europa dive
by
jamie ross

 A sequel to Beyond Despair...

Dr Graham Burd sat in a steel and leather office chair in the Office of Director of Space Research, trying very hard not so show his confusion while watching the Director studiously ignoring him as he read his personnel file.  Twenty-four hours ago, he had been lecturing undergraduates at the University of Victoria on the fundamentals of fluid dynamics when two very serious looking men came into the lecture hall and insisted he follow them.  A helicopter trip to Vancouver followed by a flight by private jet to Montreal and the Canadian Space Agency Headquarters. He sat twirling his pen trying not to show his annoyance until his patience finally ran out.

"Director Richotte, exactly why am I here?  What is so important to drag me out of my lecture and half-way across the country?"

Unperturbed, Jean Baptiste Richotte looked up from the files. "Dr Graham Burd,  University of British Columbia graduate and one of NASA's leading geophysical fluid dynamicists specialising in the moons in the outer Solar System. Now you are teaching undergraduates basic physics?  This seems like a step down in your career perhaps?"

Graham shrugged, "I was at Marshall when the nukes went off and things in the US fell apart.  I lost a lot of friends in San Francisco and San Diego and suddenly the affairs of far-off planets didn't seem so important.

"Besides, NASA funding was largely symbolic; they spent more on air conditioning in Iraq than on the space program. Most of our proposals for solar system exploration ended up in the trash. When the US States called the Constitutional Convention after the War and broke up the country into the four Republics, space funding was the first to go.  I had family in Victoria so I feel lucky I was able to come back and find work."

Jean Baptiste looked directly at him and asked, ”Dr Burd, you have been following the events with the Lúthians I assume?”  Graham laughed; after all, who had not been following the news of an intelligent species on Uranus three years ago? 

The crew of the exploration vessel, Shining Star, had gone to Uranus to collect Helium-3 for the Eurasian Economic Union's new fusion reactors and it almost ended in a disaster and war. 

It was only the efforts of the crew negotiating a last-minute peace that allowed a trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Lúthian Council.  Now there were three giant ships traversing the deep space between Earth and Lúth, the original Shining Star, the Aleksandr Kaleri and the Max Plank, all carrying raw metals and water to Uranus in return for Helium-3.

"I know what I have seen on the Metanet broadcasts.  The Lúthians won't travel to Earth because of deep space radiation but they have synthetic beings called symbiotes who can withstand it and so act as their agents here.  We now have abundant electrical energy with the new fusion plants online and as a result, they are opening up the Yukon and Nunavut for expansion.  That's about it I'm afraid.  I never did hear what became of the crew of the Shining Star, do you know?”

Jean Baptiste leaned back and looked intently at Graham before he responded, ignoring his last question.  "What you probably don't know is that we have formed a joint program with the Lúthians to explore the outer planets.  While their fusion and biomechanical technology is superb, they had only just developed interplanetary travel. They had trouble getting through the upper atmosphere to space for a long time due to extreme winds.  

"So our governments have decided to work together and share our technologies. As a result I am now Co-Director of the Centre for Earth Lúthian Exploration(CELE) with Leader Myker of the Lúth Council. We already have a mission in mind around Jupiter.”

Graham leaned forward, "You are actually going to send people out to the outer planets? What is the mission?"

Jean Baptiste smiled, "You did several studies on the oceans of Europa, did you not?  How would you like to participate in a mission to drill into the ice crust and explore the oceans underneath with remotely operated submersibles?"

Graham's jaw dropped for a second; that was his dream mission but it had never gotten past concept discussions and when the American space program fell apart, he had given up on the whole idea.   "Yes, of course, we planned that mission for years.. but to see it happen...!”

"The mission team will be lead by Captain Alexey Leonov from the Russian Federation Arctic Command with Dr Anna Shirshov, Arctic marine biologist, Dr Roger Davis from the New American Republic, a specialist in deep-sea ROV operations and Dr Marceau Frappier, an Antarctic biologist from the French Polar Institute.  The Lúthians are sending several specialists as well.  The last position is yours if you want it.”

