Monthly Archives: December 2016

Child of Titan – Chapter 8

The moment had finally come.  Actually reaching Titan seemed like such a far-off, fantastical future that it had been just an abstraction in Lili’s mind.  And according to the original plans, she never would have come to the surface herself.  That was a privilege her father was supposed to have enjoyed.

But here she was, being helped into the single-suit airlock by Axel.  She was not donning the large, bulky EVA suit that they had worn to repair the damaged booster valve.  These suits looked more like scuba gear.  Instead of keeping the air in, these suits had to keep the toxic environment of Titan out.  The pressure outside was like being several meters under water.

Axel was verbally reviewing the procedure, though it was hardly necessary.  She had it memorized.

“After you put on your helmet, we’ll close the airlock behind you and conduct a pressure test.  The pressure will gradually increase around you, and the airflow regulators will compensate by increasing the pressure of the oxygen to your lungs.”

“And then we wait five minutes to make sure I don’t pass out.”

“Correct.  After five minutes, we slowly release the valves to let in the atmosphere of Titan.  We check the readings and make sure you aren’t getting any methane in the suit.”

“And we check to make sure none is leaking into the capsule.  We wouldn’t want to explode after coming all this way.”

“After another five minutes, we open the hatch and you jump out.”

“Climb out,” Lili corrected.  “If I jump, I might float away.  It’s going to be like walking on the bottom of a swimming pool.”

Their suits were heavily weighted to help them keep their footing.  The boots alone were ten kilograms each.  Even with all the added mass, Lili would still only feel like she was a fraction of her Earth-weight, and less even than what she was used to in the artificial gravity on board the Christiaan.

Once she was secured inside the suit, Axel sealed the opening behind her.  In her earpieces she could hear Tao helping Axel to conduct the same procedure again, loading him into the other suit that was stuck to the outside of the capsule.  Tao had been nominated for the unenviable position of being the one crew-mate who would have to stay on board the capsule while Axel and Lili explored the moon.  Nicklas, Olivia, Max, and Jing were still orbiting above them in the Christiaan.

It was dark in the small airlock, which was not much bigger than she was, form fitting itself aerodynamically around a human sized enclosure.  Only a very thin layer of metal separated her from the atmosphere of Titan, from the methane smog and the deadly cold.  The crew had decided that she would take the honor of the first step.

She heard Tao complete the last of the checks on Axel’s airlock and suit, then he confirmed their status with the Christiaan above.  It was time.

The airlock cover peeled away slowly on its hinges, and orange light flooded in around her.  If the long Titan day were divided up into twenty four increments as it was on Earth, it would have been around two o’clock in the afternoon.  The sun was a barely discernible disk in the haze above.  Most of the light came from the diffuse glow of the haze and clouds.

She looked around.  To the left was the shoreline of the lake.  She could see what she thought was the Nautilus, its tail end trailing in the liquid.  In front of her stretched an even plain that was littered with rocks and covered with a gauzy layer of what looked like snow.  To the right were the hills, and the impenetrable clouds that surrounded them.

She gripped the railing with her left hand and swung around to the side of the airlock, where a series of foot-holds protruded slightly from the hull.  She looked down and saw that the capsule had sunk at least twenty to thirty centimeters into the surface.  She hoped that wouldn’t present a problem when it came time to return to orbit.

Images of the first lunar landing flashed through her mind.  Grainy black-and-white video of Neil Armstrong lowering himself down the ladder and then taking that first step onto another world.  And she suddenly realized that she hadn’t considered what she would say when she touched down.

The last foot-hold proved to be slippery from the condensed methane that had settled on the capsule, so she didn’t have time to think of anything historic.  Her foot popped off the rung and she slid the last half meter, landing with a surprised “Oh!”

Tao’s concerned voice came over the comm link.  “Everything ok, Lili?”

“Yes, I’m Ok.  I’m on Titan.  I’m on the surface.”

Max spoke over the link from orbit, and she could hear someone else clapping, probably Nicklas.  “Congrats, Lili!  You did it.  Mom and Dad would be proud.”

Lili looked up in their direction and was rewarded with a view of Saturn, a slim crescent being illuminated by the sun behind it.  So it was visible from the surface.  She thought of standing at the telescope with her father all those years before and put herself back on Earth, looking up at Saturn and Titan in the eyepiece.  Here she was on that tiny dot on one side of the view, looking up at the bright ringed globe on the other side.

Luckily she had some time to let the emotions overcome her, because her only job for the moment was to stand still on the surface and make sure she didn’t die of anything unexpected.  Axel would wait in his airlock and Tao would wait inside, monitoring her life signs.  If something happened that caused her to become incapacitated, Axel would emerge and attempt a rescue.  If something really horrible happened, like being eaten by an unexpected visitor, or dissolving into a puddle due to some unforeseen chemistry on the surface, Tao and Axel were to launch back to orbit immediately.  Lili preferred the third possibility, which was that nothing bad happened, her suit functioned as designed, and she and Axel would proceed with their investigation.

Her breathing was normal.  Her heart rate was normal.  She felt Ok, other than being squished tightly into the suit.  The pressure was definitely noticeable, but the padding and the outer stiffness of the suit material held up to the strain.  She could feel some of the cold seeping through, but the liquid circulating around her body kept her warm enough.

She took a few tentative steps backwards away from the capsule and felt her feet sink in to what felt like slushy snow.  She had spent much of her early childhood in the warm climates of various space centers, but she had had a chance to experience snow several times in Moscow.  And the “bottom of the pool” analogy was somewhat accurate, as her motions were slowed down by the thickness of the air, but it wasn’t exactly like being under water.  Just like the surface didn’t exactly feel like wet snow.  It was a new experience.  Unique.  There would be no way to truly explain it to anyone who hadn’t actually felt it.

She reached down and picked up a rock, slightly bigger than her fist, and wiped the snow off of it. It was white, and looked like a block of ice, because it was in fact frozen water.  She tossed it away from her and watched as it made a slower-than-expected arc back down to the ground.

She walked around to Axel’s side of the capsule so that she could wait for him there.  After the trial period had elapsed, her vitals were still good and all of the suit’s sensors read nominal.  The airlock door opened, revealing Axel, who marveled at his surroundings for a long moment before swinging himself deftly to the surface.  He stepped towards her and they high-fived.

“Let’s go retrieve the Nautilus,” he said.

Lili nodded.  She found that she needed to lean forward slightly to maintain a decent walking pace, but then she tripped over a rock and started to fall.  She moved her arms down quickly in front of herself and the motion actually pushed her back upright.  Axel grabbed her arm until she was steady again.

“It might be easier to hop, like they did on the moon,” he said.

“Careful—“ said Lili as he bent his knees and pushed off from the ground.  His boots slipped in the mush and he ended up sprawled out, rolling over on his back to protect his face mask.

She helped him up and chuckled.  “Maybe hopping isn’t best.”

“Maybe not,” he agreed.  The warmth of his suit was causing the liquid on its surface to vaporize, sort of like he had been running on Earth on an early, cold morning, and his sweat was steaming off of his skin.

By the time they reached the Nautilus, they were both slightly winded from the effort of walking.  Lili reached down to take the front, and Axel took the back.  They held it between themselves with one hand each and began to walk back towards Gamma capsule.

“Those hills are going to be a tough climb,” said Lili.  “Are you worried about it?”

“Worried?  No.  Climbing won’t be much worse than walking on level ground.  It’s pushing through the atmosphere that’s difficult.”

“Not about that.  I mean, are you worried about what we’re going to find on the other side?”

“Not really,” he said.  “It’s like you said before.  If they were truly hostile, they would have destroyed us already.”

“Do you think it’s the Chinese?”

“No.”

“You sound sure.”

“It’s too much,” he said.  “Look at everything that went into getting us here.  All the resources.  The money.  The time.  Can you imagine if we had dragged all the materials out here that we would have needed to create a radar signal that strong?  The math doesn’t work.”

“After what we saw in the lake, I don’t think it’s the Chinese any more either.  There’s obviously life here.  But I don’t understand why they let us get this close.”

They were both breathing heavily as they neared the capsule, so they let the conversation die away.

“Tao, we’re in position.  Open the auxiliary airlock.”

The third airlock door swung open and they turned the drone upwards to fit it in the space.  Before detaching from the Christiaan, they had equipped the airlock with straps and pads to secure the drone for the flight back to orbit.

Lili gave the Nautilus a pat before they closed the door.  “Good job, buddy.”

“It’s not an animate object,” laughed Axel.

“Hey, you never know—Nicklas is one heck of a programmer.”

“I won’t argue with you there.”

Tao confirmed that the airlock was sealed tight, and then said, “Jing wants you both to sit down and rest until your heart rates are back to normal.  Drink some water.  You need to be fresh before your trek to the hills.”

Lili and Axel complied, leaning up against the hull and staring at their destination.  It was roughly the same distance away as the lake, so they could get to the hills themselves without to much effort.  After that, it was hard to predict.

Lili glanced off to their left.  “That lightning makes me nervous.”

“It’s a long way off,” he said.  “And besides, the suits are designed to withstand a lightning strike.”

“I’d rather not be the one to test that theory.”

“I haven’t seen any flashes from the hills.  It’s a different kind of cloud there.  More like fog.”

“Artificial?”

“Maybe.  It’s good concealment.”

“It makes the radar less effective.  Why bother when you’re broadcasting your position so obviously?”

“Lots of questions,” he said.  “Let’s go find some answers.”

Axel stood and held out a hand for her.  She gripped it and stood, then brushed off the snow from her rear.

Their walk to the hills was uneventful.  They had to jump a small gully around the halfway point, but it was so shallow that it wouldn’t have been a problem even if they had fallen in.  The sky seemed to grow darker as they approached.  The ground started to slope up gradually, and they continued walking.

Eventually the slope increased to the point where they had to put their hands out in front of them.  Occasionally their footholds gave way and they slipped back a few steps.

“This might work better with the ice picks,” said Lili, opening up her tool kit and retrieving a pair of what looked like hammers, except one end was pointed and slightly curved.  She took one in each hand and dug them into the soft ground ahead, pulling herself up on hand at a time.

Axel followed her example and they made steady progress.  They were beginning to enter the cloud cover as they climbed higher.  Lili looked back towards the plain and could barely make out the figure of the capsule.

“Tao, you still have us?”

“Loud and clear,” said Tao.  “Suit telemetry looks good.  Might be a good time for you two to take a break.”

“It’s not a good place for that,” said Axel.  “If we sit down we might slide all the way back to you.  We have to push forward.  I think we’re getting close to the top.”

“Roger that,” said Tao.  “Stay safe up there.”

They came to a stop at a shelf of rock that was nearly vertical.  Lili looked to her left and right for a way around, but the shelf continued on into the gloom as far as she could see.  She tried upping the output from her head lamp, but it didn’t help.

“I think we can climb it,” said Axel.

Lili looked up.  “It doesn’t look too high.  Hopefully it flattens out above this wall.”

Axel sheathed his ice picks and then reached up to the top of the shelf.  He tested his grip and then pulled himself up.  He scrambled a bit as he stood up, kicking off a few rocks that nearly hit Lili.

“Watch it,” she said.

Axel smiled down at her and offered his hand.  He kneeled and pulled her up.  They were standing on what looked like it might be the top of the hill, and they could now barely make out the capsule below.  They turned around and saw that the slope was now gentle, with larger rocks strewn about on the way forward.

They walked for a few dozen meters and then suddenly Axel reached out and stopped Lili, barring her way with his hand on her chest.

“Whoa,” she said with surprise, looking out into an empty gulf.  She had been about to step off into an abyss.

