0400 GMT. The present was waiting for me when I stepped outside.
It gleamed and shimmered with rainbow hues, wrapped in what looked like pearlescent paper. On top was a diaphanous collection of loops and whorls. In those first few moments of shock it looked like the most beautifully wrapped birthday gift I'd ever seen.
My biosuit alarm began pinging frantically as I cycled back into the airlock. My heart hammered in my chest like a caged jackrabbit, vital signs warning of mounting panic. The floor thrummed through the soles of my boots, habitat pumps working frantically to pressurize the lock while I struggled not to hyperventilate.
The inner door hissed open at last. I stumbled through as the main vid-screen flickered to life. Phil Jansen’s familiar face appeared, pale, eerily lit by the blue glow of his terminal.
“Status report ERB One,” he demanded, then winced as his tone registered. “Sorry Alice. What’s going on, are you okay?”
In the background other forms moved closer. Night-shift technicians from other projects, concerned, or maybe just curious, about the lone astronaut on Europa.
“I’m uh… okay Control,” I replied, fumbling with my suit controls, trying to shut off the alarm.
“There was something outside the lock,” I continued, trying to calm down, attempting to act rationally.
Fingers working at the latches on my helmet I snapped the last one open, tossed the silvery spheroid onto a chair, still not accustomed to the slow arc of its fall in the low gravity.
“Something like…?” Phil's voice trailed off as he glanced down at his terminal, arms moving. Probably accessing the external cams to take a look himself. His eyes flicked right towards a secondary screen. No indication he saw anything unusual.
“It was down low, maybe too low for the cam?”
“Err… what are we looking for? Phil asked, his expression carefully neutral. Probably worried the isolation was getting to me.
“It was a pres… a package of some kind,” I replied.
I bounced lightly across the floor, sat down at my own terminal. Started cycling through the external cam feeds.
“Kind of a shiny exterior, like oil on water, but brighter. Had some loops of thin material on top. It was cube shaped, little more than a cubic meter.”
I was trying to force myself into an analytical way of describing it. Years of scientific training helped. Further years working for CANSPACE, with all its bureaucratic bullshit, made it almost second nature.
But in the back of my mind a voice kept saying ‘It’s your birthday today. Someone left you a present.’
A quieter voice whispered ‘It would have been Emily’s birthday today as well. She would be eighteen.’
Someone leaving a present was highly improbable of course. I’d been alone on Europa for the past ninety-five days. A problem with the life-support systems on the shuttle that left with my crewmates was responsible for my current status. Lone occupant of Europa Research Base One. A re-routed cargo shuttle with a single cryo-pod was due to pick me up in a week.
The odds that some country had prepped and landed a craft on Europa without being detected was incredibly slim. If someone had done so, why on earth, or rather, why on Europa, would they leave a package outside my door? And why leave a package wrapped like a present. On my birthday no less!
“Can you activate the rover?” Phil asked. “Bring it around by remote to take a look.”
“Yes.. uh, copy that Control,” I replied. “One moment please.”
I pulled the rover control app up on the main screen. Phil could have done this himself of course. Quantum entanglement tech meant no delay in signals from earth, unlike the old days with radio or laser-link comms. Hopefully it was a good sign, meant he thought I could still do my job.
“Radio spectrum looks nominal,” Phil announced. His head turned, looking at someone off cam.
“Zohreh, can you work with Copernicus to check ERB One’s external sensor logs for the past, uh… six hours?
From the corner of my eye I saw the slim form of the Iranian exchange student step into view. “Of course Dr Janson,” the young woman replied, her face lighting up.
Zohreh, I suspected, had something of a crush on Phil. Perhaps partly based on hero worship. Not that I should care. I’d pushed him away long before leaving for Europa.
Still, Zohreh was an absolute savant when it came to teaming up with SAIA. A system like Copernicus, one of the most advanced Specialized AI Assistants working for the Canadian Space Agency, was far more effective when teamed with a skilled human operator. On their own they often made bizarre leaps of logic and outlandish conclusions.
I had the rover out of the garage now, directed it towards the front airlock. A light haze of ice particles washed through the spotlight beams. As it approached the corner of the habitat I realized I was holding my breath.
There it was. Sitting exactly where I'd seen it, right outside the front door. As the rover's lights swept across its sides, rainbow reflections scattered wildly, like one of those nightclub laser-shows I loved as a student.
"Something blown loose by the wind?" Phil asked. "Looks a bit like heat shield material, or some kind of insulation..?"
