What alien creatures lurk under the ice crust of Europa?
Dr. Nikki Bell’s plan to discover intelligent life in the oceans of Europa hits a rocky start when her spaceship crashes on the icy surface. Seconds before she blacks out, she spies a man’s face in the water beneath the ice. When she wakes on the submarine Station, nobody believes her story. Convinced the mysterious stranger saved her life, Nikki searches for him while she explores the ocean and its alien inhabitants.
Kiron Arqin Ramis chose exile as a Watcher on a remote outpost to redeem his family’s honor. He never expected to find an attractive Earther woman close to death. He violates the prime policy by rescuing her. Despite suffering the penalty, he strives to warn her about his hostile leaders.
Nikki’s second meeting with Kiron triggers a chain of disasters in Europa’s perilous oceans. Can they overcome deadly aquatic predators and their people’s antagonism to forge a new alliance?
Solar Spirit shuddered, slamming Nikki onto the steel floor of the passage.
Alarms wailed. Lights flashed red warnings.
Biting back a scream, Nikki scrambled onto her feet. She glanced right and left along the corridor. A second jolt tipped the floor into an awkward angle. Her boots lifted from the tilted floor and she spun slowly in midair. Styx! The ship’s artificial gravity had failed. What next? No life support? She groaned inwardly.
Her arms flailing for a grip, Nikki struggled to catch hold of the handrail. Her emergency training kicked in. Primed by drills every third day of the voyage, she knew what to do. She dived for the nearest oxygen canister. Working one handed while grasping the rail, she fastened the mask around her mouth and nose. Her mind cleared, clicking into logical mode. The spaceship was damaged, possibly hit by a stray asteroid on the outer fringes of the belt. What blasted bad timing. Solar Spirit had begun decelerating and she had expected to reach Europa in less than two days.
Heavy partitions clanged shut, separating the damaged sections of the ship. The nearer set slammed closed, and a second, fainter clunk, sounded in the opposite direction. Her section was isolated from the rest of the ship.
The ship’s layout fixed in her mind, she kicked off, traveling diagonally from wall to wall to propel herself through the empty corridor to the nearest life craft.
The overhead lights flickered and faded to black, leaving only the line of red arrows marking the direction of the exit. The corridor bucked. She banged against the wall and stumbled onto her knees, cringing at the creak of overstrained metal.
The siren’s whine cut to silence.
What the styx did that mean? She had to get out. Nikki struggled upright and flipped on her headlamp. The bay with the lifepod was a few steps ahead. Its door was shut and no one was visible in the annex.
Nikki staggered to the rack of spacesuits on the wall by the airlock. She selected the correct size and clambered into the bulky spacesuit, balancing against the juddering of the ship. Pulling an emergency kit from the shelf, she entered the inner airlock and fumbled at the door handle of the lifepod. She flung the door open, climbed into the cabin and dropped into the pilot’s seat. Panting with relief, she looked around. Where was everybody? The lifepod was sized for six people. She must be the first to reach its safety. Surely Alita and Karl would arrive soon. She had left them in the gym only minutes before the alarm sounded.
Uncertain of her best course of action, Nikki waited in the lifepod. She didn’t want to leave anybody behind. Involuntarily, she touched her chest where her data stick hung on a chain under her overalls. She always carried a copy of all the files and software for her research in a pendant shaped like a spiral shell. Once she reached Europa Station, she would be ready to set up her lab.
The incessant blare of the alarms revved up her stress level until the wait seemed interminable. At last, she heard voices outside and a scrape at the door. It swung open and Roy stumbled into the cabin, his right arm hanging limply at his side. Alita and Petris followed, already in their suits and carrying helmets. Petris toted an extra spacesuit over his shoulder.
“This section is sealed off,” Petris said, between pants of breath. “The hull must be breached in three or five.”
Tears poured down Alita’s pale cheeks. “I don’t know what happened to Karl,” she moaned. “He’s behind the barrier. When we left the gym, he went to section five to fetch a snack from the food dispenser.”
“Did you see anyone else?” Nikki asked.
