Call of the Void

First Place winner in the 2020 Wintermute Spec-Fic Awards

On Earth, Isaac had been a salvage diver, scouring the seafloor for forgotten treasures hidden in the drowned carcasses of derelict cities. When he had nothing left down in the ‘well’, he gazed beyond the ocean and into the stars, searching for a second chance. 

Propelled by helium-3 fusion engines, the colony ship Zheng He had spent three months to bring four hundred of humanity’s brightest, boldest, and most desperate into upper Jovian orbit. This far into the Outer Solar System, the sun was barely a bright star. 

Europa—the smallest of the Galilean moons. Covered in a dense crust of scarred ice twenty kilometers thick, it hid a liquid ocean formed by tidal heating deep under its frozen surface. In this ocean, UNE scientists had once hoped to discover extraterrestrial life. Three astronomical units away from Earth’s oceans, and Isaac still couldn’t leave the water. 

Seven divers had gone before him. None had come back. 

Seven times the through-water communication systems had malfunctioned, seven times lifesigns had vanished within two hours of deployment. 

The incidents were officially attributed to a lack of skill, to suit malfunctions, to anything but what everyone was thinking: How does an animal react to a foreign organism entering its rightful territory? 

Probes and drones had dove into the vast abyss and were recovered safe and sound. Yet, not a single human had returned to tell a similar tale. 

What were they dealing with here? 

The Berge-K72 atmospheric diving suit was an organic amalgamation of armor plates, exposed wiring, and thick rubber tubes molded into the rough shape of a slumped human figure: Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his iron shoulders. Its exterior shell was constructed of glass microspheres bound in resin. Reinforced titanium plating covered flexible pressure joints. The helmet contained a clear polycarbonate faceplate and an integrated HUD. Fully pressurized on the inside, the suit would shield him from fatal narcosis and the dreaded bends. 

Heavy gauntlets slid snugly over Isaac’s jumpsuit. He huffed as he tucked himself into the chestplate as well as several sheets of thick insulation. Servos whined and motors whirred while the built-in exoskeleton attempted to support his unsteady frame. Isaac cautiously lowered the helmet onto his head, sealing himself in with an audible hiss. The HUD system activated, spilling raw data in every shade across his field of view. Isaac flexed his hands and wriggled his wrists. The suit felt uncomfortably heavy, almost too secure. It would likely double as his coffin if he happened to end up like the other seven divers; resting for all of eternity at the bottom of an alien ocean. 

Isaac suppressed a shudder as he stepped through the laboratory’s hermetic quarantine doors. Ullugialijak, the first colony of Europa, was buried deep beneath the moon’s frigid wasteland. Hydrogen atoms in the frozen water shielded settlers from the worst of the five hundred and forty rems of Jovian radiation pummeling the surface daily. The settlement itself was a crazed network of tunnels carved into the raw ice, plastered over with layers of insulation. At its deepest point, an elevator shaft led down to the Sedna Research Facility. 

At the bottom of the research station, a Philberth probe had melted a circular hole deep into the ice. The passage was sealed shut by a titanium hatch and guarded by seventeen UNE colonial marines armed with enough weaponry to generously equip a small platoon. A large crane stood near the opening, ready to lower Isaac into it via a flexible graphene cable. The thick cable served a dual purpose: besides being a means of returning him home, it also gave Isaac a hardline connection to the surface, preventing comm malfunction or jamming. If anything down there wanted him to stop talking, it would have to cut through the line. 

Isaac stood at the entrance to the chamber, hesitating. The area within seemed innocuous enough. History was about to be written in the tiny hollow cut into the ice, where endless wires trailed across patches of insulation on the ground and snaked across the walls. Three weeks ago, Isaac had observed one of the other divers in this room as they descended into the hole, never to return. Virtually nothing had changed since they vanished. 

Nobody stopped Isaac as he edged closer to the hatch. He stared at its dimpled surface. The paint once covering it had long been scraped off, leaving it as dull as the dirty ice surrounding it. He shuffled closer, inspecting every bruise and scratch of the worn metal. Reverently, Isaac knelt and touched it with his index finger, running it around the structure. It had sent seven people to their deaths. 

