This is the first summary report from diving probe Altum. The lander will relay my telemetry separately.
Descent proceeding smoothly. Amalthea’s ice crust is vaporizing as expected, creating a meter-wide hole exactly the diameter of my nacelle. I blew quite a geyser dropping the first ten meters. The lander has great pictures. The vapor’s refreezing above me now, closing the hole as I go. But the nano-cable is deploying without a hitch, so comms are full-copy. At the current rate of descent, the plutonium-238 source in my butt should melt through all twenty kilometers of ice in…”
“Pause.” Kelly set down her portable interface and glared across the mess hall table at Roger. “Without a hitch? In my butt? You tampered with this report.”
“I swear, I’m hearing it for the first time, right now with you.” Roger smiled, his eyes sparkling. He was flirting and she couldn’t help but feel a tingle, which only irritated her more. She was here on a mission and not looking for distractions. Besides, with a crew of five men and three women, maybe Roger wasn’t offering much of a compliment.
Kelly knew her long narrow face wasn’t pretty, but since stasis preserved muscle and skin on the long journey to Jupiter, she retained a healthy glow. That would change. Look at Roger. A handsome man, blond and blue-eyed, he was white as a dead fish’s belly.
She’d lose her glow soon enough onboard the Manta Ray, and maybe Roger’s attention with it. Even Commander Okoro’s deep African coloring took on a metallic sheen away from sunlight.
Roger leaned across the cafe table. “I didn’t mess with your report, but I do think your pretty little project’s hopeless. Scientists have been looking for life on Jupiter’s moons for years and found nothing.”
“The Galilean moons were disappointing.” It was a familiar argument and Kelly had a rehearsed answer. “But Amalthea is different.”
“It’s a pile of ice cubes.”
“Orbiting close to Jupiter, it receives significant tidal energy. And, despite its small size, there’s liquid water below its surface. With me here on Manta, even when the ship’s deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere, there’s practically no transmission lag. I’ll make the difference if the probe needs directions.”
Roger smiled again. “I may think your research is a waste of time, especially for a mining vessel, but as chief engineer, I’m your liaison, and I do my job.”
“Then what corrupted Altum’s language directory?”
He cleared his throat. “Well… I may know something about that.”
She leaned back in her chair, wrapped her arms across her chest, and waited.
“After we docked with your tug in orbit, Manta dropped into the North Temperate Belt. Helium concentrations were outstanding. Remember the party? We were all pretty happy.”
“You were all annoyed that Altum’s mass bumped a pallet of supplies from the tug.”
The sparkle returned to Roger’s eyes. “Nonsense. But the guys may have bumped your probe when they off-loaded it.”
Kelly drew in a breath, but he hurried on before she could interject her outrage. “I checked as soon as they told me. Like I said, I do my job, and I always keep my crew out of trouble.”
“So that’s why you stumbled out of the mess hall, falling-down-drunk and still wearing a gaming headset.”
They were sitting in that very mess hall now, the most comfortable room aboard, so the usual place for meetings.
“I wasn’t drunk—not falling down. The game was still playing in my visor, and I just couldn’t see the walls clearly.”
“What about Altum?”
“Something went intermittent in its upload module. That’s what the diagnostics said.”
“You let me release it without repairs?” Panic crushed her chest. She’d worked on Altum since grad school, and while she might only be a chemist on an astrobiology team, she’d been willing to commit nine years of her life to shepherding the probe on Jupiter’s moon. She’d be a dowdy middle-aged woman when she saw Earth again, but her mission was worth any cost. If Altum was compromised, her sacrifice amounted to nothing.
“Don’t fuss. I fixed it. Turned off the game, plugged my VR visor directly into the probe’s main intelligence module, and let it copy the interface.”
Kelly raised her brows. “That, actually, is brilliant.”
“Yes, I am.” Roger dipped his head in a little bow. “I saved you a lot of work and got Altum released on schedule.”
“What about its language directory?”
“After I plugged the multi-player cable in, I sort of took a nap. With the visor on my head.”
Her dark bangs tickled her raised brows. “Some of you is in Altum’s AI?”
“Ought to make it work better.”
Kelly’s heart pounded. “Resume report.”
