Thumbs, indices, middles, rings, pinkies. Charles cracks digits still stiff with the effects of prolonged chemostasis, yawns away remnants of induced slumber, clears his throat, fills his lungs with cool, recycled air, and hammers a series of commands into the ship’s central console. Amidst an array of pale blue lights, some blinking, others steady save for slight fluctuations in electric currents and circuitry, an orange dial flickers to life. He leans forward and runs one hand over the short blond bristles that coat his scalp, cheeks, and chin.
“Earth date: October 28, 2033,” he begins. “This is Private Charles Waltz aboard the IAA vessel Punctuated Equilibrium in synchronous orbit above Europa. Private York and I are outfitted and prepared to descend in the probe once she’s finished running its warm-up protocols. Wish us luck, Chief.”
He jabs a button and the orange dial fades. Motors hum. The external sheet of tempered steel that serves as a protective shutter for the ship’s primary observation lens retracts to reveal a scuffed, frozen orb hung against the immensity of Jupiter. Charles rises from his seat and walks to the window, the material of his bodysuit tight about his muscular frame.
“Sure looks cold,” he whispers.
There is the whoosh of two halves of an automated door receding into the cold metal ceiling and floor, then the click of their locking into place as a solid barrier once more.
“It’s ready,” York says from the doorway as she wipes oil from her slender fingers with a stained rag, strands of black silk plastered to her forehead by a thin film of sweat, the curves of her body accentuated by the same snug standard-issue uniform worn by her partner.
Charles turns to face her, a grin drawn across his youthful features.
“If I didn’t know better,” she teases, “I’d think you were excited to be shot through miles of ice.”
“And you aren’t?” he booms. “It’s been too long since we’ve been anywhere new! We’re explorers, Anna, not architects or archaeologists. It’s great we’ve progressed as much as we have with the lunar settlements and Martian excavations, but it’s time to be out in the field, doing our real job.”
“Ever the adventurer,” Anna quips. “Still, I have been getting rusty. There’s no rush quite like being the first to walk where another may someday build a school or a hospital–”
“Or a gods damned casino,” Charles interjects, eyes aglow with a playful, poetic spirit. “But somebody’s got to do it, so why not carve our names in history with footprints left upon heavens?”
“Ever the glory hound,” she amends with a sly wink.
“Who do you think I am?” he retorts. “Friar?”
“You’re just lucky all three rover landings failed or the Agency never would’ve agreed to send us.”
“Luck,” Charles grunts. “Pebbles tend to shatter when flung at a diamond.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Anna tisks. “So, are we going to do this thing or what? We’re all fired up.”
The grin returns to Charles’ stubbled face. He nods and pats his belt, ticking off a mental checklist, then casts one more glance over his shoulder at their destination. Anna does likewise. Satisfied, they turn from the bridge to the whoosh of the hallway door as it vanishes above and below. They traverse the narrow corridor, silhouettes against the dim blue lights that line their vessel’s innards.
“Do you ever miss Earth?” York asks, voice low, eyes forward.
“I miss wind,” Charles says. “And dogs.”
“I’m serious,” Anna insists.
“Only when I see her out there in the distance,” he replies, “out there in the cold dark, a lonely blue marble. I can’t believe we were born on something so small.”
“It didn’t seem small then,” she reflects.
“No,” Waltz admits, “it certainly didn’t. Perhaps this too will seem small one day.”
They reach the end of the hallway. Another door opens to reveal their ship’s hangar, at the center of which awaits a craft the size of a school bus, one end shaped into a cone fitted with rotating panels capable of rapid heating, the other flattened into a more mobile portion of the probe to be detached upon breaching the moon’s outermost layer. A single hatch on its side serves as the sole entrance and exit.
“Do you think this’ll work?” Charles inquires.
“I see no reason why it shouldn’t,” Anna says with little hesitation. “Of course there’s no wood to knock on in space.”
“You’ve always had a reassuring way about you.”
Before they reach the hatch on the side of the probe, Charles grasps Anna’s waist with firm tenderness, spins her to face him, and presses his lips to hers, long, deep, full, fingers intertwined in locks of her hair, the scent of her coconut shampoo fresh in his nostrils. She pulls away after a few savored seconds, cheeks reddened.
“No more until we’ve finished the mission,” she scolds, struggling to stand by her own declaration.
“Okay, okay,” he says, breath steadying. “I’ll be good.”
They open the hatch, cross the threshold, strap themselves into a pair of leather seats positioned to face monitors and the thick panes of glass that serve as the mobile portion’s windshields. Anna slaps a button. The probe seals them inside. There is the hum of the life support systems coming online, the drone of the hangar bay opening, the roar of the great black yonder ripping every unbolted molecule out into itself, then only silence. Charles flips switches and releases a series of locks. The entirety of the craft lurches forward with the firing of several thrusters, teeters on the edge of human control, then surrenders to the laws of physics and plummets through the chasm.
“Here we go,” Charles exhales.
There is a moment of serenity, a freedom known only in total vacuum, like floating on one’s back in a swimming pool, staring up at a clear summer sky, followed by violent downward acceleration as the probe is captured by Europa’s gravitational field.
“Course holding true,” Anna announces, gaze focused upon a real-time graph of their trajectory.
