20 May 2013

Europa Spring

By
COSMOS Online
The Margarita Sushi Bar is expensive. I hook my prosthetic fins over the mooring bar as I wait and order beer; the green stuff is delivered in a sachet.
Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin

Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin

DOWN HERE IN the black ocean of Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, Europa, time is marked by the turning of tides and the subtle shifts in water temperature. Night and day are the same, and our isolation complete. Then the pod arrives and we’re no longer alone, no longer in the dark.

The pod arrives in the evening, when the taste of alien snorkel fish are in my gills. It arrives on a day just like any other – except that I’m having a rare night out.

The Margarita Sushi Bar is awash with seaweed beer. It always is on Tuesdays as it’s barrel refill day; I’m meeting my pals here for a drink and a hand of poker or two but they’re late and meanwhile guilt hangs heavy on me like a choking algae while Marie languishes at home, sick and in pain. My beautiful wife, slender like an ocean willow, I should be there with her.

But she signs for me to go, she says, Vlad, you’re not helping, moping. And I suppose she’s right. So here I am.

The Margarita Sushi Bar is expensive. It even has real lighting fixtures, not that you don’t still need visual augmentation. I hook my prosthetic fins over the mooring bar as I wait and order beer; the green stuff is delivered in a sachet.

The bar is busy tonight and I find myself sandwiched between acquaintances. One is an old drinking buddy with leg stumps and sixteen fingers that dance like a cockle picker’s; the other’s a former colleague, Mitzi I think her name is, blind and bi-gendered with major neurological damage who shakes incessantly like a demented jellyfish. We all have something, here on Europa, what with the radiation from the crash of our astronaut ancestors and maybe a little inbreeding but I’m lucky really, my physical impairments could be worse. Just a bit of deformity in my bone structure which makes me smaller than most, and more rotund, but generally I’m pretty functional.

We exchange a few words, the three of us, by sign and by text – nobody speaks, our gills make that impossible. Mitzi never could have spoken I’m sure, even without the gill implant surgery at birth. But down here little things like that don’t matter; we all swim in the same waters as the saying goes.

Mitzi snorts as she sucks up her beer through a straw. She swallows and splutters a bit. And then the pod comes crashing through the ice ceiling.

I paddle frantically in the maelstrom, jostling bergs of ice, beer sachets, packets of fish snackers and chair anchors. Something smacks Mitzi in the face and gives her a two-inch gash along one scaly cheek. She oozes blood into the current.

I turn my Visual Acuity Goggles up to max and see the carnage of what was once Europa’s premier watering hole. And there bobbing amongst the debris is the pod, torpedo-shaped and metal mirror-sleek, wholly alien to our familiar habitat of ice and salt and plastic. I wish I could swim away straight back to Marie but I would never be forgiven – I’m on Europa’s governing council and security committee. So I start to paddle, closer.

The pod steadies itself in the churning waters. It’s like a giant tubeworm, writhing about a steaming black smoker. Its business end points down into the deep. It has a great corkscrew device at its base and it’s giving off a tremendous amount of heat.

“Thermal drill,” texts Mitzi. I hadn’t noticed she was following me. Her prosthetic propeller attachment bats the ice and her useless limbs trail behind.

“Yes, like the Aquarius II, but smaller,” I reply, history suddenly weighing heavy in the salt sea.

“It must have been exciting all those years ago, being marooned here on an alien world.”

“That’s one word for it. Maybe you should go back, it might be dangerous, a bomb or something.”

“I wonder what it was like, on the surface.”

“Deadly. The radiation would fry you. Even in a heated tank you would be reduced to fish soup. Now go, please.” I wave my little arms, there’s no point in us both dying if it comes to that.

She glares at me momentarily then grins, showing rows of sharp little shark teeth.

“Okay,” she says, and starts to move away. And as she does so the pod switches on its lights.

The beams are dazzling. Here in the ocean beneath the ice it’s always as black as oil and blind and sighted alike are the same. So eyeless Mitzi gasps and bubbles and scrambles to shut down her visual augmentation hardware with as much desperation as I.

As Mitzi floats away my eyes adjust, and I look out at my world fully illuminated for the first time in a hundred years. It’s at once the same and yet different. My vision is no better than it was a moment ago but as my nictitating membranes blink everything feels more real, more immediate.

