A fantastical encounter.
She saw mountains in her dream.
The Sun, joined by a few distant silver crescents, illuminates one side of her dome window as Ann wakes up in the control chamber, rejuvenated, but still slightly fatigued, thanks to the prolonged weightlessness.
Slightly disoriented, she takes a brief moment to confirm that she was still aboard Tian-Yi, her cargo ship and that her payloads are safe and sound on the lower deck.
All that is soothing to know, since it’s been quite a journey. A few weeks ago, when Tian-Yi was leaving the asteroid belt, Ann set up her own hibernation pod. Indeed, sleeping is both a decent way to save energy and a good coping method for the solitude of flight. Her only companion out here is a computer that takes care of some essential parameters. But apart from that, she has little regard for it.
Floating beside her window was an old-fashioned compass in a brass case. During the time she went to sleep, the compass sat there, aimlessly rotating. The lighthearted clicking of metal produces a symphony with the beeps of computers and hums of thrusters to the back. Were sounds able to travel far into the mechanic arms in cargo, or into the vacuum of space, they would add some lively touches to the soundtrack known as Silence of the Solar System.
The truth must be told. Among the now antiquated technologies, besides clunky space suits and pre-fusion age engines and weapons, there are compasses, too. Rarely any directions except “destination” or “origin” deserve regular discussions for interplanetary spaceflights today.
No matter, the 26-year-old pilot remembers the day her father brought home the toy compass for her ninth birthday ⋯ From the times when she struggled to spell “magnetism” through when she met field equations in an electrical engineering class… She puts her compass back onto the panel, which begins to gently glow when her palm touches the screen.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Ann exclaims in relief as the telemetry data show up one by one. The numbers seem to congratulate her on successfully reaching the destination planet,
“We aligned a speck of dust exactly behind another one.”
It might be the case that, deep down, Ann trusts herself and her gauges more than the navigation algorithms. For example, her compass seems to have the magical aura that directs her eyes to look beyond the obscurities, at what would eventually become of interest in her long adventure known as life. From her first walk out of her home village in mountainous Eastern Eurasia to her first aurora observation over Antarctica, and to the training across the solar system, her compass never pointed the wrong way: it shows her wonders, and just as importantly, that people can work wonders, too.
Additionally, her compass is a remnant of her home planet, unlike the ship and its payload, though. She just picked up “Tian-Yi” (Heavenly Wings, a name from Zhuangzi), a Titan-Class freight transporter, from the factory on Ceres a few standard months ago. And now, in the cargo, she’s hauling new machines for Luton Co., a mining firm that is constructing bases on Trojan asteroids and Jupiter’s moons.
“Iron, copper, and iridium, all collected and naturally enriched. Jupiter’s gravitation continues to be humanity’s little helper in the New Age!”, she remembers hearing them say that over the Broadcast.
Coming up to the side window, she learns not only that Tian-Yi is within Jupiter’s gravitational grasp, but also that she can already see Jupiter, too. Fron this distance, it looms in the sky, a duvet weaved of perpetual storms, into which background stars slip to doze.
While Jupiter might not be a wise savory choice, she hopes to sniff its scent. In the Academy, someone once told her, “No!” Still, she remains curious. Now that every solid from space smells like either blood or burnt metal, a fluffy cloud might emerge differently…
To witness this sleeping gas giant feels like looking into the meandering dynamics of life itself. Furthermore, the satellites of this planet are arranged in such orbits that they always seem to tell an epic tale. The ones she used to hear before bed, she lives through them now. For this fascinating sight, she loves her job, despite the risks — maybe she likes the risks as well.
Spaceflight is a way of life for survivors. Not many humans would compete in such a widely-automated job, or take refuge in the Asteroid Belt, were it not for the hydrogen bombs that nearly defaced their home planet a decade ago.
Ann doesn’t really want to recall more about this. It’s enough to survive through cataclysm once: at the onset of war, on a malfunctioning trainer jet, she broke free from the burning home atmosphere and the too vivid memories of everything she knew.
