Europa Nightmare: Chapter 5

Senator Alan K Simpson

Data is data, but sometimes it lies. Martin looked at the vid screen and cursed. If the Campbellhad really exploded, it would be nothing but space dust now. They had all watched it explode. All their sensors had recorded the core meltdown. The Simpsoneven had burn marks. But improbably, no impossibly, the Campbell was still there on the vid screen. All their sensors verified that fact as well. And now the Campbell was moving again, ponderously heading away from Jupiter towards the inner planets, with Captain Martin ordering his ship to pursue.

Eyeballs also lie. After everything that had just happened, Captain Martin’s eyeballs were very tired. He needed to get away from the bridge to study the data someplace quieter. He sent all the sensor data to his laptop. Satisfied he had collected everything he needed, he headed towards his quarters. On the way there he stopped at the mess for a cup of coffee and something to eat.

The Simpsonwas lucky to have a real cook. In fact, they had an excellent cook. The crew of the Simpson, including Captain Martin, blamed their extra weight on the Chef. “So, what’s on the menu today, Jelly Roll?” asked the captain as he walked into the mess.

Jelly Roll answered by holding out the captain’s personal, steaming coffee mug.

“You got radar-mods implanted in your skull or something?” asked the captain. “How did you know I was coming down here just now?”

Jelly Roll winked. “It’s my job.”

The mug was from the Class of ’59.

“Sometimes it’s really creepy when you do stuff like that,” said Martin. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing the mug with his free hand and taking a sip. Jelly Roll always kept the coffee fresh, and Martin couldn’t remember a time when there had been old coffee in the urn.

“It’s a small ship, Skipper,” said Jelly Roll. “I know everyone’s footsteps, and how they sound against the metal of the deck plating. Your steps are easy to make out because you drag your right heel a little bit. I’m sure that’s the first place you wear out your boot.”

Martin looked down and lifted up his right foot. “Huh. You’re right. Okay, Sherlock. Maybe you should be the captain of this boat. Or at least head of security if we had one.”

Jelly Roll gave a hearty, rolling laugh, true to his nickname. Everything about the cook was too big for the ship, even his laugh. “This mess is command enough for me, Skipper. Every morning I work as if there’s a storm brewing and every night after supper I relax as if we’re sailing for the Southern Cross.”

The Captain took a step towards the coffee urn intending to get cream and sugar, but after his first sip, he realized that Jelly Roll had foreseen that as well. He decided against going back to his cabin to look at the data, but instead grabbed a table in the corner of the mess. There weren’t many places on the Homerwhere a crewman could get away, but Jelly Roll made sure anyone walking into his mess felt as if it was their own.

“Skipper, I gotta get ready for supper mess tonight. Forgive me being rude, but I need to check on the roast.”

“Roast? Fancy for a Wednesday night don’t you think?”

“No, not too fancy if you’re getting us another prize.”

“Don’t celebrate too early. She’s one of ours. We probably aren’t taking her.”

A look of disappointment crossed the chow boss’ pudgy face before dissolving into his usual smile. “Then we’ll celebrate the upcoming rescue of our Earth comrades from their misfortune.” His round eyes blinked a couple of times. “I have baby potatoes and carrots to go along with the roast. And nice homemade gravy too.”

“What if our ‘Earth Comrades’ on that ship are all dead?” asked Martin.

Without missing a beat, the chow boss said, “The crew of the Homerwill still be hungry. They’ll appreciate Old Jelly Roll taking good care of them in their hour of sadness.”

The captain chuckled. “Like usual, you have all the bases covered. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be Captain?”

Jelly Roll laughed one more time and headed for the kitchen. As the cook opened the door, the delightful aroma of the roast wafted out. Martin’s mouth watered. But he decided against having a snack. He wanted to be hungry when it was time to eat that roast.

He took his coffee and settled into a comfortable chair. He set his laptop on a small table and began to review the data from all the ship’s sensors and cameras. There was a critical point when all of the Homer’ssensors showed the same thing. The Campbellshould’ve exploded. But it hadn’t.

