No Pressure – Gustavo Bondoni
“It’s too far away to go by myself. I’m begging you.”
Aida Firenze stood before him, and even in Europa’s tiny gravity, slightly less than that of the Earth’s moon, there was no question of pushing her aside. Her expression gave a good clue as to how the quiet-looking ESA exobiologist had gotten herself a ticket on the first ship to explore the Jovian system at a cost of some several billion dollars, despite the fact that it wasn’t a European mission. Speculation was rife among the crew as to who had actually absorbed the cost of schlepping her added mass – and that of her lab equipment – all the way out here.
Evans sighed. His job was to drive the rover where mission parameters indicated, not to ferry sightseers around, but his opponent knew that fuel for the ship’s fusion reactor, which they used to charge the vehicle, was essentially free on this icy moon and that it had nowhere to go for six hours until the next scheduled exploration. “All right. But you can stay there for half an hour. No more.”
“That’s more than enough,” she said, and the fierce doggedness was replaced by a smile that warmed him even through the dark plate of her helmet. Maybe she hadn’t just achieved her position by being pushy; he could easily imagine doing anything for her just to see that smile more often.
He smiled back. “Hop on.”
The rover seemed too spindly to support their weight, but its carbon fiber frame, though thin, was extremely strong and Evans drove it unconcernedly over the ridges in the frozen terrain.
“Those are old gushers,” Aida told him. “The crust breaks and the water underneath spills out, and then evaporates in the near-vacuum immediately, while the crust re-freezes, leaving those lines.”
He just nodded. It seemed like every single scientist attached to the mission wanted to tell him the same thing – something that he’d already been briefed on a half-dozen times back in Baikanur. Even before then, he was well aware of the nature of the lines on the surface – he’d been flying deep-space missions for NASA since the last days of the SLS, while most of the heavy hitters from NASA and Russia who’d managed to bully their way onto this expedition were making their maiden flights beyond the L1.
“But the stuff beneath us is old. It’s been exposed to both vacuum and cosmic rays for millennia. I won’t find anything useful here. That’s why it’s so lucky that a gusher opened up nearby. We might find something useful.”
“We can’t get too close. We don’t know how solid the ground around the fissure is. For all you know it might break under your weight.”
She gave him a sideward glance. “In this gravity? And with the pressure underneath? No way – in fact, I’d bet that it’s more likely to gush again than to allow me to sink into it.”
That did little to make Evans feel any better.
To his untrained eye, the site looked just like the five kilometers of ice they’d just traversed: white and brown in the glare of their powerful lights. Aida, however, jumped off the rover and began to coo about powdered ice and sharper edges. Then she began to collect samples, moving with exaggerated care in the bulky environment suit. Some samples of white powder were collected from the ground, and then she sliced a chunk off of a carefully selected ridge with her suit’s cutting laser. She did the same on the other side of the ridge and walked back.
“All right, we can head home.”
“Already? You still have twenty-five more minutes.”
“Don’t need them. The fun stuff happens in the lab. If these samples don’t have anything interesting in them, then I’ll just have to do something else with the rest of the trip.”
Evans grunted in reply. He didn’t want to sound unkind, but he wondered what kind of life an exobiologist would have. The grand total of non-earth organisms, living, dead or fossilized, which humanity had encountered to date numbered precisely zero, which begged the question of what scientists in the field did with their time. Did they sit around inventing possible alternatives to DNA? Did they discuss the still-enigmatic “alien megastructure” around KIC 8462852?
He suspected they spent a lot of time drinking and wishing they’d read Kierkegaard at a younger age.
“So what have you been doing on the trip? Seven months is a long time to wait for five minutes of sample collecting.”
“I’ve been writing a book about life on Mars.”
This surprised him. “I was on Mars with the first big expedition, before the colonists. I thought they’d concluded that there was no life.”
“Ah. But I feel they had to have been wrong. It’s all utterly contaminated now, of course, but too many of the elements necessary to support life were there for nothing to have been found. I believe they might have simply committed omissions that messed up the findings.”
