First published by Dark Matter Magazine on 2020-08-03.
Xeraba resurrected herself to the screams of hardened drill bits jerking through stubborn ice. Despite the oppressive vacuum, irregular tearing vibrations reached her consciousness through the metallic feet that she rested upon the ancient liquid rock. After nineteen months of frozen death, Xeraba’s mind was now awake 680 million kilometers from the nearest member of her species, sitting on a vast expanse of cold and surrounded by empty space.
Confused panic began to bloom. Isolation and inhuman sensations wreaked havoc on the more primitive depths of her mind. Remembering protocol, she opened micro-valves, sending chemical relief rushing through her artificial carotids. Focused and awake, she returned to the process of thawing her senses from cryosleep.
Kaleidoscopic migraine images coalesced into a frozen plain as her brain tripped over inputs from a dozen compound eyes. Beta radiation from her partially exposed core pummeled an eerie blue glow out of the monolithic ice. Xeraba paused to admire the contrast between the soft glow and the sharp, airless shadows cast by fractal cracks in the harsh white surface.
Primal sensation flooded in through arrayed noses and taste buds as Xeraba activated the sensitive chemical antennae protruding along her body. The raspy emptiness of space, suffused with a faint, electrostatic whiff of oxygen, triggered memories of licking frozen metal as a child. Tasting the embrace of this uncaring void, she pictured the warmth and moisture of her biological core being sucked out through the faintest crack in her titanium skin.
She torqued her motors, ran her pumps, and wiggled her manipulators. So many spinning, squeezing, thrusting limbs battling for mental space within an almost primate brain.
Motors and seismometers connected where nature had wired arms and ears. Post-human interfaces sat where nature had planted malignant tumors. As her inner primate rebelled, electromagnetic fields massaged the physical substrate of her mind, cajoling it to remember not how to be human, but how to be Xeraba.
Yearning to swim in the vertiginous ocean below, she listened for subtle vibrations. The deep rumble of distant continents—calving, cracking ice—moved through her awareness, leaving a tantalizing impression of the hollowness below.
Dancing, tingling currents swept over her metallic skin as she was carried through Jupiter’s colossal magnetic field. Enjoying Jove’s playful touch, she tilted an eye upwards. Banded storms whipped across the beautiful giant.
Swiveling her upturned eye, she saw Ganymede orbiting ahead. Xeraba’s databanks told her that Io was catching up from behind on a lower, faster orbit that subjected the helpless moon to grinding tidal heat. She pictured the oozing, bursting volcanism that destroyed and recast Io’s face in eternal vanity. Indifferent to the visitor sitting on her surface, Europa continued the resonant dance with her sisters.
Xeraba was fully awake.
Data banks: Check.
Neural interfaces: Check.
Satisfied that all was in order, Xeraba pulled up the mission brief. She was in a large impact crater on the Europan surface, which her drills were busy deepening. An impact thirty-two years ago had carved this depression out of a tectonically stable region of granite-hard ice, leaving just fifteen kilometers of ice between her and an ocean that had been isolated for billions of years.
With preliminary checks completed, it was time for Xeraba to sleep. Not stasis, but real, human sleep. Sleep with dreams of absurd realities and metamorphoses. She left the drills to do their work, and slept.
She dreamed of the last time she saw her sons. Not the last time that they saw her, going in for another bout of hopeless chemotherapy before her sudden, orchestrated death. No, when she last saw them, as they stood over her pool, never suspecting that their mother watched from that submerged metallic carapace.
She saw their youthful faces transform into disfigured fragments rendered by a primate brain that struggled to look through newly acquired compound eyes. Her betrayal pained her, but the corruption of her last cherished memory was even worse.
The flavor of the vibrations had been changing for several hours, and the mind inside Xeraba emerged from painful dreams to savor the closeness of water only twenty meters below her. As synesthetic tendrils of awareness spread from her neocortex through her artificial body, she saw heat and felt warmth in her silicon imprisoned phantom limbs. The temperature had risen by over one hundred degrees. Soon she would feel liquid water splashing against her hull.