He went back to the beginning. The sensors showed the engines attempting a dangerous cold start, the core heating up and finally reaching critical mass leading to the explosion that should have pulverized the ship. There was simply no doubt in what the sensors showed.

The cameras showed the same thing. But then he decided to try something on a hunch. He put the time signature up for both the sensor readings and the camera feeds side by side on his screen, superimposed over the images. He ran the sequence. There was a discrepancy. It was very small but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The sensors showed the exact moment of the explosion .33 seconds before the cameras. Of course, there is always going to be a delay in how long it takes light to travel to the camera. At the last moment, the Simpsonwas not far from the Campbell. Only about two hundred kilometers away. The light from the explosion should have arrived at the cameras within a millionth of a second. Even if it hadn’t, the sensors and cameras should’ve been synched. There should be no gap at all. So what accounted for that .33 second gap? False information? But why would anyone want to do that? The obvious answer was to scare them away. And that part had worked. The Simpsonhad backed away as fast as it could go, almost blowing up its own engines in the process. But if there hadn’t been an explosion, how did the burn marks on the outside of the ship get there? It was still a quandary, but Martin thought he might be getting closer to figuring it out.

“How does our mystery ship look now, Skipper?” asked Jelly Roll.

Martin had been so engrossed in what he was doing that he hadn’t noticed Jelly Roll sit down beside him. The Chef held a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. The captain grabbed one from the plate and popped it into his mouth. “Just one,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cookie. “I don’t want to spoil my dinner when we eat that delicious roast. So when did you have time to bake these?”

“It’s all in the planning. I have another batch baking right now. I’ll take them out of the oven in a few minutes.”

Jelly Roll reached across the small table and turned Martin’s laptop so he could see the screen. “Mind if I check out the sensor data?”

Martin chuckled. “You make dinner for the crew, you bake cookies, and now you want to analyze our sensor data. Is there anything you can’t do?”

Jelly Roll didn’t look up from the screen. He stared at it for another minute. “Why did you put the timeline from the camera feed and the sensors side by side?”

“I was just curious.”

Jelly Roll nodded. “And they don’t match up, do they?”

“No.” The man was amazing.

“So,” asked Jelly Roll, “any idea what’s going on over there?”

“I wish.”

The cook turned the laptop away and looked off into the distance for a moment. Then he turned back to Martin. “Well, it’s clear to me that you have a cake problem.”

Martin had just finished eating his chocolate chip cookie and paused before taking a sip of his coffee. “A cake problem? What’s that?”

“You should spend more time in here with me. You’d learn how to conquer the whole solar system. I’ve only got another minute so I’ll make this quick. A cake problem is…no matter how many cakes I’ve baked in my life, I still need to stick in a toothpick to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before I take them out of the oven. Even after all these years, I still have to do that every time. If I don’t, the sponge will usually be either undercooked or overcooked. If it’s undercooked, the sponge will collapse in the middle. If it’s overcooked, the sides will get too brown and it’ll be too dry when it’s ready to serve. The trick is to pull it out exactly when it’s done. Not too soon and not too late. That’s the secret of a good cake. And you can’t do it without checking it with a toothpick.”

Martin scratched his head. “That’s very interesting, Jelly Roll. But what can that possibly have to do with the mystery ship?”

“It’s a cake, Skipper. You need to take a toothpick and stick it in its middle to see what’s really going on.”

“Huh,” muttered the captain. “Good analogy.”

The captain mused on that for a few more moments. Then he said, “I think I might have the right toothpick.”

Martin reached over to a nearby com-box and called the bridge. “Lt. Constance, I need you to start gathering your boarding crew. We’re going back in to dock with the Campbell. I want to know what’s going on inside that ship.”

The speaker crackled before Constance’s voice answered. “But Captain, we got close once already and it almost blew us up.”

