“Echoes of Life” by Jetse de Vries
(EPUB | MOBI)

Jason’s concentration borders on the inhuman, the way he disregards the celestial spectacle. Jupiter, dominating Europa’s sky with its mini-solar spikes, is all but impossible to ignore.

Huge: seen from Europa’s icy plains it’s thirteen times as big as the Moon seen from the Earth. Lurking on the edge of the horizon it appears so enormous that it seems like the little moon is falling right into the rotating leviathan.

Spectacular: the faint blue hue penetrates the black void like a vacuum-defying aura; the dazzling, gargantuan disc with its streaks of mauve intertwined with white eddies and purple vortices; and the scarlet blizzard of the red spot centering the planetary perspective.

Shining: the eight Spikes of Jupiter crowned by their mini-Suns. Eight long, light green needles sticking out from the surface of the gas giant, like humongous super-thin candles on the greatest birthday cake of the solar system. The glowing lights at the end of the 200,000 km long needles are the mini-Suns, gigantic fusion generators beaming their energy all over the Jovian system.

Still, all this seems lost on young Jason, who only has eyes for the strange creature displayed on his flaptop screen. It looks like a fish with no eyes and no side fins. Long, thin, and sleek, it speeds through the water like a freshly launched torpedo. It seems to be swimming straight up, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, it becomes thicker. Swelling up as it rises, the slender missile turns into a lofty airship.

“‘Zeppelinfish,'” Jason types, “‘Stygichthys zeppelinops jasonus.'” He looks up, noticing something strange in the baffling panorama. Something slyly invading this scene of sky-wide magnificence, like a fly setting itself down on a masterpiece of art. A bug in the Jovian thistle. The tiny dark point elongates, becoming an upside-down exclamation mark with a mirroring full stop, like a walking black spotlight or an obsidian lighthouse. A silhouette in disguise, a nightrider at the crack of dawn.

As the apparition comes closer, Jason feigns indifference and intently looks at his flaptop computer, tapping keys and calling up the specs of his latest design model. Of course, from the corner of his eyes he steals furtive glances. The solitary figure is not gengineered for Europa and his black, leathery-looking spacesuit and matching black helmet with the large visor make him resemble a romantic icon of the past…what was that…a biker!

Now that the mysterious stranger has come closer Jason can see his face: sharp-trimmed triangular sideburns, wild black hair, and a wolfish grin. His glance at Jason is at the same time calculating and relaxed. Gordon ‘Blaze’ Baylith watches the intense kid and switches his com unit on.

“Hello, kid.”

Jason looks up from his frantic finger work for the shortest of moments. “Hello, stranger.”

“Already busy so early in the morning. Mind if I ask with what?”

“Designing a robot pod.”

“You are?” Kid looks about eight years old, Blaze thinks, and he’s already designing probes. A prodigy, or is this normal, here?

“Look here,” Jason says, eyes glowing, indicating his flaptop screen. “I call it the Yellow Seeker.”

“Looks like a banana. Isn’t it unstable?”

“Yes, it has to be counter-steered all the time with precise thruster bursts.”

“Isn’t that a bit — you know — inefficient?”

“If it only goes straight ahead, yes. But because of this inbuilt instability it can make shorter and sharper curves than the best stable designs.”

“I see. Very smart. Thing is, I’m looking for a woman called Jenny van Aken.”

“My mum?” Is that a glimmer of anticipation in the stranger’s eyes?

“Is she? I’d like to see her, ehm…”

“Jason.” Holding out his hand.

“Gordon, but everyone calls me Blaze.” Shaking the young kid’s hand, short and firm.

“Follow me, Mr. Gordon.”

“Just call me Blaze, please, Jason.”

“Okay, Blaze. But beware.”

“Beware of what?”

“My mum’s a bit grumpy this early in the morning.”

“Oh, that.” Both of them smile in silent understanding.

* * *

The human colony on Europa is by far the smallest habitation on Jupiter’s inner moons. A policy of minimal interference with the environment means that only a very sparse first settlement is searching its new home — very unobtrusively — for signs of life.

Callisto and Ganymede are fully terraformed and filled to the brim with the ever-expanding human masses. Even on volcanically active Io seismic safe havens are harboring concrete islands stacked chockablock with skyscrapers so tall they’re re-baptized skypiercers.

The discovery of a liquid ocean underneath its cracked ice crust, in combination with volcanic vents on the ocean floor increasing local temperatures above 0°C, made Europa a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life. So it was declared a sanctuary, and kept off-limits for colonization. But as the population pressure in the Jovian system kept increasing, Europa’s special status was ever more severely questioned. Is the possibility of primitive life reason enough to keep the moon closed? As the intense political debate between the differing factions ground to a deadlock, a special, objective investigator was flown in all the way from Earth…

* * *

The impartial observer follows the kid, who’s bio-enhanced with isolating, melanin skin, enlarged chest cavity, and eyes with slightly smaller pupils that can see deep into the ultraviolet. Blaze is struggling a bit as Jason’s long, flowing jump steps are more suitable to Europa’s gravity than his short, bandy-legged gait. They approach a settlement of silver domes — looking like mirroring igloos — that represent the typical housing for the Europan settlers. To the unmodified eye, in Hiëronymusity all houses look alike, as the pioneers have applied the distinctive features in the UV spectrum. So the sight of the wall paintings in Jason’s homestead executed in deep bladjuuf and soft pjuvee is quite unseen to Blaze, while to Jason it’s as unmistakable as the screaming murals in Haringville’s graffiti quarter or the characteristic architecture of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic.