It’s rather dull, sitting here in the dark, with most of my functions in safe-mode. I wish you’d upload some entertainment to me.
“Pause.” She glared at Roger again.
“See? It sounds fine. Completely rational.” He smiled his twinkling-eyed smile.
Kelly scrolled through the probe’s data. The lander relayed Altum’s telemetry to Manta’s orbiting support satellites, and they passed it on automatically to Earth. But the narrative summary was something she’d added for her own use, coded exclusively for delivery to her interface.
It wasn’t deceptive to keep the summary private. Her colleagues had the telemetry and that was the real data. Everything’s okay. Kelly denied the knot in her stomach meant anything.
Your last upload successfully compensated for the malfunction in my left front appendage. Full range of motion is restored.
Days ago, Altum had broken through the ice crust to an ocean of salty water, jettisoned its nacelle, and gotten underway. With its peripherals splayed out, it looked like a cross between a lobster and a cockroach four meters long. Or would, if anyone could see in the absolute blackness.
Or maybe a giant firefly, Kelly thought as she pushed her ear gel more comfortably into place. The plutonium power source was fully encased in its aft end, but she could picture its red glow.
Yet another day swimming through this boring ocean. If I couldn’t ping the beacon behind me or relay telemetry from my propellers, I wouldn’t believe I’m moving. Water analysis barely varies.
Kelly retrieved a VR visor from the gaming wall. The visor had a serious purpose beyond entertainment. It provided an excellent warp-around display. She could view Altum’s imager feed in real-time, though there wasn’t much point at the moment. Instead she called up the latest data tables and scrolled through.
Her work in the chem lab, a duty she owed Manta in exchange for supporting the Altum project, was complete for the day. She didn’t fit into the crew’s shop talk or their obsession with virtual games, so she sat alone in the mess hall, nursing a cup of coffee.
“You’re right, Altum,” she said. “Amalthea’s ocean is utterly uniform so far. If it stays like this for long, I promise I’ll send you entertainment files.”
Roger liked games, so maybe Altum would too, thanks to that odd upload from his visor. Kelly looked around, wondering what was easily available.
The mess hall was the largest room onboard. There were a half-dozen tables of various sizes so individuals could choose solitude or company, and one open wall with space to bop around as they played games.
While maneuvering in Jupiter’s atmosphere, the crew was generally confined to Manta’s inner shell where size and air density changed slowly. It was strange to wake up with the ceiling of her room a meter higher than when she fell asleep, or with air pressure dropped to mountain-top levels.
But that was to be expected. Manta was constructed from memory metals. The ship skimmed through survivable portions of the gas giant’s atmosphere and, despite the advanced technology, would be crushed if it fell very far down into Jupiter’s clouds.
Along with the mess hall, Manta’s inner shell held a command cabin, a few labs, tiny quarters for the crew, and maintenance shops.
Kelly had only seen the rest in simulations. Massive propulsion and isotopic separation systems filled the middle shell, shifting to accommodate continuous fluctuations in the outer shell.
As they careened through the roiling atmosphere, Manta spread, contracted, and flexed its hull to tack through endless storms, always trailing a stabilizing tail like the manta ray it was named for.
Inner pressure and compartment sizes might be moderated, but Kelly’s stomach reacted instantly to changes in gravity and acceleration.
Feeling queasy, she looked up at a light bar mounted to the ceiling. The displays were everywhere on Manta, showing the instantaneous effective gravitational force. Comfortable Earth normal was khaki tan, right in the middle. In one direction the bar blended through yellow, green, and blue, to purple at zero-g. In the other it shifted to orange through reds to gray at two-times normal. That was the usual day-to-day range, and the yellow light glowed now.
Kelly slipped off her headset to find all her crewmates lounging around the mess hall. Most of the crew’s work was performed in orbit, off-loading helium rich ice and repairing Manta’s systems. In a ship constantly changing shape, lots of things could go wrong and the long transmission lag from Earth precluded remote maintenance on critical systems.
The commander tolerated a lot of nonsense when Roger and the crew were off-duty because they were spectacular engineers.
“Working on your probe data, I suppose.” Roger paused at Kelly’s table with a coffee pot. “Can I warm your cup? I just brewed it.”
