Thursday, August 4, 2016


Zeta Dorado Herschel 388b
By E.S. Wynn (on Zero Dusk)

The first thing you see as you cross back from between-space to the stars and void of the endless heavens is a little world, shining and snow-crusted. Cruising slow and far beyond the narrow band of its system's habitable zone, the little world still spins so quick about its axis that each day of deep crimson light pouring in from its bloated and red parent star lasts less than five minutes. Subtle scans trickling through your ship's integrated intelligence reveal cracks in the ice and snow, fractures that run kilometers deep, breathe a heat and wetness in geysers that seem out of place on the flat and hellishly cold surface. Curious, remembering stories of the first expeditions to Europa in the Sol system, you ready a mote-probe, wonder for a moment what you might find at the bottom of those cracks, wonder if there might be a grand ocean teeming with heat-loving extremophiles just beneath the world's icy crust.

Only one way to find out. The best way; to go there directly.

The atmosphere rises up, thin and barely noticeable, and like a ghost, your consciousness rides the wings of the mote-probe to the surface. A modest crack in the icy crust, a crack wide enough to swallow Everest and almost thirty thousand meters deep, soars into your view-- and then you're in it, chasing the calving glacier walls into a hot darkness hissing with the promise of liquid water, hissing with superheated steam. Kilometers pass, and the heat and pressure build. Gentle scans record what light would disturb-- the narrowing walls of the fissure, the deep, boiling ocean rising up where the ice ends in clouds of swirling slush below. When you pass into that ocean, a wave of excitement hits you. Life, new life, surely waits to be discovered in this most extreme of environments.

But as your mote-probe marinates in the boiling sea, you begin to get readings that perplex you and quietly dampen your enthusiasm. The great under-ice ocean of Zeta Dorado Herschel 388b is not the nutrient-rich soup that Europa's ocean is. It isn't swimming with simple, free-floating life. The water around you surges with heat and potential, but there's nothing here. This ocean is dead.

Frustrated, curious, you switch your mote-probe's instruments from passive to active, shine bright-burning spotlights into the depths and the distances. Huge, branching, stalagmite towers of precipitated minerals climb from the depths like thousand-meter tall trees of black stone and glittering volcanic glass, and here and there a mountain climbs from the murky depths, massive and glowing where magma is separated from water by only a thin crust of brittle basalt. There is no life, though. Beauty, brutal and hellish, but nothing native to appreciate it.

With a quiet sense of resignation, you pull your mind from the mote-probe, contemplate the icy surface of Zeta Dorado Herschel 388b with your physical eyes. Another part of your integrated intelligence guides the probe back to the ship, and in the space of a few moments, the speck-sized sensor-suite is snuggled back in its storage bay, recharging with a trickle of energy. A fragment of your mind reviews those sights you've seen in the great ocean below, then forwards them on to the network. Other explorers might find something of interest here, but for you, it is time to move on. Spinning up your ship's phasedrive, you kick your craft back into between-space, make the jump to the next point of interest in the wide and endless cosmos, eager to see what wonders still await you in your journey from star to star.

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E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books in print. Explore more alien worlds on Zero Dusk.

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