 

— Space Operations Centre, Star City -

After a short ride from the airport in a electric taxi, Graham found himself at the Space Operations Centre.  It was a large facility housing mission control, astronaut training, engineering, communications, and other support functions. As most of the countries had now joined the EEU, the population at the Operations Centre was very international, which was obvious from the number of languages Graham heard as he entered the building.  After checking in with the receptionist and getting his badge, he was directed to the conference room on the first floor.

As he entered the room, he saw the obligatory buffet tables with coffee, samovars of tea and an assortment of pastries.  He grabbed a cup of coffee and a croissant and watched all the enthusiastic conversations in the room, feeling very out of place. How had he gotten into this state? He used to be an outgoing extroverted young scientist pushing the edges of human knowledge and then somehow he had retreated into a safe, predictable teaching position. Why did he think he could step back into the pace of a fast-moving exploration program?

As he tried not to fall into a bout of melancholy, he heard a voice behind him with a distinct Texas American accent.

“Dr Burd?  I thought that was you I saw coming in. Hi, I’m Roger Davis from OceanTech in Dallas.  We met at NASA Houston back before the War.  After NASA folded, our company went back to oil and gas projects but I guess they are using modified versions of our deep-sea ROVs for this mission.  I was trying to figure out what to expect on Europa so I pulled out some of your old papers on ocean dynamics under the Europa icepack. I was impressed but I still can’t say I have any good idea what’s down there.”

Graham nodded, glad for the distraction from his morose thoughts.  He scratched his beard and pondered an answer. “I am not sure I have confidence in our estimates any more either. Everything we used to think we knew seems to be wrong. I’m not really sure why they want me along.” He laughed a bit self-consciously, “I’m just a middle-aged college lecturer these days.”

Roger laughed and shook his head, “I wouldn’t worry about that. These Chinese and Russian types don’t seem to make decisions like that without a reason. I suspect they want someone along who can analyse the oceans as we explore them. You are still the best authority on Europa.”

They were interrupted by a booming Russian voice from the front of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. If you will please take your seats, we have a lot of information to cover on this mission”.

As they walked to their chairs, Roger turned to Graham, “I suspect that is our new commander, Alexy Leonov. I understand he set up the big Russian Arctic science base they used for the core drilling study last year. The EEU must be taking this mission seriously if we get someone assigned with his credentials.”

As they sat down at the table, Graham noticed a very attractive woman with auburn hair sitting down next to him. Quickly reading her name badge, he introduced himself: “Hello, I am Dr Graham Burd; you must be Dr Shirshov?”.

Dr Anna Shirshov turned to him and shook his hand and smiled, “Its a pleasure to meet you, Dr Burd; I have heard good things about you!”

Graham found himself suddenly a bit tongue-tied as he realised he was really attracted to her.  He was confused as he hadn’t felt that way in many years. Something about Anna’s smile was electrifying and he was having a hard time maintaining his professional composure.

“Uh, yes.. well, thank you. I have heard of your work as well.. I look forward to working together."  The room darkened as the wall display turned on and Alexey started the briefing.  Graham shook his head thinking, that's great, Graham, what are you, twelve years old? That couldn’t have been more awkward.

Fortunately the rest of the briefing and side meetings prevented any further embarrassment but he couldn’t get her out of his mind.

The next month turned out to be non-stop training for the mission.  As they were put through physical fitness training, Graham found himself regretting ever giving up hockey.  He really used to be in pretty good shape but now he found himself out of breath and falling behind the others. 

Anna seemed to take pity on him though and would hang back and give him encouragement which gave him enough motivation to make it through the day.  He found himself finding excuses to work with her and she didn’t seem to mind, which pleased him, though he was half convinced her interest in him was wishful thinking on his part.

On the trip out from Earth to Lúth, they were all packed into the protective interior of the Max Planck freighter for radiation protection as the AI pilot guided the ship out to Uranus. Two weeks later, they entered geosynchronous orbit above Uranus, which apparently everyone now called Lúth (much to the disappointment of several generations of schoolboys).