Excitement crept along the edge of her awareness. It was kept in check by drugs and subtle electrodes. Xeraba had been sure that cancer would be the end of her dreams of being an astronaut, yet here she was: more than 2,000 times further from Earth than any human mind had ever been, on a one-way search for extraterrestrial life.
A drill bit plunged downwards and spun freely, like a foot that had missed an expected step. The bubbling hiss of water flowing and sublimating in vacuum confirmed the news: Xeraba’s drills had reached the ocean. The hole above her had already been sealed, leaving nothing but umbilical tendrils snaking their way up to the communications payload on the surface—to humanity.
The primitive depths of her mind struggled to shudder, to scream, to rock back-and-forth in catatonia. But she was more than reptile. More than human. Despite the hundreds of millions of kilometers separating her from Earth and over a hundred kilometers of unknown ocean below her, only the thought of becoming trapped in a sarcophagus of ice truly terrified her.
Xeraba tasted the flavor of salt water flowing past her antennae, even as the same solution crackled in effervescent ionic sparks along her hull. Abyssal convection currents wafted sulfurous odors across her sensors and bounced tickling eddies off her skin. Minute thermal gradients pointing to the depths below manifested themselves as a pure desire to descend.
Yearning to explore, to visit her last home, Xeraba began to sink through ancient blackness, trailing bundles of carbon nanotube behind.
Creaking and alone, Xeraba neared the bottom. Warming, swirling vortices tugged the fine metallic hairs protruding along her sides, casting whirling micro-eddies into the compressed darkness. The murmuring ocean squeezed her skin with titanic force.
A bubbling, hissing tumult came from below. Not from some fixed point, but from everywhere. It was a crackling, flowing sound. Xeraba strained her eyes downward. She barely noticed the increasing richness in the flavor of the water, even as embedded routines compiled chemical reports into continuous dispatches to the surface.
A shifting amber glow suffused the darkness before coalescing into roiling stacks of pulsing orange lights connected by beaded filaments of sparking fire. Flickering in-and-out of existence, belching, glowing fumaroles sat at the center of each group of glowing stacks. Xeraba realized that the chimneys were the sources of the rising heat and sulfuric smells.
Poised above a glowing, busy world, an alien floated in the dark. An alien that had been pushed from her body by aggressive cancer; pushed from her planet by liquid hydrogen and relativistic Xenon ions; and pushed into this ocean by nuclear powered drills. Floating, Xeraba watched through arachnoid eyes as she neared her destination.
Further down, Xeraba noticed that the shapes around her were moving. Shifting, growing, and breaking into pieces; they reminded her of an accelerated slime mold.
She spent weeks there—floating and maintaining her position relative to the volcanic chimneys by turning and flexing her shell in the rising convective flow.
Her sonar refused to return a clear signal. Stroking pings returned fuzzy, but unambiguously, from the bulbous surfaces of the volcanic chimneys below. And yet, her sonar could make no sense of the shifting stacks arrayed around these chimneys. From them, her pings returned sharp and jumbled, like a tasteless bite of ceramic foam.
Frustrated and needing a clearer picture, Xeraba descended towards this world’s second surface. She passed through flitting shadows of underwater winds and emerged into the hellish light below.
Flocks of curving, oblong specks flew by her. Tumbling in the current, they sparked in brilliant clownfish-orange as they collided with each other. Some briefly clumped together, others stayed alone until they were swept out of sight.
She needed to see better than her compound eyes would allow. Violet lasers shot out around her, reading turbulence and refraction from the shifting volcanic winds. Tiny motors deformed her many eyes, readjusting hundreds of times per second, and bringing this pleasantly hellish world into focus. Seeing through her real eyes again, Xeraba felt that she had finally arrived on Europa.
