United States

The Depths of Europa

June 10, 2019

As the rocket landed, the astronauts inside yawned, stretched, and excitedly but groggily went over their readings. “Current time is 0200 hours, September 5, 2082. The temperature outside is -187 degrees Celsius,” the crew’s main medic and biologist, Hatanaka Kaito, said. He got a yawn in reply from Cora Brown, the electrician and mechanic. “‘Bout time. My legs were starting to cramp.”  This earned a snort from Katya Kuznetsov, the pilot and astrogeologist. “You have two years to stretch your legs on a ship in zero gravity. Now we land and you complain?”
“Two years, ten months, 28 days, 4 hours, and 52 seconds,” Marian Couture, the captain, corrected. “Oh, specifics, specifics. SAM, how’s our status?” Brown bit out, leaning back in her seat. The System Administration and Maintenance system, better known as SAM, replied in the robotic, monotone voice she’d had since she was programmed. “All hatches and points of contact are secure. The Europan Surface Rover has arrived and is awaiting further instruction.” As she talked, SAM released the mechanism to secure the astronauts in their seats. The crew stood, stretching their backs and legs as best as they could in the cramped cockpit.
As the group began milling about the ship, SAM started reviewing their mission overview. “We landed on Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter. One day lasts approximately 3.55 Earth days, and one year is 3.551181041 Earth days. The physical characteristics of Europa have been sent to your data pads,” she paused and, true to SAM’s word, everyone’s data pads pinged with a notification. “The current objective of the Europan Reconnaissance and Scouting mission is to survey the surface and depths of Europa and to compare present findings with those from the Galileo mission in 1995.” As SAM droned on, Kaito chuckled to himself. “It’s interesting, don’t you think?”
Marian looked up from where they had been checking over their supplies. “What, being on a rocket?” Kaito shook his head. “It’s almost been one hundred years since the initial data on this moon was recorded, and that was from a flyby that took six years to even reach this point. So much has changed since then,” he trailed off, sighing wistfully. “Try and keep your head out of the clouds during the trip to the surface. Would be a shame for it to get radiation.” Marian smirked, clicking shut the case they had been rummaging through. Kaito snorted, retrieving his suit from the rack hanging in the equipment room. “I sure hope I don’t get radiation. That’s what this is for, yes?” He gestured to the suit and put it on.
After the crew had prepared themselves, suiting up and gathering their supplies and entering the airlock, the SAM opened the door to the surface. “Good luck. If you need me, you may speak with me using your data pads. So long as you stay within 250 meters of the ship, you should be able to connect.”
As the astronauts stepped out of the ship, the rover ahead of them chirped, seemingly happy. Cora bound forward, leaving behind a disgruntled Marian, who muttered something about “a small step for man.” When she reached the Europan Surface Rover, she began fretting over it almost immediately, going over its delicate features with a critical eye. Behind her, Kaito began setting up their main equipment, Marian quickly following suit.
After retrieving a heat signature detector and a few other pieces of equipment from the two, Katya began excitedly inspecting the surface. She powered on the temperature reader first, going over the information in her head, confirming Kaito’s earlier readings. She quickly wandered around, marveling at the deep scratches in the thick ice, and flipped over to the heat signature detecting screen. After doing a double take to the screen and the surface, she abruptly stopped walking and frowned.
“Ah… Cora? I think there’s something wrong with... my reader..?” She squinted her eyes, as if that would clarify what she was seeing. Cora perked up from where she had been retrieving information from the rover.  “What’s it doing?”
“Well, the heat signatures are moving for starters. And there is… more stark variation in temperature than we expected, unless….” Katya trailed off, the other three astronauts quickly looking up at her. Marian stood up straight, furrowing their eyebrows. “Unless what, Kuznetsov?” She turned around to meet their eyes.
“Unless there was something alive under there.”
Marian strode over to her, taking in the display on the screen as Kaito and Cora gawked. Sure enough, there were very distinct, moving blobs of color signifying moving heat. A group of them were almost circling around where there had been enough movement to feel below the ice, some scurrying off, some cautiously approaching. Kaito began worrying his hands as he and Cora approached the other two. “I-- oh, man, I suppose it’s possible, but I didn’t expect this! What if-- what if they’re aliens? What if they’re conscious? Oh my god does that make us the first humans to-- to discover--” “We haven’t discovered anything but moving heat signatures yet, Kaito.” Marian cut in. Cora hummed to herself before she spoke. “Well, what do you say we make a real discovery, huh, captain? The drill’s already unpacked.”
Marian looked up from the screen, to Cora, to the ice, and gave a single, decisive nod.

After a few tense, strenuous hours of drilling through the 32 meter thick icy crust (“Kilometers! I thought it was at most twenty five kilometers deep,” Katya had exclaimed), the crew was able to peer over the edge and into the cold water below. After a few moments of oppressive silence, a head popped through the surface of the water, distinctly wrong and-- and alien, but also familiar, as if from an old tale of mermaids. It seemed to smile at the humans above it and slowly rose a webbed, slimey hand in a greeting.


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