She needs to get back down to work. As the ship adjusts its orientation, Jupiter and the moons start rotating out of her field of view. The sunlit side of Jupiter fades as it waves to Tian-Yi goodbye. And the closest moons, Io and Europa, the passionate and the calm, merge with their parent into a ghostly optical artifact off the border of the window.
There’s nothing in sight again but stars. However, as Ann’s compass can tell, the strong magnetic presence of Jupiter still permeates Tian-Yi and the enveloping darkness.
Twenty-thousand times stronger than that of Earth, Jupiter’s magnetic influence deters pilots from coming too close. For a cargo ship like Tian-Yi, the marked limit is Ganymede, which, after two more laps around Jupiter, Ann should be able to land precisely onto — Luton has a delivery center there. She thinks that she saw the flicker of strip-mines under construction a few minutes ago.
Ann turns off Tian-Yi’s last running propellers and pictures the flame thinning out and forming a rainbow of pearls behind her trail. Now, inertia should suffice to take care of the rest of the navigation.
All of a sudden, the sound of system alarm ramped up.
Ann keeps her receiver at the individual frequency reserved by her employer, maybe it’s some new instruction or request. “Unless there’s an emergency broadcast,” Ann thought to herself, as she browsed the communication transcript from the nearby stations.
“Unexpected Asteroid Alert!”
“Electromagnetic surge damages satellite …”
There is one from Luton’s Employee Service Center, which reads:
“CREW SAFETY ALERT:
“Europa’s Ice La¥#r @ been $q*&#ed to erupt…
“Take evasive courses if necessary.”
“Europa erupts? For what? Why!?”
She remembers seeing geyser plumes of Enceladus on TV a long time ago. Enceladus belongs to Saturn, the other gas giant in human’s neighborhood. It couldn’t be anything linked to danger, could it? Some gentle ice-water jets?
What is happening?
The computer quietly performs the deceleration sequence as the news unfolds on the control screen. Roughly estimating, Europa should show up again in a few hours as Tian-Yi gets overtaken.
Physics calmly paced the story. After an hour of eager waiting, its vague glow is right there to the left end of Jupiter’s face. Ann could feel her heartbeats racing as she inevitably sees Europa again.
Even before light illuminated the icy moon, a giant cluster of dust entered her eyes. She sees a halo that shouldn’t be there. At this moment, Europa isn’t the quiet ice moon any longer. It is more like a broken mirror in space:
Half of its ice crust scattered into shards, like tectonic plates on earth somewhat, and small geysers erupt from across the surface. While many cracks on the surface followed the striped valleys pre-existing on its terrace, many new ones formed in the middle of nowhere. And around where the cracks converge, a giant explosion ensues.
Ann strives to make sense of this scenery passing by her,
“How did that happen?”
There was an amorphous and maybe fugitive feeling stirring in Ann’s chest, to have her own mission diverted and cross the danger zone? Should she go take a look?
Ann ignited the prograde thrusters and veered towards the explosion site. The course was changed at a whim. Such a decision once saved her life, now, no one knows what it really preludes to.
Destination: Europa. The machines in the back taciturnly agreed to the human’s choice of curiosity.
Among the iridescent shards, and all around, she begins to discern the light of propellers of spaceships. They are mostly construction workers being evacuated from Ganymede. There might also have been one or two water purification plants on Europa — they immediately lost radio contact with the outer world shortly after the incident happened.
“What are you doing? Missing Route Beacon #32@%⋯
“Please return and s@nd ping.” Luton’s control system is numbly dissatisfied, sending in alarm messages every second.
She operated Tian-Yi in silence. Sound through the dashboard speaker becomes pure garble quite fast, in part because she just left Ganymede’s line-of-sight, where a Jovian commercial amplifier is situated, part because the comlinks are giving in to the violent magnetic field.
The universe is an interesting place, where temperatures affect so many things, even the very foundations of imagination.
We still seem to remember the power of water on earth and mars in shaping the geology, at least vaguely. Now, however, try to picture a world where water forms the landscape itself, one that, as we know, melts, cracks, and sublimes in space.
Europa is precisely one of such worlds, a shining moon of Jupiter bathed in light, and now, even more, a cloud of mystery.