I re-examine the pod and it’s then that I notice the tiny video screen, no bigger than the palm of my hand. It’s fixed to one side of the device and it shows a face, pale and symmetrical, a face like practically every pre-crash movie star I’ve ever seen, an eerily human face and for a moment I just watch and inhale ocean.

Then a sound bursts from the pod, an explosive crackle followed by:

“Callisto Base calling Europa moon. Is there anyone alive down there?” It’s a movie-star voice, straight from Hollywood.

My jaw hangs open.

I need to reply but it’s no good texting, with neither goggles nor optic implants they wouldn’t receive my words. There’s only one thing I can do: sign. So I raise my hands in front of the screen.

Yes. Here I, here we.

“What is that? British Sign Language? I think we need a translation team down here.”

They can see me, but they don’t understand. For the first time in my life my lack of speech is actually a handicap. There must be a way. Of course, a bar menu. Programmable, textable, visible, I just have to find one. I paddle around and at last spot one nestling in a pocket of ice. Seizing it I swim back to the pod. I hold it in front of the screen and begin to type.

“Callisto. We thought you had forgotten about us.”

“Europa moon. Amazing. Incredible. No, never forgotten. We thought you were dead. Europa moon. We’re going to come and get you.”

Success. They can see me. I continue to type:

“You would be welcome here.” Although even as I text I wonder.

The pod falls silent; the screen pixellates.

“We took a hit on the way down, Europa. We’re going to lose communications soon. But give us three months and we’ll be with you for real. That will be a great day.”

And before I can reply the signal dies.

#

“WHAT DO YOU think they meant by ‘coming to get us’?” Councillor Epstein doesn’t look happy, and she’s not alone, the council meeting isn’t going well.

“I’m sure the Callistans mean well,” I say. “They just meant they want to rescue us I think.”

Councillor Rubin snorts his contempt but Epstein silences him with a raised tentacle. “We’ll have to show them we don’t need rescuing. There’s no charity cases on Europa. Nor will we become a mere Callistan colony. Our idea of justice, resting as it does on the principle of physical access and opportunity for all regardless of bodily limitation is unique and—”

Rubin slams his tail fin on the ice wall. “Dammit, we weren’t elected to spout philosophy. So let’s stop talking like we’ve got fish for brains. The risk of losing our independence is the least of our concerns? How about losing our lives? How does that grab you?”

Epstein froths with irritation. She’s literally foaming at the mouth, she sends a stream of bubbles up to the bottom of the ice crust. “I was coming to that. Personally I would think it unlikely but—“

“As unlikely as my scaly backside you mean.” Rubin is now circling the council chamber, eyeballing each councillor in turn. “These people are nothing like us. We’ve been mutating, radically, for 150 years, they might not even think we’re human. And we’ve all read the history books, we know what can happen.”

“I’ve read those history books too,” I say, determined to salvage a bit of credibility. “It’s true people like us haven’t always been treated well but we’ve not very often been systematically slaughtered or—”

Everyone is talking at once now and my words are lost in the babble. Epstein has abandoned any attempt to chair and several councillors are paddling away in disgust. Soon the meeting breaks down completely and is rescheduled for the following afternoon.

Later, at home, I tell Marie about it. And ask her, what if the council was right?

“You only have to look at the native fish here in the ocean,” I say as I bite into my alien marblefish stew. “The big fish eat the little fish, the weak and impaired fish fall victim to them all, and we call it natural behaviour. Is our situation really that different? Isn’t it just natural and inevitable that sooner or later we’ll get gobbled up?”

Marie is floating in her filtration tank in the middle of our icy living room, breathing the purified water she hopes might ease her headaches. She puts aside her drink of organic kelp juice to sign to me. Born deaf, sign is her first language, even more than it is for me and the rest of us on Europa. For her, text is a daily challenge to comprehend. But when signing, her words flow like the ocean.

Nature. Sometimes broken. Compassionate ones this know. Callistans this know? Hope we.

Somehow she always knows what to say to ease my fears, and she always knows what to do. She picks up the clay sculpture she is working on – she says it helps her think. Her delicate ice, salt and clay artworks can be found all over town.

“But what if they don’t know? What if they come here and find us…” I abandon text; it’s not nearly expressive enough for what I want to say. I want to say, what if they find us…

alien? Callistans. Invite them I. Blame mine.

It would be all my fault. I should have told them to stay away.

