Welcome to Enceladus

  Art by Porter McDonald

Art by Porter McDonald

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes

Barry Jones, astronaut and aquanaut, drifted off to sleep. He sat in the pilot's chair of his spherical pod as it continued its two-hour descent toward the ocean floor. Outside the front window it was dark. He might as well have been staring into outer space, except there were no stars; nothing to see down here except blackness. 

The pod was comfortable, and the descent was gentle and rhythmic. It reminded Barry of his days living in a city back on Earth, commuting via train during the winter, dressed for the cold and falling asleep against the frosty window as the train clickity-clacked along. Or like when a plane first takes off and the acceleration and ascent softly smooshes you into your seat, and you nod off.

Barry could sleep anywhere. He had a fairly flat personality that allowed him to compartmentalize thoughts and easily transition between mind states. This made him a good astronaut. Once, during training, the flight docs zipped him in a plastic bag—hell, more like a body bag—and put him in a closet. They didn’t say when they’d come and get him. Many trainees freaked out. Barry just fell asleep. 

“Welcome to Enceladus,” his CAPCOM, Linda, said just before he drifted off. Barry smiled; it was a smart-ass phrase he and his crewmates often said to one another when their mission to Saturn’s icy moon threw them absurd curveballs. Today, there were no problems yet; Barry’s descent into the subsurface ocean was just starting. Linda may have actually meant it sincerely. Or maybe it foreshadowed headaches yet to come.  

Linda was a few kilometers overhead, inside the Ice Eagle, a bore freighter the size of a tractor trailer. From Enceladus’ surface, the Ice Eagle could bore diagonally into the surface using its giant, heated drill, making tidy little entry ramps to staging points just above the moon’s slush layer, where the ice softened and transitioned to the subsurface ocean. At those staging points, smaller, ice fishing-style holes were dug to deploy robotic and crewed probes into the ocean.

Barry knew the pod would alert him if something bad happened during the descent. Plus, Linda and the Ice Eagle were monitoring. A lot of an astronaut’s job meant putting your life in someone else’s hands, or in the hands of technology. While some people found that stressful, for Barry it was actually a relief. He didn’t dream; it was like he simply switched into power saving mode.

#

An hour later, Barry woke with a start. His instincts sensed something was wrong. It was quiet in the pod—too quiet. 

The cabin circulation fan had stopped. Without its gentle white noise, the pod was disconcertingly silent, and he could hear every tiny pop and creak of contracting metal as it sank deeper into Enceladus’ ocean. 

“Barry.”

It was Linda, up on the Ice Eagle. 

“Your main powerpack is out, do you see it?”

He did. The pod had three powerpacks—one primary and two backups. A quick glance at the control panel showed he was running on a backup. The main powerpack was completely drained, almost like it wasn’t there at all. How the hell did that happen? The packs’ solid electrolyte technology was very reliable, so much so that many engineers argued you didn’t need two backups. As far as Barry knew, there had never been a powerpack failure during any of the previous crewed descents to the Enceladean sea floor. The failure explained the circulation fan—it typically ran non-stop for comfort, but during a power glitch it would only turn on when too much carbon dioxide built up in one area of the pod. 

He started to say something to Linda, but her voice cut in again: “Your primary and secondary comm transmission systems are dead, too, so don’t bother trying to respond.” She was right—he saw the same thing on his panel. 

“Obviously this calls for a full abort, so we’re going to stop the descent and bring you back. Stand by.”

Barry suddenly felt heavier. The pod had been falling at terminal velocity through the water, with a tether to the Ice Eagle just slack enough not to slow him down. Now, as the Ice Eagle slowed the tether’s unspooling rate, the line became taut, and the pod slowed. He was pressed into his seat more and more, like a super-slow-motion car crash. But there was no impact; gradually, the pod began ascending and reached a constant speed, somewhere around one g, so that Barry actually felt like he was back on Earth. 

“Welcome to Enceladus,” he muttered.