“That expedition had some of the most respected biologists on Earth in it. I was under strict orders only to speak to them when spoken to. It was like travelling with the Pope. Are you sure they could have messed up?”
“I have something they didn’t,” Aida said, her eyes meeting his through the face-shield of their helmets. He could read the amusement there. “I have access to everything they wrote and to twenty years of further research. And, by the way, I’m probably the single most respected biologist on Earth right now. Are you going to start treating me like the Pope?”
Evans laughed. “I’m not a rookie anymore. But I’ll be sure to tell the maintenance crew to refer to you as ‘Your Holiness’. So what is your theory about life on Mars and the errors of earlier Popes?”
“I’ll beam you a copy of the book when it comes out, but let’s just say that they were too focused on DNA, and even when they weren’t, they wanted to find structures containing the four so-called life elements… and ignored everything else. I think that’s where they erred. Of course, proving it will be tough because even if further research finds what I’m predicting, people will rightfully say that the planet is too contaminated by Earth life to be worth studying any longer.”
Evans said nothing. Mars was a frequent point of call for anyone doing runs to the asteroid belt, so he was well aware that the colonists were more concerned about their drive to become self-sufficient than anything else. It would be some time before the colonies would focus on anything but practical research.
“Well, we’re back. Good luck with the samples.”
“Thanks. And thanks again for the ride.”
Three days passed at what seemed to be full tilt. All kinds of scientists wanted to take core samples of the ice or set up an experiment to measure solar intensity or neutrino bombardment levels, and they all needed to be ferried to the place they’d settled on as most optimal for the research.
Sundry astrophysicists, planetary geologists, regular physicists and just about everyone else whose university’s resources had allowed the expedition to get past the asteroid belt roped Evans into their experiments. He was the official rover pilot – although the equipment was extremely easy to use, he was the only one allowed to drive it because they’d brought only one… and if someone broke it, Federal Express wouldn’t same-day them a new one.
He was running very ragged by the end of the third day, and he almost missed the amber priority communication light flashing in his helmet display. Even when he saw it he had to think for a moment what it meant; it wasn’t an emergency light, so he almost ignored.
Luckily for him, memory kicked in and he acknowledged the communication. “Evans here. Commander?”
“Hi Brian. Where are you?”
“About an hour out. Photographer wants to catch Jupiter setting.”
“Well, he’s going to have to skip it. I need you back here as soon as you can.”
“Just get back here.”
Evans turned the rover around over the protest of the photographer – yet another member of the expedition who was a big celebrity, although his fame was on the Mars colonies as opposed to Earth – and drove back at full speed. Durill could be extremely friendly with expedition members, but he expected to be obeyed. Evans had served on several missions with the man, and he knew that the Commander would do everything in his power to ensure that the people who shipped out were the same number who made it back – even if that meant, as it had on one memorable asteroid run, that half the crew was in solitary confinement at some point in the mission.
Upon arrival at the Ulysses, Evans wasted no time in presenting himself to the control center, where he was told that the Commander was in the B-cargo hold. That one was not pressurized, so he suited up once again and headed into the bowels of the ship.
He found the Commander accompanied by five technicians who were busy working on a cylindrical piece of equipment.
“Evans reporting,” he announced himself. “I thought we weren’t going to use that one on this trip.”
“We weren’t, but this young lady is extremely persuasive. Somebody not as nice as I am might say she is obsessively so.”
One of the crew members working on the cylinder looked up.
“Ah, yes. Miss Firenze. She doesn’t seem to be able to understand the meaning of the word no, does she? So now you need a submarine?” he asked her.
“Yes. I didn’t know you were the driver of this as well.”
“It’s much cheaper to train one guy to use all the vehicles than it is to lug a second driver to the Jovian system.”
“I guess it is. Hope I didn’t bore you last time.”
“Not at all. But you’re going to have to join me for a drink and tell me what’s going on, or I may feel tempted to tie something heavy to you and let you sink wherever it is we’re going.”
“Evans,” Dirrell interrupted. “I’ve told you dozens of times that you can’t jettison any of the passengers unless I sign off on it. Although I might just make an exception this time, considering all the grief I’m going to take from the physicists on account of her insistence.”