Axel tentatively leaned forward, then looked left and right.  The ground just stopped.  They seemed to be standing on the edge of a cliff.

“Maybe we can climb down,” he said.  “We should have brought some rope.”

“Not sure how much I like the idea of climbing down when I can’t see the bottom.”

“What choice do we—“

Axel was cut off in mid sentence as the ground beneath them crumbled away.  They were both falling.  Lili caught a glance of a sheer, glistening ice wall as they fell straight down into a fog so thick it looked, and felt, like soup.

It didn’t hurt nearly as bad as she thought it would when she hit the bottom.  The low gravity and the resistance of the air around them slowed their fall, and the icy mush at the bottom cushioned it.

Nevertheless, the breath was taken out of her, and she lay there gasping.  She heard Axel groaning beneath her.  She took a quick inventory of her extremities.  Hands felt ok.  She could move her fingers.  Feet were ok.  A little cold, but mobile.  Face mask was intact.

She stood up.  Her ribs felt sore, but she didn’t think anything was broken.  Visibility was down to less than ten meters.  The slush came up to her calf, and almost completely covered the prone figure of Axel.

She grabbed his outreached hand and pulled with all her strength.  He came free from the slush with a loud sucking noise and started to brush himself off.

“Ok?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I think so.  That was a heck of a ride.”  He cocked his head to the side and smirked.  Lili thought it was a cocky expression, and she had seen it on his face often.  Annoying.  But why did she find it so endearing at the same time?

“What do we do now?” she asked.

Axel glanced around and got his bearings.  “Tao is probably losing it right about now.  We should check in with him.”

“Right,” she said.  “Tao, do you read us?  We had a bit of a slip, but we’re Ok.  Tao?”

She heard nothing but static over the comm link.

“Boost the signal a bit,” said Axel.

Lili spun a virtual dial on her sleeve and tried again.  “Tao, do you read?  Tao, come in.”  Nothing.

“We fell a long way,” said Axel.  “I doubt a signal can get in our out of here, except from above.”

“Should we activate our emergency beacons?”

“Not yet,” he said.  “We’re not injured.  If we can find a path back up, we’ll be Ok.”

“We should do that before going any further.  Investigating the center of this bowl won’t do us any good if we can’t get back to the capsule.”

“Ok,” said Axel reluctantly.  He looked into the gloom, away from the wall, towards the radar signal.  “But we’re so close.”

“We’ll get there,” she said.  “First let’s walk along this wall and see if we can find any breaks.”

They walked a few dozen meters in a clockwise direction, straining against the depth of the snow piled up against the wall.  The wall was almost as smooth as glass, as if it had been carved from the surrounding water ice by a large shovel.  It curved smoothly around to the right as they walked.

“It’s almost like the caldera of a volcano,” she said.

“Hopefully not,” said Axel.  “I’d hate to be in here during an eruption.”

“It’s possible,” she said.  “There are water volcanoes on Titan.”

“If I were building a radar installation, I wouldn’t put it in the middle of a volcano.”

“Good point.  But if it’s not a volcano, then I can’t think of any other natural forces that would create something like this.”

They continued on for a few more minutes.  Lili looked down at her wrist.  “The Christiaan is just coming back around to this side of the moon.  If we’re going to activate our beacons, we should do it now.”

“What good is it going to do?” asked Axel.  “Tao is our contingency plan.  If he comes looking for us, he’ll fall in too.”

“At least they’ll know we’re alive.”

“We should have brought a long range radio,” he said.  “Maybe we’ll lucky and get a voice signal through when they are directly overhead.”

“Let’s set our beacons to one ping per minute.  That means we need help but we’re not incapacitated.”  Two pings were reserved for when you were still conscious but unable to move.  If either of them went unconscious, their suits would automatically send a powerful concentrated radio pulse four times per minute.

“And then we hope Tao doesn’t take the same plunge that we did.”

“He won’t,” said Lili.  “He can’t.”

“We should move towards the center,” said Axel.  “There’s no reason not to now.  And it will give our signals a better chance to get out.”

“Ok,” said Lili.  “Let’s go.”

This was it.  They were now heading towards their ultimate, final destination.  They had reached Saturn.  They had reached Titan.  And now they were going to find out what was sending the signal that had set all of these events in motion.  The formation of the Space Union.  The Candidacy.  The deaths of their parents.  The cause, the blame, for all of it lie just a few hundred meters ahead.

#

It was very slow going in the valley.  They were tired, scared, and bruised, and the slushy snow seemed to get thicker and deeper the further they went. As they walked, Lili started to hear a crackling in her headset.  Barely audible.  But it grew more incessant.  Then she started to hear what sounded like words.  Was that just her ears playing tricks on her?

Axel stopped.  He was hearing it too.

“—Lili? Axel—come in.”  Tao’s voice.

“Tao?  We’re here.  Tao?  Where are you?”

“Thank goodness you’re ok,” he said.

“Tao where are you?  Be careful!  There’s a cliff, we fell off and we haven’t been able to find a way back up.”

“Don’t worry Lili.  I’m fine.  In fact, I’m right in front of you.”

“What?!  Did you fall in too?”  Lili was panicked.  If all three of the them were trapped, they were in real trouble.

“Nope.  Look up,” he said.

They looked up and at the same time heard a faint whirring sound.  The Nautilus appeared, shrouded in mist.  It approached them slowly, illuminating them with its bright LED lights.

“How is that possible?” asked Axel.

“Easy,” said Tao.  “Nicklas’ methane regeneration experiment worked pretty well, so the batteries were halfway recharged by the fuel cell.  I charged them the rest of the way and refueled it with more hydrogen and oxygen, then chucked it back outside.”

“How did you do that without contaminating the capsule with methane?”

“I didn’t.  I’ve got my suit on.  I’m flushing the capsule out with nitrogen as we speak.”

“That was risky, Tao.”

“So was falling off a cliff, doofus.”

“Wait a minute,” said Axel.  “How are you maintaining radio contact with us right now?”

“The Christiaan is relaying the signal.”

“Hi guys,” said Nicklas.  His voice was faint and scratchy.  “You gave us one hell of a scare.  Everybody’s kinda going apey up here.”

“Well, tell them to calm down,” said Lili.  “Work the problem.”

“Working it, ma’am.”

“And don’t call me ma’am.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Nicklas usually wasn’t one for overt humor.  He must be nervous, Lili thought.

“Guys?” said Tao.  “You know that storm that was on the horizon when you left the capsule?  It’s not on the horizon any more.”

As soon as Tao relayed this information, Lili saw a flash of light.  Nothing distinct, but it seemed to emanate from the north.

“We need shelter,” said Axel.

“I thought you said not to worry about the lightning,” said Lili.

“Well—“ Axel hesitated.  “Theoretically.  But you said you’d rather not test the theory personally.  I agree.  Besides, I’m not sure we could even stand up in a stiff breeze.  Wind might be more like a tidal wave here.”

“Where do we go?  Could we huddle up against one of the ice walls?”

“Still too exposed,” said Axel.  “I’d be much happier back in Gamma.”

“I’m in Gamma, and I don’t feel very safe,” said Tao.

“If it gets too bad, initiate the launch sequence,” said Axel.

“What?  And leave you here?  No way.”

“That was the plan, Tao.  We’re trapped in here anyway.  You might be able to get us out once the storm passes, but if the capsule takes too much damage it won’t matter.”

A fat snowflake plopped onto Lili’s visor.  She wiped it away and saw a few more blow by.  Another flash of lightning, and a few moments later, thunder.  Funny, she thought.  Thunder snow.

They heard Tao’s voice but couldn’t make out the words.  The Nautilus swayed in the increasing wind, circled around them once, and then settled down.

“Why did it do that?” asked Lili.

“Safe mode,” said Axel.  “It lost signal with the Christiaan, and it’s having trouble staying airborne.”

“We should grab it before it gets covered in snow.”

They picked it up, holding it between them like they had done before.

“What now?” asked Lili.

“To the center.  The radar station.  It’s our best chance to find shelter.”

Lili’s heart was beating fast.  A cautious investigation was turning into a headlong scramble towards the unknown.  The snow fell faster as the wind picked up, and it felt somewhat like wading through a swift moving stream, but they were still able to make headway.  Eventually Lili was relying entirely on the heads-up display inside her visor, which was plotting her position relative to the radar signal.  She was thankful for whomever had programmed the suit to be so clever about figuring out where she was.  After all, there was no system of GPS satellites orbiting the moon, and the magnetic field surrounding Saturn was an unreliable direction source for a compass.  Accelerometers spaced out along her extremities made estimates of her movements, and used occasional snapshots from small cameras to create approximations of the environment.  They had left the curved ice wall far behind, and according to her screen, were very close to what would be the center of the caldera.

And suddenly it loomed up in front of them.  Their lamps barely penetrated three or four meters into the storm.  Lightning flashed and for a moment the structure was illuminated.  Ahead of them was a wide, flat wall.  Above that was a dome made up of sharply angled segments.  It looked like… a radar station.  Lili was almost disappointed.

Axel tugged at the drone they were holding to get her attention.  He nodded his head towards an outcropping on the wall, a cylindrical shape that angled outwards as it neared the ground.  It looked like they might be able to fit under it.

They fought against what was now more than wind.  It was a current.  At the moment when she felt they would be swept away, they ducked under the outcropping and found it to be hollow on the inside.  They could stand upright in the darkness, and they huddled against the wall, dropping the Nautilus in front of them.

She had made it.  She had found it.  She was finally here, and—she was going to die.  She reached out to take Axel’s hand, and they slumped down behind the Nautilus, backs to the wall, watching the snow pile up around the edges as the wind howled.  She could feel the wind reaching in and tugging at the drone, tugging at their feet.  Lightning slammed into the building repeatedly.

Lili checked her gauges.  A few hours left of power and oxygen.  If they limited their activity.  She could feel the cold seeping in around her.  Once the power gave out, they would freeze almost instantly.  Once the oxygen gave out, they would suffocate.  Her mind went into problem solving mode.  Water ice could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen.  Methane could be combined with oxygen to make fuel.  They had proved it with the Nautilus.  Could she rig something up here in the darkness?  Maybe Nicklas could, but it was beyond her abilities.

Suddenly she felt very tired.  It would be easier to give up.  Just go to sleep.  She had been through so much.  Didn’t she deserve to just rest?  She looked over at Axel.  His eyes were closed, and his cheeks were wet.  Had he given up, too?

She stood up, determined to do something.  But another bolt of lightning flashed nearby and the structure boomed, the echo reverberating around them like a giant bell.  She looked up and realized whatever they were hiding did in fact look a lot like the inside of a bell.

Axel pulled her back down.  “We have to wait, Lili.  Just wait.  Conserve power.  Turn down your lights.”  His voice was not very reassuring, but he was right.  The storm was too strong.  Either it would abate before they died, or it wouldn’t.

Despite the panic and desperation of their situation, Lili managed to calm her breathing and relax for a while.  Once the adrenaline had worn off, she felt so drowsy that she might have actually dozed off for a few minutes.  Maybe longer.  She looked around and saw filtered light peeking through under the edges of the bell.  Snow no longer blew in around them.  It had been a long while since they had been disturbed by thunder.  She glanced down at her dials and saw that her supplies were low, but enough to work with.  For the moment.

She nudged Axel, who also had apparently fallen asleep.  Their arms were locked together.  He sat up with a start, taking a deep breath, checking his gauges the same way she had.

“It stopped,” he said.  “The storm has stopped.  Let’s go outside.”

The moment they stood up, the wind returned with a vengeance.  This was more than wind, it was a torrent, a loud, unrelenting blast of air and snow and debris.  They were knocked back against the wall, and suddenly the calm returned again.