Pillars of glowing ash rose towards her. Pillars of dull grey interspersed with pulsing orange light. Xeraba could see the tiny pulsing sparks that together lit this thalassic world.
Chaotic internal dynamics emerged from her clearer sight. The little shapes making up the glowing pillars climbed over each other, detaching and reattaching. The roiling stacks bulged and contracted as the current broke clumps of ashen fire from them before depositing them on other stacks.
Xeraba felt a pang of guilt. She had traded in her human eyes and ruined the memory of her sons’ faces just so that she could see this world. She had no justification to dispel the pain. She knew that if given the choice once more, she would do it all again.
Xeraba extended a flexible limb into the flow of glowing debris, and opened a suction cup to capture flaming ash from the current. She extracted hundreds of shards from the flow. Many more sparked against her metallic surfaces before spinning off to join their brethren.
The needling shocks penetrating her titanium skin explained the high electrical activity. The tension in the water felt like being rubbed with an inflated balloon.
Examining the captured shards, Xeraba noted hard, well-insulated pieces of ceramic with flexible protruding fibers. The fibers were inert at first, but sparked to life when touched by another shard. She watched in fascination as shards intertwined their fibers in a flurry of electric-orange pulses.
Something was being exchanged between these grasping, pulsing shards. Some energy. Some signal. Was this communication? Was this thinking?
Was this feeling?
Looking to the stacks below, Xeraba watched as glowing ash was deposited on them by the current. Irregular, bursting sparks would harmonize with the pulsing lights of their new hosts. Sliding and spinning over each other, they redirected and overcame the currents created by steaming volcanic chimneys.
Complexity battling unconscious nature. This was life.
Colossal stacks battled each other for control of the currents. They sucked in nutrients that emerged from inside Europa’s molten core, and destroyed their neighbors in the process.
Xeraba watched incandescent peninsulae being tugged and stretched by watery gales that rushed from stack to stack, causing neighbors to disassemble neighbors. Xeraba felt a vague of sense of understanding creep into her mind. The shards were barely alive, yet they were agglomerating into vast, warring, communicating colonies. Tiny spinning pieces sucking in a current of sulfur and silicon here, blasting water to disintegrate an approaching rival there.
Squalls and blasts of water pulled pieces of the stacks apart. Broken fragments of consciousness either reassembled into new stacks of thought or were cast senselessly up towards the icy edge of space.
Watching this complex underwater dance, Xeraba wondered whether the currents carried fragments of enlightenment to distant stacks or if the shards simply became discarded fodder in an endless internecine battle.
Drifting ever closer, Xeraba approached a glowing beaded filament strung between two giant stacks. Tumbling, crawling, tugging; this thread was a conveyor belt of tiny, connected parts. Winds tossed shards to-and-fro along the thread, even as they slowly marched from end-to-end. Fibers coupled and decoupled as arrhythmic orange pulses raced through them.
A smaller stack approached, the tiny protruding shards flowing like a shifting dune. It was growing. Wispy tendrils grabbed sparking clumps from inside the current. Xeraba enjoyed the popping crumbles of turbulence from this smaller newcomer. These eddies spun and slid, interfering and combining with the unconscious information carried by the currents. A larger stack close by noticed these patterns too. It convulsed and then froze.
The larger stack had not noticed an abstract entity. It had noticed a growing rival. After a brief pause, during which the stack erupted in a chaotic flickering of orange lights, it reacted. The flickering returned to steady pulsing, and a large indentation formed. Shards rapidly climbed over one another to form outward spinning teeth.
Xeraba noted the stronger current and increased heat emerging from the larger stack. It tore clumps of itself free, casting them towards its rival, but the newcomer dulled its outer shards, refusing to accept these lethal emissaries, and it shrouded itself in a layer of darkness. The unwanted clumps dragged along the smaller rival, grasping desperately before floating helplessly away.
