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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.”

Child of Titan – Chapter 6

The planet Jupiter revolves around the sun at a distance of roughly 780 million kilometers, which is over five times the distance from the sun to the Earth.  Saturn is nearly twice that far away again, at almost a billion and a half kilometers from the sun.  After years of following a looping trajectory from planet to planet, the crew of the Christiaan station was a tiny, indiscernible speck in the vast ocean of emptiness between the two gas giants.  It was too small to even be mistaken for a stray moon of Jupiter, too small by far to be seen by an Earth-based telescope.  The gravity boost from Jupiter had given the craft a dramatic increase in velocity, and it was hurtling inexorably towards its final destination.

Lili made her way from the Beta tube into the central core area, checking off items from her routine systems inspection. Backup  battery levels: nominal.  Primary network link to Beta capsule: nominal.  Secondary network link to Beta capsule: nominal.  Core radiation levels: nominal.  Core temperature: nominal.

For the most part, the Christiaan was a very reliable station.  It was extremely rare for a system to fail of its own accord.  Without some external event causing damage.  Lili moved past the hatch to Alpha tube quickly.  There was no need to check any items off of the list for that quadrant.  The capsule had been damaged beyond repair, and now served as a graveyard for the unfortunate half of the crew who had not made it past Jupiter.

In the Gamma tube, Lili left the hatch closed, checking off items from the outer console.  Gamma capsule now served as sleeping quarters for the crew, the seven astronauts who had started the long journey as children.  They were still technically children now, but when Lili looked at pictures of herself from the beginning of the candidacy, she barely recognized who she saw.

After the accident, they had decided to stop separating themselves by family.  And none of them wanted to spend time alone.  Delta capsule remained in its role as a storage and hygiene space.  Beta capsule was now called the “dayroom”, where they gathered to work and play.  It tended to be noisy and boisterous, which served well to distract them from the tragedy that was still too fresh in their minds.

Lili finished her rounds and returned to the dayroom, where Tao and Jing were in full VR gear, sitting next to each other, both gesticulating wildly and occasionally making odd noises that might have been mistaken for singing.  Ground control had recently completed the upload of a few new games, which everyone on board was eager to try.

Nicklas was bent over the 3D printer, anxiously monitoring the progress of the new valve component that they needed to repair the booster.  Axel sat nearby, studying a detailed EVA plan that had been designed and practiced in the simulator by the Bell family back on Earth.

Max and Olivia were in Gamma, sleeping in preparation for their “night” watch.  Most of them kept to a schedule that matched daytime in Houston, but they kept at least a pair awake and alert at all times in rotating shifts.

“How’s it going?” Lili asked Max, peering into the chamber where a thin molten stream of Titanium was being woven back and forth over the nearly completed valve.

“Almost done,” said Max.  “Just a few more hours, and then we’ll let it cool and set for a day or so.  Then we can stress test it.”

“What if it fails?”

“Then we start over,” said Max, shrugging.  “We have a month before the next resupply capsule reaches us.”

The main reason they needed the booster, of course, was to enter the Saturnian system at the correct velocity, so that they could enter orbit, and then later leave orbit for the return trip to Earth.  But a more immediate concern was docking with the resupply.  In order to get supplies out to them at such a great distance, they were launched from Earth on extremely powerful rockets, but then at the end they had to be slowed down to match the speed of the Christiaan.  Limited fuel remaining on the resupply booster meant that the Christiaan was responsible for fine-tuning the approach angle and speed.

“Has Houston sent the EVA procedures yet?” asked Lili.

“Yes,” said Axel.  “They arrived an hour ago.  That’s what I’m reading now.”

“Have we decided who’s going to perform the EVA?  I assume you, of course,” Lili said, nodded at Axel.  “But who else?”

“Carmen and Jay both recommended you,” said Axel.  “In spite of how upset they are after your little video broadcast.  You’re tall enough to fit into a suit if we make some modifications.  And you always did well on EVA sims.”

Lili’s heart skipped a beat, but she tried to play it cool.  There was something about the way Axel had been treating her lately that was—not exactly affectionate, but at least not antagonistic.  And as much as she wanted to hate him for the way he and his sister had treated her during the candidacy, she had to admit that he was getting to be a very handsome young man.  Lili had noticed that Tao became irritated whenever she spent time with Axel.

Aside from the prospect of working closely with Axel to train for and ultimately perform the EVA, she had never actually done an EVA before.  The idea of floating in space outside the protection of the station’s walls was frightening.  She knew it was silly to think that way—after all, the walls were barely a few centimeters thick, not much better than a space suit.

Lili realized she was distracted and had to ask Axel to repeat himself.

“Check your inbox, you should have a copy of the EVA procedures.  Let’s take a few hours to study them and then we can quiz each other.  Sound good?”

“Oh, yeah—sure,” she said, walking over to her bunk and tapping on her console.

“Are you up to it?” Axel asked as she sat down.

There it was.  That old Svensson condescension.  Lili shot him an annoyed look.  “What do you mean am I up to it?”

Axel looked abashed.  “Sorry, I mean, I was just asking—you don’t have to.  It’s a volunteer thing.  We could make it work with someone else.  My sister.  Or maybe Tao.”

“I can do it,” she said, and turned to her console to begin reading the procedures.

The ground control team in Houston was excessively detailed in their description of the steps she and Axel would have to follow to replace the broken valve in the booster.  Lili wondered if procedures were always spelled out with this much excruciating precision, or if it was just because they still viewed them as children.  Every motion of every limb was spelled out, from the moment they began donning their suits until they were back inside the station after the procedure.  The entire activity would probably take less than an hour, and yet there were nearly 200 pages of text and diagrams that she would have to memorize.  Maybe it was Carmen’s way of getting back at her.  Then again, maybe this is what it was like to be a real astronaut.

Tao and Jing stripped off their VR goggles and Jing put her hands up in the air triumphantly.  Tao was shaking his head and clenching his fists in frustration.

“That is so not fair,” he said.  “There’s no way you out-danced me.”

“Danced?” Lili asked.

“Yes, danced,” said Jing with a smug smile.  “We were playing Dance-Off 7000, and the crowd at the dance club cheered loudest for me.  I am the dance queen of the solar system.  Woooo!”

“Whatever,” said Tao.  “I want a recount.  You can’t touch my smooth moves.”  Tao twisted his upper body in what might have been mistaken for dancing.

“A recount?  There wasn’t a vote.  It was just wild cheering from all my adoring fans.  I beat you by 20 decibels.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Tao.  “Let’s see what the intrepid crew of the Christiaan thinks about your so-called dancing skills.”  Tao pressed a few keys on his console and pulled up a video replay of their gaming session on one of the larger screens.  Pulsating club music filled the capsule.

“Seriously,” said Lili.  “How am I supposed to study with that racket?”

“I’ll turn it off as soon as you admit that I dance better then Jing,” said Tao.

His game avatar was freakishly tall, with jet black hair that stood straight up above his head by almost half a meter.  He was dressed in a shining patent leather body suit.  Lili made a face and Axel laughed out loud.

Nicklas looked up for a moment from his work and said, “It looks like you’re having a seizure.”

Then the camera switch to Jing’s avatar and everyone gasped.  She was voluptuous to the point of absurdity, and very scantily clothed.  She gyrated in a way that caused Axel and Nicklas’s mouths to hang open.

“Jing!” Lili said in a scandalized voice.

“Jing wins,” said Nicklas.

“You know that’s your sister, right?” said Lili.

“That,” said Nicklas pointing at the screen.  “Is most definitely not my sister.”  He then pointedly turned back to his work, blushing slightly.

Lili focussed on the screen, quickly skimming over the high level overview of the EVA.  It was really fairly simple.  After all, her mother hadn’t needed any procedures at all.  She had just done it.  Risked her life to give the crew a chance at returning to Earth.  Not just risked her life—she gave her life.  What was left of it, anyway.  But then, in the end, she had failed.  The damage to the valve had been too severe to be repaired with a simple handheld welding torch.  After analysis, the ground crew had been amazed at what she did manage to accomplish with no planning and no support whatsoever from them.  But they did point out that their attempts at shielding her from the overpowering radiation from Jupiter was futile at best.  She had known it.  And Nicklas had probably known it, too.  Lili had not brought it up with him, and never would.  What was done was done.  It had been nearly a month since the incident, and Lili told herself several times per day that she was over it.  It was in the past.  There was no sense dwelling on what she couldn’t change.  And yet, several times per day, just like now, she found herself lost in the memory.

Lili shook her head and focussed her efforts to drown out distractions.  She put on a set of headphones and did a quick search through the music library, which had basically every piece of music ever created, at least as of the date the computers were initialized in Earth orbit.  She picked the soundtrack from a Star Wars movie and began from the first page of the procedures, taking notes as she read.

#

After several hours of intense concentration, Lili needed a break.  She stretched out and then spent thirty minutes on the elliptical machine.  The readout showed that she had burned off nearly 200 calories, and she had also contributed to a narrow sliver of power gain in the battery pack on the wall in the capsule.  There was a delicate balance between staying in shape and consuming more calories than the ship’s food supply could withstand.

Jing waved her VR goggles at Lili from across the room.  “Want to play?”

“Sure,” said Lili.  “What have we got to choose from in the new batch of games?  Anything but dancing.”

Jing looked disappointed and Lili laughed.  “I don’t get it,” Lili said.  “You’re so serious all the time, and you spend sixteen hours a day with your nose buried in a med-school textbook, and then in your free time you like to dance half naked in a whacky night club.”

“Games are supposed to be an escape from reality,” said Jing.  “And speaking of escapes, one of the new games is called Escape Room.  It’s a puzzle game.”

“I like puzzles,” said Lili.  “Let’s try it.  Is it for two players or do we need more?”

Jing pulled up the game description on her screen.  “It says anywhere from two to six.  But it recommends four.”

“Hey Nicklas,” said Lili.  “Can you peel yourself away from that printer for a while?”

Nicklas shook his head.  “It’s almost done.  I’ve sat here this long, I’m not going to stop now.”

“Axel?” Lili asked.  She got no response.  Axel had his headphones on.  “Yo, Acke!  Mr. Svensson, yoo-hoo!” He finally looked up from his screen, which showed one of the diagrams from the EVA procedure.

“I can hear your music from all the way over here,” said Jing.  “You’re going to blow out your eardrums.”

Axel rolled his eyes.  “My ears are fine.  What do you want?”

“Hey there mister,” said Jing.  “Speaking as your physician, I’ll tell you if your ears are fine or not.”

“Since when are you my physician?” asked Axel.

“Since I decided to be your physician.  Someone has to do it.  And nobody can study like I can.  Do you know how hard it is to become a medical doctor?”

Axel considered her for a moment.  Then he nodded.  “Ok.”

“Ok what?  Ok that I’m the doctor, or Ok that you’ll come play with us.”

“Both,” he said.  He turned off his display and crossed the capsule to retrieve his VR gear, which was neatly stowed in a drawer.

“That makes three,” said Lili.  “Where’s Tao?”

“Must be in Delta.  He said he had to go to the bathroom,” said Jing.  “That was a long time ago, though.”

Jing spent a few minutes initializing the game and then Tao climbed down the ladder.  Axel smirked at him and said “Feeling better, Tao?”

“What?” said Tao.  “Um, yeah, sure.”

“You were gone for, like, ten minutes,” said Jing.  “Is your tummy Ok?”

Tao blushed.  “My tummy is fine.  What’s the big deal?”

“Well, as the ship’s doctor—I’m the ship’s doctor now, by the way—it’s my job to monitor everyones’s health.  Including bowel movements.  Are you having consistent bowel movements, Tao?”

“Seriously?” he asked.  Lili tried unsuccessfully to hide a laugh.

“I think we’re talking about a different kind of movement,” said Axel, making a motion with his hand.  Tao smacked him across the chest, his eyes wide, blushing even a deeper shade of red.

Jing looked confused for a moment and then looked at her brother with understanding.  “Oh,” she said, then made a face. “Ewww.”

Lili burst out laughing, but quickly got herself under control, for Tao’s sake.  “Ok, let’s just play the game, you guys.  Leave Tao alone.”

They donned their VR gear and found themselves in a staging room that was filled with clothing and paraphernalia that looked like like it came from an old American western movie.  Cowboy hats, boots, shiny belt buckles, and chewing tobacco.  Tao immediately took a handful of the tobacco and put it into his mouth, then gave commands to alter his appearance.  He grew out a long, thin mustache, and put on a small black bowler hat.

Lili glanced at him skeptically.  “That look is just not working for me,” she said.

“There were lots of Chinese people in the wild west,” said Tao.  “And they always wore bowler hats.”

“I don’t think they chewed much tobacco,” she said, ducking behind a screen to put on a pair of jeans and a checkered shirt.

“Tobacco is a carcinogen,” said Jing.  She had put on an elegant, full length purple dress, wth a matching parasol.

“It’s not real tobacco,” said Tao.  “Watch this!”  He puckered up his mouth and spit across the room at a spittoon in the corner.  He missed it by half a meter and dribbled tobacco juice down his virtual shirt.

“Nicely done, cowboy,” said Lili.

Axel stepped out of a dressing room completely looking the part, with spurs jangling from his boots and a large white hat on his head.  “I’m ready,” he said.

The stepped out of the staging area onto a hot, dusty street.  A carriage being pulled by four horses crossed in front of them, and the sounds of music drifted from a nearby saloon.  In the distance, steam billowed from a train arriving at the station.  A hawk circled high in a bright, clear, blue sky.

“What did you say this game was called?” asked Axel.

At that moment, a portly middle-aged man with a graying walrus mustache came huffing towards them, holding his hat down on his head.  He had a sheriff’s badge on his chest.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” he exclaimed.  “I’m Eli Whittaker, Sheriff in these here parts.”

“What can we do ya for, sheriff?” asked Axel, tipping his hat upwards.  Lili gaped at him—he had managed a very convincing accent.

“The bank’s been robbed,” said the sheriff.

Tao held up his hand to his mouth dramatically and sucked in a loud breath.  “Say it isn’t so!  Who could have perpetuated such a dastardly deed?”

Jing raised her eyebrows at him, but the sheriff responded with enthusiasm.  “None other than the infamous Daniel Deakins, otherwise known as the Dark Derringer of Dawseville.”

“Dang!” said Axel.

“Dastardly deeds indeed!” said Tao.

Lili stepped in front of the boys.  “I assume you need us to apprehend this criminal for you, sheriff?”

“There’s a healthy reward in it for you if you do,” he said.

“You’re the sheriff,” said Jing.  “Why don’t you go after him?”

The sheriff removed his hat and wiped his brow nervously with a handkerchief.  He looked down at his feet and said, “Well, to be honest, he’s outsmarted me every time I’ve come up against him.  He’s the cleverest, wiliest, no-good critter in the whole state.”

“Where was he seen last, sheriff?” asked Axel.

“He ran off from the bank with all the loot and headed for the old warehouse at the edge of town.

“We’ll take it from here, sheriff,” said Axel, and he waved for everyone to follow them.

A small crowd gathered to watch the group as they made their way to warehouse.  As they approached the building, a few stray dollar bills littered the road, and overly obvious boot prints marked the path.

The prints continued inside and led to a closed door, which they cautiously opened.  Axel had one of his pistols at the ready.  They stepped into a dimly lit room with no windows.  It had a variety of furniture, including a round table with a few stray playing cards on it, a fully stocked bar, and a piano that was playing itself in the corner.

The door slammed shut behind them and they heard a loud click as the lock engaged.  Tao tried the door and then shook his head.

“Oh, now I see why it’s called Escape Room,” said Lili.  “Great.  So to escape the reality of being closed in a tiny, claustrophobic space ship, we spend our free time locked up in this tiny room with no windows.”

“Oh, come on!” said Jing.  “This is great!  We have to solve some sort of puzzle to get out.  I love games like this.”

“Couldn’t we have been stranded on a tropical island instead?”

“Why would we want to escape that?” asked Tao.

“Good point,” said Lili.

“So, what’s the puzzle?” said Axel.  “I assume we have to find the key to this door.”

“That’s part of the puzzle, figuring out what the puzzle is.  Or where it is.”

Axel absently flipped over a few of the playing cards on the table.

“Don’t do that!” said Jing.  “The cards could be a clue.  Put them back the way they were.”

Suddenly a small device sitting on a wooden desk behind the bar began to tap insistently.  They went to examine it and saw a strip of paper hanging down from an assembly with a rocker arm.

“This is a telegraph,” said Tao.

“What gave it away?” asked Lili.  “This book next to it that says ‘Morse Code Manual’ on the front?”

Jing pulled the strip of paper away from the machine as it continued to issue dits and dahs, until it quit a few minutes later.

“It’s going to take us a while to decipher this,” said Lili.

“I can read it,” said Axel.

“You know morse code?” asked Lili.

“Sure.  It was on the list of recommended study materials when we were in training.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jing.  “I can read it too.  You can’t?”

Lili shrugged and looked at Tao.  He shook his head.

Axel took the end of the spool and began to read.

Well, it looks like I have got the better of you again, Sheriff.  I am not a heartless man, so I left you clues to escape the room.  Maybe you will get out before breakfast tomorrow.  By that time I will be long gone.  I am boarding the 3 PM train for Mexico, with all the gold.  Sincerely, D.D.

“What time is it now?” asked Lili.

“There’s an old grandfather clock by the door,” said Tao.  “Let’s see, it’s five minutes after two.”

“So we have less than an hour to escape and arrest him before the train departs,” said Jing.

“Seems like plenty of time to me,” said Axel.  “I am betting the difficulty level of this game is set too low by default.”

“What game are you talking about?” asked Jing indignantly, twirling her parasol.  “I am a wild west debutante detective, and I aim to capture a bank robber.”

“Yeah, stay in character,” said Lili, poking him in the ribs.

Axel tossed aside the strip of paper with the telegraph message, but Jing snatched it before it could fall to the floor.  She twisted it around and squinted at it.

“There’s something written on the back,” she said.

“Morse code?” asked Tao.

“No, it’s hand-written, in cursive.”

“What’s it say?” asked Lili.

Light spreads from the candle and the mirror that reflects it.”

“Sounds like an obvious clue,” said Axel.  He looked around quickly.  “There’s a mirror”, he said, pointing behind the bar.

“What about a candle?” asked Jing.

“There’s a candle on that desk in the corner,” said Lili.  “Maybe we should light it and hold it up in front of the mirror.”

“Anybody have a match?” asked Tao, searching through his pockets.

Lili walked over to the desk and tried to open a drawer, but it was locked.  “We’ll need a key to open this,” she said.  “And I bet the matches are inside.”

“Why don’t we just light the candle from one of the gas lamps on the wall?” asked Axel.

“Those are miner’s lamps,” said Jing.  “They have a screen on the outside so you can’t get to the flame.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“It’s so you don’t explode if there’s a gas leak.”

“Why don’t we just cut the screen?”  Axel pulled out a large, gleaming knife from a sheath on his right leg.

Jing considered for a moment.  “That feels like cheating.  I don’t think we should have to destroy anything to win the game.”

“Ok,” said Axel.  “But if we waste more than five minutes looking for that key, I’m cutting it.”

“You mean this key?” asked Tao, pointing at a large black key stuck to the surface of a small display table.  The table held a statue of a gunslinger, who was pointing his pistol in the direction of the telegraph machine.  Around the base of the statue were a series of concentric rings carved into the table.  There were rows of flat blocks fixed inside the rings, and the key was attached to one of these blocks.

“Ooh, a tile puzzle,” said Lili.  “I love these.”  She began to rotate the blocks inside the rings.  There was a single empty space where the blocks could be moved inwards or outwards on the circle.  The bottom side of the blocks was cleverly shaped to allow them to move smoothly but not come loose.

“Jing, you help Lili with the puzzle,” said Axel, turning to investigate the rest of the room.

Jing gave Axel an annoyed look.  “What am I supposed to do, cheer her on?  I should look for more clues.”

“Teamwork, Jing.  Two heads are better than one.”

“I’ll help Lili,” said Tao, removing his hat and bowing to her dramatically.

“Just don’t distract me,” said Lili.  “I think there’s a picture or a pattern here that I have to complete, and then, hopefully, the key will come loose.”

Tao looked down at the rings for a moment and laughed.  “Ha ha!  That’s funny.”

“What’s funny?

“Don’t you see it?”

“See what?  It’s just a jumble of shapes.”

“It’s a bunch of animals chasing each other in a circle,” he said.  “Rotate that piece over here and then move that one up.”

Lili did as he asked and then looked where he pointed.

“Oh, I think I see it,” she said.  “It all blends into the background.  Looks like a wolf’s snout and maybe a sheep’s tail.”

“Yeah, the wolf is chasing a sheep, and the sheep is chasing a butterfly.”  He pointed to a few blocks spread out around the table.  “Put these two together and it makes a bear.  And here’s a goat.”

Lili made short work of lining up the blocks, as Tao pointed out pieces that should go together.

Jing was examining a large painting hung on one wall, while Axel sat at the table holding the playing cards in his hand.  The painting was a blended time lapse of seasons, and of morning, afternoon, and evening.  It started on the left with the sun rising over a snow-covered church, then a colorful spring garden in the early morning sunshine, then a brightly lit stream to the right of center with the summer sun setting in the background, and finally a full moon rising over a graveyard on the right.

She ran her hand along the top of the painting, then tried to pull it away from the wall, but it was firmly affixed.  She frowned at the painting and then moved on to another part of the room.

“Anything interesting about the cards?” she asked Axel as she opened a cabinet that was stuffed with a variety of fresh vegetables.

“There are only four of them.  That’s odd.  Poker usually has five, doesn’t it?”

“What cards are they?” she asked as she pulled out the vegetables and started lining them up on a nearby counter.

“Two Eights and two Aces.  All black.”

“Dead Man’s Hand,” said Tao absently as he bent over the tile puzzle.  Lili was frantically spinning the dials back and forth.

Axel looked over at him.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot.”

Axel placed the cards on the table in front of him.  “Follow-up questions,” he said, counting on his fingers.  “One, who is Wild Bill Hickok? Two, why aren’t there five cards?  And three, how do you know something obscure like that?”

Tao turned and held up his hand, pinching two fingers together.  “One and two: I have no idea.”  Then he held up a third finger.  “Three, my dad liked to play poker.  He said it helped him learn how to read people.”

“That information is not much help,” said Axel, scratching his chin.  “Maybe the numbers open a lock.”

“Got it!” said Lili suddenly, holding up the key.

“See!” said Tao.  “Look at the animals chasing each other, just like I said.  The kitten is cute.”