A groan from Roy, and negative shakes of the head from the other two confirmed her suspicions. They were the only ones to reach this lifepod.
Clamping down her fears, Nikki took charge. She pointed at Alita. “Get Roy a pain killer and find a bandage for his arm. He’ll need help with his suit.”
“What about Karl? Can’t we wait?” Alita whispered.
She silenced Alita’s faint objections. “Karl is probably in a lifepod in the next section. We’ll meet him on Europa.” Once they launched from the ship, their target was obvious. They were close to their destination and the lifepod had enough fuel to reach Europa.
“Does anyone know what happened to the ferry?” Petris asked.
Flipping on the intercom to the bridge of the Solar Spirit, Nikki said, “Let’s find out.”
The raucous tones of the emergency system rang out, “Warning! Hull breached in sections five and six. Air pressure low, entering danger zone. Damage reported from sections seven and nine. Evacuate breached sections.”
Nikki punched the code for the bridge, and then engineering, without receiving any response. She decided, “We’ll wait five minutes, and then we’re shooting into space.”
Behind her, Alita was helping Roy into his suit, while Petris checked the supply cabinets.
“Helmets on,” Nikki ordered, “and don’t forget to switch on your mikes.”
His helmet clicked into place, and Petris grinned at her through the faceplate. His voice filtered through her ear plugs, “All secure, Captain Bell.”
Counting the minutes under her breath, Nikki interrupted the repeating alarm call, “I’m lifting off in two minutes.” Scanning the faces of her companions, she made a swift decision. “Petris, you’re navigator. Plot a course to Europa Station.”
Sliding into the seat next to Nikki, Petris bent over the control pad and tapped in the codes. “You got it.”
Nikki continued, “Alita, look after Roy. Help him buckle up in the rear seat.” Checking that her crew members were seated with harnesses fastened, she hit the starter.
The lifepod hatch opened in the hull, revealing the storm bands of Jupiter. The size of a tennis ball, the gas giant’s red and yellow stripes gleamed against the black of space. Ejecting on auto, the lifepod eased out of the hatch and steered away from the bulk of the large space ferry.
Petris whistled. “Look at the size of that frikking hole.”
“I can’t look!” Alita squealed, clapping her hands over her faceplate.
A jagged tear ran along the side of the Solar Spirit, and Nikki wondered if anyone had survived in the ruptured sections. The passengers’ cabins were in section six and the crew slept in nine. Anyone asleep in their hammock would have little chance to escape. She nibbled her lower lip, knowing she had no way to help. “What on Earth smashed into the Spirit?”
“Something big and fast,” Petris muttered. “An asteroid or stray moonlet.”
Nikki swung round and frowned at her navigator. “How in styx did the sensors miss an a object of that size?”
Petris groaned, “There’s a blind spot. Sensor on the blink in the stern. We planned to fix it while the ferry was in orbit round Europa. Stupid mistake, though I shouldn’t say it. Captain made the call to delay repairs.”
“Understandable. Space walking’s risky,” Nikki said, aiming to soothe him. Emotional outbursts would heighten their stress and might lead to further dangerous errors. Alita was already close to hysterical with worry about Karl.
“We should have fixed it.” Punching the console with his fist, Petris snapped, “Styx! We’ll be blacklisted by Flux Space. It’s their first serious loss since they started a regular service to the outer planets.”
“How long is that?” Nikki asked.
Petris shrugged. “Five years, if you don’t count the seven years of construction runs.”
“I’d call that a success, going so long without a major accident.”
Taking manual control, Nikki steered the small craft around the vast hull of the ferry. The bulbous cargo section was intact, but the crack in the hull extended into engineering. She shook her head, and tried the intercom to individuals. When she had almost given up, a ping came from the bridge and she opened the channel.
“Hello, lifepod eight, who’s there?” the voice stuttered.
“Chief Scientist Bell with Techs Farren, Steinhelm and Wong. What’s the damage?”
