The first in a series of random bits and bobbles posted every Tuesday. Sometimes it’ll be short stories, sometimes poetry, and other random things such as detailed story notes or semi-abandoned novels.
Today’s post is titled “Callisto” and was a short story I wrote about two years ago or so. If I recall correctly, this story came about wholesale in a single night. I was battling some nasty insomnia a few years back and would often go 2-3 days without any significant amounts of sleep. Some nights I stared at the ceiling, while others I played video games… The best nights I produced stories. This is one such story. It is a tale of an expedition to the titular Callisto and what the explorers/scientists find there…
Full Disclosure: This is messy and unedited. Not to mention WAY more sci-fi than most of my writing, so proceed with caution.
Special Note: This story was later used as a set piece for one of my “abandoned” settings. I.e. a series of stories set in a version of Minneapolis about Twenty Minutes into the future… I may go back to it someday… Who knows?
I shuffled nervously in place. It was only a matter of minutes before the warning ligh twould go off and usher in a new age of human history.
“Edgy, Dr. Qin?” The voice came from my left. I didn’t need to look to imagine the smirk plastered across John’s face. I could almost imagine the playful mockery in his bright, brown eyes.
“Of course I am, Mr. Briggs. I think anyone would be insane not to be.” I rolled my eyes, but did not lose sight of the console in front of me. Once that light turned green and the switch door swung open the QT room would finally be open and I would lead my team out onto Callisto.
“Will it work this time?” A softer voice, the voice of Maria Jones, came from my right. She was young, twenty-seven if I remembered correctly, and she had been worried from the start.
“Sure it’ll work, why wouldn’t it?” Briggs showed no fear. It didn’t take an expert to know that he was just as nervous as the rest of us, even if he hid behind a solid layer of bravado. “We wouldn’t even be able to use it, unless it was calibrated. Hell, they even sent our supplies through, didn’t they?”
“I suppose. But, didn’t you hear what happened to the QT tech they sent through? Translocked. He’ll be lucky if he dies soon. Better that than stuck forever in an inanimate shell….”
Maria trailed off. We all knew it was a risk. QT, or Quantum Translocation, was still not the safest modes of travel. It only truly worked when both ends of the Tunnel to be stable and properly calibrated. If it was not, than the luckiest outcome was complete obliteration, down to the basest of particles. The worst was that one would materialize in an inert frame, barely even organic any longer, and caught in a ceaseless state of undeath. It sent shivers down the spines of the most stalwart soul.
“Don’t worry, Maria. The first tech was unfortunate, but the brave young man that followed him through survived and calibrated the QT properly. He made it back healthy as he ever has been.” I turned to look at the young woman for the briefest of moments before returning my gaze to the console. “Now if only the first human being to travel to Callisto and back hadn’t been some QT tech.”
“Regretting the loss of glory, Doc?” John’s sarcasm was grating on me. I could only hope that we would be cleared for Translocation soon, otherwise our team of three might be down to two.
“Not at all. It is simply unfortunate that the history books will never give the young man credit where it is due. We will get more than our fair share of glory, I’m sure. Even though we will be taking far less of a risk.” I shrugged. “After all, we’re simply going on a fact finding mission. He risked life and limb, while we’ll be fortunate to bring home some trace organic compounds floating in a bit of water.” Finally, the green light blinked awake on the console and a small plastic casing flipped open to reveal a small button. I took a deep breath and pressed it, bracing myself for the gut-wrenching sensation of the QT doing its work.
Mere moments later, I found myself standing on a frozen chunk of ice halfway across the solar system, and the groaning sounds from behind me confirmed that my companions had arrived safely as well. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but ice. The sky was dark above, as even the sun seemed to be little more than a particularly bright star in the distance. I felt a combination of elation and unease; the latter of which was not the result of the QT. I was standing on a planet, well a moon technically, where few others had stood before and where we were now completely alone.
“Alright people, let’s set up the equipment quickly. We don’t have a lot of time and every second we wait is a second wasted!” I heard the groaning of my companions from behind me, but they worked through the QT disorientation quickly enough and began setting up the drill and the diagnostic equipment.
The drill was my primary focus, of course. Without it, the rest of our mission would be for little. It unfolded quickly and easily, just as it had over the countless hours of training that we had to suffer through to qualify for this mission. It was large, but simplistic. It was designed for two purposes, primary of which was to drill a roughly 15 foot diameter hole through the miles of ice and to carry, just above the drill itself, our small team down with it. Secondly, it would retract its safety line a few hours later and return us to the surface for the trip home. Only a few minutes later, everything was arranged, the safety line was safely secured, and everything was ready for our descent.