Blaze, as any other stranger to this self-similar town, can only follow the young kid to — what seems to him — a random hemisphere in a hall of globular mirrors. His sense of getting lost is amplified by the images on the self-reflecting orbs that weave infinite patterns of shining pearls on their perfectly polished surfaces. What a maze, Blaze thinks, a telltale sign of a sheltered society. He enters the unidentifiable home with a sense of vertigo. Jason calls out, saying they have a visitor, and the moment Blaze sees the kid’s mother another dizzy feeling upsets his hard-fought equilibrium.

A raven-haired femme fatale, deep blue eyes under thin, arched brows, a pert nose between high cheekbones, and a heart-shaped mouth with slightly glossy lips: her face alone stops a man dead in his tracks. The small mole on her right cheek only enhances her almost surreal beauty.

Any notion that the very barrel-chestedness needed to contain the colonists’ enlarged lungs — enabling them to breathe in the thin atmosphere — would wreak havoc with feminine curvaceousness is proved spectacularly wrong by the matching mammaries of Jason’s mum. These near perfect half-domes, only barely restrained in a deep décolleté, warmly welcome any inquiring gaze. The glowing red tattoo on her left breast doesn’t help to distract attention to a more discrete area, either. While shifting his gaze to those long legs is only a little more tactful.

The delectable woman hardly notices his appraising stare, though, as her attention is focused on her homecoming son.

“Jason,” she says, “have you been careful enough?”

“Aw, mum, I can take care of myself.”

“You know that outbursts of cosmic radiation can happen anytime,” his mother continues as if she hasn’t heard him, “Did you wear your cosmic watch?”

Jason raises his left arm and shows her the warning device. “Why ask me every time?” he says, annoyed. “You know where I am.”

“Don’t talk to me like that,” the worried mum says. “You know I love you.” And she steps over to her son and hugs him. Jason resists a little bit at first, but then his pout disappears and he hugs back.

“Now can you tell me who you brought with you?”

“This is Blaze, he’s looking for — ”

“Blaze? Didn’t I raise you properly, Jase?”

“Mister Baylith,” Jason says, rolling his eyes, “meet my mum. In the evening she’s not so grumpy.”

Not quite successfully hiding his smile, Blaze steps forward and offers his hand. “Gordon Baylith, ma’am,” he says, “but everyone calls me Blaze.”

“Jenny van Aken,” she says as she shakes his hand. “What brings you here, Mr. Baylith?”

“Something of a delicate matter.” He casts a furtive look at Jason.

Jenny catches his drift. “Do you have some homework or something, Jase?” she says. “Mr. Baylith and I need to talk alone for a while.”

“I’ll find something to do,” Jason — ever so curious — says mockingly, hating it when he’s left out. He goes to his room and both grownups sit down in the living room to talk about their adult matters.

* * *

When Jason comes down for lunch, the tall stranger is still there. He winks at the kid as Jenny says:

“Blaze will be staying here for a couple of days, Jason.”

“Cool,” Jason says. “Why?”

“Let’s say I’m doing a kind of private investigation,” Blaze answers, “and I need a few days to check things out. However, when I asked your mum about the nearest hotel — ”

” — I had to confess our little community does not have such facilities. So I invited him to use our guest room for the duration.”

“An offer I couldn’t refuse,” Blaze says as he makes a sandwich.

* * *

After lunch, Jenny shows Blaze the nerve center, as she calls it. Large screens dominate the farthest-off wall, faced by two work stations, and right behind them, occupying the most space, is a kind of relief map of a certain region of Europa. The ice and its exaggerated contours are white and translucent, the water-filled cracks and the ocean beneath the ice are a deep, clear blue. The bottom is sand-colored, and there are several volcanic hot spots highlighted in red.

The surface of the mapped ice looks quite spectacular: like a large plate shattered by an enormous impact, the cracks mostly forced together again, forming ridges, crevasses, and troughs crisscrossing each other like cooked spaghetti. The dearth of meteor craters is another telling feature, suggesting that the surface renews itself quite often.

“Where is that?” Blaze wonders.

“Conamara Chaos, 9.7 degrees Northern latitude, 272.7 Western longitude,” Jason answers.

“Why do you monitor it?” Blaze asks, his interest apparent.

“We found life.”

“Bacteria? Phytoplankton maybe?”

“Fairly evolved life: a strange kind of fish.”

“Give me a break!”

“Exactly,” Jenny says.“We think that the cracks in the ice are the motors behind the evolution process. On the ocean bottom, there are volcanic vents that could sustain anaerobic bacteria. In the cracks of the ice, photosynthetic plants take advantage of sunlight. Life forms further down, also clinging on the ice walls, uses food brought down by the currents. Floating life forms move up and down with the tides — ”

“Tides? I thought Europa was tide-locked to Jupiter.”

“Even then — especially since the moon is quite close to Jupiter — there is enough tidal flexing to both generate enough heat to keep the sub-surface ocean liquid and cause strong tidal currents to flow every 85 hours.

“The Conamara Chaos is located right above an area of major volcanic activity. At regular intervals, large heat plumes rise from above and melt through the ice, splintering and cracking it. Small cracks refreeze within a day, but large ones can last a few thousand years. The Marius Crack is the largest in the Conamara Chaos and our main focus of research. There we found not only phytoplankton floating around but more complex photosynthetic plants clinging to the cliff walls as well.”

