Child of Titan – Chapter 5

“We are very close to our final abort point,” said Sergei as he pointed to a diagram on the large view screen in Gamma capsule.  “We still have several weeks before the Jupiter flyby, but if we want to return to Earth, we have to begin a course correction now.”

“The Jupiter abort procedure is dangerous,” said Helmut.  “We have to use the atmosphere to decelerate.”

“And almost pointless,” said Julia.  Everyone knew about her condition now, and the entire crew was assembled to discuss their options.  They had tried to exclude the junior crew, but had relented after loud protests.

“Why is it pointless?” asked Lili.  “We need to get you back to Earth.  You’ll die if we don’t.”

“It’s going to take years to return,” said Julia.  “If I can’t treat it myself with the supplies we have, it will be too late.”

“I’m not the doctor here,” said Min, “but I know that Leukemia can be treated successfully with chemotherapy, and we caught it at a very early stage.  You could go into remission long enough to make it back.”

“Then we might as well continue,” said Julia.  “We’re practically at Saturn’s doorstep now.  I want to complete the mission.”

“But the original plans don’t exactly have an end date,” said Helmut.  “As long as supply ships keep coming, we can remain in Saturn’s system for a long time.”

“How long will it be before the Space Union tries a mission like this again?” asked Julia.  “Support is already dwindling.  If it weren’t for the fact that they had to keep us alive, the program probably would have been cancelled by now.  People stopped watching the show a long time ago.  It’s pretty boring at this point.”

“Yeah, our video channel has more viewers now,” said Tao.  “High five!” he said, holding his hand up to Lili, who just scowled at him and shook her head.

“The fact is, I’m willing to die for this,” said Julia.  “We all knew how risky this was when we volunteered.  I’d rather die having accomplished what we came to do.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Gottfrid.  “You are the ship’s surgeon.  If we decide to continue to Saturn, and to Titan, and you don’t make it, then we are all at a higher risk.  We will have no doctor for the return voyage.”

“We don’t have stay at Titan for long,” said Julia.  “Just a few orbits to gather data, and then we go home.  The difference is less than two years.”

“This seems like a wasted argument to me,” said Isabelle.  “The Space Union will make the decision.”

“They have to take our opinions into account,” said Julia.  “We need to report this with a unified voice.”

“Should we take a vote?” asked Helmut.

“I don’t think kind of decision calls for democracy,” said Gottfrid.

“Just to gauge where we are,” said Helmut.  “Nothing official.  Now, everyone who wishes to continue to Titan, raise your hand.”

Julia raised her hand  immediately.  Isabelle Gottfrid also raised her hand, and after a moment of hesitation, Axel and Olivia raised their hands.  They looked expectantly at their father, but Gottfrid shook his head.  “I abstain from the vote.  We need more time to consider.”

“It’s ok to abstain,” said Helmut.  “We will count you as undecided.”

Min raised her hand.  “I say we go.”

Helmut started counting.  Max had also raised his hand.  “That’s 6 votes to keep going.  And yes, we are counting junior astronauts as equal votes.  Any more?  Ok, hands down.  Now, who wants to return to Earth?”

Lili raised her hand, as did her father.  Tao and Jing raised their hands.

“That’s 4,” said Helmut.  “What about you Nicklas?”

Nicklas was deep in thought and didn’t hear his father at first.  He looked up at everyone with obvious conflict written on his face.

“Undecided?” asked Helmut.  Nicklas just shrugged.

“And you?” Min asked.

“I will also abstain,” said Helmut.

“Very diplomatic of you,” said Min drily.  “So much for a unified voice.  That’s 6 for Titan, 4 for Earth, and 3 in the middle.”

“I’m wondering why the Space Union doesn’t know about this already,” said Gottfrid.  “The Mars station did the lab work, so why didn’t they report it?”

“I asked them to give me time,” said Julia.  “I wanted you all to hear it from me first.  I’ll send my report to them now.”

“And then you’ll start chemo, if you haven’t already,” said Min.

“I took my first dose an hour ago,” said Julia.  “I’m starting to feel awful, actually.  I don’t think I’m going to be much use for the rest of the day.”

“Then the meeting is adjourned,” said Sergei.  “Send your report and get to bed.”

“Aye-aye, captain,” said Julia, giving a half-hearted mock salute.

As the group broke up to return to their cabins, Nicklas tugged at Lili’s sleeve and motioned for her to follow him to Delta capsule.  As they rounded the corner, Lili saw her father motion with his head for Gottfrid and Helmut to follow him toward Alpha capsule.

“What is it with you?” said Lili.  “Why didn’t you vote?  My mom is going to die if we don’t turn back!”

Nicklas closed the hatch and pressed the privacy button so that they wouldn’t be disturbed.  Despite the fact that they were alone, he whispered conspiratorially. 

“Listen, Lili, there’s more going on with this mission than you know about.  I don’t think anyone knows about it but me and the Space Union.  That was the whole point of my submarine project.”

“What are you talking about?  What does your submarine have to do with my mom?”

“The submarine was just a cover–I mean, it’s a real project, I totally want to send it to explore the lakes on Titan–but it was just an excuse to hack into the Space Union database.”

Lili shook her head.  “You hacked into the Space Union?  You can’t be serious.”

“Yep.  And it wasn’t easy, either.  Their security is really good.  But I was able embed a probe into the first version of my design.  As soon as someone with the right security clearance put on VR goggles to check it out, my probe found a few weak spots in the firewall.  Then my second version had the actual hack.”

“Why did you need to hack into the Space Union database?  That makes no sense.”

“Well, after we first left Earth orbit, I was copying some files to my personal workstation, and I noticed something weird in the cross-reference that gets embedded into the file system.  It looked like some documents had been deleted before they transferred the data to the Christiaan.”

“You just happened to notice that?  In an obscure, hidden cross-reference?”

“Yeah, well, I like to poke under the hood and see how stuff works.  And it’s faster to find files that way, instead of browsing with the user interface.”

“And then you went to the trouble of hacking the Space Union–which is illegal, by the way–just to find a few deleted files?”

“It wasn’t just that they were deleted, there were a few more clues–I couldn’t even sleep at night wondering what might be in those files.  It was driving me nuts. I had to do it.”

Lili sighed.  “Alright, so, what’s the big mystery?  Is it Carmen’s tax returns or something?”

“There’s somebody on Titan already.  Or something.”

Lili made a face that showed confusion and skepticism.  They were both silent for a few moments.

Nicklas bounded over to a console and tapped a few keys.  The display filled with signal analysis graphs and charts.  “See this signal?  This kind of thing never comes from a natural source.  The only electromagnetic radiation on Earth or in space that looks anything like it is radar.”

“Radar?  And it’s coming from Titan?”

“Yeah.  And not only that, it’s coming from the exact coordinates of our landing site.  That’s why we’re here, Lili.  It’s not about some stupid reality show, or for us to take nice pictures of Saturn–no offense.  We’re here to investigate the source of that radar signal.”

“You’re thinking it’s aliens, aren’t you?  But it has to be the Chinese, right?”

“I thought the same thing.  So I hacked into the Space Union files again and went a little further this time.  I took everything I could possibly find about the Chinese space program.  There’s nothing in there about the outer solar system.  Everything they have done recently has been focused on Earth’s moon.”