There they docked with the new orbiting platform which serviced the Max Planck and the other interplanetary vessels moving Helium 3 and raw materials from Earth to Lúth and back. 

After disembarking from the freighter, they had been met in the main Station conference room by the head of the Lúthian Council,  Leader Myker, and briefed on the final details of the mission as well as meeting the final three members of the team.

The team now included two symbiotes: Sylan, a mining technician for the drilling and Ansil, a  biotechnician, who would support the bio-survey operations.  The third member, Fadek, was short and stout with a beard and Graham couldn't help but compare him with a dwarf from Lord of the Rings. Apparently, they were a different species of Lúthians who lived deep underground that he hadn’t heard about.  This one was one of the top deep mining experts on the planet.

Once they had collected the additional crew members, they were escorted to the docking bay where the Lúthian exploration ship was being prepared for the trip to Jupiter’s moon. Graham couldn't be more shocked as the first thing he noticed was the logo with a red maple leaf with a Northern Loon and the words “Crazy Loon” painted on the nose of the sleek ship.  This had to be the work of Elisabeth Williams, the Canadian pilot of the Shining Star, but he had heard rumours that she died on the previous mission.  He remembered that Director Richotte had avoided answering him when he asked what happened to the crew of the Shining Star. He turned and saw that Alexey, Anna, Roger and Marceau were all staring with equally surprised looks on their faces.

"I guess we know who is piloting the ship", shrugged Alexey. They all looked at each other, then headed through the entryhatch as the symbiotes loaded the equipment in the cargo bays.  Graham found his way through the crew quarters to the flight deck.  As he was putting his gear away into a small locker, he heard a voice from behind with a familiar accent.

"Dr Burd, welcome to the Crazy Loon; I will be your Captain for this flight."  Graham stood up and turned around and stopped in shock. 

The woman before him had silver blonde hair and attractive face, but then nothing else was what he expected.  From her bright blue cybernetic eyes to the mechanical arms, sleek silver mechanical legs and a torso much like the symbiotes - he had never seen anything like her.

 Graham stammered, "Elisabeth Williams? What happened to you... I am so sorry.” He paused and looked away for a minute.  “They didn’t tell us anything; I didn’t even think you were alive."

The woman smiled, "Yes Dr Burd, I am or was Elisabeth Williams. They call me Lizbeth here on Lúth and I have gotten used to the name.  As you probably know, I crashed on the surface during the Shining Star expedition and many people thought I died there. The Lúthians assumed my ship was hostile and shot it down so I barely survived.  Fortunately the Lúthians are brilliant when it comes to bio-organics and they resurrected me using symbiote technology with my remaining human parts grafted in. Now I am a hybrid of sorts, one of only two I know of."

"Two? Where is the rest of your crew?  Director Richotte evaded the question when I asked him." 

Lizbeth smiled, "They aren't really comfortable with the hybrids, any more than the Lúthians are.  My first officer, Marika, ran into some very nasty predators down under the surface so to survive she ended up being transformed like me. 

"Jimmy and Ivan survived without major injuries so Jimmy was called back to Earth and has been overseeing the upgraded fusion drives like what brought you here. " She paused for a second, a hint of sadness crossing her face. "Ivan is down on the planet on a special assignment and I haven't seen him in over a year and I don’t know his condition.”

Graham sensed the grief behind the last statement. "I'm sorry.” He paused. “If I can ask you one other question?" 

Lizbeth looked up, her smile returning. "Yes, sure".  

Graham thought for a moment. "You are part symbiote? I am not sure what that means; is that like a robot?"  

Lizbeth laughed, "I asked the same question but the answer is no.  There is a semi-sentient fungal web that exists beneath the surface of Lúth with extensive neuro-electrical capabilities.  The Lúthian bio-engineers found a way to control it and use it to control the organic matrix in the symbiotes.  It regulates our body functions and repairs damage as well as improving our performance. It’s the reason Marika and I can handle the deep space radiation."

They were interrupted by the comm system: “Captain, please come to the nav centre - the final flight path to Europa orbit needs to be checked.”