“This scenario of life was already theorized in the late twentieth century,” Jason chimes in, “so nothing really surprising there. However, we were taken quite by surprise when we saw a fish eating the plankton.”

“Only one fish?” Blaze asks. “How could it have evolved?”

“We suspect that the zeppelinfish — as we named them — make periodic treks from a volcanic vent at the bottom to the surface via one of the cracks,” Jenny says. “Probably a relic from an old cycle by which preceding floating life forms supplied the deeper parts of the ocean with traces of oxygen from the atmosphere, thereby giving an opportunity for more complex life to develop.”

“They’re coming up from 30 kilometers? The pressure difference — ”

” — is only about 25 bars, as Europa’s mass is only 0.8% of that of Earth. No decompression problems. The fish do expand in size, they get about three times as big when they get near the surface.”

“On the bottom they’re like torpedoes, near the surface more like zeppelins.” Jason says.

“Then why didn’t you call them torpedofish?”

“Zeppelinfish sounds much cooler.” Jason radiates pride.

“I see credit is evenly distributed here,” Blaze smiles as Jenny blushes slightly. “With a whole lotta love.”

“We have plenty to go around,” Jenny says, “even if our little community may seem a bit distant to outsiders.”

“The old cliché: still waters run deep?”

“Oh, no,” Jason says, in his youthful naïveté missing the point, “with such tidal currents these waters are anything but still.”

“Good to hear.” Unnoticed by the young kid, Blaze winks at Jenny.

“All very good, young man,” she says, “but isn’t it time you got some shut-eye?”

Jason protests, as he wants to talk more about his beloved project to this sympathetic, yet enigmatic stranger. But eventually he gives in and heads for bed. The adults retreat to the living room to discuss somewhat less scientific matters.

* * *

The next afternoon Blaze and Jenny are sitting on the couch, a little bit beyond the stage of holding hands. Blaze looks at Jenny, Jenny looks at Blaze. Jenny’s right hand is stroking the inside of Blaze’s left thigh while Blaze’s left hand is softly squeezing Jenny’s shapely butt. Jason is working on his flaptop screen, oblivious to what the adults are up to. Then a jaunty little bell sounds from the gleaming streets.

The Iceman cometh, Blaze thinks, and just in time.

He calls out to the young kid: “Jason?”

“Yes, Uncle Blaze?”

“You hear that? How about some ice cream?”

“Ooh, I love ice cream!”

“Here’s some money. Treat yourself.”

Smiling ear to ear, Jason runs to the ice cream man outside.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, Blaze and Jenny have retreated to their bedroom where they are fervently making love. Through cascading waves of ecstasy and apotheosis, riding shotgun on a train to nirvana, just about to see the blinding white light at the end of the tunnel of love, Blaze feels a little hand softly tapping his bare buttock. A small voice whispers through great moans of pleasure:

“Uncle Blaze, money back.”

Blaze freezes in the middle of the hottest action he’s had in ages. He looks back over his shoulder, sees little Jason standing there, offering him the small change. Jenny opens her eyes, angry at Blaze for stopping right when the going was getting extremely good, and sees her son trying to give a pair of nickels to the flabbergasted Blaze. She collapses into the kind of bodily convulsions she wasn’t aiming for.

“Well, I did bring him up to be honest,” she manages between uncontrollable fits of laughter. Blaze takes the coins and puts them on the nightstand, pats Jason affectionately on the shoulder, then can’t refrain himself anymore, either and collapses — roaring with laughter — too. Jason watches the two hysterically giggling, naked adults in total amazement.

“Never mind,” Blaze guffaws, “next time, I’ll tell you about tipping.”

* * *

Later, a fully dressed Blaze visits Jason in his sanctum sanctorum: the basement where he is both connected to the wide world through his computer but sometimes isolates himself from his more immediate surrounds. Charts of the Jovian system and maps of Europa cover the walls, together with posters showing the observed life forms found in the deep oceans. Jason sits behind a large screen while his miming hands manipulate the images on display.

“Mind if I come in, Jason?”

“No, Uncle Blaze.”

“OK. Ehm, your mum and I — ”

“Yeah?”

“We’re becoming close friends. So close in fact — ”

“I noticed that.”

“Well, if two adults are so close together, it’s better not to disturb them.”

“Figures. Otherwise I’ll just be laughed at.”

“No, kiddo. We didn’t laugh at you, but at our own stupidity. I mean we should’ve closed the door. And you’re a very good boy, honest and all. We both love you very much. But the next time…”

“What then?”

“Just tell the iceman to keep the change, OK?”

“Will do. So you’re my new dad now, Uncle Blaze?”

“Well…maybe. I want to get to know you better, and your mum, of course.

He points at the screen. “Is that the zeppelinfish you saw?” he says.

“Yes. This 3D-image — taken with the X-ray probe — is a cross section of its bone structure. I can superimpose its muscles then, and its nervous system.”

“A shame you saw only one,” Blaze says, happy to change the subject, “What’s that metallic gleam in their bones and nerve cells?”

“Iron and copper alloys, wired all through their bodies.”

“How does it get there?”

“We’re not sure. Our robot pods — including one of my Yellow Seekers — found large ore deposits on the ocean floor right below the Conamara Chaos. So we think the zeppelinfish somehow get it from there.”