Lili paused and let the information sink in for a few seconds.  “So,” she said slowly.  “This is either a political mission to investigate a super-secret Chinese outpost on Titan, or–“

“Or it’s first contact,” said Nicklas.  “I don’t think it’s the Chinese.  If it’s aliens, then we can’t turn back now.  Think of how big of a deal this is!”

“Then why didn’t you vote to keep going?”

“Because, if it is the Chinese, then like you said, this is political.  Or maybe even a military mission.  And I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”

“So how do we find out which one it is?”

“Well, that’s the problem.  If the Space Union doesn’t even know, then the only way to find out is to actually go to Titan and see for ourselves.”

They were interrupted by the buzzer on the hatch.  Tao’s voice came over the intercom.  “Hurry up in there, I have to go.”

Lili climbed the ladder and opened the hatch.  Tao looked down and asked “what are you two doing in here?”

Lili read the jealous look on Tao’s face.  “We’re making babies, obviously.”

Nicklas looked at Lili with panic.

“Jeez, relax,” said Lili.  “We’re just talking about how the Space Union has been lying to us this whole time, and there’s either aliens or the Chinese military on Titan waiting for us.”

Tao was halfway down the ladder.  He stopped with a genuinely confused look on his face.

“Ssh!” said Nicklas.

“Why?” asked Lili in an outraged voice.  “Why are you keeping this secret?”

“I’m not!  Not from you, anyway.  I just told you, so it’s not secret.”

“But why didn’t you bring this up at the meeting?” asked Lili.

“Because what if our parents know about it already?  If they are keeping it from us, then why shouldn’t we keep it from them that we know?”

Tao shook his head dramatically.  “Ok, hold it.  Stop!  What the heck is going on?  Aliens?  Chinese?”

There was another buzz from the hatch.

“Tao, if you’re about to stink it up in there, let me go first.  I need to pee.”  It was Jing.

“Let her in,” said Nicklas.  “Might as well explain it to her, too.”

“We should call everyone,” said Lili.  “All the juniors, at least.”

“Yes!” said Tao.  “The adults are always having meetings we’re not allowed to attend.  It’s our turn.”

Lili went to the console and pressed a few keys.  “Attention on the station, all junior astronauts report to Delta capsule.  All junior astronauts to the Delta capsule for a super secret no-adults-allowed meeting.”

“Did you just broadcast that to the whole ship?” asked Tao.

“It was your idea,” said Lili.

“But it’s not a very secret meeting if you tell everyone on the whole ship!”

“I want them to know we’re having a secret meeting.  I just don’t want them to know what we’re talking about. Nicklas, can you disable the feeds so they can’t eavesdrop?”

“I already did,” said Nicklas.

Surprisingly, everyone showed up.  Even Axel and Olivia.

Olivia crossed her arms and took a haughty tone.  “I’m going to report everything you say to my mother.  We shouldn’t keep secrets.”

“Really?” said Lili.  “Then listen to this.  Tell them, Nicklas.”

Niclas repeated his story.

Olivia looked skeptical, while Axel looked scared. “Chinese military?  Or aliens?  I don’t think I want to meet either of those.”

Jing started to cry.

“What’s wrong, Jing?” asked Tao.

“What’s wrong?  Seriously, what’s wrong?  Everything!  Lili’s mom is dying, we’re floating in space a bajillion miles from Earth in a rickety tin can, and now there are Chinese aliens waiting to kill us all!”

Tao put his arm around her shoulders.  “No, no, Jing, it’s ok.  It’s not Chinese aliens.  It’s either Chinese or aliens.  Not both.”  He looked at Nicklas.  “Not both, right?”

Jing continued to cry loudly.

The hatch buzzed again.

“Oh for crying out loud,” said Lili.  “Who is it?  Adults are not welcome.”

“It’s me, Lili.  It’s your mom.  Let me in, please.”

Lili opened the hatch and helped Julia down the ladder.

“Mom, you should be in bed.”

“I know,” said Julia.  “But I was worried.  You sounded upset over the intercom.  I’m sorry to intrude.  Also, I think I’m going to throw up in a few minutes, and I didn’t want to make a mess of our capsule.”

Lili’s anger melted away.  Her mother looked so frail.  She had never once seen her mother as being vulnerable in any way.

A few awkward moments passed as everyone just stared at each other.  Lili broke the silence and moved towards Julia.  “Mom–“

And then a tremendous bang and shudder rocked the station.  Everything went dark for a second before backup systems activated, and then a cacophony of alarms went off.  Jing screamed.  Everyone slowly rocked to one side and stumbled as the artificial gravity shifted off center, forcing them into a corner against the bulkhead.

Lili felt her ears pop as the hatch to Delta capsule snapped shut and sealed itself automatically.  Her mind was just beginning to transition from shock and confusion to the trained reflexes gained from countless emergency drills, but then she looked at her mother’s face and, for a brief moment, saw genuine fear.  They made eye contact in the dim, strobing lights, and Julia recognized the panic growing in her daughter and other juniors.  She snapped into command mode and started barking orders.

“Axel and Olivia, start putting the seats back together.  Jing and Tao, get these supplies stacked up against the bulkhead to give them room.  Max, as soon as we get the first seat secured, position your monitors and get ready to pilot the station from here.  Nicklas, cycle through all the video feeds and try to see what just happened.  Lili, climb the ladder and check the pressure readings on the hatch

Julia half crawled to the far bulkhead, against the force of gravity, to an intercom switch.  “This is Julia, I’m in Delta with the juniors.  We are secure.  What’s going on?”  She released the switch and waited.  “Sergei, report.  Sergei?  Helmut?  Min?”  Silence.

Axel and Olivia were struggling to erect the chairs against the awkward sideways pull of the station.  They had to be unlatched from the bulkheads, unfolded, and pushed along rails to their normal positions.

“Hurry up!” ordered Julia.  “I want everyone strapped in ASAP!  You’ve practiced this a hundred times, make it happen!”

“Mom, why aren’t they answering?” asked Lili in a high pitched, cracking voice.

“Let’s assume the comm system is damaged,” said Julia.  “Come down off the ladder and help get these seats secured.  We may need to undock from the station.”

“Should we uncover the portholes so we can see out?” asked Max.

“No,” said Julia.  “We’re too close to Jupiter, we need to keep the radiation shields up.  We’ll have to rely on video feeds.”

Max jumped into the first seat that Axel and Olivia managed to erect, just in front of the bulkhead where several large screens were positioned.  Nicklas was punching away at a keyboard mounted nearby, but the screens still only showed static.  Max adjusted the control sticks mounted on the sides of his chair.  Lili began to strap into a seat that she had pulled into position next to him and noted that he could now reach the controls easily.  He was so much taller than he had been when they were still candidates.

Julia supervised the others as they completed turning Delta back into a proper capsule, and then seated herself in the eighth chair next to Lili.

“We should have feeds back up in a few seconds,” said Nicklas.  “The central control unit rebooted after the power outage.  I’m getting nominal signals from the core.”

“That’s good news,” said Julia. 

The static on their displays resolved itself into various angles inside and outside the station.  Nothing looked terribly out of shape.  Jupiter was rotating in and out of the view at an odd angle, but the core and four capsules appeared to be sound.

“Mrs. Putin, I need command override from you to activate video inside the other capsules,” said Nicklas.

Julia entered a password into a keyboard on her arm rest to release the privacy lock on the cameras.  “Something tells me you’re just being polite,” said Julia.  Nicklas shrugged and began rotating through the available camera angles.

“Beta capsule looks intact.  And empty,” he said.  “Same for Gamma.  And the core looks Ok.  Where is everybody?”