In Tian-Yi, avoiding ice blocks and rocks flying in all directions, Ann is on the way to Europa. Traversing through the dilute fume is enough for some oily solvents to smudge her cameras. She then nearly gets engulfed by the mist and loses visual.
Hovering turns out to be relatively comfortable. So much fluid is being ejected upwards that it doesn’t take much fuel to slow Tian-Yi down.
Water, either raining down back to Europa, as if attempting to heal its scar, or escaping far up, joining the milky way overhead. It seems to her that never in this landscape’s billions of years of history are there these many things to unfold at once.
“COLLISION ALERT.” The backup system prints, as Tian-Yi approaches a piece of Europa’s surface. “Is that how you appreciated my landing skills?” Ann quipped at the control computer and tried to acclimate herself to the new gravity.
She landed on Europa. Standing still to witness amidst an airless moon’s first (and possibly the only) twilight. Indeed, perhaps now is the last time anyone can stand on this ice world.
Colorful particles fly off into the sky, dancing in the embrace of their home’s lunar-level and diminishing gravity. The dust comes from Europa’s boiling mantle — iridescent droplets of water from deep within.
Right before she turns off her engine, however, outside the control panel, a glassy collection of oily organic matter slowly rose above Tian-Yi, touching the ship’s chassis.
It feels like a tap on the shoulder. And, like a soap bubble from Europa’s interiors, the massive collection of organic matter cuts through her line of sight and catches her attention. Maybe it’s an illusion, but as it expands in size, it does seem to change its shape, as evidenced by the iridescent thin-film interference patterns.
Titan-class ships come with a basic array of scientific sensors, so Ann could measure the shivering mass’s temperature and a few other vital signs:
It’s cooling down.
It’s losing mass.
It has a hydrocarbon-silicon polymer outer surface.
It’s being lifted up, and is being actively deformed.
The observations might mean nothing to the best-trained algorithms, but Ann felt as though she’s observing something significant. Is it alive? Should she follow the blob?
If the dash from her mission to Europa is more of a no-brainer, this is the real decision to make.
A bet, rather.
She remembered her long-gone parents teaching her to throw small fish trapped in dried up puddles back into the sea. Sure, those two words says it all: life and death. However, inviting some potential alien biohazard into the airlock seems unfeasibly unsustainable, and inherently risky.
To humans, some of the most violent planet-scale events unfold at a rather graceful rate. The contact seemed an eternity. Maybe it’s all just Ann’s racing adrenaline.
Ann doesn’t know when it started, the compass ceased pointing towards Jupiter’s magnetic north right now. Instead, it is vibrating wildly, changing speed and direction.
“Something nearby… is the blob magnetized?”
As she comes up with such a hypothesis, sounds of metal clicks permeates the silence of control room. The computer soon captures a waveform encoded in the magnetic field. It is amplitude modulated radio, with a frequency just enough for Tian-Yi’s short-range radio system to “hear”:
“Help.” In a low broadcaster’s voice that sounds quite old-styled, the radio says, presumably mirroring the inner mechanisms of the floating blob outside.
For once, the silence broke in her chamber. Silence perhaps lived on in the lack of meaning, not the lack of sound. And now, Ann felt as though the light metal clips is the loudest sound she’s ever heard.
“Stay there!” Ann broadcasts through the same frequency, and proceeds to draw a plan to save the piece of matter.
If the pressurized liquid water layer below is its usual habitat, then this level of low pressure should kill it quickly. Heat loss is less of an issue. Ann consides loading the blob into the cargo area in the back.
“Who are you?”
“Hang on tight!”
“What are you made of?”
Skimming through the payload registry, Ann finds a pressurized water container. Within a few moments, she extends the ship’s mechanical arm beyond the airlock and rushs to drag the bulk of material into the back-end airlock. Then, she carefully opens the other door between the payloads and airlock and fills it with water.
A different voice registered on her computer, “Thanks.”
Time regains its speed, and Ann briefly inspects the blob through the glass door.
Floating in the pressurized water, part of its body has already boiled away, leaving some transluscent gels behind – as one might expect from any piece of organic material in space: shards of polymers helplessly twisting in radiation, and denaturing.
On this sense, despite the drastic visual differences, Ann felt as though the blob and she were of a similar origin, helpless in this unforgiving vacuum of space.