The spinning, water-vomiting maw of the larger stack accelerated. A large piece of the smaller rival snapped off. Swirling in the complex flow, it sank and then caught on a smaller clump of shards between its mother and her assailant. The child gathered nearby shards and grew to redirect the currents attacking its mother. It was protecting her from her assailant.
Clumps from the larger stack collided with the child, making it grow. The larger consciousness invaded the child and took over—replaced its filial loyalty. It seemed to shimmer between blocking, redirecting, and ignoring the current. Its mother was retreating and began to retract the pulsing tendril that had been extending towards the child.
A ball of shards detached itself from the hunter, dropping into the attacking current. It was half the size of the hesitating child. Upon impact, the child froze as countless tiny barbs latched on. Pulses of orange lit up the vulnerable protrusion extending from the retreating mother as she read the situation from the swirling flow.
The deformed child grabbed its mother’s tendril with a thick protrusion. Invisible internal engines reeled the tendril in as the mother tried to recoil.
Feeling deep, instinctive horror, Xeraba acted without thought. Not caring about protocol, she interfered. She severed the tendril with a shining blade, and swatted the squirming end away.
An orange pulse raced from the severed end of the tendril, down through the two stacks and out along the ground, before lighting all the other stacks in a synchronized ochre flash. Then everything went dark.
Hanging in the lightless black, Xeraba watched the alien colony through her ears and monochrome violet lasers. She saw no movement. But small glints of orange light had started to flicker softly inside the frozen stacks of ash. The stacks were whispering.
Without warning, the scene burst to life in brilliant orange. The outer shards were now whirring against one another with a horrid high-pitched squeal. Blinded by the intense light and sound, Xeraba panicked. Had she just declared war?
Despite her oversaturated blindness, Xeraba could feel what was happening. The slow convective updraft from the heat below was replaced by a hungry, sucking downward current that gripped her metal skin. She could feel the bending of her antennae as cooler, fresher water was sucked down past her. She spun her motors past maximum speed, but only managed to slow her descent.
Her compound eyes adjusted to the brightness, bringing into focus a hellish panorama of glowing orange sparks embedded in churning mounds of ash. Gone were the internecine skirmishes. All attention was focused on her.
Below her, a ring of stacks had arranged themselves. Each had a churning maw that pushed water outwards, drawing down more water from above. They were reeling Xeraba in. Even when straining to run her motors beyond maximum capacity, she was no match for the unexpected strength of the currents.
Long filaments reached towards her, undeterred by the powerful downdraft from her motors.
They made contact. Ceramic shards rasped along her skin. The sounds of scraping metal squealed inside her mind. They found an antenna. Orange sparks pulsed and she felt the pulse of electricity inside her. Were they communicating? Or was she overhearing?
Her motors stopped, jammed by countless invading shards. Having lost all hope, she was slammed to the bottom, onto a crunching bed of broken shards.
Xeraba was pinned to the bottom of an ocean that was hidden from the stars. Ash-grey mounds of roiling life entombed her, their pulsing orange light projecting encoded meaning all around her. Xeraba knew that she was the first human to communicate with aliens, yet she did not have the slightest idea of what, if anything, they were saying.
The shards found the cables that snaked upwards to the ice, pulsing as they felt the electricity within. Xeraba wondered what the scientists would make of these strange pulsing signals when the record of her captivity reached Earth.
The shards began to climb the cables. Perhaps they would finally learn that there was a world above the ice.
Watching the strange collective mind climb towards the surface, Xeraba put herself back to sleep. Perhaps she could communicate with these creatures in time. Perhaps one day, Earth would send her a means to understand their language. Perhaps she would wake up once these shards had learned how to respond to the simple prompts embedded in the cyber-reptilian recesses of her mind.
Xeraba was not awake when the shards found the microscopic seams along her skin, and she did not wake up when they slithered inside those seams and destroyed the soft biology hiding within.