We stared at the coral for some time. Then Lucas had a smart idea. He brought the head section of his suit back up.
“Can’t be too careful. We don’t know if this stuff is toxic or not. And last I checked, there is no way around this mess. So we’re going to have to pass through. Carefully.”
I followed suit, nodding. Something told me that touching this stuff was a bad idea. Still, it was so close! It was so beautiful. You couldn’t appreciate the color from a drone or even the samples we got. For some reason, they always looked black. But this coral wasn’t like that. It was a vivid and beautiful shade of blue. The closer I looked, there more I could see veins running through the solid structure. So pretty. It made me want to get closer and closer. That was when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“I really don’t think that touching that stuff is a good idea, Elle.”
Shaking my head, I came back to my senses. “Yeah,, thanks. Alright. Let’s go.”
We continued our ascent. The coral was growing out of a pipe. Was that pipe the ventilation system? How did it get in there? And better question – why didn’t any pick that up? There were a thousand and one questions I had, but in the back of my mind, I knew – this coral and whatever happened here were connected.
The Command Center was locked, like everywhere else. The hallways were so eerie, darkened and silent. There was the occasional dripping sound. Something told me that the safety measures weren’t as perfect as people thought. Either that, or whatever happened was so bad that it was just buying time. Either way, it was unsettling. Moreso, given that we were very much trapped in here, for now.
My hacking program got through the door’s security. We had to pull it open, which wasn’t a fun task. The two of us collapsed the helmets again, because the visor didn’t have enough range. Plus, it just felt better. The first thing we noticed was that almost the entire room was black, except for one place – the central table. The holographic interface was up, showing all of Atlantis. The blue areas, I assumed, were flooding. It was worse than I thought. Reading a report on a screen was one thing. Seeing over half the station in blue was another.
“Alright, end the Executive Lockdown, so we can get an idea what happened here.”
I gave him a mock-salute. “Yes sir!”
He rolled his eyes. “Smartass.”
“You know it! Alright, hacking in now.” This was going to take some time. There was one part of me that was excited to learn what had happened. Another part was kind of scared. But it couldn’t be avoided.
Lucas kept staring at the hologram of Atlantis. Gears were working in his head. But, like me, there was pieces missing. This puzzle had a flaw. Something that neither of us had our head around.
Finally, the system opened! “Ah-hah! Who’s the best?!” Couldn’t hide the smug from my face. Lights came on, but only more running lights. There was a problem in the power distribution center. Still, it was slightly less creepy. The holographic image also became more detailed. The system was running scans.
He winked at me. “You are, Elle.” He keyed up the keyboard. “Let’s get a fix on what the situation is.” The image changed, showing us the various systems. “Well, this isn’t so good.”
I gave him a concerned look. “Why?”
“Main power is gone. Secondary power systems are being drained, fast.”
An idea hit me. “Why not turn off the power where we don’t need it? Like the flooded sections. So long as the doors are sealed tight, what does the rest of the station need it for?”
“Nice thinking.” There were more changes. Whole parts of the station went dark. “That’s bought us time.”
“How much time?”
“A few days. Maybe a week at most.”
“Any idea what happened here?”
“Looking into that.”
There was a long pause. The screen changed, showing various scans. There were data files being opened and closed. There were parts of this I got. Reports on malfunctions in the days leading up to the blow-out. Communications, water filtration, several systems were reporting issues. None of them were flagged as serious. Not until it was too late.
“Alright, I’ve been able to piece together some of this. There were malfunctions all over the station. Minor ones. They were going to be looked at after some repair work on some hull damage. But then everything fell apart. It was almost instantaneous. Areas all over the station reported leaks. Had the maintenance people running mad. However, by the time they located the problem areas, it was too late. The moment they tried to open the can of worms up to look, that set off a chain reaction of flooding. The Commander acted fast, hitting the emergency evacuation switch and getting everyone out. A comprehensive report was not made.”
“So…what do we know?”
“Not much. The areas where the leaks were coming from where places like water filtration, hydro-power substations, places like that.”
We both looked at each other.
“The coral!” I whispered.
He thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Running another scan.” The image changed. All of the details of Atlantis went dark. Now there were blue lights. They were very uniform, moving as if they were part of a system “This is the last scan of power running through the Station. Look at it now.” The image changed, and now the blue was everywhere! It was running all over the Station! But this wasn’t like the previous image. The blue here was like a massive network of capillaries and veins. Then there were the larger parts that it met up with, which made me think of arteries.
“Like a body, right?”
He could read my mind.