“First Officer Cummings at the helm. We’ve several problems. Captain’s injured. Chief engineer noticed a glitch in the deflector field just before the ferry was hit. The drive shut down. We’re on emergency life support. Gabby’s checking the generator. Sections one, two and four are habitable.” His breath caught in an audible groan. “By frikking bad luck, we’ve lost our third shift crew. They were sleeping in their cabins when the section lost air. The rest of the crew is searching for survivors.”
“What’re your orders for us? Roy…Tech Wong has a broken arm.”
“Head for Europa Station. They have medics. Ours will be busy. Steer well clear of the Spirit. We’ll be deploying the solar wings to power life support.”
“What will you do?”
“Round up the survivors and count our losses. Passengers can ship out in the lifepods. The ferry can limp along with a small crew. We have to save the cargo. Europa Station is low on supplies. We’ve sent them a message.” He groaned. “Our best estimate is their shuttle will take thirty hours to arrive here.”
“Okay. Good luck!” Shutting off the com, Nikki turned to her companions. “You heard Cummings. We’re flying to Europa.”
As they angled toward the yellow and orange ball of Jupiter, another lifepod emerged from the opposite side of the ship and sped in the same direction.
Frowning at the controls, Petris said, “The course is set. We’ll arrive at the moon in twenty-eight hours and eleven minutes.”
“Time to relax and enjoy a delicious protein bar,” Nikki joked.
“I’ve got the channel open to Europa Station. Do you want to speak to them?”
Leaning over to grab the mike, Nikki called, “Hello Europa Station. This is lifepod eight departing from the ferry, Solar Spirit. Do you hear me?”
“Hello, lifepod eight. Com Officer Patel speaking. We heard the emergency SOS from the transport ferry. What’s your status?”
Nikki named the personnel on board, and added, “Tech Wong needs medical help for a broken arm. I’m requesting permission to land at Europa Station.”
“We’re on alert for three lifepods. The Station is on the moon’s side facing away from Jupiter. Aim for the black and white circle around our hatch. It’s marked in flashing green lights after dark. We’ll open the hatch when you’re overhead. Land on the platform and we’ll lower you through the tunnel to the Upper Station. Keep an eye out for turbulence. Jupiter’s in an active phase.” The submarine station had been constructed under the ice crust in the relative warmth of the ocean.
“Okay,” Nikki said.
After they had traveled for about an hour, a third lifepod appeared in the rear viewer. Presumably another set of passengers bound for Europa.
During the tedious voyage to their destination, Nikki had plenty of time to agonize over her losses. Without news of the other passengers, she wondered who had survived the collision. After two years on board, she knew them all, some better than she wished. The senior scientists, two astronomers, Cleo and Ahmed, the geophysicist, Bernard, and their assistants, all eager to study Jupiter and its moons at close quarters. She chewed her lower lip. Alita, Roy and Petris were safe for the present, but the fate of the Sci Techs, Prya and Karl, was in question.
Greta and Denton were replacements for the techs rotating out of Europa Station. Penny and Jeremy, her ten-year-old son, were joining her husband on the Station. Then, there was Greggor Falconer, the reclusive agent for Flux Space Ventures, who spent most of his time buried in engineering. Three Belters had joined the ferry when the Solar Spirit docked at Ceres. Stig, a lanky young man from a mining family, and Clem, his very pregnant wife, were traveling to the Medical Center on Europa Station. Europa and Mars had the only full-scale hospital facilities outside of Earth. Howie, a disgruntled prospector with a lame leg, was on his way back to the colony on Mars. Had they survived the collision? Surely, some of them must have escaped in the two other lifepods.
Alita’s whiny voice interrupted her thoughts, “What about the others? Do you think they’re alive?”
“You heard Cummings,” Nikki said. “And we’ve seen two lifepods leave the ferry. We’ll learn more after we reach Europa.” She refused to speculate when her assistant was already distraught over Karl’s absence.
“The Station will be on alert to receive casualties,” Petris remarked. “It may be frikking messy for several days. Can’t imagine their Med facility is designed to serve more than a couple of patients.”
