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by Matthew Timmins

“Europa, potentially, has all the ingredients for life … and not just four billion years ago … but today.”

—Robert T. Pappalardo


ChaaSooNiik had never been this far above her home vents before. Her mother-sister had told her what to expect but the reality of it was still shocking. She pressed a splay of fingers against the lifter’s speaker-window and wriggled uncomfortably inside her heat-skin as the vehicle’s echo showed her the water outside: no spheres, no movers, no people, not even any fish; just a lumpy composite mass drifting slowly downward, probably a dying reef-colony come loose from the ice.

The lifter too was empty, save for herself and the operator. The lifter had emptied quickly at first and then more slowly as it ascended, the other passengers disembarking at anchor-cities, hunting platforms, or isolation spheres. At each stop, as the chattering females peeled away from the lifter’s passenger column, collected their luggage, and swam out of the dome, the vehicle grew quieter and quieter until ChaaSooNiik could imagine herself one of the sacrificial mourners of legend who had escorted the floating dead up to the impenetrable ceiling of ice.

Which was where she was going, in fact.

Except there would be no inverted necropolis carved from sacred ice and filled only with revered matriarchs and their favorite mates, but something infinitely more wonderful: The Soo Family Exploration Platform. Where there might have been nothing but death, silence, and superstition, there would be life, activity, and discovery! ChaaSooNiik chirped in her excitement, all six arms vibrating and nearly causing her to lose her grip on the passenger column. She was going to be there when the thermodrill finally broke through the “impenetrable” ceiling! When the echoscope would shout through the ice and they would hear what lay beyond the ceiling! It would be the greatest discovery since GlaaAraChuurt had sailed the Great Wave around the world!

Her favorite mother-sister, TlkSooTlk, had sent her a rod several oscillations ago, inviting her up to see the completion of The Soo Family Undertaking. It had taken all the boons she had to afford the lifter ticket, but here she was!

“We near the last stop,” the driver said.

“Oh!” The lifter had been quietly ascending for so long that the voice, when it came, startled ChaaSooNiik. “Joy and thanks, sister,” she said gathering her luggage.

The driver felt her instruments. “The water is thin and cold; sister should inflate her pressure-skin.”

“Oh,” ChaaSooNiik said again. “Thanks, sister. I forget.” Toggling a switch, she felt the skin-suit inflate and grow hot. She hissed in pain as the suit’s pressure, added to the lifter’s own, squeezed her soft body, but she had been assured that in the cold waters of the ceiling such a suit was vital. She thanked the driver again in an uncomfortable squawk and fled the lifter.

“Good currents, sister,” said the driver as she sealed the lifter after ChaaSooNiik exited and began her descent, eager, no doubt, to return to more hospitable waters.

Outside the lifter ChaaSooNiik felt both more and less comfortable: the suit now compensated for her environment rather then exacerbating it, but the environment was so alien: so cold and thin and noisy. Nearly forgetting to swim clear of the lifter’s wake, she pulsed the water around her and was momentarily blinded by the distortion of her echoes. Soon, however, her brain adjusted and she heard her surroundings clearly. She heard the bulk of the drill above her and felt its heat, easily discernable against the icy ceiling even at this distance. As she drew closer she heard the echo of the females of her family swimming about the platform, feeling data readouts, fine-tuning instruments.

Stopped at the platform’s outer perimeter by a cousin-daughter, she held out her rod for verification, asking as she did for TlkSooTlk. The guard handed back her rod with a friendly caress and told her where to find her mother-sister.

Once within the platform, ChaaSooNiik was swallowed by activity. Her family females swam hurriedly to and fro like a shoal, intent on their tasks and ignoring the young visitor. She pulsed and clicked quietly, seeking and inquiring after her mother-sister but trying not to disturb the busy scientists.

“Sister-daughter,” a familiar voice said. “ChaaSooNiik, you arrive in time!”

“TlkSooTlk,” the youngster chirped. “It is joy to hear you, mother-sister!” The two entwined their arms and rubbed their mantles even through the bulky skin-suits, talking excitedly and spinning in place.

“Sister, sister,” TlkSooTlk laughed, “Come into my living-pod where we can shed these paining suits and talk.”

TlkSooTlk’s pod was small but warm and quiet. After ChaaSooNiik stowed her luggage, her mother-sister offered her some food. “It is not fresh, but it is not bad,” the older female said. ChaaSooNiik nibbled on the dead fish; it was no better than the fare on the lifter, but her excitement made it taste like the freshest catch.

“Our sisters at New Soo Vent,” asked TlkSooTlk, “they are well?”

ChaaSooNiik, her mouth full of fish, slapped two arms together to indicate that, yes, all was well. It was a vulgar gesture that her house-mother would never have allowed, but TlkSooTlk forgave the young female her lack of manners.

“And your fathers, they are well?”

ChaaSooNiik swallowed her fish hastily. “Most of them keep well, though my favorite is ill and may die.”

“I am sad to hear so,” her mother-sister said.

“It is as it is,” came ChaaSooNiik’s eventual reply. “House-mother is taking him to the healer. We can but hope.”

TlkSooTlk gurgled softly at her sister-daughter’s wisdom. Then she said, “You must be tired, ChaaSooNiik. I have prepared a sleeping niche. Sleep, and tomorrow we will together watch the drill pierce the ceiling.”