“I wonder…” The image changed again. It zoomed out. The blue lights, they were going outside the Station! They traveled down veins that were not as together as they are on Atlantis. These ones were like sinews. Capillaries that were shifting, changing. Partly rising! A light went off in my head.
“Weren’t those lights from the ocean outside…?”
“Yes! They were rising, toward Atlantis! These electrical readings, they must be signals! Signals from the coral!”
My mind was beyond blow. “Like they’re communicating?!”
“Exactly! It’s like neurons in the brain. These electrical signals are passing through the coral, and through the water.”
A thought came to me. “But wait, why weren’t we affected? I mean, we were right in the thick of it.”
Lucas pointed to the suit. “These suits can take all sorts of punishment. Out in the water, the electrical signals weren’t strong enough to do any damage to the suit. In here, if we actually touched the coral, I bet it would have been different.
This was too cool. Too amazing. We were learning so much! I’m not a scientist, but even I can recognize when a monumental discovery fell into our laps.
“But this is also a problem. The power loss is connected to the coral. We cut off power to other parts of the Station, but this stuff is growing fast. I think it was being fed by the power from the Station. What must have started as a small growth became massive too quickly, due to being fed by the Station’s power.”
More confusion. “But wait, why would the coral even be here?”
He frowned. “That, I don’t know. It must be tied into the data about the coral. I’m going to download that to a mobile drive. We have to get out of here!”
That got me nervous. “How? And better question, why? I mean, won’t somebody be back down here to check on this place? Couldn’t we just hunker down and wait for the cavalry to arrive?”
“No.. By the time they got here, the power is dead and life support with it. Not to mention, with the power out, the magnetic locks are disengaged. There is still some minor leaking all around the Station. Once the doors aren’t held shut anymore, this place is going to fill up and fall apart like a blasted submarine.”
“Oh fuck!” I groaned. “So how do we get out of here?! The elevator?”
The frown came back. “No. It’s been damaged from the flooding off the Station. The place is starting to buckle. All this water retention, the buoyancy devices are falling apart. The elevator is becoming damaged by the strain. If we try and escape through there, the car might stop halfway up. Then we’re trapped, with limited air and no way out.”
Part of me desperately wanted Mars here right now. Hope was leaving me. “We are so fucked!”
Lucas leaned against the table. “Yeah, kinda. We need to get out of here, but I don’t have the foggiest idea where to go.
My mind was working again. “The obvious choice would be the surface, but it’s nothing but massively-thick ice up there! How would we get out?!”
There was no noise as we sat there, neither of us having any ideas. Then, in a flash of desperate brilliance, it hit me!
“The sub! We can take it to the surface!”
My compatriot wasn’t as convinced. “How would we get above the ice. That’s got to be almost a kilometer thick!”
I winked at him. “Have faith, mon ami!” Now I cued up the keyboard. The image changed, to the Station’s inventory. “When they started this place, they had plans for establishing a mining outpost here, if the search for life was a bust. They brought with them some Havoc-class mines to blow open anything we felt needed to be. Any one of those mines should blow a hole right through that ice! It won’t be open for long, but we just gotta rush up and blast through! The sub’ll be wrecked, but we’ll be out of here.”
For a second, I thought that he believed I was crazy. But then his look of disbelief changed to awe. “That is the craziest fucking idea I have ever heard. I love it! Would the sub be able to carry that kind of payload?”
I nodded, finding what I was looking for. “Yup. Only one. I’ll put it in a drilling torpedo for delivery. The automated systems can have the weapon assembled and loaded to the sub by the time we get back down there!”
In a flash, he was hugging me tight. “You’re amazing! When I write a paper on this, you are SO my co-author.”
A smile came to my face, as I leaned into him. “Thanks, Luc.” After a time, we parted. “Now, let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“You know it!”
The trip back down was nowhere near as nervous. The lack of light wasn’t even creepy anymore. We couldn’t move fast enough. We got to the coral and were careful. It was still so beautiful. If only I knew the story of how it got here, and why? Did it sense the power from Atlantis?
“Why is all the coral samples we have all dark, while this stuff is all blue and vibrant?”
He chuckled. “I’ve been pondering that myself. My best guess is – because the samples we have are dead tissue. The electrical signals, they must act as life to this stuff. Hence why it helps it grow as fast as it does. Somewhere inside this moon, there must be a massive electrical storm, fueling the coral’s growth. Granted, this is only conjecture. I have no proof. I’ll have to analyze the data I have. Then I can make a better theory about what happened here. That’s going to be fun!”
