The Caves of Europa

Voorheesville Short Story Contest Finalist Fiction by Jarod Rowland

Photo by Anton Repponen on Unsplash

Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2019 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our first five stories are finalist stories that made it to the final round of judging, the last five stories are stories that earned top five prizes in the contest. Today, enjoy Jarod Rowland’s Sci-Fi story, “The Caves of Europa.”

Taking his last few breaths in the chilling ice caves of Europa, Benjamin Ross rested against the icy wall and sighed. He had nearly lost all hope of seeing his family again and regretted blindly following his dream to adventure out into the great dangers of space. No dream was worth losing everything he had and dying almost four hundred million miles away from his home. Looking out into the seemingly endless maze of ice, Benjamin pushed forward.

———

Benjamin had trained for years to be accepted into the first Europa mission, and through his dedication, and partially due to sheer luck, he had made it. Europa was of interest to scientists due to the possibility of life in the vast oceans that were theorized to be beneath the icy surface of the moon. Today it was finally time to put his training to the test. Standing vigil against the launch tower, the spacecraft looked bulky and expensive. The command module was situated on top of the primary fuel tank and thruster, which had two smaller thrusters connected on both sides. The entire propulsion system was painted a bright red, while the main capsule remained white. The command module was made up of two parts: the primary command chamber where the craft was controlled and astronauts performed scientific experiments, and the engineering chamber, where the main capsule was kept in working order and astronauts ate, relaxed, and slept.

Benjamin and the other two astronauts took the elevator up the launch tower, looking quietly at each other, each with solemn looks on their faces. Jones, a shorter man with jet black hair to Benjamin’s left, tried to give a reaffirming smile, while Lakowski, a somewhat gaunt man wearing glasses, nervously fidgeted with his hands. When they reached the top, they all walked into the craft together and took their places in the command chamber. Benjamin sat down at the leftmost console and watched the timer for launch go down slowly. He steeled his nerves. Despite his years of training, he still felt unprepared. Benjamin pressed a few knobs on the console and switched it to view the launch from outside. He watched as a few last-minute crates were loaded into the craft, probably excess scientific equipment for finding life on Europa in case the primary equipment was damaged. Butterflies tried to escape his stomach as the launch came within a single minute. Benjamin took the picture of his wife and daughter out of his pocket and smiled. The launch began.  

10. . . 9. . . 8. . . 7. . . 6. . . 5. . . 4. . . 3. . . 2. . .

He shut his eyes and thought of home.

1. . .

The spaceship roared to life automatically, billowing smoke and fire from the rear as the launch tower let the craft go while its thrusters propelled the spacecraft upwards. Through the monitor, he heard the endless cheering from the crowd as the spokesperson exclaimed: “And we have liftoff!” Static slowly increased on the monitor until it fully encased the image. Benjamin was forced into the back of his seat and felt a rush of adrenaline enter his system. Lakowski laughed heartily through the entire launch – a dramatic change from the Lakowski on the elevator. The astronauts looked out in awe of their home, which slowly grew more distant as the craft was propelled out of the atmosphere. After the initial burst of energy from the launch, Benjamin began to get a sour taste in his mouth. He was leaving his family and his home for two years. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried to shake the thought from his mind. The side thrusters ejected from the main craft as the primary thruster started up, automatically angling to reach orbit. As soon as the orbit was fully stabilized, the main thruster also ejected from the craft, leaving the command module to thrust onwards to its distant destination.

After a few weeks of travel, the Earth was reduced to a bluish speck in the background. It looked utterly insignificant within the greater universal landscape, invisible among the millions of stars within the Milky Way and the thousands of galaxies that brightened up the sky. Benjamin tearfully watched the Earth almost every day, mourning the loss of his only home as it disappeared from view. He knew that his family was still out there somewhere, awaiting his return from the vastness of space. Opening his personal locker, he took out one of the only things he brought with him, a picture of his family. It showed him and his wife smiling on Clearwater Beach, which they lived near and visited often.