“Why should they object to exploring under the surface?”
“They won’t. But they’ll definitely object to having to interrupt all their experiments and move to a new location.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because I’m moving the ship and it can get pretty cold out here without a fusion reactor to recharge your batteries. Plus, it’s a hell of a walk home.”
Seated on white plastic chairs around a white plastic table, Evans wondered how he’d missed noticing that Aida was a great-looking woman when not wearing an environment suit.
Short dark hair framed a face that was prettier than it was beautiful, and big brown eyes. He estimated her age at somewhere in her late thirties, and her body was slight but with enough curves to remain interesting.
Even if she hadn’t been a genius, Evans knew that she was out of his league. But at least she was friendly enough now that she’d gotten what she wanted.
“How in the world did you convince Dirrell to move the ship?” he asked.
“Well, we tend to forget with the whole media circus around us, but this is a science mission first and foremost. I asked him to help out with some significant experiments.”
“But…” he trailed off. There was really no diplomatic way to ask his next question.
“But why did they decide to annoy every single important scientist on the flight just to humor an exobiologist?” she asked for him. “Especially when exobiology has been dead since the Mars debacle. Is that what you were going to ask?”
He nodded, not sure what else to do, and was very relieved when she continued.
“I’ve spent my entire career dealing with that question. I was in college when the Mars mission failed to show any results, but I refused to believe that it could be possible for our solar system to be empty of life. By the time I was finishing my PhD, mine was the only exobiology degree awarded in Italy in five years. Even my professors thought I was nuts.” She gave him another version of that smile – a rueful one, this time. “So I guess I know what people are thinking when they look at me like that.”
“Like I’m a crazy woman on an impossible mission getting in the way of important science. Even the people at ESA laughed when I said I was interested in joining this mission. They told me that if a European managed to get on this one, it would need to be one of the background radiation team – because that was what the Russians were interested in learning more about. They refused to back my candidacy… of course, when I was invited on board, they forgave everything and told the world how proud they were that I was part of it.”
“How did that happen, anyway?”
She sipped her tea and thought for a few moments. “Strings got pulled. Let’s just say that some people are like me in that they refuse to believe that life has to be out here somewhere, if we only learn how to look. I’ve been in contact with quite a few of those people over the years.”
She nodded. “He took the decision himself, without permission from the mission planners. He could get into a ton of trouble if I’m wrong.”
Evans couldn’t really imagine commander Dirrell worrying too much about mission planners back on Earth. His reputation as the greatest organizer and leader of interplanetary expeditions in history allowed him certain luxuries. It seemed that one of them was to rearrange the entire mission profile to suit the needs of one member who was there as an afterthought.
“Are you? Wrong, I mean?”
“I hope not.”
It seemed that Aida was well aware that she didn’t have the Commander’s immunity to consequences.
There were backups of the backups of the floodlights. While, in the real world, a failure of their satnav would be the only thing that could really strand them, the human need to see where one was going had been built into the sub’s design.
There was, of course, nothing to see.
The water under the ice in Europa was clear and crystalline. Sediment didn’t float up and become illuminated by the floodlights in the way one saw in footage from under Earth’s oceans. And that was consistent with where they were: in an ocean devoid of sediment-forming life, with a core of rock.
Evans wondered if Aida knew what she was doing. His sensors were already telling him that there was no presence of organic compounds in the water around them.
“How deep can we really go?” she asked.
She’d been briefed on the submersible’s safe operating range twice. Evidently she either hadn’t listened or wanted to his answer to come where no one could hear them.
“Anything more than a hundred meters is extremely risky. We could lose the satnav signal and get very lost.”
“No chance to go a bit deeper? Just this once?”
She didn’t waste time arguing the point. “All right. Then what we need to do is look for an updraft. The easiest way to spot them will be by circling around until we find a patch of warmer water.”
They circled for an hour in the frigid darkness.