“What on Earth was that?” asked Lili.

“What on Titan—“

“Right.  Titan.  Well, anyway, what do we have to lose?  Let’s go check it out.”

They ducked under the lip of the bell and were nearly knocked back down by the shock of what they saw.  It was a Taurus capsule.  Delta.  Sitting in a shroud of steam not twenty meters away.  The heat from the ablative shields and rocket motors quickly dissipated, the steam gave way, and there waving at them from the round window was her brother, Max.

#

Lili looked down at her sleeve and saw that the comm link had been re-established.

“Max, what kind of insane, foolish, ridiculous notion came into your mind to land a capsule in here?  With no visibility?  In a storm?  In bad terrain?  With what was probably the last of our fuel—“

“Glad to see you too,” said Max.  “I thought you might appreciate the rescue, but if not, I’ll just start the launch sequence now and leave without you.”

Olivia’s face appeared next to Max.

“Olivia!” said Axel.  “Is anyone left on the station?”

“Nicklas is still there,” said Olivia.  “Jing is with us.  We thought you might need medical attention.”

“And Tao will be docking soon, if all went well with his launch.”

“His launch?  He left?”

“We didn’t give him a choice,” said Max.  “After the second time the capsule got hit by lightning, we started the launch sequence remotely and ordered him to strap in.  He wasn’t happy about it.”

“Are they on the comm link?” asked Lili.  “Nicklas, Tao, can you read me?”

“Their orbit is on the far side now,” said Olivia.  “Fifteen more minutes.”

“Mission control didn’t authorize landing another capsule,” said Axel.  “We didn’t even have a plan.”

“Not an official one,” said Max.  “But Nicklas and I had talked about it.  It was a bit of a scramble prepping the capsule and transferring enough fuel for the return to orbit.  But it was obvious that was the only way we’d get you out of here.”

Jing appeared at the window.  “I want you two to plug in immediately and recharge your suits.  I’ll to run a full diagnostic while you’re connected to the capsule.”

Lili and Axel approached the capsule and flipped open identical panels on either side of the nearest airlock.  They pulled a thick cable out from their power packs and plugged it in.  Electricity and oxygen began flowing into the suits, and status lights on their wrists went from orange to green.

After the recharge was complete, Max and Olivia donned their suits and exited the capsule to join them.  Jing protested about the necessity of the extra risk, but there was no stopping them.

“I didn’t come this far to sit inside here less than a meter from the surface,” said Max.  “I’m setting foot on Titan.”

He and Lili embraced, as closely as they could in the awkward suits.  Olivia and Axel did the same, but with less vigor.

“Ok, let’s explore the site,” said Max.  “We should learn all we can before another storm hits.”

“My priority is the Nautilus,” said Olivia.  “Axel, help me get it safely stowed in the auxiliary airlock. I can’t wait to analyze the samples it took in the lake.”

Max shook his head.  “Well, my priority is this giant radar station.  Look at it!  It’s huge!  There is no possible way humans built this thing.  And I sure don’t see any Chinese writing on it anywhere.”

Now that the light was better, they had a good view of the structure.  It was built on a large square block of metallic material, several meters tall.  The radar dome sat on top, and was at least twenty meters across.

“What are all those spiky things stuck to the outside of it?” asked Lili.

“I don’t know,” said Max.  “I’ve never seen anything like that on Earth.”

They rounded the corner to the back side of the building and saw an antenna dish jutting off from one side, pointed up in the sky.

“What do you suppose that is for?” asked Lili.

“No idea,” said Max.  “I wish Nicklas was down here to see this.”

Radio static buzzed for a moment and then they heard Nicklas on the comm link.  “Gamma capsule has docked successfully,” he said.

“Is Tao Ok?” asked Lili.

“He’s fine.  A bit shaken up and sort of uncomfortable—he’s still in his Titan suit.  He’s going to be stuck in there for a while until we can get the atmosphere flushed out and then pressurized with oxygen.”

“Do you have our video feeds?” asked Lili.

“I do,” said Nicklas.  “Get me a better view of that antenna on the side.”

Lili moved back and pointed her helmet towards the antenna, which was a paraboloid only a meter across, with a receiver jutting out from the middle.

“Looks like a transceiver to me,” said Max.  “Makes sense that the installation would be able to communicate with whoever put it here.”

“But it’s pointed at the sky,” said Lili.  “Do you think they have satellites orbiting Titan?”

“Possible,” said Nicklas.  “A small satellite could be mistaken for an asteroid, or a moonlet.”

“What about the pods on the sides?” asked Axel.  “The place where we took shelter.  There are several of them.”

“Can you back up a few meters?” asked Nicklas.

Lili stalked off away from the building and then turned around, getting a complete view of the installation.

“Those kinda look like—“

“Engines,” said Nicklas, confirming her suspicion.  “That thing is mobile.”

“Do you think it’s space-worthy?”

“No, I doubt it.  The radar is too fragile to make it to orbit.  But it could probably handle short trips around the surface—it makes sense, if you think about it.  Titan’s crust shifts by several kilometers per year.  If they want the station to stay directly under Saturn, they would need to move it occasionally.”

Lili caught movement from the corner of her eye and looked up at the dome.  The little spiky protrusions were moving.

“Watch out!” said Max.  “Everybody back to the capsule, now!”

Lili was frozen in shock.  She watched one of the spikes spread out so that it didn’t look like a spike any more.  It flattened and elongated, then split into two halves.  And it came loose from the dome.  They all came loose.  Dozens of them.

“They look like butterflies,” she said.  Several were headed towards her.  Others circled the dome in a neat formation.  Still more surrounded the capsule, where Axel and Olivia were scrambling up the footholds to the airlocks.  They had dropped the Nautilus, and several of the creatures moved to it.  One of them even landed on it, seeming to inspect it closely.

Lili still hadn’t moved.  The butterflies were close enough to her to touch.  They were around twenty centimeters long, with a cylindrical body tipped with multi-faceted eyes.  Their wings were very thin, and didn’t flap.  But the surface of the wings seemed to oscillate and shift with the light as they drifted in the thick Titan air.  The bodies were shiny metallic, but the wings were like rainbows, reflecting all colors depending on their angle.

“Lili, now!” yelled Max.  “Let’s get out of here.”

“No,” said Lili.  “This is what we came for.”  She reached out slowly and the butterfly nearest to her backed up in what seemed like a nervous motion.

“Lili, just stay still for a minute,” said Nicklas.  “Let me zoom your cameras in for a closer look.”

She stood as still as a stone and stared directly at the nearest butterfly.  It seemed to be the most inquisitive of the group.  The others were hovering a safe distance away.  And then, as quickly as they had come alive, they all retreated back to their places on the dome, retracted their wings, and became motionless.

“Wow,” said Lili, exhaling a deeply held breath.  “I think it’s safe to say there’s life on the surface.”

“Not so fast,” said Nicklas from his perch in orbit around the moon.  “I think those are drones.  When you zoom in you can see what looks like electronics behind the eyes.”

“That means there’s someone inside controlling them,” said Axel.

“Maybe,” said Nicklas.  “They could be completely autonomous.  Oh, and here’s another interesting piece of information—the radar signal has stopped.”

Lili checked her wrist and the little icon that indicated the strength and direction of the signal had indeed dimmed to a gray silhouette.  The steady, rhythmic, unceasing radar ping that had drawn them all this way across the solar system had stopped.  Was its only purpose to guide them here?

Max had stopped his retreat near the capsule, eyeing the butterflies suspiciously.  “We need to be careful.  We do not have enough information to make good decisions.”

“Then let’s gather information,” said Lili.  “I wonder if there’s a way inside.”

“That might be going too far,” said Axel.  “They haven’t been aggressive so far, but if we break into their house—“

Olivia pointed up to the dome where the butterflies sat perfectly still.  “I want a closer look at those—I think Nicklas is right, they look mechanical to me.  But I would like to make sure.”

“I’m not sure there’s an easy way up,” said Lili.  “I haven’t seen steps or a ladder anywhere.  The walls are too smooth to climb.”

“Gravity is light here.  You could probably toss me up there.  Axel, come over here.”

Axel approached and Olivia stood between him and Lili, placing her hands on their shoulders.  She lifted up one of her feet.

“You seriously want us to toss you?” asked Lili.

“Yes, why not?  Hold out your hands and grab my boot.”

Axel shrugged and held out his hands.  Lili did the same and Olivia steadied herself, looking upwards.

“This is a bad idea,” said Max, remaining near the capsule.

Axel and Lili bent over and Olivia counted to three.  They boosted her up and she landed clumsily on the edge of the wall, nearly losing her grip and tumbling back down.  She steadied herself and then stood up above them, brushing snow off of her suit.

Axel and Lili backed up a few meters so they could see Olivia moving around on the top of the flat structure that supported the dome.  She approached the lowest of the butterflies and reached up to touch it, but couldn’t quite reach.  She looked carefully at it, then moved on the the next one, which was a few meters away, in a perfectly arranged formation around the bottom half of the dome.

“They are all exactly the same,” she said.  “Nicklas, you can confirm my hypothesis with the computers on the Christiaan.  They are too regular to be biological.”  Olivia seemed to lose interest in the butterflies and began to scan the rest of the dome.

“Do you see any doors or hatches?” asked Axel.

“No, it’s very smooth.  There could be a hatch hidden by the snow, but it would take a long time to clear it all away.”

“How much time do we have on the surface?” asked Lili.

“I think we’ve been here long enough,” said Max.  “We almost lost one capsule, almost lost the two of you, and we’ve accomplished the mission.  We have the Nautilus, and we’ve seen the station.  Let’s not push our luck any further.”

Lili looked at him in shock.  “Who are you and what have you done with my brother?  Since when did you get so cautious?”

“Since you almost died an hour ago,” he said.

Nicklas broke in from above.  “We’ll be crossing the horizon in a few minutes.  We’ll need to coordinate the launch window now if you want to come back on the next orbit.  Tao’s capsule was off sequence and we wasted a ton of fuel to rendezvous with him.  I’d rather be more efficient next time.”

Jing spoke from inside the capsule.  “We have enough oxygen to last for days if we need to.  Everyone’s vitals look good.  My only concern is another lightning storm.”

“Weather looks clear from orbit,” said Nicklas.  His voice was growing staticky as the Christiaan slid closer to the horizon, putting more of Titan’s thick atmosphere between them. “The storm that hit you is still moving away and I don’t see another one anywhere nearby.”

“Let’s give it at least another hour,” said Axel.

Max sighed in resignation.  “Fine.  But we’re leaving at the first sign of trouble.”

“I just thought of a way to prove this station wasn’t built by the Chinese,” said Lili.

“Besides the fact that it’s obvious?” said Max.

“Nicklas, can you still hear us?” she asked.

“Yes, we’ve got a few more seconds.”

“Have we transmitted any data to Earth yet?”

“Just audio,” he said.  “Secured comms with the Space Union.  Nothing on open channels.”

“If we wait to send pictures and video, can’t the Space Union just ask to see a diagram of the station?  If the Chinese designed it, they could show us what it looks like.”

“Since when do we care about politics?” Olivia asked, standing on the ledge above them.  “I don’t like the idea of hiding information.”

“They did threaten us,” said Axel.  “I wouldn’t mind embarrassing them.”

“I’ll delay transmission,” said Nicklas.  “But let’s focus on the mission and worry about the Chinese later.”

“Right,” said Axel.  “Before we do anything else, let’s install a few cameras.”  They had brought half a dozen small video cameras equipped with radio transmitters and batteries that could last several days.  He retrieved the cameras from an auxiliary air lock on the capsule and then looked around.