“Focus, Tao!” said Lili.  “We’ve burned ten minutes already.”  She moved to the desk and opened the drawer, smiling with satisfaction as she pulled out a box of matches and rattled it.  She lit the candle and took it over to the bar, where it illuminated the array of brightly colored bottles lined up against the mirror.

Jing joined her and started to read the bottles.  “These brand names are ridiculous, listen to this: Tangleleg, Snakebite, Mountain Howitzer, Coffin Varnish, Ball Lightning, Sally’s Strychnine, and Billy’s Bedtime.  All whiskey, by the way.  I wonder if the names are a clue?  Hmm—if we look at the first letter of each bottle, that’s T-S-M-C-B-S-B.  Well, there aren’t even any vowels in that.”  She continued in her typically rapid fire speech, talking to her herself more than anyone else.

“Lili, bring the candle over here,” said Axel.

“Maybe if you ask nicely,” she said.

“Please,” he said in an impatient voice.

“No,” she said.  “We’re checking out this mirror, like we’re supposed to.”

Axel sighed.  “So am I.  Can you please just do as I ask?”

Lili narrowed her eyes at him but complied, shielding the flame as she walked to his chair.

“Move behind me. Please,” he said, not moving from his seat.  He was staring intently towards the bar.

Lili moved behind him, trying to see what he was focused on.

“Lift the candle up,” he said.  “As high as you can.”

Lili held the candle over her head, close to the ceiling.  “What is the point of this?”

Axel smiled and turned back to her.  “You’ll see,” he said, standing up and taking the candle from her.  “Sit where I was sitting.”

Lili sat down and watched in the mirror as Axel held the candle up, illuminating a recessed cubby over the front door.  In the mirror’s reflection, she could see a small poster tacked up to the wall.  It would have been nearly impossible to notice it otherwise.  She stood up on the chair and turned around, looking directly at the poster.  It read:

Wanted

Daniel Deakins

Dead or Alive

Reward of

531770d

EI

Whittaker

Sherriff

“Well, that’s an odd amount for a reward,” she said.

“And it’s in bold letters,” said Axel.  “That must be part of the clue.”

“What’s ‘EI’?” asked Jing.

“His initials,” said Tao.  “He told us his name was Eli.”

“I wonder what the ‘I’ stands for,” said Lili.

“I doubt that matters,” said Axel.  “We just have to figure out where we can use 531,770.  Maybe it’s the combination to that big safe in the corner.  It could be divided up, like 53-17-70.”

“The numbers on the safe don’t go that high,” said Jing.

Tao was looking at them with a bemused face and shaking his head.

“What is it?” asked Lili.

“You guys are kidding, right?”

“Kidding about what?”

“Those aren’t numbers.  They’re letters.  It’s so obvious.”

Lili looked at the poster again.  “I’m not seeing it.”

“Sit back down,” said Tao.  “Look at it through the mirror.”

Lili sat and looked at the faint reflection of the poster in the flickering candlelight and it suddenly dawned on her.  “Bottles!  The numbers spell bottles backwards.  And the initials underneath look like the number 13.”

“13 bottles,” said Jing absently as Lili made her way back over to the bar.

They crowded around the bar and Tao started counting.  “There are more than 30 bottles here.  Maybe we have to take away 13 of them?  Could there be a spring underneath that lets go at a certain weight?”

“Which 13, though?” asked Lili.  “And where do we put them?  Would that matter?”

Tao picked up a bottle to examine it more closely and they heard a slight click from underneath it.  There was a large black button that was now protruding up from the wooden surface.  Tao put the bottle back and the button pressed back down with another click.

“Very interesting,” he said, twisting his mustache dramatically.

Lili took a step back and her eyes grew wide.  “The whole bar is one giant combination lock,” she said.

“Why didn’t I see that,” said Jing, walking around to the side of the bar.  “Look here, there’s a handle and hinges.  It’s a hidden door.  If we arrange the bottles correctly, we can open the door.”

“How do we know which 13 bottles to leave?” asked Tao.

“13 letters,” said Jing.  “We leave the ones with 13 letters in the name.  Coffin Varnish, Ball Lightning, Billy’s Bedtime.  She gathered up bottles in her arms and moved them to the counter behind her.”

“Here’s another.”  Lili held up a bottle labeled ‘Rotten Rancher’ and then put it back down on its tumbler.

Soon they had trimmed out all the bottles with names that didn’t add up to 13.

“And what do you know, there are exactly 13 left,” said Tao.

“Now we twist the handle, and—“ Jing shrieked and jumped back away from the bar.

Lili rounded the corner and looked down at the now open door.  She also jumped back in surprise.  Tao looked inside and laughed, pulling out a human skull.  He waved it at them and wiggled its jaw, which was attached to the head with wire.

They emptied the rest of the compartment, which was full of old vials, some of which had putrid looking liquid inside.

“Some sort of medicine cabinet?” Jing mused.

“For a witch.  Or an assassin, maybe,” said Axel.

Suddenly Jing spun around and pointed at the painting.  “There’s a skull just like this one in the graveyard.”

“Of course it’s just like this one,” said Tao.  “All skulls look pretty much the same.”

“But this one is missing the same teeth as the one in the painting,” she said.

“How many is it missing?” asked Lili.

“Four,” said Jing.  “That leaves 26.  Which is double 13. That has to be significant.”

“One of the numbers to the safe, I bet,” said Axel.

Jing studied the painting, and then stooped down in front of the safe.  “It’s the fourth number.  These patterns on the door of the safe match the decorations along the top of the picture frame, over each quadrant.”

“That means we are one fourth the way to solving the room,” said Axel.

Lili glanced at the grandfather clock.  “And we’ve burned a quarter of our time.  How are you feeling about the difficulty level now, buckaroo?”

“Feeling fine,” he said confidently.  “Let’s keep working as a team, and stop wasting time when I ask you do something.  You have to trust me, Lili.”

“Enough, you two,” said Jing.  “Let’s get these vegetables figured out.  They probably have something to do with the second number, since that part of the painting is a garden.  We’ve got a bunch of carrots—or is it a bundle of carrots?  Anyway, there are four of them.  And three turnips.  Two cucumbers.  And half a dozen yellow onions.  I wish these were real.  I miss onions.  I hope they have some on the next resupply.  Ok, concentrate!”

Tao had wandered to a corner of the room where there was a large pine box.  It did not seem to have a door, as there were no hinges, locks, or knobs protruding from it.  Above it on the wall hung a simple cross.  Tao went to the painting and considered the winter scene with the church, and then came back to the box.  On top of it sat a compass.  He picked it up and noticed the compass needle spin wildly for a moment.  He put it back, and then moved around the room with it, watching the direction it pointed.

Axel was on the opposite end of the room, inspecting a large bucket of water that splashed over onto the floor when he dipped a ladle into it.

“Is this teamwork?” asked Lili.  “We’ll do better if we concentrate on one task at a time.  Just like the mirror.”

“We could finish faster if we all solve something at the same time, separately,” said Tao.

“Lili is right,” said Axel.  “Come over here and help with the vegetables.”  Axel dropped the ladle into the bucket and joined the girls.

“But I’m onto something,” said Tao.  “I think there’s a magnet in this box.”

“We’ll get back to it.  Come count carrots with everyone else,” said Axel.

Lili couldn’t tell if he was being serious or facetious.  She tried not to care.

Tao reluctantly joined them, shaking his head.

“You’ve been full of insights today, Tao.  See anything about these veggies that jumps out at you?” Lili asked.

“Well, they’re making me hungry, that’s for sure.  Can’t wait to enjoy a bowl of freeze dried protein mush later for dinner.”

Axel leaned against the counter, spinning an onion like a top.  “There are 15 total vegetables.  Could it be that simple?  The second number is fifteen?”

“After everything we went through to get that skull, it’s doubtful,” said Lili, grabbing the onion and putting it back with the others.

Tao stared at the arrangement of vegetables for a moment and then went to the painting.  “You can’t even really tell which vegetables are growing here.”

“It’s springtime,” said Jing.  “You can’t expect to see much more than stems.”

There was silence in the room as they all concentrated on trying to make some sort of connection between the vegetables and a possible next clue.  They could hear the ominous ticking of the clock.

“We’re not making any progress here,” said Axel.  “Let’s investigate the rest of the room.”

Tao went directly to the large box with the compass.  Axel followed him.  Lili and Jing went to wall with the bucket.  Next to it, on a thin shelf, was a set of scales.  One side of the scales had four pounds of weights on it, and the other side has two empty cups.  The cups had flowers painted on the sides.

“Five flowers on this one,” said Jing.

“And three on this one,” said Lili.  “It’s smaller than yours.  Seems proportional.”

“I wonder what happens if we fill them with water.”

Lili dipped the ladle into the bucket and filled her cup.  She placed it on the scale, which budged a little but did not equal out to the four pound weights.

“Try yours,” said Lili.

Jing filled her cup and replaced Lili’s on the scale.  It dipped down, heavier than the weights on the other side.

“I see what we have to do here,” said Lili.

Axel called out from the other side of the room.  “Come over here and help us.  There’s a magnet in this box.  We need to find something else magnetic in the room.”

“Definitely not your personality,” said Lili.

“Harsh,” said Jing to Lili.  Then she turned to Axel.  “But we are in the middle of something here.”

“We aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t work together.  Isn’t that what you just said a minute ago?”

“We’re doing just fine on our own,” said Lili.  “We’ll help you with your puzzle after we solve ours.  I just need another minute.”

Lili took Jing’s cup and poured it out.  Then she poured the contents of her smaller cup into it.

“No, that’s not right.  We need four.  So if we fill the big one—“

“I think I see where you’re going with this,” said Jing.  “Fill up mine, then pour it into yours.”

Lili poured the large cup into the smaller one.

“Now there’s two left here,” she said.  She poured out what was in the smaller cup and then poured the contents of the other one into it.

“There you go,” said Jing.  Refill the big one, pour into the smaller one until it’s full, and we’ll be left with four.

Lili took the nearly-full large cup and placed it on the scale.  The sides evened out, rocked up and down a few times, and then there was a loud click.  The shelf holding the scales dropped six inches, revealing a hidden compartment.  Inside were another set of weights.

Jing took them out and held them in her hands, reading the numbers engraved on the front.  “These add up to twenty two pounds.”

“The third number is twenty two,” said Lili, raising her voice towards Axel and Tao.  “Now what were you saying about a magnet?”

Tao showed her what looked like a wooden shoe box.  It had a combination lock on the front. “This was behind the cabinet under the cross.  It sounds like it has metal in it.  Might be magnets.”

“Why do you need magnets?”

“The compass needle goes crazy on top of the cabinet.  So there must be a strong magnet in there.  That’s probably how it opens.”

“Did you try putting the box on top of the cabinet?”

“Of course,” said Axel.

Tao stood if front of the cabinet, clenching his teeth, willing the pine box to give up its secrets.  Axel and the others wandered somewhat aimlessly around the room, looking for anything that might be magnetized.  They rummaged in drawers and peered into every nook and cranny in the room, but found nothing.  The grandfather clock ticked incessantly.  Eventually Axel sat down at the table and absently flipped the playing cards.

Tao was pacing back and forth.  He put the locked shoe box down on the ground and stood on it to get a better view of the top of the cabinet.

“Looks like something was on here.  There’s a faint X shape.”

“An X?  Or a cross?” asked Lili.

Tao looked at the wall and then tried to pry down the iron cross that hung there.  It wouldn’t budge.  He banged his fists down on top of the cabinet in frustration.  Then he stopped, leaving his fists balled up on the surface.  He turned his head to one side and then the other.

“Axel, give me your pistols,” he said.

“What for?”

“Just give them to me.  I’m assuming they’re made of iron.”

Tao took the pistols and crossed them over each other, placing them down onto the wood where he could see the faint impression.  He was rewarded with a clanking noise from inside the cabinet.

“Watch it,” said Axel, taking a step back.  From the bottom of the cabinet, metal balls were cascading out onto the floor.

“What are those?” asked Lili.  “Marbles?”

“Ball bearings, I think.  Or musket balls.”

“It’s the wrong time period for musket balls.”

“Well, whatever they are, let’s gather them up,” said Tao.

They picked up the metal balls, careful to check the floor so that they were sure they had all of them.

“Twelve,” said Tao.  “Let’s assume that’s the first number to the safe.”

“Well, now that we have those two solved, all we have to do is get back to these stupid vegetables,” said Jing.  “I hate turnips.  What a ridiculous color.  I couldn’t something that shade of purple.”

“Wait a minute,” said Tao.  “There’s a purple stripe that same color on that little lock on the shoe box.”

He went to the corner where they had left the box, the only thing left in the room other than the safe that they hadn’t opened.  “Oh, it’s really obvious now.  The paint is faded and chipped, but each number is color coded.  Orange for carrots, purple for turnips, green for cucumbers, and yellow for onions.”

Jing laid the vegetables out in a row.  “There are four carrots—“

“Way ahead of you,” said Tao as he unfastened the lock and opened the box.  Inside were six bullets.  “The last number is six!”

Lili stole a quick glance at the clock as they converged on the safe.  “We can still make it!”

Axel put his hands on the large dial.  “Which way first?”

“Left,” said Tao.  “Four turns.  Then right, then left, then right.”

Axel spun the dial quickly four times to the left, and then stopped on twelve.  Then he carefully spun it back to the right.  They all counted under their breath each time the dial made a full rotation.

“That’s three rotations,” said Tao.  “Stop on six.”

“I know,” said Axel.  He stopped the dial and then spun it back again to the right.  After 22, he made one final quick motion back to the right to stop on 26, for the 26 teeth in the skull.  He pulled the handle and the door made a satisfying ‘thunk’ sound, swinging open.

“Please let the key be there,” said Lili in a whisper, her eyes closed and fingers crossed.

The key was in fact inside.  But it was encased in the center of a large, complex mesh of enclosed wire cages.  Axel shook it and tried to reach his fingers in through the gaps, but the key was out of reach.  He groaned in frustration and slumped his shoulders.

“Give it to me,” demanded Lili.  “We still have time.  It’s just one last puzzle, I’m not giving up.”

Lili held the cage up high in front of her, letting the light of a lamp shine through it.  As she did so, the central cage around the key shifted slightly to one side on a delicate pair of rails.

“I see how this works,” she said.  “I can do this.”

“I see it too,” said Tao excitedly.  “It’s like a 3-D maze.  Slide that middle part over and I should be able to flip this lever.”  He slipped his pinky finger through an opening and pried a long piece of metal away from where it was blocking the movement of an adjacent section of the cage.

“That’s it, Tao!” said Lili.  “We’ve got this.”  She smiled with satisfaction, but then their attention was suddenly broken away by the loud gonging of the grandfather clock.  It was striking three in the afternoon.  They were out of time.

“Game over,” said Axel.  “We lost.”

Jing sighed and sat down, pulling a pin out of her hair and letting it fall.

“There might still be time,” said Lili, clinging to hope.  “Trains move slow, maybe it’s late leaving the station.  I almost have it.”

Tao continued to help her with the puzzle, but his enthusiasm was gone.

Lili slid the last section of the wire maze apart and the key fell into her hand.  She quickly went to the door and opened the lock, letting in light from the open front of the warehouse.

The sheriff was waiting for them, with a large number of people peeking out from various corners along the street.  “Was he in there?  Did you catch him?”

“He’s boarding the three PM train for Mexico,” said Lili.

“Three PM?  Why, that train has left the station.”  The sheriff held up his pocket watch, which showed that they were several minutes too late.

“But—but—“ Lili stumbled.  “We solved the puzzles.  Maybe we could catch the train.  Do you have horses?”

The sheriff shook his head.  “I’m sorry, young lady.  He got away.  He’s outsmarted us all once again.  Maybe we’ll get him next time.”

With that, the sheriff and the townsfolk wandered off.  It was obvious that the game was over.

Lili stalked off towards the staging room to begin the transition out of VR.  The props and the clothes disappeared, and slowly, the room faded into a haze, to be replaced by a real image of the inside of Beta capsule.  Noises from the station began to filter in to their headphones.  They peeled off the gear and sat blinking for a few seconds, adjusting to being back in the real world.

“That sounded like fun,” said Nicklas.  “Now I wish I had gone.”

Lili shoved her gear under her chair.  “It would have been funner if we hadn’t lost.”

“Maybe we would have won if you had followed my lead,” said Axel.

“Oh please,” said Lili. “You had no idea what to do.  You didn’t solve anything.”

“Who was it that noticed the wanted poster?  And besides, that’s not the point.  We needed to stay focused and work together.”

“You just want to be in charge of everything all the time.  Who put you in charge?”

“I should be in charge,” said Axel.  “A ship needs a commander.  Who else would it be if not me?”

“How about Max?  He’s the pilot.  Or maybe I should be in charge.”

Axel laughed.

Lili put her hands on her hips.  “Why is that funny?  You think a woman isn’t qualified to be a commander?”

“Woman.  Please.  You’re still a girl.”

“Well, you just a spoiled brat of a little boy.”

Nicklas broke in to their conversation.  “I hate to break up this lover’s quarrel—“

Axel and Lili looked at him with disgust.

Nicklas continued, “I thought everyone would like to see our brand new valve control arm assembly.”

They gathered around the 3-D printer and looked down at the completed part.  There wasn’t much to it, but it represented so much of what had gone wrong so far, and what could still go wrong.  And yet, it looked solid.  Reliable.  Maybe it was a sign of their luck changing.

Nicklas grinned with pride.  “Now that the hard part is done, all you two have to do is install it.”

#

Lili woke on the scheduled day of the repair to Axel shaking her shoulder.

“Rise and shine, Lili,” he said with a smile.  His face was very close to hers.

She pushed him away with annoyance and the confusion of just waking from a deep sleep.  She had been dreaming, one of those long and epic dreams that seems to have enough detail to fill a book, and yet fades away faster than a morning fog.

She rubbed her eyes and checked the clock.  Apparently her alarm had been chiming for several minutes.  She remembered that today was the day.  In a matter of hours she would stepping out through the airlock with Axel to attempt a second repair of the booster rocket that they needed to survive.  Her stomach turned.  Normally she had a healthy appetite as soon as she got out of bed, but now she couldn’t stand the thought of food.

She retracted her curtains and sat on the edge of her bed, then took out a damp cloth to wipe her face, the closest she could get to splashing her face with cold water, which is what she really felt like she needed.  She ran a brush through her hair and then tied it back severely to keep it out of the way.  She squeezed a plastic bag of water and drank deeply, until it was empty.

She did not need to dress, as she had fallen asleep in her jump suit.  She climbed the ladder and then made her way to the hygiene station in Delta capsule.  Luckily it was unoccupied.  There was nothing worse than waking up in the morning and then having to wait in line for the bathroom.

She used the privacy of the capsule to undress and put on one of the less pleasant items in an astronaut’s wardrobe—a space diaper, officially called a MAG, Maximum Absorbency Garment.  She hoped she wouldn’t need it, but she would spend hours in the suit today, even if everything went according to plan.  Better safe than sorry.  She put her jumpsuit back on—which served not only as daily attire on the station but also as an LCVG—Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment.  She had almost forgotten about the cleverly hidden input ports on the left side of her torso where water could be circulated through the material to regulate her temperature while she was in space, surrounded by the much more bulky EVA suit.

She met the crew in the dayroom a few minutes later for the pre-EVA briefing.  Max was in the core, initiating de-rotation from the pilot’s seat, with Nicklas acting as his co-pilot.  They were just beginning the eight hours of the day when everyone was awake.  In Houston it was nine AM.  They played a recorded message from ground control to begin the briefing.

The message was delivered by the entire Bell family.  Lili smiled when she saw that they were all wearing their jumpsuits, as if they themselves were preparing to do the EVA.  A part of Lili wished that was the case.  Tim Bell sat with her friends, Miles and Milly, and their mother Anita.  Tim looked so confident, so strong.  If only he was here.  And Anita was like a mountain in a storm, unperturbed and solid.  Lili wondered how much differently this mission would have gone if their launch from the Cape had not ended so terribly, when their first stage booster exploded.  But she reminded herself that no amount of skill or bravado could have saved them from a meteoroid piercing the hull of the Alpha capsule.

The Bells were sitting behind the CapCom console in the control room.

“We wish we could be there for you in real-time,” said Tim.  “I would give anything to be a voice in your ear today as you make repairs to the booster.  But, the speed of light being what it is, all we can do is give you a good send-off and wait.  We have all the confidence in the world in the crew of the Christiaan.  We are way past caring about your ages.  You are astronauts.  The best, most experienced, most qualified astronauts in the history of the space program.  You know exactly what you need to do today, and there’s no doubt in my mind you will accomplish the mission.  You make us all proud.”

Typical Tim, thought Lili.  If she wasn’t actually listening to the words, if she didn’t actually know the man, she would have called it hyperbole, a bunch of over-exaggerated fluff.  But coming from him, it was truly inspiring.  He had a way of making you feel like you were up to his standards—she looked up at him in awe sometimes, but he genuinely believed and projected teamwork, that if he was awesome, then you were also awesome because you were right there next to him doing the same thing.

Anita chimed in with her more pragmatic approach.  “I know you’ve been drilled on all the details endlessly,” she said.  “But I want to remind you of the things that really matter.  Don’t get lost in the details.  There are two things that really count out there today.  First, always make sure you and your partner are tethered to the ship at all times.  Double check, triple check your clips every time you make a move.  You have both practiced free-floating EVA maneuvers, but I would rather not see you put that training to use.  And second, don’t drop the control arm.  Grip it firmly.  Make sure the straps are secure before you get into the air lock.”

One of the real risks in this repair operation was the replacement part that Nicklas had created in the 3D printer.  At some point in the repair, they would have to detach the straps that  connected it to Axel’s suit in order to secure it to the valve.  There would be nothing but one of their free hands keeping it from floating off into space.  Low Earth orbit was full of odds and ends, parts and tools that had slipped out of the clumsy grasp of astronauts confined to bulky space suits.  What amounted to a minor inconvenience when in orbit around the Earth would prove to be a disaster for them as they approached Saturn.

“So that’s my message to you,” said Anita.  “Make sure nothing floats away.  I want you and that control arm firmly attached to the station at all times.”

Tim turned to Miles and Milly.  “Anything you two want to add?”

“Just enjoy the view,” said Miles.  “This mission is a piece of cake.  You could do it in your sleep.  Take some pictures while you’re out there, Lili.”

Milly shook her head at her brother’s cavalier attitude.  “I just want to remind you both that this isn’t a competition.  Don’t try to show each other up out there.  Work together, and you’ll get through this.”