“The only reason there’s any liquid water here is that the core is geologically active. The best theory to explain that is that the force of Jupiter’s gravity acting on it, so some of the experiments up there are measuring exactly that,” she said.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m an engineer with an interest in space exploration that made me choose to live in tin cans bolted to gigantic rockets for most of my life. Why would anyone assume I don’t know this stuff? Not just you, but all the eggheads from Earth seem hell-bent on explaining basic planetary science to me every time we go somewhere. It just seems strange.”
“Eggheads?” she asked. But she was smiling.
“Fair enough. But I think I can answer that. The reason is we’re used to no one on Earth knowing much of anything about space. People are apathetic about science in general, but when you mention space, it gets even worse. Sometimes one feels that they don’t even want to know, and really don’t want to think about the hundreds of thousands of people living outside Earth orbit: on the moon, on Mars, or even in one of the habitats. So we force them to. And it becomes a habit.”
Evans thought it over. In his reality, space was no longer an adventure or a romantic ideal – it was a very real frontier, and like all frontiers, the people in it were more concerned about surviving, expanding and thriving. Humanity would never return from space any more than the first Europeans ever abandoned their colonies in America. They were here to stay, for better or for worse. The fact that some people preferred to ignore reality was mystifying.
“I suppose that makes sense.”
She chuckled. “I’ll try not to beat you over the head any more.”
“Thanks. And I think I can guess what you’re doing, even though you’ve been hush-hush about it so far.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I think you’re looking for volcanic vent-dwelling extremophiles that got dislodged from the bottom by water moving up. Since the sub won’t make it all the way down, you’re trying to catch them here. I’m also guessing you found some kind of interesting molecular structures in the ice samples you took from the gusher which aren’t similar enough to Earth life to allow you to announce anything. But if you find actual living versions, or recently dead, you’re safe.”
“Wow… I wasn’t expecting that.”
He smiled smugly, happy to have finally – after years of ferrying them from one place to another and keeping them alive – been able to leave one of his post-doctoral superstar passengers completely speechless. He almost felt sorry for Aida, who’d actually turned out to be one of the more approachable scientists he’d met.
They went about their business, filling a number of tanks with water from carefully selected spots and speaking only when the task itself required a decision. Finally, Evans broke the strained silence.
“What are you looking for, specifically?”
“At this point? Anything. I’d be happy with anything at all. Small invertebrates, bacteria analogs. If we find a single thing, it would represent the most important discovery mankind has ever made in space.”
“Fame and fortune beyond your wildest dreams.”
A flash of fury crossed her features, catching him completely off guard. He hadn’t meant to insult her, but clearly had said something very wrong.
“I’ll be satisfied to have an astrophysicist or two return my emails. More than enough for me. Come on, let’s go back.”
He said nothing, and didn’t even turn to look at her. But he could hear the soft sobs as they returned to the surface.
Two days later, Evans knocked on the door to Aida’s tiny lab. He’d been finding excuses to go past her quarters and her lab every couple of hours, but after failing to run into her, had finally bitten the bullet and decided to announce himself.
The person who opened the door looked nothing like the one who’d twisted the arm of the expedition mercilessly from even before it began. The exobiologist looked haggard, with dark bags under red-rimmed eyes. His first instinct was to excuse himself and retreat, but after the horrors of space, he could deal with a little crying.
“I came to apologize,” he said.
She gave him a puzzled look. “Whatever for?”
“Because of what I said about the fame and fortune. It was insensitive.”
“Did you think that was why I was crying?” she asked, suddenly grinning. “The fact that you just met me is definitely showing. Come in.”
This wasn’t going at all how Evans had expected, but he walked in behind her. It immediately became clear that the reason he hadn’t been able to accidentally run into her in the halls was that she’d been in her lab the whole time. A number of plastic food trays, paper-thin to save weight, were stacked untidily on one work bench, and an assortment of beakers and scanners littered another, while a pot of some sort boiled on an electric coil.
“So, how did it go?” he asked, knowing that her face probably held all the answers he needed, but not knowing what else to say.
Aida walked to a table and picked up a glass test tube and handed it to him without a word. It was empty except for some light orange filming at the very bottom. “That’s what you get when you remove the water.”