I know Marie better than to expect the usual platitudes; instead she pops another painkiller into her mouth. She takes too many, she says they don’t help much but takes them anyway. Our best medics don’t really know how to help her and it tears my heart to watch her in pain. Sometimes she suffers so much she cries all night long and I can do nothing, only hold her close and tell her I love her.

At last she replies to my question:

If kill us intend they. Do anyway they. Fault no you.

And she’s right, of course.

#

IT’S THREE MONTHS later, and our seismograph machine is reporting a gentle but constant icequake 200 yards east of town.

“They are coming,” says Rubin, and his words settle in my stomach like a bad mollusc.

As the tremors increase eight of us paddle out to meet the visitors. The arguments were long over who was to lead the delegation, but eventually I’m chosen, my prior contact finally settling the matter.

Chunks of ice dislodge above our heads, new bergs that float away to be absorbed into the current. And then the vessel breaks through into the ocean in a boiling mass of metal and foam.

Again it’s torpedo shaped, except this time much bigger. I paddle closer as it cools while the rest of the welcoming party linger behind, sheltering in the swell of a particularly large berg. The vessel starts to open. I remove my goggles as alien light floods out and blink as my eyes adjust. I watch the Callistans emerge, five of them, all dressed in the same skin-tight apparel and burdened with their air breathing equipment. They are amazing; they all look the same. Same size, same shape; two arms, two legs, they could be clones of each other. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but for some reason it is.

“Welcome to Europa,” I say. I communicate by text once more but wave a fin in the customary greeting.

“Honoured,” replies Commander Narodny. He smiles behind his plastic mask and I try to assess whether it’s genuine. His features are so strange and uniform I hardly trust my own judgement.

The others swim forward; there are formal introductions. Then all of us – five Callistans, eight Europans – circumnavigate the town.

First we visit the aquarium, both the alien and Terran section. The Callistans are truly fascinated by the tube worms and snorkel fish. Then we visit the pottery, the seaweed garden and the fish farm, the brewery and the plastics factory and of course the reconstructed Margarita Sushi Bar for refreshments. Finally we visit the Medical Bay and Prosthetics Studio. And there, to my horror, lies Marie, floating unconscious in a tank.

“Dear God, what’s wrong with her?” I simultaneously sign and text, then seize Chief Medic Bergstrom by the flipper. He backs away and tries to calm me while Epstein ushers the visitors away. I demand to know why I wasn’t informed.

“You were busy, I’m sorry,” says Bergstrom. “I was told not to bother you. It’s okay, she’s stable.“

“What about the baby?” I take deep breaths of water, trying to stay still.

“The baby is alive, for now,” says the Medic. “Though after four stillbirths you can’t expect too much.”

I wasn’t, but Marie won’t give up, she keeps reminding me how stillbirth rates are falling.

“So what happened to her?” I ask, again. His reluctance to speak makes me fear the worst but he has to tell me, however bad it is.

“She took too many pills,” says Bergstrom.

“No.” I stare into the container where Marie lies, attached to tubes and monitors. It can’t be that, it’s just not like her. “It was an accident, it must have been.”

“I don’t know, you tell me?”

But all I can do is float there in the water, too afraid to even consider the possibility that I might have missed the signs.

#

I’M IN THE seaweed garden, and Sandy Birdhouse, one of the Callistans, is here also collecting samples. I watch her as she snips pieces of green and yellow weed with a pair of metal clippers and packs them into a box.

“How is your wife?” she asks as she works. “I heard what happened.”

I grimace. Nothing stays quiet for long around here. “She’s okay. She’s home, resting,” I say.

“It sounds like it was just an accident.”

“Yes, that’s what Marie says, and I believe her. She was only trying to stop the pain.”

Sandy nods. “Your medicine seems pretty advanced in some ways, certainly when it comes to prosthetics, but in other ways you’re way behind us.” She reattaches her clippers to her belt and opens a small bag she has there. She offers me a plastic bottle. “Headache pills,” she says. “The everyday kind, but maybe they will help.”

I look at the bottle, doubtfully. The Callistans have been here for two weeks now and have shown no sign of hostility, but still, they are strange folk.

“Take it,” she says. “At least, think about it.”

I take the bottle and thank her.

#

IT’S TWO DAYS before I tell Marie about the pills, but when I do she insists I hand them over.

Callistans good. Paranoid you. She signs and laughs.

Maybe sensible I.

No. Silly you. Headache pills, bad way kill. Silly.