More and more, I was impressed. “Make sure to send me a copy of that paper you write! I wanna read it!”
“Count on it, my dear.”
Another hour and we were back at the dock where we left the sub. The vessel was raised above on gantries, with the torpedo being loaded into the bottom.
“Just in time!” I giggled, running over.
“Indeed. Impeccable. So, you know how to handle the firing controls and everything?”
I looked at him like he was stupid.
Once the torpedo was loaded, the gantry lowered the sub back to the water.
“Alright! Let’s get this show on the road!”
We ran inside and closed the hatch. I plopped into the pilot’s seat, while Lucas got into the crewman’s seat behind me. Once we had all the pre-flight sequencing done, I hit the switch and we dived. The two of us took one last look back at Atlantis as we headed out. This would be the last time. If what Lucas said was right, by the time we got back to Mars, it might be at the bottom of the ocean. I couldn’t wait to be done with this place.
I did a quick scan of the ice. It was stronger and weaker in places. Much like the continents back on Earth, the ice sheets were moving. There were gaps, rifts and weaker sections. It was kinda cool, truth be told. I found what I was looking for.
“Alright, I’m heading into position. Bringing up the firing controls on the torpedo.” Part of the display showed the weapon, with the hatch on the bottom opening and the weapon lowering.
“I’m transferring firing controls to your console. When I give the word, hit the sensor that will be glowing red. You won’t miss it.”
“You got it!”
Nervousness seeped into the sub as the two of us got closer. We had one shot at this. If we failed, the truth was that we would probably die. Between the shockwave and the ice that would be moving above, I had no idea if this was going to work. Every bad idea, right?
Finally, we got within range. It wasn’t like in movies, where light is coming in from the ice. This far from the Sun, it was just as black as the rest of this underwater wonderland. Unlike some of the more jagged parts of the ice, this was smooth as silk. The on-board computer factored a safe distance from the blast. It was like being in a western. I had twitchy fingers on the control.
“Alright, you ready?” I asked.
“Just give the word.”
A brief pause, a deep breath. “Do it!”
A beep, and the torpedo was away! The bubbles blasted into the blackness. There was a brief pause, then it happened! A huge light under the water!
“Hang on to something!” I shouted.
“Like you had to tell me!”
Just then, the shockwave hit the sub. It jolted both of us. However, I couldn’t let that stop me. In a flash, I hit the console and the sub was moving fast! Unlike a speeding car or a starship, there are no g-forces that we could tell in the water. The only clue about how fast we were moving was the groaning of the hull. The area around the explosion was a mess of bubbles and floating chunks of ice. A couple smacked into the hull, but I was committed. We were getting out of this ocean! Another smack, some warning lights coming on. Like I cared. This sub was never going to be used again. A little closer. The surface was near! The ice was moving! This was gonna be close.
In a burst, we rose out of the water. I was traveling at an angle. The plan was to vault out and land smack on our belly. It worked! The impact was more than a little jarring. I was thrown out of my seat. So was Lucas. The bottom of the craft was absolutely wrecked. It was beyond repair. Part of me wanted to kiss the sub. This vehicle had been a loyal companion.
“Since we’re not both dead, I’m assuming that it worked?”
I looked up. The screens were twitching. The power was fluctuating. “Looks that way. So, we’re gonna have to do a little walking. The shuttle bay is a few kilometers away. Can these suits handle that?”
He gave me a look like I was stupid. “These suits are designed to function in deep space. Yeah, they can handle it. Just don’t open the helmet!”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, because vacuum exposure was high on my list of priorities today.”
“Just letting you know.”
The two of us got to the entrance and had to manually bust it open. The air rushed out of the sub, but that didn’t matter now. The surface, it was so gorgeous! The ice sheen was so beautiful. It was like white marble! Streaks of orange dust were strewn about. Space weather, very cool. But the real point of interest – the stars! You haven’t seen them until you got to see them without an atmosphere. It was like nothing else.
In the distance, the running lights of surface Station. They were like a beacon in the night.
“This is amazing!” I whispered.
“For sure. But let’s get moving.”
“Alright.” Thus began the long walk.
Over three hours passed before we reached our destination. It was a very quiet journey. If there was an atmosphere on Europa, I would have imagined the sound of wind whipping by, across the icy dunes. There was massive peaks of ice, but we avoided those. We got lucky. Our journey was relatively flat. A few hills of ice here and there, but overall, it was pretty simple.