“What about Alpha?” asked Julia.

“I’m having trouble with that one.  The signal is intermittent.”

“We’ll come back to it,” said Julia.  “Cycle through the tubes.”

They watched as images of the connecting tubes to the capsules alternated on the screens.  The tube to Alpha capsule was dark.

“Oh God,” whispered Julia.  And then she vomited over the side of her chair.

#

Lili unbuckled and scrambled to the hygiene station for a handful of towels, and then began to clean up.  The unpredictable rolling of the station made it awkward, and the smell was overpowering, but she refused to act like a child.  Her mother needed her.  And the work, disgusting as it was, diverted her attention from the disaster unfolding around her.

Julia was clutching at her stomach, which was cramping as she dry-heaved.  Tears covered her cheeks.

“It’s going to be Ok, mom,” said Lili.  “We’ll get you back to Earth and everything will be Ok.”

Jing was sobbing quietly.  Axel and Olivia gripped the arms of their chairs, looking like they too might soon be sick. 

“Max, can you fix the rotation?” asked Tao.  “I’m getting dizzy.”

“I’d rather figure out what happened to Alpha,” said Max.  “I’m going to launch the drones.”

“No, Max,” said Julia weakly.  “Straighten us out first.  Make sure we haven’t drifted off course.”

Max grumbled but complied.  He pulled up a virtual animation of the ship, with arrows indicating the direction of flight and rotation.  The short pulses of attitude thrusters vibrated the capsule.

“Alpha thrusters are offline.  I think I can compensate, though.  Just a bit more–and, there we go,” he said, as the vectors aligned in the animation and arrows turned green.  “We’re spinning properly now, but Lili will have to check our alignment to see if we were knocked off course.”

“I can’t do that from here,” she said.  “I need to go to the core.”

“We should stay put for a while,” said Julia.

“But what if we’re falling into Jupiter?” said Max.  “We might need a main engine burn.”

“It would have taken a much bigger jolt to alter our course that much,” said Nicklas.

Max thought about it for a second.  “Yeah.  You’re right.  The station seems stable for now.  I’m launching the drones.”  He looked to his mother for approval.  She nodded.

Video screens filled with angled views on the station as a half-dozen drones detached from the hull and took up station at various vantage points.

“I’m not seeing any obvious damage,” said Max.

“I still can’t get any signals at all from Alpha capsule.  There’s nowhere else the rest of the crew could be.” said Nicklas.  “Move the drones in to inspect it.”

Max deftly maneuvered his tiny fleet into position surrounding the capsule, which was very dim in the soft glow of the sun reflecting off of Jupiter.  The gas planet loomed large as it rotated in an out of view of the circling drones.

“Is there any way we can get more light?” asked Nicklas.

“The guide lights are already at full strength,” said Max.  “Maybe if I bring them all together–” 

Max swung the drones around into a tight formation at the bottom of Alpha capsule, and then started to circle them closely around it in a deliberate search pattern.  The collected power of the LED lights was like a flashlight, shining a beam less than a meter wide.  When the formation reached the aft side of the capsule, they all saw it at the same time.

There was a ragged outward bulge and a hole that looked like the exit point of a bullet.  A faint haze of crystallized atmosphere leaked out from the exposed interior.

Olivia gave out a strangled, tortured shriek and began to tear at her buckles, leaping up out of her chair to the ladder.

“No,” said Julia.  “It’s too late.”

“We have to help them!” Olivia yelled.  “We have to save them.  They’re inside.  My parents are inside.”  She began to claw at the hatch controls.

Axel grabbed her around the waist and forced her back down.

Tao and Jing looked like ghosts.

Nicklas hid his face in his hands.

Max backed the drones up by several meters and parked them in a circle around the core.

Julia unbuckled and pulled herself forward to sit next to Max on the edge of his seat.  She reached forward and pushed buttons, deactivating all video screens except the small one mounted directly in front of Max.

“I want everyone to look away,” she said.  She leaned close to Max’s ear.  “Everyone but you.  Do you think you can fly a drone into the capsule?”

Max shook is head.  “No.  No, I can’t.  I don’t want to.”

She put her hand on his cheek.  “Please, sweetie.  We have to do this.  We have to know.”

Lili reached out and squeezed Max’s hand, but she kept her eyes averted to the bulkhead.

Max wiped tears from his eyes.  Then he turned to the controls and began to land the drones back in their docking stations.  All but one.

The remaining drone barely fit into the hole, and at one point it seemed to get stuck, but with an extra puff of maneuvering jets, it slid through into the darkness.  The image turned grainy and indistinct as the camera adjusted to the lack of light.  And then ghostly, frozen faces began to drift into view.  Min.  Helmut.  Gottfrid.  Isabelle.  A low, pitiful moan sounded from deep in Max’s throat as Sergei came into view, lifeless and rigid but otherwise seemingly intact.  Max shoved the controls to the side and pointed the drone away from the faces, away from his father’s body and the bodies of the other parents.  The camera focussed in on a spot of light coming from a small, neat hole that revealed the light of Jupiter.  It was only a centimeter across, directly opposite the larger exit hole.

Lili’s thoughts travelled back to their training, during the candidacy when they were discussing the dangers of deep space.  Micrometeorites were possible, but rare.  Too rare to worry about, they had been told.  But not rare enough, apparently.  And the protective coating around the crew compartments was not as strong as it needed to be.  The real danger was supposed to be radiation.  Which, for all she knew, was why her mother was sick.  Her mind skipped grief and went straight to anger.  Why were they here?  This was insanity.

#

“We have another problem,” said Nicklas.  “Pressure is dropping in the core.”

“Another puncture?” asked Julia.

“Not sure.  Might just be the Alpha capsule isn’t sealed off properly.  The core hatch to that tube didn’t close like it was supposed to when the emergency systems kicked in.”

“I’m going to have to suit up and investigate,” said Julia.

“No, mom, you can’t”, said Lili.  “You’re too weak.  What if you throw up again?”

“I will do it,” said Axel.  “I’m the only one tall enough to fit into a suit properly.”

“This is dangerous,” said Julia.  “If the core was breached–“

“It wasn’t,” said Nicklas.  “Radiation levels are normal.  Everything I’m getting from the core says its Ok.”

“We don’t have time for talk,” said Axel.  “Help me get into the suit.”  He opened a long floor panel and exposed a shallow storage compartment where spare EVA suits were stored.

Tao began rummaging through a cabinet mounted on one of the bulkheads.  “You’re going to need a patch kit,” he said.  “And tools, in case you need to dismantle an instrument panel.”

“How is he supposed to find the leak?” asked Jing.  “He won’t be able to hear it or see very well in the helmet.”

“I could just go without the suit,” said Axel.

“No,” said Nicklas.  “You might be Ok right now but it could take you hours.  By then the air might all be gone.  I’ll activate the acoustic leak detection system.”

“The what?” asked Jing.

“It’s experimental,” said Nicklas.  “There are a few dozen little microphones spread out around the station.  They analyze frequencies to home in on the hissing sound of the leak.”  Lili thought about it and vaguely remembered learning about that system during training.

“That requires you to shut down instruments, doesn’t it?” asked Julia.

“Yes.  All of them.  Communications, navigation computers, everything.  The noise from the server fans would drown out the hissing otherwise.  Is that Ok?” Nicklas waited for permission with his fingers hovering over the keys.

“Do it,” said Julia.