I’m sure she’s right. Really I’m just worried she’ll have some kind of bad reaction to the strange drugs, after the overdose I hesitate to give her even a placebo. But I can’t argue with her. I surrender the pills.

She swallows one and we wait.

We decide to watch an old movie, but can’t agree on the title. I want to watch Terminator while she wants to watch Casablanca. In the end we choose one of the Star Trek films, the one with the whale, and are both happy.

Star Trek aliens, look same all, says Marie.

Yes, know I. I take her slender hand in my stubby one.

#

TWENTY MINUTES LATER Marie announces: Headache. Gone.

I put the film on pause, stare at her and text, “And you feel okay otherwise?”

Fine I. She grins and stretches. She paddles around our little icy home as though checking she still has full use of all her faculties. Better than years I. Go celebrate we.

I suggest maybe that’s a bit premature, but she’s adamant. She drags me out into the current and off we paddle in the direction of the Margarita Sushi Bar.

The bar is packed, the five Callistans are by now proving something of a tourist attraction. Each one of them is surrounded by a small gang of Europans. But Sandy spots me as we float in and waves us over, and Marie is full of praise for Callistan medicine. I translate Marie’s signs to text, and Sandy’s words to sign.

“Maybe you and Vlad could travel back to Callisto with us. Then you could get a proper medical examination,” says Sandy. “The capsule could cope with a couple of extra passengers, and I’m sure I could twist Commander Narodny’s arm.”

Marie looks wide-eyed, but says nothing, so I help her out. “It’s a very kind offer but I don’t see how we could leave Europa. We can’t breathe air anymore.”

Travel in tank. Maybe, says Marie.

“I don’t know. It’s a long way.” Perhaps I’m a coward to fear the surface, to dread air and space and vacuum in place of the cool, comforting waters of the deep, but it seems obvious to me that us Europans can’t live up there.

Adventure think I! says Marie, grinning. Permanent stay, no, no?

“If you wanted to return no doubt that could be arranged,” says Sandy. “There are already plans for future space missions.”

And so we’ve been discussing it. Maybe if the headache pills had really proved to be the wonder drugs they first appeared and had cured all of Marie’s pain we wouldn’t have decided to go. Maybe if we hadn’t been offered a trump card – the possibility of saving our unborn child – we would have agreed it was too risky. But as it was, we figured we couldn’t refuse.

The Council is behind us all the way. Marie they wish well, as for me I’ve been made ambassador, Europa’s first, so this will be an exercise in interlunar relations.

In many ways it’s exciting. The Callistans say they want to set up diplomatic ties and trade agreements. The signs are good that they intend to respect our differences and unique environment. And if Marie and I want to stay on Callisto permanently they’ll do everything possible to accommodate our needs.

I still have my doubts but five weeks after its arrival, Marie and I find ourselves crammed together in a tank side by side as the strange capsule fills with deadly air.

The vibration is awful and the heat as the craft works its way slowly to the surface. I stick my fins in my ears against the roar of the engines and screaming metal; I press my nose to the plastic side of the tank. Marie is lucky, she can’t hear any of this but there’s nothing wrong with her eyes. We’ve been placed alongside the tiny porthole window so we can see out. Though right now all I can see is bubbling ice marked by an occasional grimy patch of reddened salts and clay.

It takes many hours to carve a path to the surface, and I feel like I’m in purgatory throughout. The capsule is uncomfortably warm and acts as a decompression chamber as it rises.

I try to doze, but the noise and the crushing fear stops me. At least I’m not alone, Marie is here, I can take comfort in that. Together we try to stay positive, but it’s not easy and in the end I wonder if we’ve made the wrong choice – what if we were never meant to leave the ocean?

Then Sandy says, “We’re nearly there.” She takes our night vision goggles away; she says we won’t need them anymore as a final lurch brings us crashing through the surface ice. The capsule falls silent. It lifts away into space, the residual water on the window pane evaporates. And we look out: at the Universe. At the ragged, pale and frosty Europan plain below, at ancient starlight, and above all at Jupiter. It looms overhead, vast and lethal, beautiful with its vivid tangerine clouds that swirl and evolve. The moment seems to last forever.

Marie clutches my hand. Love you I, she says. I smile. Okay be we. And as always I know she’s right.

 

Elinor Caiman Sands lives in the UK by a small swampish river. It’s rumoured a slightly mischievous but very happy snappy alligator lives there too although sightings of the infamous reptile are rare.

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