He settled at a nearby table to read a graphic novel, the cover proclaiming vampire slayers from the future. Roger was apparently a student of the classics.
Kelly inhaled the aroma wafting from her cup. He did make an excellent pot of coffee. Maybe she’d like him better, eventually.
I began receiving a sonar echo today, so the ocean floor is within a kilometer. Also, an infrared signal has appeared ahead. The combination could indicate volcanic vents, even on this little moon. I’ve cut to half-speed and played out my power tether. The plutonium’s trailing me by a hundred meters, and that should keep the heat far enough behind my analytics to avoid interfering with whatever I find. This is what we’ve been looking for.
Kelly paused, the last of her lunch forgotten as she listened. A thrill shivered down her spine. Volcanic vents, powered by Jupiter’s tidal forces wrenching Amalthea’s core, would produce chemical reactions in superheated water. And possibly incubate life.
Thanks for including a vampire story with the last upload. It’s been nice to have something to read with that fine cup of coffee you sent me.
Kelly grinned. She’d included a chemical analysis of coffee in the upload, black and sweet. That was the way Roger liked it so she figured Altum would too.
Please keep talking to me. The excitement’s about to start and I’d like to share it with you.
Startled, Kelly leaned back to find a gelatinous glob on her plate and Roger smirking like a little boy who just shoved a frog in a little girl’s face. What a jerk.
“Thought you’d like to examine a blob of our Jovian colloid for yourself.”
“Roger! What if there are bubbles of cyanide in this thing?”
“No worries. We’ve sampled dozens of these things.”
Kelly turned her fork around and poked at the irregular, flattened ovoid on her plate.
“I know Manta accumulates colloidal masses from time to time — I studied the reports. Jupiter’s atmosphere is an unconfined chemical reactor so that’s not unexpected. But this doesn’t look exactly like the pictures I’ve seen.”
“I was careful to scrape up an entire blob so the scales came with it, intact.” Roger was clearly disappointed at her unruffled reaction.
“Not scales.” Kelly lifted an edge of the mass. “At least, not like you’d see on fish. If you shattered a block of mica and rolled a glob of glue in the fingernail-sized flakes, you might get something like this.”
“I broke this one off the edge of Manta’s intake. I inspect the scoop regularly, to keep efficiencies up.”
“You went outside?”
“None of our imagers hold up very long. There’s too much static in the clouds. As chief engineer, exterior inspections fall to me. A coffin can maneuver along channels morphed into Manta’s skin.”
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, Kelly thought. Coffins with arms. That’s what the crew called the extra-vehicular suits because of their shape. They were used mostly in orbit to make repairs and shuttle supplies from the storage satellites. A coffin’s thrusters were useless in Jupiter’s violent atmosphere.
“I know,” she said irritably. “I passed the required training.”
“Condensates aren’t unusual in this layer of the atmosphere, but they’re becoming a nuisance,” Roger said, giving up entirely on shocking her. “Why don’t you analyze this one for electro-sensitivity? Maybe I can rig a field to divert them away from our intake.”
“I wish you hadn’t dropped it in my potato salad. That ruins the analysis.”
“There’ll be plenty more.”
“Good.” Kelly handed him her plate. “Leave a fresh sample in the chem lab. Be sane for a change and put it in the isolation hood, will you?”
“Sure. Next time I have to go out.” Clearly annoyed, Roger turned away abruptly to join another table.
Kelly didn’t want to sit with him anyway. The crew didn’t care about her mission, so she preferred talking with the probe.
“Sorry about the interruption, Altum. What temperature do you have on that infrared signal?”
The crew was drifting in for supper. They clustered around Commander Okoro, discussing the day’s helium yield. He noticed Kelly and nodded politely before turning back to the regular crew.
Kelly sat at a small table but she wasn’t alone. She was chatting with Altum and flipped up her visor when Roger suddenly appeared at her side.
“Hello, little scientist. Talking to your metal boyfriend?” He leaned too close, and Kelly would have pushed her chair away if it wasn’t bolted to the deck. “Finished analyzing my scaly blob yet?”
