Authors: Jeremy Robinson
"As in twenty-four hours?"
Robert squinted his eyes as he performed some mental calculations. "At one number per second…. Sixty-four thousand, eight hundred. Never counted that high before."
"Excuse me?" Harris looked confused.
Robert shook his head. "Nothing…nothing. When are we leaving?"
"One last debrief and we're boarding," Harris said as he eyeballed Robert's pale face. "You don't look so good."
"I'm, ahh, I'm fine. Really," Robert said, but didn't sound all that convincing. "I'm ok." He looked up at the elevator ribbon and shuddered.
Harris let out a sigh and looked over his shoulder. The rest of the crew were speaking with Choi, well out of ear shot. "Listen, Dr. Samuels…. If you're uncomfortable with enclosed spaces, maybe you should rethink—"
"No," Robert said. "It's not that…just…just elevators."
"You're sure?" Harris asked.
"Been that way all my life," Robert said. "Put me in a coffin, I'm fine. Put me in a coffin in an elevator, not so fine."
Smiling, Harris patted Robert on the shoulder. "You know, we are well funded. You can have a sedative for the duration of the ascent."
Robert's eyes widened. "Seriously?"
"Sure, if you don't mind waking up in space."
Robert again looked up at the elevator ribbon. This time he smiled. "Thank the Lord."
Willard stretched as he stepped out of the elevator and onto the largest man-made spacecraft ever built. The very long trip in the elevator had gone smoothly and was exciting for the first hour and then time to time when the continents came into view. He'd thumbed through the magazines kept on the module, obviously meant for the more scientifically inclined. After an hour of sitting he was kicking himself for not bringing a good novel along. During the final hours, when all conversations were exhausted, the magazine supply had run out and several of the crew had fallen asleep, Willard took to amusing himself by watching Robert, who had been heavily sedated, twitch in his sleep.
Craning his neck in every direction, Willard gazed at the massive docking bay. The floor was smooth until it reached the curved walls, where massive columns ran from floor to ceiling every five feet. "They look like ribs," Willard said as Connelly entered the bay behind him.
"The belly of the beast," Connelly said.
Peterson stepped out of the elevator module and stood next to Connelly. His eyes went wide as he looked at the bay. The ribbed walls stretched thirty feet high and seventy five feet across.
Three large doorways were located on one wall and the opposite wall appeared to be one massive door. In front of the door were three small spacecraft that looked like a cross between jet fighters and tanks. "Wow," he said. "Beast is right. I didn't imagine the ship was this big."
"Beast, nothing. Welcome to the Surveyor, folks. This is the most state-of-the-art spacecraft ever built. It's going to take us to Jupiter and back. She's the first of her kind, and your new home. And she's got all the amenities of home, and then some."
"So this is it, huh? We're in space?" Willard jumped up and down a few times, his footfalls echoing in the massive bay. "Gravity feels real."
"It should," Choi said as she wheeled the still unconscious Robert into the bay. "The World Space Organization spent thirty billion dollars developing the series of spinning superconductors spread throughout the ship. They produce a powerful gravitomagnetic field—artificial gravity—that doesn't require the craft to also be a massive centrifuge."
"That's a lot of money," Willard said, looking around the bay. "They put any of that cash into developing space windows?"
"Sorry, Mr. Willard," Harris said. "We're on a tight schedule. I need you in your quarters in twenty minutes and in your impact chairs in twenty-five."
Nods all around. Willard looked down at Robert who sat unconscious. "What about him?"
"Should we just leave him out? No reason to wake him up, just to put him back to sleep. Let him wake up at Jupiter."
Harris nodded and clapped his hands together. "Let's do it. I'll show you each to your quarters. We'll get Dr. Samuels squared away, then the rest of you can get in the chairs. Choi will do a final inspection before launch."
"What happens if we're not in the chairs by launch?"
Harris frowned. "Be in the chair by launch." With that, he walked away, towards the nearest doorway.
Willard looked at Peterson. "What happens if you're not in the chairs by launch?"
"You'll be a stain on the wall by the time we get to Europa."
"Oh," Willard said. "He could have said that." Willard shouted ahead to Harris, "You could have said that."
Willard had been in his quarters for five minutes. In the first forty-five seconds he took off all his clothes accept for his boxers. For the remaining four minutes and fifteen seconds he had been pacing in front of his impact chair. After seeing Lucy the guinea pig eaten by the chair, Willard hadn't given it a second thought. But just minutes ago, after Robert had been stripped and hauled into his chair, he'd witnessed first hand how the chair consumed a human body. The metal oozed over Robert's flesh like it was alive, swallowing him up. Willard felt his stomach flip flop as the metal slid over Robert's nostrils and eyes and felt a slight queasiness when he saw tubes move up through the silver metal skin and into Robert's nose, mouth and arms.
He was relieved to see Robert's breathing chest rise and fall beneath the metal epidermis, but couldn't help feeling fearful of being encased in a metal tomb. When the process was complete, Robert looked like a worn statue of pharaoh.