ChaaSooNiik was surprised, when she awoke in her small and comforting niche, to realize that she had been dreaming not about the historical events ahead, but of her favorite father, of feeding him and playing with him. Soon, however, all thoughts of home were pushed aside. TlkSooTlk had breakfast waiting and after they had eaten they swam out to inspect the platform.

“These are the turbines that heat and power the drill,” TlkSooTlk shouted as they floated beside a huge rumbling chamber. ChaaSooNiik marveled at the noise and heat coming from the turbines. She had never felt anything like it, not even on her one visit to the vents that powered her city.

“This is a near to the drill as we can go,” her mother-sister shouted after they had ascended to the top of the platform. Above them was a gigantic slanted ceiling, not the World Ceiling of ice, but a manufactured ceiling of metal.  Its vibrations were deafening and ChaaSooNiik had trouble sensing the few technicians that swam about them maintaining the drill. “This is a debris-slope which channels away the ice and water that falls from the drilling.”

The mother-sister and sister-daughter left the ceilings and swam down an access tunnel till they came to the control center of the platform. Here dozens of Soo sisters floated in front of speakers, monitoring power levels and listening to data streams. “The temperature is acceptable, sister?” TlkSooTlk asked one of the technicians.

The technician extended two arms and caressed TlkSooTlk in greeting. “Yes, sister, all is well. The drill is functioning perfectly. Which sister is this?” She extended the welcoming arms to ChaaSooNiik.

“This is ChaaSooNiik, my favorite sister-daughter. She has come to feel the completion of the project.”

“Good currents,” said ChaaSooNiik meekly, entwining the proffered arms with one of her own.

“Good currents,” returned the busy technician, her other arms still running over her workstation. “Enjoy the completion!”

“Come,” said TlkSooTlk. “Let us leave our sisters to their work and go to the observation room.”

The observation room was a large sphere filled with data speakers that whispered constant updates to scores of listening technicians.  As the oldest part of the Soo Platform, it housed the machine indirectly responsible for the greatest loss of life ever suffered by any family. It was the Soo Family Observation Array that had detected a weak, but persistent and clearly artificial, signal coming from—or rather, through—the ice. The signal had been short-lived but its waves still rippled around the world, for following their shocking theories, the Soo scientists began to probe the density, composition, and dimensions of the ice ceiling. And it was their findings—that the ceiling did not extend forever, but was simply a layer between realms—that had sparked the terrible Ara-Soo war.  ChaaSooNiik had been too young to feel the war, but she had read rods and listened to educational recording. She knew not only the scientific but also the historical significance of the bulk of electronics above her.

“. . . great care,” her mother-sister was saying, as she gently pulled ChaaSooNiik into a niche. “Do you hear me, sister-daughter?”

“Apologies, mother-sister, I was feeling the array.”

“Yes,” said TlkSooTlk, her waves both proud and grave. “It is a great thing. But even greater will be the results of the drill. The array is linked to the drill. As soon as the drill has cleared the top of the ceiling, the array will begin to collect data. Thermal, electromagnetic, acoustic, chemical, and other readings will wash from this speaker. I will interpret the data for you since it will be very technical.”

The sisters fell silent as the water churned with activity and thickened with anticipation. A flat voice came over the central speaker: “Breakthrough in six, five, four, three, two, one—the drill has successfully breached the ceiling, we are clear of the ice!” A cheer washed through the room, but the announcing sister continued calmly: “Observation Array is functioning. Begin recording. Data incoming.”

The computerized noises that followed meant nothing to ChaaSooNiik, but she felt clearly the shock of her sisters. “Hungry gods,” whispered one technician, while another clicked in fear.

“What is it,” ChaaSooNiik grabbed her mother-sister’s arms.

“Nothing,” TlkSooTlk said. “It’s nothing.” Then she spun out of ChaaSooNiik’s grasp and swam to the nearest workstation. “Is the echoscope functioning? Can we confirm this?”

“Y-yes,” came the answer.

“Chemical and electromagnetic data incoming,” said the calm disembodied voice.

More beeps and clicks and whines followed. “Thermal images . . .” continued the central speaker, “X-rays . . .”

Now an awed hushed rippled through the room.

“What does it mean,” ChaaSooNiik shouted, grabbing her mother-sister in a panic. “Please, tell me!”

TlkSooTlk touched her head against ChaaSooNiik, “Peace, sister-daughter, I will tell you: beyond the ceiling, there is no water.”

“No water?”

“Not even liquid. There is a thin layer of gaseous oxygen, and then there is a nothing that swallows sound; a cold space. But in this cold space float massive objects that burn with electromagnetic energy. Perhaps they are even other worlds.”

The young visitor gripped her sister tight. “What does it mean,” she hissed. “What will we do?”

TlkSooTlk caressed her sister-daughter gently, but she spoke to all her sisters: “It means there is more to discover. It means we will build new machines and explore this new realm above the ice.”



Matthew Timmins lives in Massachusetts with his wife and far too many cats. His short stories have appeared in the Journal of Unlikely Architecture and in a pair of forthcoming anthologies. When not writing novels and short stories, Matthew enjoys RPGs, Formula One, and voracious and eclectic reading.