In a matter of minutes, the probe punches a hole in the moon’s feeble atmosphere, speeds toward a rugged, relatively thin section of ice between two linae. Impact. Charles and Anna grip their seats, shaken by the force of the collision.
“Thermal drill engaged,” Waltz barks.
There is the hiss of steam rushing up past the rotating panels, fogging the probe’s windshields.
“Steady,” Anna prays as the probe encases itself in Europa’s frigid flesh.
Feet become yards become miles of liquifying crust. Once the drill completes its task, the head sinks with its cooling panels and the portion containing the two explorers unlocks and stabilizes with the assistance of an internal gyroscope and six external propulsion jets, righting itself in the subsurface sea. There is still, silent blackness broken only by the monitors’ blinking displays.
“Infrared and sonar initiated,” Charles reports.
Three-dimensional models appear along the probe’s windshields, maps of the ocean floor dotted with superheated spikes set in clusters of coral between stone crags.
“No life forms detected within a one-mile radius,” Anna notes. “But what are those blasts of energy?”
“They appear to be volcanic vents of some sort,” Waltz suggests, their locations highlighted on his own monitor.
“Fair appraisal,” York agrees. “No concern, then. Let’s place the beacon and get back up to the PE, no dawdling.”
“Where’s your spirit of adventure?” Charles groans. “We may as well look around a little. Activate visible light spectrum.”
He twists a knob and directs power to four spotlights mounted on the probe’s hull. Focused beams slice waters untouched by sunlight and scan submarine mountain ranges.
Anna clicks her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
“This is a game to you, isn’t it?” she clucks.
“Why not?” he counters.
“Maybe the fact that billions await our findings.”
Charles shakes his head and adjusts another dial.
“Small change,” he says. “We’re the first humans past the asteroid belt and you want to go home already?”
“Fine,” Anna sighs. “Only a few minutes. Then we drop the beacon and get the hell out.”
Together they unbuckle their safety restraints and rise from their seats to stand side by side before the starboard windshield. Dark currents slosh and carry bubbles up from the depths. The probe continues to descend, directed toward a rocky shelf some twenty yards away. There is a sudden, shrill beep, a series of red flashes on Anna’s monitor.
“What is that?” Charles asks, confused.
“That can’t be,” she mutters, typing out a verification request. “The infrared scan has detected several unidentified heat signatures in our immediate area.”
“Where’d they come from?” he blurts, frantic.
“I don’t know,” Anna admits. “Visual confirmation?”
Charles strains his eyes and redirects the spotlights in simultaneous sweeps.
“Nothing,” he says. “Wait–”
A blur of gray slams into the side of the probe and sends it careening toward the rocky shelf. Charles’ forehead slams into the glass of the windshield; Anna stumbles and grasps the back of her seat to keep from falling. Another alarm sounds amidst renewed flashes.
“We’re hit!” York cries.
A second blow falls upon the probe and fractures its defensive measures.
“Whatever it is, it packs a punch,” Charles spits. “Prepare to abandon ship if we sustain any more damage.”
Once more their probe is pounded, this time to the point of impact upon the ocean floor.
“Shit,” Anna gasps, clinging to a guard rail. “No previous biometric readings indicated that a life form of that size could survive down here.”
“Fuck biometric readings,” Charles growls. “We’ve got to fend for ourselves.”
Together they pull the necks of their bodysuits up over their mouths to create respirators out of the multipurpose fabric, and unhook vibroblades and flashlights from their belts. Anna seizes the beacon from under her seat and begins its homing sequence. A final strike crushes into the cabin and sparks pressurization.
“Eyes open!” Waltz gurgles.
In the pitch black, something surges past. Charles powers on his flashlight and leads the way through the twisted metal remains of the probe’s hatch. Once free of the craft’s confines, Europa’s sea rushes about the pair, silent, nigh freezing.
From the abyss comes over a dozen lashing tentacles, all of which find limbs to ensnare. Charles clicks his vibroblade and swipes at one, severing its hold on his right arm in a splash of fluorescent blood. There is a high-pitch screech and another tentacle to replace it, one which constricts tighter, as if in anger. Anna screams a geyser through her respirator as one of the great rubbery snakes wraps around her throat, yanks her toward an unseen body. Private Waltz shines his flashlight on his companion just in time to see their assailant, a hulking behemoth equipped with fourteen writhing tentacles and two massive claws set at the ends of piston-like arms. One claw winds up, locks into place, and hammers the side of Anna’s head.
There is a wave of radiation, some of which manifests as a visible explosion that in turn boils and implodes the water around it, bursting Anna’s skull into a scarlet cloud laden with chunks of bone and brain matter. Charles roars incoherent curses in the form of great bubbles that stir the carnage illuminated by his flashlight. He lunges forward, vibroblade drawn. The beacon clenched in Anna’s limp hands hums, pinpointing the chips implanted in each explorer’s bodysuit, then transfers all organic mass contained within.
Drenched, shivering, and blinded by rage, Charles stabs his blade into the cold metal floor of the IAA vessel Punctuated Equilibrium while Anna’s headless form twitches within reach, an uncorked vial pouring out. He casts aside his weapon and flashlight, scoops his partner into his arms, and collapses into wracking sobs, whispering the things he had always meant to say.