The crane creaked and moaned as it lowered the four-hundred-kilogram diving suit into the bottomless darkness. Isaac’s heart leapt into his throat each time he felt his harness shake. Tiny crumbs of ice were sent tumbling into the bottomless black as his boots scraped the sides of the hole. Gradually, the light faded and the sounds of the colony disappeared. The high-pitched whining of heavy machinery turned into a dull rumble, then nothing at all. There were only the sounds of Isaac’s labored breathing and the occasional rasp of the VCS. At five hundred meters down, his headlamps switched on, casting ghostly shadows along the impossibly ancient icebergs that surrounded him. They had to be billions of years old at this depth, formed even before early prokaryotic life had come into existence in Earth's primordial seas. 

At two kilometers down, Isaac could see the dark pool of shimmering water at the bottom of the shaft. Its still surface reflected the piercing glare of his headlamps. It grew larger and larger, looming menacingly ahead of him. It was pulling him in, trying to devour him whole. 

As the tips of Isaac’s boots touched the waterline, he fought the overwhelming urge to puke. Europa’s subterranean ocean lapped softly against his boots. 

“Ready for the plunge?” asked a voice from his speaker. Isaac tried to reply but found his throat stuck. He licked his lips. 

“Yeah.” His voice came out trembling, the palpable fear more obvious than he had expected. The voice behind the speaker seemed to sigh. 

“You’re making history too, you know. You go down there, look around, we take you back up. Then they’ll carve statues of you on Luna.” Isaac nodded absentmindedly, staring into the starless void below. They were right. He was making history. There was nothing behind him anymore. Just what would come after. 

“Affirmative, control,” Isaac responded, his voice stronger and steadier. “Diver 08, ready for the drop.” 

The water flowed up past Isaac’s ankles, swallowing his knees. His hands vanished behind a wall of creeping black. It inched up to his chestplate, rising past his faceplate. 

And then he was underwater. 

Isaac had seen plenty of raw images from the drones, and videos were scattered all over the net. They were so ubiquitous, they had nearly become mundane. But nothing could ever compare to this. Europa’s vast ice sheet stretched into the horizon. No sunlight shined—the only brilliance came from Isaac’s headlamps as they swept across a vertical landscape of warped ice statues, whittled smooth by generations of ocean currents. Translucent spires of frozen water lanced into the depths, gently swelling ripples chiseled across their length. He was alone in a landscape that could only be described as alien. Humans are intruders here, Isaac thought. But whose foreign world had they travelled so far to inherit? 

He stared down at the darkness, his mission momentarily forgotten. Through his faceplate, Isaac only had a narrow view of the yawning chasm beneath him, yet it filled him with absolute awe nonetheless. 

“Everything okay down there, 08?” his comm suddenly crackled. Jolted out of his trance, Isaac replied. 

“All clear. It’s absolutely stunning here, control.” 

“Affirmative. We can see the feed from your cameras. Proceeding to stage two of the mission. Over.” 

Something moved in the black. 

A barely perceptible shift in the current. A flash of translucent pale skin, a glimpse of barbed tentacles. 

Isaac blinked twice. “No way…” he murmured. 

“Status, Diver 08? Your vitals are spiking,” the voice replied. 

“Possible… signs of extraterrestrial life visually detected. Maintain current depth and position. Further investigation required. Over.” 

“Cleared to investigate, 08. We're analyzing the last thirty seconds of footage captured by your suit cameras. Over.” Isaac refused to move further. Instead, he drew up the camera feed onto his HUD and tried to play back the video record. There it was. A flicker of biomass, lasting a fraction of a second. It could have been a glitch in the footage, except it wasn't. There was an unmistakable signature attached to the object by the suit's motion detectors. There was definitely something alive in this incredible environment, something large enough to be seen by the naked eyes. The lifeform might have been a single node in a massive hidden ecosystem, thriving for endless millenia tucked beneath Europa’s icy crust. 

He had found alien life below Europa. Isaac’s stomach clenched with excitement and wonder. Somehow, those robots had been wrong. We were not alone. For a moment, Isaac savored that mesmerizing thought. 