Olivia helped Axel into his suit, scolding him for moving too slow, and then for not being still while she secured the clamps around his gloves.  She secured his helmet into place and Tao checked the oxygen flow from his back pack.  Tao gave a thumbs up and Olivia grasped Axel’s hand, wishing him good luck before he climbed the ladder to the hatch.

Nicklas pulled up a view from Axel’s helmet mounted video camera.  They all saw through his eyes as he climbed through the tunnel and Tao secured the hatch behind him.  There was a rush of air as he opened the hatch to the core and the pressure equalized.  His voice came over the speakers clearly.

“I’m reading 80% atmosphere outside the suit,” he said.

“Confirmed,” said Nicklas.  “We gained a few percent when we opened the tube.  The higher pressure should help isolate the leak.”

“I’ll do a visual inspection while you run the detector.  How long will it take?”

“At least a few minutes,” said Nicklas.  He was moving several spectrographic displays around on his screen.  “This software is tricky, it’s never really been perfected.”

“I’m not seeing anything obvious,” said Axel.

“You won’t,” said Nicklas.  “If it was obvious, there wouldn’t be any air left.  This is going to be like a pinprick.  Let’s all just be quiet and stop moving for a few minutes.”

In the silence, they had time for the tragedy that had just happened to sink in deeper than it had in first frantic moments.  The discovery of the leak had given them a temporary crisis to distract them from the awful enormity of the loss of their parents.  The quiet was almost too much for Lili.  She felt the walls of the capsule closing in on her.  She wasn’t the only one to feel it.  Jing was stifling sobs.  Tao was holding her around the shoulders with his eyes closed tightly.

After what seemed like an eternity, Nicklas finally said “I’ve got it.  Right behind the navigational computers.”

Axel swung around to the side of the core opposite the pilot’s chair, closer to the booster engine.  The navigational computers were mounted flush to the bulkhead that led to Gamma capsule.

“The artificial gravity is tricky here,” said Axel.  “This might be easier if we de-rotated.”

“I could do it,” said Max.  “But it would be difficult from here.  I’d rather be in the pilot’s chair.”

“No,” said Julia.  “We’d have to rush through too many procedures; it’s too risky, especially with core losing pressure.  You’ll just have to deal with it, Axel.”

“We should have sent two,” said Olivia.  “I should suit up.  I can do it, we practiced in adult sized suits.”

“I can handle it,” said Axel.  He pulled out a power screwdriver from his tool kit and began to unfasten the rack from the bulkhead. He was quick and methodical, stowing the freed machine screws in a pouch on his sleeve as he removed them.

“Once the screws are out, all you have to do is disconnect the cables on the top, then swivel the clamps to release it.”  Nicklas had a diagram of that section of the core up on the screen.  “The artificial gravity should just barely hold it in place, so you don’t have to worry about it falling off the wall.”

They watched as Axel carefully detached the cables, tucked them away, and then released the clamps.  He gently tried to lift the rack, but it stayed in place.

“It’s stuck,” he said.

“Did you release all the clamps?”

“Of course I did.  You can see that.  Something is holding it from the back.”

Nicklas pivoted the diagram and zoomed in.  “There is nothing on the back.  It should just come free.  Unless it’s vacuum pressure–“

Axel bent over and got a firm grip on the sides of the rack and pulled hard.  It came free, and then there was a loud sucking noise that they could all hear over his microphone.  He flipped the rack over and there was a jagged piece of what looked like a dark, shiny metal protruding from the flat metal facing of the computer rack. He had pulled it free from a hole in the bulkhead that was now greedily sucking air from the core.

Alarms sounded as the pressure quickly dropped, but Axel stayed calm.  He set the the rack aside and in the same motion drew out the patch kit from his bag like a gunslinger pulling out his pistol.  He primed it and placed it neatly over the hole, then activated it, causing a thick mixture of epoxy to fill in the gaps around the patch.  The sucking noise stopped immediately.

“Good job, Axel,” said Julia.  Everyone in the capsule breathed a sigh of relief.  “Nicklas, get the core re-pressurized and then monitor for more leaks.  If we were hit by two separate micro-meteorites, then there might be more.”

“Not so micro,” said Axel as he lifted up the navigation rack and inspected the object.  “It looks like it’s wet.”

“That would be the liquid sealant from the bulkheads,” said Nicklas. 

“It’s not poisonous, is it?” asked Axel.

“Well, I wouldn’t drink it,” said Nicklas.  “But it’s not deadly.”

“I think this computer is finished,” said Axel, setting the punctured rack down.

“We need everyone to be quiet again for a while,” said Nicklas.  “The oxygen is back up to normal levels in the core.  I want to monitor the pressure and listen for more leaks with the acoustic system.”

Silence washed over them like a wave, and with it came grief.  Lili felt the anger rising up in her gut again.  She was mad at anyone that had anything to do with this mission.  Mad at the Space Union and the stupid money-grubbing television network.  Mad at Carmen and Jay and everyone at mission control.  They were safe on Earth, watching it all like it was some long, drawn out Hollywood movie.  Mad at her father and all the other parents for picking just that moment to have yet another adults-only meeting in the Alpha capsule.  She thought of how she herself was conducting an exclusive meeting at the same time in Delta capsule, and how it just as easily could have been her and the other juniors that had all died.  At least then it would be over.

She wallowed in these thoughts, falling deeper into anger and despair until Nicklas finally broke the silence with the all clear.  For now, they were safe. 

#

The Interview Room–Axel Svensson–Junior Astronaut

“This is not an interview,” said Axel.  His voice was flat and his eyes were red.  He wiped them absently with the back of his hand.  “This is a distress call.  We have been struck by something–a meteorite.  Alpha capsule was compromised.  All of the senior astronauts, except for Julia, were–they were–” Axel trailed off.

“They are all dead,” he said finally, his voice breaking.  “And Julia is very sick.  She was hiding it.  She has cancer.”

Axel steadied himself  as his feet began to lift off the floor.  “Max is in the pilot’s chair, he is de-rotating the ship so that Lili can check our trajectory.  The primary navigational system was taken out my the meteor storm.  The backup system is faulty.  We don’t know if we are falling into Jupiter’s gravity well.  We don’t think so, but we might need a burn to correct our course.  There is not enough time to wait for you to tell us what to do next.  This message will take more than half an hour to reach you.  I will send it as soon as Nicklas brings the communications system online.”

He moved to stop the recording and then paused.  He looked directly into the camera.

“And by the way, we aren’t doing any further interviews.  This is not a game any more.”

#

Carmen Tindall, Jay Talbot, Timothy Bell, and Oleksey Borodin were gathered in a small conference room in front of a camera.  Oleksey, the director of the Space Union, cleared his throat and spoke.

“We are deeply, deeply sorry to hear of the disaster at Jupiter,” he said in a husky voice that was heavy with emotion.  “We send you our condolences for your loss.  I take personal responsibility for what happened.  We analyzed the risks and decided that they were acceptable.” 

He removed his glasses and looked down at the table in front of him.  “This,” he said, “is not acceptable.”

“We will do everything we can to get you back to Earth safely,” said Carmen.  “We don’t have a full grasp yet of what happened to the station.  We lost all telemetry for a while, and even now we aren’t receiving data from many of the core systems.  We’re hoping you have already initiated the abort burn procedures.  There is very little time left in the window to complete the maneuver.”

Lili stopped the playback.  She was floating next to Julia, who was strapped in to her bed and covered in blankets. It had been several hours since the meteorites had struck the station.