Across the chamber doors, their conversation unfolds. There’s not enough pressure to hold it in place — the inner door would crack if she further increases the water pressure. So Ann had to see the blob gradually dissolve in the water, losing its shape and motion. Maybe the short amount of time is enough to find the answers.
“What happened to your world?”
The blob’s motion visibly slowed down, as if captivated by a concept difficult to grasp. This very feeling also seems transitive, leading to a long period of confusion on both sides. Humans to aliens. Aliens to aliens. Sharing language but seldom meaning.
Despite its strange rules and thermodynamics, this region of space still respects momentum. Ann thinks as the outward jets of water drive Tian-Yi’s lift off.
According to Ann’s archives, this is the Europans’ – the blobs’ – story.
We would wake up in a warmer place far away, what we now call the cliff of the right mountain. We each were separate and different. About the one thing we shared is the mountain.
It would give us sustenance and wisdom. We grew in number and became quarrelsome. In the billions of cycles following that, we learned of different places away from the mountain, how to stand, how to orient ourselves, how to listen for the call of our origins. We made our own energy and wisdom by utilizing the aura of water surrounding us. Our horizons seemed endless.
The arrival at the left mountain stopped our expedition. No one that ventured outwards even further ever came back. So our maps settled. Left and right, each of us realized our world as a place between those two mountains, with infinite skies in between.
The two mountains that we know of have different characteristics. Explorers standing still would always find themselves drifting back to the right. We at first thought of them as being homesick. However, we noticed that every object would do the same. So we wrote down our first law of nature. That the left mountain pushes everything to the right. And because the right mountain is warm and dense, we thought that the left mountain might be in love with it.
We eventually settled on the outpost inside the left mountain, but that’s another story altogether. A billion cycles ago, well before the mountains began speaking to us — the same way you are doing now, dear visitor — an accidental discovery taught us how to extract wisdom from the rocks. It was a wild age, where there’s no longer aging and withering, and everyone developed new skills and methods of survival. There was dispute and animosity. Split, our group ran to both mountains, and began to build inside the caves, up to the edge of the world.
Over generations, us on the left mountain have changed from small collectives to civilization in amidst the mountains. We kept the history with us. Every cycle, we would notice an elusive point of warmness show up behind the mountain, glide across our buildings, and suddenly disappear. It still is a great source of confusion to us.
A thousand cycles later, the attentive of us began noticing some noise coming through the mountains. At the beginning, it worried us. As time went by, most of us learned to pick it up. We were still in the mountains, and it felt like this: the voices, was another thing the mountains have specially made for us. It is finicky and mischievous, yet the voice enabled us to establish agreements. We call it the language of the mountains. It is the same voice as your voice.
I was there, dear visitor. The hole was not far away from here in the face of the mountain. A tragic moment turns out to be the moment we first discovered Gas, a previously hypothetical form of material. We don’t find it auspicious.
We dug on, trying to see what’s beyond. The voices seem to encourage this also.
With the same sensation as we utilized rocks to augment ourselves, we used the unknown to augment our collective existence.
We were sure that this was the last piece of mystery in our world. All was hopeful in that age. The ethereal light behind the mountain became more and more vivid as our brave civilization marched on. Although the mountain ends the ocean, all we know still seemed endless until it collapsed on us.
“The sounds become quiet in the past decade.” The Blob added. “It sounded just like your voice”
The blob paused again, as if waiting to confirm her reception. Ann doesn’t know which should cause more excitement, that she’s just seen some alien previously unknown to humans, or the fact that the blob can receive and transmit radio waves – that, without any prior knowledge at all, she is heard and talked to.
“We could not be more different…” she remarks to herself, as she commits the conversation to memory, and hopes that one day people back home may hear it. If they do, Ann secretly wishes, as she prepares the archives of her data, they won’t be remorseful that such an event is long gone. They will rejoice that this contact even happened.
What the blobs really are might belong to the discretion of historians back home in the future. And yet, she regards of them blobs as somewhat magical, maybe the same way they have thought of humans. Not necessarily supernatural, but beyond reasons.