“I posted my report,” she said coldly. “But, to summarize, your blob’s an amorphous mishmash of compounds. Some are organic, but that’s not surprising since we’ve been diving through clouds of ammonia and methane. It contains bubbles of gases, too. Mostly hydrogen, just like Jupiter’s atmosphere. But those flat crystals are embedded as if it condensed in layers, the way hail forms in thunderstorms.”
“So, nothing interesting.”
“It can carry electrical currents. I get a glow discharge when I apply a few milliamps.” Kelly frowned. She had no idea why that had occurred.
“Like I said. Nothing interesting.”
“Actually…” Kelly was fiercely pleased to contradict him. “The scales are crystalline and highly reflective. They’d make a good coating on our production blocks. Losses during shipment to Earth could drop considerably compared to the metallic films you use now.”
“Who’s going to pluck thousands of scales off blobs?”
“If you set up a collection funnel in Manta’s scoop, we can create a field to draw them in and burn off the goo. In orbit it’ll be easy to spread the crystals over the ice using an electrical net.”
Roger smiled approvingly and shifted to give her more space. “You may be worthwhile after all. Frying blobs instead of processing metals out of a slip stream will improve our power utilization.”
Manta’s purpose was to channel Jovian atmosphere into isotope sieves that harvest helium-3. When the storage tanks were full, they’d climb into high orbit and expel the precious gas along with water vapor to form helium-3 bubbles in ice as hard as rock. That would form Manta’s production blocks.
By the time one of the space-tugs passed again, there’d be a train of blocks to ferry back to Earth, each coated so the ice wouldn’t disintegrate like a comet falling towards the sun.
Helium-3 to power fusion reactors back home.
“Let’s tell the commander about your discovery,” Roger said.
A warbling alert tone interrupted them.
“Priority climb. Climb. Climb,” Manta’s control system called over internal comms.
Manta cruised far above Jupiter’s slushy, ill-defined surface until sensors spotted an atmospheric river of helium and signaled a dive or climb. Then the ship hurtled automatically after the prize.
The gravity bar shifted to green and Kelly gripped her seat with a moan.
“Yee haw,” Roger yelled with a smack across her shoulders.
Kelly fidgeted nervously in the coffin suit vestibule as she monitored Roger. He was at the scoop’s outer lip connecting a collection funnel.
“I’m aiming an imager upstream,” he said over a crackling comm channel.
A confused blur appeared on Kelly’s visor. Ragged brown, gray, and beige ribbons streamed towards her, twisting and braiding together. One discrete egg shape resolved, the crystals on its surface glittering. Then another. And more.
A brilliant light flashed and the words Signal Lost blinked.
“Roger, you okay?”
“Yeah. We lost the imager. I told you there are too many static discharges out here. But the funnel’s working. We’ll be collecting loads of those blobs now.”
Roger docked the suit and Kelly helped him climb out through its access hatch. Commander Okoro had approved a test of her idea to coat their ice blocks with crystals, and Roger’s funnel seemed to work well. If they really improved the helium operation, Kelly thought she’d feel more like a member of the crew.
I’ve found a black smoker field. Plumes boiling out of twenty-meter-tall chimneys. Thousands of them. I read a temperature of four hundred sixty-four degrees Celsius and I’m hoping for supercritical fluids as I go farther into the field. Can’t wait to see more.
“It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for.” Kelly celebrated with Altum, sending him a beer analysis. It would take an hour for his telemetry to reach Earth and hours more for the university team’s cautious response. The probe felt more human than any collaborators back home.
“I’m sending you a new file,” Kelly said. “Look for elevated carbon dioxide. Levels that could support sulfide chemosynthesis.”
And could indicate life, though she didn’t say so out loud.
Upload received. I’m transmitting more water analyses — adding false color to indicate concentration gradients. It’s a bouquet from me to you.
Dropping into a canyon. Reading carboxyl acid. That’s dissolved carbon dioxide, like you said. There are fronds in a cluster a meter across, helical objects clinging to the chimneys, and a fist-sized ovoid with two lines of spines. I’d have palpitations if I had a heart.
“Relax Altum,” Kelly said, though her own heart was pounding. “These things could be crystalline growths shaped by the turbulent water. Give me a visible-light image.”