“Throw them up to me,” said Olivia.  “There’s no good place on the ground, they will just sink in the mush.”

Axel carefully threw them one at a time to Olivia, who caught them and set them down on a path of the station’s roof that she had cleared off.  The cameras had an assortment of clamps and magnets that could be used to affix them in a variety of locations.  She placed one at each of the four corners of the structure, and the other two she attached near the sides of the transceiver, since that was the only other interesting feature aside from the dome and the butterflies, which remained still and quiet.

Lili circled the building a few times, searching for any sign of a door, running her hands along the side, but she did not find so much as a seam in the metal.  She ducked into a few of the bell shaped structures that they thought were rocket engines, but they were smooth on the inside as well, even in places where it seemed there should be holes to direct the exhaust.  Whoever had built this facility was good at hiding things, which seemed at odds with the fact that they had been transmitting such a powerfully obvious signal for all these years.

Lili heard Max call out from the other side of the station and she rushed around to see what was happening.  He was pointing up at Olivia, who was being circled by several butterflies.  They clustered around her hand, where she held one of the cameras.  A few more butterflies detached and moved to the cameras she had already placed.

Olivia stood very still and raised her hand slowly.  “Maybe the cameras were not such a good idea,” she said.

“They might think we’re planting explosives,” said Max.

“They’re just curious,” said Lili.  “They had already inspected us, and then we pulled out something new.  I wish we had a way to communicate with them.”

After a few minutes during which the butterflies closely circled the cameras, inspecting them from all angles with their own camera-like eyes, they turned and hovered back up to the dome.  Except for one of them.  It flew over to the capsule, stopped for a moment in front of Max’s helmet, and then dropped into the auxiliary air lock from which they had retrieved the cameras.  It neatly folded itself up into the compartment.

“That was unexpected,” said Lili.  “Looks like it wants to hitch a ride.”

“No way are we taking that thing back up to the station with us,” said Max.  He moved over to the compartment and started waving his hand at the butterfly, as if trying to shoo it away.

Axel and Lili joined Max at the capsule.  Olivia steadied herself on the edge of the wall and then jumped off, gliding easily down to land next to them, slipping in the snow and holding onto Axel for support.

Max reached in and took hold of the butterfly by one of its wings and gave a gentle tug.  It didn’t budge.  “I don’t want to have to break this thing—“

“Or kill it,” said Lili.

“Alive or not, how will the others react if we hurt it?” asked Axel.

“And what harm would it do to bring it back?  It would be fascinating to study it.”

Max held his arms out in exasperation.  “Has anyone considered that this thing could be a weapon?  We bring it back to the station and as soon as we get there, it explodes.  No need for missiles or lasers.”

“It’s not a threat,” said Lili thoughtfully.

“How can you know that?” asked Max.

“Let’s consider everything that’s happened,” she said.  “We know the Chinese didn’t build this.  It’s just not possible.  And we know there’s life on Titan.  So it’s an alien structure.  The signal was so obvious and persistent that it had to be put here on purpose.  To get us to come investigate.  It was an invitation.  They know about us, they’ve studied us.  They’re obviously way more advanced than we are.  They want to learn more about us.  They’re ready to start communicating.”

Max shook his head.  “If they are so much more advanced than we are, then why not just speak English?  Why not come to Earth?  Why make us come all the way out here?”

“Because space travel is hard.  Really hard.  With the exception of China, the whole planet is supporting us.  It look a huge amount of resources and maturity to get us here.  Maybe they didn’t want to talk to us before we were ready.”

Olivia was bending over, getting her helmet as close as she could to the compartment, studying their stowaway closely.  “Butterfly…” she muttered.

“What was that, Olivia?” asked Axel.

“A butterfly.  What do you think of when you think of butterflies?  They’re pretty, delicate, harmless.  It’s one of the most non-threatening creatures on Earth.  If they designed this station for us, to get our attention, then maybe they designed the drones specifically so that we would trust them.”

“Right,” said Max.  “Like a bunch of suckers.  It’s a Trojan Horse.”  He reached in and tried to take hold of the butterfly’s body.

“No!” said Olivia, pushing him away.  “I won’t let you destroy it.”

Max looked furious, and Axel stepped between him and Olivia.  “Back off, Max.”

Static crackled over their comm links.  “What are you guys arguing about down there?” asked Nicklas.  The Christiaan had rounded the horizon and was back in radio range.

“One of the butterflies stowed away in the auxiliary air lock,” said Lili.  “We’re trying to decide whether to bring it back or not.”

“Cool!” said Nicklas.  “Definitely bring it back!  I’d love to get a closer look at it.”

“That sounds like a really bad idea to me,” said Tao.  “I already almost died once today, I don’t want to be eaten by a Titanian.”

“It’s not going to eat you,” said Lili.  “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s what I do best,” said Tao.

“I could bring it inside and scan it,” said Jing. “We have some basic medical diagnostic equipment in the capsule.”

“Would that satisfy you, Max?” asked Olivia.

“You want to let it inside the capsule?  What if it hurts Jing?  Or takes control and launches without us?”

“You are being so paranoid!” said Lili.  “Like I’ve said about a thousand times now, we are completely outmatched here.  If they wanted to hurt us, they would have done it already.”  She stepped close to Max and looked into his helmet.  “Max, listen to me.  We came here to explore.  We came here to make first contact, and that’s what we’re doing.  I know you’re trying to do what you think is right.  Trying to be a good leader.  You are a good leader.  But you need to trust me.  I have a good feeling about this.  It’s what we’re supposed to do.”

“Fine,” he said, shrugging.  “But that thing stays in the capsule—we are not letting it anywhere near the core on the Christiaan.”

They closed the auxiliary air lock, sealing off the compartment.  Jing initiated the purge, a complicated process that ensured no hydrocarbons would remain to contaminate the capsule when she opened the hatch.

“I want to be inside when you release it,” said Max.  “Open air lock A.”

“Roger that,” said Jing.  The air lock opened on the opposite side of the capsule and Max walked around with Lili following him.  She helped him up and into the air lock, where he fitted the back of his suit into the coupling that would allow him to squirm out of it without bringing the entire suit into the capsule.

Lili patted his leg and said “Thank you” before pushing the button to close the outer pod around him.

Once Max was safely inside the capsule, out of his Titan suit, he and Jing went to the auxiliary air lock and began to open it.

“Max, can you relay a video feed from inside the capsule to our helmets?” asked Lili.  “The windows are too high for us to see in.”

Max reached over to a console and enabled the feed.  Lili, Olivia, and Axel stood outside the capsule watching the feed on the head-up displays that were emitted onto the glass surface of their visors.

Jing was wearing a set of long surgical gloves.  She reached into the compartment gingerly and brought the butterfly out.  As soon as it cleared the opening, its eyes came to life and the wings unfurled.  A loud whirring emanated from tiny propellers embedded in the wings and it tried to lift off from her hands.  The whirring got louder, and it managed to hover for a few seconds before swinging off to the side and collapsing onto one of the chairs.  The whirring stopped.

“The air isn’t as thick in here,” said Max.  “It can’t fly the way it’s used to outside.”

“It’s probably overheating, too,” said Jing.  “It’s a lot colder out there.”

The butterfly extended its legs and looked around.  A small proboscis extended from under its eyes and it seemed to taste the air.

Jing waved a handheld scanner in front of the butterfly.  It sat very still, seeming to purposefully accommodate her.  She detached a small tube from the scanner and pressed a button, causing the tube to suck in air like a vacuum cleaner.

“What’s that for?” asked Max.

“Chemical analysis,” said Jing, who began to poke the end of the tube into various places around the butterfly’s body and wings.  “It’s very sensitive.  We should be able to detect if it’s giving off any suspicious gasses.”

She stowed the tube away and then brought out two small metal leads, which she touched to the butterfly’s surface.  “Electrical conductivity,” she said.  “Normally I’d use these to test nerve function, but they could give us some insights into what it’s made of.”

Jing then went to stand on a plate near one of the bulkheads that served as a scale.  She pushed a few buttons on the nearby screen and stood still, then sighed at the reading.

“Why are you weighing yourself?” asked Max.

“Bring the butterfly to me.  I’ll subtract my weight and then we’ll know how much mass it has.”

“Uhh.. Do you have a spare set of gloves?”

Jing shook her head and retrieved the butterfly herself, grasping it gently underneath the torso between the legs.  She noted the readout from the scale and then returned it to the chair.   She then picked up her scanner and plugged it into the wall.

“I’m not picking up anything that’s an obvious threat,” said Jing.  “Seems to be mostly mechanical, although it does look like there’s some liquid circulating inside.  Probably a coolant.  It has an internal heat source around mid-torso.  Batteries, maybe.”

“Or an RTG,” said Max skeptically.  “Probably plutonium”.

“Well, if it’s an RTG, it’s shielded perfectly, because I can’t detect any radiation.  It seems safe to me.”

“This reminds me of when Lili found a mangy stray cat outside the house when she was six years old.  She brought it inside and begged mom to keep it.  We ended up with fleas in the rug for a month after that.”

“It was a such a cute little kitten!” said Lili defensively.

“You’re lucky you didn’t get rabies,” said Max.

“Well, I didn’t get rabies.  And I’m pretty sure that butterfly doesn’t have fleas.  Let’s head back to the station.  I think we’ve done everything we came here to do.”

“And then some,” said Axel.

Lili took a last long look at the radar station and the surrounding terrain, and then began to climb up to the airlock.

#

“We’ve decided to call it—him—Sisko,” said Nicklas, who was standing in the middle of beta capsule with Tao, in front of a camera that was recording a video for broadcast on Earth.  “That’s after a character on an old sci-fi show that we used to watch with our Dad.  His nickname on the show was ‘The Emissary’, which is really what this butterfly is.”

“It’s what we all are,” said Tao.  “Now that the Chinese have officially stopped trying to claim Titan as their own, we know that Sisko wasn’t created by Earthlings.”

“We’re proud of our new little friend here.  At first we thought he was purely mechanical—but it seems there might be room for argument there.  He’s mostly titanium—“

Tao elbowed Nicklas and winked.  “Get it?!  Titanium?! He’s from Titan—“

Nicklas rolled his eyes.  “Yes, Tao, now that you’ve made that joke a hundred times, we get it.  Sisko is from Titan.  And—he’s made of Titanium.”

Tao smiled widely with satisfaction and said the word again, but pronounced it “Titan-eeum”, with emphasis on the “Titan”.

“But that raises some really interesting questions,” said Nicklas.  “You’d have to dig awfully deep on Titan to get to any actual metals.  It’s mostly water ice.  So we’re not sure where the Titanium came from.  The radar station is also made of Titanium.

“We still have a lot to learn about Sisko—he’s obviously a drone of some sort, actually not too much different than the Nautilus in design, except that he does actually have small radioisotope thermoelectric generator.”

“That’s RTG for us simple folk,” said Tao.

“And Sisko didn’t stop operating when we swung around to the other end of the moon, where it was out of radio contact with the radar station.  It can operate autonomously.  And the coolest thing we’ve learned—we haven’t showed anyone this, this is really exciting—is that it can learn.  Watch.”

Nicklas stepped to one side of the butterfly, and Tao stepped to the other.  Nicklas said “Tao”, and Sisko pivoted to face Tao.  Then Nicklas said “Nicklas”, and it pivoted back to him.  Then he said “Sisko”, and it shook its wings enthusiastically.

“I have no idea how they jammed that much processing power into such a small frame,” said Nicklas.  “I would need a much bigger computer to create that kind of neural network.”

Olivia stepped up to them and faced the camera.  “To achieve this kind of intelligence in such a small volume usually requires biology—a brain—but I can’t detect anything inside of Sisko that resembles what we would call a brain.”