We both knew Phil was reaching. I was familiar with every square inch of the habitat, outbuildings, and the equipment within them, Phil doubly so. He'd been with mission control for the past three Europa missions. No part of ERB One looked like that.
I pulled up weather data for the past ten hours.
"Windspeed sub 2 klicks since last equipment check," I noted.
Continued scanning the data feeds. Stopped. Scanned back.
"Control, there was a plume an hour ago, nothing major, but it was close, real close."
I heard Phil grunt, sensed more than saw him pulling up the data on his own terminal.
"Copy that,” he replied. “Right outside the alarm limit.” I heard the note of concern in his voice.
Ice plumes were not uncommon on Europa. Tidal forces were constantly wrenching at the frozen mantle. Beneath the solid surface lay a vast liquid ocean. While the mantle was generally more than fifteen klicks thick, cracks and gaps formed and closed frequently. Sometimes liquid water made its way to the surface, much like lava erupting from a volcano on earth.
An opening so close to the habitat was somewhat disconcerting. Any closer and it could have caused severe damage, possibly destroyed the base, myself along with it.
The window showing Phil switched to Zohreh’s face. “Sorry to interrupt Dr. Kerrigan, but I just asked Copernicus to look at the data on that plume. You might want to see this.”
An icon appeared on my screen. Tapping it opened a new window, output from the SAIA’s analysis.
Fascinating. Molecular signatures like nothing we’d seen on Europa before. Never seen anywhere actually. But they had been theorized. Silicon-based organic molecules had been proposed in several research papers over the years. Did they exist naturally in the oceans of Europa?
As exciting and intriguing as this was, my attention was drawn back to the large cube sitting outside my door. I tapped the controls for the rover, rolled it slowly forwards. There was something else on top, flat and silvery-gray, seemingly attached to what looked just like a ribbon wrapped around the object.
As the rover came closer the view on my screen glitched slightly, autofocus struggling with the shimmering surface. Now I could see the bow vibrate slightly in the mild breeze, like thin metal rather than fabric.
The item on top looked like a card, a rectangle of gray, like brushed aluminum. Printed or etched upon it was a large E.
Not a gift for me, I thought. A present for Emily.
I shook my head, realized I’d started to cry, quickly wiped away a tear.
Perhaps the E was for Europa?
Probably it wasn’t an E at all, just a symbol or shape that looked like an E. The human mind was wonderful at creating meaning from randomness, castles in the clouds, faces on the moon, carrots that looked like a dick.
Phil pinged me. He looked slightly annoyed.
“A new team is being brought in,” he said. “Be on-site in,” a pause as he glanced down, “ninety minutes. Director Olowe will assume mission command. Until then you’ve been instructed to take no further action regarding the object. I repeat, take no further action. Do you copy?”
“Affirmative. No further action to be taken regarding the unknown object,” I replied.
Phil leaned forward a little, voice lower, expression serious. “NASA, ESA, ISRO, and all the rest will be linking in,” he said. “I’m sure you grasp the potential ramifications of the situation. Either someone has made an unauthorized, and rather improbable landing, or its…”
His voice trailed off. I could practically see his mind racing, the excitement of discovery, the exploration of the unknown. He blinked and shrugged.
“Either way,” he said, “It’s a delicate and potentially dangerous situation. For yourself, for CANSPACE, and possibly for all humanity.”
He was correct. There was certainly political risk. I wasn’t so sure about the physical risk however, not to myself at least. That is to say, I doubted that the object outside increased my risk of death by any statistically significant margin.
I was alone on a barren ball of ice, more than six hundred and fifty million kilometers from earth. I was surrounded by a near vacuum and high levels of radiation. Ice-quakes and meteorites were a constant threat. If someone or something wished to harm me, there were far simpler ways to do so.
Now that my initial shock had worn off I found the object outside my door more intriguing than terrifying.
Phil was occupied briefing various managers and organizing space for the incoming team. Zohreh and Copernicus were still busy analyzing data. I got the gloves of my biosuit off and made a cup of tea. Sat back down at my terminal and expanded the window showing the output from Copernicus. A data stream, containing dozens of oddly coded values, caught my eye.
I flagged the stream for Zoreh’s attention, pinged her terminal. “What’s this?” I asked, when she connected.
“Oh, yes,” she blinked nervously. “Copernicus had to create several pseudo-values for a couple of the atmospheric reports. They should be quite accurate. He bases them on historical norms, as well as secondary and tertiary indicators.”