The video ended and Lili hooked her foot through a strap on the floor as she felt the rotation stop and the artificial gravity fall away.  Axel floated in front of the group, while Max and Nicklas appeared on the large screen.

Axel took charge of the briefing and went over the procedure one more time.  Max and Nicklas would remain in the pilot and copilot’s chars.  Max was to launch all drones and position them to give every video angle possible.  Nicklas was to monitor all ship’s systems, and run diagnostic tests as soon as the valve was repaired.  Olivia was standing by at an airlock with an EVA suit, ready to go out and render aid if it became necessary.  Tao was serving as the CapCom, and would be the primary communication link between them.  Jing was in charge of monitoring life support systems in the EVA suits.

They didn’t need reminders about anything at this point.  They had studied and practiced for weeks, even simulating the entire mission in VR.  Ground control had sent them several accident mitigation scenarios that they had to work through.  In one of them, Axel’s oxygen supply had cut off, forcing a rapid abort and replacement with Olivia in her functioning suit.  In another, one of the tethers had broken, setting Lili adrift in space.  She hadn’t handled that one as well as she would have liked, and needed verbal assistance from Max to stop her suit from rotating out of control.  But they had passed each of these tests, and felt well equipped to complete the repairs.

Nothing could have prepared them for what actually happened during the EVA.

After Lili exited the station through the small airlock around her suit, she had a few moments to wait for Axel to complete his egress.  She gave a quick voice command to disable her heads-up display for a moment and rotated away from the surface of the station.  She had an unimpeded view of space.  The station had been positioned so that the dim sun was shining on the side where they would conduct the repairs.  Her airlock was on the other side, which put her in the ship’s shadow.  She had the closest thing to an unimpeded naked eye view of the cosmos that any human could ever hope for.  The stars were so bright and clear and numerous that she could barely make out constellations.  It was more like looking at an ocean of sand made out of small diamonds, than looking at a collection of individual stars.  It literally took her breath away.  She was taken back to long, lazy nights in the fall, lying on a lawn chair in a remote field with Sergei, her father, far from the light pollution of cities.  But not even the clearest nights back then compared to this.  The entirety of the Milky Way spread out before her, and for the first time in her life, the dimensionality of it sank in, and she truly felt like she was in among the stars, not just looking at them from below.

The moment did not last long, but felt sufficient for a lifetime, as Axel’s voice sounded in her earpiece.  He had made his way out of the airlock next to her, and motioned for her to follow.  She recalled the mission procedures and quickly checked her tethers.  One after another, she unhooked and re-hooked to follow Axel down the booster’s cylinder to the panel that had been damaged in the meteor storm.

The panel was neatly affixed in its position, all the bolts having been secured tightly by Julia after her attempt at repairs had failed.  Every moment she had spent outside bathed in Jupiter’s light added to the toll of deadly radiation, yet she had remained to carefully put the panel back to rights.

Lili and Axel secured themselves tightly in position around the panel so they would be free to work with both hands.  They did not need to be coached on the correct tether points, as they had memorized the exact locations of the small rings used to fasten the clips.  Axel began to unscrew the bolts with a tool pulled from his pouch.  Lili had an exact copy of Axel’s tools in her own pouch, along with a backup copy of the valve’s control arm, just in case.  In an abundance of caution, Nicklas had actually managed to scrounge enough titanium to print three copies.

They retracted the panel and looked in to see the half-welded, broken arm exactly where her mother had left it.  The first job was to detach both halves of it and carefully stow it away.  Ground control wanted Nicklas to run a thorough analysis and transmit data to engineering teams so that they could modify their future designs to be more resilient.

Axel attached his wrench to the nut affixing the smaller half of the arm and engaged it.  Lili deftly caught the nut as it detached from the assembly, stowing it away and securing it.  They did the same for the remaining pieces, and then Axel slowly, carefully retrieved the replacement arm, which was firmly strapped to his suit in two places.

He gripped it with his right hand and Lili recited from the procedure manual.

“Firm control?” she asked.

“Firm control,” he replied.

Lili reached over and unclipped the straps, which were too bulky to leave in place during the repair.  Axel made a smooth motion with his arm and slipped the arm onto its connection points.  At this point his job was to simply stay in place, making sure the arm didn’t fly away.  Lili pulled newly fabricated nuts from her pouch and screwed them into place with her handheld drill.  Everything was going exactly according to plan.

Repairs were complete.  Tools and remnants of the old valve assembly were safely stowed away.  Axel and Lili stared into the open panel, waiting for Nicklas to run the diagnostic that would flex all of the assemblies and make sure they acted normally.  Make sure they could endure the torque required to regulate the flow of fuel to the engine.  This was the moment they were all anticipating.  This was the moment where everything had gone wrong for Julia.

It should have been an absolute impossibility for the control circuits in the booster to misinterpret Nicklas’s commands to test the assembly.  There was a big difference between a test and the real thing.  Several safeties were in place to keep the actual booster ignition sequence from firing.  But the engineers who had designed the ship never expected for that panel to be open in such close proximity to Jupiter.  The same radiation that had enveloped Julia also made its way into delicate integrated circuits, subtly altering programs that had been scrutinized and tested more than any other software ever written.  All it takes is a flip of a single bit to drastically alter the makeup of computer instructions, and in this case, it led to a sequence of events that sent the Christiaan accelerating through space, powered by a plume of rocket exhaust.

Lili hadn’t expected the noise when the valve started to move.  There was no sound in space.  But she felt it through her contact with the outer hull of the booster.  A low vibration, coupled with a hiss that sounded like moving liquid pulsing through the valve.  And then a tremendous rush of light and noise from below the exhaust bell.

She had nothing to grab onto except for Axel, as they were both flung backwards to the extent of their dual tethers.  The force crushed them together, and Lili worried that their face masks would shatter.  Her face was inches from Axel’s, and she could see both her own frightened reflection in the glass and Axel’s terrified expression superimposed on it.

Chaos reigned inside the station.  Only Max and Nicklas were strapped in, but even they were shocked into submission when the G-forces pressed them back into their chairs.  Everyone else was pinned to whatever inconvenient surface was below them, in most cases quite painfully.  Jing was doubled over, half on and half off her chair in the day room next to Tao, who was face down next to her.  Olivia and her EVA suit were flung down to the bottom of the core.  She was bleeding from several scrapes she had acquired during the fall from the auxiliary air lock.

Luckily the engine was firing at its lowest setting, 20% of maximum thrust, and the settled in at less than 2 Gs.

“Shut it down,” yelled Max at Nicklas, whose shaking hand was reaching up to the screen.  His face was a picture of shock.  He couldn’t believe what was happening, and so it took him a few extra seconds to push himself back into reality to try to deal with the situation.  Max had already pulled up flight controls, but his console was only indicating a test, and did not offer the usually thrust control that he would expect during a real burn.

Nicklas punched a few keys to cancel the valve diagnostic routine and the booster, thankfully, complied.  The burn stopped, and they were all bounced forward by the sudden lack of acceleration.

Lili and Axel were clutching at each other, hearts racing, hyperventilating, still not fully understanding what had happened, or what might happen next.

It took a minute for Tao to get himself back into position so that he could talk to them.  He found that she wasn’t sure what to say.  “Um, Axel?  Lili?  Are you still there?  Are you Ok?”  He got no reply and reached up to toggle the view on his screen.  He could see them, still attached to the booster, a few meters up from the exhaust bell, which was glowing orange.

Finally Axel replied.  “We’re Ok, I think.  What happened?”

“I have no idea,” said Tao.  “It felt like an engine burn.”

“Well, that’s pretty obvious,” said Axel.  “I think it’s safe to say the valve is repaired.  Works a little too well, if you ask me.”

Max spoke over the intercom.  “Get them back inside, Tao.  And everyone else get strapped in.  Let’s be ready if the engine decides to fire again.  We can figure out what happened later.”

Jing pulled on her straps and then tapped her screen, bringing up telemetry from the EVA suits.  “I’d like them to just hang tight for a while until their heart rates and breathing are under control,” she said.  “Much higher and they will both pass out.”

“We might not have time for that,” said Max.  “Nicklas still as no idea what he did wrong.”  There was a bit of venom in his voice, directed at Nicklas.  Nicklas still sat with a shocked look on his face, absently poking at buttons, completely mystified.

Axel couldn’t hear their exchange, but he had the same idea as Jing.

“We need to catch our breath out here.  Tao, please read off the next steps in the procedure so we don’t miss anything.  Let’s focus on completing the repairs, everyone.”

“Max wants you inside ASAP”, said Tao.  “But Jing wants to see your heart rates come down first.”

“We’re going to follow the procedure,” said Axel.  “No shortcuts.”

Lili and Axel took a full minute to just breathe, still holding each other’s arms, still faceplate-to-faceplate.  They actually started to laugh.

Then Lili started to shiver almost uncontrollably.

“Jing, can you check my environmental controls?” asked Lili.  “Seems cold in here all of a sudden.”  Her teeth were chattering as she spoke.

“Everything looks normal,” said Jing.  “Sounds like an adrenaline letdown.  You probably never had that high of a dose before.  Shakes are a common symptom.”

Jing really had been studying those medical textbooks, thought Lili.  After a few more moments, her breathing relaxed, her heart stopped beating wildly in her chest, and the shivering subsided.

She and Axel secured the panel back into its place after a last look at the valve assembly, and then made their way back up to the airlocks.  The doors had slammed shut during the acceleration but were otherwise undamaged.  Axel entered first, and then Lili.

It was a huge relief when the internal door popped open and Lili breathed the relatively fresh air inside the core.  Jing and Tao were there to assist them.  Jing winced as she bent over, clutching at her back, and Tao had a shining black eye.

“What happened to you?” asked Lili.

“I took a boot to the face,” he said.

“A boot?  Someone kicked you?”

“No, I had left my boots unsecured before de-rotation, and one of them happened to be right there on the floor when I fell.

“So you kicked yourself in the face.”

“Basically, yeah,” said Tao sheepishly.

“Only you could manage that, Tao,” she said, chuckling.  Then she hugged him tightly and started to cry.

They were interrupted by a whimper from the other side of the core.

Jing looked around in panic.  “That sounds like Olivia,” she said.

They rounded the corner together and saw her crumpled up in the corner, stuck against the bulkhead, blood staining her jumpsuit.

“Oh god, I forgot to check on you, I’m sorry,” said Jing.

“It’s Ok,” said Olivia in a strained whisper.  “The EVA was more important.  But can you please get me off the wall now?”

That turned out to be a complicated affair.  Olivia had been pierced by a broken shard of plastic covering that had shattered when she fell onto it.  They couldn’t tell exactly at which angle it was, and they didn’t want to make it worse by pulling her the wrong way.  Jing ended up cutting most of her clothing away and then shearing off the plastic itself near the skin.  They carried her to Gamma capsule and laid her down so that Jing could evaluate the wound.

It turned out to be fairly shallow, and after a quick handheld scan, Jing determined that it hadn’t gone deep enough to do any real damage.  She pulled the plastic out and Olivia cried in pain briefly.  Jing sewed her up as well she could and then gave the others a close examination, to make sure none of them had any hidden injuries.

They began their mission debrief, and Lili did a quick calculation in her head.  On Earth, they would have already seen the data from the repair and engine burn, and they were probably all completely freaking out.  It was still going to be at least 10 minutes before they could expect any return message, which she could easily predict: “What the hell just happened?”

By this time Nicklas had mostly pieced it together.

“For the time being, I have completely bypassed the primary propulsion control units in favor of the backup system.  I’m running complete diagnostics on both systems.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” asked Lili.  “The last diagnostic caused the engines to ignite.”

“Nothing mechanical,” said Nicklas.  “Just a software check.  That’s where the problem was.  I’m sure of it.  The repair was perfect.  For what it’s worth, the valve did exactly what it was instructed to do.”

“How do we know the backup system works?” asked Axel.  “We don’t want any surprises when we get to Saturn.”

“We’ll test it out soon enough,” said Nicklas.  “Luckily, the burn was close to what we needed to synch up with the resupply capsule, but we actually overshot on the velocity a bit.  I’m calculating a reverse burn to correct it.  I’ll run it by ground control to confirm, but we don’t have a lot of time to waste.  We should do the correction burn within the next two hours.”

The first transmission from Earth was as expected.  Confusion, concern, and demands for answers.  Axel recorded an official after-action report and transmitted it along with Nicklas’ calculations for the correction burn, which was confirmed as quickly as light speed allowed.

Lili held her breath in Beta capsule with Nicklas, Olivia, Tao, and Jing as Max and Axel performed the burn from the core.  It was a short burst of power, almost anti-climactic as the ship’s systems performed as expected.  The booster was repaired and they were on track for rendezvous with their resupplies.

After the burn, Lili breathed a long sigh of relief, but also resigned herself to the fact that this was probably the last exciting thing that happen on board the Christiaan for a long, long time.  They still had millions of kilometers to go before reaching Saturn.

#

Olivia groaned and held her hand to her side.  She peeled back the top of her jumpsuit and poked at the bandage.  “I need to go see Jing and get this changed out before I go to sleep.”

Lili and Olivia were on the same sleep schedule today and were alone in Gamma capsule.

“I can change it for you,” said Lili.  “It’s just a bandage.  Besides, Jing isn’t a real doctor.”

“She’s the closest thing we have, now that—“ Olivia stopped herself.  Lili ignored the unfinished sentence and retrieved a fresh bandage from the first aid kit on the bulkhead.  She put on a pair of latex gloves and hastily pulled at the tape, which had been soaked through and was barely holding the bandage in place.

Underneath, crudely woven stitches held her skin in place.

“Ugh, I hope this isn’t getting infected,” said Lili.

“Jing has me on a dose of antibiotics,” said Olivia.  “It doesn’t hurt too much.  It just keeps bleeding.”

Lili carefully wiped the area clean with an alcohol pad and then applied the new bandage.   She taped it in place and then pulled Olivia’s top down over it.  She sat up to find Olivia staring at her with a very odd expression on her face.  Lili found Olivia very hard to read.  There seemed to be remnants of the arrogant little girl she had competed against years ago during the candidacy, and Lili admitted that she still felt self-conscious around her attractive Swedish crew-mate, and always doubled up her efforts to make sure she made no mistakes around her.  She always felt like Olivia was judging her.  Harshly.  And then sometimes there were jealous looks when she saw the way Axel acted around Lili sometimes.

“Thank you,” said Olivia quietly, with what sounded like genuine gratitude.  She was still staring directly into Lili’s eyes, their faces very close together.

“It was nothing, don’t worry about it,” Lili said, unable to break Olivia’s gaze.  She was still holding the bandage, wrapped in plastic gloves that she had just tugged off.

Suddenly Olivia leaned over, much closer.  Uncomfortably close.  And she kissed Lili on the lips.  Lili reflexively returned the kiss for the briefest moment, then her lips went slack in utter surprise.  Olivia backed away for a moment, still starting into Lili’s eyes.  Olivia’s eyes were blue.  Very blue.  Lili had never registered their color before.  Olivia leaned in for another kiss and Lili’s hand shot up over her mouth.

“No,” she said plainly and firmly.

Olivia’s gaze went from intensity to a mix of panic and embarrassment.  She turned and fled up the ladder, disappearing through the hatch.  At the last moment before the hatch closed, Lili heard her say “don’t tell anyone,” in a broken voice.

#

Lili watched the resupply capsule, named the Ann Druyan, with an odd feeling of homesickness.  Here was a real physical thing from Earth, not just abstract radio signals.  Inside it would be reminders of a former life.  This mission had launched after the candidates had been chosen, so the cargo had been packed with the likes and dislikes of the crew in mind.

They spent days repeating practice drills to ready themselves for the docking maneuver, simulating all manner of mishaps.  After everything else that had happened, Lili did not feel like it was a matter of “if” but “when and how bad” when it came to anticipating accidents.  The docking ring could fail to engage, making it impossible for them to retrieve the supplies.  The capsule could come in too fast, damaging the station.  It could veer wildly off course, disappearing into the blackness.  If they didn’t get the fuel and food on board, they would be cutting it very, very close on their approach to Saturn.  And it would make the following resupply a truly life or death event.

But despite all her worries, and the worries of her crew-mates, everything went exactly according to plan.  No manual overrides were necessary.  The automated guidance systems mated the two craft together perfectly, and the fuel transfer went quickly.

Tao and Lili were carefully packing supplies in cubbies along the bulkheads.

“It sure did take them a long time to respond to our last broadcast,” said Tao.

“I was beginning to think nobody received it,” said Lili.

“Well, we definitely got the reaction we were hoping for.  Quite the uproar on Earth.  Let’s watch Carmen’s transmission again while we unpack.”

Lili reached over to a small console on the bulkhead and pulled up the video, which played on a small screen attached to a swivel near the hatch.

Carmen spoke to them in a video clip she had recorded from her office.

“Luckily, people have two different stories to choose from, so they get to believe whichever one is more comfortable for them.  Or politically convenient.  There is a strong anti-China contingent in congress, and they are calling for sanctions.  Some of them are even suggesting war.  They called us yesterday asking if the Christiaan had any weapons that could be used to destroy the Chinese outpost.

“That’s obviously ridiculous.  And please don’t get any ideas about building a weapon of some sort.  I wouldn’t think something like that is even possible with the supplies on board the Christiaan, but Nicklas has proven himself to be quite resourceful.  Regardless of whether it’s the Chinese or if it’s truly an alien installation, we are outmatched technologically.  We don’t want to do anything that could be perceived as a threat.

“Statistical probabilities dictate that any alien civilization we meet will be millions of years ahead of us.  And if the Chinese managed to put a radar tracking station on Titan, they have capabilities that far exceed our own.  The Chinese government is being coy about the matter.  They won’t confirm or deny it.  I think they’d be happy for everyone to believe they were capable of something so advanced, especially after their difficulties on the moon.”

Carmen paused and took a deep breath.

“We’re asking a lot of you.  You have been through the worst possible tragedy, and you have had to fend for yourselves with little more than encouragement from us here on Earth.  But, we’re asking for more.  There are billions of human beings on this planet that all want the answer to a single question: Who is on Titan?  And you, the crew of the Christiaan, are the only ones who can answer them.

“We don’t want you to get to Saturn and use the gravity boost to turn right back around to come home.  We want you to go into orbit.  And then we want you to go to Titan.  We want you to stay there as long as it takes to figure out what’s going on.  You don’t have to accept the mission—the original mission of the Christiaan and her crew.  We’ve given up on the idea of remote controlling the station.  It’s your decision.  We trust that you’ll do the right thing.”

The video ended.  Carmen’s frozen figure stared down at them, a Space Union logo superimposed over her on the screen.

“Well,” said Lili, hefting a package up into a storage bin.  “At least we have lots and lots of time to decide.  And not much else to do but think about it.”

“What’s to think about?” asked Tao.  “We’re gonna do it.  You know we are.  We’re going to Titan.”

“Yeah,” sighed Lili in a resigned voice.  “We’re going to Titan.”

Child of Titan – Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we take a vote?” asked Helmut.

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

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

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

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

Min raised her hand.  “I say we go.”

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

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

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

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

“Undecided?” asked Helmut.  Nicklas just shrugged.

“And you?” Min asked.

“I will also abstain,” said Helmut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Radar?  And it’s coming from Titan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicklas looked at Lili with panic.

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

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

“Ssh!” said Nicklas.

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

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

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

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

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

There was another buzz from the hatch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was your idea,” said Lili.

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

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

“I already did,” said Nicklas.

Surprisingly, everyone showed up.  Even Axel and Olivia.

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

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

Niclas repeated his story.

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

Jing started to cry.

“What’s wrong, Jing?” asked Tao.

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

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

Jing continued to cry loudly.

The hatch buzzed again.

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

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

Lili opened the hatch and helped Julia down the ladder.

“Mom, you should be in bed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good news,” said Julia. 

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

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

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

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

“What about Alpha?” asked Julia.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Julia.  “It’s too late.”

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

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

Tao and Jing looked like ghosts.

Nicklas hid his face in his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Another puncture?” asked Julia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what?” asked Jing.

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

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

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

“Do it,” said Julia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s stuck,” he said.

“Did you release all the clamps?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

The Interview Room–Axel Svensson–Junior Astronaut

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’ll be alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that the primer pump?” asked Max.

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

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

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

“How do we fix it?” asked Lili.

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

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

“Drones?” suggested Max.

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” asked Lili.

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

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

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

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

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

“How long will that take?”

“The EVA?  3 hours, at least.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Axel followed her into the tube.

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to do an EVA,” she said.

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

“Someone has to do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicklas nodded and pushed off towards the Beta tube.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which ones are those?” asked Julia.

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

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

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

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

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

“This looks fixable to me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

But eventually, sleep took her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lili awoke with a start, drenched in sweat.

#

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

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

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

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

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

“In the Alpha capsule?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.  Good point.”

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

Tao pushed play. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about director of the Space Union?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Titan’s not a planet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child of Titan – Chapter 4

During the flight to rendezvous with Venus, there wasn’t much to see except for the blinding, oscillating brightness of the sun, which swung into view every fifteen seconds.  They kept the porthole covers retracted most of the time, relying on video feeds to show them what was going on outside the station.  Which wasn’t much.  Aside from the routine status checklists, and an occasional minor repair, there was little to do.

Sergei, who was designated the Captain of the vessel, established a regimented training routine, which Lili and the other junior crew found tedious and boring.  But Lili had to admit that on days off—they still observed twenty four hour days and seven day weeks, more out of habit and to stay in tune with Mission Control than any practical reason—she grew restless.

As they approached Venus for the first of several gravity assist maneuvers that would eventually slingshot them to Saturn and Titan, Lili spent more and more time floating in the near zero-G of the core, tending to the main telescope.  She could have done most of her astronomy from the comfort of the Gamma capsule, but since the forward portholes were not oriented towards the sun, she could make direct observations with her eyes, while adjusting the telescope and high resolution digital cameras from the co-pilot’s chair.

Her usual experience with astronomy was that the naked eye view was an abstraction.  If a star or nebula or galaxy was visible at all, it was just a tiny dot, or a smudge.  It became real when she magnified it, and could detect shape, or shadow, or depth.  But here, it was the opposite.  The view through the telescope was magnificent, but it was like looking at a photograph.  When she looked out of the porthole in front of her, regardless of the constant spinning, she saw a three-dimensional sphere, lit up brightly on one side by the sun, and dark on the other.  It wasn’t just pixels on a screen.  It was the real thing.  A huge mass, nearly the size of Earth, floating in space.  A planet where no human had ever set foot.  She and her father, sitting in the front of the Christiaan, were the closest anyone had ever been to the second planet. 