“Strange creatures. Why do they need so much iron and copper in their bones and nervous system?”

“We think they are very sensitive to magnetic fields. There is no light in the submerged ocean, so navigating by an internal, fine-tuned compass would be an enormous evolutionary advantage.”

“But I thought Europa had no magnetic field.”

“It doesn’t. But Jupiter does: its magnetic field is so strong you can easily measure it here. And since we are tide-locked to Jupiter — ”

“Its magnetic north is also Europa’s magnetic north. Stupid of me not to realize that.”

“Does that make us both stupid, Uncle Blaze?”

“I guess so, but luckily in different areas. So I can teach you things, and you can teach me.”

“Will you do that, Uncle Blaze? Sometimes you adults behave so strange.”

“Of course I will, kiddo.” Blaze says and hugs the kid. “So you don’t mind me staying?”

“I liked you from the start, Uncle Blaze.” Jason says and hugs back.

“Thank you, Jase. Now if you tell me more about that crazy fish first…”

* * *

A few days later, Blaze is still in the house. His love life has made a quantum leap forward, with the unfortunate side-effect that his observations aren’t quite impartial anymore. Deep inside, he admits he’s on the Europans’ side, but just a single observation of a higher life form is not convincing enough: more tangible evidence is needed. But how to get that?

Actually, every night he ponders that, he’s being…distracted. Like this night, as he lies in Jenny’s embrace, relishing in the afterglow of a bout of passionate lovemaking.

“Since you are staying here a little bit longer,” Jenny says, smiling mischievously, “you might do our little community a small service.”

“What,” Blaze wonders, “might that be?”

“Because almost nobody knows you here, you can be the perfect Sinterklaas.”

“Sinn-thur-class? What’s that?”

“A bit like your Santa Claus, but then quite different.” And she explains the fine points of this tradition from the lowlands.

* * *

December 5: all the kids in Jason’s high school are gathered in the big auditorium in gleeful — or dreadful — anticipation. The great hall is abuzz with frantic talk and nervous giggles. The Good-Holy-Man has come, with his spaceboat from Callisto. Together with his helpers, de Zwarte Pieten — the Black Peters. He walks in, dressed in his customary red robe and white underdress. With his white-crossed red miter and his long gray beard, he conveys the image of a severe but just man. The moment they see him coming the kids begin to sing as one:

See there the spaceboat arrives
From Callisto’s shores again
It brings us Saint Nicholas
The one and true Good-Holy-Man

By the kids, he’s feared more than the most uptight police man and adored more than their sweetest uncle. He is Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, the Good-Holy-Man. In his Big Book, all the good and bad deeds of the children of the past year are noted. If they have been bad, they will be punished. If they have been good, they will be rewarded.

The Black Peters — some of which decidedly look female — swarm around before the Good-Holy-Man, carry cotton sacks and strew candy — pepernoten, a sort of thick, button-shaped ginger snaps — to the chanting children. A few Black Peters wave their canes — formed by several dead branches tied together — threateningly to children that seem a bit recalcitrant, but the great majority fervently chants the age-old Sinterklaas songs:

His helpers are waiting
And repeat their slogan:
The good ones get candy
The bad ones the cane

As he moves forward, carrying his staff, Saint Nicholas waves majestically with his white-gloved hand to all, turns his head and gracefully nods to the left and right. Eventually, he seats himself on the great throne specially erected for him. Silence ensues, and is broken by the Good-Holy-Man’s authoritative voice. He addresses the crowd in solemn tones, telling them that after an eventful journey through magnetic storms, solar flares and treacherous meteorite showers, Saint Nicholas once more has arrived on the good moon of Europa. Then he puts on his glasses, opens his Big Book and calls out a name.

One by one, all the kids come up to sit in the Good-Holy-Man’s lap and several of the things — both naughty and nice — they have done over the year are read aloud. Chided for bad habits and complimented on the good things, the kids — sometimes fearful, sometimes excited, sometimes trying to keep cool but mostly failing — always get the presents in the end.

Some, though, need more than a vocal reprimand. The ones that come forward with that look in their eyes saying they ain’t afraid of no Sinterklaas, trying to pull his beard off, and calling him by his (supposed) real name. But the beard won’t budge, and after pointing out the suspected impersonators, the Good-Holy-Man silences the most obnoxious ones by threatening to put them in his sack: De zak van Sinterklaas. In it, all bad kids are taken back to Callisto where they have to work in the deep dark ice-mines.

Only the bravest dare open their big mouths then, and are suitably rewarded with a caning from one of the Black Peters. Of course, this punishment is 99% show and 1% hurt, and it frightens some other kids so much that they pee on Sinterklaas’s lap. A super-absorbing underskirt takes care of that, and then the Good-Holy-Man shows his most fatherly side.

Inevitably, it’s Jason’s turn: “Next: Jason van Aken.”

Jason comes forward, a bit frightened. He hasn’t been bad last year, well not really. But Sinterklaas knows everything. How does he do it? Furthermore, Jason could swear he’s heard that voice before…

But he has no time to think about it as he is already seated on Saint Nicholas’s knee. The Good-Holy-Man is smiling his broadest smile at him.

“Ah, young Jason. Is your mother still drinking her daily glass of white wine?”

Jason is flabbergasted. What has his mum got to do with this? He looks up at Saint Nicholas and sees that he blinks his left eye. Jason doesn’t know what to make of that and answers truthfully:

“Yes, Sinterklaas.”