“Why did he have to make up the data?” I asked.
The young woman looked somewhat affronted. “They’re not made up,” she protested. “The models are very robust. Assuming no unknown factors are affecting the system, the probabilistic vectors are..”
I cut her off, tried again, “Why did he have to generate pseudo-values?”
Zohreh blinked several times. Her long dark lashes really were to die for. “Mmm… well, due to unusual radiation fluctuations during those time periods. There were several large plumes near the north polar region. They may have contained high levels of silicon-based molecules as well, based on initial spectroscopic readings. The ejecta affected the magnetosphere, which interfered with our weather satellites.”
“Dr Ernest Hass at ESA,” I said. “Talk to Dr Janson, see if he can get in touch. I’d like him to look at the raw satellite data. Also any data we have on the plumes, the magnetosphere etc. Maybe he can clean up the noise. It’s his thing.”
“Yes Dr Kerrigan,” Zohreh nodded.
I sipped my tea, watched the data feed, wondered what else I could do before the new team arrived and I had even less autonomy. Looked over at the rover feed, the large E still centered on the screen.
Emily. We’d agreed on the name just two days before the screening results came back. Spinal issues and Indications of neurological aberration they said. Unlikely to survive past her first year, certain to require extensive care and physical therapy. Phil was working on his Ph.D, I was an undergrad, both of us burdened by debt and high workloads. There was plenty of time to try again later.
It was a best guess of course, but the Midwife AI had given December fifteenth as my due date.
Same day as my birthday.
I went to the clinic in Ajax the first week of November. Wanted to get it done before exams. I hid from my misery and sorrow by cramming like a robot, Cold. Emotionless.
Phil did his best. Looking back I realized he was quite possibly as upset as I was, but he tried to be supportive, understanding. Slowly I built a wall between us, an ever growing space, an empty vacuum, void of emotion and love. The demands of his Ph.D called, eventually he didn’t try as hard. When he got the job at CANSPACE we agreed to break up. He moved out soon after.
Over the next few years we seldom spoke. By the time I joined CANSPACE I figured he’d have a new girlfriend, maybe a wife. But he was still single, as was I.
Working together on the Europa team wasn’t as awkward or painful as I’d feared. I think, deep down, we still loved each other. We certainly respected each other as scientists and work colleagues. Talking about the mission was easy. We simply didn’t speak of the past. Part of me wondered if perhaps we’d eventually get together again, work things out. But then I was offered the chance to go on the Europa mission.
All had gone well at first. Our crew of six hopped from one taxi to the next, spiraling away from earth in wide arcs. We had a week on Ceres Station, waiting for SLSS-3 to arrive from Jupiter. The landing on Europa had been smooth and uneventful, as was our two month stay. Then came the news that a micrometeor had damaged SLSS-5.
The tech’s at Solar Transport Inc. informed us the life support systems on SLSS-5 would only be able to handle five crew members. The mostly autonomous shuttles looped in various orbits throughout the solar system, intersecting at various strategic points, transferring cargo and crew.
We had the habitat AI choose who would remain behind for the next slushie. Not randomly. It used some algorithm developed by a bunch of shrinks. Based on criteria like mental stability and tolerance for isolation. I was the lucky winner. Perks of having your shit together I guess.
As my mind wandered I saw strange patterns emerge from the data on my screen, images in the negative space. Not images exactly of course, I was mostly seeing numbers, but the brain saw the shapes the data represented, the real-world effects being measured. Girls in red dresses and all that.
Primitive brain pattern seeking again. I shook my head. Like seeing a ribbon tied into a bow on a box on Europa. The human mind craved narrative and familiarity.
My terminal chimed as I put my tea down, realized it had gone cold.
“ERB One, we have Dr Haas linked in,” Phil said. “The Director will be here in five.”
“Copy that Control,” I gave him a nod and a small smile. “Thanks Phil.”
A window displayed the ESA logo for a moment, then switched to show the tousled blonde head of Ernest Hass.
“Hi Ernie, thanks for taking the time to help. Find anything interesting?”
“No no no my dear Alice, thank you! Such an exciting discovery! I’m delighted to be involved.” He grinned boyishly, ran his fingers through his hair.
“Interesting indeed. Curiouser and curiouser as the saying goes. If I was prone to wild speculation, I would think someone, or something, was deliberately trying to obscure what was occurring near your habitat.”
“Obscure, what, how?” I thought about negative spaces, shapes within the void.
