Copyright © 2017 by Wayne Faust and Charles Eugene Anderson
All rights reserved.
Europa Ghost Story
Twenty-Nine Years Earlier
There is no life in space. There is only death. Space embraces death and cuddles it like a lover.
It was no different for the crew of the Swedish long-hauler, HSwMS Larv. Death was universal, waiting patiently outside their craft to squeeze them tightly and force the air from their lungs.
Commander Melker Haglund feared the vacuum of space, but he tried not to show that to his crew. He went about his duties every day as if nothing was wrong, but his fears were growing worse as they neared the end of the long voyage to Europa. It was a form of claustrophobia, with the large ship seeming smaller and smaller against the black void of space, pressing in more and more as they got further from the warmth of the sun. He kept his fears to himself, though, not even sharing them over SpaceNet with his wife, Freyja, back in Stockholm. But this would be his last voyage. Once he returned to Earth, he would never accept another mission to leave his home planet, no matter how much money they offered. His lungs would never have to breathe the stale, canned air of a space ship ever again.
But there was no more time to think about that because Europa loomed large on the view screen.
“I double-checked the drilling platform from the stern, Commander,” said Sandra Lindblom. “It’s looking great. Once we begin our de-orbit burn, landing the drilling platform should be like putting a sleeping baby back in its spjälsäng.”
Melker smiled and said nothing. Many people became chatter-mouths during stressful moments, but he wasn’t one of them. He liked to remain focused and quiet. He needed to concentrate now and let nothing distract him as the Larv descended to the icy surface.
“These moons of Jupiter have become the hottest real estate in the solar system,” drawled Whip Noel from his seat behind them in the cockpit. He was a big Texan, the project’s main engineer. The Swedish government was paying the American a fortune to come along on this mission. After all, Texas had a long history of deep drilling. But on Earth, it had traditionally been for fossil fuels. On Mars and various asteroids, it had been for precious metals. But on Europa, it would be for water, just water. Out here, that was the most valuable commodity of all.
“Y’all’s government will have to go all the way to Saturn to get any peace and quiet after we get this thing hummin’,” Whip continued. “Europa’s gonna be like Houston at rush hour. Every ship out past Mars is gonna wanna come here.”
Melker gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the big man. The brash Texan never shut up, and probably even talked in his sleep. Luckily, they’d given him his own cabin.
Whip continued his monologue. “I think I’ll find a few hundred acres and homestead a place of my own out here. I’ve always wanted to raise a few thousand head of cattle. It’s not like they wouldn’t have plenty of space to roam. Get it? ‘Space to roam?’”
Sandra smiled at the pun. “Good luck with that on Europa. There’s no atmosphere down there. And no grass for them to eat.”
“You’re forgetting I’m an engineer,” replied Whip. “And a damn good one. I’ll design special space helmets for the cows so they can still chew their cuds. And as to the grass, we’ve got some hardy varieties in Texas that can grow anyplace.”
This time Sandra laughed out loud. Melker could tell she’d developed a crush on Whip since he’d boarded from the asteroid station at Ceres. She liked to flirt with him and always laughed at his bad jokes.
The Swedish government had risked a lot on this mission. They’d purchased the big drilling platform from the US and flew it all the way out here attached to the Larv, a very expensive proposition. Nothing like this had ever been attempted. But, if successful, the platform would create the foundation for a brand new station on Europa. And they’d made it all this way without a serious problem. But now came the final, scariest part. Melker knew he still had to get it safely down onto the surface of Jupiter’s moon.
“This ain’t my first rodeo, you know,” said Whip, as the thrusters fired for the ship’s first burn. “I was there when they discovered Bryantonium on that asteroid five years ago. So this ain’t no big deal for me.” He glanced over to Melker. “How long ’til we touch down, Commander?”
Melker glanced at his screen. “At this rate of descent, twenty-two minutes.”
Sandra spoke up. “Commander, do you mind if I kill the cockpit lights so I can share your visual vectors?”
“Please do,” answered Melker. He had learned to trust this woman on the long voyage. It was good to have a skilled copilot next to him at times like this.