“You need to get to the core,” said Julia.  “The rotation has stopped.  We need to know where we are so we can calibrate the abort burn.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” said Lili.  “Someone else can do it.”

“You know those systems better than anyone else,” said Julia.  “I’ll be fine here by myself.”

“But you’ll be alone.”

“I’ll watch you on video.  And we’ll leave the intercom channel open.”

“Ok,” said Lili reluctantly.  “But as soon as I finish the alignment, I’m coming right back.

She propelled herself upwards to the hatch, opened it, and moved into the tube.  She was careful to make sure the hatch was sealed before continuing up to the core.  She felt like she was made of lead.  All her movements were sluggish, and she was having a hard time keeping herself from bumping into things without artificial gravity.

Max was sitting in the pilot’s chair.  Sergei’s chair.  Lili was resentful for a moment–she didn’t want to see anyone but her father sitting there.  But she knew that was a petty feeling.  They had no choice.  Max was pilot now.  Axel sat next to him in the co-pilot’s chair, methodically reading off items from a checklist.

Lili took a quick glance out of the forward video feed to get a feel for their position in space.  The faint glow from Jupiter coming from the port side of the ship made it difficult to see stars, but she thought she recognized a few familiar asterisms.  She put her eye to the scope began to search for guide stars.

Surprisingly, they had not drifted very far from their original course.  She pulled up the navigational controls but only got an error screen.

“Max, what’s the status of the nav system?  Why didn’t the backup come online?”

“Not sure,” said Max.  “Nicklas is pulling his hair out trying to get everything back up and running.  We’re getting random failures all over the place.”

Nicklas drifted by as he came in from beta capsule, holding an armful of spare solid-state drives.

“What’s the story, Nicklas?” asked Lili.

“I wish I knew,” said Nicklas.  “I can’t explain it.  There may have been an electrical surge after the strike, but even that shouldn’t have caused drive failures.  We’re getting awfully close to Jupiter, so it might be radiation.  The last time I checked, readings were higher than predicted by the mission planners.”

“I guess we’ll have to do things the old fashioned way,” said Lili.  “Max, get ready to make some course corrections.  Let’s do a one second burn with the port side forward thrusters and see where that gets us.”

Max complied, and they felt a brief push from the side.  Lili stared into the scope for a few seconds.  “We’re off axis,” she said.

“How am I supposed to correct that without the computer?” asked Max.  “How do I know which way to pivot?”

Lili thought for a moment.  “Well, if there was a big clock in front of us, we’d be angled towards roughly 2:30.  The nose needs to move by about 15 degrees to get us back on center.  Does that make sense?”

“Yeah.  I think so.  Let’s try this,” Max said as he gave a few short bursts from thrusters on the top and starboard side of the core.

“Whoa, too much,” said Lili.  “We’re rotating pretty fast now, towards 9:00.”

Max bumped the opposite thrusters.  “I wish we could open the portholes, it’s hard when I can’t see any stars.”

“We’re getting closer.  Just a bit more in the same direction.”

After a few more quick adjustments, Lili was satisfied.  “We’re good for now, but I don’t know how we’re supposed to get aligned for the burn without the computer.  I’ve got us going basically the same direction we were before–” her voice caught in her throat for a moment–“before it happened.”

“We need a major change of course to get closer to Jupiter,” agreed Max.  “There’s no way we can get it right unless Nicklas fixes things.”

“Actually, we have a bigger problem,” said Axel.  He tapped a few keys and a diagram of the booster came up on the screen.  Several components were blinking red.

“Is that the primer pump?” asked Max.

“Yes.  And it’s completely non-functional.  Another meteorite, probably.”

“Are you sure it isn’t just an instrument failure?”

“I don’t think so.  I should be able to open and close the valve here”–he tapped the screen–“and see a pressure change in the next chamber, but it’s not responding.  This is a mechanical problem.”

“How do we fix it?” asked Lili.

“We might have to do an EVA,” said Axel.

“An EVA?  This close to Jupiter?  It would be suicide.  And besides, that would take hours.  We don’t have hours.  The window is closing.”

“Drones?” suggested Max.

“Nicklas!” yelled Lili.  “Get up here, we need you.”

“I’m a little busy at the moment, fixing your nav system.”

“We have a problem with the booster,” she said.  “We need to know if the drones can fix it.”

“I’ll launch a few to get a better look,” said Max.  Before his hands reached the controls, he froze and got a blank look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lili.

“It’s just–” Max said, looking down at his lap.  “The last time I flew the drones.  I–“

Lili knew the vision that was haunting her brother.  It was just a few short hours before that he had flown into the Alpha capsule to confirm the fate of his father and the others.  She thought her eyes were about to get watery, but she didn’t have any tears left at the moment.  She put her hand on his shoulder.

“I know it’s hard, Max.  But we have to do this.  For Mom.  We have to do this burn so we can get her home.”

Max nodded and put his hands back on the controls.  He maneuvered two drones into position around the booster engine and they could see an obvious dent where it had been struck.  It didn’t look like it had any holes in it, but the dent would have been enough to damage the interior.

Nicklas poked his head in between Max and Lili, then shook his head.  “There’s no way a drone help with that.  We’re going to have to take the panel off to see what exactly the problem is.  We’ll probably need to replace the entire pump assembly, just to be safe.”

“How long will that take?”

“The EVA?  3 hours, at least.”

“Then let’s do it,” she said.  “That might leave us just enough time to make the window.”

“Lili, no, that’s not it.  The EVA is the easy part, if you forget about the radiation.  We have to print a new valve.  Printing metal parts takes a really long time.  Days.  And that’s if the quality checks pass and you don’t have to start over.”

“Days?  We’ll be nowhere close to Jupiter by then.  We’ll be committed to Saturn.”

“We are committed to Saturn,” said Nicklas.  “The booster won’t fire without that valve.  There’s nothing we can do.”

“No!” said Lili.  “No.  I refuse to accept that.  You’re smart, Nicklas, you’re the smartest person I’ve ever known.  You can think of something.  I know you can.  Don’t tell me you can’t.”

Nicklas looked stricken.  He held out his hands and said, “I can’t.  I’m sorry, Lili.”

“It’s not that you can’t,” she said.  “You won’t.  You want to go to Titan.  You don’t care about my Mom.  You don’t care about anyone.”

“Lili,” said Max, holding on to her forearm.  “Don’t say that.  It’s not true.”

“Let go of me,” she said, and pushed off towards the Delta tube. 

Axel followed her into the tube.

“Lili,” he said, holding the hatch open as she made her way down to the capsule.  “Wait.”

Lili looked back up at him.  He had such a confusing look on his face.  Lili thought it was sort of endearing, but also sort of pathetic at the same time.  She turned around and opened the hatch to the capsule, quickly closing it behind her.

Inside the Delta capsule, her mother was getting dressed, slowly and deliberately pulling on her jumpsuit.  She was pale, almost glowing white in the dimly lit space that had become her hospital room.  Her hair was clinging weakly to her scalp, glistening with sweat.

“Mom, what are you doing?” asked Lili as she descended the ladder.

“I’m going to do an EVA,” she said.

“No,” said Lili.  “No, Mom, you can’t.  You can barely stand up.”

“Someone has to do it.”

“But you heard Nicklas,” said Lili, in a quavering voice on the edge of tears.  “It’s hopeless.”

