Thing a Week 17: Another Life
There was a rush for extraterrestrial life in the early 2000's, and life here on Earth was mostly split between dichotomous predictions: if we ever found life, it’d either be oblivious, single-celled organisms “living” underground, or in a frozen ocean, or in some incredibly acidic lake of fire; or the life would be so advanced that we would look like uninteresting cosmic barbarians to them, explaining away the obvious answer to, “Why hasn’t life found us yet?”
What we found instead was something that nobody expected.
I still remember the evening of the discovery, watching on the edge of my seat, like the rest of the world, as a the world’s first Intragalactic Collaboration — between NASA1, the entirety of Earth’s TV stations, and YouTube — streamed live, first-person footage of Clipper’s probe at the exact second it pierced the surface’s veil of ice, revealing a vast ocean of potential life below.
We’d known Europa had been spewing plumes of water on the surface for several years at that point, suggesting, for one, a hugely subterranean ocean, and two, some kind of frequent chemical reactions occurring beneath the surface, building up the pressure needed to cause expulsions of water onto the surface. But NASA1 (called NASA at the time) was laughably underfunded back then, restricted to sandbox experiments and the occasional launch.
The second that ocean was revealed — that very instant, perhaps — I could feel a change in the rest of the world’s perceptions on space. I glanced over at Alan — who was already looking back at me with a mixture of surprise and ecstasy on his face — and we wordlessly, instantly, and simultaneously returned our gazes to the screen in our living room to watch history made.
The camera stabilized and zoomed out momentarily, allowing a small light from the probe to be lowered into the depths below. The black surface swallowed up the light, casting a cone of light back up to the surface as it descended, and I remember Alan whispering, “We did it.”
“It’s not over quite yet,” I reminded him, smiling. Both he and I knew the light also held a sampling reservoir, and within three weeks it would be back on Earth and in their lab to be harshly scrutinized for extraterrestrial life. The light was just there for the general public.
As I jumped up to grab a couple celebratory beers from the fridge, I heard Alan excitedly shriek, wailing out a shrill Aaaaaiiiieeeeeee that reverberated painfully in my ears. Instinctively I turned around to see what could be murdering my coworker in my living room, but found nothing out of the ordinary except a grown man with his knees under his chin, arms wrapped around his legs, looking up at me with a stoic face of fright.
His face, however, started to relax into a creeping smile at the exact second an announcer cut into the silent stream, announcing, “Hello everyone, this is,” — oh, who was it? — “someone important. I wanted to take a quick moment and remind the public that this is a live stream; if you have small children nearby, please be cautioned that we do not know what this discovery will visibly or audibly entail.”
“And while I’m on,” he continued, “I also want to remind you all that this is an exciting breakthrough that will be remembered in history, and I want to personally thank each and every one of you for choosing to view it with us. Thank you.”
The audio silenced again and I shot a confused “What the fuck just happened?” look at Alan, who had noticeably calmed down to the point of sitting on the couch like a normal human being would, and waited for him to explain.
“I think it was a head,” he stammered.
“What?” Alan said.
“What?” I said. “Ahead of what?”
“I don’t know,” Alan spit out, partially confused and partially offended. “Why would I know?”
“You just said it was,” I shot back, very confused and unsure of whether I should finish grabbing the beers or sit down and figure out what not-on Earth just happened.
“Oh,” Alan said, relaxing again and letting out a quick chuckle, but then shook his head, serioused up again, and said, “No, something floated up and bumped the camera feed. There was light on it for just a second, but it looked like a head. I think it had eyes and a mouth, and a couple mountains on its face that could be a nose or two. I don’t know.”
I sat back down, beerless.
“There!” Alan shouted, thrusting a finger forward to point at the screen, “there! Do you see it? What’s that?”
I glanced at his face, then his hand, and then the television, immediately noticing something moving on the edge of the camera. They looked like strands of hair, or worms, or any kind of really thin textile or material, but they wriggled in place, whether through internal motor function or through underwater waves in the ocean.
Whichever the case, it meant there was either life right there in front of their eyes, or there was life — or something close to it — outside of camera, causing the irregular waves they were watching.
“Could be a worm,” I said, finally answering Alan’s question.
“What about hair?” he immediately countered.
I jumped up from the couch and stood closer to the TV, observing its movement and qualities, although I don’t think I’d seen hair underwater for way too long to compare to.
“It could be,” I managed. “I guess.”
The video feed did not change, but a banner beneath the screen started to broadcast a message that highlights, recaps, and commentary would be available immediately following the stream.
Alan reached for his laptop and it took about thirty seconds for him to find someone who’d already uploaded a recording of just the unidentified object, and we watched it again together.
Alan was right: something did float up from the dark depths immediately below the light, knocking it aside momentarily until it tried to swing back into place, shining a light on one side of a shadowy egg-shaped object. There were three parallel mountains right in the middle of it that could be noses if given to the right caricaturist. Above them, you could see the two eyes were closed, but were definitely there. On top of that, there was a mound of hair flowing haphazardly that looked identical to the worms currently on screen.
And beneath it all, a gaping hole that had hopefully been a mouth at one point had rotted away in the water and left flowing edges of skin around a black abyss for the brief moment it was on screen. The light continued to swing back and the mass left the screen completely. A couple second later, the head’s hair flowed back into the frame.
When the replay was over we both collapsed back into the couch and returned our glazed gaze to the television, which still contained what I thought were worms on the edge of camera, and we both watched, immobile and speechless as my suspicions of the unknown wrigglers being worms were confirmed, and then brutally crushed.