“Well, for starters, the timing of those polar plumes was just a little before the one near you. Just early enough that the changes in the magnetosphere interfered with the satellite view over your base, yes?”
“Could just be linked to the same tectonic activity,” I said.
“Could be, could be. As I say, all just wild speculation,” Ernest replied. “But then we see what actually happened with your plume, yes? We model the interference, yes? Subtract the noise, a special little program I wrote. What do we see then hmmm? Not what those clever little pseudo-numbers show, no indeed. What we see is a rather fascinating drift of particles from the plume to your habitat. Not at all a general dispersal, which is what your climate models would predict.”
“Including those silicon-based molecules?”
Zohreh stepped into view beside Phil, datapad in hand. “Yes Dr Kerrigan, it seems likely. I gave the updated values from Dr Hass to Copernicus,” she glanced down at her pad, blinking as she scanned the rapidly updating results. I could check the feed myself, but I figured she could interpret things more quickly.
“It seems possible that a stream of silicon-based molecules drifted from the plume, and accumulated near the base.”
She looked up at the cam and blinked again several times. “Copernicus is working with a lot of secondary data, and making a lot of assumptions to fill in some blanks. Guessing at what could be causing the blanks you might say.”
She paused to see if I was following. I nodded encouragingly.
“We’d need direct sensor readings to confirm most of this,” she continued, “but it seems as though some of the particles from the plume are rather complex molecules, possibly capable of interaction and communication of some type. With each other that is,” she clarified. “I’m not suggesting they can talk to us.”
Director Olowe arrived with the new team. Phil and his staff were largely sidelined. It was decided that one of the more advanced weather satellites from Callisto would be sent over to gather more data. ETA 65 hours. In the meantime, intense political discussions were underway. The Canadian government was trying to confirm if anyone else was messing around on Europa.
We were up against the clock. Or at least I hoped we were. My ride was due in 142 hours, less than six days away. I’d need to leave the habitat and make my way to the lander if I wanted to rendezvous with it. So far Olowe wanted no movement near the object. I could leave via the emergency airlock, but preferably I’d need to take the rover. It would be a long walk over rough ground otherwise. All while exposed to high levels of radiation.
Nobody admitted to sending anything to Europa. Inter-agency discussions were held regarding an international crew of astronauts for a potential first contact mission.
Most of my time was taken up answering endless and pointless questions about the object. I’d seen the damn thing for all of two seconds. The scientists had the same access to the cam and satellite data I did. There was nothing I could tell them.
The media asked stupid questions like, “How did it feel seeing it there?” and “Are you excited to open it?” There was nothing I wanted to say to them. Telling them it made me think about my unborn child wouldn’t do my career any favors.
The satellite from Callisto arrived, was nudged into orbit, began collecting data.
Another day went by, earth time, less than a third of a day on Europa. As far as the new satellite could tell, there was nothing outside my door, other than what showed visually through the telescope. No heat signature, no sound or movement, no detectable EMF.
It was Phil and his team that saw the storm coming. The new group were focused entirely on the object itself, trying to unravel its secrets. They weren’t looking at the larger picture on Europa. Such weather events were not unknown, but the research base had been located in an area where the likelihood seemed low. Now a high intensity system of strong winds and radiation bands was moving in. Mission Control agreed it was time to probe the artifact more directly.
In case it was destroyed or lost in the next few hours. Or I was dead and gone.
I was given the order to bring the object inside if possible. This would allow further analysis, and also give it some protection from the storm. Future missions should be able to locate the habitat structure, even if I had not survived.
I pulled on my gloves and latched my helmet in place, glanced at the feed from the rover cam. The card or whatever it was on top must have flipped over in the wind. Now it looked like a 3.
The colors on the object seemed to shimmer and swirl with slowly shifting iridescence. I was suddenly reminded of Christmas mornings when I was a girl. The excitement of seeing brightly wrapped packages in a jumbled pile, the smell of warm apple cider, the sparkling lights on the tree.
It was Dad’s joke, or maybe Grandpa’s at first. Grandma and Grandpa sent presents from New Zealand, wrapped before I was born, and before Mum and Dad agreed on my name. The card said “Merry Christmas to Daniel, Lana, and Number Three.” From then on Dad always labeled my Christmas presents “For Number Three.”
Mission control ran through the encounter procedure for the umpteenth time. I listened and responded where appropriate, but my mind was elsewhere. I was imagining the life I never had with Phil and Emily. Sunday morning snuggles, walks in the valley, camping in Algonquin with clear night skies. Showing Emily the constellations and teaching her the names of stars.
