Form Follows Function
Lunch 2032Eternal Fire
Form Follows Function
Form Follows Function
Lunch 2032 Eternal Fire
Form Follows Function by Gustavo Bondoni
Form Follows Function
by Gustavo Bondoni
The humaniform robot, Honda logos resplendent on its head and torso, brought beverage packs to the two submersible operators illuminated only by the glow from their screen. They watched it leave.
"I never know whether I should hug that thing or toss it out the airlock," Wendy García said with a shudder.
Her companion, Igor Golovkin, smirked. "If you throw it out, it will just stand around on the ice until we let it back in."
"Or its battery freezes again. I don't even know why they bothered to send it along. It weighs a ton and it can't do much more than a real human. Hell, it can barely walk any better than we can in this crappy gravity."
"Yeah, well, I'm glad it's here. I really hate having to suit up to go outside the habitat to pick up the thermometer rods. Better to send Bobby." The crew had voted and, of course, the name Robbie had won. But then, by tacit agreement, they'd changed it to Bobby.
They turned back to their task. The torpedo-shaped submersible was operating nearly a kilometer below the surface of Europa's frozen ocean, at the end of a long monofilament and fiberoptic tether. The crew they'd relieved had informed them that they'd seen a whole bunch of nothing. Which is the same thing that every other piece of equipment had found. Already, the mission was being hailed as the greatest disappointment in the history of space exploration. And the most expensive.
Europa was supposed to be the place. The vast ocean of liquid water, heated by the tidal forces of nearby Jupiter, was supposed to be teeming with life.
Except it wasn't. Water samples had all been negative. The view the submersible revealed in its floodlights was clear and crystalline, without evidence of any kind of sedimentation or organic matter. The science outpost on the surface, far from being abuzz with world-shaking biological discoveries, was all gloom and doom except for a couple of planetary physicists watching the other moons of Jupiter.
So the second eight-hour stint watching the empty ocean go by had immediately been passed to the two junior-most members of the mission. From what Wendy could hear, the rest of the exploration team, senior scientists, grizzled astronauts, and respected veterans of the Mars missions, were drinking themselves into a disappointed stupor.
They took turns watching the screen as the probe went deeper and deeper into the dark water. Whenever Wendy felt her eyes glazing over, she would ask Igor to relieve her, and he would do the same.
"Man, this is boring," Igor said.
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know... something. I mean we're farther from Earth than anyone ever imagined people would get.... I wasn't expecting to be bored out of my skull. First six months in space and now this."
Wendy chuckled. "If you wanted excitement, you should have gone into real estate."
Suddenly Igor's attention snapped to the screen. He pointed. "Look, do you see something?"
Wendy looked. "No. What was it? Do you need relief?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. I was sure there was something there." He peered at the watery void again. "I guess not, though."
Wendy concentrated, but she couldn't see anything either.
And then she did. It was so quick, such a brief flash, that she couldn't be certain.
They maneuvered the submersible to a small smudge that turned out to be a tiny network of bubbles.
"Where did those come from?" Wendy asked.
"I don't know. Maybe from below? Steam from contact with the molten rock through cracks in the ocean floor?"
"Yeah, that might be it," Wendy replied dubiously. "But I could have sworn I saw something else."
Another flash. "There!"
"I saw it, too."
But when they approached, only the same bubbles greeted the submersible's cameras.
"Is there anything on IR?"
The switch to heat-sensing infrared cameras showed them a slightly warmer patch in the blue of the frozen depths ... which might easily have been explained by a rising bubble of warmer water. They flipped back to the visible spectrum.
The next flash of motion was slower. There was definitely something dark in the water... but it was moving much too fast to see clearly.
Something was passing them by at high speed.
Out of nowhere, a shape materialized in the beam of the submersible's light. A long shape, with flippers and.... "Is that a head? That's definitely a neck," Wendy said.
"Don't read too much into ..." the object in their view rotated and the light was reflected back. "I think it's made of metal."
"And it's hollow. Look, you can see through it there and there."
"Those are cables, that looks like a servo ..."
"What the hell is it?"
"Damned if I know. We need to call the captain." Igor stood.
"No. Don't leave me here alone here in the dark with that thing. We're getting a recording. We can show him in a while."
"What do you think it is?"
"It looks like one of those water dinosaurs. A plesiosaur, I think they're called."
"Plesiosaurs are reptiles, not dinosaurs," the biologist replied automatically. He was staring at the screen.
"Well, that's a water dinosaur."
"A metal one. I wonder how they get it to float." He moved closer to the screen, then said. "Here. That's got to be some kind of buoyancy bladder."
"Well, it's big, that's for sure. Must be fifteen meters long."
"I wonder who put it there," Wendy said.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm thinking the Chinese."