“So, we don’t really know how it works,” said Nicklas.  “And we obviously can’t be too invasive with our techniques—dissecting it presents a bit of an ethical problem.”

“They were kind enough not to dissect us when we were on the surface,” said Olivia.

“Good thing,” said Tao.  “I never have liked being dissected.  It tickles.”

“I think I just saw Sisko roll his eyes,” said Nicklas.  Then he turned to a keyboard and entered a few commands, converting the video feed to a recording of the radar station.

“Another very, very interesting thing I noticed recently is this,” he said.  “This is a time lapse recording of the transceiver on the radar station.  As you can see, it’s pivoting on its mount, not always pointed at the same location in space.  I had assumed that it was communicating with a  small satellite in geosynchronous orbit, but I ran some calculations, and I figured out the true direction of the signal.”

Off to the side, Lili took a deep breath.  She knew what Nicklas was about to say.

“It’s pointed at Enceladus,” said Nicklas.  “It has a very tightly directional signal.  We’ve only been able to detect it a few times when our orbital position was just right.  It is sending and receiving transmissions.  It might not be Titanians that we’re dealing with here at all.  It might be that we’ve made first contact with Enceladans.”

“There you have it, folks,” said Tao, spreading his arms.  “The crew of the Christiaan, continuing to blow your collective minds.”

Nicklas stopped the playback and returned the recording back to the live view in the capsule.  Lili stepped up to face the camera.

“The Space Union has given us the privilege of announcing the next manned mission to the outer solar system.  An upgraded version of the Christiaan will begin the journey this summer, bringing our friends from the candidacy.  Our backups and CapComs, the Bells, the Akintolas, and the Ocampos, will leave Earth orbit on a much more direct route than we took.  Rocket technology has come a long way since we made the trip, mostly due to all those resupply missions you keep having to send to keep us all alive.”

“We really do appreciate that, by the way,” said Tao.  “I like to not starve to death.  And breathing is nice.  Oxygen is the best.”

Lili continued.  “For the time being, we’ll keep station here around Titan, collecting information and learning what we can from our little buddy Sisko.”

“And that’s all we have for today, folks,” said Tao.  “But before we sign off, let’s get the entire crew together here.” He pulled the other three towards him, then reached over and pulled a portable video monitor over in front of the group.  Axel and Max were displayed from their pilot’s seats.

The astronauts of the space station Christiaan, Lili and Max Putin, Axel and Olivia Svensson, Zhang Tao, Jing, and Nicklas Schultz, all smiled and waved at the camera.

The End

#

Epilogue

Lili was overdue for her resting hours, so she went to her sleeping quarters and got into bed.  She tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep for hours, and finally drifted off.

She woke feeling nauseous and sweaty.  A quick pang of fear shot through her.  Why was she feeling sick?  There was no reason to get nauseous.  Their food supply was under extremely tight quality controls.  They weren’t being exposed to any new viruses.  Could their last resupply have been contaminated somehow?  Or was it something worse?  When her mother had first fallen ill, hadn’t nausea been her first complaint?  Maybe she had leukemia.  Maybe they had all been exposed to too much space radiation and they were all going to get sick.

As she became more awake, her paranoid fears subsided a bit, but she was still worried.  Every other time in her life she had woken up feeling sick, her first instinct had been to call for her mother.  And her mother had always been there for her.  But not now.  She would have to be satisfied with her friend Jing, who was doggedly studying to become a full fledged medical doctor.

She swung her legs out of bed and sat up.  Another strong wave of nausea came over her and she quickly scrambled to the ladder.  She barely made it to Delta capsule in time.

Afterwards, she was wiping her face with a towel and Jing came down the ladder through the open hatch that Lili had forgotten to secure behind her.

“Everything ok?”

“No.  I’m vomiting.”

Jing’s eyes grew large. “That’s not good.”

“I know.”

“We’ll have to run some tests.”

“You’re just looking for an excuse to practice taking blood.”

“Yeah, that too. But we need to know why you’re sick.”

Lili followed her back to the day room, feeling slightly dizzy as she climbed the ladder but in no danger of throwing up again anytime soon.

Jing ran a quick series of physical tests, shining lights in Lili’s eyes and looking down her throat.  She drew blood after missing a vein only twice, cursing under her breath each time.

“It will take a while for me to analyze the results,” said Jing.  “You can go back to bed if you want.”

“I’m tired of climbing,” said Lili.  “I’ll just hang out here for now.  Tao can keep me company.”

Tao was the only other person in the day room.  Axel and Nicklas were on duty in the core.  Everyone else was asleep.  Tao made a face and scooted away from her.  “I don’t want your cooties.”

“Too late.  I licked your spoon when you weren’t looking.”

Tao looked down at his spoon, which had a healthy dollop of yogurt that he was about to eat.  He eyed it suspiciously for a moment, shrugged, and kept eating.

Lili sat sat back and closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing.  She had almost started to doze off again when Jing came and sat across from her.  She had a very concerned look on her face.

“Tao,” said Jing.  “Can you give us a moment?”

“Umm—ok, I guess.  Since when does anyone need privacy on this ship, though?”

Jing just stared at him.

“Fine,” said Tao.  He stowed his empty food container and climbed the ladder, securing the hatch behind him.

Lili was sure she was about to hear Jing confirm her worst fears.  Why else would she have  sent Tao away?

“Do I have cancer?” she asked quickly.  “Get it over with.  Just tell me.”

“No, it’s not cancer,” said Jing.  She smiled.

“Why are you smiling?  What is it?  Food poisoning?  Why is that funny?”

“Lili, you’re not sick.  You’re pregnant.”

Everything seemed to stop.  The ship’s rotation.  Her heartbeat.  The revolution of the sun around the center of the galaxy.  Everything.

“That—it can’t—but—are you sure?”

“I ran the test twice.  Tell me it’s not possible and I’ll draw more blood and run it again.”

Lili stared at her blankly.

“I’m waiting for you to tell me it’s not possible.  You know how babies are made.”

Lili exhaled.  “It’s possible.”

“I can’t believe you, Lili.  And Tao!  I’m going to kill him.  I knew you two were close, but—“

“It wasn’t Tao.”

“He is so irresponsible—wait, what?  It wasn’t Tao?  Who then?  Not Nicklas, I’m not even sure he’s capable yet.  I mean, it wouldn’t be Max, would it?”

“Gross!” said Lili.  “Max is my brother.”

“But the only other choice is—is—“

“Axel.”

“But I thought you two hated each other.”

“No.  Not really.  Sometimes.  But not all the time.”

“Wait a minute.  He didn’t, like, force himself—“

“No!  He’s not like that.  He would never—“

“Ok, ok.  It’s just so hard to believe.”

“Please don’t tell anyone.  Please?”

“It’s going to be pretty hard to keep this a secret,” said Jing.  “Are you going to keep the baby?  I don’t know if I’m capable of that procedure.  I don’t know if I’d want to even if I could, but I mean—this is not a good place to have a baby.  We’re in space!”

“I’m keeping it.  I have no idea how that’s going to work.  But I have to keep it.  It’s his baby too.  And I’ll tell him when I’m ready.”

“How do you think he’s going to take it?”

“He’s a responsible boy.  Man.  But it’s not like he could leave me.  Where’s he going to go?”

“Do you love him?”

Lili blushed.  “Yeah.  I do.”

“Does he love you back?”

“I think so.  I hope so.  Yes?  Maybe?”

The access panel on the hatch chimed and Jing gave the Ok to enter. It was Max.

“I saw you weren’t in bed and got worried.  Then Tao said you were sick.”

“Looks like food poisoning,” said Jing without hesitation.  “We’re going to have to run tests on the rations we got in the last resupply. Make sure it was just an isolated problem.”

Max accepted this explanation without further question.  As Lili climbed the ladder to head back to bed, she mouthed “Thank you” to Jing.

As she laid back down in bed, the enormity of it hit her.  She was over a billion kilometers from Earth.  From the nearest hospital.  Orbiting one of Saturn’s moons on a mission with no end date, with an alien robot buzzing around inside the ship.  And she was going to have a child.  She wasn’t much more than a child herself.  A child.  A child of Titan.

Child of Titan – Chapter 7

For the first time in a very long time, the Christiaan’s maneuvering thrusters fired in the opposite direction of the station’s spin, reducing the angular velocity until finally it was still, and the crew felt themselves detach from the floor.  They were weightless, and they all floated up through the tubes towards the core.  For just a few minutes, they had decided to ignore the rule about never congregating all of them in one place.  And they also retracted the protective covering over the pilot’s large view port so that they could see with their own eyes the weak but persistent photons that had traveled from the Sun to the Saturnian system.

When they were all positioned around the pilot’s chairs, Max reached up and pressed a button on his screen.  The hatch pulled away, and at first they could see nothing but blackness.  Axel toggled a control on his screen and the lights inside the core dimmed to almost nothing.

“There it is,” said Lili.  “Saturn.  It’s beautiful.”

The planet occupied a large portion of their view.  They were getting close.

“It’s too bad we aren’t approaching from another angle,” said Axel.  “You can barely make out the rings.”

Lili nodded.  “I would have liked to come in from one of the poles.  That would have made for some great photography.”

“That would have made getting to Titan basically impossible,” said Max.

Lili took a sharp breath in.  “Titan!  I see it!”

“Where?” asked Tao, pressing his face up close to the glass.

Lili pointed into the darkness off to the right of Saturn, near the edge of their view.  “I can just make it out as a disk.  It has such a distinctive color.”

“Oh, I see it too!” said Jing.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Nicklas.  “We’ve been seeing it through the telescope for weeks.”

Lili stared at him.  “What’s the big deal?  We just traveled all this way to get to Titan, and we can actually see it with the naked eye.  That’s a really big deal, Nicklas.  Big.”

Nicklas shrugged.  “Whatever you say.  I’ll be more excited when I get my submarine into Lake Kranz.”

“One thing at a time,” said Max.  “First we need to get through the orbital insertion burn.  We have a lot of data to gather while we orbit Saturn before we can even make the final decision to continue to Titan.”

“That’s not all we have to do,” said Olivia in a quiet voice, almost a whisper.

The mood deflated in the core, and everyone became thoughtful.  Alpha capsule was still there, still full of its macabre cargo.  Their parents were awaiting delivery to their final resting place in the heart of the gas giant that loomed in front of them.

Max retracted the covering over the porthole, and they went back to viewing enhanced video images of Saturn.  “We’ll rendezvous with the first of the resupply capsules orbiting Saturn in two days.  Once we empty it out, we’ll transfer the—the bodies—to the capsule and reprogram it to move into a degrading orbit around Saturn.”

#

Conducting a burial at sea while in space is not a simple operation.  Nicklas worked with the orbital mechanics specialists in Houston to calculate the optimal location in their orbit of Saturn to release the capsule, so that there was no chance of colliding with it on subsequent orbits.  Jing retrieved six body bags from storage—disturbingly, there were fourteen bags left over.  Seven small bags for the junior astronauts, and seven larger ones for the adults they would eventually become.

There was little discussion about who would be tasked with entering Alpha capsule.  Even though it was technically inside the station, it amounted to an EVA.  The capsule was open to space.  Since Axel and Lili had the most experience in the EVA suits, it was deemed safest for them to do it.

Nicklas, ever the pragmatic thinker, had realized an unpleasant technical detail that Lili was dreading.  The bodies, frozen as they were in awkward positions, would not easily fit into the bags, which were designed to hold a person lying prone, legs together and arms to their sides.  Neither would the resupply capsule have room to fit them unless they were neatly stacked.  So they would have to bring them into the Alpha tube and let them thaw.