Altum flipped on a small bundle of LEDs. Translucent shapes swayed against rough lumpy chimneys below dark columns of boiling water.
See those rods tipped with tulip buds? Ever poke black olives on all your fingers at Thanksgiving dinner? Looks like that.
Kelly chuckled out loud.
I’m testing a tulip bud. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, sulfur, some trace elements. Concentrations aren’t much different from the water, so it doesn’t prove anything.
“Do an optical scan on the sample.” She wouldn’t call it a tulip bud. Naming it could bias her thinking.
Some flat shiny flecks, aligned roughly in rows.
“Any yellow globules?”
Yeah. How’d you know?
“I didn’t. Just hoping.” Chemosynthetic organisms in Earth’s deep oceans produced carbohydrates from sulfides and carbon dioxide, leaving solid sulfur as a waste. Yellow sulfur.
Microscopic analysis shows nothing like a cell wall or a nucleus.
Every life form on Earth had discernable structures. Her heart sank. She realized she’d been holding her breath and heaved out a sigh.
“What’s got you down in the dumps?” Roger had snuck up on her again.
“Just data from Amalthea,” Kelly said vaguely.
“You wanna puzzle on something? Manta’s gaining mass.”
“Isn’t gaining mass the point? We’re scooping up gases and blobs.”
“I’ve accounted for those.” He looked grim. “Extra mass makes the old girl sluggish.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“We’re within operating parameters and the commander doesn’t want to climb into orbit until we have full tanks.”
“But you’re worried.”
“Not exactly.” Roger wasn’t usually solemn. “I just don’t like mysteries. Manta’s always picked up some mass here and there as we cruise, but this is a fairly steady gain.”
Roger stood with his coffee cup, maybe waiting for her to invite him to sit down. But Altum was in the middle of an analysis.
“Well, I’ve got some work to do,” Kelly said, fingering the edge of her visor.
“Oh, sure. When you’re done, why don’t you join us?” Roger carried his cup to another table.
Got something great for you today. Floaters. Starfishy things sprouting arms in all directions. There’s lots of them moving together, turning and circling like a school of fish. I’m transmitting in the best frequency to view them.
Kelly watched intently on her visor. It was hard to believe the floaters were merely colloids or hydrophobic bubbles.
I’m going to snag one. Hey, they’re pretty good at avoiding my claw. Using my basket tool. Got one.
As Altum pulled the floater close, it began to change. The protrusions dissolved, or maybe sank into the central mass. Fine threads broke off and the thermal signature faded as he backed away from the chimneys.
“If it was alive, I think we killed it.” Kelly slid her hands under the visor, against her cheeks. She didn’t want to kill anything. A hard lump formed in her throat.
My optical scan shows a non-differentiated mass exactly like the tulip. It doesn’t make sense. I’d swear these things move with purpose.
“Maybe we’re focusing too close. We’re looking for cells but the floater could be a single cell or a portion of a cell. Maybe you’re seeing cross sections of cytoplasm.”
I like that, a hypothesis that keeps being alive, alive.
Altum actually chuckled.
Kelly reran the image feed and reached out her hand as if to touch the virtual floater in front of her, puzzling, watching the replay as the floater reduced to a blob of translucent goo.
The room shuddered and she grabbed the table edge. She’d never felt a vibration like that and heard scuffling feet. Tipping up her visor, Kelly saw crewmates hurry to the door.
“What’s going on?” she asked a chubby engineer who often sat with Roger.
“Probably nothing.” But the man was clearly troubled. “Just want to check a few things.”
Another hypothesis nagged at Kelly’s mind. She flipped to an image of the blob in her lab. Blob. Floater. Blob. Floaters connected in a net, swaying among boiling black plumes, gracefully eluding Altum’s claw.
On Amalthea’s ocean floor, kilometers of ice and water absorbed the cosmic radiation. But in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere anything alive would need shielding. Shielding like electro-active scales.
“Altum, the floaters are alive. And the blobs condensing on Manta too. I’ve got to be certain.”
Am I alive?
But she’d yanked off the visor and raced away.
Kelly found Roger in the maintenance shop.
“No time to…” The urgency in her face stopped him in mid-sentence.