“Weren’t you just the one getting angry with him for giving up?”

“But, I was–the whole point is to save you.  You can’t be the one to go out there.  What about the radiation?”

“This isn’t about me, Lili.  It’s probably too late for me, anyway.  It’s about getting you back home safely.”

“But there’s not enough time.  The window is almost closed.”

“Maybe so.  But one way or another, you will need that booster.  Either here or at Saturn.” Julia finished fastening her boots, then quickly tied her hair back in a tight knot.  “I’m doing this EVA, and that’s the final word on the subject.  I’m in command of this station.  If the valve can be repaired quickly, then we’ll make the abort window and head back to Earth.  If it can’t, then at least we’ll know what we have to do before we get to Saturn.”

She started climbing the ladder, a bit unsteady at first.  She looked down at Lili, who was frozen in place.

“Let’s go, astronaut.  We have a lot to do and no time to do it in.”  Her voice had shifted back into command mode.  Lili nodded and complied.

Back in the core, everyone gathered around the entrance to one of the EVA pods that jutted out from the sides of the core.  Inside it was a suit attached to the outside of the ship, encased in a tightly sealed cocoon that would serve as an airlock.

“Max, de-rotate immediately.  Then I want you to do your best to position the ship so I will have the maximum amount of metal between me and Jupiter as possible.  If I’m directly exposed to the radiation, I won’t last long, even in a suit.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” said Nicklas.

“Why not?” asked Julia, who was quickly pressing keys on the EVA control panel, pressurizing the chamber.

“The magnetic field complicates things.  It channels high energy particles, so they won’t necessarily be coming directly from the planet.”

“Then you’ll have to figure out what angle is best,” she said.

Nicklas had a slightly panicked look on his face.  “That’s a very difficult calculation to make.  I’m not even sure–“

“I’m going out of this airlock in exactly fifteen minutes.  That’s how long you have to figure it out.”

Nicklas nodded and pushed off towards the Beta tube.

Julia continued giving orders.  “Max and Axel, pilots’ chairs.  Lili, you’re on navigation.  You’ll have to help keep the ship oriented.  Olivia, you’ll be my CapCom.  I don’t want too many voices in my ear while I’m out there.”

Lili felt a bit stung by this, but she understood.  She was having a very hard time staying objective in this situation.

“Tao and Jing,” said Julia, “I want a full op-check on the auxiliary air lock.  Make sure it’s packed with every possible tool I might need out there.”

Tao held his sister by the arm as the rounded the corner.  Jing almost looked catatonic.

Julia looked around, almost as if expecting more people there to help her get ready.  “I need–” she stopped and looked down, steadying herself with a hand-hold as the station began to de-rotate.

“Mom, what is it?” said Lili.   It looked like her mother might be on the verge of another bout of vomiting.

“I’m sorry,” she said, waving Lili off.  “I just needed someone to pull up schematics of the booster, and I was about to ask Min–” she held her hand up to her mouth and a single, weak tear welled up in her eye.  She took a deep breathe to calm herself and then went back to work at the console.  The pity and grief Lili felt was almost too much to bear.  Everything was happening so quickly, none of them had had the time to process any of it yet.  It still wasn’t real, it still hadn’t sunk in that Min and the others were gone.  Dead.

Lili was pulled out of her thoughts, thankfully, by another distraction.  Nicklas was on the intercom asking Max to adjust the ship’s position.

“We’ll have to orient ourselves at several different angles so I can gather data from the radiation sensors.  Once we’ve done that, I should be able to calculate the safest place for the booster.  My calculations won’t work unless we’re very precise with the positioning.  Lili, with the nav system out, I’m really going to rely on you for this.”

Lili moved in front of the guide scope and hooked her foot into a strap to keep herself in place.  “Where do we start?” she asked.

“It doesn’t really matter where we start,” said Nicklas.  “We need at least a dozen readings, and I need to know exactly how we’re oriented for each one as we rotate through them.”

Lili thought for a moment.  She needed guide stars.  Obvious ones.  All in a circle.  “The ecliptic,” she said suddenly.  “I can use the thirteen zodiac constellations.”

“Zodiac?” asked Nicklas.  “You mean like astrology?  I thought there were twelve of those.”

Lili sighed.  “If you believe in nonsense, then there are twelve.  But there are actually thirteen constellations in the ecliptic path.  And they’re not even where the astrologists think they are.”

“Ok, whatever,” said Nicklas.  “Thirteen should be more than enough.”

“We’ll start in Virgo, with Spica,” she said, putting her eye to the scope.  She gave instructions to Max, like she had when they got back on course after the meteor strike.  Once she had the star centered, she told Nicklas to take his readings.  They only needed to spend a few seconds at each position.

She moved them methodically around the plane of the ecliptic.  From Virgo to Leo to Cancer to Gemini and onwards around the circle.  They had to skip Ophiuchus due to the current position of the sun, which made it impossible for Lili to use the guide scope, even at this distance.  Between each she called out the precise number of degrees between the stars.  She tried to bury all the memories she had of she and her father stargazing, late nights and early mornings at the telescope in what seemed like a past life.

After cycling through the constellations, Nicklas took a painfully long time to process the data.  Lili glanced at the clock on the wall, counting down the seconds in their abort window.  Finally, Nicklas called out with the orientation he thought would give Julia the best shielding as she investigated the booster damage.

Lili went to her mother’s side as they opened the inside of the EVA suit airlock, exposing the open back of the suit.  Her mother held her by the shoulders, looked her squarely in the eyes for a very long moment, then hugged her, whispering “I love you” in her ear.  Then Lili helped her climb into the suit and began to fasten the power pack to the back of it.

As they closed the door to the airlock, Lili had an awful momentary vision of closing a coffin on her mother’s body.  She shook her head to clear the thought, then and started going through the airlock checklist.  They pressurized the suit, then slowly depressurized the chamber, closely monitoring the oxygen levels in the suit to make sure there were no leaks.  Finally, they opened the outer hatch and exposed Julia to space.

Her helmet camera relayed an awe-inspiring view of Jupiter, an immense gas planet, the largest object in the solar system besides the sun.  Julia did not indulge herself by stopping to enjoy it.  She quickly moved to the other side of the core, clamping dual safety rings to metal loops on the outside of the station as she went.

She stopped at the auxiliary air lock to retrieve a satchel of tools, which she securely attached to her suit at the front, so that the tools would be easily within arms reach.  She then made her way down the booster tube towards the bottom, where the meteorite had dented the exterior.

“This is a really tricky spot to work,” she said over the intercom.  “I don’t have a good way to secure myself so that I can use both hands.”

Olivia zoomed in on a diagram of the booster and spoke into a headset.  “If you latch onto rings 3-Alpha and 6-Zeta, and then tighten down your straps, it should hold you in a good position,” she said.

“Which ones are those?” asked Julia.

“They are labeled,” said Olivia.  “3-Alpha is two rings over from where you are currently tethered.  And the other one is down at the very bottom, right under where your feet are now.”

Julia pivoted herself around and moved very slowly to reposition the carabiners that were the only thing keeping her from drifting off into space.  The small jets on her suit and the fuel in her backpack were for emergencies, and could not be used for long periods to keep her positioned.

Lili continued to glance nervously at the clock.  Everything about an EVA was purposefully, excruciatingly slow.  But the abort window was closing.  And no matter the cautions, Jupiter was bathing her mother in deadly radiation.  Every second felt like a year.