Lili had been sick when she first contemplated the reality of that situation.  Physically sick, retching into a vomit bag that Jing had quickly pulled out of a first aid kit and passed to Lili when she saw the look on her face.

On the morning of the resupply, she did not eat breakfast.  She wanted her stomach to be empty when she was in the suit.  Lack of food and anticipation were making her shake.  Several hours of tedium while storing the supplies from the docked capsule served as a minor distraction, but every box she stowed away brought her closer to the unavoidable task.

Olivia was helping her and Axel pull the EVA suits out from the under floor storage in Delta capsule.  “You don’t look good, Lili.  Are you sure you can handle this?”

“I can handle it,” Lili said sharply.  “To be honest, I’d rather have my job than yours.”

Olivia would be in the tube with Jing, transferring the bodies from the capsule airlock and waiting for them to become pliant enough to zip up in the black bags that would serve as their coffins.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Olivia.  “I said goodbye to my parents a long time ago, when we were leaving Jupiter.  What’s in that capsule is just remnants.  Inconvenient, but meaningless at this point.”

Lili looked at her but Olivia diverted her glance, pressing her lips together tightly and concentrating on the EVA suit she was holding.  Lili did not believe her.  There was no way to emotionally detach from this.  Mission control in Houston had asked Axel and Lili to watch an hour of video feeds from the capsule to acclimatize themselves to what they would see there.  Lili thought it was a horrible and disgusting idea, but she had complied.  She spent most of the hour crying, and hoped that it would make her less likely to cry in the suit, where wiping your eyes was almost impossible.

Once their suits and helmets were in place, they went through the standard series of op-checks and then awkwardly climbed up the ladder to the core, then crossed over into Alpha tube.  Luckily, the air lock had not been damaged, and they had been able to command the inner door to close and seal tightly.  They planned to transfer into the pressurized air lock and slowly release the atmosphere into the capsule, repeating tests on their suits to make sure they had tight seals.  Unfortunately, they had no way to recover the air in the air lock, so they were hoping to accomplish the transfer by fitting all six bodies into the air lock at once and then remaining in Alpha while Jing and Olivia pulled them out.

Once the air lock reached vacuum, Lili nodded to Axel.  He pressed a button on the bulkhead and flipped a lever to override the warnings that were insistently reminding them that Alpha capsule had been compromised.  They swung open then hatch and then each floated down into a dark nightmare.

Lili forced herself to play a mental game to try and remove herself from reality.  She was separated from her parents and the the others by a thick glass shield.  This was her world, here inside the suit.  Outside the suit was another world.  Like VR.  She tried to pretend it wasn’t real.  The trauma of being exposed to a vacuum had deformed their faces to the point that they were barely recognizable, which, while adding to the grotesque factor, was a blessing since it made it easier for Lili to see them as inanimate objects.  Not her mother.  Not her father.  Wax statues gone wrong.  Training mannequins like the ones she had used to learn CPR.  Not real.  Not her mother.

Lili had hoped she could focus on the other parents while Axel handled Julia and Sergei, and had even brought it up to him earlier in the day when they had a few moments alone.  But it turned out to be an impractical idea.  In zero gravity, movement was awkward, and they needed to work together.

Lili anchored herself to the edge of the airlock while Axel moved along the wall to where Min had come to rest, one of her arms wedged between a power storage unit and a first aid kit.  Lili imagined her holding a cup  of coffee in one hand, a tablet in the other.  She remembered the particular look on her face when Helmut said something silly—slightly exasperated and yet loving at the same time.  Lili shook her head.  Memories made it too real.

Axel dislodged Min’s arm and then swung her around.  The momentum carried Min’s body into Lili’s waist, which pinned her to the airlock for a second before she could get a good grip on Min’s jumpsuit and stabilize her.  Axel came back over and helped Lili push her through the door.  They looked at each other and silently nodded.  One down.  Five to go.

Helmut and Gottfrid were also wedged against the near walls, and proved to be fairly easy to move into the airlock.  Sergei and Isabelle were locked together and spinning freely in the middle of the capsule in what looked like a dance.  Lili felt a moment of irrational anger at Isabelle, as if they were alive and she was making a move on her father.  Lili scolded herself for the ridiculous notion, mostly because it was too personal and further intruded on her attempts to defeat reality.

Their motion eventually brought them to the floor of the capsule, where Axel had positioned himself.  He gently launched them back up toward the ceiling, and they nearly drifted into the opening of the airlock without any assistance from Lili.  She tried to focus on their legs, so she could not tell who she was jostling into position, Isabelle or her father.

Only one left.  Julia.  She was floating directly in the center of the capsule, suspended too far out of reach for either of them.  They didn’t have anything they could use to reach out and grapple her, so Axel bent his knees and then shoved off the floor, colliding with the body and sending it towards Lili.

The body rotated slowly as it approached, and just before it reached her, she was face to face with what had been Julia.  The ruined eyes were ghastly, and the arms were outstretched in what looked like anticipation of a hug.  They collided and were momentarily locked in an embrace, face to faceplate, and Lili couldn’t escape the horrific truth of her mother’s death.

All of her training and mental preparation went out the window.  She began to hyperventilate.  She felt a pang of acidity pulse through her veins and had the burning need to escape, sure signs of a panic attack.  She pushed wildly at the corpse to get it away from her, at the same time that Axel landed next to them.  He reached out and quickly swung Julia over the the airlock.  Lili pushed off and latched on the the far wall.  She looked back at Axel and knew she could do no more.  He gave her a sympathetic look that said he understood, and turned to the problem of fitting Julia in with the others.  He was forced to go into the airlock to re-arrange things to make the puzzle pieces fit.

Lili felt horribly guilty at watching him struggle to make it work, but she was powerless.  Paralyzed.  It was all she could do to try and get her breathing under control.  Eventually Axel emerged and then closed the hatch, sealing them off from the horrors within.

They had a long time to wait in the capsule while the airlock pressure was equalized and its contents could be emptied by Jing and Olivia.

Axel came to Lili’s side and she turned to him.  She could see that he was pale and sweating.  This had not been easy for him, either.  But he had stayed strong.  She gripped his arm firmly and embraced him as closely as she could through the bulky suits.  They stayed together that way for a long time.

Eventually they broke apart.  Lili felt sheepish and avoided Axel’s gaze. “Let’s examine the hull and see if can’t do something to fix it,” he said over their private comm link.

“I thought Nicklas said it was beyond repair,” she said.

“Maybe so,” he said.  “But I would like something to stay busy for a while.”

She nodded.  “Good idea.  I’ll get a patch kit.”

Axel moved to the side of the hull where the meteoroid had entered.

“This one is small and clean,” said Axel.  “Should be an easy fix.”

“From the inside,” she said.  “We can’t fix the hole on the outside, or all the layers in between.”

“Better than nothing,” he said.  “This one’s actually smaller than the hole in the core that I repaired, and that one has held up fine.  We won’t ever enter the atmosphere in this capsule, but we might make it habitable again.”

The idea of living in Alpha capsule did not appeal to Lili.

“At least for storage,” Axel said quickly, echoing her sentiments.

He took the patch kit from her and sealed off the hole.  Then he pushed off to the other side, where the meteoroid has exited violently, taking with it a large volume of breathable air.

“This one is going to be more of a problem,” he said, running his hand along the jagged, outward bulge in the hull.  They could see stars twinkling on the outside.

“It’s bigger than the largest patch in the kit,” Lili said.

“Maybe we can improvise something,” he said, looking around.

“How about the door to one of the storage panels?  They’re made of Titanium like everything else, right?”

“Yes.  But we need it to be completely flat.”  He move over and flipped open a storage bin, inspecting the hinges.

“This might actually work,” he said.  “If we can remove the handle and hinges.  The screws holding them in place are tiny.”

Lili rummaged through the satchel attached to her waist and pulled out a power screwdriver.  She rotated through the heads until she had the smallest one centered, and then bent over the storage bin.  Axel held her in place while she focused on detaching the door.

Once she had it free, they held it over the hole and saw that it was a good fit.  Axel made an adjustment to the patch gun and applied a thin layer of epoxy around the edges of the flat piece of metal, securing it to the bulkhead.  Then he used their entire supply of large patches so that they overlapped around the edges.

“It’s a bit messy, but it might hold,” he said.

Just then, a light illuminated on the hatch and Olivia came over the intercom.

“The hatch is empty and resealed.  Ready for you to come out.”  Her voice sounded strained.

Lili had managed to divert her entire focus to repairing the capsule and had enjoyed a few minutes of relief from their primary mission in Alpha capsule.  Olivia’s voice snapped her back to the task of burying her parents.  She thought of what Jing and Olivia were going through right now.  She hoped Jing’s medical training could give her some level of objectivity.  She had trouble creating a feeling of sympathy for Olivia, however, and felt guilty about it.

The pressure equalized and the hatch to the Alpha tube opened.  Lili and Axel removed their helmets, and were greeted by an unpleasant smell.

Olivia and Jing had neatly arranged the bodies, all securely in their black bags.  There was evidence of tears streaked on their faces, and their eyes were red.

Max and Tao met them in the tube and took over, guiding the bodies up into the core to the waiting resupply capsule.  Axel and Lili returned to Delta to stow their suits.  Olivia and Jing retreated to the day room in Beta.

The last bit of maneuvering fuel in the capsule was used to push it away from the Christiaan towards Saturn.  The sun was just peeking out above the horizon, and the capsule eclipsed it for a moment as it plunged inwards, towards the rings, which appeared as a thin, backlit ribbon in space.  They had again all gathered in the core and opened the covering so they could watch the capsule depart.  They said their silent, final goodbyes and turned to preparations for last leg of their journey to Titan.

#

“Initiating trans-Titan injection burn in five—four—three—two—one.”

They were pushed back into their seats as Max ignited the booster and began a three minute burn that would break them out of the orbit of Saturn on a looping trajectory that would bring them into Titan’s sphere of influence.  If everything went according to calculations, they would not require another burn to stabilize their orbit around Titan.  The moon’s gravity would take hold of them and their velocity would precisely match what was needed to orbit the moon with only minor corrections.

After the burn, they spun up the station and restored artificial gravity to the capsules for the days it would take to traverse the distance from Saturn to Titan.  They received a video message from mission control, marked as urgent and tagged with an extra layer of encryption.

Carmen spoke to them from her office.

“The Chinese have made an official statement with regards to the radar signal emanating from Titan.  They claim that it is, in fact, a Chinese observation post.”

Tao took in a sharp breath and said “Whoa!”  He was in the day room sitting next to Lili and Jing.

“Quiet,” said Jing, pausing the video and rewinding it a few seconds to make sure she didn’t miss anything Carmen said.  The station was in the middle of a shift change, so the other four crew members were watching the video from the core.

“Whether or not the Chinese statement is true is a matter of some debate.  They have, in fact, produced a radar signal at a research facility near the border with Korea that is remarkably similar to what we see from Titan, but that’s not exactly conclusive evidence.

“The political situation with China has been—well—complicated, to say the least.  They have made veiled threats to re-take Taiwan by force, and there have been signs of military buildups on their borders.  But they aren’t in the strongest position here on Earth.  Claiming Titan could be a way for them to snub the rest of the international community.

“While it’s extremely improbable, we have to admit that it is at least technically possible for them to have landed a probe on Titan.  A small probe.  But they seem to be hinting at something bigger.  Something that might have offensive military capabilities.  We don’t think this is feasible, but it is important for all of you to understand that the Chinese have made threats.  Unofficial threats, through back channels, but threats nonetheless.  They don’t want us to land on Titan.  They are implying a direct response if we land a capsule on the surface to investigate the radar station.