“But it didn’t. I’m still working it out, but that ship didn’t explode. That’s obvious because it’s still out there. Somehow…somebody did something to our sensors and cameras so we just thought it exploded. Some sort of defense mechanism on that ship, although not one I’ve ever heard of. But I think we can modify our sensors to protect against false readings. I’ll explain more in a bit. Out.”

Martin turned off the com-box and smiled at his cook. “A cake problem, huh?”

“That’s one sharp toothpick you’re going to stick in that cake, Skipper.”

“The sharpest,” said Martin, reaching for another cookie.

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 4

Europa Station

Aaron Ljungman was normally a very calm person, at least outwardly. Like most Swedes, he kept his emotions beneath the surface. But right now those emotions were percolating way down deep in his gut and threatening to erupt like an Icelandic volcano. Erik Juergenson was his best friend way out here on Europa. In fact, the two of them had been boyhood friends in Boräs, following the same path through school and graduating from the same class in the Swedish Space Academy. All Swedes had to stick together in space. They were a small minority compared to the Americans, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese. But Erik was more than just a countryman. And now he had gone missing.

Nobody got along with each other particularly well out here. There were too many conflicting interests and too many national characteristics that clashed with each other. So it was up to the Swedes on Europa to play their historical role as diplomats. Back on Earth, Sweden had managed to stay out of all the big wars, ever since they sat out World War One and World War Two. Okay, they took sides in the early Colonization Wars on the Moon but that was ancient history by now. Since then, they had gone back to being the kind of people who could see both sides of every argument. And they were able to make a lot of money while doing it. The Americans hated the Russians. The Russians hated the Japanese. And everybody hated the inscrutable Chinese. But nobody hated the even-tempered Swedes. So they were rarely in danger. Until now.

“Replay that video again,” muttered Ljungman.

“Here you go,” said Broberg, and she pushed a few buttons. Both she and Ljungman stared at the screen, Broberg tapping her foot and Ljungman gritting his teeth. They both knew what was coming.

On the video, Skalbaggeslowly approached the hulking John W. Campbell Jrlike a beetle approaching an elephant. It was almost as if Erik had known something was wrong and seemed reluctant to get too close. That was unusual for Erik. He was usually fearless when docking. But not this time.

And that’s when the lights on the Campbellblinked out. Not an earth-shaking development, for that had happened several times since the Campbellhad contacted Europa Station. But this was right before docking. The com was still open and Ljungman could hear Erik utter curses in both Swedish and English. Normally he would have chuckled at that. But he knew what was going to happen next.

The Skalbaggecontinued to approach and it was clear that Erik had switched over to manual docking. Again, not that unusual. He was good at doing this and had done it a hundred times before.

“Ahh, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” said Erik’s voice on the video as the two ships docked. Watching, Erik felt a rush of affection for his friend who always talked to ships like girlfriends he was making love to. It was his ‘pillow talk.’

On the video, Ljungman heard his own voice say, “Be safe, my friend.”

And that’s when everything went skit.

“Oh, Helvete! I’ve just lost power,” said Erik’s voice, not too loud but with an edge. He was an experienced pilot but he’d probably never lost power immediately after docking. It would be really dark in his cabin, with his ship butted up against the massive Campbell, blocking any ambient light through his view screen.

Broberg and Ljungman could barely see the two ships clinging to each other against the black background of space.

“Aaron, can you hear me?” asked Erik.

“Yes, yes, I can hear you,” came Ljungman’s voice in reply. Erik couldn’t hear him. No matter how many times Ljungman replied, there was no response from Skalbagge. But the com was still open and Broberg and Ljungman could hear every sound from the cabin. There were small clicking sounds as Erik tried his flashlight, his faceplate light, and several buttons on his console. Then it was quiet for a few moments, with just the sound of Erik breathing. Between engine noise, crew noise, and radios, a ship’s bridge is normally a noisy place. But there were no crew members on this ship. It was especially creepy to hear only Erik’s breathing, in and out, in and out, faster and faster as he became more alarmed.