“That’s it? Just a dirty test tube? I’m sorry.”
“You are? What a strange thing to say. I would have thought you’d be happy?”
“Well, other than the person who discovered it, you’re the first human being to look at an alien life form.” She paused, and her face, haggard and all came suddenly alive with a brilliant smile. “That stain is composed of a mold analogue. That tiny little coloration was caused by life – just life that’s a little different from the life on Earth. The organic compounds on Europa don’t seem to have any nitrogen in them, and they seem to make do with quite a bit less carbon… but they have much more phosphorous and sulfur. I would simply have thought that they were random molecules if it weren’t for one thing. Have a look.”
Evans was skeptical. There had been similar claims made about the composition of the clouds of Venus, and they’d never been corroborated. But he allowed himself to be led to the boiling pot.
The surface of the water in the pot was covered in orange slime. “I will have to replicate the experiment when we get back to Earth for anyone to believe me, but this pot originally contained as much of the Europan life as that test tube. All I did was add the chemical compounds that I found in the moon’s water… and this grew. Of course, you should have seen this last night. I had dozens of pots going, at different pressures and temperatures.” She beamed at it. “This one was the only one where they reproduced.”
“You’ve been working all this time?”
“Ever since I analyzed what that orange stain was, yes. Wouldn’t you, under the circumstances?”
Evans didn’t know. He probably would have stopped to eat or sleep, but then again, he’d never had the type of personality that could follow through on an obsession in the face of almost universal opposition. And working oneself into a state of utter exhaustion when the same work could have been done over the course of a few days? Not for him.
“And that’s all the life on Europa? Some orange goo?”
“Well, it’s pretty good. Nothing else seems to be able to live in that ocean, so this life has never felt any need to evolve. There’s no pressure to get better, no need to compete for resources. And besides… it’s proof that non-DNA-based life can exist. It opens up all sorts of new fields on inquiry. Not bad for a bit of orange goo, is it?”
“Then I guess congratulations are in order.”
She smiled. “Thank you. But the science was actually the easy part. The worst part comes next.”
“This is an outrage,” the robust woman from CERN spluttered. “Our tests won’t be done for another three days, and the experiment will take at least two. We paid to be on this trip. In fact, I believe the trip wouldn’t have been made without the funding we put in. We own is the most important experiment of the journey. Miss Firenze… well, I’m not even sure what she did to get her position on this trip. Her mission isn’t even in the press release.”
Dirrell didn’t even flinch. “I appreciate your concern, but our directives are extremely clear. If we encountered life, any kind of life, we were going to leave. We have enough evidence to establish that there is life here, so as soon as the refueling is finished, we’re returning. The samples are currently the most important things on board.”
“I’m not convinced that we’ve really found any life. Exobiologists have been wrong before.”
“Unfortunately,” Dirrell responded, “you are not the one that has to be convinced. If your equipment isn’t on the ship by the time we’re fueled, it will stay on Europa. And if your people aren’t on the ship by then, I’ll have my crew round them up and put them in confinement. Is that clear?”
The woman stood, disbelieving. She knew that every other scientist in the room except Aida was with her, but none of the others spoke up. Evans, watching from the back of the conference room, wondered what Dirrell would do if all the rest complained. The man wasn’t above locking them all up, but there were nearly as many scientists as crewmembers.
Finally, a bearded Russian particle physicist stood. Everyone turned to him. “My team dragged seventeen detectors out here. We, too, paid for the privilege to use them.” Silence met his proclamation. “But I think we’ll all feel more honored to have our names linked to something much more important than anything we’d have found out about down quarks in Jupiter’s gravity well. I support the captain.”
And it was all over. Though some of the Americans and Europeans complained, the remaining Russians sided with their compatriot.
Evans walked out as the meeting broke up, heading straight for Aida’s lab. She’d have been watching, of course, but he wanted to be the first to congratulate her.
Besides, he imagined that she wasn’t going to be the most popular person on the ship during the return journey. He wanted to make certain that she knew she wasn’t alone.
Although it also occurred to him that she seemed to be able to take care of herself pretty well.