“The Space Union’s official direction to you has not changed.  Our plans for the next several weeks were to establish ourselves in orbit, complete a resupply, and start gathering as much data as possible.  A landing was and is still tentative.  Perhaps a bit more tentative than we had hoped, but we’ll see how the political winds shift on Earth between now and then.”

The video ended, leaving a large Space Union logo emblazoned on the screen.

Tao’s eyes were large.  “So we really did come all this way to get shot down by the Chinese?  What the f—“

“Settle down, Tao,” said Lili.  “I don’t believe it.  And even if it is true, I don’t care.  They can shoot at me all they want, I’m going down there.”

Axel spoke over the intercom.  “To hell with the Chinese.”

“I would take offense to that,” said Tao.  “But I am British.” He spoke with an English accent and held his little pinky finger out.

“I take offense to that,” said Jing.

“I mean to hell with the Chinese government,” said Axel.  “Space has been trying to kill us for years and we’re still here.  I’m going to Titan.”

“In the meantime,” said Nicklas, “I’m going to figure out how to turn our radio transmitter into a jammer.  They can’t shoot us down if they can’t see us.”

#

“Hello, Earth, it’s your intrepid space-faring hosts Zhang Tao Schultz and Liliana Putin, reporting to you live—“

“Minus an hour light speed delay,” said Lili, stepping between Tao and the video camera.

Tao shoved her aside playfully.  “Reporting to you relatively live, from orbit high above the solar system’s orangey-est moon, Titan.”

“Orangey-est?”

“That’s the scientific term for it, Lili.  Looks more like a big pumpkin, if you ask me.”  Tao held his hands out in the shape of a circle.

Lili shook her head but smiled.  “Why don’t we tell our audience about today’s science mission?”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” said Tao dramatically, stepping to the side and extending his arms to reveal a large shroud covering the central portion of the floor of the capsule.  “We present to you a fantastical, technological wonder, created by our very own Chief Engineer of the Starship Christiaan, my dear little brother, Zhang Nicklas Schultz.”

Tao whipped back the shroud, which became entangled around his head and neck.  He spent a moment struggling with it before finally tossing it to the side, where it landed on Jing.

“And here you have it!” he said.  “The Nautilus, a fully autonomous, flying, swimming, submarining exploration drone.  That’s right, folks, it slices, it dices, it’s the Nautilus-o-matic.”

Sitting on a table next to the 3D printer, the drone and its atmospheric entry heat shield were together just over a meter long.  Nicklas stepped up to take the stage from Tao.  He seemed a bit nervous, as if the large audience of people that would be watching the broadcast were right there in the capsule with them.

“The Nautilus is a fully instrumented robotic laboratory.  It will descend into Titan’s atmosphere, taking readings and transmitting data back to the Christiaan continuously.  It’s very similar in many ways to the Huygens probe that launched from the Cassini orbiter back in 2005, but much smaller and much more capable.”

He began pointing at various spots on the drone.

“It has atmospheric structure instrumentation, a descent imager, spectral radiometer, and a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer.  And it has eight separate video cameras, along with a powerful lighting package.

“It is capable of guided flight through the atmosphere after the main parachute has slowed its rate of descent to a few kilometers per hour.  We plan to fly it around the landing site to fine tune our plans for the subsequent capsule mission.”

Lili’s heart rate increased when Nicklas mentioned their planned landing on Titan.  According to the Space Union, it was still just a possibility, a possibility that seemed to be shrinking by the day as the Chinese escalated their rhetoric.  But Nicklas had just subtly told the world that the crew intended to proceed.  With or without permission.

Nicklas pointed to a protruding semi-sphere on the bottom of the craft.  “This is basically a radar detector, specifically designed to home in on the source of the signal that is still consistently emanating from the surface.  We should be able to pinpoint its location and analyze video of the site before we go down there ourselves.

“Once that’s done, we’ll use the remaining battery power to explore the lake that’s very close to the location of the signal—we’ve named it Lake Kranz.  We’ll land on the surface and then submerge, taking video and analyzing liquid samples before returning to the surface to transmit data to the Christiaan.”

Olivia stepped up and said, “We should be able to detect the presence of methanogens, which would consume hydrogen, acetylene and ethane, and exhale methane.”

“Thanks,” said Nicklas, smiling at her shyly. He paused for a second and then continued.  “Olivia was a big help with that part.  The last thing the drone will do is guide itself to a location on land that might allow us to physically recover it later.  In case something goes wrong with the radio transmissions, we can gather data from the onboard hard drives.

“When the batteries have finally reached their limit, we’ll start one last experiment—and this one is really important.  We’re going to see if we can collect the methane in the lake and in the atmosphere and refine it to the point where we can use it as rocket fuel.  If we can make it work, it could have huge consequences for the future of deep space travel, and could potentially extend our stay here at Titan, especially if we can harvest oxygen from the water ice on the surface.”

Nicklas stood back and considered the drone for a moment, scratching his head.  He looked over at Tao.  “So yeah, I think that’s it.  That’s everything I wanted to say.”

“Good job, Nicklas,” said Tao.  “A very thorough technical description.  I may have fallen asleep there in the middle for a while, but that’s Ok.  Big words do that to me.  So, I have one question.  How’s that anti-Chinese radar jammer coming along?”

Nicklas’s mouth hung open.

“Stop,” said Lili.  “Stop the recording.  We can’t transmit that.  That’s a secret.”

“Who cares!” said Tao.  “We’ve been transmitting whatever we want this whole time.  We don’t keep secrets.  That’s why everybody loves us.”

“We don’t want to make the situation any worse than it is,” said Lili.  “People on Earth don’t know the Chinese are threatening us.  It would cause an uproar.”

“Good.  It should cause an uproar.  And Nicklas, seriously, can you actually jam the radar signal?  Were you joking about that?”

“Of course I wasn’t joking.  Generating a signal on the same frequency as the radar is trivial.  I did that to test the detector on the Nautilus.  The trick is to generate a powerful enough signal to effectively confuse the radar station.  And if they have any sophistication at all, they would employ some sort of counter-counter measures like frequency hopping, which I might be able to deal with in software.  I might also use the drones as decoys transmitting on the same frequency, or a range of similar frequencies.  And I agree with Lili, by the way.  If the threat is real, we have much better chance if they don’t know we have counter-measures.”

Lili put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at Tao.

“Ok, fine,” said Tao.  “Edit it out.”

After they had finished shooting the video, the crew dispersed, except for Nicklas and Lili.  Lili was helping Nicklas to prepare the Nautilus for launch.

Nicklas went to a storage bin and rummaged in it for a moment and then turned around, looking unsure of himself.

“What have you got there?” asked Lili.

Nicklas unwrapped the small package he was holding and handed Lili a flat, slick block of what felt like plastic.  Inside the clear case was a printed photograph of the six senior astronauts.  Her parents.  Their parents.  Julia, Sergei, Helmut, Min, Isabelle, and Gottfrid.

“I’ve never even seen this picture before,” said Lili quietly.

“I found it in the Space Union archives.  They took it when we first started training.”

“Are you—is this a gift?  Are you giving this to me?”

“I made it for everyone—I mean—for them, our parents, really.  It’s encased in the same kind of material they use for the capsule windows.  It’s totally sealed off from the elements.  It can withstand the conditions on Titan for a long time before fading.  I want you to take it there.  To the surface.  And leave it.”

Lili understood.  If their parents couldn’t actually make it to Titan, at least a memento would be there to commemorate them.

“This is going to sound a bit weird,” said Nicklas.  “I broke into Jing’s medical cabinets and found where she stores DNA samples.  Little bits of hair and fingernail clippings.  I fed them into the 3D printer when I was filling it with materials for the picture frame.”

Lili nodded.  “It’s not weird.  I like the idea that a part of them will get there.  But why not put this on the Nautilus?”

“I thought about it,” he said.  “Too much mass.  Every gram matters.  But besides that, it seems better to take it in person.  I’m glad we chose you to be first on the surface.”

Lili tucked the picture into her jumpsuit and then hugged Nicklas tightly.

#

The primary video monitor in Beta capsule showed the forward-looking view from the Nautilus after it had separated from the heat shield and deployed the parachute.  They could not see much except for a thick orange haze, the hydrocarbon smog that enveloped the moon.

Nicklas had temporarily taken the copilot’s chair from Axel.  “Altitude 23 kilometers.  Wind speed 100 KPH.”

“That’s a lot of wind,” said Max.  “Will it be able to fly in that after the parachute releases?”

“Wind speeds near the ground should be much lower.  Less than five KPH.”

“What if they’re higher?”

“We can handle up to 20 or 30.  But if they’re higher, then we’d probably lose the drone, but we’ll have learned something.  We’ve already collected more data from the atmosphere than Huygens.”

“Don’t act like you wouldn’t be disappointed if you couldn’t swim that thing around for a while.”

Nicklas didn’t respond.  Instead he focused on the video image, which was just starting to reveal some detail.  Snowy hilltops poked out through thick cloud layers, becoming more distinct as the drone continued to fall under the parachute.  An audio feed relayed faint sounds of wind buffeting the craft.

Finally, they reached an altitude of one kilometer.

“Wind speed 15 KPH, activating rotors and detaching the parachute.”  Nicklas pushed a button and the video feed gyrated for a moment as the Nautilus dropped free and then righted itself under its own power.  The high pitched whine of the rotors could be heard, drowning out the sounds of the wind.

They dropped into a cloud and the view was totally obscured.  Nicklas superimposed radar imagery onto the view and watched as they began their pre-programmed slow spiral descent over the radar site.  A smaller screen to the right showed a vector pointing from the drone towards the signal, which was centered under the spiral.

Suddenly, at 500 meters, the cloud cover broke completely, and they were rewarded with a stunning view of flat, rocky plains between a smooth, glassy lake and rugged hilltops.  Nicklas commanded the drone to pause its flight path and hover, panning in a circle to take in the vista.  In the distance, clouds appeared to meet the ground, with visible rainfall and a faint flash of lightning.  Yellow-orange light reflected evenly from the surface of the lake.  The drone pointed towards the hill, towards the radar signal, and no features could be distinguished there. Tao had named the geologic formation Heinrich Hertz Hills, after the man who was credited with inventing radar.

“Resuming pre-programmed flight,” said Nicklas.

Tao was watching from Beta capsule with the rest of the crew.  He spoke over the intercom.  “I don’t see any aliens down there.  Alien sightings negative.”

“Let’s keep the non-essential chatter to a minimum,” said Max.

“Aye-aye, captain,” said Tao.  “I’ll keep a lookout for alien tentacles in the water.”

Max rolled his eyes.  “If we find a giant squid in that lake, we’re feeding you to it, Tao.”

The drone continued its descent, reaching the point where it had to alter course to avoid the highest peaks of the hills.  The closer they came to the radar site, the thicker the cloud cover became.

“It’s a good thing we designed this to go under water—er—under methane,” said Nicklas.  “These clouds are very dense.  I don’t think we’re going to get any good visuals.”

“At least we have a very precise location now.  Swing back over that flat area.”

Nicklas punched a few keys and the drone spun around, hugging the hilltops as it plunged down over the flat area near the lake.  There was a wide surface, at least a half kilometer long, with rocks that looked to be no bigger than a few centimeters wide, between the abrupt rise of the hills and the lake.

“That looks like a perfect landing site,” said Max.  “A short walk to the lake to retrieve the Nautilus, and a short walk to those hills.”

“It might be hard to climb the hills to investigate that radar signal,” said Nicklas.  “You sure we wouldn’t want to just land as close as we can to it?”