In preparation for maneuvers around Venus, they stopped the spinning, so it was comfortable to spend more than a few minutes at a time in the core with the seats facing forwards.

“Hey Dad,” Lili said.  “If there are Venus Flytraps on Earth, are there Earth Flytraps on Venus?”

“There must be,” said Sergei.  “Did you know that Freddy Mercury, Venus Williams, and Bruno Mars all walked into a bar?  But they didn’t planet that way.”

“Am I supposed to know who those people are?” she asked, making a skeptical face.  “And that reminds me, do you know how to organize a party on Venus?”

“How?”

“You planet!”

“You stole my joke,” Sergei protested.

“Yours was obscure.  Like the sky on Venus.”

At their current approach angle and distance, Venus looked somewhat like a half moon from Earth.  The sun was to their left, shining brightly on their extended solar panel arrays, which would soon be retracted as they fell into the gravity well and accelerated.  The Christiaan, including all four capsules, was being powered entirely by the sun.  The RTG units in the central core were being redirected to provide heat, but that was an excessive energy source after the station’s many battery packs were fully charged.  Some of the heat simply had to be dissipated into space, even with the RTG modulators engaged.

“Let’s align the scopes and run another simulation,” said Sergei.

“Again?  We just ran a sim two hours ago.”

“This is our last chance to adjust the flight path before the assist.  The closer we are to perfect, the less power we consume on the trip back by Earth.”

“Ok.  Wanna guess how far the primary guide scope has drifted from Alpha Scorpii?”

“I would have to say… three arc minutes.”

Lili squinted out the front porthole for a moment while unlatching her belts.  She tilted her head and said “Close.  But I think it’s closer to four.  Maybe four and a half.”

“You think you can tell that from looking out the window at Venus?”

“Yep.”

“Ok, smarty.  At what angle?”

“Ninety degrees.  Almost exactly.”

“Ok, so in the last two hours, you think my ship has yawed four and a half arc minutes to starboard?”

“Yep,” she repeated, and swung back behind her chair.  “What do I get if I’m right?”

“An ice cream cone.”

“Just the cone?  Or will there be ice cream in it?”

“Lots of ice cream.  And a cherry on top.”

“You’re on,” she said.

Aligning the scopes was an operation that needed to be done at the eyepiece itself.  Lili pulled up a reference star chart on the display next to the scope and then put her left eye up against the rubber eye guard.  She made small adjustments with a yellow joystick mounted to the bulkhead and then pushed a green button. 

“Mark it,” she said.  “Four-point-four-two arc minutes at ninety-three degrees.”

“Not bad,” said Sergei.  “You might make an astronaut someday.”

“Where’s my ice cream cone?” she asked as she climbed back around her seat.

“I’ll buy you on the next time we’re in Sochi.”

Tao joined them in the core after a few minutes of silent flight.

“Mr Schultz,” said Sergei.  “What brings you to the bridge?”

“The bridge?  When did we start calling it the bridge?”

“Well, I am the captain, and where the captain sits on a ship, that’s the bridge.”

“I thought we were supposed to call it a station?  I called it a ship once and Jay Talbot got grumpy.”

“In Russian we say kosmicheskiy korabl, and that means space ship.”

“Don’t you have a word for station?” asked Tao.

“Of course,” said Lili.  “But that sounds more like a train station.”

“What about the ISS?  That’s a station.”

“It’s not the same,” said Sergei.

“What about spacecraft?  What the Russian word for craft?”

Sudno,” said Lili.  “But we use that when we say ‘boat’.  If we called the Christiaan a boat, I know Jay would get grumpy.”

Sudno means other things too.  What’s it called in English, the thing you pee in when you are in hospital?”

“A bedpan?”  Tao made a face.  “Well, it smells like a bedpan in Delta capsule.”

“Don’t complain because it’s your day to clean the toilet,” said Lili.  “I had to do it yesterday, and it was gross.”

“Ok, let’s change the subject,” said Sergei.  “Nice weather we’re having.”

“Yes, partly cloudy with a chance of acid rain,” said Lili.

Tao stared out at Venus for a minute.

“Hey, Captain, um—I was wondering.  Since we have to distribute the weight evenly during the burn, and we have extra people in Alpha—“

“Let me guess,” said Sergei, glancing from Tao to Lili and back again. “You are thinking that maybe you could ride along in Gamma with Lili?”

“Um, yes—yes sir.”

“Ok with me, if Julia doesn’t mind.”

“I was going to ask her, but I heard she wasn’t feeling well.”

A quick look of concern crossed Sergei’s face.  “It’s just the lack of gravity, after a few months of spinning.  I think we all felt it a little.”

“Yeah,” agreed Tao.  “I felt a little weird for a while too.  I’ll see you later, Lili.”

“Actually, Lili, you should head down now,” said Sergei.  “We need to start securing the ship.”

“Station.”

“Ship!”

#

The Interview Room—Axel Svensson—Junior Astronaut

“I don’t like the ‘Junior’ Astronaut title.  I don’t feel junior at all.  I have been in space longer for a long time, and I spent years training.  The other juniors—they are still acting like children most of the time.  We need more discipline on this station.  That’s what my parents say, and I agree with them.  We have a long way to go, and if we want to accomplish the mission, we have to focus.  It’s time to grow up.”

#

Their descent into the gravity well of Venus was uneventful.  They plunged down to the dark side of the planet, less than a thousand miles from the atmosphere.  There was little to see except for the occasional flash of lightning from the swirling clouds that covered the surface.  They emerged back into the sunlight on course for another swing by Earth.  They spent several weeks observing the normal routine, and then began preparing for their first resupply.

The crew was gathered around Sergei in Gamma capsule, with the exception of Isabelle and Axel Svensson, who were in Alpha capsule.  It was standard practice to never have the entire crew assembled in one place.

Sergei was using the large video display as a whiteboard.

“This is Earth,” he said, drawing a circle on the right side of the board.  “This is the moon, and this is us.”  He made a small dot on the left. 

He drew a large oval shape around the Earth and marked an X intersecting it between them and Earth.  “The transport has been maneuvered into a wide orbit around Earth, and we will intercept it in two days.  Our supplies are holding out well so far, but this is a critical mission, because we have to prove that we can perform this kind of a resupply without any mistakes.  If it does not go well, we will execute the abort burn and return to Earth orbit next month. I will be piloting the ship, and Gottfrid will be in the copilot seat operating the docking ring.”

“It’s all automated, though, right?” asked Max.  “We shouldn’t have to actually do anything.”

“Correct,” said Sergei.  “But we have to be ready to take over manual control.  We can fly the transport ourselves, and we could also dock using the Christiaan’s thrusters, if the transport is not responsive.”

“That would waste a lot of fuel,” said Max.

“Yes, so it’s the last choice.  We also might need an EVA, if we have trouble engaging the docking clamps.  Helmut and Min will be suited up and standing by at the airlock.  Everyone else will position themselves in the capsules to give us a complete view of everything that is happening.”

“What about the drones?” asked Max.  The Christiaan had several small robotic drones, equipped with video cameras, that could be flown in close proximity to the station to make observations.

“I authorize you to launch and operate one drone,” said Sergei.  “Just keep it clear of the transport—we don’t want any accidents.”

“I’ll be careful,” said Max.

Back in the capsule, Max donned his VR glasses and gloves before launching the drone.  Lili sat next to him and monitored several views of the transport.  She had trained the telescope on it when it was still thousands of kilometers away, and now she had her choice of angles.  Max made slight gestures with his hands and the drone detached from the station.  It was only a few centimeters wide, just big enough for a fuel tank, small wide-angled cameras, and attitude thrusters.  Max circled around behind the transport as it executed a spin to align the docking rings.  Flashes of propellant shot out from various nozzles on the transport as the onboard computers made adjustments to the trajectory.

The automatic guidance systems seemed to be performing flawlessly, as the transport edged closer and closer to the Christiaan’s front facing side, and the view from the center of the dock showed a nearly perfect alignment.  Lili heard a faint scraping noise as the two spacecraft made contact. The transport seemed to become motionless for a moment, but then status lights on the monitors went red, and Lili could see a small space growing slowly between the docking rings.

“Automatic docking failure, taking manual control,” said Gottfrid over the intercom.

After a few seconds, the delayed response from Earth reached them.  Anita Bell was the CapCom for the docking.  “Roger docking failure.”

“We’re not sure what went wrong,” said Gottfrid.  “Stabilizing position of the transport.”

“Advise increasing separation to assess the problem,” said Anita.

Gottfrid made delicate adjustments using attitude thrusters and backed the transport off by ten meters.  Max flew the drone in between the two to inspect the docking rings, which looked to be unharmed.

Julia, who was sitting next to Lili, began to play back the failed dock from several angles.  After a few minutes, she keyed her microphone.  “I think I see the problem,”, she said.  “Replay video feed six from time stamp zero-four thirty-seven.  Looks like the transport didn’t have enough momentum to engage the clamps.”

Her voice took just over three seconds to reach Earth, and their reply took another three seconds, so it was a while before they heard Anita confirm the transmission.  And then a few more minutes as crew on the ground and on the station argued about Julia’s judgment of what had happened.

Finally a decision was made to re-engage the automatic systems and increase the intercept velocity to fifteen centimeters per second.  This time, there was a noticeable jolt on the station when the two craft met; the spring-loaded clamps engaged, and they were able to complete the maneuver, retracting the powerful docking hooks and achieving a vacuum seal.

Gottfrid then operated the station’s grappling arm to connect a fuel hose from the transport to the station.  Refueling the booster engine was a critical part of the resupply missions, since they would need enough fuel for corrections during gravity assists, and then when were finally ready to depart Titan, enough fuel to achieve an escape velocity from Saturn’s gravity well.

Max commanded the drone to return to its nesting place on the hull, and then stripped off his goggles and gloves.  “Mom, will they make us abort the mission because of that?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “We were able to complete the dock, after all.”

“But we never had that problem before.  What if there’s something wrong with the docking ring?”

“It’s possible.  But more likely it was the transport.  We’ve practiced more than a dozen docks with the Christiaan.”

“I hope they don’t make us abort.  It would suck to come all the way and just go back home.”

“Let’s worry about that later,” she said. “For now, we have to complete the resupply.”

Max began to unstrap from his seat.  “Who’s going to get stuck in the transport feeding supplies through the hatch?  That was never very much fun during training.”

“I don’t know. It makes sense to assign that job the smallest crew member, and you’re starting to get pretty tall.  That hatch opening is really tight.”

“Probably Nicklas then.  He still hasn’t hit his growth spurt.”

Nicklas was becoming self-conscious about his height.  The rest of the junior crew members were firmly in the grasp of puberty, but he had not changed much since the days of the candidacy.  They met up with him in the core, near the docking ring.

“Hey Nick,” said Lili.  “You ready to dig for some treasure?”

“I guess so,” he said in a resigned voice.

“What have you been up to lately?” she asked.  “I haven’t seen you out of your capsule much.”

“I’ve been working on something.  A program.”

“What kind of program?  A VR mod?”

“No, it’s—it’s nothing. Just an experiment.”

Lili shrugged.  “Ok.  Well, if you want to show it to me sometime, I’d love to see it.”

They formed a bucket line to move the food, water and supplies out of the transport.  As they moved packets out, they traded them with accumulated trash and a few carefully packed scientific experiments—unlike most transports, this one was going to be retrieved in Earth orbit, so that the crew on the ISS could analyze the contents, to include waste materials.

Lili was positioned at the junction between the Gamma tube and the central cube.  Olivia was near the docking ring, taking packets from her mother and then launching them through the open air down to Lili, who caught them and then passed them down the tube to Axel, who was at the top of the Gamma capsule.

They had a steady rhythm going, but Lili started to fumble as packets came from Olivia closer and closer together.

“Slow down a bit,” said Lili.  “We’re not on a clock here.”

“What’s wrong, Putin?  Can’t keep up?” said Olivia, smirking.  She grabbed two waiting packets and tossed them at the same time.  Lili had to block one with her chest to stop it as the caught the other, and then immediately there was a third packet, thrown harder than the first two.  It struck her in the face, scratching her left cheek.

Lili looked at Olivia incredulously as she rubbed her cheek, but Olivia just smiled at her and reached around the corner for another food packet, which was hurled at Lili even harder than the last one had been.  Lili caught it deftly and then juggled the four packets, trying to keep them from flying off in random directions.

Axel appeared at the top of the tube.  “You Ok?” he asked Lili somewhat impatiently, and then glared up at his sister, shaking his head.  He helped steady Lili by holding her arm so she could gather the errant packages.

“Stop screwing around,” he said to Olivia, before disappearing back down the tube.

Lili was surprised that Axel had come to her defense.  And she had felt a curious shudder go through her when he had held her arm.  He had a very firm grip.  She tried not to make eye contact with him during the rest of the resupply.  But she couldn’t avoid Olivia’s gaze.  She was passing packets down at a deliberately slow pace, even after Isabelle complained and urged her to speed up.  Olivia’s face was expressionless but her eyes were locked on Lili’s.

Lili focused on the job and tried not to think about how many years she had left to spend living on the station with the Svenssons.

#

The Interview Room—Maximillian Putin—Junior Astronaut

“I was so worried they were going to scrub the mission.  It was such a relief when Mission Control gave us the go-ahead to burn for the Earth gravity assist.  Whew.”  Max wiped his brow with the back of his hand dramatically.

“It got kind of boring on the way to Venus, but I’m still having fun.  I do a lot of simulations in VR where I’m the captain, in my dad’s seat.  Maybe if everything goes well and we stay in orbit around Titan for a long time, he’ll retire and I can take over.  I think I would make a good captain.”

Max considered for a moment.  “I don’t know where he would retire to, though.  It’s not like he could take one of the capsules and move to Sochi.  Maybe we’ll end up building a colony on Titan and staying there forever.  That would be cool.”

#

The duo of the Earth and Moon spun in a wide loop outside Gamma capsule’s open portholes.  Sergei’s voice came over the intercom.  “Did everyone hear about the new restaurant they built on the moon?”

Julia rolled her eyes, but Lili smiled in anticipation.

Sergei keyed the microphone again.  “The food is great, but there’s no atmosphere.”

Julia groaned.  “He knows he’s broadcasting live to the whole world right now, right?”

Lili laughed.  “Of course he does.”

“Well, we have two days where we’ll be close enough to Earth for near-live transmissions.  Maybe he’ll run out of terrible dad-jokes before he embarrasses us all to death.”

“He won’t run out.  He never does.”  Lili unhooked her belts.  “I’m going to see if I can get everyone together for some gaming online.  It’s our last chance to hang out in VR with the Bells for a long time.”

Max reached for his goggles.  “I designed a track for Dune Buggy Mayhem 7, it’s really fun.  I’ll get the server set up.”

Lili pulled herself up the ladder, and when she was halfway up the tube, she kicked off with a practiced maneuver that propelled her to the core.  She did a neat somersault as she rounded the corner and fell slowly down into the Alpha tube, coming to an easy stop midway down.

She pressed the small green access button, which acted as a doorbell, and waited for the permission light to tell her it was ok to open the hatch.  There was a slight rush of warm air as the hatch pivoted down out of the way.  The Schultzes liked to keep their capsule slightly warmer than the rest of the station.

Inside, Helmut was chatting with relatives in German on the main screen in front of his chair.  Min sat next to him, engrossed in what looked like a complicated technical manual.  Nicklas didn’t even notice Lili come in.  He was tapping away at the keyboard on his laptop, sitting cross legged on his bed.

Lili hopped down from the bottom of the ladder into a seat between Jing and Tao.  “We’re setting up a VR session with the Bells.”

“Who’s hosting?” asked Jing.

“Max.  He’s got a new dirt track set up.”

“Awesome,” said Tao.  “He makes the craziest stuff.”

“It’s always racing with him lately,” said Jing.

“He’s still sore about losing a level the last time we did a dungeon crawl.”  Lili looked over at Nicklas.  “What about you, Nick?”

Nicklas didn’t respond.  He had a somewhat annoyed look on his face, and kept tapping the same keys repeatedly.

“Don’t bother,” said Tao.  “He’s obsessed.”

“With what?” asked Lili.

“He won’t tell us,” said Jing.  “Some program he’s been working on for weeks.”

Lili stepped over Tao and sat next to Nicklas on his bed.  He closed his laptop and reached for his VR gloves.  “Going to join us?” asked Lili.

“Huh?  Oh, uh—no.  I need to do some 3D modeling.  It’s easier in VR.”

“Oh, come on, Nick.  We won’t be this close to Earth for years.  Take a break and play with us.”

“Maybe later,” he said noncommittally.  “I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”

Lili sighed.  “Ok.  I you change your mind, you know where to find us.”

Jing was adjusting her goggles, while Tao was digging under his seat to find his gear.

“What about the Svenssons?” asked Jing.

“Oh.  Yeah.  I guess I should ask them too.”

Tao looked up from the floor.  He had found one of his gloves.  “Do we have to?”

“Be nice,” said Min, looking up from her manual.

“Ok, I’ll call Axel,” said Lili, pressing a button on a wall mounted console.

“No, don’t call,” said Min.  “Go in person.  You kids need to spend more time actually spending time with each other.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Tao.  He had found his goggles but was still missing a glove.

Min glared at him.  “Digital projections aren’t the same.  It’s a proven scientific fact.  Face to face interactions are better for psychological well being.”

The climb to Alpha capsule took Lili past her father and Gottfrid Svensson, who were on the bridge.

“How long are you staying here?” she asked. 

“Not much longer,” said Sergei.  “Once we get confirmation that our trajectory is sound, we’ll get back to the capsules.”

“So we’re good to keep spinning for the assist?”

“Yes.  This flyby is much further out than Venus, and if everything goes well, we won’t need to burn any fuel.  Why are you here, but the way?”

“I’m heading to Alpha.  Setting up a game with the juniors.”

“What are you playing?”

“A racing game.  And then maybe a dungeon crawl if that gets boring.”

“Adults not invited?  Why do the kids get to have all the fun?”

“Grow up, dad.”

Nyet!  I refuse!”

Lili rang at the Svensson’s capsule and it took almost a minute before she got an answer.

“Who is it?” asked Isabella.

“Lili Putin.”

Another long pause.

“Enter.” 

Lili spun the access dial and rotated the hatch door downwards slowly against the hydraulic resistance.  The air in the capsule was cold and dry.  She lowered herself into the increasing gravity and dropped onto the floor.  The capsule was spotless, in contrast to her own and the Schultzes, where the evidence of busy families was everywhere in the form of wrinkled clothing and half-empty food packets.  In Alpha capsule, there wasn’t a thread out of place.

Olivia, Axel, and Isabelle were all sitting straight up, side-by-side.  None of the chairs were configured as beds, and no sleeping gear was visible.  Lili sat next to Axel and saw that their screens had all been cleared.  They were looking at her expectantly.

“Um—I—we were setting up a VR session.  With the Bells.  On Earth.”

“Yes, the Bells are on Earth,” said Olivia.  “We know that.”

“Anyway,” said Lili, “you and Axel are invited, if you want to play.”

“What’s the game?” asked Axel.

“Dune buggies,” said Lili.

“I’m in,” said Axel. 

Olivia glared at him. 

“Another chance to beat Miles in a race,” he said.

“These games are silly,” said Olivia.  “We have more important things to do.”  She looked to her mother, but Isabella had already reactivated her screen and gone back to reading a book, which was written in Swedish.

“Suit yourself,” said Lili.  She started to climb up out of the capsule.

Axel called to her just before she reached the hatch.  “Look for me in the blue car with gold trim,” he said.  “I’ll be the one out front.”  Just as she passed out of sight, she thought she saw him wink at her.

They lined up at the start of the track on a tropical island, sun shining brightly in a blue sky.  Most of the scene was hyper-realistic; wind-blown beach sand, an osprey circling high over lush inland forests, the sound of waves crashing in the distance.  But the players and vehicles were anything but realistic.  Each of them had an avatar, some of which had undergone extensive personalization.  Max was a diminutive skunk sporting an old fashioned racing helmet.  Tao was a bizarre four-legged creature with a bulbous pink head and three eyes.  Lili was a tall feminine figure, robed in black, with elegant horns sprouting from her head.  Axel didn’t depart much from reality, as a blonde racer with long flowing hair, but with absurdly excessive biceps.  Lili was surprised to see his sister next to him.  Olivia’s character was feline, with golden fur and black stripes.  The front of her vehicle looked like a snarling cat.

Virtual fans screamed from the stands as they were announced in grandiose tones over a crackling loudspeaker.  Lili looked around to get a feel for the layout, but she couldn’t see much beyond a think stand of palms that lined the side of the track.  Max always came up with unexpected twists in his game designs, so Lili knew there was really no way to be prepared.  She strapped on her racing goggles—which felt strange, since she was wearing a pair of goggles in real life—and seated herself in her dune buggy, an outlandish five-wheeled design with tall, roaring exhaust pipes that spewed flames in the shape of monstrous faces.

Miles and Milly were sharing a two-seater that looked like a tank, complete with a turret that Miles would be operating while Milly drove.

“What are you planning to shoot out of that thing?” asked Lili.

Miles was dressed in a military camouflage uniform to match his sister.  He came to attention and saluted crisply.  “This vehicle is armed with the Mark-III hyper petrochemical viscosity dispersement unit, Ma’am.”

“Uh—so it shoots oil slicks?  How original.”

Milly was getting situated in the driver’s seat.  “Man your turret, soldier!”

Miles climbed up the back of the vehicle and dropped into the turret, which was pointed backwards.

Lili shook her head.  “You know you actually need to be in front of someone to use that thing, right?”

“It’s a three lap race,” said Miles.  “We’re already in front of everyone.”

Lili made a mental note to be prepared for the entire track to be covered in oil after the first lap.  The Bell’s vehicle would be slow and lumbering, but it had large, knobby treads that would keep it moving.

Engines began to rev as the lights around the track flashed yellow.  Lili strapped in and checked her gauges.  She looked up at a video screen the size of a billboard that showed an overhead view of the vehicles lined up across the track.  The countdown began and then the starter, a burly tiger standing on his hind legs and wearing a referee cap, dropped the green flag.

Engines screamed and sand flew up in torrents as wheels spun and the comical buggies shot forwards.  There were collisions and spinouts before they even reached the first corner.  Lili managed to get out ahead of the fray, along with Max and Axel.  They climbed a sand dune and got a quick glance of the surroundings.  They were on a small island that seemed to be entirely covered in lush trees and undergrowth.  It had little evidence of a race track, which confused Lili for a moment until she rounded the next corner and saw an ominous cave opening.  They were headed underground.