“You’re green to go ERB One. Good luck Dr Kerrigan.”
The voice in my helmet was distorted. Radiation from the stormfront already affecting comms.
In the lower corner of my visor small letters scrolled, the channel reserved for the habitat AI.
… Alice, it’s Phil, a friend linked me to Kiki via Copernicus. Not authorized to be on main comms, but wanted you to know I’m here. Hope you can see this …
I began cycling the airlock, glanced at my wrist-pad. All vitals green and steady. The melody for ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ began playing somewhere in the back of my mind.
“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening,” I sang quietly.
More letters scrolled by.
… In the lane, snow is glistening …
I smiled as they faded away. The airlock door slid open. The object was revealed, brighter now than when I’d first seen it, gloriously illuminated by the rover’s spotlights. Overhead faint curtains of green and blue shimmered and moved, aurora from the coming storm.
“A beautiful sight,” I sighed.
“We’re getting interference from the storm Dr Kerrigan. Please repeat.”
“Artifact is in sight Control,” I replied. “Making contact.”
I leaned forward, gloved hand reaching out, one finger extended, gently touching one corner of the cube. There was a pulse of light, warmth in my belly spreading outward. The object was gone. Ice particles blew across the ground where it had been. I straightened up and looked around.
“Dr Kerrigan, we no longer see the object. There was a moment of interference and we lost all visuals. What happened?”
“I’m not sure, Control. I touched the artifact, then it was gone. Seemed to be some kind of thermal discharge, and a flash of light.”
“The storm is approaching rapidly, and we’re registering tectonic activity nearby. You’d better get inside. Repeat, please return to the habitat.”
“Copy that Control. Going back inside.”
Alarms started going off as the lock was cycling. The floor was vibrating more than usual, the howl of the wind audible over the hum of the pumps.
“ERB One, we are registering several large plumes nearby. They are outside the safety perimeter, but large enough to….” The words were lost in static hiss.
… Signal from Mission Control lost. Please stand by. …
I stepped out of the airlock, left my biosuit on. If there was a breach in the habitat the odds were small I could repair it soon enough to matter, but you never knew. The whole place was shaking now, reminding me of my first earth re-entry.
I sat on my bunk, closed my eyes, hummed the tune for Winterland, listened to the storm rage outside.
“Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream, by the fire…”
I must have dozed off. After effects of adrenaline perhaps? When I opened my eyes the lights were still on. It was quiet. I seemed to be alive. Static in my helmet resolved into words.
“... Come in ERB One, this is Mission Control. Dr Kerrigan please respond.”
“Kerrigan here Control. I seem to be okay, just uh.. Lost consciousness for a while.”
I checked the time. Almost two hours had passed.
The next few days were hectic, although nothing much actually happened. Apparently the nearby plume activity shielded the habitat from the worst of the storm. Conductive particles interacting with the magnetosphere and so on. Probably worth a dozen new research papers for Ernie.
No further signs of the object were found. Someone working with a SAIA produced a single frame of somewhat controversial video footage. It seemed to show my biosuit covered in bright rainbow whorls, just after I made contact with the cube. Many put this down to bias within the SAIA algorithms, or the programmer’s own wishful thinking. The image was left out of the official report.
Someone had returned the rover to the garage before the storm arrived in full force (only years later did I learn it had been Phil). I drove to the lander for pick-up. Departing the surface of Europa was fairly smooth, thanks to the low gravity. Shortly thereafter I transferred to SLSS-C-17, recently arrived in orbit.
I had to work quickly to get into the cryo-pod and everything hooked up. The window to rendezvous with the for Ceres taxi was tight. Most of the comms time was taken up talking to the cryo sleep doctors.
“Your cellular activity will slow,” they reminded me. “The seventy three days it takes you to get back to earth will seem more like three days for your body. Which is good. If there was any radiation damage caused by the storm, the effects will be delayed, so they can treat you back here.”
There were only a few moments left to talk to Phil before the drugs began to kick in. As my eyes closed he was talking about the forecast for next winter back home.
“Meant to be the first white Christmas we’ve had in a while,” he said. “Maybe we can build a snowman out back.”
Seemed to be an odd topic I thought. Maybe I was already dreaming? I shifted into a more comfortable position in the narrow pod, folded my hands over my belly protectively. As I drifted off I wondered what Phil thought about the name Europa.