Then they could hear another sound. Something was scraping against metal. The metal of the airlock? And then there was a pop like a pressurized can of tennis balls exploding. And then something else.

Ljungman felt sweat trickle down the back of his neck as he listened to this sound. It was almost like…well…like slithering.

And that’s when Erik screamed. The sound made Ljungman and Broberg nearly jump out of their seats, even though they had heard it before. It wasn’t a soft scream. Not even close. It made the speakers distort. And then it cut off.

All of that would have been bad enough. But what happened next on the view screen was simply mind-boggling. It could have been a trick of the light. It could have. But Ljungman didn’t think so.

For a brief moment, the lights of the Campbellswitched on. They could clearly see the Skalbaggesilhouetted against it like a small, black bug. And then the Skalbaggebegan to shake. Over the com, they could hear things rattling around on the bridge, as though the ship was in the midst of a meteor shower. Then the Campbellbegan to phase in and out as if there was something wrong with the video. A rift opened all around the Campbell‘s docking bay, a blacker than black opening larger than a small spaceship, larger than the Skalbagge. And then, suddenly, the Skalbaggewas gone and the lights of the Campbellblinked out.

“Slow motion again, please,” said Ljungman, his voice low and insistent. He had watched this many times already but he was drawn to it like a train wreck. A train wreck involving his best friend. His buddy. His kompis.

In slow motion, it wasn’t hard to see what the whole incident looked like, as hard as that was to believe. First, the Skalbaggebegan to vibrate. Then it began to shake like a wet dog. And then a rift appeared in the Campbell, looking exactly like a…well…like a mouth. The mouth opened wider and sucked in the Skalbagge. Or, rather, it swallowed the Skalbaggewhole. The mouth closed and Erik’s ship was gone, leaving just the floating, dark hulk of the Campbellin its wake, hanging in space again with no power, no movement, nothing.

“Odin only knows what happened to my friend,” muttered Ljungman.

“Do you think he can still be alive?” asked Broberg.

“There’s only one way to find out.”

“You’re not going out there, are you? Think about what almost happened to that American ship. When it got close, the Campbellfired up its reactor and blew itself up. The American ship barely got away.”

Ljungman ran his hand through his curly, blond hair. “But it didn’t blow itself up. It certainly looked like it did but it’s still hanging up there, undamaged.”

“Well, something happened. Our sensors showed a huge explosion, as if the reactor had really exploded. Maybe if the American ship hadn’t gotten far enough away it would have been pulverized.”

“Maybe.” Ljungman stared down at the floor.

Broberg reached over and turned Ljungman’s face towards her own. “You can’t go out there. Space Fleet will never give you permission.”

Ljungman sighed. “I don’t plan to ask Space Fleet.”

“But you’ll be drummed out and sent home. That is if you even survive.”

“Well, I’m going out there anyhow. They just finished repairs on Trollslända. I’ll just have to get a crew together. A lot of people on Europa owe me favors.”

Broberg gasped. The Swedes were the diplomats of space. They didn’t get involved in conflicts except as peacemakers. They were not well represented in Earth Fleet. But they did have a few warships, just in case.

Warships like Trollslända.

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 http://www.waynefaust.com

Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a painter and writer who lives in Colorado. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow dot press.

Find Europa Nightmare here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 3

Brahe Station

“Holy cow, why are they all so damned big on Ganymede?” muttered Oscar Gunn as he prepared to step into the ring. This wasn’t his first fight, not by a long shot. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be his last fight either. His opponent for this one was huge. Hell, everyone on this moon was big, even the women, the kids, and the dogs. Weight class? No such thing on Ganymede. Why couldn’t he fight jockeys, midgets…sorry, little people, or maybe even ballerinas? Oscar always knew he could knock out a ballerina. But such is life as a bare-knuckle fighter. Ballerinas, little people, or jockeys didn’t climb into the ring on Brahe Station.