#

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#

He thought of his brother Michael, back in the Missouri Ozarks. The boys grew up there, without a father—he left when they were kids and never came back. Their mother had obsessive compulsive disorder. Not the cute kind, the clinical kind that compelled you to, for example, sanitize door knobs, cushions, and toilet seats with Lysol after guests visited. This meant being in the house was never relaxing. The mere act of sitting on the couch in pants that previously brushed against a neighbor's dog could cause a Major Incident, as could blowing your nose and then touching the TV remote. 

But Mom let her boys have the garage. It was entirely their domain, a black box unaccountable to her neuroses where they could be typical, messy kids. If her disorder had any positive effect, it was that both boys were instinctually meticulous, and could focus for hours on end. Their favorite pastime was tinkering with electronics; they loved to build simple devices and code them to do random things. 

When Michael was 15 and Barry was 12, Michael managed to get his hands on an antique, rusted-out Chevy Volt. The boys rigged it with a modern electric motor, and spent hours re-wiring the car so that all its functions were software controlled, essentially re-inventing the past half-century or so of car manufacturing. They became electronics experts without even knowing it, designing all sorts of fun and functionally useless features, like making the cooling fans spin at various speeds to play Jingle Bells. That was how they spent a lot of their childhood, marking the passage of time with seasonally themed technical levity.

Michael went on to a career working with electric farm equipment, but Barry never quite settled down, trapped playing the role of the younger brother with something to prove even though he and Michael weren’t particularly competitive and had always been close. Barry jumped between random jobs in several cities before applying to be an astronaut almost on a whim. He would likely have been passed over had it not been for his unparalleled electronics expertise. He could see the inner circuits of complex machines like a map; his Enceladus pod was no exception. And as Barry thought about the powerpack and comm transmission failures, he frowned. There was no commonality between the systems other than their physical location: on the top of the pod, in a service bay. What the hell was going on?

#

He spent a few minutes on the control panel poking through various subsystems to see if he could figure out the problem, before finally giving up and trying to relax. Fortunately his comm reception relied on a different antenna embedded near the rear of the pod, so Linda kept him company by occasionally chiming in to report how the ascent was going. Barry glanced out the window and sighed. The mission was practically ending before it had even started, and he was annoyed and bored. 

Wait, something was different again.

This time it wasn’t a sound; it was something on the edge of his vision. Enceladus’ ocean was as jet-black as it had been before, with one exception: There was something pink in the upper-right-hand corner of the window.

What the fuck? 

He unbuckled his harness and eased out of his seat for a closer look. The pink thing was on the outside of the window. It had depth, maybe a few centimeters, and seemed to extend off the window on to the pod’s outer hull. It looked rubbery—no, fleshy, almost. He glanced down at his console to see if there were any new problems. Nothing. He turned on the exterior floodlights and pressed his face to the window, doing everything he could think of to discern what the little pink blob was. He wished he could talk to the Ice Eagle; they could see basic telemetry through the pod’s tether, but without the comm transmission system, they couldn’t help. He was on his own. 

And did the pink thing just move? 

Its position had shifted, or at least, Barry thought it had. Maybe he was going crazy. This whole mission was starting to get pretty ridiculous. He reached into a toolkit under the pilot’s seat, found a black grease pencil and traced a line on the window to mark the blob’s outer boundary.  

Okay, think. How was this thing related to the systems failures? Did the powerpack explode or leak, and had the pressure and composition of Enceladus' ocean turned its innards into pink slime? Maybe. And maybe it was still leaking, which accounted for its possible growth. He looked back up at the window and yes, it had spread beyond the grease pencil outline already. Great. When he got back to the Ice Eagle, he might have to stay put in the pod while hazmat technicians decontaminated the exterior. He got annoyed all over again.

“Hey Barry. You’re six kilometers from the Ice Eagle. Probably another half-hour. Hang in there. Telemetry still looks good.” Hearing Linda’s voice was reassuring, and for a moment, he was able to think past the immediate situation to other things, like sleeping in his bunk on the Ice Eagle tonight, and having a good story to tell over drinks. 