“Diver 08, footage retrieved and reviewed. Nothing of significant interest was seen. Over.” Isaac’s amazement shriveled away. “What?” 

“Over eight years of extensive study, our probes did not register any significant signs of native life in Europa's subsurface ocean. What you saw was most likely an underwater ice formation. Proceed with the second stage, 08. Over.” 

“H-hold on, Control. I swear… check minute five sixty-seven, at forty-four seconds.” There was a brief pause. 

“Request received. Just a sec-”. 

The line went silent. The HUD and it's omnipresent stream of data disappeared. The headlamps barely protested as their luminous brilliance dimmed, then died. 

“Control?” Isaac floated alone in the water, feeling the bile rise in his throat. There was total blackness. “Control?” he repeated, his voice barely a whimper. Where had the power gone? He wasn’t breathing in carbon dioxide, so his oxygenator was functioning. A server error, perhaps. 

It was right in front of him

Without warning, Isaac’s lights flickered back on. He inhaled sharply. A dark shadow was approaching from behind the ice columns. As it drifted closer, Isaac began to shiver. It was massive. The more it was illuminated, the greater his sheer amazement grew. The thing was at least a hundred times larger than he was, its extremities extending far beyond the scope of his vision. 

Pale, translucent skin flaunted throbbing veins of pitch-black fluid. Forests of pulsing cilia blanketed its muscular flanks. Ribbons and tentacles and feathery appendages drifted in a loose, shifting halo around its rotund figure. Pores and siphons constantly opened and closed across its billowing form. Its body appeared to be little more than a loose collection of a hundred membranes, writhing and twirling as if they each had a conscience of their own. It was the most beautiful thing Isaac had ever witnessed. And it filled him with a sense of awful horror he could not quite describe. 

“Control?” Isaac whispered again into his comm, as if talking too loud would attract its attention. Nobody responded. He tugged at the cable, running his hand along its length. A hardline connection. Remote interference should not have been possible. Only his headlamps remained active, their beams illuminating the strange lifeform that floated directly before him, a messenger from an unfamiliar realm. 

Isaac stared at what he assumed was the creature’s head: a dense cluster of tumorous swellings colored in vivid purple, standing in stark contrast to the muted shades dominating the rest of its body. The fleshy mass was devoid of any visible facial features. The cluster seemed to pulse with an ethereal light, drawing him ever closer. 

Against all his instincts to recoil and retreat, Isaac’s arms seemed to reach out on their own. He felt a violent shiver pass through his fingertips as the gauntlets sank into the creature’s fleshy membrane. In the next instant, the limp tentacles of the creature seized his suit with astonishing strength, wrapping tightly around his arms and legs, completely obscuring his faceplate. He gasped in shock and terror as they squeezed. Something popped in the bowels of his suit. 

Isaac’s communication system suddenly sputtered awake, the tiny green dot in his helmet indicating a steady transmission. Saved! 

“Control, you won’t believe what I’ve found down here,” he gushed, before his excited exclamation was interrupted by the melodious voice of a young girl. 

“Daddy?” Isaac’s gaze shifted away from the alien, whose tentacles were about to crush his suit. “What the hell?” he blinked twice, to discover unexpected tears. The voice was warm and agonizingly familiar. “Laila?” he croaked. “Laila, is that you? Why?” Suddenly unable to control himself, Isaac squeezed his eyes closed and began to sob. The echoing cries of anguish drowned out the creaking suit and the voice of his deceased daughter. 

He barely noticed the brief tremor that passed through him as it gently sliced open his mind. When Isaac opened his eyes again, he was somewhere else. 

A school of fish passed beneath the flimsy boardwalk as he trekked across the flooded outskirts of downtown Brooklyn. While lying upon the damp wooden planks, Isaac watched them dart between the rusting, submerged skeletons of crumbling buildings and glistening carpets of seagrass. His lasting affair with the ocean had begun in his childhood. 