The voyage was surprisingly dull compared to their fantasies of space travel, besides the intriguing scientific experiments they did. The astronauts tried to keep themselves sane through the music they had brought, which was mostly Lakowski’s small selection of disco. Communication channels were primarily funneled through the space agency, so many emails sent to the trio weren’t passed on to them, but the emails from family members cut through, which helped to cheer up Jones and Benjamin. Lakowski didn’t have any close family but did try to stay in touch with his friends during his free time. Benjamin received a few emails from his wife, which he always promptly responded to and expressed how much he missed her. Mission control had stated in several emails directed to the entire crew that due to the timing of when they would reach Europa, they would be on their own for the duration of the landing process. This troubled the crew because any problem would likely be unfixable in the moment, as the craft was entirely automated and they only had limited instructions for manual landing procedures. Benjamin had been taught how to manually fly the craft, but any engineering problems that could occur would have to be dealt with by Jones.

The journey was long and tedious. At specific intervals, they had to put on their EVA suits and make maintenance on the craft from the outside, which was especially dangerous. Jones, being the primary engineer, was mostly the one stuck outside fixing things. The ship was designed to last for years without major problems, but any minor malfunction required full inspections. Lakowski mainly stayed in the back chamber doing scientific experiments in zero gravity, typically on plants. Benjamin’s job in astrobiology wasn’t important until they finally reached Europa, so he tried to help Lakowski without getting in the way or he worked with Jones on the maintenance checks. Lakowski’s disco mix played loudly from his workstation for his own entertainment during all waking hours for the first week of the trip. Benjamin became exhausted of the atrocity that is disco, and together with Jones, he finally started a rebellion against the genre. Plotting to destroy the music player, they deliberated in secret. However, after realizing there was no alternative music on the spacecraft, the two decided to leave it be. Benjamin slowly learned both minor engineering and biology from his friends, and they bonded together during the long journey.

Gradually, a giant, bright orb of swirling oranges, reds, and browns became visible to the astronauts, which they instantly recognized as the gas giant Jupiter. The craft then began slowing into a brief orbit around the planet, before thrusting outward again on a course towards the icy moon of Europa. The moon was a stark white hue, with a series of reddish-brown streaks running over its surface. It was surprisingly smooth, with only a smattering of craters. The craft’s secondary computer automatically began whirring on start-up. It began systematically searching for caves and openings on the surface. After a few hours of apprehensive waiting, the crew noticed that the computer had locked onto a small crater, and the thrusters began to activate one last time for the descent.

After a few minutes of slowing down, the thrusters suddenly sputtered out and then returned to normal a few moments later. The crew quickly looked at their consoles and noticed that the output of the thruster was deteriorating. Having gone through this procedure during their training, they began to systematically search for the error in the engineering chamber. Meanwhile, the craft gradually began to accelerate toward the moon’s surface. Benjamin felt helpless in the back chamber because he was an astrobiologist, not an engineer. He moved to the main console and tried to turn on manual controls in order to lessen the angle of rapid decline towards the moon, but it was of little use. The spacecraft rocketed down through Europa’s thin atmosphere, and the crew’s heartbeats began to quicken. Through clenched teeth, they let out shallow breaths as the surface got closer and they did not get any closer to solving the problem. While Benjamin attempted to steer, the other two astronauts in the back of the craft tried to restart the engine as a last resort. They watched as the engine stopped entirely, and waited. Ten seconds. Thirty. The engine sputtered once more and stopped for good. Benjamin watched as the surface rushed up to greet them, and tried as hard as he could to steer upwards. The craft violently shuddered as it impacted the moon. Jones and Lakowski standing in the back chamber slammed against the side panel and flopped unconscious onto the floor, while Benjamin slammed his head into the main console and everything went dark. The craft tore through the planet’s layers of ice, eventually slowing to a stop miles below the surface. After a large snap, the heavy craft broke the thin layer of ice below and plummeted 50 more feet into the dark caves below, slamming into the icy floor.

Weakly opening his eyes, Benjamin looked around the destroyed command chamber. Debris was scattered about the floor, and sparks were flying from the ceiling. Red lights flashed on the console, and the monitor had the words “LOW PRESSURE”  in bright red, flickering on and off. Holding his head and grimacing as he painfully stood up, Benjamin moved over to his locker and pulled it open. Luckily it was still in working order. He took out the picture of his family and delicately placed it into his pocket. His head pounded as he turned to the left, seeing that the airlock to the back portion of the craft was sealed shut. Determined, he shuffled over to the EVA suits hung up on the wall and painfully put one on. After suiting up, he depressurized the chamber fully and pushed open the airlock door into the back chamber.