He had to pee,  so he stood up, stretched and turned around. The control deck was unusually open. It could hold up to four crew members, but the extra chairs had been removed for his solo mission. Behind the control deck was a multipurpose workspace cordoned off with waist-high storage units. It could be used as a laboratory and accommodated a fold-down exercise machine. A door from the workspace led to a galley and restroom the size of ones found in commercial airplanes. For sleep, the crew hung hammocks throughout the pod. 

Thanks to the artificial gravity created by the ascent, peeing into the waste funnel would be easy. Barry entered the bathroom and relaxed. Here he was on the outer rim of the solar system, in a pod dangling from a tether in a moon’s subsurface ocean, taking a piss. He laughed. 

Suddenly, the pod lurched. Barry stumbled and dropped the funnel, accidentally soaking his pant leg. Gross! He grabbed a washcloth and quickly tried to clean up. He was just exiting the bathroom, cursing, when the lights flickered, and there was a THUNK at the window. 

The pink blob had grown again. It now covered more than half the window. Now that it was bigger, he could see that it had folds, texture and other intricate details. And then, his eyes were drawn to something shiny pressed against the window, partially embedded in pink slime. Barry exhaled sharply, as if someone punched him in the stomach. He cautiously stepped to the window for a closer look. 

It was one of the pod’s powerpacks.

“Barry.” Linda’s voice came over the radio. It was more crackly than before, with an underlying whine. His comm receiver had apparently switched to low-power mode. 

“It looks like you lost another powerpack.” 

Yes, I’m staring at it through the fucking window, he thought. Or maybe this was the first one; who knew? He wished he could talk to Linda.

“We’re increasing your rate of ascent.” Her voice was calm, but Barry knew it was just an act for his benefit. Good CAPCOMs are like that: strictly business and no betrayal of emotion when things get dicey. Linda didn’t say the obvious—you’re down to one powerpack—and she didn’t have to. This was serious, and they both knew it. If Barry lost the third powerpack, the pod would basically become an inert ball. A small battery for the life support system would keep the carbon dioxide scrubbers operating for maybe an extra hour, but that was it.

Barry felt himself get heavier. Ascending faster would get him back to the Ice Eagle more quickly, but it also put extra loads on the pod. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous—the pod had plenty of structural tolerance—but the pink blob made everything more complicated. What the hell was it? How was it associated with the systems failures? Despite his electronics prowess, Barry wasn’t much of a chemistry expert. He had seen powerpacks explode catastrophically, but not leak, so he couldn’t rule out that the pink blob was some kind of expanding electrolyte goop.

And then, looking closer, he saw something astonishing. The pink blob had tiny red squiggles running through it, branching out in all directions. Almost like… no, surely not. He ran his fingers along the glass, and then sat down in the pilot’s chair to think. His vision was flooded red from the status lights on the control panel showing the powerpack and comms failures. 

Red. Like blood. He kept coming back to the same, inescapable conclusion: The blob’s red squiggles looked like blood vessels. 

#

Despite finding all the right conditions for life on Enceladus, scientists had never actually found any. The sea was rich with organics, and there were plenty of catalysts like oxygen, hydrogen and methane to allow for organisms to flourish. Nevertheless, the water appeared sterile. Maybe life was on the cusp of taking hold, or maybe our assumptions about how life begins were all wrong. 

That was the impetus for these expeditions: find some answers. Most of the ocean floor had been mapped in low resolution, and now scientists wanted a closer look, especially where hydrothermal vents spewed heat out from the moon’s core. Some of these vents were in exotic underwater mountain ranges, and before the mission went awry, Barry was headed for one such range called the Catalinas. The Catalinas were ripe with warm nooks and crannies where life might hide.

Barry looked at the pink blob. Was this life? It sure as hell seemed like it. His brain was awash in both fascination and terror. He may have discovered life—and the life might be killing him. You need a name. Barry thought of his niece, back on Earth. Having no children of his own, he had grown close to his brother Michael's nine-year-old daughter. She loved hanging out with her Uncle Barry when he visited, and one of the last times he saw her, before he left for Enceladus, he helped her build a talking pink octopus that could answer basic questions using an open-source AI. Michael started calling the octopus Pinky, and the name stuck. Pinky, Barry thought, looking at the blob. 