Oscar was surprised there was even a fight ring at all. A true one with three ropes and a flexible canvas floor for good footing. It even had the right dimensions: six meters per side. On most stations, they used chalk to mark out the ring on cafeteria floors. Here on Brahe Station, they had a real gymnasium with bleachers, spectators, and a referee. The large inhabitants of Ganymede put a lot of effort into staging fights. They liked to watch combatants batter each other for their entertainment.

Brahe Station was neat and orderly as far as space stations go, giving the impression of being a safe harbor. But Oscar knew that wasn’t the case. Not at all. The nickname for the station was “The Hall of Nine Hostages” and it was the seat of the O’Neil clan. The O’Neils loved mining aluminum, fighting, and taking hostages. Oscar wasn’t from a rich family, nor did he have an immediate family at all, so he hoped they wouldn’t take him hostage after this fight. Why would they? The O’Neils would have to wait a long time before anyone in the solar system gave them a lunar dollar for Oscar Gunn.

Oscar held onto the rope and looked across the ring beyond his opponent. One of the O’Neil’s endless line of hostages was sitting ringside. He had been pointed out to Oscar earlier in the day, a member of a wealthy asteroid-mining family. While there’s a certain distinction to being taken hostage by the O’Neils, Oscar didn’t envy him one bit.

He leaned his head back and whispered over the crowd to Sean O’Neil, the promoter. He was also a big man but he’d begun to shrink with age. For some reason, people aged faster on low gravity moons. Oscar thought it should be the other way around but then again, he didn’t know much about physics. As an eighth grade dropout on Earth, he had learned everything he needed on the streets and in the ring. “What’s my take on this fight again?” he asked.

“Twenty-five percent of the house,” said Sean O’Neil. “Like we agreed to over the SpaceNet. It’s the standard here.”

“We agreed on forty,” said Oscar. He was lying of course. But the fight promoter was lying too. There was no actual standard, and they hadn’t talked about the percentage. It was what you could actually get. On his first fight back on Earth, the promoter in Winnipeg had only given him fifteen percent. He had simply accepted that one, assuming that everyone was just as honest as he was. But when the promoter handed him a pitiful hundred-dollar lunar note, he vowed to always be careful to settle the percentage before the fight started. And the best time was right before he stepped into the ring because there would be no time for the promoter to think about it. Usually, he ran a one-man operation, acting as fighter, promoter, manager and cutman. But on Ganymede, you had to go through the O’Neils. So you had to play hardball.

“Twenty-five percent?” said Oscar, twisting his mouth into a frown. “That’s ridiculous. I’m outa here.” He picked up his fight bag and made motions like he was going to walk away. That would have been a disaster for the O’Neils. Not that Oscar would really do that, of course. He’d never get off Ganymede alive if he walked away. But negotiations were like a poker game and you had to be willing to bluff.

“I guess maybe it was thirty percent,” said O’Neil quickly. He had the look of all the O’Neils, with shifty, rat-like eyes.

“Thirty percent to fight against a monster fighter like that?” sputtered Oscar. He pointed across the ring at his waiting opponent. “You gotta be kidding me. Do I look like I ever lived on the belt?”

O’Neil paused and looked Oscar up and down. “You’re solid, I’ll give you that. But I’m not sure you’ll give my cousins their money’s worth tonight. I tell you what. I might be willing to go forty percent but only if you let my boy knock you out. What do ya think?”

Oscar knew what that meant. ‘Knockout’ meant he’d end up close to dead. Or maybe even dead. If he let that hulking guy connect with even one punch it might be the last punch he ever took.

“I don’t take dives,” said Oscar. He glanced to the bleachers and saw most of the O’Neil clan. They were tapping their feet impatiently. He had the advantage right now. But he couldn’t overplay his hand. He simply waited the promoter out.

“God above all of us,” said Sean O’Neil in disgust. “I should take some of this mutton under my shirt and fight you myself. Forty percent! Ya jus’ wanna fuckin’ spit on me, don’t ya?”