Lizbeth looked at Graham. “I’m sorry but that’s all the questions I have time for. We have a lot of preflight checks to complete before we depart. Marika and I connect into the ship for the flight so I won't see you until after we land on Europa. Good Luck!"

As Lizbeth turned away and walked down the corridor, Graham couldn't help but think how different this Lizbeth was from the person his colleagues in the EEU astronaut corp had described. Back in the program she was the top-ranked EEU pilot and was known for her cold almost brutal efficiency.  This new version seemed very different in more ways than one which was something else he had yet to understand.

 

— Europa Surface -

Graham Burd stood on the cold dark ice of Europa looking up at the stars.  He couldn't really believe he was here on the surface of a moon of Jupiter.  As he watched the final preparations for the departure of the Crazy Loon, he was trying to shake this feeling of not really being part of the team. He had been out of the space program since the war and things had changed so radically since then that he was having problems processing everything. 

His reverie was interrupted by the comm system in his helmet and he was brought back to the ice cold dark landscape of Europa.  He heard a familiar voice of Dr Anna Shirshov in his earpiece.

 "Dr Burd, I was hoping to find you. Roger would like our assistance in setting up the drilling module."   He turned and he could see Anna coming towards him across the ice. Even in her pressure suit, she still took his breath away. 

As he admired her form silhouetted against the sky, it reminded him once again of the changes in the space program. The skintight fit of the new Newman counter-pressure suits left little to the imagination and his imagination tended to run wild around Anna anyway. Fortunately Anna had on external armour and gear otherwise the distraction would overwhelming.

In contrast the suits didn’t do as much for a middle aged university lecturer, as the mirror in the crew quarters had reminded him with visual clarity. He was in better shape since training but he would never look like the 25 year old he remembered.  He shook his head, getting his thoughts back to the mission. 

After she made her over and stood beside him, he turned and said, “There was a time when I believed we really understood the Solar System.  Then our world as we knew it came to an end in the War. After we met the Lúthians, any remaining confidence in our knowledge was destroyed. Sometimes I am just afraid that I am too old for this.”

“Graham, I have to disagree.  We all regret that we didn’t get the science right before but we did the best we could. Now we just have to pick ourselves up and start again.  I’m not that much younger than you and I feel we have to take what we know and find out what we don’t know.  I think you are too hard on yourself!  I am very glad you are here with us and I am really happy you are here with me.  You have helped me get through the fears I have about this whole trip into deep space.”

Graham smiled,”Thank you. You are right of course and I am really happy you are here with me as well." She looked up at him, her smile visible through her helmet. With that, she took his hand and they both stood and watched as the Lúthian ship took off and disappeared into the dark sky.

***

As Graham and Anna returned to the base camp, they saw that the Lúthian team had already constructed two pressure domes under Fadek's direction. Graham was impressed that the domes were built so fast and couldn't help comparing them to ancient Inuit Igloos he had visited back home.   As he walked closer he noticed that they even had a thick layer of ice covering the hard substrate and were dug a metre or so into the surface. He walked over to Fadek to congratulate him.

"Fadek, I'm very impressed; they look very functional."

Fadek looked up from his instruments. "Thank you, Dr Burd.  This is a technique we use on Lúth in the highlands. We use the outer ice layer for both thermal and radiation protection.  The dome on the left is our quarters while the right dome will contain the drill hole, controls and workshop.  Your engineer, Dr Davis, is setting up the drill assembly with Dr Frappier's help."

Fadek stopped as the symbiote Sylan came up to them.  "Savant Fadek?  I have the well information you were asking for.  The ice is 18km deep at the drill hole and I have calibrated the fusion drill for Dr Davis.  We estimate at full output temperature, the drill will travel about 500 metres an hour through the ice so it will take about 36 hours to clear the borehole.  Dr Davis and Dr Frappier are preparing the two probes and estimate they will have a communication range of about a kilometre from the borehole transmitter." He then bowed and left as quietly as he came.

Graham watched with a puzzled look on his face as the symbiote walked away. "Fadek, what exactly are the symbiotes? Lizbeth told me a little but while they seem very intelligent, they don't seem to act on their own."

