Shadow of Europa

The European Union spaceship Cortez decelerated with a burst of rocket exhaust. The eight astronauts strapped into their acceleration couches in the command module gritted their teeth against the vibration of the vessel as it slowed to orbital velocity around Jupiter.

“Insertion complete,” navigation officer LeBeuf said as the engines cut off. “Orbit within operational parameters.”

“Thank you,” Captain Mendoza said. “Welcome to your home for the next two months ladies and gentlemen, feel free to move about the cabin.”

The astronaut-scientists from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands represented the brightest minds from across the European Union. Their counterparts left behind on Earth were from every country in the Union and stood ready to receive the vast amounts of scientific data this manned mission was expected to provide. Unmanned pobes had already provided a cornucopia of information and had given focus for this manned mission. The Cortez consisted of an orbital science center and a landing module which would deliver the first humans to the surface of Europa.

“Are you ready to make history Commander Witek?” Mendoza clapped the small woman gently on her shoulder as she floated beside a port.

Oona Witek was the pilot and commander of the landing module; it was to be her honor to be the first woman to set foot on another world. Mendoza envied the Pole but was happy for her as well. She was the best pilot he had ever seen and was a brilliant geologist to boot; she was truly the best person to lead the Europa side of the mission.

“Oh yes Captain,” she smiled broadly over her shoulder.

“Anything interesting out there?”

“Are you kidding? Look at that view.”

Beyond the small round port was the vast expanse of Jupiter. Its colorful stripes roiled as they rotated past. The Great Red Spot moved into view, the gigantic storm had been active since humans began looking at Jupiter. It rotated counterclockwise as the astronauts watched; it was a storm larger than their home planet, they could not help but be awed.

“Hey, is that Europa,” Mendoza said, pointing toward a shape moving into view.

“Good eye Captain. Yes indeed that is our destination.”

“Well then, I better get back to work. We need to match orbit with it before you and your merry crew head down there. Excuse me please.”

Mendoza executed a tiny, formal bow and pushed off toward the command couch once more. Taking her cue, Witek pushed away from the port after one last wistful look; she also had a ship to prepare.

Eighteen hours and dozens of short burns later the Cortez once again floated above Europa. The final burn brought the moon into a semblance of being motionless; the ship had matched velocity and now rocketed around Jupiter in synch with the moon.

Commander Witek supervised the three scientists preparing the landing craft. Her crew consisted of a hydrologist, biologist and a chemist. They expected to pierce the frozen surface of the moon and prove once and for all that Europa did indeed have water in addition to the oxygen of its thin atmosphere. Vinchenzo, the biologist, was the wild card scientist. He was there to determine if the hidden seas of Europa could be the place that humanity finally found life beyond Earth.

“Commander Witek. Witek. Oona!” Captain Mendoza sounded nearly frantic as he called the Pole.

Witek secured the core extractor she had been inspecting and drifted back into the main body of Cortez.

“Is something wrong Captain?”

“Aqui, here, come look.”

The Spaniard was motioning frantically from where he floated beside the view port. Witek floated to him and grabbed onto a handle. Mendoza’s eyes were wide and his face was flushed.

“Look there and tell me what you see.”

Witek looked out the port. Once more the Great Red Spot was beneath them, Europa hung at the seven o’clock position between Jupiter and Cortez.

“What am I looking for? I see Europa and Jupiter; nothing out of the ordinary.”

“No, look again; look directly above the spot.”

Oona Witek sighed in exasperation but complied. Mendoza was not known as a practical joker so there must be something to this. There floated Europa, the ruddy Great Spot whirled slowly above it and the colored bands of Jupiter raced to and fro above and below it. She was about to give up when she saw it. A perfect black circle north of the spot; if it had been a snake it would have bitten her. How could she have missed something so obvious? Unlike the colored bands, the black spot appeared stationary, like Europa; then it hit her.

“It’s Europa’s shadow Jorge. What’s the big deal?”

“No it’s not. Mira, look. The sun is on the right side of Europa. See the terminator to the left? That dark spot can’t be its shadow. I think we are observing one of the dark spots that form from time to time.”

Witek looked again. Mendoza was right; the sun was in the wrong position for the black zone to be a shadow. She had read of what was called the Great Dark Spot which had formed back in the 90s. It was an elliptical anti-cyclonic storm that created an opening in the eternal clouds of Jupiter.

“Oh my God, that’s amazing. Jorge, tell me we’re filming this.”

“Of course; our first great discovery.”

Witek smiled in satisfaction and then cocked her head and her smile evaporated.

“Is it just me or is that dark storm a bit too perfect of a circle?”

The Captain and commander crowded the port and stared at the black circle sitting below them. It was perfectly shaped, unlike any other storm system on the surface of Jupiter. Nature is imperfect, there are no straight lines or perfect circles occurring spontaneously making the dark spot even stranger.

“That is odd – Dios mio!”

The black circle expanded rapidly as they watched. In a matter of seconds the black shape spread outward, retaining its perfect circular shape, until it was as large as the Great Red Spot. The edges of the black circle ended just beyond the red one. Darkness reigned in the black spot. Witek hoped that the sun streaming in from above would illuminate the lower portions of the clouds in the strange opening but it remained inky black as if the light were swallowed by the spot. As she stared, Witek thought she saw movement within the blackness; a writhing motion deep within the darkness.

The motion increased in speed and enormous black tentacles, each thicker than the Cortez, exploded upward from the blackness. Dozens of the writhing tentacles stretched above the clouds of Jupiter; across the vacuum separating them and finally they wrapped around the Cortez.

Alarms sounded through the cabin, mixing with screams as the vessel was wrenched from orbit and dragged below the surface of the Jovian clouds. The black spot snapped shut and disappeared, leaving Jupiter as enigmatic as it had been for all of history.

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