"Hi, Pinky. I’m Barry. Nice to meet you.” A small squeak came from the top of the pod. He looked up instinctively—not that he could see anything but the ceiling. It was quiet for a moment.

And then all hell broke loose. 

The pod jerked hard side to side, and then up and down. Barry’s harness wasn’t buckled, so he was thrown over the back of his seat into the open flight deck. Above his head, he heard the sound of grinding metal. The ceiling buckled in two places, and the pod jerked downward again, sending Barry up into the air before he smacked back into the ground. There was a loud POP!—and then everything went silent.

On the floor, Barry moaned. He suddenly felt lighter. During the chaos, the grease pencil he used to mark Pinky’s position on the window had rolled off the control panel onto the ground. Crumpled on his side, Barry watched as the pencil floated off the floor. 

The pod was falling.

#

“Barry, we just lost all telemetry from the pod.” Linda spoke with urgency now, as the pod rocked gently back and forth, falling freely through Enceladus’ ocean. “Tether forces on our end indicate it’s been disconnected.”

Your handiwork? Barry thought, looking up at Pinky, who had shifted on the window during the racket. He sat up and winced. His knee had a big gash, and his right shoulder hurt, making it hard to lift his arm, but nothing seemed to be broken. The free fall nearly made him weightless, so he gingerly half-stepped, half-bounded back to his pilot’s chair. The tether was definitely gone. Until now it was feeding the Ice Eagle basic telemetry, and without it, the only signal they’d have from him would be his locator beacon, which would ping every few seconds to show where he was.

This was absurd. He had trained for this scenario—a tether failure—but for a moment, all he could do was rub his forehead with his good arm. He looked up at Pinky again, and shook his head.

“Go ahead and start preparations for procedure 19, contingency surfacing,” said Linda.

The pod had tanks of compressed air called dive tanks that could be released into larger tanks in the outer hull, making the pod buoyant enough to rise back to Enceladus' slush layer on its own. From there, he could use his thrusters to maneuver over to the fishing hole from the Ice Eagle, where there were a variety of ways to retrieve him, even if it meant leaving the pod in an EVA suit and getting pulled a kilometer or two back up to the Ice Eagle.

Linda read off the numbers for the amount of air that should be released. Barry accessed procedure 19, checked the figures on his end, and became satisfied everything matched up. He pressed a button to initiate the procedure. There was a subtle hiss beneath his feat. He watched the sensors on the four surfacing tanks for changes in pressure. 

Tank one was filling. But tanks two, three and four were showing no change in pressure. Oh, shit. Whatever the hell Pinky did when it ripped the tether loose, it must have punctured three of the surfacing tanks. The pod slowed its rate of descent, but it was still sinking. Not only that, but after Barry did some quick calculations, he realized he was falling so fast it was if tank one hadn’t filled at all. This puzzled him for a minute, until he realized the reason. 

“You.” He said to the window. “You must be fucking heavy.” Barry and Pinky fell silently toward the Catalinas.

#

Whether he wanted to or not, Barry was going to end up on the sea floor, somewhere in the mountains. His thrusters weren’t really meant to pull the pod out of an uncontrolled descent, but they could do it. Ordinarily, they would be used in conjunction with the tether to move the pod around inside a half-kilometer wide circle centered on his initial descent site. The tether handled the pod’s up-down movements, while the thrusters fired side-to-side, which allowed the pod to swing from one landing site to another without blasting the hell out of the sea floor each time.

Barry was already halfway to the bottom, and with Pinky’s added weight, he would land in about 25 minutes. The landing burn would take most of his fuel, but he’d survive. And then what? Another pod would have to come and get him; two pods could be docked together on their rear hatches. If the Ice Eagle knew about Pinky, they might think twice about sending a crewed pod, or at least they should. The Ice Eagle was short-staffed as it was, which is why Barry was on a solo expedition. But since he couldn’t talk to the Ice Eagle he couldn’t advise them otherwise. 

