The Days on Europa Were Long

Sienna arrived on Europa with a purpose: to learn from Mr. Shorn. To be taught all the necessary tasks, before the man’s health ultimately failed.

Terraforming Jupiter’s moon was a complex process, with too many variables to automate. Mr. Shorn, however, had been doing it for years. He was a living expert on the matter.

But the man did not welcome Sienna. He sulked in his biosphere, instead, with his bloodshot eyes averted.

When she asked why her arrival offended him, his explanation was startlingly brief: “They built you to look like her.”

Sienna did not know which her he meant. His wife, perhaps? A daughter? She had not been given such information. After seeing the man’s pained face, though, she did not inquire any further.

Perhaps some things were better left unknown.

* * *

It took days for Mr. Shorn to speak again. They were in the ice hills. Mr. Shorn was operating a drill with his body hunched, his breath fogging his visor. “The others left, once Ganymede showed progress,” he mumbled. “Why stay here, when there’s a better moon to work on?”

Sienna knew all about Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. They’d had success there. The ionosphere was developing nicely.

It made Mr. Shorn’s efforts somewhat . . . redundant.

Though, redundant did not mean useless. Europa would still serve a purpose.

Her purpose, meanwhile, was to learn. So she said, “Please explain this task, Mr. Shorn.”

But the man said nothing back. He merely continued panting and drilling, until the turquoise sky faded to darkness.

* * *

For a week, Sienna followed the man across the barren terrain, while he drilled and planted, while he cranked gears and adjusted levers.

The days on Europa were long, by human standards—nearly four times the length of an Earth day—so Mr. Shorn’s sleeping habits appeared as naps. Six hours, here. Seven hours, there. He slept in his biosphere, with his back to the window. As he rested, Sienna watched him intently, memorizing every twitch, every whimper.

Wondering was not an assigned task, though she found herself doing it, anyway. In the man’s dreams, was he alone, as he was here on Europa? Or was she there with him—the mysterious woman whom Sienna resembled?

* * *

“We were wrong about the sun,” Mr. Shorn muttered. They were in his biosphere, sitting across from one another, while the man slurped paste from a packet.

Judging from his expression, the food was . . . unenjoyable.

“We thought the thing had hydrogen to spare,” he continued. “Now they say it’ll get huge and red, much sooner than expected.” He swallowed and grimaced. “Earth will get torched when that happens. Then Europa will be in the new habitable zone. That’s why I’m doing this, see? For . . . humanity.”

Sienna knew all this, of course. Still, she pretended to be fascinated. Mr. Shorn softened, when she allowed him to teach her.

She liked when Mr. Shorn softened.

* * *

The days stretched to weeks, then months. Mr. Shorn grew visibly frail. His excursions from the biosphere became increasingly rare.

When he spoke, it was as if Sienna had become something else. A memory, perhaps. Or a delusion.

“There’ll be boys in your life,” he said one evening, while cleaning the biosphere’s filter. Dust trailed away from the filaments. Against the backdrop of space, the debris appeared to glitter. “They’ll . . . want things from you,” he continued. “But you’re better than that. You’ve got a future in the stars, understand?”

Sienna nodded and held his gaze, until the man cleared his throat and looked away.

* * *

Little by little, the tasks became Sienna’s. More and more, Mr. Shorn did the watching. He offered advice between coughs and winces.

Not so rough; you’ll strip the bolt.

Always check the pH before seeding.

Wish you’d wear a helmet, out there. What’ll I tell your mother if you run out of air?

Sienna responded, always, as if she were the young woman he thought her to be.

I know my own strength.

I already checked, remember?

Tell Mom to mind her own business.

Mr. Shorn chuckled weakly at her responses. “You’ve always had a mind of your own.”

* * *

When Mr. Shorn could no longer leave his cot, Sienna stayed by his side. By this point, she had mastered most of the tasks. The remaining ones could be delayed. She spent the time, instead, with her hand on his, while she studied his jagged breathing. She wondered what he’d looked like as a young man.

What had his life been like, before Europa?

Occasionally, Mr. Shorn muttered in her direction. His words were strained, and mixed with whimpers.

Promise you won’t get on that shuttle.

I didn’t get to say goodbye.

Oh, my baby . . .

Sienna did her best to comfort him, whispering gently in his ear.

I won’t, I promise.

You don’t have to.

I’m here, Daddy. I’m here.

* * *

When Mr. Shorn finally passed, Sienna buried him under the ice, in the valley where he’d grown his herbs. She held no ceremony. She spoke no words. Her eyes had no ducts to produce tears.

This last fact pained her the most. Mr. Shorn deserved to be mourned, in a way that she could not provide. But she could carry on his tasks. She owed him at least this much.

So she drilled in the northern slopes, with her body hunched, while she muttered about Ganymede and a red-hued sun. She shook dust from the biosphere’s filter, while she pondered boys and her future in the stars. She fastened bolts without stripping them. She checked the pH before seeding. And though she had no need to breathe, she wore a helmet in the fields, lest she run out of air.

Others would be awaiting her return. Sienna had accomplished her mission, after all.

But Sienna contacted no one. There were countless tasks to be done, and the days on Europa were long.


The seed of this story first tumbled into my mind when I was ten years old, while reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It was my first experience reading a science fiction story, and the experience left me dazzled.

At one point in the narrative, the protagonist, seated precariously on his self-made time machine, travels far into Earth’s future. He ends up on a desolate shoreline, surrounded by monstrous crablike beasts, before the sluggish ebb and flow of an oily sea….

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