Tian-Yi starts to hover and begins to move out of the mists. It’s like a dream … To contact a neighboring civilization once doomed in their infancy, living with content but also eternal confusion.
The pressurized airlock chamber begins to leak water. This state wouldn’t last very long. She still has lots of questions but feels ultimately powerless to ask any more.
In an age preceding Einstein and his E=mc^2, people imagined that stars generated heat via a constant contraction of gas ⋯ An initgenious theory, wrong by tens of orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, that theory emerged again as a feasible model for gas giants like Jupiter, which emits more than it absorbs from the sun, another mystery down the same chain of logic.
She once deemed the facts eerie: that planets are still cooling off billions of years after their formation. Now, all that became rather irrelevant when she realized that energy, however minute, is capable of driving life, evolution, and, which is more, vision and thoughts.
As they move higher and higher, the surrounding plumes thin off, and stars begin to appear again.
“Are those sparks you are heading towards, ones of us, or ones of you?”
“Are you referring to the small specks of light out there?”
“Yes.” The blobs reply,
“No. They are stars.”
“What are … stars?” Like an echo, the blob asks again.
“The sun is a star. They are hot spheres of gas that generate heat and light.”
“I understand.” The blob responds.
“The sun is our host star, around which our worlds orbit…” Ann adds.
She grows adamant that the blobs share a similar sense of vision. They might see at different frequencies, but they do see.
However, there’s also something beyond eyes – something that’s been in both of their worlds before there were eyes could see, from everywhere she has ever come from, following her to everywhere she’ll ever be.
“Yeah! About stars …” Ann feels the need to clear her answer on that, “It’s what we think makes up our universe, everything before us. You and me.
“The universe is tens of billions of light years across its observable border.
“It’s roughly, …” she tries to offer an comparison, to no avail: stars, planets, nebulae, all she ever did dream of, the face of infinity, “It’s way bigger than our worlds.”
“But how are you sure that your clan isn’t another trap?
“Not another mountain, what you call your universe?” The blob’s signal strength diminishes even further.
By all accounts the ejected gas from the eruption a few hours ago should be extremely dilute now, but somehow Ann feels the windows around the deck fogged up.
Water drops from Europa, As the being was finishing its inevitable evaporation and sublimation — component by component, some forming azeotropes that boil away together, Ann grew dizzy.
Maybe it’s because the sheer amount of heat being absorbed by her find, The Blob, a drop of Europa, from an unexplored frozen world. Maybe it’s because the body of Blob reacting with her own. Maybe it’s asphyxiation from Nitrogen, or, in the worst case, ammonia and cyanide.
She attempts to move back for her control room. Ann stands in the chamber as she orbited Jupiter in sync with Europa, and overlooking the giant pile of ash that was talking to her earlier. A muddy mixture of water and minerals collected on the lower deck, and fogs up any glass surface, as if mercifully covering Ann’s eyes as the Blob transmitted goodbye.
There were two beings in this chamber without a homeworld, or maybe two beings who’s lost their homeworlds, twice — one where they come from, and one they’ve forever missed the chance to visit.
Somehow, the image of Europa’s subglacial “mountains” coalesced to the craters of the asteroids that her payloads were meant to mine on.
Further and further back, Ann’s vision drops into the canyons on Ganymede. It travels to the canyons on Mars, across mountains on Earth, over the hills surrounding her homeland, and, finally, morphed into the air and water droplets surrounding her, into the dome of darkness surrounding Tian-Yi, and, extending beyond its thin shell, joining the galactic realm of the solar system.
Earthlings have obliviously created a symbiotic relationship beyond their imagination.
Information in light cones sweeping along the solar system, disembodied voices of ages past and cut-off advertisements, intended for no one, twisting, curling … Resonating within another corner of their planetary neighborhood filled with distant listeners. The noises of humanity trapped by Jupiter-Europa’s magnetic materials were wavy shadows of our world.
“We know …”
The compass agreed with the overall field again, temperature must’ve destroyed the Blob’s ashes’ magnetization. Life in Europa’s ocean is made of ordinary material after all. Ann looked back at Jupiter, and the sun, and the galactic star field beyond.
“… We know of a vaster universe.