         After a loud grinding noise as the door opened, Benjamin turned on his helmet flashlight and looked around. The back chamber appeared to have been ripped off the rest of the craft. Looking upwards towards the gaping hole the craft had fallen through, the back chamber was still stuck in the tunnel the ship carved above. The main computer automatically closed the airlock to retain pressure in the front and the back half was completely depressurized, separating from the craft. No one could have survived this long without a suit outside of the ship. Jones and Lakowski didn’t survive the crash. Benjamin’s vision began to slowly fade out and he hastily sat down on some scattered rubble. He felt sick to his stomach but tried to fight the urge to vomit. Attempting and failing to control his breathing, he thought of his lovely wife and everyone else he had to return to and tried to ignore the wetness on his face. He stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, before deeply sighing and standing up. Benjamin then thought of his training for this kind of situation and began to scan the rubble to find anything of use left in the wreckage. Four of the six total oxygen tanks had been annihilated, so that meant he had only about seven hours of oxygen. He sat down on a stray chair, fallen from the ship, in order to think of what to do.

The spacecraft had two ways to communicate; a small radio for communication with Earth while traveling to and from Europa, and a much larger communication dish meant to penetrate through the ice to the surface of Europa. However, the larger dish was broken during an energy overload the occurred at some point during the crash. The only way to communicate with Earth now was to go to the surface with the radio, power it up, and hope that it could escape the thin atmosphere and reach earth. Then Benjamin could talk to someone more experienced who could help him live until rescue came. Currently, however, he had seven hours to enact his plan, and it would take over an hour for him to send and then receive a message from Earth. Benjamin stood up, disconnected the radio from the spacecraft, and began briskly walking through the cave.

The spacecraft wreck was at a nexus for the cave tunnels, and Benjamin chose the leftmost passageway. He wandered down the tunnel, looking in awe around him as the walls were remarkably smooth. Farther on, the color of the tunnel turned from an opaque white into a stunning aquamarine. The light from his helmet reflected off of the walls, blowing up the tunnel beyond in a dazzling aquamarine glow. The passageway continued on for some time in this way, until eventually angling upwards in a slight curve. Farther along, the tunnel divided into two separate passageways, each lit in the same aquamarine brilliance as before. The leftward tunnel curved downwards and the rightward tunnel curved upwards. Determined, Benjamin took the latter and continued on. Hours went by, and the maze-like tunnels led only to more passages and the occasional change in the color of ice as Benjamin shifted up or down a layer in the ice. His heart beat faster, and he walked quicker, knowing that time was of the essence. But he soldiered on, he had to. For the lives of his fallen crewmates and his own survival, he pushed forward.

Benjamin faintly noticed a beeping noise originating from his helmet and stopped,  recognizing it as a low oxygen warning. Slightly panicking, he began checking his oxygen tanks. One of the tanks was already empty. How could that be? Benjamin surmised that it must have had a minute puncture hole from the crash, and the oxygen was gradually leaking out. He ditched the tank onto the floor and shivered. While he was still below the surface, the temperature here was not optimal. Europa did have some heat due to friction from gravitational tidal forces with Jupiter, which is known as tidal heating, but the heat was primarily internalized and didn’t reach very far out. Benjamin then examined the other tank, which was only half full. Doing the calculations in his head, he concluded that he had less than two hours of oxygen remaining. Soon, communicating with Earth would be hopeless. They wouldn’t be able to send a response fast enough.

Hope was rapidly emptying out of him. The odds of finding a way up to the surface appeared to be greatly against him. He trudged forward, through the freezing tunnels. By now, someone must have noticed that communications were down. His wife was probably worried about him. With that thought, Benjamin walked down into a circular chamber and looked around. It appeared to be a dead end, but how wonderful it was. The ice here had crystallized into remarkable geometric shapes and patterns, which refracted the light to create a majestic periwinkle aura. The constant beeping from his helmet irritated him. He took out the radio and turned it on. There was no way the message could escape Europa, but he had to try before the end. Benjamin pressed the bright red S.O.S button on the side of the machine and watched as the signal tried to escape. He sat down in front of it and waited.