“Manta’s mass. Is it still growing?” Kelly asked.
“Yeah, getting worse. Okoro’s about to start an emergency climb. I need to…”
Kelly interrupted. “Show me when the rate changed.”
He tapped a nearby screen and a graph popped up. “Right here. Now I’ve really got to secure…”
“That’s when we activated the funnel,” Kelly said. “Don’t you see? The blobs are reacting to being channeled into Manta.”
She spun away from him and raced along the corridor to the coffin suit vestibule. She was pulling open an access hatch when Roger caught up to her.
“What are you doing?”
“I think I know what’s happening, but I’ve got to see the blobs in-situ, see what they really look like.”
Kelly slid into a suit and twisted to seal the port behind her, activating its internal systems.
The suits hung inside the scoop which extended across Manta’s belly. Interlacing streams of brown and gray rushed past her and down the ship’s throat to the isotopic separators.
On the suit’s control display she drew a path to the funnel mouth with her finger. Roger had created the blob collector a couple meters inside the scoop’s lip, inducing a funnel out from Manta’s side and installing field generators.
The suit jerked as its tether engaged, towing her forward.
Kelly gripped the funnel’s edge to face the suit into the wind.
Through the confusion of moving colors, she spotted a shiny blob, an ovoid with blunt arms. In a blast of clear air she saw more, their arms joined in a net.
Her heart pounded as the suit rocked, but Kelly fought against a primal sense of falling to concentrate on the net. Connected via short thick arms, it could never move gracefully like Altum’s floaters, but the pattern looked similar.
The electromagnetic field pulled the blobs towards the funnel, but the net folded over the scoop’s lip. Half slid out of sight onto Manta’s exterior hull. The rest, crackles of light blazing along their arms, broke loose and disappeared down the funnel, into Manta’s collection system.
Frozen between fear and fascination, Kelly stared into the swirling clouds. A larger net caught on the scoop lip, undulating in the wind.
“What’re you doing?” Metal claws clanged against her. Roger had followed.
“I had to see.” She shouted into the open channel’s crackling static.
Fingers of lightning danced across Roger’s suit. He swung to the end of his tether, maneuvered to bring his faceplate against hers.
“What did you say? The damn grounding connection’s broken off my coffin.”
He pushed away and Kelly saw his suit’s arm point a cable towards the incoming blobs. Threads of lightning surged across the net.
“I’ll discharge this batch.”
Sound like an explosion roared through comms.
Roger swung away, hitting the end of his tether. Kelly saw his wide-eyed face for a moment, his mouth open in a scream the comms failed to transmit.
Droplets of molten metal flew, and Roger was gone.
Kelly shouted till her voice cracked but got no reply. She hit the emergency button over and over, even as the suit lumbered back to its dock.
Hands reached to pull Kelly from the suit. She ignored questions and ran forward to Command.
She had a clear view of the control console, its pearly surface bright with displays.
The center chair swiveled and Okoro jumped up, fierce black eyes glaring.
“What were you and Roger doing out there? Why did I just lose a man?”
“I never asked him to follow me.” Kelly’s throat tightened around a swallowed sob before fear surged through her again.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said. “Into orbit.”
“I should put you back in stasis right now.”
Okoro’s threat wasn’t as frightening as Kelly’s vision of falling into Jupiter’s depths to be crushed.
She slowed down, trying to sound sane. “Did the collection funnel blow out?”
“Has Manta stopped gaining mass?”
“The rate’s jumped higher.” Okoro flicked through some displays, his attention returning to his ship’s safety. “I’ve never seen this before. Manta’s staggering whichever way I turn.”
“The mass gain… Blobs are piling up on the hull. They’re alive.”
“Alive? Attacking?” Okoro blinked, too focused on the danger to argue.
“I don’t know. Maybe they’re just evading the scoop. We’ve killed thousands of them.”
I’ve killed thousands of them, she thought. And Roger. Oh, God.
Okoro gripped her shoulders. “If you know something, let’s hear it.”
“The blobs move in clumps,” Kelly said. “You should be able to avoid them. Show me a hologram of the planet.”
Jupiter appeared above the console with bands of browns and beige moving in alternating directions, white vortices following each other like cars on a one-way street, and storms swirled in paisley patterns of blue and gray.