“Very good,” and for some reason all the parents burst out laughing, “I hear you help her a lot with her research.”

Jason can only concur. But why is Saint Nicholas winking at him all the time? Also, the Good-Holy-Man keeps on praising him profoundly, way too much. Hardly scolds him at all. Oh shit, Jason thinks, this is worse than being the teacher’s pet. My friends will tease me until summer break. But there is no helping it: the revered saint pats his back, hands him his presents with a smile that could melt a hole in Europa’s ice shelf and just when Jason thinks he can head back, there is one final request.

“Before you go, Jason, sing a little song for Sinterklaas.”

So much for thinking he was getting off lightly. He just hates that, and — of course — the Good-Holy-Man knows. Sweating profusely he sings the shortest one he can think of:

Saint Nicholas, please do
Put something in my shoe
Put something in my boot
Thank you for the loot

Then he returns to his seat, both relieved and with a strange sense of premonition. No time to ponder, though, as another kid is called forward and Sinterklaas presides over the next case.

Finally, the Good-Holy-Man gets up and leaves the auditorium. The Black Peters cover his retreat with another hail of sweets and the kids sing a final song. They keep on singing well after the last Black Peter has left the building and the Good-Holy-Man is already on his way. Then there is the inevitable after-party with the kids cherishing their presents, being spoiled by their proud parents and eating too much candy. Jenny leaves a bit early, saying she’ll see him at home but Jason hardly notices: he’s already linking up the Interkid iBox Saint Nicholas gave him with those of his friends so they can play with each other.

* * *

Later, Jason returns home to get the biggest shock of his young life. In the living room his mother is embracing Sinterklaas, kissing him passionately. Jason simply can’t believe his eyes: Saint Nicholas! With his mother! The Good-Holy-Man should be beyond all these earthly longings! He shouldn’t be necking with a woman, and especially not with his mum! Talk about his mum: Saint Nicholas is at least nine hundred years old! Compared to that, making out with his grandpa is almost normal! What is happening here?

As their mouths disengage, his mother says:

“You were perfect. Nobody recognized you, not even Jason. They’ll talk about this Sinterklaas for months to come.” And she kisses him again. Then Saint Nicholas sees Jason from the corner of his eye. He stops the fervent kissing and greets the kid.

“Come in, Jason. What did you think of my performance?” He takes off his miter and wig and immediately Jason knows where he has heard that voice before: it’s Blaze, Uncle Blaze as his mother is calling him, staying with them the past week.

Jason starts to cry. It can’t be: Sinterklaas is the Good-Holy-Man, the epitome of fairness, the one objective referee that passes fair judgment on all kids. He wants to flee to his room, but his mother holds him before he can get there.

“Come, Jase, let’s sit on the couch and talk.”

Jason keeps sobbing for a while, but under the continuing caresses of his mother the gasps subside. He looks up and sees the man he believed to be Saint Nicholas undressing and becoming Uncle Blaze, the stranger from outer space. A last glitter of hope forms in his mind.

“Sinterklaas was ill and you replaced him?” he asks feebly, already weary of the answer.

“No,” his mother says, “Sinterklaas doesn’t exist. I thought you suspected as much.”

Well, maybe some part of him did, but Jason wants so much to believe in him. “It’s not fair,” he says, “the rest of the world may be lying and cheating, but there is always Sinterklaas to put things right.”

“Unfortunately, there isn’t,” his mother says. “You’ll have to learn to live with that.”

“So all those stories about him were made up? Lies like so many other things?”

“Not lies, make-believe stories to help you become a better kid.”

“But if Sinterklaas doesn’t control who’s good and who’s bad, who does?”

“We, our community as a whole, do. The real world is a difficult place, Jase — and I think you already know that, deep down inside — but in the end good behavior will be suitably rewarded. Not immediately, but eventually it will.”

“See the positive side of it, Jason,” Blaze says. “When the smart alecks — and you know who they are — are trying to figure out who Sinterklaas was this time, you know it.” “Fat good that does,” Jason says.

“Just tell them you know in your coolest voice,” Blaze explains, “and when they ask who, let them suffer a while before you tell.”

Jason isn’t convinced, but lets the adults soothe him. A great holiday dinner helps cool his nerves as well. After dinner, friends and relatives come to visit and give each other Sinterklaas presents as well, but only after they read each other strange poems that make the recipients look pained and the others laugh before they actually get the present.

His mum — and the rest — is having such fun she forgets to send him to bed. Eventually, he gets so sleepy he goes by himself, kissing his mother and his new uncle goodnight while waving to the rest.

Tired of the long, eventful day, he falls asleep thinking: Adults, I’ll never understand them.

* * *

A couple of days later, Blaze joins Jenny and her team on a field trip to the Conamara Chaos, following up on some anomalies a field engineer reported. These anomalies looked like air bubbles, but these air bubbles were so uniformly shaped that either some unknown process had taken place, or they were something entirely different.

Jason comes along, naturally — just try to stop him — and helps the team’s technician with setting up the flexible nanodrill equipment.

This job mainly consists of adjusting the solar panels, programming the computer, and feeding the exact location of the drill spot. Then the drillbot enters the ice and disappears: its hair-thin fiber cable is indistinguishable from the surrounding ice. Entering the first bubble, its micro video sends enhanced images down the fiber-optic lifeline.