Static. The gentle hissing was all he could hear for an uncountable amount of time. But then, suddenly, he heard it. Someone crying behind him? The helmet persisted beeping. Curiously, Benjamin looked out into the darkness from where he came. Nothing. Leaving the radio in its place, he quietly slipped out of the chamber and moved through the passageway. Coming to an intersection, he waited and listened again. There it was! The sound of a child, crying down to the right. He sprinted down the tunnel, nearly slipping on the ice and panting. Rushing in front of him was another dead end, but it was peculiar. The ice on the surface he faced was not rounded, but flat, and mirror-like. He only saw himself in the reflection. Somewhat tall, in the bulky orange EVA suit that matched the spacecraft perfectly. His face was hidden through the helmet. Benjamin looked around, confused, and listened. Nothing but the constant beeping from his helmet. Cautiously, he began to walk back to the chamber where he placed the radio. Returning to the luminous chamber, Benjamin looked down in shock. The radio was gone! Looking around and finding nothing, he pushed forward towards the intersection again and took the left.

Moving through the tunnel, Benjamin slowly descended through another layer of ice, which was darker and had a faint purplish aura. Continuing down, the tunnel eventually leveled off, with tendrils of purple fog hovering above the floor of the passage. Walking through the passageway, Benjamin’s footfalls grew deafening as they began to echo down the hallway. Looking behind him due to this sudden increase in sound, Benjamin saw a dark humanoid shape following him, matching his footsteps perfectly. As it entered the cone of Benjamin’s flashlight, he could see another one of the EVA suits, but it was impossible to tell who it was through the helmet. Benjamin’s heartbeat quickened, and he pressed to local communication button on his wrist, which was originally designed for talking with the other astronauts in the mission. “Hello?” Only static responded to his question and the rhythmic beeping from the helmet. Looking in front of him again, Benjamin watched as another shape moved towards him from farther within the tunnel. Panicking, he slammed his eyes shut and tried to control his breathing. Opening them a few seconds later and looking in front and behind of him, the figures were gone. Resting his hand against the wall, Benjamin tried to clear the fog from his head. He must be hallucinating due to a lack of oxygen. Unable to fix the problem, he tried to swallow his fear and confusion and move forward.

     The tunnels were twisting and turning as Benjamin moved through them. The maze-like structure of it was utterly fascinating. The cave system seemed to go on forever. The purple fog slowly began to climb further upwards as the tunnels slowly descended, leaving Benjamin without sight of the ground. He waded in the fog for what seemed an eternity, following stray whispers or flashes of movement in the distance. The constant sound of beeping irritated him. Benjamin started to walk faster down the tunnel. The voices in front of him slowly increased in volume. A cacophony of voices began shouting into his head. People he knew, his wife, his friends. All shouted at him about his mistakes, everything underlaid by the sound of beeping. Overwhelmed, Benjamin fell to his knees, uselessly trying to cover his ears from the outside of his helmet. Shivering, he realized how utterly alone he was. His only friends for the past year were dead, and his family wouldn’t even know he was dead for days. His body would likely never be found. He was all alone. Shaking his head and tears falling down his face, he began to run down the cold tunnel, slipping and sliding at some points due to the uneven ground. His head pounded almost as fast as his heart, to the rhythm of the beeping. The shouting became unbearable. The beeping. The shouting. Benjamin sprinted down the tunnel, chasing the shadows further into the unknown.

He saw a light at the end of the tunnel. A bright, glorious light. Already sprinting, he set his mind on the light and not on the sounds suffocating him. As the light came closer, the tunnel widened infinitely on the left and right, with the ceiling rising far above, opening into one great cavern. Benjamin stopped and smiled. The great ocean of Europa stood before him, twinkling in the light that emanated from the icy ceiling far above. He looked over to his wife and smiled. He moved over to her and took her hand. The chill from the caves was replaced with warmth, and he watched as his daughter came running from beyond a sand dune, where she was making a sand castle. She ran to grab his other hand, and the family looked out as the sun set over the great ocean. He knew that he had to leave them, and moving over to a more isolated area of the beach, sat by the shore and watched the pure cerulean waves crest and break onto the beach. Closing his eyes, Benjamin laid down and released his last breath.

About Jarod Rowland 283 Articles

Jarod Rowland is a junior at Clayton A.Bouton High School. His story, “The Caves of Europa,” was a finalist in the 2019 Voorheesville Short Story Contest.