Without the tether, there was even less Linda could do to help. She radioed him some burn parameters, but Barry’s were more accurate because his radar was still intact and he had a better fix on his position. He spent a few minutes double-checking everything, and then sat back to contemplate his fate. The computer would take care of most everything from here. If it saw a boulder at the last minute, it would try to divert and find a safer landing spot. 

But if anything went wrong, Barry would die. The pod wouldn't survive a strong impact at these depths. All it would take was one hull breach—just a crack somewhere—and the ocean pressure would crush the pod like an empty soda can. The hull was already damaged from Pinky ripping the tether off. And even if Barry did survive, who knew what else Pinky would do to the pod by the time help arrived?

Despite the dire situation, a strange sense of calm washed over him, reminding him of something that happened two decades ago. When Barry was 20, he was in a head-on, high-speed car accident. Autonomous vehicle crashes were rare; in Barry's case, his left rear tire blew out on a highway, sending him hurtling into oncoming traffic. The force of impact was indescribable, saturating his senses like a loud sound getting clipped off by an audio recorder. When the car came to a stop, he opened his door and tried to get out. But his right leg wouldn’t cooperate; his femur was broken. He howled in pain and fell halfway onto the ground, his smashed leg still in the car. He immediately realized he had made the situation worse, and would have been better off staying in the car until help arrived. As Barry lay on the ground, face to the sky, he suddenly felt calm and fully present. By then, other drivers were rushing to his side, talking to him, but he couldn’t hear them. All of his senses shut down except his eyes, and he lay on the side of road, staring at an ordinary Missouri hillside, covered with leafless trees in the dead of winter. It wasn’t beautiful, and it wasn’t ugly. It just… was. 

And then the moment of clarity ended. His senses came back on, pain set in again, and his body went into physical shock. The next 20 minutes were hell until a paramedic mercifully gave him a shot of morphine.

#

The landing burn was about to start. It suddenly occurred to Barry that he didn’t know how big Pinky was. What if it was blocking the thruster nozzles? Surely the superheated exhaust would blow right through Pinky’s tissue, or whatever its smooshy body was. On the other hand, Pinky wasn’t just some smooshy blob. It had ripped two powerpacks off the pod, damaged his comm system, severed the tether, and punctured three surfacing tanks. How the hell had it done all that? What, are you a fucking octopus with a toolbox?

“Barry, we show you should start the burn in about 30 seconds. Once you’re on the bottom, we’ll update you with some rescue plans. Good luck… and welcome to Enceladus.”

Barry couldn’t help smiling. He buckled his harness, tightened the straps, and started the burn.

The pod shuddered as the thrusters came to life, and Barry got heavier. His descent rate slowed, and soon he was just 20 meters above the sea floor. Unfortunately, this spot in the Catalinas was rugged, with boulders lying everywhere, so the pod began shifting laterally to find a safer landing spot. Barry turned on the exterior floodlights, and saw vague shapes of rock formations rising in the distance. 

Pinky was on the move. Its body came to life, moving in a way he hadn’t previously seen. What had looked like a contiguous blob of tissue now became more fluid, shifting around in little discrete paths and coils, rapidly moving off the window. It reminded Barry of a video he once saw where scientists placed snakes on a glass surface and filmed them moving from underneath. But when snakes came to a stop, they were still snakes. Pinky could apparently transition between snake form and blob form. 

The pod was still looking for a place to land. Dammit, this is taking too long. We’re going to run out of fuel. The computer realized this too, because the pod suddenly committed to a spot that was less boulder-strewn than the first, but still perilously rocky. The sea floor rose up, Barry gripped his armrests, and braced for impact.

BANG! The pod jerked forward, whipping Barry back against his seat. The overhead lights went out and he was thrown into darkness. The pod wobbled back and forth a few times, and there was the sound of grinding metal behind him. Some yellow emergency lights finally flickered on, and the pod finally stopped moving, pitched forward but reasonably level. Barry exhaled; he had been holding his breath without realizing it. The pod had landed in one piece.

Linda was talking on the radio, but her voice was faint and he couldn’t hear her. The control panel was ablaze in new red error lights. Methodically, he began shutting down unneeded systems to conserve power. Who knew how long he’d have to sit here before help arrived?

