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.”
“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.”