Featured Story: Learning Curve

Remember the alien profile competition we ran in August 2013? It was won by Daniel Palacios and his silicon-based POK Krrzzz species (better known as Cthulu Sapiens, or the Cooties of Io). Since winning the competition, Dan has been inspired to write a story about his aliens, which he hopes will be the first in a series of stories chronicling the relations between Humanity and the POK Krrzzz. Dan is curently making plans to release the novella in ebook form, but he’s kindly given us permission to share here first!

As this story is longer than those we usually share in our Featured Story segment, we’ve decided to make it available for download in PDF format. We’ve also added the first chapter of the story as something of a teaser, but if you want to read the full story you’ll need to download the file.

You can download ‘Learning Curve’ by Daniel Palacios using the PDF download link below.

download-pdf-anchor-imagePDF Download: Learning Curve by Dan Palacios

Learning Curve

By Daniel Palacios

The minds hummed in harmony,
“At last! They are here.”
“Then we act!”
The dissonance flared
“No! Not yet. This is a time of learning.”
“We know enough!”
“There is always more to learn”
“The curve spirals ever outward and yet remains the same”
“The greatest lesson is that of patience!”

 

The Out of Towners

Jeeze! How were we supposed to know there was something alive down here?

Everything we knew about Io told us it’d be a geologically active, but nevertheless vacuum packed, irradiated, freeze dried, dead world. Capital D-E-A-D period!

Granted there were a lot of holes in our database about the place due to our bad luck with automated probes, but come on! Life?

And not just one life form. Out of the port window of the Galilean Excursion Lander Linda A. Morabito was what appeared to be an ecosystem as complex as that of a desert state park! Wondrous complexity and variety stretching all the way to the horizon. A lot of it looked to be, at least in part, subterranean. Just then one of those black, spiny rolling things we dubbed “critters” got skewered by an up thrust spike from beneath the yellow sulfurous sand.

The thing flexed its spines back and forth hopelessly, like a sea urchin stuck on a black, shiny iridescent darning needle. Yellow haze surrounded the critter as whatever it used for blood sublimated out of the wound and crystallized in the vacuum. A brown cable writhed out from below with a blast of ochre sand particles which made eerily slow motion ballistic returns to the surface. With a blur, the cable’s end split into two nasty talons, piercing its prey at either end like corn cob holders and yanking it below the sand. All that was left was a haze of yellow dust and quick frozen globs settling around a slight indentation in the sand.

The entire life and death drama took less than five seconds.

I felt a little queasy. In a few minutes, God willing, I would be taking a little stroll out there. I kept my reservations to myself. No way was I going to cheat myself out of my fifteen minutes of glory! It was obviously incredible out there and I was gonna go, space monsters or no!

I turned to Jerry ‘Scorch’ Megan, my co-pilot, “Hey Scorch! External vids get that?”

“That’s affirm. Mean little buggers ain’t they? You sure you still want that EVA Gaz?

Suited up like we were, I couldn’t see his eyes, but his voice over the comlink told me enough. He was worried…as was I.

“Eeeeh! I’ll use ‘em fer toothpicks! Die alien scum!” I sneered.

The sappy joke fell flat, but we laughed nervously anyway. Whistling in the dark I guess. I understand that before the pandemic and the ‘Owner’ overthrow people actually struggled to attain something called ‘cool’. We didn’t do that anymore.

We knew there was serious danger out there and the EVA might not be a go. Since our first report after landing, Cap’n John ‘Slewfoot’ Hsu on Stone had been discussing our discoveries with Earth. The 40 minute delay had made question and answer time a bit lengthy. I could just imagine the sci-guys back at Deep Space having frothing apoplexy at the idea of my EVA being a no go.

The mils might freak but they’d been weenied out since the pandemic. Anyway, they wouldn’t make the final call. Cap’n Hsu was mil but he’s sci to the bone. And a spacer too. He’d back it if he had to come down and kick me out of the damned hatch himself! Not that I needed kicking.

The polys would have a say but they’ve always backed the spacer program. They knew the world needed to get their minds off the ugly past and a bold, go for it spacer program was a perfect uplifter. We couldn’t have gotten so far without their admittedly skinny ass funding support. Their biggest concern was if a spacer got killed on screen. It’s happened before. Bad for ratings they say, though I’ve heard the opposite too. Ol’ Mac Cryovac got lotsa’ farm acreage ta sell. I wasn’t planning on buyin’ any on primetime!

We fired four long range sample scoopers from the Morabito’s exterior. One trawled right over where seismics said one of those spiky things was, but neither retrieval line or sample trap was bothered. Either the sucker knew it wasn’t prey slithering overhead or it just wasn’t hungry. Too bad! I was hoping to see what kind of damage they could do to the titanium sampler and what sort of strength that brown grappling cable had. Another time a critter skittered just centimeters from the trap’s metal maw but veered left and spun away an instant before the lid snapped shut. Good reflexes! Evidence of a central nervous system? Who knew?

While we waited, there was plenty to do. Broad spectrum videos, electromagnetic, gravitational, radiant particle profiles, seismic surveys, ion flux readings, the list went on and on.