I could almost tell that Lucas was working. For real, I could hear the science gears in his head working. For myself, all I could think about was Mars. I desperately hoped she was alright. I hadn’t asked Luc if the area where the two of us worked got flooded. She was an early-riser, so maybe she wasn’t in the crew quarters, which I knew were flooded. Part of me felt terrible for her. I bet that she fought tooth and claw to not have to go. She had to leave. I got that. For real, no part of me blamed her for leaving Lucas and I high and dry. Everything was going to hell, fast. The Commander had to look to the lives of the people he could save. If communications had been up, I’m sure that they would have got word to us. But that’s just not how it worked.
Then I thought about my parents, and Angie. Did they know what happened? If they did, did they think I was dead? That would be the obvious assumption. The Station was flooding, the sub was unable to be reached. It wouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together. What Lucas had said, about how we would have died in there. I bet that that thought was killing Mars. This made me feel even worse for her. The poor woman. I could only imagine what was going through Luc’s mind. His father, thinking his son was dead, it would kill him. So many dark thoughts. The long walk gave me nothing but time to think.
We got inside the Station and once the cabin pressurized and the door opened, both of us immediately felt worlds better.
“Alright, before we go, we better do a little domestic stuff,” Lucas said.
“Eat, for one thing. We haven’t had anything to eat or drink in almost a day. We’re going into cold sleep. Best to do hydrated.”
“Good idea!” There was a mess station up here, like a cafe. They would still be carrying food. True enough, they had plenty. There were these pizzas that were able to be hydrated and good as new. MREs for the Space Exploration Age. We also found some seltzer drinks in the fridge. Don’t worry, we drank some water too. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until I saw drinks.
The two of us stripped out of the suits. We didn’t need them in here. Given that we were going into cryo soon, they wouldn’t have been much use. There was clothes in another outlet. While the super-soldier effect was gone, I felt better, not being butt-ass naked inside that suit. It got…awkward, in certain places.
We sat down to eat and both of us could feel life coming back to our systems. For the first time that day, we were hopeful. We get on that shuttle, ride our way back to Mars, become celebrities, then live out our days on the royalties from the holo-vids.
Once we had eaten, we made our way to the docks. There were three shuttles left. The rest had up and gone, fast. I couldn’t quit the smile from my face. Angie’s necklace was in my hand, and I was certain that we were going to be alright.
I hacked my way inside, going to the cockpit. Now here was a new experience. Thank god for the ocular interface. It told me what I needed to get this thing’s auto-pilot going. Lucas and I took our seats in there for take-off. It wasn’t very bumpy. In fact, it was almost anticlimactically smooth. Once we got out of Europa’s gravity, we took another look back. The best months of my life were there. Despite how scary it all got, I was still going to miss it.
Then came the fun part – cryo-sleep. We went out back and powered up the system. I programmed the auto-pilot with our destination. We also recorded an automated message, to play as we went, Mars would know that we were coming and not shoot us down. The plan was to dock at one of the orbital platforms. Then we wake up and it’s off to being heroes. This day got so much better, towards the end. We got to the back and stripped down. Like Mars said, we could get into these things with just our skivvies and it would be alright. A little cold, but nothing, compared to that suit I was just in. I had to again part with Angie’s necklace, but it was in the locker, safely with the rest of my clothing.
As the pods opened, I looked at Lucas.
There was a feeling inside that couldn’t be easily put into words. “I don’t know if I would have gotten out of that place without you. Thank you.”
“Same here. You’re one of a kind, Elle.”
We shared a long glance, before I got in and the pod closed. Now, all I had to do was wait. Next time I was woken up, I would be home!
There was something Mars had said, when we first met. She told me about how she had had to wake up with her compatriots, to a blaring alarm. They had seconds to get their wits about them and move. Part of me couldn’t imagine how unpleasant that would be.
The first thing I remember feeling was myself being thrown to the floor. I opened my eyes and felt my limbs being numb. There were dark voices all around us. The first thing I could clearly understand was when the barrel of a rifle was being shoved under my chin. My sense became incredibly focused, then. I was looking to a very unpleasant set of eyes.
“Well-well-well, what have we here?!” Dark laughter. “A pair of lost kittens, who are about to have a very bad day.”
As I stared into his icy-blue eyes, I knew something – I was totally and completely fucked!
Until next time, a quote,
“And as I sat there, looking out into the darkness, I thought back on all the things I’d built and left unfinished. I realized something – I wasn’t sad that it was gone. I had had fun making all that stuff. I would have done it anyway. And then, somehow, I knew that when I woke up, all my work really would be destroyed.” -King, The Unfinished Swan