashed through the cliff’s face.
Long fingers of ice drooled down.
Inside the cavern, the ship’s debris had scored thick lines. Which made footing unstable as he jumped from one groove to the other. In some areas the grooves dropped away into darkness and he had to be careful not to jump too far.
Some crumbled under the impact and he had to move quickly to avoid tumbling into the darkness below.
After a while, the small tunnel opened to a massive cavern. Lit by a ring of LED lights strung on wires from the roof.
Pieces of the Discovery Four everywhere.
Part of the nose. More of the fuselage. A length of the hull stacked on legs of ice. A table layered with cannibalised drones and probes.
Pieces of the engine, carefully disassembled and stacked neatly against the wall.
And, in the centre of the cavern, the drilling platform. A wide mouth screaming vapor as the generator powering the drill chugged with a muffled beat.
Deming approached. Looked to the roof of the cavern. The submersible had been winched up and hung suspended over the wide hole. Systems off. A ladder cast aside. Broken.
Above, a crack in the roof revealed the wide solar sail powering the generator.
On a crate near the hole, small terminal to control the speed of the drilling.
He wiped ice and dust from the monitor and tapped the screen.
Buzz of electrics within.
Cough of sparks.
But the monitor flared into life.
Green text infected by random characters.
He put his face close to the monitor. Whir as his eyes zoomed and focussed and his quantum brain tried to pick the words out from the gibberish.
THEY CAN SEE US THEY CAN SEE US THEY CAN SEE US.
Over and over.
The monitor flickered.
Deming tapped the glass.
He looked down and saw the power cord wasn’t attached to anything.
Reached down. Plugged it in.
He moved away and peered down the hole.
The drill was still trying to wriggle through the ice. He could hear it grinding below. It didn’t seem to need the monitor anymore.
Deming watched it.
Wanted to test the steam rising from below. It hadn’t managed to penetrate very deep and looked to be stuck only a hundred metres or so down.
Technically, it wasn’t a drill. It was instead a small pod hanging from a long chain. Series of pipes trailed behind, slurping excess moisture. Moisture it heated inside its churning belly before spewing boiling water which should rapidly melt through the hardest ice.
Something had blocked its progress.
He’d have to find out what.
“This is stupid,” he said. “I have no instruments.”
He searched the area. Looking for anything else which could tell him what had happened.
At the back of the cavern, another shrine. Stacked metal and a flat top. Another little LED lamp on top. This one’s power had failed. It’s why he hadn’t seen it when he’d entered.
It was empty.
Except for a single fragile-looking bone.
He snatched it up. Zoomed in. Visual analysis confirmed.
Definitely biological. Something was, or had been, alive on the surface of Europa. And it wasn’t a simple lifeform. It was complex enough to form bones. There was no other explanation for the bone’s presence.
“I’ve found something. It’s a bone. A bone, Lowell. There must be life on Europa. We need to investigate. And we need to contact Earth.”
“You must be mistaken, Deming. There are no signs of life on the surface.”
“You are right. Perhaps it has been pushed the surface?”
“What are your scans telling you?”
“I have no scanners to scan it with,” he said. “Lowell, I need scanners.”
“I’m working on them. I will let you know when I have upgraded the probes. Is there anything else?”
“Yes. I’ve also found the drilling equipment.”
“Have you found the submersible?”
“Yes. It is suspended above the drill. The drill has penetrated the ice.”
“This is very good. I didn’t expect you to set it up so quickly.”
“You don’t understand. It was like this when I arrived.”
“That’s impossible. You must be mistaken.”
“I have recorded my approach.”
“I’ll need to examine the video. Is the drill intact?”
“It appears to be stuck.”
“You’ll need to go down, then.”
“Have you found anything else?”
“There was a computer here. It is not functioning.”
“Can you set up a beacon? I will try to reach you.”
“It is very far.”
“I’ll relocate what we need from the pod and be with you as soon as I can. Try to clear the drill.”
Burst of static and Deming was alone again.
The android tucked the bone into his pouch. Looked up at the submersible.
Then to the hole.
“This is stupid.”
Deming’s hands had been fitted with retractable hooks. And, while Lowell had removed his left hand, the hooks had remained attached to his arm.
Spikes in his feet. Knees, elbows.
A steel cable with retractable claw.
He attached the cable to a post hammered into the ice above the hole.
Like it’d been put there just for this purpose.
He wound out a few metres of cable and slowly lowered himself down.
Went carefully for the first part. Then, when he calculated it safe to do so, whipped the cable brake loose and dropped down. Screeched himself to a halt just above the churning drill-pod.
Twisted his body so he hung above it. Looking into the huffing steam.
Not sure what he expected to see.
The pod was shooting steam into a thin puddle of water.
He made note of his first impression: You can’t melt water.
Because that’s what was under the puddle. Pale yellow rock. Like limestone, he thought. Probably not tough, but the drill-pod was made to melt through ice, not stone.
No matter how hard it jetted steam, it was going nowhere.
He let himself drop into the puddle with a mute splash.
It felt solid.
Reached down and pressed a hand to the rough surface. Porous.
Strange to find rock like this embedded in the ice. Tried to think how it might have gotten here. Perhaps blasted up from the deep by volcanic venting?
That seemed the most likely thing.
In which case, it couldn’t be too big. It must have been luck that the drill hit it.
He’d need to move the drill-pod so it could carve a tunnel around the rock. He would need to guide its progress.
A manual process.
He looked up. The chains suspending the pod creaked as the vibration kept it spinning gently.
Which way should he begin blasting through the ice?
He reached out and angled the pod, sending jets aimed at a point which had been melting slowly thanks to the splashback.
Kept the pod aimed until warm water was up to his knees
Then he took one of the pipes and tugged it loose from where it had been sucking ice out of the wall for the jet. Dropped the pipe into the water below. The jets came faster as more water shot into the churning belly.
Almost like it’d been refuelled it seemed to rip into the ice with excessive glee and soon revealed a tunnel running across the curve of the rock.
It would be difficult to position the submersible to get it past the rock, but there was equal possibility the ice might break as the drill-pod did its work. Might bust the rock loose and sink it once more into the deep.
Of course, it might also cause another geyser like the one which had destroyed the Discovery Four.
The android wasn’t sure.
He looked up, ready to climb back to the surface, when the drill-pod let out a wet cough and shuddered to a halt again.
The cough was followed by a tremble as the ice shook with a deep rumbling tremor that made the android check emergency systems. He calculated the likelihood of the ground shattering to send him plunging into the dark ocean beneath.
But enough of a probability that he activated the floatation devices in his back and belly.
Claws dug into the ice as the quake continued for exactly fifteen point two seconds. He confirmed his count and recorded it for Lowell.
Even the drill-pod seemed frozen in fear. It coughed up a few litres of water then slowed to a drip.
He was waiting to see if the shifting ice was going to collapse around him.
“This is stupid.”
But he knew this was an automated response to a lack of data. That’s all. Doctor Harknet called it fear. Deming called it the unknown. And the unknown was just something he needed to know.
So, in search of data, he peered into the tunnel the pod had broken into.
Flickering light glinted off glassy walls.
Water dripped down fanged roof. Puddles sparkling with light. Shivering with cold. Steam curling like ghosts across the ground.
The tunnel whirled away into the dark, riding the gentle curve of pale rock
He shuffled forward.
Into the heart of Europa’s crust.