Julia finally managed to secure herself to the booster and began to loosen the bolts that held the dented panel in place.  She stowed the handheld power drill in her tool pouch and then pried open the panel, swinging it forward on small hinges.  On a normal rocket these panels would have been impossible to open, but thankfully everything about the station had been designed with long-term use and possible repairs in mind.

She swung her helmet around and focused her video camera on the valve.  The control arm had been snapped cleanly off the top of the valve, and was dangling from the joint where it connected to the drive motor.  She reached in and rotated it back into place, lining up the broken pieces so that they fit together neatly.

“This looks fixable to me,” she said.

After a few moments, Olivia said, “Nicklas thinks you might be able to repair it with the variable power handheld laser torch.”

“You mean the welder, correct?  I’ve never actually used one of those before.  I took the training course like everyone else but I’ve never actually welded anything.”

“Nicklas has,” said Olivia.  “I think I should turn the headset over to him.”

“Agreed,” said Julia.  “Nicklas, take over CapCom for the duration of the EVA.”

A few seconds later, Nicklas said, “Ok, Mrs. Putin.  I’m here.”

“Be honest with me, Nicklas.  Am I capable of this?  Do you really think this thing can be welded back together?”

“I think so,” he said.  “It depends on how clean the break is.  If there’s no missing metal between the pieces, we could almost cold-weld it.  If there’s no contamination on the surface, the metal wants to fit back together.  Welding it will be easy.”

“Please tell me we put a torch in the tool bag I’m carrying.”

“Yes, we did.”

“Good.  I didn’t want to have to climb all the way back up to the air lock to get it.”

“It’s going to draw a lot of power from your suit, but the batteries should hold out.  And luckily we’re in space, so you won’t have to remove the oxide layer from the titanium.”

Nicklas guided her through the procedure with patience and a level of detail that didn’t seem possible from someone of his young age.  Julia clamped the pieces of the control rod together and then used the torch like a large pen, drawing a sharp, straight line along the crack where the parts came together.

“This feels like surgery,” said Julia as she applied the last welds to the side of the control arm where she had removed the clamp.  “I’m almost in my comfort zone.”

“It’s looks like you did a great job, Mrs. P.,” said Nicklas.  “Let’s give it a minute to cool and then we’ll run a quick diagnostic.”

“Can we bring her in now?” asked Lili.  “She’s been out there too long.  Her suit is low on oxygen and power.”

“Just a few more minutes,” said Nicklas.  “We need a visual on the booster when we run the diagnostic.”

Nicklas spoke over his headset mic to Julia.  “Mrs. P, move your helmet so we get a good view.  When I run the diagnostic, the control arm should rock back and forth a few times.”

“Roger that,” said Julia, pointing her camera at the valve.

Nicklas gave the command and the diagnostic check began.  They all watched nervously as the control arm pushed all the way open, then all the way closed once.  Then it pushed back slowly closed again.  As it pulled back open for the second time, the pivot point of the arm seemed to lock in place for a second and the weld broke apart in a ragged tear that looked more like a piece of broken wood than metal.

Silence reigned in the ship as the camera focussed in on the break.  It wasn’t nearly as clean as the original failure, and didn’t look like something that could be welded back together.  And even if it could, they were out of time.  Without saying a word, Julia stowed the torch, closed the panel, and began to secure it back into place.

She was breathing heavily as she worked her way back up the booster towards the air lock.  She stopped several times to catch her breath, which was loud and labored as they listened to the intercom.  She backed herself into the air lock, engaged the magnetic suit locks to stick herself to the outside of the ship, and then pulled the hatch closed.

Lili was there at the door when the pressure equalized and they opened it up behind her mother.  They removed the power pack from the suit and Julia fell ungracefully out of the suit into Lili’s arms.  Her skin was red and puffy, as if she had a bad sunburn, and her sweat had an acrid smell that made Lili wince.  Lili struggled to hold her, and Max came to her side.

“Mom,” he said desperately.  “Mom, are you Ok?”

Her eyes opened weakly and she looked at Lili.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I failed.”

“No you didn’t, Mom,” cried Lili.  Max shook his head in agreement.  “You did everything you could.  You tried.  We’ll be Ok.  We’ll make a new valve.  We’ll be Ok.”

“Yes,” said Julia.  “You’ll be Ok.”  She put her hands up, one on Lili’s cheek and the other on Max’s cheek.  “I’m so proud of you both.  You’ll be Ok.”  And then she lost consciousness.  She never regained it.

#

Lili hadn’t slept since the disaster.  She couldn’t sleep.  Didn’t want to sleep.  Didn’t want to let herself escape the reality of what had happened.  Somehow it felt like weakness, it felt like she was letting her mother and father down if she didn’t dwell on it.  Didn’t grieve.  Didn’t try to think of what she could have done to change it.

But eventually, sleep took her.

She floated in an endless pool of water, such a deep and crisp azure blue that it was almost painful to see.  Her hair floated in front of her eyes, not like it did in zero-G, which she thought made her look like a medusa.  It was much smoother, more fluid.  She could feel the water against her skin–in some places it felt cold, and then in others it felt warm, like a loving embrace.

She didn’t think of breathing.  She didn’t need to breathe.  That seemed odd to her, so she looked for the surface, but it all looked the same in every direction.  She would have to breathe eventually, right?

And then amorphous forms began to slowly solidify, faces and hands pressed up against glass, as if she was in a tank, being watched.  The faces of her family, her crew-mates.  She saw Tao, hands flat against the glass.  He was crying.  Lili pressed up against the glass and tried to speak, but no words came out.  Why was he crying?  Tao was always smiling, always joking.  He was the class clown.  He wasn’t supposed to cry.

And then she saw Carmen.  The Space Union task master.  But again, she seemed totally out of sorts.  She had garish make-up smeared over her face, and she was juggling.  Juggling Rubic’s cubes.

She saw Milly, and Max, and Axel.  Axel wasn’t wearing any clothes.  Lili blushed and looked away.  She pushed herself away from the glass, back to the endless expanse of blue liquid.  She closed her eyes and floated in a pocket of water that was perfectly matched to her body temperature.  She felt nothing, heard nothing, thought nothing.  Was she dead?

She thought of Julia.   And then she saw a form swimming towards her.  Mom? She thought.  But it wasn’t her mother.  It was Olivia.  Olivia grabbed her around the waist and dragged her downwards.  It started to get dark.  Lili struggled to free herself and swam away towards the light.

She looked down and saw Olivia beckoning her, waving.  Pleading.  Please, Lili, please come with me. You have to see… you have to see…

Lili awoke with a start, drenched in sweat.

#

They gathered in the comforting unreality of VR to do something that could not be done in space.  The seven children, who now barely qualified as children, were standing on a windy hilltop in the shade of a single, gnarled tree that looked to be hundreds of years old.  They all wore their real-life avatars, characters that looked very much like their actual selves.  They were all dressed in black, and arrayed in front of them were six coffins, suspended over freshly dug graves.

“We should give them a proper burial,” said Tao.  “This doesn’t seem right to me.”

“How?” asked Max. “We don’t exactly have a surplus of dirt on the station.”

“I mean like a burial at sea.   We have a ceremony, and wrap them up, and release them into space.”

“Why can’t we just leave them where they are?”

“In the Alpha capsule?”

“The capsule is just a counterweight at this point.  It’s totally useless to us otherwise.”

“Doesn’t it creep you out?” asked Tao.  “Having them so close?”