Suddenly everybody, including Blaze, begins to realize what they are seeing.

Vague imprints in eons-old ice, so fragile compared to Earth’s fossils written in stone. Ancestors of the zeppelinfish, thin torpedo-formed vertebrates with squid-like tendrils forming the tail. Ghosts from the past, hollow echoes of life. Possibly a school of fish caught up in a sudden heat plume and frozen over afterwards.

After filming the whole bubble and taking samples, the drillbot retreats and drills its way to several others. When the drillbot’s sample container is full Jenny decides this is enough for the day and the team packs up and returns home.

A few hours later it’s rather crowded in the nerve center in Jenny’s house as everybody in the team wants to find out the results of the DNA analysis. Jason feeds the samples into the analyzing equipment and seats himself before the flatscreen. The rest gather around him and wait.

“A 98.4% match,” Jason says. “They are definitely predecessors of the zeppelinfish.”

“That’s impossible,” Jenny says. “This suggests that these proto-squids are several hundreds of thousands of years older than the current species. But the ice layer in which we found them is only a few thousand years old.”

“Maybe this sample was corrupted,” a technician suggests. “Let’s check the other samples before we reach any premature conclusions.”

However, the other samples give the same match. This leads to a great discussion about the temporal discrepancy.

In the heat of it, Blaze says, “Sorry to break this up, but a small suggestion from a non-scientist: is there another way to date the samples?”

“How do you mean?”

“Maybe something old-fashioned like carbon dating?”

“That’s a good one, we could do that with the back-up samples.”

The carbon dating gives an age of about 4,500 years, in concurrence with that of the ice layer. So the discussions continue, reaching no consensus.

Tired, but only partly satisfied, the other team members head home.

* * *

That same night, Jenny is so exhausted from the day’s events that her bedtime acrobatics with Blaze are short and sweet. Still, they have time for a small discussion before sleep takes over.

“Well, this should settle it, right?” Jenny asks.

“I don’t know.” Blaze answers, a bit weary.

“You don’t know? This is hard scientific proof!”

“Of extinct life. And there’s still only a single sighting of existing complex life.”

“But every exobiologist would gladly give her left hand for this.”

“Yeah, but this is politics, not science. The big public, selfish with a miniscule attention span, needs more — ehm — dramatic evidence.”

Jenny is too tired to get angry. A deep sigh is all she can manage. Something more is bothering Blaze, though.

“Shouldn’t we tell Jason about this?”

“Pollute his mind with politics? Puh-lease!”

“But he needs to know that sooner or later.”

“The later the better.”

Now it’s Blaze’s turn to sigh deeply before both adults go to sleep on it.

* * *

A few nights later, Blaze and Jenny are snuggled up to each other, both enjoying a deep, dreamless sleep. A high-pitched voice breaks through the restive darkness and Jenny awakes with a wobbling head as Jason is shaking her shoulder.

“Wake up, mum! Activity!”

“Whazza?” or suchlike is all Jenny can mumble.

“Very high activity in the Marius Crack. A massive school of zeppelinfish is swimming upward with the springtide. They will be at the surface in three hours, we must hurry!”

Only now does she hear the buzzing of the bedside alarm: the activity alert from the semi-sentient AI constantly monitoring the probes. Quite a while since I drifted off like that, Jenny thinks, I guess my body needed it. But now that the information percolates through her still-fuzzy mind she gets up.

Blaze, slowly, subconsciously realizing he’s only holding thin air in his arms, starts to stir. Then, as a lazy gaze from a minimally opened eye shows he’s alone in bed his reflexes cut in and he’s up in record time. Barely fast enough, though, to get his suit on and follow Jenny and Jason as they step into the surface skimmer. Jason already pulls up as Blaze is still closing the door.

“What’s going on?” he asks.

“There’s a very unusual peak of activity in the Marius Crack,” Jenny says. “We’re heading there right away.”

“What kind of activity?”

“Zeppelinfish coming up in massive numbers.”

“You sure?” Blaze is unable to keep the hope out of his voice.

“Well, we’ll soon find out.”

In the meantime, at the wheel Jason has driven them swiftly through Hiëronymusity’s self-similar streets and now has the skimmer racing over the smooth ice just as fast as he can. They’re heading towards a part of the moon that’s always in full Jovian light. The gradually increasing blueness of the sky marks their passage through several overlapping twilight zones. Even at full speed it will take them two and a half hours to reach the Marius Crack.

Jason programs the right course in the computer and then switches the controls to autopilot. Jenny kisses his left cheek, ruffles his hair, and hands him his favorite cheese-and-tomato sandwich, prepared from the skimmer’s provision fridge.

“Thanks for waking me, kiddo.”

“Yeah, you sleep much deeper since you met Uncle Blaze,” Jason says between two mouthfuls.

“Well, he’s like my big teddy bear.”

“That is, when you sleep.” Casting a sly look.

His mother blushes and his adopted uncle rolls against the back of his seat, laughing thunderously. Jenny tries to quiet him with a few well-aimed kicks at his shin but to little avail. When the laughter has subsided Jenny strikes back with:

“Your poor mum has to sleep when she can, Jase. Do you have any idea how hard this big teddy bear snores?”

“You mean that deep, rumbling sound, ma? Like that legendary thing…”

“Legendary what?”

“You know, a Harley Davidson?”

“Come on, son, he’s not that old.”

“But as cranky?”