My suspicions of worms, however, must not have been too otherworldly, because while Alan and I were staring starry-eyed at the TV, another life swam into the frame, dancing on bright blue wings that propelled it through the ocean effortlessly, shimmering in the light, and eventually ending up at the hair, where it began to tentatively nibble, presumably to check if it — and whatever body it was attached to — were acceptable food.
And apparently they were.
We sent two more surface probes out that year, hoping to find the origin of the first Space John. We put twenty orbiters in place to send constant streams of the surface they could see. We dug into ice and we even sent a couple probes deep into the liquid depths.
Underwater probes were actually a pretty controversial move. NASA1 borrowed something like ninety billion dollars from USA1 and received another ten from other countries, and underwater probes were seen as a waste of money, if the money was to be spent on figuring out who this supposed person was.
For at least a couple years the public and media were abuzz with theories ranging from Space John being an alien also just visiting that planet, a time traveler, a mermaid, or even just a prop for NASA1 to scam the world out of a hundred billion dollars in funding.
Things were starting to look bad for them when they’d failed to find any indication that any but the latter were true, but things turned around when one of their underwater probes ironically paid off.
It had happened weeks prior, but the world didn’t hear about it until a day or two after NASA1 was analyzing the accumulated deep sea footage. Included with that announcement was confirmation of something like thirty new aquatic fish species — who would have thought the first aliens we’d find would be fish? — but the fish were quickly forgotten when the global stream culminated in a confirmation that they had found bipedal life living in some kind of stabilized bubble of atmosphere underwater.
They’d wait, they said, to sample the atmosphere or get any closer, because they wanted to ensure they wouldn’t risk puncturing or collapsing whatever was holding the bubble of atmosphere together.
But there was life inside of it. Standing on two legs, walking around, and moving in and out of some large, centralized structure. Life that looked like it conversed among itself, and covered their bodies with some kind of clothing, and seemed to carry with them and use tools.
We were stumped for almost a full decade before we’d gathered enough information to move forward with studying the first Europeans.
In the meantime, we’d put down a ton of surface monitoring drones, several communication stations near our drilling sites, and collected countless more samples of the environment. After we had concluded the only activity we were interested in was beneath the surface, we began assembly of an underwater telescope built to see through the cloudy surface of the Life Bubble.
We were interested in the life within the Bubble, but we were also very interested in the physical properties and systems that made it possible. Can you imagine cities here on Earth encapsulated in a bubble underwater? We’d have so much more space!
Anyway, we finally finished the Euroscope and could peer into the bubble, and again space surprised us with something that nobody expected.
We were correct in most of our original observations: they were bipedal, humanoid figures, averaging around four feet in height. They had eyes, mouths, hair, two arms, and two legs like us. They had three noses, which kind of confirmed that Space John was one of them, and they had four webbed fingers on each hand.
They lived in small boxes, just barely large enough to contain their bodies, and seemed to follow 16-hour day cycles, with six of those hours being spent sleeping. Each day they all went within the giant structure in the middle of the bubble and would spend seven of their ten waking hours presumably working or otherwise contributing to society. Their remaining three hours each day seemed to typically be spent going on walks in groups of two to four, taking a longer “shift” inside the structure, or meeting in one of several “parks” for wrestling and weightlifting.
We tried broadcasting in radio and communications on other frequencies to make contact, but nothing made it through. We tried making elaborate light shows, emitting communications encoded in light (though primarily just to scream, “Hey, someone is here!”) at the bubble’s walls, but again there was no acknowledgement from within. Sounds were the same story.
It wasn’t until one day we happened to notice someone within the bubble seemingly just fall into the ground that we thought to look outside the bubble. We turned our sensors to capture more of the surrounding area with sacrificing too much vision inside, and eventually caught on camera yet another mass floating up to the surface.
We took out one of the unmanned underwater drones and drove it to where we saw the mass, everyone in the office squinting at the cloudy video feed together. We looked up and saw it, still floating upwards, and drove closer.
It was a body, identical in size and structure to the bodies within the Life Bubble.
We followed it and requested an emergency broadcast stream to the rest of NASA1 and any interested enthusiasts, and the rate at which researchers poured into the stream was way faster than the rate the body ascended towards the icy surface.
Lines of chat began to flood in from observers, directing us to point the cameras in different directions, to shine the light differently, to send down another unmanned craft, to break the ice for the body and retrieve it on the surface, and so on. We were under strict directives to just observe, though.
We followed the body upward and the video was surreal, following a shadow humanoid figure floating lifelessly through water where the light came from below, giving the sense that you were watching someone fall deeper and deeper into the abyss from some very capable machine — and doing nothing.
When the body reached the icy surface we picked up an audible thud on the craft’s sensors and just watched as it bobbed in place, hair eerily similar to Space John’s. We watched for hours and the excitement (and the number of people watching the stream) died down eventually, so we waited for autonomous sensor probes to get in place around the body, then flipped the video stream into a rotating stream from the four of them, and then drove our craft back to the surface and went to bed.
I think it was two or three days until the fish showed up again, first one exactly like the one we’d seen on the original discovery stream, and then dozens more. They were each winged and ranged in color from bright blue to dark green, resembling in appearance to flying gurnards. They first nibbled on the hair, slowly consuming it over a day and a half.
By the time they began to nibble on the body itself, slowly eating away at the skin and catching almost everything that dropped off into the ocean like fish food, nearly a hundred fish had accumulated on the spot and feasted on the body, leaving not even bones behind in the end.
We’ve found other life since then, but the Life Bubbles on Europa are still untouched from the way we found them. Every couple days we find another, but the probes have been instructed to catalog and not get close. Europeans aren’t entirely primitive, but look to have many years ahead of them before the concept of space travel — or even space, for that matter — could click in their brains.
But when they are ready, you bet your ass we’ll be the first to make contact.