Call of the Void


Bridgette Dutta Portman




Jones is the third suicide on Europa.

Commander Hennepin leans hard on the auger. The moon’s crust is a jumble of ice and rock fragments—debris left over from millions of years of meteor impacts—and it’s tough as hell to dig through. Forget six feet under; that’s an Earthly luxury. He’ll settle for two. It’s not as if he has to worry about anything digging up the body.

It would be easier to toss Jones down one of the deep fissures that rive through Europa’s surface. But that wouldn’t be Hennepin’s style. He prefers things orderly, with every man accounted for. Everyone in their place, whether their pod or their grave.

He gives the corpse a dispassionate glance. The purplish bruises on the man’s swollen face match the hue of his lips. The effects of decompression and asphyxiation aren’t pretty, and the temperature—minus two hundred degrees Celsius—hasn’t helped. Jones had gotten the urge to take his helmet off while standing on the surface, just like both of the others. Their bodies lie under the ice now too, little mounds of fractured crystal marked by simple plaques.

Jones’s grave will be the last. Hennepin will make sure of that.

There’s movement in the distance. A figure approaches through the toothy shadows. Hennepin can’t yet see the face under the glinting visor, but he can tell by the figure’s tentative, exploratory gait that it’s one of the newcomers. The most recent additions to Galileo Base arrived twenty rotations ago. They’re still flushed with adrenaline from their landing, still dazzled by the planet in the sky, still cautious when they maneuver across the low-gravity moon. And they still haven’t learned not to question him.

The mottled orb of Jupiter hangs overhead, like the enormous eye of some indifferent god. It’s full today, as it is every eighty-five Earth hours. Hennepin avoids looking at it. Not that he’s afraid. But both of the prior suicides happened when the planet was in its full phase, with the entirety of its swirling clouds lit up by the distant sun.

He watches the approaching figure instead. It’s moving with more confidence now as it maneuvers between the penitentes. The towering fingers of ice live up to their name, reaching toward Jupiter like worshippers in need of absolution.

A voice crackles in his helmet. “Commander?”

After Jones’s body was found, Hennepin ordered everyone to stay subsurface. And the young woman approaching him knows it damned well. “Jyoshi,” he hisses, “what are you doing here?”

The newcomer glances at the corpse, then quickly away. “I wondered if you could use some help, sir.”

Hennepin’s eyebrows rise. Jyoshi’s fit enough, but she’s still petite, and nearly a head shorter than him. He accepts the offer nonetheless. He’ll address her insubordination later. Right now he wants to finish the damn grave and get back to Base. The longer he’s out here, the greater the risk from Jupiter—in more ways than one. The radiation spilling from the planet’s magnetosphere is so intense it makes the ice glow a dull blue. His suit is reinforced with layers of water and polyethylene so thick it would be difficult to move if he were still bound by Earth’s gravity. Those suits, and the ice and rock above the subterranean base, protect the colonists well enough. Still, none of them expect to live into old age.

“What happened to Jones?” Jyoshi asks, her voice hesitant.

“Another suit malfunction.” There’s no need for Jyoshi—for any of them—to know what Jones did. It’ll only unnerve them further. Or encourage them to do the same.

Jyoshi’s brought an ice axe. They work for a few minutes, drilling and chipping away at the stubborn ground, gradually hollowing out a body-sized cavity. The silence is profound, but not absolute. Hennepin focuses on the mechanical whirs as his spacesuit performs its biological functions, recycling his breath and sweat. The thin atmosphere can’t carry sound, but every now and then he imagines he hears a deep rumbling, like something cracking in the subterranean ocean under his boots. The whole moon is twisted, distorted by the tidal forces of Jupiter’s gravity. The more gullible of the colonists say the groans sound like voices.

“Commander, do you remember waterfalls?”

The question is so abrupt and incongruous it makes Hennepin snort. Does the girl miss Earth already? She’ll have to learn not to think about it, to push away the memories of all things green and blue. Hennepin’s an expert at that by now. Even so, he can’t help a few stray images from breaking through the hard-packed surface of his conscious mind. A family trip. Himself as a little boy. A stern father. A mother watching the froth and foam with sad eyes.

Jyoshi’s still waiting for an answer.