Oscar knew when to shut up. The negotiations were working, although he knew the promoter could have dozens of O’Neil thugs here in seconds to take care of him. And before long he’d be pushed through an airlock. But then again, if that happened the fight would have to be called off. So once again, he said nothing.

“You’re a greedy bastard, aren’t ya?” asked O’Neil. But his voice carried with it a small bit of respect.

Oscar almost smiled at that. What was that old saying, something about how it takes a bastard to know a bastard? He decided it was time to finally say something.

“I’ll give you a good show.”

O’Neil shook his head and grimaced. “Not the show they really want. What they really want is to see my cousin rip your head off of your shoulders. Is that what you’ll give them?”

“How ’bout I catch the morning shuttle and move on?” said Oscar, stepping back from the ring.

“How ’bout we take you hostage?” countered Sean O’Neil. “If you don’t bring in any money, we’ll make you a slave for our house. It’s always nice to have a slave to clean the toilets.”

Oscar cursed under his breath. O’Neil had been getting ready to cave.

All through the gymnasium, rowdy voices were getting rowdier. The impatience of the crowd was the only card he held right now. He had been risking a lot to play hardball with the O’Neils. They might have had pretensions of being a fine house, but when it came down to it, they would always be a pack of thugs under the pressurized dome.

The crowd continued to get louder. Catcalls began pouring out from the top bleachers. O’Neil looked around, taking in the whole scene. Finally, he turned back to Oscar and ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. “Okay,” he sighed. “We’re all here for a little bit a fun tonight. I’m not trying to be the bad guy. We like to be friendly to one another on Brahe.”

Oscar swallowed hard and waited.

“Thirty-five percent. That’s the best I can do. You gotta leave me a little meat on the mutton.”

Oscar knew when to grab onto a lifeline. “Okay,” he said, trying to sound reluctant, even though he knew he had won. “Thirty-five it is. But you’ll have to throw in a corner man. I’m on my own.”

The promoter nodded his head. He looked over into the crowd and whistled. A teenage O’Neil came out of the crowd and ran over to the two men. Oscar didn’t like the look of the kid. He had the same rat eyes as all of the O’Neils, but he also looked eager to please. Oscar knew he could never trust him. He was an O’Neil after all, but he only needed to trust him for as long as it took to finish this fight.

“He’ll do,” muttered Oscar.

The promoter shook Oscar’s hand and smiled with relief. He went over to join his clan in the bleachers. Would he still be smiling when the fight was over? Definitely not.

Oscar handed the boy his bag. “Don’t let this out of your sight. Keep it right next to you at all times. Got it?”

The teenager nodded and smiled. He was definitely a smiler. A real people pleaser. Or maybe he was just an idiot and that’s why the promoter had picked him for the job.

Oscar gave him a stern look. “You’re in over your head. If you knew what was going to happen tonight, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be far away.”

The boy continued to smile. “I’ve seen plenty of fights and plenty of fighters. What makes you so special?”

“You’ve never seen me fight. I’m going to give them something that no one on Ganymede will ever forget.”

The smile left the boy’s face and Oscar chuckled to himself. He had gotten the boy’s attention with that one. Maybe he wasn’t such an idiot after all…

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 http://www.waynefaust.com

Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a painter and writer who lives in Colorado. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow dot press.

Find Europa Nightmare here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Europa Ghost Story By Wayne Faust and Charles Eugene Anderson

Copyright © 2017 by Wayne Faust and Charles Eugene Anderson

Europa Ghost Story By Wayne Faust and Charles Eugene Anderson

All rights reserved.

Europa Ghost Story

Twenty-Nine Years Earlier 

HSwMS Larv

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

Europa Nightmare

books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Story Creators

Wayne Faust

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

Flash Fiction Tip #37 Writing Prompt Generator

A writing prompt generator is a wonderful to start your flash fiction. Playing with it these are the ten prompts it came for me, and I think I could start writing fiction from many of them. Here’s the link:

Give it a try.