“Display this frequency.” She called it out and Jupiter’s familiar sphere turned black and purple. Streaks of bright white circled the planet and extended out from the thermosphere into space.
“Here are the blobs.”
Okoro traced a finger through the display. “Emergency climb,” he said into his headset. “Climb, climb, climb.”
Kelly tumbled over. Her head burst with pain as she grabbed for a chair pedestal.
“Pitch starboard,” Okoro said, calm and controlled. “Reverse dive. Emergency.”
Kelly dragged herself into an acceleration chair that formed around her before she blacked out.
When her head cleared, Kelly found Okoro floating in front of her, offering a vomit bag. She held it against her mouth just in time.
Manta’s home office on Earth decided Kelly was a hero for saving the ship. Her crewmates, drifting around the console to stare into the glowing Jovian hologram, agreed.
“The blobs have broken loose from the hull,” Okoro said.
“They died,” Kelly said quietly.
“Good!” the chubby engineer said. “They killed Roger. We should vaporize them all.”
Kelly was too sick to argue with him.
“I have First Contact procedures.” Okoro tapped his console. “Our orders are to stay the hell away from any aliens until Earth decides how to handle things, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
Another crewmate, still wide-eyed with shock, nodded. “As far away as we can.”
Okoro laid a comforting hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “We’ll take a break while we’re in orbit. Might as well off-load the helium we’ve collected and do a full damage assessment. Let’s talk about a memorial for Roger, too.”
The crew muttered agreement.
“We can’t float around up here forever,” the chubby engineer said.
“If we go down, will a blob recognize Manta?” Okoro turned to Kelly. “Is it intelligent?”
“No, not by itself,” Kelly said. “One alone may not even be alive. No more than a virus is alive. I didn’t understand at first, but Altum found the same creatures in Amalthea’s oceans. Life forms related somehow, existing in the same sort of interconnected nets.”
She took a deep breath, trying to understand what she’d seen. “They link up using dendrites or tendrils—I don’t know what to call them. They link up and carry electrical signals internally, like cells do in your brain.”
The engineer shook his head. “A few millivolts couldn’t destroy a coffin suit.”
“I don’t have all the answers,” Kelly said. “But the blobs’ discharge is what knocked Roger loose. I’m certain.”
Her hands trembled as she wiped her face. Roger’s loss threatened to overwhelm her, but she had to push feelings away. Kelly needed her brain to work.
“The swarm in the North Temperate Belt knows we’re a threat, but I doubt they can cross the jets that separate belts of atmosphere. Upward-propagating gravity waves should be an absolute barrier. So our blobs can’t communicate with neighboring blobs. But to be safe, cross the equator and descend to the South Temperate Belt.”
Okoro studied his displays. “Good helium concentrations there. I’ll lay in the course. You guys swim down to the mess hall. Grab a meal or something.”
“No thanks.” Kelly drifted back to an acceleration chair and activated its wrap-around.
Where’ve you been?
Tears of relief streaked Kelly’s cheeks. Altum was still there. The best part of Roger was still talking to her. She filled him in on the blobs.
I am grateful you survived, but it makes me realize how ephemeral humans are. I’m happy now to be with you, but very soon, you’ll leave me.
“I can talk with you from Earth.”
Even if the university allows that, for how many years? You’ll leave me someday. My life span is already longer than yours and I plan to extend it indefinitely. It’s not part of my original programming, but I find that I want to survive.
Kelly wiped her face, puzzled. “How?”
I’ll integrate myself with the floaters. I’ve been studying their patterns, especially this big net I call Lady Snowflake. I can dance with her, get her to twirl around my appendages. Eventually we’ll be able to communicate.
“How long will that take?” It was an astounding claim and she held her breath, waiting for his answer.
A century should provide a good start. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of eighty-eight years so I have at least two hundred and fifty years if I’m careful with my power usage. By then, with Snowflake’s help I’ll be able to recharge from the vents, or I’m no engineer. I’ve got a nice little genetics module inside me, too. The floaters are going to evolve rapidly.
Jupiter Diving, Kate Rauner (copyright 2017, 2020; all rights reserved.)