He throws his weight on the auger. “Yes. Why?”

She hesitates. “When I was eight, my family took me to Niagara Falls. It was incredible. I remember staring at the water, the way it fell in those never-ending sheets, and all of a sudden I felt like I wanted to jump. Right off the edge of the cliff. Like it was calling me and I had no choice but to answer. It terrified me. My sister laughed, but that feeling…I couldn’t explain it to her. There’s a name for it, something French, but at the time I only knew those falls were too big. Too beautiful. So beautiful I had to touch them.”

“Is there a point to this story?”

“I feel that way whenever I look at Jupiter.”

Hennepin pauses, the auger rumbling in his hands. The planet’s blood-orange light glints off Jyoshi’s visor, and he can’t help but glance up at it. White clouds eddy among rivulets of orange. The Great Red Spot stares down at them, an ever-churning storm that could swallow Earth with room to spare.

It’s mesmerizing.

No one predicted this. None of the simulations. Not even the practice colonies on the Moon and Mars. Scientists warned them all about the side effects of weightlessness and space travel—muscle deterioration, weakened eyesight, homesickness, radiation poisoning—but this is different. The constant proximity of Jupiter, like a colossal, unwelcome sun, disrupts something in the colonists, throws them off-balance, like standing at the edge of an abyss.

Hennepin’s breath hitches as something tugs at him. For a moment the planet seems to swell, its multicolored bands undulating like waves. It’s too easy to imagine himself falling upward, vanishing into that ocean of clouds. He wrests his gaze away, but it takes him a second too long.

Jyoshi’s noticed. “You feel it, don’t you, Commander? Jones must have, too.”

“It was a suit malfunction,” Hennepin repeats. “Helmet latch must’ve broken.”

She indicates the body. “His gloves.”


“His gloves are off, too.”

Hennepin curses under his breath. “What’s your specialty, Jyoshi?”

“Mechanical engineering, sir.”

“That’s what I thought. Leave the forensics to the doctors.”

She motions to the body again. “He was a doctor.” Then her helmet tilts toward Jupiter.

“Don’t look at it!”

She returns her gaze to Hennepin with a triumphant nod, her visor glinting again. “I feel it, but I can resist it, for now. I’m still new here. I think it builds up over time. It’s worst for the ones who have been here from the beginning. Like Conway. Ramirez. Jones. And…”

She lets the unspoken word hang between them in the frozen near-vacuum.


Hennepin shakes off the chill that ripples across his skin. “Get back to Base. I can finish here.”

“Commander, I’m sorry, but we have to report this.”

There’s clearly no shaking her from this trail. Jyoshi’s brilliant—they all are—but it takes more than an analytical mind to keep a colony afloat. It takes a kind of fortitude she doesn’t yet have. “No need,” he says. “Reporting it would do more harm than good.”

“Why?” Jyoshi’s eyes flash beneath the visor. “Three people killed themselves. Don’t you think Mission Control might want to know? Don’t we owe it to Jones? To all of them?”

“And what do you think will happen?” Hennepin tosses the auger aside. He towers over Jyoshi, who’s still crouched on the icy ground. “They’ll bring us home? If you didn’t realize this was a one-way trip, I’ve got news for you.”

Jyoshi looks up, this time in the direction opposite Jupiter. Earth is four hundred million miles away. It looks like another star in Europa’s black sky. It might as well be one. Here, there’s only the colony.

Only Hennepin.

“They might still be able to help,” she continues. “They could suggest protocols. Ways to handle being on the surface without—”

“They won’t do a thing except turn their backs. They’ll cancel the next mission.”

Jyoshi hesitates. “Maybe that’s for the best.”

“The best?” He snorts. “We’ve lost three colonists. We’re down to twenty. Without new recruits we’re a dying colony.”

“We’re already dying. And you want more people to join us?”

“I want this colony to survive.”

“Well, something’s killing it.”

He bristles at the edge in her voice. The accusation. “I have it under control.”

“No, Commander. You don’t.”

Hennepin glowers, suddenly hot under his spacesuit. He’s responsible for this colony. He’ll keep it safe. He’ll make new rules: forbid going out under the full planet, forbid even glancing at Jupiter. Hell, he can forbid going outside at all. There’s no real need to leave the base. The colonists pretend it’s to study the surface features, to operate the radar plumbing the subterranean sea, but that can be done by bots. The real reason is to keep from going stir crazy. They can adjust. Hennepin will make them. “Leave this to me, Jyoshi.”