While his peers travelled to universities on Venus and established homesteads on Luna, Isaac remained behind on Earth. He became a surveyor for Blue Haven, mapping hydrothermal vents and pockets of phosphorite at the bottom of the Tonga Trench. 

Isaac was surrounded by darkness again. But this time, it was pierced by the steady blaze of spotlights. He was standing with Tanya outside the Tonga III Deep-Sea Mining Platform, tucked into a different diving suit. They were gazing at the ocean floor around them as snailfish darted across the seabed and blankets of sea lilies rippled in the current. Tanya’s voice crackled in his diving suit speaker.

“It’s beautiful…” 

Isaac heard himself chuckle. “Of course it is.” It was only the two of them, alone at the bottom of the world. 

Laila was born above the water. Tanya had felt it would be better for her to grow up surrounded by fresh air and open sky rather than the dull, claustrophobic corridors of an undersea complex. For ten years, they lived in a cramped Los Angeles apartment, just close enough to the ocean for Isaac to keep his sanity while still rooted on terra firma. It had been the happiest decade of his life. 

STE-09 swept in on sandstorm winds from the north, where it had originated in the crowded slums of San Francisco. The Dip was quarantined, state borders were secured, and cleansing fires burned through the night. An evolved form of pneumococcus, STE-09 was resistant to all antibiotics and most types of phage therapy. The sickness carved a path of death and chaos across the California-Washington Water Bureau. His family wasn’t spared. Laila caught it in 2314, a year after the first case. 

Isaac had held her trembling hands while her bloodstream was periodically flooded with phages. Meanwhile, the bacteria continued to eat away at her core, inducing sepsis and wasting away her lungs before finally inflaming her brain. By the time a cure was developed, thousands had already died along the west coast of the North American continent. For both Laila and them, it was too late. 

Tanya had left him without warning two years later. The loss was too much for their relationship. Isaac had begun to drink again. After enduring a dozen new construction projects and countless episodes of depression, Isaac signed onto the UNE Jovian Colonization Initiative. 

Isaac was in his cramped quarters on the Zheng He, spending months suspended in a spinning metal can that was constantly accelerating away from the Sun, his home, and his past. There were long hours spent training in the medical bay while he slowly adapted his body's circadian rhythm to the sunless days and artificial nights of the colony ship. 

Isaac was suddenly back in the oceans of Europa, watching himself spasm erratically in the pressure suit’s delicate shell. His mind was oddly blank, empty of emotion as he stared at his own twitching body. It was as if Isaac was watching a film he knew the ending to. With his entire life laid bare before him, he finally understood. 

The tentacles slipped away, retreating into the darkness. Worthy. Eight humans, the culmination of thousands of years of civilization and development. The product was astounding. They were infinitely flawed, heavily emotional, and driven with a dangerous passion. Like all the others, further study would be required, even if the mind itself had been damaged beyond recovery. 

Without a doubt, they would one day have the stars. 

Within one hour of losing contact with Isaac Harvey and three hours after his mission began, a dramatic shift in weight was detected on the crane supporting him. The mission was immediately recalled and the cable began to be pulled back. All the mission team managed to recover was a snapped line. There was no trace of Harvey or the Berge-K72 atmospheric diving suit that was used during the mission. His unfortunate fate was attributed to a catastrophic structural failure in the cable due to faulty manufacturing. The program was immediately terminated, and there were no further attempts to place a human in the Europa subsurface ocean for another three decades. A lengthy memorial service was held for the tragic disappearance and certain death of the eight explorers. 

Despite extensive scientific study, no signs of complex organic life were ever found on Europa or it's neighboring Jovian moons.

Judges Comments' Excerpts
"I enjoyed Call of the Void as well, especially the way it made the area below the ice so claustrophobic and otherworldly..."
"...Call of the Void did a particularly good job of establishing tension with the 7 missing divers before and it rounded out all of its plot points pretty nicely."

Yuchi Zhang is currently a junior in Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies. He loves reading and writing science fiction, especially about extraterrestrial travel and colonization. His previous work After the Floods received a Scholastic Best-in-Grade 2020 Award. Yuchi strives to make his work as convincing as possible, as if his stories could really take place someday in the future.