“Too much risk of a bad landing.  We could end up in a crevice and never get back off the surface.  If we can’t get visuals of the area, it’s no good to us for landing.”

“If we flew the drone back in there for another look, we could end up exhausting the batteries before we’ve had a chance to put down in the lake.”

Max spoke over the intercom.  “We have a quick decision to make here.  Axel, you saw those hills.  Will they be passable in the Titan suits?”

“With the low gravity, it will be easier than it looks.  I don’t like the idea of setting the capsule down in those hills.  Even if we do have better visuals.”

Tao spoke over him.  “Wait a minute.  We haven’t seen the radar installation yet.  What if it’s covered in, like, rockets and missiles and laser cannons?  We’re supposed to get a good look at it before we decide to actually do the surface landing.”

“If they wanted to blow us out of the sky they would have done it already,” said Lili.

“We’re eating into our battery power,” said Nicklas.  “We can’t hover forever.  Either we go back to the hills or land in the lake.  We need to decide immediately.”

“We need more information on the radar site,” said Max.

Olivia’s voice came over the intercom.  “The whole reason Nicklas built the submarine was to investigate under the surface of the lake, to look for life.  I spent months helping him with the sensors.  It would all be a total waste if we fly back into those clouds.”

“We already have more information than we would have without it,” said Lili.  “The Nautilus wasn’t part of the original mission plan.”

Their voices began to collide, everyone trying to add their opinion to the mix.  Finally Max broke in with a firm command.  “Reconnaissance is more important than the science right now.  We’re going back into the clouds to find the radar site.  Do it, Nicklas.”

“Too late,” said Nicklas plainly.  “We were exhausting our batteries arguing about it, so I already committed the Nautilus to land on the lake and submerge.”

“I’m in command here,” said Max.  “You can’t just make decisions like that yourself.”

Nicklas shrugged.  “Sorry.  Decide faster next time.”

“It’s not too late.  You can command the drone to turn back.”

“Nope.  Look.”  Nicklas pointed at the screen, where the Nautilus had touched down on the surface of the lake, bobbing slightly up and down.  It submerged and the screen went black.  Under the surface, they would have no radio contact, so they had to wait until it finished its autonomous route and returned to transmit its findings.

Max crossed his arms and sat fuming.  After a long, awkward silence, he leaned over and whispered, so his voice would not be picked up by the intercom.  “If something bad happens to Axel and my sister down there because of this, it’s on you.”

The orbit of the Christiaan station around Titan eventually took them over the horizon, so they had no way to monitor the landing site.  They watched as Saturn, and the sun, dipped down behind the surface of the moon in dramatic fashion, lighting up the thick slice of orange atmosphere before they disappeared.  On the far side of Titan, they were as far away from the inner solar system, from Earth and the Sun, as they would ever be.

It only took a few minutes to swing around and they were greeted with a sunrise, and Saturn-rise.  The sun was a small, unimpressive point of light compared to the enormity of Saturn.

“The Nautilus should have completed its tour and beached itself by now,” said Nicklas.

They watched the screen as the familiar pulse of the radar signal returned, and then the uplink status lights went green.

“We’ve got it,” said Nicklas.  “Data retrieval is in progress.  It worked!”

The screen blinked with static and then a fuzzy picture of a rocky surface slowly materialized.

“That’s a perfect orientation for the forward cameras,” said Nicklas.  “We’ll  be able to watch the capsule landing from there.”

“How much more power does the Nautilus have?” asked Max.  “I thought we were almost out of batteries earlier.”

“Well, we were reaching the point where it wouldn’t have been able to complete the exploration and then beach itself,” said Nicklas.  “It can sit there for a few more hours, enough the transmit data and take a picture every few minutes.  But if the methane extraction experiment works, the onboard fuel cell can replenish the batteries while the oxygen tanks hold out.”

“Enough to have another look at the radar site?”

“Not that much,” said Nicklas.  “But enough to monitor the landing.”

Max was still upset about Nicklas going against his orders, and they sat in silence while the file uploads completed.  Finally the upload bar flashed green, and they had access to the contents of the solid state hard drive on the drone.

“I’ll start analyzing the science files,” said Olivia over the intercom.  “In the meantime, let’s replay the video feeds.”

Nicklas punched a few commands into his console and the screens in the core started playing video from several different angles.  He also relayed the feeds to Beta capsule for the rest of the crew to watch.

There wasn’t much to see at first.  Bright headlamps on the Nautilus only served to reflect off of the murky orange liquid.  Sonar pings revealed a craggy bottom several meters below but nothing distinct.  The programming left most decisions up to an artificial intelligence system that followed the general instructions to circle outward and downwards in larger and larger circles, moving cautiously to avoid any obstacles.

Sonar detected something in the drone’s path and it halted momentarily, then gently pushed forward and to the side to move around it, while keeping the main camera focused in the direction of the object.  It came into focus slowly, a roughly shaped pillar that extended out of the view to the bottom and top of the screen.

Nicklas and Max leaned forward and squinted at the screen.  When the drone had moved 180 degrees around it, it turned back to its original path and continued on into the murk.

“Whoa, back that up,” said Max.

Nicklas rewound and played the encounter back slowly, stopping at the point of closest contact, where the image was sharpest.

“Looks like a tree trunk,” said Max.

“Or a stalagmite,” said Nicklas.  “Probably a natural formation.  A mineral deposit.”

“It doesn’t look natural to me,” said Olivia.  “That looks like coral.”

In Beta capsule, they were gathered closely around the main screen, feet hooked into straps in the floor, gripping each other’s sleeves to keep themselves steady.

Lili was next to Olivia.  She looked at at her with eyes wide.  “Are you sure?  Coral?  It’s alive?”

“Alive now?  That I can’t say.  Not without samples.  But it looks like Pillar coral to me.  Dendrogyra cylindrus. Of course it wouldn’t be the same species here.  Not in a methane lake.  But the shape is remarkably similar.”

“Coral is an animal, isn’t it?” asked Lili.

“On Earth it is.”

“So this would be proof that there’s life beyond plants on Titan.”

“No, I didn’t say that.  I said it looked like coral.  It could be a large plant.  Or something like it—on Titan we would need a while new classification system.  There’s no way to tell how it would metabolize, or what it would eat.”

“Are you sure it’s not just a rock formation?” Nicklas asked.  “We don’t want to freak everybody out with reports of life on Titan if we aren’t sure.”

“Nicklas,” said Lili in a voice that sounded scolding.  “We’re being actively pinged by a radar installation a few hundred meters from this lake.  I don’t think coral changes things much.”

“But that could still be the Chinese,” said Nicklas.  “Finding native life here is still significant.  Especially if it’s based on methane.”

Olivia was quickly typing into a laptop mounted under the screen.  “The methanogen experiment reads positive.  Hydrogen and acetylene are being consumed and replaced with methane.  And there is plentiful acrylonitrile in the lake.  It all matches up with the theories.”

“Is this the part where we break out the champagne?” asked Tao.

“We don’t have any champagne,” said Olivia.  “But if you’re asking if it’s time to celebrate the discovery, then I would say no.  We need more evidence.”

Nicklas continued the video playback as the Nautilus proceeded on its route, and they didn’t have to wait long to get the evidence they were looking for.  The drone swam into a forest of pillars.  And this time they weren’t the pale and lifeless color of the first one they had come across.  They radiated a variety of colors, and a few of them had sprouted intricate branches that swung in the mild current and actually seemed to be fluorescing under the intense beam of the LED lamps.  They were alive.

Lili looked over at Olivia and she saw tears coming down her face.  Olivia reached out and took Axel’s hand.  “I wish mother could have been here to see this.  All of her dreams.  All of her life’s work.”

Axel was rubbing tears from his cheeks, and Lili looked away, embarrassed to be intruding on what should have been a private moment between them.

#

Beta capsule detached from the Christiaan station for the first time since before they had left Earth orbit.  Tao, Lili, and Axel were strapped into their seats, wearing their bulky EVA suits.  After the locking clamps retracted, they received a gentle mechanical push that propelled them away from the station at 12 centimeters per second.

As the distance between them increased, Lili looked out the window to her left at the station that had been her home during the long journey to the outer solar system.  It looked strange missing one of its four symmetrical capsules.

“Go for separation maneuver,” said Max over the comm link.  They were now far enough away to safely fire their maneuvering thrusters without danger of contaminating the station with the exhaust.

Axel pressed a button on his console and the capsule’s motors fired briefly, pushing them down into a faster orbit underneath the station.  They watched the station begin to fall behind as they gradually approached Titan.  After a full revolution around the moon, the elliptical orbits intersected, but by now the station was far behind of them, growing smaller and smaller.

Lili had studied the lunar landings during training back on Earth.  There had been dozens of people in mission control in constant, real-time communications with the orbiting command module and the lunar module.  But now, on Titan’s doorstep, the control center was experiencing the capsule’s descent with a time delay that basically made them spectators.  The automatic systems had been programmed, the crew had been trained, and now all they could do in Houston was watch and wait as the young crew attempted to complete their mission.

“Checklist items complete,” said Max.  “Go for entry.”

“Roger that,” said Axel.  “Go for entry, commencing de-orbit burn.”

The engines engaged and they were pressed into their seats, watching as the their angle pitched downwards toward the surface.  The haze of the atmosphere began to creep up around them and small jolts of turbulence began to shake the capsule.  As they dropped further, they could hear the noise of the wind begin to creep up as they left the total vacuum of space.

Suddenly an alarm light started blinking, accompanied by an annoying buzzing sound.

“It’s the heat shield,” said Lili.  “Heat shield integrity warning.”

“We can’t get through the atmosphere without the heat shield,” said Axel.  “We may need to abort.”

Static crackled over the radio.

“Say again, Christiaan.  We have a heat shield warning.  60 seconds to our final abort point.  Please advise.”

More static.  They could hear Max trying to tell them something, but it was garbled.

“He says telemetry is Ok, the warning is probably just instrumentation,” said Tao calmly.

“You can understand him?” asked Lili.

“The transmission is a little fuzzy, but yeah, I can understand him.”

“Are you sure?” asked Axel.  “We’ll burn up if the heat shield is compromised.”

“I’m sure I understood what Max said.  I can’t be sure if he’s right or not.”

“Switching to auxiliary sensors,” said Lili.  She reached out and pushed a few buttons on her console with unsteady hands.  The craft’s shaking was growing more violent as they plunged deeper into the atmosphere.

The heat shield icon flipped from amber to green.

“I’ll switch to the auxiliary antenna too,” she said.

Max’s voice over the radio went clear.  “Please confirm heat shield status.”

“Heat shield is green,” said Axel.  “Primary sensors were faulty.  And the primary antenna.  Hopefully that’s the last thing that fails.  Crossing abort threshold now.”

The air started to glow around the edges of the windows, which were now covered by the radiation shields.  Their bodies felt G-forces stronger than anything they had felt since leaving Earth.  At this point in the descent, the computer was in total control, and all they could do was sit and wait for their speed to decrease to the point where the drag parachute would be deployed.  Lili reached to the sides and held out her thickly gloved hands to Axel and Tao.  They both held on firmly.

The parachute deployed with a startling jolt, and the glow around the windows dimmed.  Wind noise penetrated through the hull as the capsule was rocked wildly back and forth.  Once their flight path had stabilized, they all breathed deeply, relieved to be though the most dangerous part of the descent. The onboard radar made acquisition with the surface, and the capsule’s four rocket motors came to life as the parachute was released just a few hundred meters above the landing zone.

Everything grew quiet.  The porthole covers retracted, allowing in a gauzy orange light.  Axel keyed his microphone.  “Christiaan, this is landing team Beta.  We are on the surface.”