Summer Field Trip on Io

School was finally out for summer, if you could call the frigid cold summer. Pava and Tuti were already getting bored, though, and were excited to be going on a field trip with their science teacher, Dr. Wu.

While they were finishing up breakfast, a message came through on the com. “We know you’re going to have a great day, girls!” Pava’s mom, a xeno-biologist said. Tuti’s mom, who worked with her, appeared alongside.

“There’s a deep slush alert, so Dr. O’Neil’s son, Mack, is going to take you out to the site. Be sure to calibrate your scanners for background radiation.”

“Yes, mom,” Pava and Tuti replied in unison.

After chatting a bit longer, their moms signed off. The friends left the cozy quarters for the adjacent mudroom where they slipped into all-terrain suits. After checking and double-checking their suits, they headed outside into the bright day. While Loki, Io’s largest volcano was far away from the station, they still imagined its sulfur plumes rising into the sky. Being aware of unexpected and potential eruptions was part of daily life, but the science station had been constructed in an area that appeared to be devoid of volcanic activity. There were lava tubes, however, which was where they were headed today.

Mack was already waiting for them, seated on a bizarre scooter-like contraption. He waved them over, and Tuti and Pava climbed into the sidecars, which jutted out on either side, resembling some kind of strange bug.

Pava said, “Thanks for the ride!”

“I didn’t have anything else to do but study.”

“Study?” Tuti asked, surprised. “For what? School’s out.”

“University entrance exams. I want to test out of a few subjects, too.”

The girls groaned in unison. “Well, I’m not studying one bit this summer,” Pava said, to which Tuti replied, “Or writing anything, either.”

Mack shrugged. Pava was lost in the bizarre patterns etched by nature into the surrounding terrain. As they approached the series of lava tubes, she imagined they were made by giant worms. Shuddering at the thought, she glanced at Mack. “I do love being outside, though. One of these days I’ll find something that fascinates me.”

Mack came to a stop. “Well, here we are. Dr. Wu will see you get home.”

Dr. Wu stepped into view, waved at Mack, and beckoned the girls to follow him.

“Thank you for inviting us to the site,” Pava said.

“Yes. We really appreciate it,” Tuti added.

“Anything to encourage your curiosity and keep your brains active over the summer,” Dr. Wu said. “Who knows,” he added with a grin, “you might just discover something interesting.”

The girls both liked Dr. Wu, and had enjoyed his introductory class on Io. He had a great sense of humor, too, which was a major plus.

“You’ll want to adjust your sensors,” Dr. Wu advised as they approached the lava tube’s opening. The girls complied. “Now stay close.” Pava and Tuti followed close behind him. There were a few people working near the tube’s opening, collecting samples and running scans. They continued walking for several minutes, fascinated by the patterns cast by their helmet lights. When they rounded a bend, it opened up into an immense cavern. Dr. Wu grinned as both girls gasped, turning around and around to take in the amazing sight. Like the inside of a geode, the back half of the cavern sparkled with pink and purple crystals, and beneath this iridescent dome was a steaming pool.

“You haven’t even seen the best part.” Dr. Wu led them to the edge of the pool, crouched down. “Adjust your sensors and then look—there! Do you see them?” The girls crouched down, leaning as close to the pool as they dared. The water rippled. “There’s something swimming in there!” Tuti exclaimed, leaning closer.

“Keep watching.” Dr. Wu said. When a silvery head appeared, Pava and Tuti nearly fell over backwards. Dr. Wu reached out to hold them upright. When they looked into the pool again, another and another silvery head appeared, looking at each of them in turn, then diving back under the water before surfacing again.

“They look like otters, don’t they? What’s more, they’re friendly little creatures,” Dr. Wu said as one of them breached the surface again, then clambered onto the edge of the pool. It sniffed at them, greeted Dr. Wu with a little bark. “I’ve brought some friends to meet you,” Dr. Wu said. “This is Pava and Tuti.”

“Hi,” they both said in turn. Pava held out her hand and the creature sniffed at it, then scrambled over the edge and climbed onto her lap. She squealed, half in surprise, half in delight, and the creature squealed back at her. Tuti held out her hand, and another one of the little otter-like beings sniffed, then perching on the edge, cocked its head this way and that before leaping onto her lap. “They’re so cute.” Tuti said, wishing she could stroke the creature’s back with a bare hand.

“Indeed they are. And intelligent. We believe they communicate with us telepathically, too. Or at least that’s what your moms believe.”

“Our moms know about them? Why didn’t they tell us?” Tuti frowned.

“You’re here now, right?” Dr. Wu said.

The girls looked at each other, and with silent agreement, turned toward him. “Can we spend the summer here?” Pava asked.

Dr. Wu nodded. “We all thought you might like that.”

Tuti stroked the little otter. “None of our friends back on Mars Station will believe this.”

“Right now, it’s our little secret, okay?” He gave a conspiratorial wink. “I’ll just be over there if you need me,” he waved toward a table filled with assorted equipment. “Enjoy getting acquainted. And oh—if you’d like to write an extra credit report. . .”

The girls groaned, but the silver otters seemed please by the sound of that, as they nodded their silver heads and barked.