Max had imported a replica of their dungeon crawl and adapted it into a track.  After a series of roller-coaster hills and valleys, the track flattened out into a wide cobblestone road with wandering monsters: goblins, oozing balls of slime, and even a dragon circling near the roof of the cavern.

Lili and Axel were fighting for the lead.  She turned hard into him and pushed him into the path of a large squad of goblins, which he knocked over like bowling pins.  One of the goblins hung on to his buggy, bashing him on the head with a wooden cudgel.  He fell behind as he fought off the attack.  Max was laughing hysterically as he crossed in front of Lili and released a swarm of marbles that covered the track.  She spun out and crashed into a pit of lava that smoked and hissed around her tires.

The game was designed to make it easy to recover from crashes, and the hazards increased exponentially as you gained a lead, so it was impossible for the field to get too far spread out.  Lili watched Tao and Jing speed by as the Bells brought up the rear, steadily spewing out blobs of oil behind them.

Olivia drove over a shining star emanating from the ground and her car was instantly covered in a protective force field.  She swerved over towards Lili, plowing over a roaming goblin, and rammed Lili back into the lava pit.  Lili fell into last place as the Bell’s tank trundled by.  Now she was forced to dodge Miles’ oil cannon shots.  He seemed thrilled to have an actual target.

Lili deftly maneuvered around them and released her favorite weapon, a large red grenade that hissed ominously as the fuze burned down.  It attached magnetically to the tank and Lili yelled “I hope you brought imp repellant!” as she sped away.  The grenade exploded and a flurry of small, winged imps emerged from the smoke.  They had wicked grins on their red faces, and they latched on to Miles and Milly, pulling at their helmets and goggles.  One of the imps grabbed the controls in the turret and spun it around, shooting oil directly ahead.

A shimmering mass of oil arced high in the air and landed directly on Lili, covering her goggles and making it impossible to see.  She crashed into a stone wall and bounced backwards.  The Bells collided with her and they sat for a moment in a heap of imps, oil, and broken car parts. 

“Serves you right,” said Miles, swatting away an imp.

The imps disappeared, the oil dissipated, and the cars magically repaired themselves.  Lili shifted gears and accelerated away, trying to catch up to the pack.  She climbed a tall hill and then shot out into daylight.  She could see the other racers rounding a curve towards the grandstands, where virtual fans were clapping and yelling with delight.  Lili crossed the start-finish line well behind the pack and caught a glimpse of the video screen, which was showing a slow motion replay of the collision she had just experienced.

As she started the second lap, she drove over an accelerator strip and shot forward, catching up to the others.  Max was out font, emitting large clouds of putrid green gas that slowed down anyone unfortunate enough to pass behind him.  Max had a huge advantage, having designed the track, but that advantage was weaker now that everyone else knew what to expect.

Lili kept her eye out for oil slicks and managed to pass several others who had not been so attentive.  She launched another imp grenade at Olivia as they reached the dungeon, but it bounced off and exploded in the middle of a pack of goblins, causing mayhem on that side of the track.

Axel launched a fat, blue missile with yellow stripes at Max, and it blew him off the track, where he came to rest upside down.  They wouldn’t have to worry about dodging his skunk spray for a while.

As they finished the second lap, Lili was neck and neck with Axel and Olivia.  Max had recovered and was speeding past the Bells, who were moving steadily, continuing to douse the track with oil.  Tao and Jing were hopelessly mired behind them.

On the last lap, the dragon swooped down and started to spray the track, and the racers, with gouts of fire.  The oil slicks lit up and became even more hazardous.  Flames engulfed the right side of Lili’s buggy, but didn’t slow her down.  She launched her last grenade at the dragon and bought herself a few seconds to move past it into the narrow caves where it was too big to follow.  Olivia and Axel fell into single file behind her.

As they emerged from the caves, Lili was in the lead, but Olivia hit an accelerator strip and moved out ahead of her.  They were rounding the corner to the finish line, where the tiger referee was waving the checkered flag.  Lili slammed her hand against the dashboard in frustration.  It didn’t look like there was any way she could pass Olivia in time, but suddenly a rocket flew by within inches of her, covering her with its exhaust.  When the smoke cleared, she could see Olivia’s car wrecked just a few meters from finish.  Lili saw Axel out of the corner of her eye, just behind her and to the side as she crossed the line in first place.

As they all emerged from their battered vehicles, a replay of the final moments of the race played above them.  Olivia punched her brother in the arm as the video zoomed in on her surprised face when his missile had ruined her chances at winning.

“I was aiming for her,” her said, pointing at Lili and shrugging.

Tao and Jing were covered in oil from head to toe.  A stray imp was still clinging on to Max’s helmet, gnawing at it ferociously.  Miles’ uniform was charred black from dragon fire, and it was still smoking.

They all burst into uncontrollable laughter.

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Nicklas Schultz—Junior Astronaut

“I really don’t have a good reason for being so secretive about my project.  It’s no big deal.  At first I was little embarrassed because I thought everyone would make fun of me.  But then it became this big mystery, so I just played along.”

Nicklas adjusted the camera downwards so that it would be centered on him.

“It’s a design for a submarine drone that we can launch from orbit.  It flies down, drops into one of Titan’s lakes, and swims around by itself taking pictures and samples.  Then it flies back up into the atmosphere and transmits the data to us.  It’s really small, less than half a meter long, so we can print it from supplies that we have on the station.

“The official mission plan lets us land a capsule on the surface just once, since we’ll have to burn so much fuel to get back into orbit.  We’ll land near a lake, but we don’t have any way to actually explore it.  If there’s life on Titan, that’s where I think it will be.

“I’ve been transmitting my plans back and forth with ground control, and they actually like the idea—there’s a whole team of Space Union engineers working on the project now”

#

Tao was helping Lili with the post-processing of images from the Christiaan’s main telescope.  “There must be a wobble in the rotation, I can’t get the stack to align.  I don’t understand why they didn’t design the telescope on a rotating mount.”

Lili was monitoring the spinning view of Mars, which appeared now to the naked eye as a barely discernible disk, rather than just a distant point of light.  It was currently at perigee with Earth.  Through the main telescope, it was large and detailed enough to make out the polar ice caps and dust storms.  But it was spinning in a constant circle due to the fixed mount of the telescope on the front of the station, which made combining images with software for a sharper view very challenging.

“It’s the same reason the capsules don’t rotate around a stationary central core,” said Lili.  “Too many moving parts.  On a mission this long, something would give out eventually.”

“Well, doing it this way is impossible.  We should just wait for a de-rotation and take photos then. The shutter speed is so short, we have to stack a thousand images to get anything worthwhile.”

“Maybe we could ask Nicklas for help.”

“Nicklas who?” Tao asked sarcastically. “He’s been lost in VR for months.”

“Did he tell you what he’s working on?”

“Yeah, the submarine thingy,” said Tao.  “It sounds kinda cool.  I asked if he needed my help but he just laughed at me.  I think my little brother is getting a big head.”

“Well, we should be able to solve this problem ourselves—we have access to every piece of image stacking software ever written.”

“Yeah, but they were all written for telescopes sitting on Earth, not on a space station rotating at four RPM.”

“We don’t have another resupply for three weeks, so there’s no reason to spend the fuel on de-rotating.  But I really want to be able to post a time lapse of our approach to Mars.”

“The internet will go nuts for that.  They loved your image of sunrise over Venus.”

Lili smiled.  She was gaining recognition on Earth for her photography, and had millions of people following her social accounts.  “Maybe that’s the solution.  If we asked online for help, I bet someone could come up with a program that worked for us.”

“Why didn’t the Space Union think of this?” asked Tao.

Lili laughed.  “How many times a day does someone on this mission say those exact words?”

“Hey, you know what?  We should do a video,” said Tao.  “Instead of just posting a note online.”

“Can we do that?  I mean, the TV network controls all the videos and interviews.  Can we just post our own thing without going through them?”

“Who’s going to stop us?” he asked.  “We’re all allowed to have a private internet connection.  They won’t know until it’s too late.”

Lili looked at him skeptically.  “Do you really think our connection is private?  Seriously?”

Tao thought about it for a moment and his eyes widened.  “I hope so.”

Lili shook her head.  “With the light speed delay, our whole connection has to use special internet connection software written by the Space Union, and it all goes through a proxy server that’s run by the Space Union.  And paid for mostly by the network, who makes money from broadcasting everything we do.”

“But you post photos to your social stream yourself.  They don’t control that.”

“And there’s a big advertisement for the network right underneath every single one of them.  And that’s just photos of planets and nebulae.  They would freak out if videos of us went online without all their stupid editing.  I hate how I do a twenty minute interview and they only put the most embarrassing thirty seconds on the show.”

“Me too,” said Tao.  “So let’s do it.  We’ll just log in to the video sharing site and post it and see what happens.”

Lili nodded.  “I’m in.  Let’s hurry up before my Mom and Dad come back from the staff meeting.”  The senior crew members assembled once a day for a meeting.  It irked Lili that the junior crew members weren’t included.

“One sec,” said Tao.  “I want to grab my Christiaan model.”  He disappeared up the tube and came shooting back down a minute later, performing an acrobatic flip at the bottom of the ladder.  He was holding a small replica of the station, complete with all four tubes and capsules, that he had built with the 3D printers.

Lili activated the video camera that she used for interviews, and Tao crowded into her seat.

“Hey, watch it,” she complained.

“I have to get close so we both fit in the view.”

“You don’t have to sit in my lap.”

“Sorry.”

“So should we, like, write a little script?  Or just start talking?”

“Just start talking,” he said.  “We can edit the video later.”

“Yeah, we need to take this part out.”

“Oh, it’s recording already?  Wait, let me get pretty.”  Tao made a show of adjusting his hair and smoothing out his eyebrows.

Lili rolled her eyes.  “Are you ready, princess?”

“Ready,” said Tao.

Lili faced the camera and said,  “Hello, World!” Tao waved at the camera and Lili shoved his hand away playfully.  “Liliana Putin here, with my good buddy Tao on the Christiaan.”

“Zhang Tao Schultz, Junior Astronaut,” Tao said dramatically, putting his hands on his hips and looking up at an angle as if posing for a heroic portrait.

“As you probably already know, we’re halfway to Mars—“

“Adrift in the big black,” said Tao in a whispery voice.  Lili elbowed him.

“Anyway, we’re halfway to Mars, and we’re trying to take some photos of the red planet.”

“But we’re having trouble aligning them,” Tao said, holding up his model.  “The station—“

“Ship.”

“The station rotation—“ Tao rotated the model, and one of the capsules clipped Lili’s cheek.

“See, that’s another reason to call it a ship.  Then you don’t have to sound silly rhyming station and rotation all the time.”

“I like it,” said Tao.  Then he sang, “Station rotation, station rotation.”

“We are totally editing that out,” said Lili.

“Whatever,” said Tao.  “Back to the broadcast.  So here’s the problem—we’re trying to take photographs from a telescope mounted right here—“ he pointed at a small bulge next to the forward docking ring.  “And it rotates around the center at four revolutions per minute, so we have to use a really short shutter speed.  Even with a wide aperture and a super high ISO rating, we can’t gather enough light in one exposure.”

“That’s right,” Lili continued.  “So we stack multiple images on top of each other, but the software we use was written for telescopes sitting on Earth.”

“So, we’re hoping that some of you whiz kids watching this video can help us out and write some code to align the images for us.”

“It should be a contest,” said Lili thoughtfully, looking at Tao.

“A contest?  Hmm—what’s the prize?”  Tao squinted and scratched his chin.  “How about an autographed print of Mars, signed by Lili, and also by yours truly of course.”

“A print?  Umm—how exactly are we supposed to deliver that?”

“Oh right.  We’re in space.  There’s no post office in space.”

“Ooh, I know.  A free tour of mission control.”
“In Houston?  What if the winner doesn’t live in Houston?”

“And a free plane ticket to Houston.”

“Plane tickets are expensive.  Who’s going to pay for that?”

“Oh, the Space Union has lots of money.”

“And who’s going to give the tour.”

“I vote for Carmen.”

“Carmen?” Tao made a face.  “As a tour guide?  Here is my office, and here is my desk, and oh look, here is the little box where I keep my feelings.

“That’s mean,” said Lili.  “But maybe she’s not the best choice.  How about Miles and Milly?”

“Perfect!”

“Ok, so it’s settled.  The person who wins the contest gets a free ticket to Houston, and a tour of mission control with junior CapComs Miles and Milly Bell.”

Tao held up the model of the station and rotated it as he passed it in front of the camera.  “And so we wait, patiently, floating—through the blackness—of spaaaaaace”.

Lili laughed as she said “Goodbye, World!” and then ended the recording.

“Ok, let’s play it back,” said Tao.  “Are you any good at video editing?”

“Not really.”

“I always get my sister to help.  Jing is really good at it.”

“She’s on duty right now, though.”

“Well, how hard could it be?  Let’s figure it out.”  Lili opened the video editor and the screen filled with a confusing array of buttons and sliders.

“Click that button right there to preview it,” sad Tao.  “No, not that one!”

“What did I push?”

“Umm… uh-oh. I think you just posted it.”

“What do you mean?  Like, posted it to the internet?”

“Yep.”

“Can I undo?”

“Too late,” said Tao.  “We’d have to wait for it to get to Earth, then wait for it to appear on the site, and then remove it.  I bet we’ll have a thousand views by then.”

“Great,” said Lili, pressing the preview button so they could watch what they had just posted.  She was blushing and shaking her head by the end of the recording.

Tao was laughing.  “I think it’s awesome the way it is.  No point worrying about it now.”

#

The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Astronaut

“I feel like I have a purpose now.  A real purpose.  Before I started posting all of these photos, and helping Dad with navigation, I felt like—well, like baggage.  Like I was just along for the ride because my parents were important.  But now I feel like what I do actually matters.  It makes me feel good that people on Earth can look at my photos and sort of explore the solar system with us.”

#

The video Tao and Lili posted quickly went viral, and they got a stern lecture from both Carmen and their parents.  But it had the desired effect—an amateur astronomer from Belgium provided them with the code they needed to stack and align the images of Mars, and Lili was able to compile a dramatic time lapse of their approach.

And the video was so popular that they were actually encouraged to do more like it—albeit published with conspicuous advertisements from the network. 

They de-rotated the ship for the gravity assist, and they had a few days of near real-time communications with the Mars colony.

Lili opened the hatch to the Gamma capsule and saw her mother sitting up in front of a screen talking to Dr. Patel, the chief medical officer on Mars.  She looked at Lili and paused, then told Dr. Patel she would call back later.

“You’re looking better,” said Lili.  Julia had been spending more and more time lying flat in bed lately.

“The de-rotation helped,” said Julia.

“Were you talking to him about the motion sickness?”

“Yes.  Mostly.  I think—well, it should get better with time.  I’m going to try some new medicine and see if it helps.”  Julia smiled weakly.

“It’s weird that you never had any problems during training.”

“I know.  Some things you just can’t simulate.”

Later that day, they completed another resupply mission, this time with a capsule called The Nerine.  It was the first spacecraft to be wholly constructed on Mars.  After docking to deliver supplies, and to collect trash and blood samples from the crew, it detached and re-entered Mars orbit, headed for a landing back at the Martian space center in Hale Crater.

After supplies had all been stowed, Lili propelled herself up the Gamma tube, enjoying their last day of zero G before spinning up for the long voyage to Jupiter.  She was about to go around the corner to the bridge when she heard her parents talking in urgent whispers.

“It’s too late,” she heard Sergei say.  “We are committed to Jupiter at this point.”

“I wouldn’t want to go back anyway,” said Julia.

“If I had known before the Mars assist, I would have turned back.  I would not have given you the choice.”  Lili heard uncharacteristic emotion in her father’s voice, and he was no longer whispering.  Julia shushed him and they were silent for a moment.

Lili had the feeling that she was intruding on something very private, and though she wanted to hear more, she felt wrong for eavesdropping and slowly backed away around the corner towards the Alpha tube.

What had happened?  Was there something wrong with the ship?  If that was the case, why would it have been her mother’s choice?  Then it dawned on her.  The blood samples.  The doctor on Mars Julia had been talking to before they docked with the Nerine.  Her mother was ill.  It wasn’t just motion sickness.  It was something worse.

She tried to stop herself from crying.  Crying in zero G was very awkward.  The tears didn’t drop down your cheek the way they were supposed to.  They just built up in your eyes and blinded you until you wiped them away.

She was halfway down the Alpha tube when Axel floated around the corner and came towards her.  She tried to turn away quickly and conceal her face, rubbing her sleeve against her eyes.  But Axel had noticed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Leave me alone,” she said in a shaky voice.  This was the worst possible timing.  She didn’t want him to see any weakness in her. He would probably go tell his sister that he had caught her crying and they would have a good laugh other expense.  She faced away from him, towards the closed hatch of Alpha capsule, and waited for him to leave the tunnel.  But then she felt his hand on her shoulder.  She batted it away and turned to face him, a flash of anger crossing her face.

“Why don’t you—“ she paused when she saw a genuine look of concern on his face.  None of the usual superior smugness.

“It hits me sometimes too,” he said.  “It all a lot harder than we thought it would be.”  He tapped the wall.  “Trapped in this tiny place.”

She looked at him in confusion for a moment.  Was he actually confiding in her her that he was homesick?  Claustrophobic?  She almost started to tell him why she was upset.  What she suspected.  But then she remembered all the snide remarks during training, all the times he gloated about beating her in a competition, the time he and his sister had belittled her family, and other families.

He reached his hand out to her again a she shoved him aside, pushing herself up the tube.  At that moment she saw Olivia staring down at them from the core.  Her face was unreadable but her eyes were fiery as she looked back and forth from Lili to Axel.  What did she think had just happened?  Lili didn’t care what she thought.  She just wanted to be alone, so she rounded the corner and made for Delta capsule.

When she got to the hatch she checked the console and saw that the latrine was currently occupied.  She groaned with frustration.

She went back to her own capsule, drew the curtains around her bed, and strapped on her VR goggles.

She didn’t take the form of an avatar, or load a game to play.  She was herself, and sat alone on a quiet beach, under the shade of a palm tree.  After a few minutes, she was able to calm her breathing and relax.  She needed to convince herself that she was really here, that it was truly possible to escape the confines of the ship from time to time.

What was wrong with her mother?  How bad was it?  Would they have to abort the mission?  Would there be enough time to get her back to Earth for medical care?

She closed her eyes and leaned back, wishing that her VR gear could add the smell of the ocean, to cover up the antiseptic smell of the recycled air in her capsule.  When she opened her eyes again, she saw a figure in the distance approaching along the shoreline.  She grunted in annoyance; this was her program, her island, and there weren’t supposed to be any other people here.  She suspected for a moment that it was her brother, hacking his way in to work some mischief, but then she saw the flowing dress and red hair, and recognized the figure as her mother.

Lili got up and walked down the beach, meeting her mother halfway.  Both of their feet were in the water, being washed over with small waves.

“You overheard me talking to your father.”

“There aren’t many secrets on the Christiaan.”

“How much did you hear?”

“Not much.  Enough to make me worry.  Should I be worried?”

Julia looked out over the ocean, pushing a strand of hair back over her ear.  She sighed.  “Yes,” she admitted.  She looked back at Lili.  “I have cancer.  Leukemia.”

Everything felt wrong to Lili.  Out of place.  She couldn’t bear mixing the unreal environment of VR with the real, too real, reality of what her mother had just told her.  She stripped off the goggles without bothering to follow the recommended slow transition out of the environment.  She rubbed her eyes, which were blurry and beginning to fill with tears.  She opened her curtain to see her mother stripping off her goggles and crossing the room.  They embraced and neither tried to hide their emotions, sobbing loudly in a ship that was a nearly invisible speck floating in the quiet, cold vacuum of space.

Child of Titan – Chapter 3

Lili floated up against the restraints in her seat, watching the large video monitor with Max and the Schultz children.  They were in capsule Gamma, named after her family’s designation.  It was the capsule that had brought her to the International Space Station, which was coupled with the nearly complete Christiaan Saturn Station.  The Christiaan was not yet spinning, as it would be after they disconnected from the ISS in less than three weeks time, so there was no artificial gravity.

Her seat was a full sized adult seat, as was her jump suit.  During their training on Earth, she had gone through a dramatic growth spurt, and was now taller than her mother, although much thinner.  She was holding hands with Max on her right, and Jing on her left.  She was also holding her breath.  On the screen was an image of a large rocket booster, topped with Taurus capsule Alpha, which held her friends, Miles and Milly Bell, and their parents.

This was the last crew launch for the Titan mission.  The Schulz family had arrived on the station a month prior.  Helmut and Min were with Sergei and Julia at the central control station, monitoring the launch and preparing for the docking procedures.

They had access to feeds from mission control, so several side monitors were set up in Gamma capsule to display the control room and telemetry charts.  Audio from various sources competed over the speakers as they listened to the final countdown.  It was a clear day at the Cape, with no clouds and very little wind.  A perfect day for a launch.

White clouds of rocket exhaust billowed out from the booster’s nine powerful engines, and was redirected to the side as the rocket cleared the tower.  Tao and Nicklas cheered and clapped behind Lili.

Lili wasn’t ready to relax yet.  Nothing had prepared her for her launch, despite countless VR simulations.  The g-forces had been incredibly strong, and the shaking of the rocket had quite honestly scared her like nothing had during the candidacy or training.  She was glad she didn’t have to do that again any time soon.

“T-plus 1 minute.  Speed 300 meters per second.”  A few moments later the announcer said “Vehicle supersonic.  Vehicle has reached maximum aerodynamic pressure.”  Lili was starting to breathe easier.  “Downrange distance 200 kilometers.”

The image of the rocket was getting smaller and a bit hazy as the cameras on the ground struggled to stay focussed on the craft as it flew further and further out over the Atlantic.  Suddenly there was a wide puff of white smoke from the booster.

“Was that booster separation?” asked Jing.

“Too early—“ Tao began.

Sharp cries of  “Abort” sounded over the audio channels.  A final dramatic plume of hazy gray smoke filled the screen and then there was no rocket.  Not even any large pieces of rocket.  The camera panned back a refocused.  A few small fragments could be seen trailing off at the lower end of the view.

After a few long seconds the announcer stated the obvious.  “We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure.”  The screen showing the feed from inside the capsule had turned to white noise.

Lili felt her throat close up.  Jing held her hand so tightly that it hurt, but she made no effort to withdraw it.  There was a long, sickening stretch of silence that seemed to press in on them physically.

Then the audio stream crackled with static.  “Confirm abort.  Escape rockets fired.”

“Whose voice was that?” asked Nicklas frantically.

“Shh—“ Lili strained to hear.