"The symbiotes are hybrid beings, made from "meshi" as we call it, a type of semi-sentient fungus combined with a conscious layer.  They were developed to serve the needs of the Lúthians who live on the surface.   

"The mother of the meshi fungus is the source of all life on Lúth.  In ancient times, it existed deep in the inner core of the planet and converted methane, heat and what hydrocarbons it could find into oxygen and nitrogen and built up nutrients as waste.  This eventually supported the development of the advanced forms of life that exist now. 

"The people you know as Lúthians and my people were once the same race.  They were our best and brightest and as they studied the "meshi", they learned how strands spread through the planet and connected everything.  They were able to use this to develop a tame version which allowed the creation of the synthetic beings we call symbiotes. 

"Symbiotes were deliberately designed without free will and as they became more capable, they were used to replace the work my people originally performed. 

"At the same time, the scientists became more skilled at bioengineering and modified themselves and their children to be superior in their eyes.  They became tall and slender and craved the open spaces on the surface. 

"Eventually, we became like two species: Keltans like me remain in the depths and the Lúthians live in their domed cities on the surface. While we trade and work together, it is safe to say we don't really trust each other."

Fadek turned back to his instrument pod, signalling that the subject was closed.   Feeling a bit awkward, Graham and Anna decided that they should check out the new crew quarters.  As they covered the distance across the ice to the other dome, Anna whispered to Graham on their private channel, "Those symbiotes remind me of angels.  They serve their gods with no free will.  What does that make Elisabeth?" 

Graham shrugged, "I really have no idea. It brings to mind the analogy with the Garden of Eden. What happens when you introduce free will into the symbiote race?  I would really like to..."

"Dr Burd, you have to come see this!" Alexey's voice came booming through the headset. Graham paused and looked at Anna. "Let’s go see what has Alexey so wound up."

As they came around the stacked supply palettes, they saw Alexey holding two hockey sticks.  "Your friend, Lizbeth, left us some presents!  We have hockey sticks, skate attachments for our boot and even a couple of nets.  I think thats its only appropriate that Russians and Canadians are the first humans to play hockey on Europa!

Anna looked at Graham and they both broke out in laughter. "Alexey, game on!  She didn't include any hockey tape for the sticks by any chance?” said Graham with a grin.

***

Four hours later, the team sat around the dining table in the crew dome sipping vodka and whiskey after several hours of the strangest hockey game in history.  The symbiotes had retreated to their charging stations and Fadek was watching the ongoing drill operation, muttering under his beard.

"Dr Burd, I see you haven't forgotten how to skate," Alexey laughed. 

Graham grinned, "I am surprised I didn't fall more. I haven't played in while and the low gravity certainly adds a whole new element.  Anna was a demon on skates though, and Roger valiantly defended the honour of Texas and best of all, none of us broke anything, so that’s positive."

"Cheers to that!" Roger raised his glass as they all savoured their first night on Europa.

***

It was later the next day when the team gathered in the science dome to watch the final breakthrough to the oceans of Europa. As Fadek monitored the fusion drill, Anna and Marceau were preparing the first submersible while Roger and Graham went over the release procedures for the second one.  Fadek would implant a borehole transmitter at the end of the ice tunnel connected to the surface by fibre. 

The transmitter would provide communications through the cold water to the two vehicles and relay it to the control station in the dome.  Submersible 1 was nicknamed the Jacques Cousteau, and would search for lifeforms while  Submersible 2, nicknamed the Fritjof Nansen, would survey the water content and any geophysical structures.  

It was late in the day when Fadek announced that the borehole was complete and the borehole station was stabilised.  Everyone clustered around the monitors in the science dome as they deployed the Cousteau and Nansen probes.  Graham and Marceau were using Lúthian designed immersive displays to "fly" the probes through the darkness, the bright lights of the probes lighting up the darkness.

"Graham, what are those columns rising from the interior?" Anna was leaning over his shoulder. As the probe moved closer, they could see a ripple of lights moving quickly up and down the column. 