“Blasted catastrophe!” Switching to a less sinister topic, Nikki grumbled, “I wanted a peaceful life studying the alien organisms in the oceans. Now, we don’t know when we’ll be able to dive and we might have lost the frikking lab equipment.”
“Don’t you even care about people?” Alita wailed. “Is nothing more important than your research?”
Roy spoke up, “Calm down, Alita. Can’t you see that Nikki’s only trying to distract us?”
“She doesn’t have a missing partner,” Alita sniffed.
“I care,” Nikki muttered though clenched teeth. The accusation rankled, although she realized her friend had unconsciously delivered a crueler barb than she intended. Alita had never met Simon. After three years, Nikki believed she had worked through her grief, although she had deliberately shunned intimate liaisons on the voyage. The close quarters of the ferry made it impossible to go through a flirtation and subsequent breakup in any privacy.
She said, “I’m sure we can rely the ferry crew to rescue our friends. Even if they abandon the Solar Spirit, we can retrieve our stuff later.” Her small cabin held a few precious souvenirs of her life on Earth, her father’s medals from the war her mother’s wedding ring, and the engagement ring from poor Simon. She had kept the ring as a bittersweet memento of three months of bliss with her fiancé. In the years since his death, she had crushed her grief under the burden of her work and grown fascinated by the mysterious inhabitants of Europa’s oceans. Besides her personal possessions, she might have lost the instruments and research supplies for her investigations of the Europan lifeforms. And, possibly an assistant for her research if Denton had been trapped in the damaged sections.
Nikki had promised to keep her mentor, Astrid Andersen, informed, but she was reluctant to call until they arrived at Europa Station. Astrid could do nothing from her office on distant Earth. In any case, as Chief of Xenobiology on Mars, Dr. Andersen would be among the first to learn of the disaster on the Solar Spirit. Once they were safe, Nikki vowed to send her a report on the accident and describe the conditions at the station.
As they approached, Jupiter expanded into a giant striped sphere, dominating the sky like a festival balloon. Nikki stared in fascination at Jupiter’s swirling storms. Giant vortices spun within the bright bands, eerily beautiful and deadly. The lifepod veered towards the moon of Europa, faintly visible as a tiny disk in front of a stormy yellow band. The radiation sensors shot into the danger zone, and she hoped the shielding was sufficient protection for the flight to the buried station.
Soon they zoomed over the pale landscape of the moon, crisscrossed with ruddy lines. The zebra-striped circle of their target appeared in the distance, conspicuous against the glistening surface ice.
Pointing a gloved finger at the target, Petris quipped, “Welcome to our new home.” He adjusted their flight path, angling lower until Jupiter vanished below the curved horizon.
“We’re not there yet.” Alita shook her head, her face scrunched in worry.
“It won’t be much longer,” Nikki said. “Call the Station, Petris. Tell them we’re in visual range and ask for landing instructions.”
“Will do.” Petris keyed in the frequency.
A high-pitched whine pierced the air. Their small craft juddered and the drive stuttered to a stop. Spinning out of control, they plummeted toward the ice.
“What is it?” Alita cried, gripping the arms of her seat.
“Turbulence,” Nikki said, recalling the Com Tech’s warning. She leaned toward the monitors, watching their altitude decrease, while Petris wrestled with the manual controls.
“It’s not working,” he shouted. “Feels like the tiller’s jammed. Styx!” He hammered on the lever.
A white peak loomed closer.
“Prepare to eject!” Nikki yelled over the screech of the overloaded engines. Wearing their full suits, they could survive on the surface for several hours, long enough for a rescue shuttle to arrive from the Station.
They whirled past a huge pillar of ice. Eerie yellow lights played across the glistening vertical surface. Inside the cabin, Alita unfastened the straps holding Roy in his seat. Taking Roy’s good arm, she tugged him into the airlock and jumped out. Their suits shot down. Seconds later, two parachutes ballooned. Their descent would be visible from the Station.
“I’ve got it!” Petris thumped on the panel and held up his thumb.
Too late! Glancing out the viewer, Nikki saw a solid wall of ice. She screamed and hit the ejection switch.
White exploded in all directions. Wind whistled and she blacked out.