The main camera panned back and then zoomed in on a fragment.  Three parachutes blossomed out of it.  “Escape rocket shutdown confirmed, parachutes deployed.”  It was Timothy Bell.  They were alive.

The cameras adjusted and then framed the Taurus capsule perfectly with its brightly colored parachutes forming a perfect trio of semi-circles.  There was a wisp of smoke coming from the side of the capsule but it looked unharmed.

Gottfrid Svensson was the acting CapCom that day.  His smooth, calm voice came over the radio.  “Taurus, confirm crew status.”

“We took a good jolt there but we got away clean.”

“We’ve lost telemetry from the capsule, Taurus.  Can we get a verbal from all of you?  Copilot?”

“Ok,” said Anita, is a strained voice.  “Maybe a broken rib.”

“Miles?” asked Gottfrid.

“Yeah.  Yes.  Ok,” he said, sounding very shaken.

“Milly?”

Silence.

“Something’s wrong,” said Miles.  “She’s leaning over, I think she’s unconscious.”

Lili and Jing were openly crying, still holding hands.  Tao and Nicklas were also crying, but tried to hide it.  Max was busy switching feeds, trying to get more data from mission control or the Taurus.  He added an audio feed from the rescue ships, which were frantically changing course and speeding to the predicted splashdown site.

“Turn that off!” demanded Lili.  Max muted the audio so they could hear what was happening on the Taurus.  He stabbed at buttons on the control panel and suddenly the video feed from the capsule came back on screen.

“I’m unhooking to check on her,” said Miles.

“We advise against that,” said Gottfrid quickly.  “You will enter the ocean in a few minutes, you need to be strapped in.”

Miles ignored him, as did Timothy.  Anita stayed in her seat, clutching her side.

“Bio-monitor is green,” reported Timothy.  “She’s breathing.”

“Dad, look at her arm—be careful,” said Miles.

Timothy sat in the empty seat next to Milly and carefully straightened her arm, which was flopping over at an odd angle.  She woke up with a scream.

“Sorry Milly,” Timothy said quickly.  “Sorry sweetie, I’m sorry.”

“What happened?” she asked.  “Why does my arm hurt, why—?”

“We had to abort,” said Miles.

“Where are we?  Why aren’t you strapped in?  Are we on the ground?”

Gottfrid broke in.  “Approximately 30 seconds to splash-down, please strap in immediately.”

Miles and Timothy complied, quickly securing themselves into the seats.  The view from the cameras at the Cape were almost completely obscured by the thickening haze of the atmosphere over the ocean.  Max switched them to a video feed from the closest ship in the area, which gave them a view of a perfectly gentle touchdown in what were luckily mild seas.  The capsule bobbed contentedly and Lili breathed a sigh of relief.  She watched it intently, hoping that there was no damage that would cause it to leak.

Julia and Min floated into the capsule together.  Lili unstrapped and pushed off her seat to meet her mother in mid-air, hugging her tightly.  Min took Lili’s seat next to Jing.  Tao and Nicklas moved up to be closer to them, and Max moved out of his seat to make room.  He pushed off towards the wall where Lili and Julia were clinging to ladder rungs, but he continued to follow the video feeds intently.

They watched together as the ships closed in on the capsule, and the Bells were safely retrieved.

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Min Schultz—Software Engineer

A corner of one of the capsules had been dedicated to interviews.  Min floated in front of the camera with her foot hooked into a rung on the bulkhead.

“That was hard on the kids.”  She shook her head.  “Hard on all of us.  I’ve been told that I come across as a bit dispassionate.  But the Bells are like family to me now.  I love them all, I really do.”  Her voice started to break, and she hid her mouth with her hand.  “I thought they were dead.  I thought about Miles and Milly.  They are so young.  And then I thought about my own kids, and I wondered what the hell we were all thinking.  When you’re on the ground it’s easy to look at the numbers, the probability of this accident happening, and accept it.  It’s just a number.  But when there are lives attached to that number—people you care about—it’s totally different.”

#

“The launch of the Delta capsule will proceed as scheduled,” explained Julia.  The  crew of the Christiaan was gathered around the central core in the cubical junction between the tubes that led out to the connected Alpha and Gamma capsules.  “It will be crewed by replacements for several of the astronauts currently on board the ISS.  And then, three weeks after that, the repaired Alpha capsule will launch in time for us to meet this year’s window for the Christiaan to leave Earth orbit.”

“Is that enough time for Milly and Anita to recover?” asked Lili.  “Milly told me that her arm still might need another surgery.”

“The Bells aren’t coming,” said Julia flatly.  “They’ve been replaced by a backup team.”

“Which team?” asked Lili.  She didn’t need to ask.  She knew what the answer would be.

“The Svenssons,” said Julia.

Everyone was silent for a moment, and then Helmut spoke.  “It makes sense.  Their skills line up with the Bells.  They are very capable.”

Lili thought that sometimes Helmut went too far out of his way to be polite.

“It isn’t fair,” said Lili.  “Tim was the best pilot out of all the candidates.  No offense, Dad.”

Sergei waved it off.  “None taken.”

“And Milly was good at everything.  Miles too.  Why can’t we wait?”

“Wait another year?”asked Julia.

“Why not?”

Julia glanced at Sergei.  “It would put the mission at risk to wait that long.”

Sergei nodded.  “The timing of the resupply missions would be thrown off.”

“I don’t think that’s the real reason,” said Tao.

Everyone shifted to look at him.  He was clinging to a handhold at the top of the tube leading to the Beta capsule.  For Lili, Tao was down below her feet, but for others, they had to look up over their heads to see him.

“There are a lot of people down there saying we shouldn’t go.  That it’s too dangerous.”

“People have been saying that since they announced the candidacy,” said Sergei.

“But they’re saying it a lot louder now.  This one guy online, he’s really popular, he says that the whole mission is just for TV ratings, and that the networks are sending us out there to die so they can sell advertisements.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?” asked Min.

Tao hesitated for just a moment.  “No.  Of course not.  But people on Earth do.  If we wait a year, they might cancel the mission.  We have to go now.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Lili.  “We have abort points after the gravity assist with Venus, and then with Mars too.  If they want to cancel it, it won’t matter if we’re still here.  We’re not at the point of no return until we get to Jupiter.”

“There’s something else,” said Julia.  “The Bells were part of the decision.  They insisted, actually.”

“But why?” Lili was shocked.  “They wanted this so badly.”

“Not all of them,” said Julia.  “Not anymore.  Not after the failed launch.”

“Are you saying they lost their nerve?  I refuse to believe it.”

“Lili, they nearly died.  It’s actually remarkable that they didn’t.  Based on the telemetry and the audio, Tim had less than two seconds to pull the abort handle.  The automated system would not have kicked in for another three or four seconds and by that time the capsule would have been in pieces.”

“And it’s not just about recovering physically,” said Helmut.

“Will they still be part of the ground support team?” asked Max.

“Yes,” said Julia.  “They’ll be part of the CapCom rotation, and they’ll be in the simulators supporting us the whole way.”

Lili thought she would need all the support she could get.  She did not look forward to spending years in space with Olivia and Axel, or with their icy parents.  Over the last year or so, she was finding it harder to bottle up her emotions, and she was tempted to keep pushing the issue, but she had also learned a lot during training about being a professional.  About being a proper astronaut.  So she let it go, and accepted her fate.

#

The Interview Room—Julia Bledsoe Putin—Surgeon

“When you consider the facts, and list the wide range of skills we will need to accomplish the mission, I can’t argue with the Space Union’s decision.  Gottfrid is a good pilot.  Isabelle is an exobiologist, which may not turn out to be relevant at all, but if it is relevant, it will be the most important job any of us has.  And Axel and Olivia are both brilliant.  So I have to accept it.  I just hope we can all get along.  These kids will become adults together.  We don’t have enough room on this station for rivalries.”

#

When they opened the hatch to welcome the new Alpha Team, everyone did their best to be civil.  Handshakes and hugs were exchanged, and the three teams gathered around the core to chat for a while before they continued with their busy schedules checking items off the list for their imminent detachment from the ISS.

Olivia and Axel had unzipped the tops of their jumpsuits and tied the arms around their waists, which Olivia thought was unnecessary.  She noticed that both of their undershirts seemed to be a size too small.  Axel was beginning to get some shape to his shoulders and biceps.  And Olivia had a shapely bosom to match her curved hips, neither of which Lili could claim.  They looked like carbon copies of their parents, and were not far off from equaling them in height and weight. Their wispy blonde hair wafted lazily about their heads.  Lili had let her hair grow long but kept it tied tightly in a bun so it would disturb her or get caught anywhere inconvenient on the station, which was a tangle of cords and angled devices sprouting from every wall.

Axel was still unfamiliar with the zero-G environment, so when he moved to greet Lili and Max, he launched himself a bit too hard and ended up colliding with Lili.  Max had a firm grip on a handhold and steadied them both.

Axel laughed it off.  “Sorry about that.”

Lili blushed.  He was uncomfortably close to her.  “No problem,” she said, giving him a gentle push.

Lili tried to find a spot that was away from the crowd of people floating in the cramped core area.  She looked out of a small porthole that was oriented so that she could see the newly docked Alpha capsule.  Two crew members from the ISS were outside performing an EVA, securing long support poles from the station to the corners of the capsule.

Just behind Lili, Max was showing Axel the pilot’s and copilot’s chars.  They were situated on the side of the central cube that would face towards the front when the booster was firing.  That side did not have a Taurus capsule attached to it, only a small docking port, so the portholes on that side would offer a generous view after they detached from the ISS.  The chairs were mounted to the outside of the central core, which was another cube, supported by diagonal struts at the corners.  The central core housed the power supply for the station, a cluster of radioisotope thermoelectric generators.

Now that all four of the Taurus spacecraft were attached to the Christiaan in a symmetrical formation around the central core, they could begin the final preparations for their departure.  They had been assigned a grueling schedule that left very little time for anything that could be considered a leisure activity.  They would run endless tests on the electrical and mechanical systems, stow away supplies as transports met with the ISS, and practice docking procedures by detaching capsules and the re-attaching them to both the Christiaan and the ISS.

Julia called to Lili from the other side of the core and Lili pushed herself down behind the pilot’s chair and landed neatly, placing her foot in one of the few open spots available on the surface underneath the seats.  “Lili, take some time to show Olivia around the station, and the ISS.” Julia checked the time on the display mounted to her left forearm.  “It’s almost time for status checks, so go ahead and do those for the hour.  Show her the ropes.”

“I’m familiar with the checklist routine,” said Olivia.  “We’ve done it a million times in the simulator in Houston, after all.”

“You haven’t done it in zero-G yet,” said Lili.  “Follow me”.

Olivia took a moment to orient herself correctly as Lili swung around the corner and down the the Beta tube.  Lili waited at the hatch, looking up the tube at Olivia, who pushed off a bit too hard from the core.  Lili had to catch her to keep her from crashing into the bulkhead.

“Don’t push off from the batteries,” said Lili, pointing back up the tube.  “Make sure you always use the footholds, or you’ll end up breaking something.”  Sturdy, U-shaped brackets were positioned at regular intervals around the station, all painted in an obvious, bright green and striped with a tacky black tape for grip.  Delicate components, such as the lithium ion battery packs mounted to the outside of the core, had yellow warning tags that said “NO STEP”.

Lili spoke into the left sleeve of her jumpsuit.  “Open status checklist.”  A long rectangle illuminated, showing a long list of checkboxes with codes next to each of them.  She pushed a button on the hatch leading to Beta capsule, which was now the living quarters for the Schultz family.  The monitor lit up with a list similar to the one on Lili’s wrist, with green status lights all along the left side.

“We don’t usually go in the sleeping quarters, since they do their own checks from inside.  But since everyone is awake, we could go in if we want to.”

“No need,” said Olivia.  She pulled up the top of her jumpsuit and zipped it, then enabled the same checklist on her wrist as Lili.  “I don’t see the point of these status checks anyway.  We have redundant systems reporting within the station and telemetry to the ground.  I think the manual checks are just to keep us kids busy while the adults do all of the important work.”

I think this is important,” said Lili, spinning around and grabbing a handhold near a monitor on the wall of the tube.  “Sometimes telemetry is wrong.  You need a human’s eyes to really see what’s going on.”  She spoke into her wrist.  “Beta Capsule Green.  Beta Tube Reactive Shield Green.”

Olivia carefully launched from a foothold to the side of the tube opposite Lili.  “Beta Tube Power Supply Green,” she said.

They worked together to check off the remaining items from the Beta quadrant, and then Lili positioned herself with both hands on handholds at the junction between the tube and the core.  “Let me show you a trick,” she said.

Lili pushed off with both of her feet and swung upwards, tucking in her feet to avoid hitting Olivia, and then flipped over neatly into the core.  Just as she went past vertical, she let go with her hands and somersaulted in the air.  Her momentum spun her to an identical set of handholds at the top of the Alpha tube, where she stabilized herself and then turned around to face Olivia.

Olivia mimicked Lili perfectly and wound up face to face with her in the Alpha quadrant.  She had a satisfied smile on her face.  Lili was surprised, since it had taken her several awkward tries to master the maneuver, but she didn’t show it.  “Nice job.  Well done,” she said, and then moved down the tube towards the capsule which had just brought the Svenssons into orbit.

“Why is this hatch open?” asked Lili.  “We’re supposed to keep them closed as often as we can, in case of depressurization.  And what’s that smell?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Olivia.  “I’ll close the hatch.”

Lili was already halfway into the capsule before Olivia could reach for the handle.  “It smells like vomit.  Did someone vomit during liftoff?”

Olivia’s face went red.  “It’s none of your business.  Come on, we don’t need to be here.”

Lili decided to let it go, but she got a moment of pleasure from knowing that someone in the Svensson family had been sick. She helped pull the hatch closed and then checked the display.  Several boxes were blinking red.

“They haven’t fully connected the capsule to the station yet.  I’m sure it’s fine,” said Olivia.  She pushed a button on her wrist.  “It’s not on the checklist yet, anyway.”

They made their way around to each of of the quadrants in turn.  The outer wall of the core, the tube, and the Taurus capsule were collectively called a quadrant, even though the core had six sides.  The side with the docking ring and pilot’s chairs was called the nose section, and the booster side as called the tail section.

Once the checklist was complete, they made their way to the airlock in the nose and keyed the intercom to ask permission to enter the ISS.  They were greeted by a short, stocky man with puffy red cheeks and a heavy slavic accent.

Privyet, Dmitry,” said Lili, greeting him in his native Russian.

“Hello Liliana,” he said cheerfully.  “And who is this beauty that you have brought to my station?”

Lili shook her head.  “You know who it is, Dmitry.  Olivia Svensson, meet Dmitry Olevkin, chief scientist on board the ISS.”

Ochen priyatno,” said Olivia, giving Dmitry an awkward upside down handshake around the docking probe.

When did she learn to speak Russian?, thought Lili.

“The pleasure is mine,” said Dmitry, returning the compliment in English.  “I will give you a tour.”

Lili and Olivia squeezed themselves around the conical docking probe at the junction between the Christiaan and the specialized mating adapter that had been built specifically for the Titan mission.  They emerged into the Harmony node, and Dmitry waved for them to follow him.

“This is Columbus, the European lab, where we are working on some fascinating experiments.”  He tapped a large glass tank that had a dark, foul-looking liquid bubbling inside it.  “Fascinating, but smells bad,” he said apologetically.

Lili wrinkled her nose.  “What is that in there?” she asked.

“Do you really want to know?” asked Dmitry.  “The experiment has to do with recycling trash, and certain—ah—waste products.”

“Ok, that’s enough,” said Lili.

Dmitry laughed.  “It’s actually too bad we don’t have more time before your departure.  Something like this would be very useful for an extended journey.  Ok, let’s go see the Kibo.  Fly with me now.”  He centered himself and pushed forward, spiraling down through the center of several junctions.  The Kibo was the Japanese section, which was very clean and uncluttered, except for little origami cranes, which seems to sprout from every crevice in the bulkheads.

A tall man with black hair was pedaling on an exercise bike in the middle of the module.  The man gave them a polite nod as Dmitry showed them an array of science racks.

“Lucky for you that you will not have to spend so much time exercising,” said Dmitry.  “Very annoying to waste hours every day on the bike, or on the treadmill.”

“We won’t have full gravity, once the Christiaan is spinning,” said Olivia.  “We still need exercise to keep our bones from getting weak.”

“Yes, but not so much.  And maybe those new pills we developed will help—but we won’t know until you have been in space for a few years.  Such a great experiment, the Titan mission.  I can’t wait to see the data.”

They made their way through the Unity and Destiny sections of the station, and then had to squeeze through another tight docking module to enter the Russian section.

“Can you believe this module has been in space since the last century?” asked Dmitry, tapping on the bulkhead with pride.  “The whole station was supposed to be decommissioned fifteen years ago, but here we are.”

This part of the ISS was darker, and more cramped, and moving from one section to another required contorting oneself to crawl through a maze of storage bins.

“And here is the pond,” said Dmitry, pointing to a compartment that was full to the brim with water storage bags.  “We have enough water here to last us for a few months, even without the recycling system.”

“And let me show you my own sleeping chamber.”  Dmitry lowered himself into what looked to Lili like a small coffin.  There was a sleeping bag, and a laptop computer, and a few personal items velcroed to the walls, but little else.

“It’s so small,” said Olivia.

“It’s not so bad when you get used to it,” said Dmitry.  “I can even slide the door closed for some privacy.”  He shut the door on himself and Lili saw Olivia shudder.

Dmitry slid the door back open and swung out.  “No so spacious as a Taurus capsule, maybe.  But better than riding in a Soyuz.  I will be riding in one in just a few days, in fact, now that my replacement has arrived.  Would you like to see it?”

Lili nodded enthusiastically, and Dmitry led them past a table where a sandy haired young Russian astronaut sat, eating from a silver food pack.  He smiled at Olivia as she passed.

The tunnel leading to the Soyuz was less than a meter wide, and there were several thick air tubes snaking down to the capsule.

“One at a time here,” said Dmitry.  “It’s a tight fit, but if I can make, it, it will be easy for you.  My belly is much bigger than yours.”  He quickly lowered himself down.  Lili followed him but Olivia stayed put.

“I’ve seen the Soyuz,” Olivia said.  “In VR.”  She looked back at the man sitting at the table.  Above his head were faded prints of Russian space legends—Sergei Korolev and Yuri Gagarin.

Lili followed Dmitry and they sat for a few moments in the cramped cabin of the re-entry vehicle.  Compared to the Taurus, it was minuscule.  She could hear snippets of conversation from above.

Dmitry sat silently for a moment, then sighed.  “This will be my last time in space, I think.  I am getting too old.  In a few days I will return to Earth, and that will be it.”  Olivia’s laughter sounded through the tunnel, like a clear bell.  Dmitry smiled.  “Time for a new generation.”

Lili didn’t know what to say.

“You know, you were my favorite,” he said.  “During the candidacy.”

“Why?  Is it because my Dad’s Russian?”

“Well, of course, with a name like Putin, how can a man who grew up in Moscow not favor your family?  But you—you are very humble.  You are capable of more than you think.  Barely a teenager and already a hero of Russia.”

“I don’t feel like a hero.  I haven’t even gone anywhere yet.  And I grew up in the US.  People don’t usually think of me as Russian.”

“Russians do.  And you have come this far.  To the biggest space station ever created.  And you will go further than any human has ever gone.  There is an old saying, byez muki nyet nauki, do you know what it means?”

Lili made a face.  “No science without torture?  That sounds awful.”

“That’s maybe too literal.  I think in English, it should be ‘adversity is a good teacher’.  When things are hard for you, remember Dmitry, and remember that.  Now, let’s get back up there before Andrei gets too friendly with miss Olivia.”

“There is one more thing on the station that you have to see,” said Dmitry when they were gathered back in the Russian common area.

“The cupola?” asked Lili hopefully.

“Yes, the cupola.  The jewel of the International Space Station.”

The cupola was a dome that protruded from the bottom of the station as it flew over the Earth.  Above the entrance to the cupola there was a bright yellow sign that read “Speed Limit 25,000 kph”.  It took their eyes a few seconds to adjust to the brightness of the light, and then their breath was taken away by the vista.  Lili experienced a moment of vertigo, as she no longer felt that she was stationary inside of a metal container—it was suddenly and forcefully obvious that they were in fact flying above the globe at a tremendous speed.  And what she was thinking of as ‘up’ as she climbed into the cupola was now very much ‘down’.  She heard Olivia breathing heavily beside her, and thought for a moment that she might need to retrieve the barf bag that they all kept stashed in one of their pockets.

They were passing over the continent of Africa, which was mostly covered in lumpy white clouds.  Great swathes of green and brown land gave way to the azure blue of the Indian Ocean.

“I spend many hours here,” Dmitry said in a quiet, almost reverent voice.  “I never tire of it.”  He paused for a moment beside them, staring out one of the windows silently.  “I will leave you now.  I trust you can find your way back to the Christiaan.  I am needed at the Uzlovoy module soon.  The EVA is almost finished.”

Lili craned her neck to the side of one of the cupola’s seven windows, and she could see one of the astronauts in his white space suit maneuvering the last of the support poles into place between the core cube and the newly arrived Taurus.  This was something she had practiced in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.  It was a very tricky task. The couplings between the poles and the spacecraft had to be strong enough to withstand the G forces created by the booster rocket that would propel them towards gravity assists with other planets on their way to Titan.  But they had to be engaged with a mechanism that allowed the capsules to break free in an emergency, so there was a finesse required that was very difficult to achieve in space gloves.

“Olivia,” Lili said after several long minutes of contemplation.  The sound of her voice was almost too loud, like she was yelling in a church.  “When did you learn to speak Russian?  Do they teach Russian in Swedish schools?”

“No,” answered Olivia.  “I began to study after the candidacy.  When we first started training.”

“But why?  And when did you find the time?”

Olivia laughed.  “Backup teams had a lot more free time than you primaries.  I was training to be a CapCom, and my job would be to communicate with the crew. Your family speaks Russian, so I thought it was a good idea.”

Lili was stunned.  “How did I not know about this?  I never saw you studying.”

“You were busy.”

“Russian is a tricky language.  I heard you back there with—what was his name?”

“Andrei.  He’s the youngest astronaut—cosmonaut—ever on the ISS.  Well, before us, of course.  And Russian is a lot easier than English.”

“You speak both of them really well.  And Swedish, so you know three languages.”

“I speak French too.  And a little German.”

Lili was surprised at how much she didn’t know about Olivia.  She had been in training with her for years.  She started to feel a little guilty, and, yet again, outclassed.