Marceau brought the Cousteau upwards following the organic columns to the underside of the ice.  “It looks like they spread out along the underside of the ice pack. The light pulses seem to travel all the way out to the smallest tendrils. Its almost like a nervous system." 

Anna looked closer, "Marceau, can we use the Cousteau to take a sample of whatever that is?"

“Don’t do that!” growled Fadek. They all turned as Fadek looked over their shoulders at the displays.   He seemed visibly agitated. "We don't know anything about the lifeforms here. It is dangerous to disturb anything. There is something oddly familiar about this and it has me concerned."

Anna looked at Graham and they turned to Sergey. "Commander, what do you think?" 

Sergey frowned, "I think we need to be cautious. Don’t disturb anything until we have more data.”

Marceau was steering the Cousteau closer to the massive columns, its bright light revealing strands of organic material woven into huge cords.  "It appears there is electrical energy as well as light in these columns, probably like electric eels back on Earth."

Graham brought the Nansen up towards the ice as well and followed the columns as they spread out like tree branches. Anna pointed at the larger screen, ”There are small bioluminescent creatures feeding on the the fronds. Do you think they are cleaning the fronds like cleaner wrasse do on Earth?” 

Graham shook his head, “I have no idea, I’ve never seen anything like it, this is amazing!"

Marceau brought the Cousteau again against one of the surface fronds and before anyone could say anything, he used the remote arm to clip a piece as a sample. 

Sergei reacted quickly, "Marceau, no samples! We don't know..."

He was cut off as a massive series of electrical pulses starting racing up and down the column originating at the sample site. The whole area started flashing as the adjacent columns lit up as well. Ominously, the small feeders suddenly disappeared into the darkness.

Sergey shouted, ”Everyone, bring the submersibles back to the borehole, NOW!"

Sergey turned to Fadek but before he could say anything, Ann yelled out, "Commander there are large objects coming at us fast!".  

They had only enough time to see what looked like giant jaws and teeth as the submersibles both recorded impacts and all the communications went dead. 

Graham jumped out of his seat and ran over to the borehole. "Fadek, can we seal this?"  

Fadek frowned and signalled to the symbiotes to close the opening but it was too late.  Something dark and large and wet came rushing out of the hole like the tentacle on a giant octopus. 

Chaos broke out as the substance flowed out in giant pseudopods and flailed out around the wellhead.  Giant globs broke off and formed shapes which coalesced into terrifying creatures which started  smashing equipment and attacking people. 

Everyone ran for cover while Graham grabbed Anna and pulled her behind a equipment cabinet for protection.  A giant tiger-like beast caught Marceau, decapitating him while Alexey was pinned to the wall by something that looked like a large bear.  The lighting suddenly went out as the electronics cabinets were smashed sending the dome into almost total darkness.

The creatures seemed to sense where the crew were in the darkness and were now systematically destroying everything they could find. A giant fanged predator grabbed the symbiote, Ansil, then after taking a piece out of his neck, suddenly paused as if it was thinking.

Then as suddenly as they had appeared, all the creatures stopped where they were and dissolved back into the dark ooze, recombining into one mass and slithering back towards the bore hole. As the pseudopod retreated to the wellhead, it suddenly reached out with a dark tentacle and grabbed Anna by her leg and pulled her along with it as it disappeared down the borehole.  

Graham reached out, taking her arms, unwilling to let her be taken but it was too late.  Anna was pulled down into the hole and Graham dragged with her.   He sensed he was falling endlessly  surrounded by dark ooze and then... nothing.

 

-- A beach somewhere --

As he regained consciousness, the  first thing Graham noticed was the sound of waves against the shoreline.  He slowly opened his eyes to blue sky above him with the sun shining.  

He pulled himself up on his elbows and looked around, his mind spinning.  He was lying on a sandy beach with dark rocks leading up a bluff that was filled with tall pines and evergreens.  He suddenly realised he recognized this place.

"Graham, is that you?"  He turned to look down the beach and saw a woman walking towards him who he couldn't fail to recognise.

"Anna, are you ok?"  She seemed to be walking normally but instead of her pressure suit, she was wearing a floral sundress and carrying sandals.