Igor shook his head. "You know as well as I do that nothing that size was launched here by people from Earth. There would have been no way to cover it up. We've been watching Europa with everything we have for the past twenty-five years leading up to this mission. Everyone would have seen the launch."
"It's there. Someone sent it."
"Not from Earth they didn't."
"So, who else would you say it might have been?"
"Maybe the natives built it. All I know is that thing didn't evolve by itself."
"Natives? This ocean is sterile."
"And besides, that's some kind of Loch Ness monster sea-dinosaur thing. Why would native Europans build it to look that way?" Wendy insisted.
"Excuse me," a metallic voice interrupted, making them both jump in the dark control room. "Would you like any further refreshments?"
They both looked at Bobby and the same thought hit them. Igor got it out first. "Because it looks like them?"
A long silence fell over the gloomy room as they thought about the implications. The robot turned to go.
"Bobby, go get the captain," Igor said. "Tell him it's important. As in really important."
Wendy, in the meantime, had ordered the submersible to withdraw back to where the netting that could hoist it back to the surface waited.
* * *
The champagne—two bottles that had been all the weight allowed by the expedition—disappeared at high speed, but Wendy just sipped hers.
The Captain raised an eyebrow. "What's up?"
"It's the submersible we saw."
"What about it? It's proof there's life here. Not just life, intelligent life. We'll be famous. Ticker-tape-parade famous. Everyone from the Secretary-general to the Pope has already sent us their congratulations. We have made the most important scientific discovery in the history of humanity."
"Come on, out with it."
"It's that submersible."
"A beautiful piece of engineering," the captain said. "I can't wait to get down there and meet the builders."
"Did you see that it didn't have a tether?"
"So what? They're probably controlling it via some other means."
"Through hundreds of kilometers of water?"
"Maybe it has an AI."
"Would you let Bobby roam that far away?" Wendy asked. By now, the stateroom was quiet; everyone had abandoned the ebullient revelry to listen to the conversation.
"What's your point?" the captain asked.
"I'm worried that whatever is down there is more advanced than we are."
The Captain laughed. "Don't be silly. They're just clever at building swimming drones. If they were advanced, we'd have seen signs from them. Radio signals or something. Hell, don't you think they'd have come out to see what's on the surface of their own planet?"
"That's the whole point. The fact that they haven't explored, that we haven't seen them might simply mean that it never occurred to them that there might be something out here."
"Well, they sure as hell know now," the captain said. Then his smile faded. "Damn."
"Exactly. Now they know. We've given an advanced species, a species that builds robots in the shape of attack predators, the knowledge they need to come out here and get us."
"Now you're just being silly. A species with no concept of space? What can they do to humanity?"
"I don't know. It's not like we can send a large force up here to hold them back. Besides, it's not humanity I'm worried about ... just us."
"We'll be ..."
"Captain," Igor interjected, "the submersible just went off line."
Everyone was suddenly all business. While it was fun to celebrate and interesting to speculate about what might be under their feet, the submersible was a billion-dollar scientific device, and it was the key to their expedition. Losing it would end the mission just as it was getting good.
"Where was it located when you lost it?"
"In the net, five meters under the surface."
"All right. See if you can reset it. If not, we'll have to hoist it to the surface and do an inspection. García, Suzuki, suit up. If the restart doesn't work, I want you outside in fifteen minutes. You can take Bobby with you."
The two crew members went into the suit closet and Igor found himself displaced by two more senior technicians who keyed commands into the terminal, commands that would be relayed to the submersible through the umbilical cord.
Wendy watched, but didn't participate in any of the preparations. She didn't think there was anything she could do. In fact, she believed that the submersible wasn't merely malfunctioning ... in her mind, it was lost, consumed by a robot horror from the depths, sinking until the pressure crushed it.
The rest of the crew moved frantically, trying to bring the submersible back online. She couldn't share her feeling with anyone; she was too terrified of what could happen next.
Truthfully, she had no idea of what that might be, but it would be awful.
The entire complex shook, knocking people to the ground.
"What the hell was that?" someone shouted.
"The ice was stable. And besides, look at the vibration detectors. That was a vertical vibration, not one of the horizontal ones we get when the ice plates grind."
"It's like something hit us from below ..."
The pandemonium continued as half the crew attempted to make sense of the motion while the other half kept trying to talk to the submersible.
Wendy, though, was at peace. Now she knew what was coming, she could accept it.
The second blow, easily identified as coming from below, knocked everyone to the ground.
The third broke through the floor and Wendy saw Igor disappear into the hole in the metal plates.
The fourth impact broke the floor beneath her, and tore her body to pieces. She watched a metallic tendril wrap itself around her waist. It began to pull her into the hole.
The very last thing she saw was Bobby trying to get back to his feet as water spewed in from a different hole in the floor. He was slipping in the icy puddle, his form singularly unsuited for the environment around him.