-It was time to attack some fallen gods.

-I have a tale about education and a computer programmer.

-Oh, such complete madness and obsessed science!

-There is a story about the rain giggling.

-I would appreciate it if you call me Aaliyah – not that that’s my name.

-There is a story about growing up and a magician.

-Then came the supervillains.

-He survived the war by hiding in my library, but nobody knew that.

-I wanted to be a dragon, or that’s what they thought.

-There is a story about a lady.

For Fun– Try this fantasy story generator:

Flash Fiction Tip #36 Chuck Wendig’s Subgenre Boogie

Author Chuck Wendig sends out a weekly Monday morning Flash Fiction challenge. This one list from sub-genre he sent out on May 8, 2015. Could you write a from one of these subgenre categories? To subscribe to Chuck’s Blog look here:

Warning: Chuck occasionally has been know to curse from time to time.

Here are some subgenes:

Haunted House

Dystopia

Revenge

Zombie

Weird West

Body Horror

Grimdark Fantasy

Whodunit?

Military Sci-Fi

Comic Fantasy

Technothiller

Superhero

Erotica

Heist/ Caper

Alternate History

Parallel Universe

Noir

Time Travel

Demonic Possession

Mech Troopers Chapter Two: Awake Too Early

I wake up and ask, “Time? 10-36?”

My alarm clock says, “It’s zero four-thirty.”

I throw my pillow at the alarm clock. I say a few curse words.

My alarm clock says, “Incoming bogie.”

“Fuck off.” I’m going to get a few more minutes’ sleep. The lights come on. My alarm clock has decided to declare war on me. My alarm clock is going to die. I’m a mech driver. If I had a sidearm. I don’t have one. I have to improvise if I’m going to get more rack time. I have already spent the only pillow I have. My door opens. It’s my sergeant. It’s the alarm clock’s lucky morning.

“On your feet, pilot,” says Master Sergeant Hulka. He walks over to my bunk.

I get up and look over at Snowman. He’s still sleeping. Lucky. We had cleared The Big D. We still had a few days before we pushed south, to ‘The Battle of the Alamo.’ That’s not what the brass are calling it. They call it: ‘Operation Texas Freedom.’ Okay, us truckers we’re calling it, ‘Operation Santa Anna.’ How did that one go for Davy Crockett?

Hulka isn’t so bad, but when the Master Sergeant wants something done. He wants it done, yesterday. “I told the Captain we would have three functional mechs in our platoon when it’s time for the push, and three functional mechs we are going to have.”

It means I’m going back to work. “We only have one,” I say. “In the last fight, we only had two mechs. Snowman and me. Snowman’s mech is toast. Mine is fried. And we have been one trucker short for two months.”

Hulka says, “One problem at a time. Here’s your new pilot. Say hello to Frog.” Out from behind Hulka steps Frog with all of her gear. She isn’t big. She doesn’t look strong. But she has a look in her eyes. She’s a trucker.

“Now get up, and I want your mech operational by the end of the day.”

“10-4, Sergeant.” I put my feet on the floor. “I’m going to need some help.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you’ll have Frog and Snowman.”

“Thanks, Sergeant.”

Hulka smiles and turns to leave. I point to the empty bunk and Frog knows where to put her gear. So much for sleep.

Before he leaves. I ask, “We still need two more mechs. Where are you going to get ‘em?”

Hulka says as he shuts the door, “One problem at a time. A sergeant in this man’s army can only be expected to solve one problem at a time.”

I need to get moving. I say, “Snowman…Snowman gets your ass up. I’m going to need your help.”

Snowman has covered his head with his pillow and he says, “You suck, Bandit. You’re a real asshole sometimes. It’s your mech. It’s your problem. Go play grease monkey without me.”

Snowman will help me if I can get him out of his bunk. Maybe, he’ll help, but I’ll have to put some food in him first. Time to find a roach coach.