“You could have asked for help with Russian,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.

“I didn’t need it,” said Olivia flatly.  “Come on, let’s get back to the Christiaan.”

#

The Interview Room—Olivia Svensson—Junior Astronaut

Olivia’s hair floated up around her head as she looked into the camera with a satisfied smile on her face.  Lili had told her in passing that she looked like a medusa, but Olivia preferred not to tie her hair back.

“Finally, we are here.  We are in space, where we belong.  My mother told me for so long to be patient.  That good things happen to those that deserve it.  I had lost hope, but now all of our dreams are coming true.  Today in the cupola, when I looked down on the Earth from orbit, with my own eyes—“ she sighed.  “It’s an experience I will never forget.”

#

The weight of gravity was almost oppressive after so many weeks without it.  Lili had been looking forward to the time when they would separate from the ISS and begin to test out the operation of the Christiaan as an independent station.  Zero-G was fun at first, but it had also been an annoyance.  After the jets had fired to begin the rotation, she felt herself being pulled down into her chair, and oddly enough what she noticed the most was how heavy her cheeks felt.

They were strapped in to their capsules as if for a launch from Earth, since this had never been done before and nobody knew exactly how it would go.  The central cube had never been subjected to the stress of four heavy Taurus capsules pulling at it as the entire station rotated.

Lili got nervous when she thought of all the unknown attached to this mission.  That was part of the fun of exploration, of course, but at the same time, space was a very dangerous place.  They had all been warned about the multitude of abort points in this mission.  Today was one of them—if the station reacted badly to the spinning, or later, when they were scheduled to boost to a higher orbit, the whole thing would be scrubbed.  Years of training, wasted.

If it turned out that the Coriolis effect associated with a spinning ship caused them all to get dizzy and nauseous, the mission would be scrubbed.  There was some debate over how many revolutions per minute could be tolerated; they were hoping to sustain four, which would give them roughly half of normal Earth gravity.  If, after a year in space, when they were nearing Mars, their bone density levels had dropped from normal levels, or their eyesight had deteriorated, it would be scrubbed.  If, at any point before the Jupiter gravity assist, the political winds shifted and support waned for their very expensive mission, with the requirement of ground support and constant high-velocity resupply transports, it would be scrubbed.

While she did feel reassured that there were plenty of opportunities to retreat back home if things went badly, she wanted to go to Titan.  She wanted it more than ever, now that they were this far down the road.  Since the beginning of the candidacy, she had passed so many abort points that now, after separating from the ISS, it felt for the first time to be truly real.  The Christiaan station was now its own independent spacecraft.

Lili was in the Gamma capsule with Julia and Max.  Sergei was in the pilot’s chair next to Gottfrid.  They were in control of the separation from the ISS, but everyone else at least had access to telemetry and video feeds.  In fact, Lili knew that Max could, at a moment’s notice, take over the station from his chair next to her, which made her father’s elaborate pilot’s seat seem superfluous.  But astronaut pilots, especially the older ones like Sergei and those who had designed the Christiaan, insisted on a traditional cockpit with an actual view port.

They spent an hour strapped in, waiting to see if any systems would fail, or if there would be any obvious signs of structural damage from the spinning.  Max had a dizzying combination of video feeds on screen from various angles inside and outside the station, so Lili focused on the porthole nearest to her, where she could see the ISS and Earth below swing in and out of view every fifteen seconds.  Her head felt a little strange whenever she turned it, so she tried to keep it steady.

The adults were allowed to unstrap first, and they began making a sweep of the capsules first, and then the tubes, and finally the central core, checking off all of the routine lists to make sure nothing had gone wrong.  Everything checked out, so Lili and Max, and the others in Alpha and Beta capsules unstrapped and began a scripted training routine to re-learn how to move.  Half gravity was a completely different experience than zero or full gravity.

Instead of launching herself from the floor of the capsule up towards the tube, Lili was forced to again use the ladder, as she had in the simulator on Earth.  But as she climbed it, the effects of centripetal acceleration grew less and less.  It was a bizarre feeling.  By the time she reached the core, where her mother was waiting for her, it felt almost as it had when they were attached to the ISS, but she could feel a slight force tugging her back.

“Ok, remember,” said Julia, “the most dangerous aspect of this is the entry into the tube on your way back to one of the Taurus capsules.”  Lili, and everyone else, had heard this exact speech many times before.  But training was all about repetition (another phrase they had heard many times), so they listened patiently.

When the station wasn’t spinning, it was natural to just fly down the tunnel head first and then catch yourself on a handrail, or simply fly down to land on one of the chairs, which were often extended to be more like beds.  But with increasing gravity the further down the tube you went, a graceful zero-G glide turned into a dangerous fall.  They had to remember to go feet-first, and use handholds the entire way down.

They practiced going up and down several times, and then split up to conduct more status checks.   The crew was adjusting surprisingly well, except for Tao, who had apparently banged his head into something.  Lili tried to ask about the newly applied bandage, but he turned red and ignored her, pretending to be busy with his checklist.

Then it was time for everyone to strap back in and prepare for their first boost.  They took a few minutes to spin down the rotation, since they needed to be neutral to properly control the large rocket engine that sprouted from the tail end of the cube.  They made adjustments to their modular chairs, to orient them in what felt like a sideways configuration.

Mission Control in Houston counted down to the launch just as they did for a launch from Earth.  Julia responded to requests for go—no-go decisions, which were echoed by the commanders of each Taurus capsule.  Lili could see her friends in Alpha capsule on one of the smaller screens.  Helmut gave an enthusiastic thumbs up each time he said “go”.  Gamma capsule, with three Putins inside, had to be weighted down with extra supplies to even out the mass from the Alpha capsule opposite them, which had all five Schultzes.

When the rocket fired, they experienced several Gs of force, but it was gentler than the trip into orbit.  The ISS dwindled to a speck in the video feed from the tail section, and the Earth grew a little smaller as they increased their orbital altitude by several hundred kilometers.  After cutting the engines and running through another series of systems checks, they reoriented their chairs and again rotated the station to simulate gravity.

Timothy Bell’s voice came over the audio channel.  He was acting as CapCom from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  “Great job everyone.  That’s one more big step towards Titan.  Go ahead and unstrap and relax for a while.  You have a few days until the fuel resupply reaches you, so enjoy the view while it lasts.”

Lili and Max both moved to the portholes and watched as Earth swung by—Lili imagined that they were stationary in space and the planet was rapidly revolving around them.  It was hard to focus on it for long, since they nose of the station was pointed in the direction of their orbital motion, and they were rotating ninety degrees relative to the surface.

“Mom, is it Ok if I go to the core?  I told Tao I’d meet him.”

“Sure, just stay out of your father’s way.  He and Gottfrid will still be busy for a while.”

Lili reached up and grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder, pulling her self upward into weaker and weaker gravity.  Tao was waiting for her at one of the portholes in the tail section.  From this vantage point, Earth was flying in a wide circle that went from full view, then behind the cone of the booster, and then back into view again.

“I have an idea,” said Tao.  They were both floating, but they could feel a very slight amount of force pushing them down into the corner of the cube.  Tao put his face in front of the window and then pushed off, spinning his body around the axis of his head.  His legs crashed into Lili and knocked her back into the bulkhead.

“What the heck was that?” she asked.

“Ok, that didn’t work so well,” he admitted.  “Let me try again.  I’ll scrunch up my feet this time.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to stop the Earth from spinning so I can just look at it for a while.”

“Stop the Earth from spinning?”

Tao folded his legs and bent himself into a fetal position.  “I mean spinning myself—here, just spin me.”

Lili suddenly understood what he was trying.  She looked out the porthole for a second to gauge the speed and then pulled down on Tao’s elbow to start him spinning.

“Too fast!” he said.  She reached out and accidentally pulled his hair to slow him down.

“Ow!”

“Sorry.  Hold on, let me try again.”  She gave him another shove and got the rotation just right.

“That’s it!” he said.  “Perfect.”  He spun in a tight ball for a few moments with his face inches from the glass, spinning at the same speed as the station, but in the opposite direction.

“Ok, my turn,” said Lili.  She crouched into a ball and Tao spun her around.  She was rewarded with a few seconds of a completely stable view of the Earth—but the station was spinning twice as fast as it should’ve been, and she quickly got dizzy.

She and Tao were laughing hysterically when Min came around the corner.

“What are you monkeys up to?” she asked suspiciously.

“Nothing,” said Tao, straightening up.  “Just—um—orbital mechanics training.”

Riiight,” Min said slowly.  “Whatever.  Just don’t break anything.  This station has to last us for a few years.”

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Tao Schultz—Junior Astronaut

“Once upon a time, there was a sad, lonely boy named Tao.  He was a junior candidate.  But then, he became a famous astronaut!”

Tao read his arms out wide and laughed.

“In fact, I’m the most famous junior astronaut named Tao who ever lived!  It’s because of all the super important, heroic deeds that I do on a daily basis.  Like—“

He made a show of sniffing the air in the capsule and made a face.

“Like cleaning the toilets—excuse me, I meant personal hygiene stations.”  He waved his hand in front of his nose.

He lowered his voice.  “But don’t tell anyone about the toilet.  We wouldn’t want to public to know that astronauts have to go poop.”

#

After several days of living on the station at four revolutions per minute, they all found that they were perfectly comfortable as long as they stayed in the capsules, at the very edges of the rotational circle.  And at the core where it was practically a zero-G environment, there was no discomfort, as long as you didn’t spend too much time staring out the windows.  The only uncomfortable place was the tubes, and they weren’t supposed to stay in them for long anyways, since they had the least amount of radiation shielding.

In conversations with Mission Control, the subject of motion sickness, nausea, and dizziness came up so often that Lili started to lose her patience with the CapComs.  She called Milly on a private channel when she had a few minutes alone in her capsule.  Her quarters amounted to a few thin curtains mounted up around her chair, which had been extended and combined with another chair to form a comfortable bed.

“Milly, I swear, if they ask me again if I’m nauseous I’m going to throw up!”

Milly laughed.  “Yeah, I know.  I’m not supposed to tell you this, but everyone is worried you’ll all lie about it, and then it will be too late once you leave orbit and head for the gravity assist with Venus.”

“Why would we lie about that?”

“Well, apparently, it’s like a stigma or something for an astronaut to admit he’s motion sick.  There was one guy back in the Mercury days who barfed in his helmet and he never flew again after that.”
“But that’s half the reason we’re here, isn’t it?  None of us get airsick easily.”

“Everybody gets airsick eventually. We—they—want to make sure—“

“Wait a minute, are you in on it, too?  Are you going to ask me if I’m nauseous?”

Milly hesitated.  “Well, yeah.  I am.  Nobody has ever lived in a spinning ship before.  Once you commit to Venus it will take six months to swing back by Earth on the way to Mars.  I’d hate for you to feel like throwing up for six months.”

“Seriously, I’m fine!  We’re all fine.”

“Ok, cool.  I won’t ask again.  Hey, wanna play some VR?”

“Yeah, sure.  It’s been a while since I’ve had time for games.”

Lili dug her goggles and gloves out from a compartment under her bunk and turned on the game console.  While they were still this close to home, the connection was fast enough to play a game together without any lag.

She stood next to Milly’s avatar in a blank white space with no walls or sky.  Several colorful three-dimensional icons floated between them.

“So, what do you want to play?” asked Milly.

Dungeon Crawl VII?”

“Yes!  We almost got to level twenty last time.” Milly poked the icon with her virtual finger and their surroundings morphed into the dark, mottled walls of a cavern.  A torch stuck out from the wall next to a thick oaken door.  Milly was suddenly adorned with a long flowing purple dress.  She had a beautifully crafted staff in her right hand, with a glowing green orb at the top, and a small wand clutched in her left hand.

Lili was clad in shining silver armor, and carried a sword and shield.  “Let’s do this,” she said, and opened the door.

They were immediately attacked by a vicious three-headed beast that breathed fire from its fanged mouths.  Lili jumped in front of Milly, who was playing a more fragile wizard.  Flames licked at her shield, and she began to beat the monster back with her sword.  She heard chanting, and the room filled with a familiar blue glow as Milly cast a spell.  The beast faltered for a second and Lili leapt in, swinging the sword and quickly lopping off one of its heads.  It turned and ran away down the corridor howling.

A giant number five materialized in midair, with a plus sign in front of it.

“Not as much experience as if we’d killed it,” said Milly.  “But not bad.  I should have cast Ice Hammer.”

“You would have hit me with it.  The corridor is too narrow.  Besides, with just two of us here, we get a bigger share of the points.”

“We might wish we had a rogue of we run into any locked doors.”

“I’ll just bash them down.  I bought a strength upgrade last time we played.”

They continued down dark corridors and into cramped dungeon rooms where they were met with an array of fantastical enemies.  Some of the them were easy targets, like goblins, who went down with a quick slash of Lili’s sword, or a lazy flick of Milly’s wand.  Others, like the three-headed dog they had faced earlier, were more challenging.  Eventually they came to a place where the corridor widened out until they could no longer see the walls.  The echo of their footsteps told them they were in an enormous chamber.  The increased urgency of the background music told them they were in for a serious fight.

A red light emerged from the far end of the chamber and a series of torches came to life, revealing a deeply hued red dragon.  There was enough room in the cavern for the dragon to stretch out its wings to their full width.  It looked very angry.

“Um—are we ready for this?” asked Lili.

“A red dragon?  I’m not sure.  I’ve never fought one.”

“If we die, we end up back at the door again.  I don’t want to lose all this progress.”

“I know.  We’re almost at level twenty.”

“Maybe if we just back out slowly—“

They were startled by a noise behind them.  It was a short, slender halfling—Max’s character.  “I can’t believe you’re playing without me!”

“Sorry, Max, we thought you were busy.”

“Whatever, no time for talk, looks like we have a dragon to fight.”  He started moving past them into the chamber.

“That thing will swallow you whole,” said Milly.

“Well, you better cast an invisibility spell on me before it does.” He smiled and pulled out a small dagger.

The dragon was advancing on them.  It was too late to back out now.  Milly started casing spells and Lili ran out to the center of the room to distract the dragon, her shining knight’s armor drawing its attention.  Her shield deflected a vicious flame attack, and even though there was no tactile component to her VR gear, she could almost feel the heat.  She lunged and got in a good swipe across the dragon’s belly, but it casually reached out and flung her across the room into the far wall.  It then began to advance on Milly, who was frantically casting protective spells. The dragon launched an assault, revealing a glowing sphere of energy around Milly that started to shrink under the flames.  Lili saw a flashing red bar in front of her eyes that indicated her health was very low.  This encounter was not going well.

When it seemed like Milly’s defenses were about to fail completely, Max suddenly appeared on top of the dragon’s head, shouting and laughing.  He plunged his dagger down and the dragon’s eyes started to go dark.  The girls both breathed a sigh of relies the dragon fell, and Max hopped off gingerly to the floor.

“I’d be willing to bet there’s some great treasure in this room somewhere,” Max said.

“I need to get healed up before we do anything else.”

Milly chanted a quick spell and Lili’s health meter went green.

“Why haven’t we got the XP yet?” asked Max, as he playfully poked at the dragon with his dagger.  Suddenly, the dragon’s eyes lit up and it clamped it jaws down over Max.  The girls screamed, and immediately sprung into action.  Bolts of lightning flew from Milly’s wand, and Lili hacked repeatedly at the dragon’s neck until it was most definitely dead.

But it was too late for Max.  An icon hovered over his character’s body with a red skull inside a circle.  Green XP points appeared and the girls both heard a satisfying ding that let them know they had leveled up.

The room disappeared and they all stood again the white staging area.  Max was livid.  “What the heck was that?  You’re both level twenty, but I died and now I lose a level.  I’m back to eighteen.  This stinks.”

“That’s what you get for jumping on a dragon’s head,” said Milly.

“Want to play another dungeon?” he asked.  “I’ll be more careful next time.”

“No, I have to be somewhere soon,” said Milly.  “Later, Max.”

“Later.”  Max disappeared, and Lili took off her goggles.  On the video screen, Milly took off her goggles and rubbed her eyes.

“Well, that was pretty crazy,” she said.  “Max is always a wild card.”

“I think we both would have died without him, to be honest.”

“I had a few tricks up my sleeve still.  But yeah, we were in a bad spot.”

“At least we made level twenty.  I think I’ll upgrade my dexterity this time.  So, where is it you have to be, anyway?  I thought we could play for longer.”

“Um—well—“ Milly hesitated and looked off camera.  “I have to meet my Mom.”

“Why?  You’re not on duty until tomorrow, are you?”

“No, but—listen—I have to go.  But, hey, you know how sometimes you play really intense VR game and you feel a little weird, you know, sort of dizzy afterwards?”

“Wait a minute,” said Lili.  “Did you just play with me to see if I would get motion sick?”

“No!  I mean, I did want to play but, yes—“

“You said you weren’t going to ask me about that again!  I told you I was fine.  I’m not dizzy.”

“Sorry, Lili.  They’re just making a really big deal about it down here.”

“Well, you tell them that they need to trust us when we tell them something.  We’re not the ones being sneaky.”  She was upset with her friend but she could never stay mad at Milly for long.  Lili was still heartbroken that they weren’t going to get to go to Titan together.

“Let’s play again tomorrow, ok?”

“Ok, sounds good.  I’ll try to set aside a few hours.  It’s going to be our last chance for a long time.  Once you boost out past the moon, the lag will be too much.”

“We’ll just have to play slower games.  Remember I promised to teach you how to play chess.”

“Sounds kinda boring, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

They said their goodbyes and disconnected.  Lili pushed aside the laptop and lay back in bed.  The interrogation about motion sickness was annoying, but she refused let that bother her.  She smiled wide as she thought about that fact that she was an astronaut.  And she had just fought a dragon.  In space.

Child of Titan – Chapter 2

 

NASA Space Flight Operations Facility.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena CA.

13 years before the announcement of the candidacy

Mike Simmons walked into Amit’s small office and sat down next to him on a creaky office chair that was missing one of its arms.  “Did you get that email I sent you this morning?”

“Yes, I did.  I just opened up the files a few minutes ago.  The data don’t make sense.  This is all from the April flyby?”

“Yes.  April 22nd, when Cassini was at the closest point to Titan.  About a thousand kilometers.”

“Do you think it’s interference from the on-board radar system?”

“No, the frequency is wrong.  And the intervals don’t match.”

“Was the radar malfunctioning?”

“No, check the other file I sent.  Here—“ Mike reached over and clicked Amit’s mouse, almost knocking over his coffee.  “Sorry.  Yeah, so this is radar telemetry.  It all checks out.  And we have some decent radar images of the surface from that day.”

“This is really bizarre.  It must be a long range signal.  Something from Earth, or Mars orbit maybe?”

“There’s no way the signal would be that strong.”

“Have you found this signature anywhere else?”

“I started running a search last night.  I don’t have enough hours on the analytics cluster to really dive into the data streams, though.”

“You can use my time.  I still have to pay up on that bet we made.”

Mike smiled.  “Yeah, I told you the probe would survive passing through the rings.  They’re just not that dense up close.”

“I calculated the odds at 23%,” said Amit.

“Then why take a two to one bet?”

“I guess I’m not much of a gambler.”

“Well, I am.  But I’m not willing to bet my career on this until I have more data.  I’ll go talk to the boss and see if we can try to do some triangulations before we plow this thing into Saturn.”

“There isn’t much time left.  I can’t believe we’re two weeks away from the end.  I’ve been working this mission for half my life now.”

“And you’ll spend the other half writing papers about it.  Especially if we can confirm this.”  Mike tapped the screen.

“Hey guys,” said a voice from the doorway.  It was Oleksey Borodin, Mike and Amit’s supervisor.

“Speak of the devil!” said Mike.  “I was just about to come beg you for some radio time.  We found an interesting signal that deserves another look.”

“Nobody’s getting any more radio time,” said Oleksey in a defeated voice.  “We lost telemetry on Cassini.  We don’t know what happened.  It’s just gone.”

“Maybe I won that bet after all,” said Amit. “Traversing the rings of Saturn is dangerous business.”

#

After the isolation of the candidacy, they were all shocked at how popular they had become.  The reality show had the highest ratings of any broadcast on the planet.  When the day came for the final selection, the entrance to the space center was a media circus.  The nightly news anchor from NBC was the announcer for the event, which was filmed from the primary training room.  The candidates sat in the first few rows, while behind them sat members of the press and those fans lucky enough to score tickets to the event.

The final taped episode aired on the large screen and Lili watched with her usual sense of dread.  She was always so embarrassed when they focussed on her, and it seemed like she got more attention than anyone else.  They played what she felt were the most awkward moments from her interviews, when she forgot that it wasn’t really a private conversation between her and the interviewer, whose voice was never included in the actual broadcast.  The interviews were made to seem like the candidates were just talking, un-prompted.

There was a great deal of speculation about who would be selected as the primary team for the mission.  There were fan clubs, and web sites that rated the families, and rampant gambling around the next batch of cuts.  Most of this went over Lili’s head.  She was still very young, and her mother discouraged her from spending too much time on the internet.

The Svenssons did not seem to mind being cast in the role of the villains, but even Lili thought they went a bit too far sometimes by accentuating every snide remark made by someone in the attractive Swedish family.  Lili had watched Olivia stop to sign a few autographs as the families filed into the auditorium.  She thought that was ridiculous at first, but then she felt a stab of jealousy when she reached her seat without anyone asking for her signature.

Her brother Max absolutely loved the attention.  During the introduction to the show when they flashed his portrait on the screen along with some of his statistics, he jumped up on his seat and faced the crowd, raising his hands and waving.  He got raucous applause and a stern look from Julia.  When they put Lili’s picture on the screen, he stood up again, this time pointing at her in the seat next to him, and got another round of applause.

Carmen took her usual place at the podium after being introduced, and a series of still photos accompanied her speech.

“One year ago, the Space Union announced the Titan mission to the world.  This mission is humankind’s most ambitious endeavor yet.  We have, in little more than half a century, gone from tentative orbits of the Earth in tiny, primitive capsules, to colonizing the moon and Mars.”

A bright, crisp image of the Mars colony appeared on the screen, with a clear sky framing several habitat structures and colonists in their suits, standing proudly in the orange-red dirt of the fourth planet among a collection of national flags representing the people who had made that place their home.

“And now we step beyond the inner planets.  Beyond the asteroid belt and even beyond Jupiter.  We go to Titan.”

A stunning image of Saturn’s moon, with the ringed planet in the background, replaced the image of Mars.  Titan was closer to yellow than the rusty hue of Mars.  And where Mars was dry and barren, Titan had clouds, lakes, and oceans.  Not of running water, but of chemicals like methane and ethane.  The rocks and mountains of Titan were made of frozen water.