Suddenly Jerry exclaimed, “Jeezuz Fukin’ Ke-rist!” His favorite!

“I don’t think He’s out there Scorch! Wazzup?”

“Gaz, ya ain’t gonna friggin’ believe this! You know those magnetometer readings I’ve been taking of the area? Well I did a visual analog overlay of our little alien pals out there. Every one of them is a source of one or more powerful magnetic anomalies…”

“Say what!?”

“Yup! An’ that’s not all! Contour check shows they’re all toroidal. But there’s no complementary sign of any inductive or resistive loss. Some living things!”

“Scorch, you’re not talkin’ about life. You’re talkin’ superconducting energy storage!”

“Yup. Probable high megajoule, low gigajoule range. Toto, bud, we ain’t in freakin’ Kansas no more. You still wanna go for that walk?”

My jaw dropped to my chin. I’m glad he couldn’t see it. After a moment of stunned silence I decided I still did…more than ever. Long range spectral analysis convinced me even more. The exterior of these suckers gave signatures consistent with silicon carbide mixed with chlorinated silicon sulfide polymer!

What we knew about their insides came from that incident with the spike monster. Optical pyrometer gave an internal temperature of 175 Celsius. How these things didn’t freeze solid in the cryovacuum of space was beyond me. Infrared visuals showed them to be black as the ace of spades. Some kind of superinsulating skin? The spectrum of the critter’s ‘blood’ registered mostly molten sulfur, sulfur compounds, and a witch’s brew of other stuff that didn’t belong in anything alive. There were some really weird spikes on the spectro even our state of the art analyzer couldn’t make out. Damn! We needed samples!

“Yo Gaz! Cap’n on.”

“Right! Interlink! Garcia here!”

Cap’n Hsu had a phony Chinese accent as part of his on screen persona. We all had tweaks like that because it made us more entertaining to our audience and therefore increased ratings. Political correctness? Whazzat?

“Manny, me and Deep Space agree it your call for EVA. But I give strict conditions. Vid show spike monsters restricted to north quadrant where sand is softest and deepest. Seismic data reduction show four anomalous masses at five meter depth. Video enhancement show five or six dentritic static electric flux patterns on sand surface above each mass. Stinky think center of each pattern is one spike barely poking above sand, drawing current from surface. We give you 200 meter wide map, your coordinates, with overlay of danger areas. You stay away from monsters, 20 meter minimum, like great aunt with halitosis or I tell your mother. Trans initialize!”

I trusted Stinky’s assessment. When it came to electricity he was a wiz. He also had the same problem with certain spacer food I had. Glad I picked my handle first!

“Mark!” The data download started. My God! Drawing current from the surface? We’d anticipated the massive multi-mev bombardment of high energy particles from Jupiter’s radiation belt would cause huge static electric buildup on the sulfurous surface. A sudden dielectric breakdown would cover several square meters of surface with a lightning like pattern of glowing sulfur ions as the voltage grounded to the deeper layers. I regretted we would not be here at night when the patterns became visible to the human eye. It would be quite a show. I could see it on the enhanced vid display but it just wasn’t the same.

But, Jeeze! It sounded like those things were actually feeding on all that energy. Just what kind of life were we dealing with?

The upload ended. Hsu continued, “Also, connect your suit to the external cable winch. Anything goes wrong, anything, Jerry pulls you in fast like fresh tilapia on hook. OK?”

“Clear Cap’n.” I wondered if my suit would hold up to that kind of punishment. Suit? Hell, what about me? I could tell Hsu was a bit skittish about this. So was I! But, damn the torps, I was going!

“Okay Jer, let’s get me set for a little stroll. Thirty minute excursion to the Sagan and back. No crazy risks, no heroics. There may be a serendipitous opportunity or two for samples and I intend to make the most of them but I’m damned if I’ll let someone else write my bio. Cap’n Hsu you copy this?”

“Affirm Sci-Garcia. I figure wild horses not keep you down. Go make funny dress Italian guy roll over his grave! But lotta non-subscribers gonna see this on tomorrow vidcasts after new poly sex scandal so don’ fukitup and do by number.”

“No kiddin’! Who’d the scum sucker get caught with this time?”

“I tell later. Get ass in gear guy! We still got Europa and rad meter running. Hsu out!”
He didn’t need remind me of that. The ship would protect us for a while but once Outside my suit’s special active radiation padding would be the only thing between me and death.

“Affirm, Gaz out!” I turned, “Okay Jer, time to make history. Prepare systems for EVA.”

Jerry initialized the depressurization cycle. A puff of ice crystals flew past the window.

“Cabin pressure at .001 millibars and dropping. Systems green for egress. Clear for EVA checklist.”

There was something new in our routine. I reached down to a box on my chest and pulled a switch “Activating rad shield!”

A set of readings to one side of my heads up display lit up. I examined the numbers. My suit had a polymer skin embedded with noble gas saturated aerogel microspheres designed to keep me alive in the hellish sleet of high energy particles. At least that was the theory. The microspheres were activated by microwaves that ran through vein-like wave guides that covered my suit. Without that system working I wouldn’t be coming back.