"Graham, where are we?”  Anna had finally reached him and sat down on the beach next to him.

“The last thing I remember is being dragged down the borehole by that thing.” She looked at Graham again. “Where is your pressure suit, why are you dressed like that?"

Graham looked down and noticed that he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts with sandals, pretty much his attire of choice when he was visiting his Aunt on Denman Island on holiday. 

The problem was that Denman Island was located off of Vancouver Island in British Columbia and millions of kilometres from where he remembered them being.

"I don't know, Anna; this seems to be an island in Canada where my Aunt lives, but that can't be possible. I don't know what's going on as I remember following you down the borehole as well."

Anna stood back up and surveyed the island as far as she could see.   "Look, Graham, there is someone down by the point there and it looks like there is a campfire too.  Let’s go see who it is and maybe they can give us some answers".

Anna helped Graham up and stood in front of him smiling at him.   He suddenly stopped, leaned over and kissed her, much to her surprise. She responded by throwing her arms around his neck and returning the kiss.

Graham pulled back and blunted out, a bit embarrassed, ”I don't know where we are or what’s going on, but I was afraid I lost you..  You are amazing and I ..” Anna put her finger to his lips stopping him from continuing. "You know Graham, I am rather smitten with you as well.  So let’s go find out where we are and how to get home.”

Graham responded, “Then maybe I can take you out to dinner on a proper date.”

He laughed as he took her hand and they headed down the beach.

***

As they approached the fire, they saw the woman with long dark hair sitting on a driftwood log eating what looked like oysters off a skewer. In her other hand, she had a glass of white wine and was looking over the sea at the sun going down over the main island.

Graham started, "Excuse me, but we are hoping you can help us."  The woman looked at them and smiled. She was wearing a flannel shirt over a white t-shirt with faded jeans and bare feet. 

"Ah hello, Dr Burd, and I see you found Dr Shirshov.  I hope you have been enjoying the lovely weather we are having.  I collected a bucket of fresh oysters and I found that if you wrap bacon around them and put them on a skewer and cook them over the fire, they are absolutely amazing!"

Anna and Graham just stared.  "How do you know who we are and where exactly are we? As much as I love the shoreline on Denman Island, I doubt that’s where we are.   What exactly is going on?" Graham was starting to lose his temper.

"I am sorry Dr Burd, let me explain.  You may call me Anahita, and I am the entity that you attacked."

“Attacked? We were just exploring under the ice on Europa; at most we just took a sample of a strand of some organic growth there." Anna looked confused.

"You see, Dr Shirshov,  those stands, as you call them, are the synaptic connections of my brain.  You drilled into my head and started rummaging around my synapses which triggered my autonomic defences which react to remove infections.”

Graham interrupted, “The globs that came out of the borehole after us! Why did they turn into creatures?  They killed Marceau and I don’t know who else! What were they?”

“Dr Burd, I am sorry about your crew-mates; it was an immediate reaction from my immune system. They read your minds to find images which would strike fear and confusion and took their forms with an intent to destroy the 'infection'.  When one of them attacked a symbiote, it recognised the same basic organic matter we are made of, so it stopped the attack.  It pulled you and Anna here to my core to find out what you were.  Of course, once I had realised I was dealing with beings from off-planet, I tried to repair the damage to your crew. As I had never met one of your species close up, I wanted to speak with you directly."

Graham interrupted, "I'm sorry, did you say your head? Does that mean Europa is a single sentient being?"

Anahita giggled and pulled an oyster off her skewer, savouring it as she took it into her mouth. "These oysters really are delightful, thank you for giving me this experience."

Anna stepped in, "So, Anahita, are we dead?  What happened to our crew-mates?  Where are we?"

Anahita finished her oyster then looked at Anna.  "No you are not dead, you are safe in my care in my interior at the moment as it makes this discussion easier.  As you surmised, this is a projection based on memories from Dr Burd.   Once I realised what happened, I arranged to have your people taken care of, though I’m sorry, Dr Frappier was beyond help, even for me.  You need to understand, we have more important issues to discuss."

Graham looked at Anna then back at Anahita. "What more important issues?"