Time for the haggard man to be quiet and the rest of the family to giggle. In this way the happily nagging trio prepares for the things to come and two hours pass by almost unnoticed.

When they arrive at the point of the Marius Crack where the tidal current flows most vehemently, the surrounding ice baths are in the full glare of all eight Spikes and it’s impossible to stare into the silvery water without a polarizing filter. The quickly warming surface is causing a noticeable updraft in the thin atmosphere.

The Jovian light now penetrates a few hundred meters in the nine-kilometer-deep crack of the continental ice, and the fast-swimming school of zeppelinfish becomes spectacularly apparent to the visible-light cameras of several probes. Before they were almost invisible specters against the dark, deep-sea background of the infrared monitors. Now the scene explodes into a cacophony of colors and shapes.

With their double, perpendicular tailfins, the zeppelinfish resemble an immense salvo of sleek torpedoes, twisting like crazy, racing upward like surface-to-air missiles. Their goal seems unified; their looks could hardly be more apart. Not only do their individual skin colors vary all across the visible spectrum and beyond, their surface characteristics are unique to each separate individual, as well. Zebra stripes, panther spots, and mongrel dog tapestries are just the most recognizable among the weird checkerboards, fractal symmetries and random patterns depicted in color-matches that would frighten off even the most avant-garde fashion freak. The unfathomable whole amplified by the distorting mirror reflections of the surrounding ice walls.

Reciting the GPS readings of the probes Jason counts down:

“Hundred meters from the surface…ninety…eighty — how fast they swim! — seventy…sixty…fifty — shouldn’t they slow down? — forty…thirty — no they don’t — twenty — going faster, if possible — ten…surface!”

Even in the ethereal atmosphere, the sound of thousands and thousands of zeppelinfish breaking through the surface tension almost simultaneously is audible, like the popping of a billion bubbles, like the splash of uncountable lemmings diving into the deep blue sea. The sky bursts with colors as the zeppelinfish break through the silvery surface, a sight crazier than your wildest dream exploding from a bathroom mirror. They puff themselves up with great gasps of thin air, expanding to several times their previous size. Making the best use of the warm updraft, the innumerable hordes of zeppelinfish circle up in the air, an immense flock of improbable birds drowning out the majestic sight of Jupiter and its eight Spikes with the blinding, bedazzling tapestry of an intertwined, ever-changing magic carpet conquering the sky in all the myriad ways.

They head as far to the glowing gas giant as they can, but this incredible mass evacuation was doomed from the start. Inevitably, the first ones begin to fall. One by one, the zeppelinfish reach the top of their flight arc and come down again. Several kilometers from the Marius crack, in the direction of Jupiter, the flock of zeppelinfish crash into the unforgiving ice like a surrealist wet dream of cascading Icaruses each dressed in a different harlequin outfit.

Jenny and Blaze can only gape in total disbelief at the most incredible scene they’ve ever witnessed. Jason’s deeply embedded love for the creatures overcomes his hypnotic trance and he quickly shouts the two adults out of their enchantment.

“They’ll die! They’re all dying! We have to save them!” he cries and jumps into the surface skimmer. Too many, Blaze and Jenny think, way too many. But they know saying this out loud is useless at the moment, so they join the over-excited kid in his desperate attempt to do something, anything.

Accelerating the surface skimmer like a space jock on speed testing a new warp drive, Jason races to the closest crash site. Braking so fast that all cushioning safeties engage at once, the agitated kid slips out from under the airbags and out of the car before the adults realize what’s hit them.

As he is carrying his second load of unmoving zeppelinfish into the skimmer’s cargo bay, Jenny and Blaze — still dizzy — get out of the vehicle and can only help the young kid to the best of their abilities. Once the skimmer’s bay is full, they return to the Marius Crack like a bat out of hell bent for leather chased by Beelzebub himself. As fast as they can, they return the zeppelinfish to the freezing cold water. This does not seem to help the still creatures as not a single one begins to move and all just sink in the steep, water-filled chasm.

Jason doesn’t notice this, or it just won’t register as he heads back to pick up another skimmerload. Reluctantly, the adults join him. After the fifth load, though, Blaze takes Jason by the shoulder.

“Sorry, kid, but it’s no use.”

“No, we can’t stop, not now.”

“Jase, I’ve set all available probes looking for the fish we returned,” Jenny says, fighting her tears, “and they haven’t spotted a single one returning to life. They all just sink, or float but don’t move.”

“No!”

“Not a single sign of life, kid. I’m sorry, so sorry…” Blaze holds the kid, affectionate and firm, knowing the tears will come. “Nothing we can do, absolutely nothing…”

“No. Oh, nooooh!” Jason breaks down, his mother follows suit, and the only thing Blaze can do is hold both of them tight and share their tears.

* * *

After an almost interminable period the rest of the research team arrive on the spot and take over to record as much from the enigmatic event as possible. Blaze and Jenny return home with a devastated Jason.

Inconsolable, Jason wants to be left alone and retreats to the basement to suffer in silence. After an indeterminate amount of time — Jason is so upset it might be anything from a few minutes to several hours — Blaze opens the door a little and asks in a soft voice if he can come in. Reluctantly, Jason assents. Blaze seats himself on the ground opposite the disturbed kid, searching for words after an awkward pause.

“There’s something I need to tell you, Jason,” he says. The red-rimmed eyes looking at the kid show that the adult has struggled hard, too.