“Okay, are we ready people?” I asked, trying my best to prevent any of my hesitation from entering my voice. No matter how much of my life of study and preparation had lead to this moment, no one could truly be ready for such a monumental undertaking.
“Nothing to worry about, folks. Remember, this is just a routine factfinding mission.” I was reassuring myself as much as anyone. “We are to finish the probe’s work, and hopefully find it in the process, nothing more. Short, sweet, and simple.”
I didn’t even bother to look back as I walked through the door to the descent capsule. I tried not to think about the probe that had proceeded us. It had been a marvel of technology. Sent years ago to drill through and probe the depths of Callisto by itself. Its Quantum Communications remained open the entire time and it landed with precision. Drilling through the ice and eventually descending into the depths had held everyone on Earth and the Martian Colony enraptured. It showed little at first, once it reached the waters below, as its lights could only reach so far.
I remembered sitting there, watching as it delved deeper and deeper from my dormitory room on Mars, where my research in Martian Archaeology and Xenobiology had led me. It went further and further down, until it finally found something. Large pillars of pristine ice that seemed to stretch forever and ever into the depths of the moon. It drifted closer and closer to the pillars, getting just close enough to offer a glimpse of the ice in detail; it was oddly pock marked in ways that reminded me of lichen encrusted stones back on Earth. I was excited at the possibilities of that simple discovery, and had no doubts that countless others across both inhabited planets shared my sentiments.
Then everything went black.
The probe had then ceased all communications. There was no further trace then or now. The government scrambled to release a statement; “The probe experienced a simple malfunction of the QC device, and it is certainly still functioning despite complete radio silence.” Years later, and countless hours of study of that brief footage, was what led us here. It was risky, and everyone knew it, but the only way to ensure no such errors occurred again was with a manned expedition. The encouragement of myself and other experts did much to help persuade the higherups to agree.
Which leads to this very moment. Hours of drilling down, in silence, while my team and I inspected everything we had. Our nanomesh suits were checked again and again. Communications were tested repeatedly, by both ourselves and Martian Command. Safety lines were checked, doublechecked and more for when we left the relative safety of the capsule. We reviewed the mission; collecting ice samples to return to Mars for testing and possibly checking for any signs of viable life in the frigid waters. We did everything except talk about that damned probe.
Finally, with a loud crunch and seemingly eternal silence, we arrived. Looking out of the small door’s viewport, we saw only inky blackness. With a nod and a deep breath, I watched Briggs push the small button beside the door. A warning buzzer reminded us of the water that began to flood the chamber, as the air was pushed upward into its holding chamber above. Then,with a quiet whooshing sound, the door opened and we were out. Safety lines attached securely to the side of the capsule, we ventured out.
“Don’t stray far and keep those commlinks open people!” I called out a simple reminder as we swam slowly away. “And keep an eye on those timers!” I tapped my helmet to emphasize the visor’s read out. “We have two hours down here, not a moment more. Any longer and we won’t have the air to reach the surface.”
“No shit.” Briggs was already off to the left, drifting towards individual glory. Mariah only muttered a soft. “Yes” in response.
A few minutes of drifting and the capsule was gone, swallowed by the dark ocean. As my eyes adjusted, however, it didn’t seem nearly as dark as I would have supposed. There was a faint, very faint, glow that seemed to permeate the water. It only seemed to get brighter as I drifted forward.
Suddenly, with no warning, I found myself facing a giant pillar of ice, so very reminiscent of what I had seen on that monitor so long ago. I ran my fingers along the surface, feeling the smoothness through the nanomesh. Everything seemed to slip away, just then. There existed only myself and the ice in that brief moment. I followed the pillar down with my eyes; it seemed to disappear into eternity below me. Above, I could barely make out, at the edge of my headlamp, where the pillar merged with the icy surface of the moon. I traced down the pillar with my hand, marveling at the almost unnatural smoothness here, wondering where the pockmarking I remembered was and contemplating how simple erosion could create such smoothness in this lightless place.
After long minutes of drifting down and down, I reached a juncture. A small outcropping from the otherwise perfectly smooth pillar. There! Wedged ever so tightly into the crease where the ice seperated into the small ledge, there was something that resembled bright red carpet!
Lichen, just as I had hypothosized. I barely even hesitated before pulling out a small capsule and scraping a small sample for future study. With the sample securely in its container, I grinned like a school girl, almost ready to call out to my companions about my discovery, when a though struck me. If there was lichen here, why had it not spread? Why was there perfectly smooth ice in every other direction? Why? Then, my thoughts were interrupted by a short, but brutal scream. A man’s voice. Briggs.