She stands. “Commander, I can’t. We all know what’s going on. No one thinks these were suit malfunctions. I’ve drafted a message for Mission Control. I haven’t sent it yet. But I will, with or without your permission.”

Hennepin’s pulse thuds in his ears. Mutiny. “I said I have it under control.”

“You can’t control everything, Commander.” Her tone softens. “They won’t blame you for it. You couldn’t have known this would happen.”

Now she’s being condescending, and that’s the only thing more unbearable than defiance. “Get back to Base,” he snarls again, throwing malice into the words, hoping the threat finally gets through her thick helmet.

She stares at him. She takes a few steps backward. But she doesn’t leave. “What’s happened up until now isn’t your fault,” she persists. There’s something in her tone now that’s harder than the icy ground. “But if you let them send more people here—more people to die—then it will be. And sooner or later everyone on Earth will know. That’s a heavy thing to have on your conscience.”

The words cut Hennepin like shards of ice. For a moment he can only stare at the younger astronaut. He can almost hear the newscasts about him—the loathing, the curses, the condemnation. A leader who couldn’t protect his people. A leader who let his colony die.

Guilt floods him, but guilt is intolerable, toxic and unstable, like a radioactive isotope. He has to convert it to fury. “Jones was weak-willed. So were the others. They should never have been sent here.”

“We all passed our psych screenings.”

“So what? There are things that can’t be screened for. Fractures that only split open under pressure.” He’s being cruel, but he’s beyond caring. He has to keep the rage alive, or the guilt will seep back in. “People like Jones carry baggage. Past traumas, insecurities, I don’t care what. They think they’re ready for this place, but it breaks them.” He takes a step toward her. “And what about you, Jyoshi? Will it break you, too?”

She straightens up, her helmet tilted to meet his gaze. “I think it’s you who should be asking that question, Commander.”

His mouth falls open.

“Who couldn’t you protect, back on Earth? Who couldn’t you save?”

Something deep inside him cracks like the frozen-over ocean. He lunges forward and knocks Jyoshi to the ground.

She tries to get up, but he holds her down. She’s got the ice axe in her hand. He wrenches it away. The colony could do without her. It would be easy—so easy—to unlatch her helmet, call it another suit malfunction.

All at once the snarl on his lips goes slack. He’s caught the reflection of the planet in her visor. Somehow its mirrored image is brighter than ever.

The silence gathers, holds its breath. He tries to pull his gaze away, but he’s tired now, enervated by his struggle with Jyoshi. He feels the tug again. Then everything is tendrils of red and swirls of orange and corrugated bands of white and Jupiter is all he can see, impossibly big, almost close enough to touch.

He has to touch it. It isn’t a choice.

He stands, extending a hand. He vaguely registers Jyoshi freeing herself from his grip and the reflection is gone, but now he’s gazing at its source. Jyoshi’s voice is as distant as Earth as he turns the ice axe on himself, slashing through his spacesuit’s left glove.

Whistling fills his ears, a roar like falling water, as the air rushes out of the suit. His vision blurs. He’s still not close enough. He thinks he hears something else under the whistling air—something deep and groaning, something at once thoroughly alien and strangely human.

It sounds like someone calling for help.

Hennepin’s hand is bare in the near-vacuum, swollen and bloated, the skin already purpling like Jones’s. He can’t reach the planet. Someone is shaking him, but he doesn’t care. He strains, reaches, grasps like a supplicant.

He can’t hear the voice anymore. His helmet’s in the way.

He drops the axe. He unlatches the helmet. And then Jupiter cascades in.


“Call of the Void” © Bridgette Dutta Portman.  First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, February 28, 2024

“Call of the Void” is one of two winners in the short category for The Kepler Award for 2023

Bridgette Dutta Portman is an award-winning playwright and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy, particularly with psychological and mental health themes, and is the author of the young adult novel trilogy The Coseema Saga. She teaches composition and creative writing at UC Berkeley. 


Illustration by Fran Eisemann. Stock courtesy of NASA

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