“Rad shield activated! All sectors are green and stable!”

“Affirm! My readouts concur. Rad shield is stable.”

“Acknowledge. I am now switching to internal life support.” My backpack hummed to life.

“Affirmative. Bio-readouts green, communication switch to internal, check, you are go for cabin umbilical disconnect.”

My hands reached to the cabin umbilical. I felt sweat on my palms. This was it!

“Cabin umbilical disconnect on my mark. Five… four… three…two…one…umbilical disconnect!” The lifeline that connected me to the ship broke free.

“Life support positive function. Divergence from optimal point zero zero one percent. Bio readouts within nominal range. Exposure level at 11.35 hours is point one rad and counting…mark!”

That last reading was critical. Even at its theoretical best the rad shield wasn’t perfect. My suit would supply me with recycled oxygen and heat for 12 hours but I would be getting sick from radiation poisoning in less than 4 unless I made it back to the relative safety of the ship before then. Of course, shield failure would kill me far sooner than that! I walked to the hatch.

“Preparing for vehicle egress.”

“Systems all in green. You are go for EVA.” On the secondary com link Jerry whispered, “Go for the gold Gaz!”

I felt a twinge of guilt. The rad shield was new tech. A shipping screw up got us only three new suits before the launch window closed, one large, two small. The two small suits were for our excursion to Europa. Our biologist Millie “Mil Spec” Spencer and our diminutive engineer Alan “Stinky” Vreman would be using those. Jerry was left with a heavily padded old suit with an EVA endurance of 15 minutes. That was considered okay since Io was to be a snatch and grab of a few rock samples and the Sagan 2 memory core. The best laid plans…

I keyed the lock and opened the hatch. The glorious banded crescent of Jupiter was high above the dingy orange surface. The sun was lower, a bright spark beneath the fuzzy glow of the Milky Way. One of the brighter stars above it was Earth. As I walked out to the egress platform the whole damned alieness of the place hit me smack in the face. Off to the right was the sharply defined ballistic plume of Ra Patera, though the cone was hidden behind the horizon. Bright pulses of electrically charged plasma lanced between it and the surface. About three klicks away to the left was what we thought was a lake of molten sulfur. Safety considerations had prevented us from landing closer and weight limits prevented us from bringing a rover on this trip. What a waste!

“Jer, download Hsu’s overlay into my helmet screen. Let’s get the layout straight.”

“Affirm Gaz! Take a few minutes.”

Damn! More time blown! But it allowed me a moment to think and get my bearings. About 100 meters from where we had landed I could make out a lump. Soundings had confirmed that to be the sulfur caked remains of the Sagan 2 probe which had preceded us 3 years ago. It had given us partial surface imaging before failing abruptly. Budget limitations and concerns about radiation darkening lenses, and sulfur dust coating them to opacity made us revert to a heavily shielded but slow mechanical scanning aperture type camera used on the old Viking Mars probes. Had the camera completed its 360 degree scan, history would have been made then not now!

Even worse, scanning rendered undetectable anything that rolled past faster than a tortoise except for a few glitches. Come to think of it there had been glitches on the raw image, presumed to be radio interference from Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Now we knew better! The surface was alive with black rolling ‘critters’ whizzing past in a northeasterly direction, reason unknown. Maybe they’re migrating. Maybe there’s a sale at the small spiny animal store!

That wasn’t the only disaster that hit the Sagan program. Sagan 1 successfully landed on Europa and sent some fine pics of an icy valley. But the automated sounder misjudged the depth to liquid water and the explosive geyser caused by the exploration drill knocked the probe over. Never send a robot to do a man’s job!

I felt a vibration through the soles of my boot. The Sagan 2 had provided excellent soil compaction data which, is why we landed here. Then we realized there was a simmering sulfur aquifer 30 meters beneath us. Well…we tried to be safe!

The dual probe failures were why we made it here so soon. Our Spacers Guild Network premium subscribers were not happy! So we gave a discount offer for front row seating for a manned mission to Jupiter. Saved us from a class action lawsuit! The Guild scrambled assets from the Moon colony to Mars to make it work in the honored spacer tradition. Something new, something old, something borrowed, something stoled! Jer and I signed up for the mission. Our master’s degrees in planetary geology got us near the top of the list. Our status as universal blood donors also helped, just in case somebody needed refills due to radiation sickness. We finally won our slots by procuring and upgrading two of the antique Landers used to reoccupy the Moon, the newer ones having too great a weight penalty. I’ll reveal how we snagged them when the statute of limitations expires.

The deal was that we’d train the Europa Lander crew to operate the modified wreck we’d salvaged for them. In return we got the honor of piloting the other Lander, the junkier one, to Io first! Jerry suspected Deep Space wanted to see if we crashed and burned before risking others on our handiwork. I had no such suspicions. I knew!

“Hey Gaz! We’re getting the linkup signal from the Vid Network. Put yer smiley face on ‘cause it’s show time!”

To continue reading this story, please download the PDF file using the link below.

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This story was written by Daniel Palacios and provided to SciFi Ideas.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.