Sandra made a few taps on her console and the cockpit darkened. The only light came from the view screen and a pale, white glow from the surface of Europa outside the plastisteel window.
“Ohhhh…this is spooky,” said Whip. He wouldn’t have any duties until after landing. And then he would be the first to step outside and check on the platform after its long voyage.
Melter took his ship off autopilot. He used both hands to grasp the controls. This was the part of his job he enjoyed most. He was in control. His claustrophobic demons couldn’t fight him now. The air tasted fresh and his heart pumped blood through his veins. For the next twenty minutes, he would be alive. He would become one with the Larv.
Behind him, Whip spoke. Of course he did. The man never shut up.
“This reminds me of a story I once heard,” he said in a tone of voice that sounded like they were sitting around a campfire. “You ever hear the story of Oceanus Clements?”
“Tell us,” answered Sandra with a chuckle in her voice. “The vector is clear all the way to the surface. We’ve got time, don’t we, Commander? I love a good story.”
Melker simply grunted.
“Well, okay then,” said Whip. “Oceanus Clements was the assistant engineer on an old FT-500 freighter named SS Jack Williamson. This was long ago, on the old Mars route back when it was new. In those days, it was a two-year journey each way, and there wasn’t much space traffic. So they were surprised when they picked up a distress signal. But the distress signal wasn’t coming from a ship. It was coming from a lifeboat.”
“A lifeboat?” asked Melker, not looking away from his console. In spite of himself, he’d been listening in. “What was a lifeboat doing way out there? There was hardly any traffic to Mars in those days.”
“Exactly,” answered Whip with satisfaction. “That’s what made it so mysterious. That lifeboat must have been drifting around out there forever. They chased it down and hauled it onto their ship, sure they’d find a decomposing body or two inside. But when they equalized the pressure and stepped into the docking port, they heard something from inside the lifeboat, a muffled pounding, as if someone was alive in there and desperate to get out.”
“No!” exclaimed Sandra. She was looking away from her controls. “What happened next?”
“Well, that’s where good old Oceanus Clements comes in. He was the one standing closest to the lifeboat hatch. He ran forward and tried the hatch but it was jammed. In the meantime, the frantic pounding continued, like someone was running out of air in that old tin can. Oceanus knew he had to be quick. He tried to pry the hatch open, grabbing for any tool he could find. It was only when he found an old crowbar from storage that he was able to wrench the hatch free. And by then, the pounding had stopped. Gritting his teeth, old Oceanus stepped into the lifeboat. Well…guess what he found in there?”
There was a long pause. Whip sat back in his chair as if the story was over. But of course it wasn’t. He just knew when to pause.
“What did he find?” asked Sandra in exasperation.
“Well, Ma’am,” answered Whip. “He found nothing. Nothing at all. The damned lifeboat was empty as a can o’ beans when chow is over.”
There was another pause. Melker broke the silence. “Fifteen minutes to touchdown. Everything A-Okay so far. Thanks for the story. I guess.”
“Oh, but that’s not the end,” said Whip.
“Well, you’d better hurry,” muttered Melker as he continued to guide the Larv down. There was very little turbulence on a small moon like this.
Whip continued his story. “The next few days, the rest of the Williamson’s crew noticed that Clements was acting strangely. He withdrew from everybody else, and wandered around in the bowels of the ship talking to himself. He’d never been that way before. They guessed that the mysterious pounding from inside the empty lifeboat had unhinged him or something.”
“Poor man,” said Sandra turning in her chair. “I feel for him.”
“So did the crew. But then one night, the ship’s engines simply shut down. Everyone scrambled around trying to figure what had happened. And that’s when Oceanus Clements launched himself out the airlock in the old lifeboat.”
“And they couldn’t go after him because their engines were damaged?” asked Sandra.
“Exactly,” said Whip. “There was nothing they could do. They couldn’t save Clements. Evidently, he was the one who’d disabled their engines. By the time they got them going again, there was no sign of the lifeboat, no distress call, nothing. No one ever saw Oceanus again.”