The experience left Willard unusually nervous. His extreme attitude was taking a vacation and left him with sweaty palms and a wrinkled forehead. He looked down at his boxers, then back to the chair, imagining how it would feel when the cold liquid metal covered his nether-regions. "No way," he said.
After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Willard inched forward, reaching a hand out to the arm of the chair. "Okay…I can do this."
With a quick burst of motion, Willard put his hand on the armrest. The liquid metal began to cover his fingers. He pulled away quickly. After sliding his boxers to the floor, Willard inhaled and exhaled several times in a row.
Willard gripped his fists into tight balls.
Leaning forward, his muscles tensed.
The door behind him whooshed open and Choi stepped inside. "Why are you not in your chair?" she demanded.
"What the! Hey!" Willard grabbed his boxers and held them up in front of his naked body. "I'm naked here!"
"I can see that," Choi said without a hint of embarrassment, interest or humor. "And you'll be naked
dead if you don't get in that chair."
"I know…I know. It's just—"
Choi stepped forward and reached out for Willard.
"What are you doing?" he asked in surprise.
Choi's hands came to rest on Willard temples. "Helping you relax," she said, standing intimately close to Willard's naked body.
Willard looked down and noticed two things—how close Choi was standing to him, and how attractive she looked her tight grey jumpsuit.
"Close your eyes," Choi said in a soft, almost seductive voice.
Willard closed his eyes and couldn't help but smile. His first experience in space was going well and getting better.
"Breathe deep," Choi said. "Listen to the sound of my voice."
Willard couldn't take his mind off the sound of her voice. All his worries and fears were disappearing and being quickly replaced by more primal thoughts. He felt Choi's hands rest gently on his naked shoulder. She squeezed him gently.
"Now then," she said, "there is only one thing left to do."
Willard raised his eyebrows, his smile expanding.
Choi leaned forward and put her lips next to Willard's left ear. "Sweet dreams," she whispered.
Willard felt the pressure on his shoulders intensify for just a second and then felt his body falling backward, pushed by Choi. A cold surface broke Willard's fall and he opened his eyes. Choi was standing above him, smiling slightly.
Willard looked confused. "You smile?"
Choi glanced down and Willard followed her eyes to his lap, which was already covered by liquid metal.
He was sitting in the chair.
Choi stepped forward, put her hand on Willard's forehead and held him back in the chair. He began to complain, but the liquid metal covered his mouth before he had the chance. She turned and left Willard encased in his liquid metal cocoon.
Twenty-five minutes after the crew had departed the space elevator and Choi confirmed the crew's readiness, the ship's auto pilot took over. Docking clamps released. The massive ship, which looked like a cross between a Navy Destroyer and a Bullet Train with massive amounts of shielding on the front and rear, drifted away from the elevator until it had put a few miles between the two.
A small hatch at the back of the ship opened, jettisoning what was essentially a nuclear warhead. A burst of light that looked like a distant star going super nova exploded from the backside. It was bright enough for Nancy Heintz to see from the rooftop greenhouse atop the GEC headquarters.
When the light had disappeared from the blue sky above, Nancy's phone rang. She held the phone to her ear and listened. "Surveyor is successfully away, ma'am."
"Thank you," she said and then hung up.
Immediately, the phone rang again.
"Mr. President," she said and then listened. "Thank you…yes sir…thank you. I'm sure it will too."
"Nothing will go wrong," she said to herself, and then repeated it in her head like a mantra.
But she wasn't entirely convinced.
The view from the surface of Europa had been the same for millions of years. Jupiter always dominated the sky, its yellow, orange and red gases swirling constantly, propelled by storms the size of other planets. Alongside mother Jupiter were the sister moons, Io, Ganymede and Callisto, which glowed dully in orbit alongside Europa, whose icy surface shone brightest of all—unique among her sisters.
But a new spectacle, one never seen from the surface of the ice moon before, arrived with a flash. Like a streak of lightning it burst into the night sky—something foreign arrived. It came from the inner solar system and stopped above the moon, hovering in orbit. For ten minutes it slowly circled the ice orb; its presence revealed by the sun reflecting brightly off its shiny exterior.
A few other objects had arrived in years past, but none so brilliantly or quickly. This was new, larger, more threatening than the others.
And its arrival didn't go unnoticed.
The Surveyor's cameras began recording images. Photos of the jagged ice surface, which was brilliant white mixed with smatterings of light blue. Tall peaks of mountainous ice rose toward space. Deep, round depressions sunk down to a perfectly smooth covering, apparently where an asteroid had long ago hit the ice and broke through to the ocean and refroze. It was one of the first hints mankind found as to the possibility of an ocean beneath the frozen surface.
In stark contrast to the brilliant ice were thousands of crimson cracks etched into the surface of the moon as though by a giant laser. The coloration varied slightly from line to line, some maroon, some ruby, some the color of cherries, but all red. Most scientists still held to the theory that these lines were sediment that rose to the surface, pushed upward by tidal flexing caused by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, or asteroid impacts, or thermal venting. Maybe all three. While mode of transport was still debated, all agreed the markings were massive sediment-filled cracks—but this was all best guesses—speculation. It was one of Europa's secrets the crew hoped to uncover.