“I think I would feel worse if they were just floating in space,” said Max.  “We can’t waste fuel sending them very far.  What if we run into them at some point?”

“What if we released them when we go around Saturn, into the atmosphere?  That’s sort of an appropriate place to bury them.”

“I like that idea,” said Nicklas.  “Actually, give me one second.”  He disappeared from the simulation for a moment and then they heard his voice coming from somewhere above them.  “Look towards the mountains,” he said.

They all looked, and saw Saturn rising above the distant mountain range.

“That’s a nice touch,” said Lili as Nicklas reappeared beside her.  Nicklas smiled.

“So, what do we do now?” asked Tao.  “I’ve never been to a funeral before.”

“We should all say a few words about our parents,” said Olivia.  “Nice things.  Good stories.”

They were silent for a while.  No one wanted to go first.  Then Axel spoke up.

“My father loved to ski,” he said.  “I think he loved it more than anything else in the world.  He always paid extra to the people at the resort so he could be the first person to go down a slope after a fresh snowfall.”  He looked at his sister.  “I don’t know if that’s a good story.  It’s all I can think of.”

“Mother never liked to ski very much,” said Olivia.  “She always found a comfortable chair in front of a fireplace at the resort and spent all day reading books.”

“Textbooks,” said Axel with a laugh.  “She never read fiction.  Always studying something new.” Axel and Olivia held hands, and she leaned against him.  Her long hair flowed gracefully in the breeze behind her.

Tao spoke next.  “I don’t understand how my mother and father ever ended up together.  They are so different.”

“They loved each other so much,” said Jing.

“And they loved London,” added Nicklas.  “They loved everything about England.  You would almost forget she was Chinese.  I’m surprised the Space Union let her in, now that I think about it.”

“I’m sure it was Dad who smooth talked someone in Houston.  He could convince anyone of anything.”  Tao smiled.  “And he loved to eat.  He used to spend two hours a day in the gym so that he could keep eating whatever he wanted.”

“I think Mom just survived on coffee alone,” said Jing.  And then she broke down crying, long, inconsolable sobs that eventually trailed off to sniffling as Nicklas and Tao comforted her, crying freely themselves.

“My mom used to volunteer with Doctor’s Without Borders,” said Lili.  “She spent a few weeks every year in awful places–dad used to get kind of upset with her, because it was always some country with an outbreak like Ebola, or where hospitals were getting blown up by terrorists.  She made him come with her one year, so he could see the kind of work she was doing.  See the people she was helping.  He never complained again.”

They all looked at the holographic image of Julia floating above her casket.  Red, curly hair and a wide smile.

“My Dad was the best pilot in the Russian Air Force,” said Max.  “He never talked about it, but he was actually in combat during the war.”

Lili looked at him in surprise.  “He never told me that,” said Lili.

“He didn’t tell me either.  I was sneaking around his closet when we were home, after the candidacy.  I found a medal and a citation.  He was a hero, Lili.  He saved an American carrier battle group–shot down a whole enemy bomber squadron by himself.  I think that’s part of the reason the US and Russia became allies.  The bombers were armed with nuclear missiles.”

More secrets, Lili thought, as they lowered the caskets into the ground.  She had never been able to ask her mother if she had known about the signal coming from Titan.  But at this point, she really didn’t care.  She didn’t want to say goodbye.  She wanted her parents back.  But at this point she had no choice.  She picked up handfuls of virtual soil and threw them into the graves.

#

“There’s no way the Space Union is going to post this for us,” said Tao.

“I wish we could just access our video blog like normal,” said Lili.

“Yeah, well there’s there’s little problem called light speed.  The internet doesn’t work very well when packets take forty minutes to go back and forth.”

“We could broadcast it in the clear–there won’t be video, but at least people will hear the message”

“I think Carmen would be really, really mad at us if we did that,” said Tao.

“What could she possibly do to make things worse, Tao?”

“Hmm.  Good point.”

“Let’s review it one more time before we transmit.”

Tao pushed play. 

The video started with a recording of the VR funeral, including dramatic aerial fly-bys of the scene as their parents were lowered into the ground.  At the end it faded out and transitioned into the short recording they had just made.

On the screen, Lili and Tao were in their usual place in front of the camera, but their typical playful smiles were gone.

“Coming to you from the long expanse of space between Jupiter and Saturn, it’s your friends Zhang Tao Schultz and Liliana Putin–senior astronauts and crew of the Christiaan station.”

“You might have noticed that we’ve been promoted.”

“That’s right,” said Tao.  “There’s nothing junior about us any more.  We’ve been in space longer than anyone.  Ever.  And now we’re on our own.  So we get to have whatever rank we want.”

“I feel like we deserve a bigger promotion than that,” said Lili.

“Yeah.  How about President of Space?  Or Galactic Prime Minister Tao?  I like the sound of that.”

“How about director of the Space Union?”

“Yeah, I think maybe there’s going to be a job opening at the top.”

“Well, Oleksey Borodin hasn’t had the decency to resign yet, so maybe the information we have to share will give him a nudge in that direction.”

Their faces were replaced with the signal analysis graphs that Nicklas had found when he hacked into the Space Union file system.  They explained what they knew about the signal, repeating what Nicklas had first told them just a few days ago, and then they left the signals on the screen for a while.

“They didn’t bother telling us about this before the mission–at least not us children,” said Tao.  “They didn’t think we could be trusted to keep it secret.”

“Well, I guess they got one thing right,” said Lili.  “We’re definitely not interested in keeping their secrets.”

“Especially not secrets that got our parents all killed, and might kill the rest of us before the end.”

“We have no idea what we’re walking into,” said Lili.  “Could it really be aliens?”

“And were those really meteorites that hit the station?”

“Wait, stop,” said Lili.  “Tao, we’ve been over this a million times.  We actually have one of the meteorites.  You can’t imply that it was something else.  We’re trying to be serious.”

“Well, how do you know the Titanites–or Titanians–whatever they’re called–how do you know they can’t launch missiles that look like meteors?”

“If we say stuff like that they’ll just think we’re making it up.”

“Ok, fine,” said Tao.  “But the radar signal is totally real.  We can pick it up with the station’s radio antenna at this point.  The Titanians are tracking us.”

“We don’t know that either,” said Lili.

“What’s the point of radar of it’s not to track things?”

“For all we know it’s weather radar.  Maybe they just want to know if it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

“Well, that would be boring,” said Tao.

“Boring?  Seriously?  Do you listen to yourself when you speak?  We’re talking about intelligent life on another planet.”

“Titan’s not a planet.”

“Planet, moon, whatever, it’s the same thing.”

“Same thing?  Where did you go to school?”

“Same place you did, at the space center in Houston.”

“Definitely not any intelligent life there,” said Tao.  “Otherwise there wouldn’t be a bunch of kids in space a billion kilometers from Earth in a busted up space ship.”

“I thought we were going to stop calling each other kids.”

Tao sighed.  “Sometimes I don’t want to grow up.  Growing up sucks.”

The video stopped on the last scene, with Tao and Lili both sitting with crossed arms, looking discontented.

“We really should edit half of that out.   Or just start over.  But if I know you, you just want to send it the way it is.”

“Yeah, I do.  Our audience likes the real us.  They won’t believe it if we’re all rigid and scripted.”

Lili took a deep breath.  “Ok, transmit the video to Earth.  And as soon as that’s done, blast the audio out over a few ham radio frequencies.  Let’s make sure everyone knows.”

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