“Briggs?” I could hear Mariah’s frightened voice echo my call.
“Briggs, come in. Report immediately.” Nothing. “Mariah?”
“Return to the capsule immediately! We need to trace back his safety line and figure out what happened to him.”
In a frenzy, I reached for my safety line. With the swift press of a button, I felt a pressure at my back and the icy pillar quickly disappeared into the darkness again. I spent every long second silently praying that Briggs was okay and that we could find him. A glance at my visor reminded me that we only had about 45 minutes to do so, or risk our own deaths.
A moment later, a dread I didn’t know I had was confirmed. I heard another scream. Much longer this time, but no less terrified. Then silence.
“Dammit, Mariah! Respond!”
“Shit, shit, shit.” I started repeating as mantra. What had happened? What was going on?
Any second now, I would reach the capsule. Then I would trace back their lines and they’d be fine. Just minds playing tricks and communication problems. Maybe there was something about the water that interferred with QC. That would explain the probe, then, right? Right?
I glanced behind me, the capsule was in sight. No signs of problems there. Just have to…
I felt a sharp pain. Then nothing.
I awoke. My head was practically throbbing.
I looked around. I was in some sort of cavern in the ice. The walls were sheer and had the same oddly polished quality of the pillars. I checked my equipment. The nanomesh was undamaged, and my sample was unharmed. Unfortunately, the visor told me two unsettling things. First, I had lost live contact with Martian Command. Not even my vitals were reaching them. Second, and far more worrisome, my timer was flashing red and read simply “0:00.”
Before I had time to think about that, I heard a garbled scream. It came through my com-link, but it seemed wrong somehow, as if it was running through a filter or through water…
I bolted upright, as best I could in the watery confines of the cavern. I drifted madly about, calling out for anyone that could hear me. No response.
I searched every inch of the ice with wild eyes. I could already see my lights dimming as the nanofilters lost power. Soon I would be out of power, out of the dimming light of my headlamp, and out of air.
Pressing my face against the ice, I could see that my light was just strong enough to shine through the apparently thing walls of my prison. I could, just barely, make out a shape across from me. It was drifting, lifeless. In the dim, and through apparently more ice, I could not make out details, but I knew in my heart that it was one of my companions. Or, at least, it had been once.
I screamed into my comlink. Hoping that someone could still hear me. Nothing but silence replied. I figured the scream was all that was left of either companion, and I would never know who it had been.
My breathing was becoming sporadic. Desperation and thinning air were taking their toll. My mind was racing. What had happened? How would I survive? Could I survive? I tried to calm myself. Surely the readout had been damaged. I had time, right? Surely I could figure this out.
I forced myself to calm my breathing, but I knew that my wild hopes were wrong. I had no time. All I could hope for would be a swift death and that someone would someday find my body and learn what had…
Wait. There was one last chance. Not for survival, no, but for a message to go out. If I rerouted the nanomesh’s dwindling power I could possibly send out a condensed info packet to the QT beacon and, if it worked, news of what had happened could at least be retrieved. I began to fiddle with the small console pad that controlled the suit. It would be a longshot, but it was better than nothing. And, I thought darkly, at least I would die of suffocation quickly, rather than over the long agonizing period as the suit failed on its own.
I was seconds away from pressing the final keystroke when I noticed movement before me. I hesitated, just long enough to see a large shape approach the walls of my cell. It seemed to be something large, and indistinct. I saw it move, some strange appendage reaching to its left and I watched as the ice between us began to dissolve.
My eyes widened as I witnessed the impossible.
A creature, roughly the size of the Hippos I had seen as a child in zoos, was facing me. I could see no eyes, or even anything resembling a face in its hulking form. It had three limbs, two extended from beneath a large and gaping hole, that I could only guess was its mouth. Each limb ended in vicious looking claws. The third appendage grasped around from atop its head, slightly small and ending in something that looked like fingers, or the end of an elephant’s trunk, but not really either.
I heard a terrible noise then, as its mouth began to move. Only after a long second, did I realize that the noise was my own screaming. I could not tell if the mouth made sounds of its own, but I did not care. I did not want to die as this monster’s victim. I screwed up the last of my resolve and failing strength, and pushed the final keystroke.
Almost instantly, I began to choke. My screams dying with the last of my air. My head began to swim. I prayed that there had been enough power. I prayed that this thing wouldn’t do horrible things to me in death. I prayed that whatever waited after death would be merciful. I prayed and prayed as my vision darkened and the creature loomed closer.