He shifted his foot on the floor, and heard a squish. What? He moved his other foot—another squish. The flight deck was wet. He turned around slowly, and gasped.

There was a meter-tall rock jammed up through the floor, covered in pink slime. Pinky must have been on the bottom of the pod when he hit the sea floor, and part of its body had punched up into the pod with the rock. 

Holy shit! How had he even survived? The breach should have destroyed the pod. Pinky, he thought, looking at its splattered guts all around the rock. Pinky’s body must be creating a seal, keeping water out. He slowly unbuckled his straps, stood up, and walked over to the rock, cautiously trying to avoid stepping in Pinky remnants.

He bent down for a closer look, feeling like a kid working up the courage to poke a dead animal with a stick. He started to stand up, and then slipped on the wet floor, landing hard on his bad shoulder. Startled at the notion he just went face-first into an alien’s innards, he tried to get up, slipped again, and ended up even more wet and Pinky-coated. 

Suddenly the pod began to vibrate. Wait, no, it wasn’t the pod vibrating, it was Pinky. All of its blobs scattered throughout the cabin began jiggling like jelly, including the ones on Barry. The pieces started flipping, flopping and rolling toward a single pile near the rock, as if they were magnetically attracted to one another. At the same time, more of Pinky came oozing into the pod through the seal around the rock.

Barry watched in terror, before croaking “No!” from the floor. If all of Pinky came into the pod, the seal would fail. 

The Pinky pile grew until it was almost as big as the rock. It started to form a shape like an ocean wave, dipped over at the top towards Barry. He stumbled to his feet. He needed to figure out how to ask Pinky not to come all the way in the pod. 

“Can you communicate?” he asked. “I’m Barry, a human from Earth. Barrrryyy,” he said, pointing to himself, as if he was talking to a baby. What a stupid way to introduce yourself to an alien, he thought. But it was all he could come up with.

He made a move toward the rock, and Pinky’s wave crest swiveled with him. Clearly, it was aware of his presence. Barry stopped and pointed to the seal, where Pinky’s fleshy body was still entering the cabin. 

“Please stop! The pod will collapse!” said Barry, waving his hands around to indicate their surroundings. Pinky didn’t stop. It continued to grow, and was now almost his height. 

He was getting desperate. He bent down and plunged his hands into Pinky near the rock, trying to squish its guts back into the seal. The guts were warm and squishy, like a memory foam mattress filled with jelly. “STOP!” he cried out in desperation, looking up at Pinky, who regarded him curiously.

Pinky stopped. It suddenly formed a long appendage beneath the wave crest, reached out, and smacked Barry on the back with incredible force. His forehead bounced off the rock, and he fell to the floor, dazed and bleeding.

“STOP!” This time the word came from Pinky, as a combined gurgle and high-pitched squeal. The wave crest had formed a rough approximation of two eyes and a sideways oval mouth—just empty holes, really. Pinky was somehow using the mouth hole to speak, squishing goo around to make sounds.

Pinky’s lower body began to flow forward around Barry, who was still reeling from the blow to the head. By the time he had the wits to resist, Pinky had wrapped him in a cocoon from the waist down. 

Burps of water were starting to come in with Pinky, as the last of its body slipped inside the pod. The pod began to creak and groan. It would soon collapse. 

“Please,” Barry managed to utter. His vision was blurry; he probably had a concussion.

“PLEASE!” Pinky echoed. 

It continued to consume Barry, forcing his arms against his body, until only his head was left uncovered. The wave crest, with its makeshift eyes and mouth, shifted on top of him so that it was now protruding off his chest. Its mouth hole mimicked a frown. 

With an awful series of loud pops, a string of rivets ripped loose near the rock. The pod’s hull was unzipping like a tangerine. A fountain of water spewed into the flight deck.

Pinky continued to stare at him, unfazed by the chaos.

“BARRRYYY?” It said.

“Yes?” he whimpered, his eyes shut tight. 

“WELCOME TO ENCELADUS.”

The wave crest collapsed onto his face, completing the cocoon. Through Pinky’s jelly body, Barry saw the pod walls collapse, and everything went dark.