The ship was quiet, with only the whine of the landing engines easing them down to the surface of Europa.
“So now, whenever there’s a distress call from the deepest reaches of space, they say it’s Oceanus Clements, looking to find his way back home. And if anyone picks him up, they’ll meet up with the thing that drove him crazy in the first place. And no one wants to think about that. Or about what made that pounding noise from inside that old, abandoned lifeboat.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Sandra screamed. Even Melter jumped in his seat and whirled around.
Then they saw the large wrench in Whip’s hand, the one he’d just used to clang on the side of his metal chair.
Whip started to laugh.
Sandra let out a long breath. “You’re a horrible, horrible man, you know that? You scared the skit out ofme.”
Even Melter laughed. He had to admit that Whip’s story had been good for him, diffusing the tension of the descent.
Whip smiled. “Time for me to quit goofing around. Your government doesn’t pay me to tell ghost stories, do they? This frontier town needs a sheriff. Let’s not disappoint the good citizens of Europa.”
“We’re the only ship scheduled. There’s no one else here,” said Sandra.
“A lawman still needs to be on duty. We don’t want this one horse town to turn lawless, do we?”
Melter grunted one more time. Yes, the man’s story had been entertaining, but he didn’t understand the American’s sense of humor. He hoped he never would.
Within minutes, the Larv gently touched down onto the ice of Europa. They had made it to one of Jupiter’s moons, over 300 million miles from Earth.
Whip got to his feet and stretched. He walked over to the plastisteel window of the ship. It was daytime here, and he gazed out at the endless ridges of white and blue ice, glittering softly in the weak light of the distant sun. Years from now, this very spot would be jumping, filled with drills and platforms, pulling water from miles below the ice, more water than existed on planet Earth. Spaceships would come here for that water, stopping by on their way home from the outer planets and asteroids. They’d have to. Humans needed water to survive. And it would all start when he stepped out of the Larv to begin work on the very first drilling platform.
Ten minutes later, Whip was suited up in the airlock. He looked down at the Colt ’45 on his hip.
“What’s that for?” asked Melker through the com in the other room. “There’s no atmosphere out there. A gun won’t fire.”
Whip smiled. “This belonged to one of my ancestors. He was a real Texas Ranger.”
“What are you planning to shoot, a polar bear?”
Whip chuckled. “Nope. But there might be some bad hombres out there. And I am the sheriff after all…”
* * *
A voice spoke. It was not human.
“They have landed. And they are carrying a drilling platform.” There was a soft squishing sound as the speaker’s large eyes rolled around in beds of mucous.
“You should probably engage the Curtain now,” said another voice. This voice was human. Or, it had been human once.
“Now? Do you think there is danger already? They only just arrived.”
“You don’t know humans, do you? Europa is a critical spot. Once they establish a base there and get it up and running, thousands of ships will be able to resupply and refuel near Jupiter. It will inspire them and allow them to make it past their own solar system.”
“How long do you think that will take?”
“Twenty years, maybe thirty. In Quantum Time, that’s hardly a blink.”
“True. We will engage the Curtain now. That should keep them away for hundreds of years. In the meantime, we will send you back to keep an eye on them for us.”
“I am happy to serve,” said Oceanus Clements in a flat, dead voice.
The Story Continues in
Wayne Faust has been a full-time music and comedy performer for over 40 years, playing in 40 states and overseas in England, Scotland, and Holland. His funny songs have been heard on the radio all over the world and on the Internet. While on the road, he writes science-fiction and has over 40 stories published in various places, including Norway, Australia, and South Africa. He’s published two full length books, “Thirty Years Without A Real Job,” a fast-moving and entertaining memoir of his life in show business, and “12 Parables,” a collection of short stories.
You can find more than you’ll ever need to know about Wayne on his website at www.waynefaust.com.
Charles Eugene Anderson
Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a poet, painter, baker, runner, hospital volunteer, and writer who lives in Colorado. He spends most of his days with his pup, Champ. Chuck is a husband and father, and he has a weakness for muscle cars. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow.press