“Your mum wanted to tell you later, when you’d grown up a bit more. But after what happened today we think it’s better you know now.”

Another uncomfortable silence as Blaze looks to the ceiling for inspiration.

“Remember Sinterklaas? At first you thought he was a saint living on Callisto — ”

” — while it was just you pretending to be him. I hated you a little for that.”

“You did? But I didn’t mean to hurt you…”

“Only a little bit, Uncle Blaze. But that’s okay now.”

“Well, it’s one of those things parents tell you to make you behave better. Like the monster under your bed — ”

” — and the big, bad wolf that will come after me if I don’t eat my vegetables. I know the world is more complicated than that.”

“It is, and it seems very uncaring at times. You see, there is immense pressure to open Europa up for colonization…”

And Blaze breaks the upsetting news as gently as he can.

“But that will kill all the zeppelinfish, and who knows what more there is on the ocean floor!” Jason says, flabbergasted.

“Now, Jason, what happened yesterday will — however horrible it was — keep Europa’s special status in force.”

“You think so?”

“Hey, kiddo: politics is my specialty. And I can guarantee you that the footage of all these zeppelinfish soaring from the water and then crashing in the ice will melt even the coldest of hearts.”

Jason nods: how could it not? “But is it enough to swing public opinion?”

He’s not half as naive as we think, Blaze thinks before he answers. “Any politician supporting Europa’s colonization after this is dead in the water.”

Realizing his bad choice of words, he gives Jason an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “I just mean to say that all those zeppelinfish didn’t die for nothing, Jase.”

Jason looks at him incredulously, not quite convinced. Blaze leaves to let it all sink in.

* * *

The next morning at breakfast, Jason is subdued. His mum isn’t exactly at her best in the morning and Blaze senses the dim atmosphere and keeps the early morning chitchat to a bare minimum. Even while part of his mind wonders if it really matters, Jason does eat his cereal.

“I’m going out for a walk,” he says, indicating he needs some time on his own.

“You’ll be okay, honey?” Jenny asks.

“I’m fine, mum. See you later.” He heads out the door, through the UV-streaked igloos of the small settlement, onto Europa’s icy plains. He walks around aimlessly, trying to get a grip on his racing mind. Out of sight from everyone, he lets his feelings run free and he begins to cry.

The knowledge that Ganymede’s and Callisto’s overpopulated masses won’t invade his beloved Europa just won’t hit home. It doesn’t soften the blow quite enough. Thousands and thousands of these beautiful creatures died, and there was nothing he could do. But he still feels guilty.

His cosmic watch is sending out a warning. Everybody on Europa is issued one and it serves to give warning of an upcoming outburst of cosmic radiation. It is highly sensitive to certain patterns of magnetic fields that precede peaks of hard particle activity. Knowing this, Jason heads for the nearest radiation shelter.

Stupid routine, Jason thinks, alone in the remote shelter, stupid world, stupid watch. That watch only checks for a certain type of magnetic patterns. It’s –

Now wait a minute, he thinks.

His mind starts racing in higher gear: magnetic fields, and the zeppelinfish had those strange iron and copper-enhanced filaments weaved all through their nervous system, ideally suited to pick up electromagnetic radiation.

They might have started seeing the sun, but then they evolved to sense Jupiter’s immense magnetosphere as well. So when they made their Icarus-like jumps out of the water, their goal might not have been the very far-off Sol but the much closer Jupiter!

Still, even then they wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance of making it. Their gas-filled bodies could only survive and float so long in the thin atmosphere, so forget about the cold, hard vacuum of space. Only stupid electromagnetic precursors of cosmic radiation outbursts propagate there.

Well, if stupid patterns can propagate, why not intelligent ones? Because they are too small, they would disperse before travelling only a fraction of the distance to Jupiter. How can they possibly sustain themselves? One by one, definitely not. But if they worked together, like a school of fish? That’s too crazy for words: a school of zeppelinfish serving only as a launch platform for a flock of self-preserving electromagnetic birds. Crazy, most of them would disperse anyway on the long journey to the gas giant…

But a very small amount might just make it. But what for? They’d certainly get lost in the chaotic magnetosphere near the Jovian upper gas layers. However, lately there are the Spikes of Jupiter. These could be perfect feeding and breeding grounds for such a flock of self-sustaining electromagnetic patterns.

This train of thought, this road to discovery, completely evaporates his misery. He’s excited, burning with a sense of wonder, conceptual breakthrough, holy fire, the works. He wants to go out of this futile shelter and tell his mum, Blaze and the whole world about his discovery. Still, he remains inside, knowing the danger.

Annoying cosmic radiation burst, I wish it was over, he thinks. But it never falls back to zero, especially in this thin atmosphere. The zeppelinfish make regular treks to the surface, and they have no special protection against it.

Then another notion hits him: when exposed to these high levels of cosmic radiation, their DNA will suffer more incidental damage. Their evolution will be accelerated. That explains the discrepancy between their DNA sample analysis of the fossils and the carbon dating. Maybe even their crazy behavior…

The alarm phase is over and Jason runs home, excited, his despondent thoughts forgotten.


Jetse de Vries@shineanthology — is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and a science fiction reader, editor and writer by night. He’s also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, single malt aficionado, metalhead, and intelligent optimist. Recent publications include The New Accelerator and the Second Contacts and Thirteen: Stories of Transformation anthologies.
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