"I have existed here for a millennium.  I have developed the mental ability to monitor life in this Solar System and influence the thoughts of its life forms, just like I created this world here for you."

The sun was setting and the stars were coming out.  Graham sat on the log next to Anahita with Anna curled up against him.  Anahita had materialised warm wool blankets to protect them against the cool evening air.

"While our Solar System is old, it is not nearly as old as the Galaxy around us.   There are some very malevolent entities in the Universe and I felt it was my duty to protect all the emerging life on the planets in our Solar System from discovery.  So I hid all the life forms from each other and the Universe as long as I could."

Graham suddenly put it all together, "Do mean that all of our scientific studies about the planets were influenced by you so we wouldn't find life?"

"Yes, Dr Burd.  As you found out when you met the Lúthians, there are many many things that you thought were true that you have gotten wrong. I am sorry for deceiving you and your people.  It was necessary to keep you safe but now that you have left your planet and are making contact, there is no point in my deception any longer.  Your sensors should now see what’s really there."

"That’s amazing." Anna looked back at Graham, "That means a whole new era and starting over with our study of life in our Solar System."

"There is a problem though," interrupted Anahita: “while you are now visible to the rest of the residents of the Solar System and they to you, you are all now visible to those predators who hunt the galaxy as well.  You are in danger in a way you have never experienced.  You will have to learn to work together. At some point there will be visitors and they may not be friendly."

Graham started with more questions, "What are we supposed to do? What are the other races? How long do we have?"

Anahita stood up, "That is for you and your Lúthian friends to work out.  As far as how long you have. I don't know, I don't feel them at the moment but if I do, you will have to be ready.  Good luck and we will speak again."

With that Anahita turned and walked down the beach and disappeared.

The world shimmered, they blacked out and suddenly they found themselves in their beds in the crew quarters. Alexey yelled to the others, "They are back!".

 

- Office of Co-Director of the Centre for Earth Lúthian Exploration -

Dr. Graham Burd sat in the steel and leather office chair in the Office of Director of Space Research watching the Director reading his mission report feeling like it had been lifetimes since he had sat here before.

Director Richotte leant forward in his desk, "So not only is Lúth populated by a second species, Europa is actually a sentient being who has been using mind control on us and everyone else in the Solar System for hundreds of years? On top of that, there are hostile alien species from outside the Solar System that we may be in danger from?”

Graham shrugged, "That pretty much summarises it.  I would say it probably can't get any weirder than that but I think that would be pushing my luck."

The Director just shrugged, “No, at this point, I am getting used to all sorts of weirdness. We will take it under advisement when I brief the EEU commissioners later today. By the way, Alexey has given you high recommendations for your work and Dr Shirshov has asked to continue to work directly with you.”

The Director lost his serous face and grinned at him. “It seems you managed to squeeze in a little romance as well?”

Graham flushed, "I think highly of Dr Shirshov as a scientist but I promised her a proper dinner date, so I am taking her to Restaurant Chasse Galerie tonight if you must know."

Richotte smiled, “It's a good choice.  Once you two take a few days to relax and get to know each other, I have a new assignment for you both.   As you know, we have to redo all our extra-planetary studies now and learn about any other intelligent species on the other planets. We feel you are critical to this effort with all of your experience.  Myker has agreed to lend us Elisabeth Williams and the Crazy Loon to continue exploring the outer planets.  We will have teams assigned to the inner planets but I think this is more your area of expertise"

Graham raised his eyebrows, "Lizbeth and her crew are certainly unique.  Who would make up the rest of this team?"

"That’s up to you and Dr Shirshov, though I understand a certain Keltan mining expert has volunteered along with his symbiote assistant.  Final selection can wait until next week so off you go and enjoy your evening!"

Graham stood up and shook the Directors hand then left the room.  As he entered the lobby, Anna was waiting for him.  He pulled her into his arms and gave her a kiss. 

"Anna, it seems we have a lot of work to talk about, but first I owe you a date with some good British Columbia wine and fine Quebec food."

They walked out into the bustle of the city and found a taxi to take them to dinner.