“Titan has intrigued us all since the historic Cassini-Huygens probe visited Saturn and its moons in the first decades of this century.  Titan is the only satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere.  Life as we know it, water-based life, may very well exist in a subsurface ocean.  And an entirely new kind of life, one based on liquid methane, could exist on the surface.

“But why not send a machine?  Why not send a robot instead of humans?  A second Cassini probe is already en route to the system.  Isn’t that enough? Why take the risk?”

She paused a moment for effect.  “If I may be so bold as to quote the man who launched this country on its quest to the moon, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.  We are explorers.  Our home is the Earth, but our destiny is the stars.  Titan is the next step.”

She waited a few moments for the audience to stop clapping.  There were many detractors of the mission, but they were not here in any great numbers.  Those in attendance were for the most part hearty supporters of sending humans, families with children, into deep space.  There were even groups of them in the upper rows of seats dressed in costumes from popular TV science fiction shows.

“And now we come to the selection.  The nine families sitting here in the front rows have been through a grueling ordeal, as you have all seen this year.  The Space Union has received its share of criticism for its methods, and a good deal of it has been aimed at me personally.”  She stopped and smiled as people laughed.  She had been cast as the unforgiving headmistress of the competition.  “I won’t make any attempt to deflect the criticism, or to apologize.”  She addressed the candidates directly.  “We put you through hell.  But you were up to the challenge.  And we had to go to the lengths that we did to make sure we were making the right choice.  This journey will not be easy. This is the most hazardous, most complex trip ever embarked upon, and I am determined to see the day when our chosen teams—our chosen families—all return safely to Earth.

“Before we make the announcement, I want each of you to know that you are the finest, most upstanding people I have ever worked with in my whole life.  I speak for the entire selection committee when I say that choosing among you was splitting hairs.  In my opinion, you have all won. Please, everyone, let’s give all of our candidates a warm round of applause.”

The applause turned into a standing ovation that lasted almost a full minute before the room calmed down and Carmen flipped to the last page in her notes.  The screen now showed all nine families, each one bordered by a square with rounded corners.

“The Christiaan station will be manned by three teams.  And three teams will be designated as backups.  I will start by announcing the families who have been chosen as backups.  Those teams will have the designations Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.  When your names are called, please come up and take your seats on the stage.”  Lights illuminated two groups of seats, one set off to the side opposite from Carmen, and another group slightly raised and situated in the exact center, just under the main screen.

“Backup Team Delta is—“ she paused.  The room was completely silent. “the Akintola family.”  The Akintolas rose and waved to the crowd as the climbed the stairs to the stage.  The Putins had shared dormitory space with them early in the candidacy.  Lili and Max waved to their friends, Samuel and Joy.

After the Akintolas were seated, Carmen announced the Ocampos, a Filipino family, as Backup Team Epsilon.  Lili envied them somewhat, not necessarily for being chosen as backups, but because they now knew their fate.  Her stomach was filling with more and more butterflies as the evening wore on.

“The third and final backup team, Team Zeta, is the Svenssons.”  The room erupted in a combination of cheers, jeers, groans, and laughter.  The Svenssons themselves all for a moment sank down into their chairs, deflated by not being chosen as primaries.  Gottfrid stood up, forced a smile, and his family followed him up the stairs, where they took their seats and exchanged handshakes with the Ocampos and Akintolas.

“And now for the primary candidates, those families who will represent the human race as we reach to the outer solar system.

“Primary Team Alpha,” Carmen said into the microphone, regaining the attention of the room.  “Primary Team Alpha is the Bell Family.”  There were no looks of surprise anywhere after the Bells were announced.  Out of all choices, they seemed to be the closest thing to a sure bet.  A group of people in the audience began to chant “USA! USA! USA!”  This was an international mission, but there was still a great deal of national pride attached to the selections.

“Primary Team Beta is the Schultz Family.”

A spotlight shone down on Helmut, Min, Tao, and Jing.  They shared looks of genuine surprise.  They had not been overly optimistic on their chances of being selected, so it took them a moment to recover from the reality and make their way up to the stage.  Helmut stopped in the middle before sitting down and raised both hands, a huge smile on his face.  He grabbed his wife’s hand, and Tao’s, and raised them in the air.  Tao took Jing’s hand and they stood there soaking un the adulation of their fans.  The Schultzes were apparently very popular with the broadcast audience.

Lili cheered wildly.  Her closest friends had been chosen, and for a moment she forgot that she was still in a painful limbo.  There were four remaining teams, four families.  One of them, in a few short moments, would be sitting on the stage next to the Bells and the Schultzes.  Three of them would be rejected.  Lili sat down and quickly scanned over the remaining competition.  They all seemed so perfect—smart, strong, and confident.  She could imagine her parents among them.  Even Max.  But herself?  She felt like she was always hanging on by a thread, like she didn’t deserve to be here.  She silently resigned herself to be among those not chosen.

And yet her heart was beating as though it would explode from her chest.  Carmen’s words came to her as if through a thick, soupy fog, in a foreign language.  There was more applause, cheers, whistles, and she was confused as she looked up and saw her family standing.  Max was tugging at her arm.  They had been chosen.  She was going to Titan.

#

The Interview Room—Isabelle Svensson—Exobiologist

“I feel so insulted.  Insulted that we were not chosen as a primary team, when everyone knows we won the competition.  In every category.  We deserved to be the first pick.  And now they want me to train Anita Bell in exobiology.  Train her?  She is a firefighter.  Did she even go to university?  I have spent decades studying.  I have published a dozen papers and written two books on the subject.  And now she is the mission’s exobiology expert?  Ridiculous.  Insulting.”

#

It was surreal for Lili to be at home again.  The space center had begun to feel like home, and now everything here was strange to her.  There was a musty smell in the air, and all of her things seemed old.  She was sorting through her belongings, treasured toys that were her favorites less than a year before, but which now seemed uninteresting.  She felt that she had outgrown them.  It was for the best, because they would not be allowed to bring many possessions on the voyage.  Every spare kilogram cost a surprising amount of fuel.  Food and water had a premium over dolls and coloring books.

Even during their upcoming training period, which would last several years, they would not be afforded much in the way of personal items.  They were being moved into a newly constructed housing complex at the space center in Houston that was not much bigger than the cramped dormitories that they had called home during the candidacy.  Her father had commented that it was ironic, how the selection meant they were being paid astronomical sums of money—Sergei had nudged Lili when he said “astronomical” and winked at her—but they would have little opportunity to enjoy their newfound wealth.  Training was to be their focus, not expensive new cars or lavish lifestyles.

Lili was digging through boxes in the basement with a pad of sticky notes, labelling her things into one of three categories: Houston, Storage, and Trash.  Her father was there also, sitting cross legged, paging through an old photo album.

Lili came across her telescope.  “Dad, do you think we could go out observing one more time before we move to Houston?  I never did finish checking off the last of the Messiers.”  Lili had become obsessed with astronomy before the candidacy.  She had printed out a checklist of all the Messier objects, 110 of the most easily seen astronomical targets, like the Orion nebula and the Andromeda galaxy.  Spotting them all was a rite of passage for budding astronomers.

“I suppose we could,” he said.  “You could bring your scope to Houston if you like.”

“It’s too big for the station, though, right?”

“You won’t need it there.  The station is being equipped with some very nice optical equipment.  In fact, I have a feeling they will train you to be a navigator, so it will be your job to operate the scopes.”

“Cool!” said Lili.  “But it won’t be the same.  There won’t be hot chocolate.”  Sergei always brought a thermos of hot chocolate with them when they drove out to the remote site to gather with other amateurs to escape the bright lights of the city.

“Why can’t we have hot chocolate in space?  I will refuse to fly without it.”

Lili smiled up at him.  “What about marshmallows?”

“Especially the marshmallows.  Marshmallows are light.  They can’t complain about the extra mass.”  Sergei pulled his phone out of his pocket.  “Let me check something quickly.  Oh, perfect,” he said.

“What is it?” Lili asked.

“Saturn is at opposition right now.  I had lost track while we were candidates.  It will rise just after sunset.  And it looks like it will be a clear night.  And not too cold.”

“Cold enough for hot chocolate,” she said.  She picked up the telescope and carried it upstairs.

She almost collided with Max, who liked to skip as many steps as he could while coming down to the basement.

“Watch it!” said Lili, protecting the telescope.

“Lili, guess what I just heard?” he asked.  He didn’t wait for her to reply.  “Mom was talking to somebody at the space center, and they said they were going to install all the video games on the station.”

“What do you mean all the games?  Which ones?”

“I mean all of them.  Every video game ever!  And they will even transmit new ones to us as they come out.”

“You mean all the new VR games?”

“No, I mean every game ever.  Even the old silly ones they had when mom and dad were kids.”

“Why would you want to play those games when you have VR?  Don’t they just play on a flat screen?  Were they even in color back then?”

“Hey!” protested Sergei.  “I’m not that old.  They had video games way before I was born.”

“I know,” said Max.  “I played them all in VR.  There’s a retro ‘game game’ that I bought with my allowance.”

“Seriously?” asked Sergei.  “You play video games inside a video game?”

“Yep.  I even played one called Pong, on a tiny little TV.  It had an antenna on the back because they didn’t even have the internet yet.  When you go in the room, the first space shuttle launch is playing on the TV.  And then you have to play Pong and beat the computer to get to the next level in the game.”

“What’s the next level?”

“A game called Atari.  Actually it’s a bunch of games.  They came on little cartridges that you have stick in the front.  But at least the TV was color.”

“Atari,” Sergei mused.  “I remember my father bought one, an old used one, when I was your age.  He said he always wanted one, but when he was a child, Russia was the Soviet Union, and anything from America was strictly forbidden.”  Sergei thought for a moment.  “What about all the controllers?  We don’t have room for all the different controllers for every video game ever.”

“We don’t need them all,” said Max.  “We can just use one of the recent ones and emulate the older ones.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Sergei, shaking his head.

That night, Sergei and Lili packed up the car with her telescope and a thermos of hot chocolate.  They drove away from the suburb where they lived until the street lights gave out, and the roads went from being neatly paved to gravel and dirt.  Sergei turned off the headlights and navigated into a large, open field with parking lights, to avoid ruining the night vision of any other astronomy enthusiasts who had made the trek to the observing site.

It was a perfectly clear night, and the Milky Way was easily visible to the naked eye.  Lili and Sergei spent a few minutes observing with binoculars before they set up the telescope.  Lili quickly found all of her favorites: The Orion Nebula, The Andromeda galaxy, and the Pleadies.  She saw that Saturn had risen, and she tried to make out the rings with the binoculars, but they weren’t quite powerful enough, so she set them aside and helped Sergei wire up the controls to the telescope’s control panel.

The scope came to life with a beep and a whirr of finely tuned motors, and Sergei quickly went through the alignment routine.  “This always feels like cheating to me,” he said.

“Why?” asked Lili.

“When my father taught me astronomy, we had a Dobsonian, like that one.” He pointed to a very large telescope that sat directly on the ground.  It was being used by an equally large gentleman who had on a pointy wool hat with a ball at the end—Lili thought he looked like Santa Claus.

“Our scope had no motors.  You had to use your star charts and find things yourself.”

Lili pushed a few buttons on the control panel and the telescope began slewing towards the Eastern horizon.  “Well, back in my day,” she said with an elderly voice, “we had to walk ten miles in the snow to see Saturn.”

“Uphill, both ways,” said Sergei, laughing.

Lili chose an eyepiece from a holder mounted to the tripod and slipped it in to place.  She had to stand on a stool to get here eye up to the right height.

“There it is,” she said with satisfaction.  “The seeing is really good tonight.”  She moved aside so Sergei could take a look.

“The rings are really opening up.”  The first time Lili had ever seen Saturn, its rings were facing edge-on to Earth, so she had been a bit underwhelmed.  But now they had opened up to give the planet a three-dimensional look.  Lili felt like she could reach out and touch it.

Lili went back to the eyepiece.  “And there’s Titan,” she said.  “I think I can make out one of the other moons.  I always get the names mixed up, though.  Rhea?”

Sergei leaned back and looked up at they sky.  “I can’t wait to be there and see it up close.”

“How long will we orbit Saturn before we go to Titan?”

“A few weeks,” said Sergei.

“How big will it look?  Bigger than our moon?”  Luckily for them, Earth’s moon was not up yet.  Its bright light made stargazing difficult.

“Yes, much bigger, but the atmosphere is very cloudy, so it would have to be a clear day to see Saturn from the surface.  Even then it might not be visible at all.  Nobody really knows.”

“We’ll just have to go there and find out.”

#

The Interview Room—Sergei Putin—Astronaut Pilot

“Lili loves astronomy.  She loves space.  But she is only a child.  It is easy to forget that, when she is so smart.  So capable.  I wonder sometimes if I am not being a good parent.  Maybe when she is an adult and she is a million miles from home, she will be angry with me.  She did not choose this, the way her mother and I chose it.  I have to hope that it is worth the risk.  That she will respect the choice, in the end.”

#

After the hectic pace of the candidacy, the training schedule was like an extended vacation.  Lili actually found it to be quite boring at times, since most of it was spent in the classroom.  It wasn’t very much different than middle school, and in fact the Space Union had a hired several teachers from the local area to conduct mundane classes that had nothing to do with space travel.  The parents were attending classes on how to teach basic subjects, so that the education of the children could continue after the long journey began.  It seemed pointless to the children, when all they really wanted to learn was how to be an astronaut.

Lili had seen an old movie where the students at a rural school had all fit into a single classroom, and had just one teacher.  She looked around and thought that her current situation was very much like that movie.  There were fourteen children, from the six chosen families, within a relatively small range of ages.  The youngest was Nicklas Schulz, who had turned nine years old just days before training began.  And the oldest was Angel Ocampo, who was thirteen.  Lili thought she looked like she was twenty—she had full hips and breasts already.  She made Lili feel very self-conscious.

The current lecture, on a rainy Tuesday morning in February, was on western civilization in the 18th century.  This was one of the classes where everyone was on equal footing, unlike the hour spent on mathematics every day, when Lili and half the class struggled to complete problems in basic algebra and trigonometry; meanwhile the other half, including Nicklas and Tao, breezed through orbital trajectory calculus equations.

The teacher, Mrs. Greensmith, wore an American flag on her lapel.  Her hair was cropped in a close wedge, she wore a dark gray wool skirt, and heavy-looking pair of clogs.  She spoke with great fondness of the founding fathers of the United States.

“I would like everyone to tell me who is their favorite historical figure from the American revolution.  I have to say that I find Thomas Jefferson to be most intriguing figure.” She put her had over her heart when she said his name.

Joy Akintola raised her hand.  “Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.”

Mrs. Greensmith looked at her silently for a moment, as if expecting her to finish the sentence with something more.  “Well… yes, that’s true.  He did own slaves.  It was a—a different time.”

“I like Abigail Adams,” said Joy.  “And her husband, John.  They didn’t own any slaves.  Also, John Adams wrote the constitution.”

Mrs. Greensmith took in her breath sharply.  “Ah, no, Joy, that is not correct.  Everyone knows Thomas Jefferson wrote the constitution.”

“But John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which they basically just copied.  I mean, Jefferson, like, physically wrote the US constitution, I know that, but he had the best hand-writing, so he got to hold the pen.”

“Well, you seem to be very well informed for a girl from—ah—where are you from again, Joy?”

“Liberia.  Do you know where that is?”

“Of course, dear, it’s on the African continent.  I must say your English is quite good for someone who is not from the states.”

“English is the official language of Liberia.  Our country was formed by freed slaves.”

Mrs. Greensmith found her attention diverted by Max, who had been patiently holding up his hand.  “Yes, Max, and who is your favorite?”

“Ben Franklin.  Because he invented electricity.”

“Excellent, yes, that’s correct—“

Olivia Svensson looked up from a chemistry book she was reading and laughed out loud.  “Nobody invented electricity.  Electricity just exists.  He invented bifocals, and the lightning rod.  Very clever fellow.”  She went back to her book.

“Well, perhaps, Olivia, it would be safe to say that he discovered electricity.”

“No,” said Olivia flatly, not looking up from her book.

Mrs. Greensmith decided to change the subject again.  “Tonight I would like you all to read chapter twelve, and write a short essay comparing the American revolution to the French revolution, which followed later in the same century.”

Lili’s shoulders sank.  She had time scheduled in the Christiaan simulator after dinner, and she didn’t want too much homework to cut into an opportunity to do something that actually felt like astronaut training.

#

The Interview Room—Milly Bell—Junior Astronaut

Milly twirled her finger in her curly, tightly packed hair, smiling politely at the camera.  “I try to like everybody.  There’s no sense in hating people.  My Mom says hating somebody is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.  Everybody’s trying to be good, even if they seem bad.  But, I guess if you want to know who I like like—“ she giggled and looked away.  “I don’t want to say.  Everybody will know!  We all watch the show too.  And besides, I’m supposed to be focussing on training.  And one of us is going into space for years and years and the other one—oh wait, did I just give it away?”

#

The replica of the Christiaan station that occupied the center of Building 9 was almost a perfect copy of the version currently being constructed in orbit around the Earth, with a few notable exceptions on the account of gravity.  The central hub of the station was a mostly hollow cube that served to connect the four Taurus capsules with a booster on one of the remaining two sides.  Opposite the booster was a docking ring.

In space, while on their way to Titan, the cube would be the center of rotation, as each capsule faced outwards at the outside of the circle to create the forces necessary to keep them from floating.  Lili had learned that besides being an annoyance once you got over the novelty of zero-G, a person’s bones deteriorated after too much time in orbit.  Hours of exercise per day could stave off the effects for a few months, but over the long term, what a body needed was gravity, or a semblance of gravity produced by a spinning craft.  Also, exercising for hours each day burned a lot of extra calories, which means increasing the mass of the cargo necessary to sustain them.

Of course, the Christiaan station, even including four large capsules, could not carry enough food to get them all the way to the outer planets and back.  The Space Union had already begun launching cargo on small, fast vessels to meet them along the way.

There wasn’t much they could do to simulate the odd transition from half of Earth gravity in the bottom of the capsules, to the total lack of gravity in the very center of the docking cube, so there were various replicas staged in close proximity to one another.  If you wanted to practice going from one capsule to another, first you started in an upright simulator, with a docking tube attached to the top, and you climbed a ladder to the top until you emerged on a platform.  After hurrying down a set of stairs, you then climbed up a short tube into the central docking space.  You had to pretend that the stairs weren’t actually there, and you had made one uninterrupted trip.

Tonight Lili was with Tao and Jing conducting blindfold drills inside the capsule and connecting tube.  Jay had instructed them to all strap in to their seats, applied a blindfold and then gave them various tasks to perform.

“Ok, astronauts, on my mark, I want Lili to retrieve a bandage from the first aid kit; Tao will reset the circuit breaker on the main bus leading to the cube, and Jing will power up the backup navigation system.” Jay had stopped calling them candidates—they were astronauts now, even though they hadn’t yet been to space.  Max wanted to be called a cosmonaut, and they humored him, although astronaut was the official term, English being the agreed upon language of the Space Union.  Jay held up a stopwatch and said “Mark!”

Lili quickly unbuckled and sprang up from her seat, in the opposite direction from Tao, who she noticed had a tendency to bump into her a lot more than would be expected, regardless of the blindfolds.  The candidacy was over, but she couldn’t shake the competitiveness, especially since she knew that Olivia was still secretly keeping score.  Tao’s clumsiness around her always cost them a few precious seconds.

Lili knew exactly where the first aid kit was located.  There were rungs built into the bulkhead just behind and to the right of the back row of seats.  A few feet up and to the left was a metal box with a latch.  She couldn’t see through the blindfold but she knew it was painted white and had a large red cross on the front.  She had never opened it in the real simulator, but she had studied its location and contents, and she had opened it in VR.  As she expected, the kit was inside the box, strapped in with flexible webbing to keep it from falling out.  She quickly popped open the container, retrieved a large, soft bandage, and neatly stowed the kit back into place.  She hurried back to her seat, to be followed a few seconds later by Jing, who dropped from the ladder above the seats, and her brother Tao, who flung himself roughly back into his seat and wound up leaning against Lili’s left side.  She shoved him off and heard Jay click the stopwatch.

“Great job, astronauts.  That’s your best time yet.  Ok, let’s remove the blindfolds and call it a night.  I hear some of you are behind on your homework assignments.”

#

The Interview Room—Helmut Schultz—Diplomat

“I am starting too see some signs of, well, let’s call it ‘teenage drama’ between the kids.  That is to be expected.  I don’t want to discourage it too much.  Of course, we wouldn’t want anyone to get pregnant during training, but they will have to learn how to navigate relationships if we are going to succeed on such a long mission in space.  It’s just human nature for them to develop feelings for each other.”

#

The parents from primary teams Alpha, Beta, and Gamma were gathered in a small meeting room in the Space Union’s headquarters building.  On a small video monitor on one wall, there were various graphics displayed.  One was a chart of the Saturn system, with glowing green lines pointing towards Titan.  A visual representation of what looked like an audio recording.  A photo of the Cassini probe.

Carmen Tindall, whose job title had changed from Chief of Candidate Selection to Chief of Staff for the Titan Mission, sat near the head of the table.  Sitting next to her was a compact, well-dressed man with a round face and rosy cheeks.  His name was Oleksey Borodin, and he was the Director of the Space Union. The astronauts were all staring at him.  No one spoke for several seconds.

He broke the silence, his voice husky, with only a hint of an accent betraying his heritage.  “We will give you some time to consider everything that we have just told you.  We will understand if you decide to withdraw yourselves from the mission.”

“Withdraw?” said Timothy Bell, surprised.  “Why would we withdraw now?  This makes me want to go even more.”  He looked around for agreement, and a few parents were nodding their heads.  But there were also concerned, even worried, looks from Julia and Helmut.

“This adds an additional element of…” Oleksey paused for a second, searching for the right word.  “…risk, or at least the unknown, to the mission.  Since your children are involved, it’s only fair to give you a chance to reconsider.  We could swap you out with a backup team, or replace you entirely if that is your desire.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this long ago?” asked Julia.  “Why not during the candidacy?”

“This is very sensitive information,” said Oleksey.  “The fewer people who know about it, the better.  None of the data are confirmed.  We don’t know how to interpret this, and we don’t want it to become public.”

“How is it not public already?” asked Helmut.  “NASA has always published all of its mission data online.”

Oleksey answered.  “The first Cassini mission was managed by NASA, and they did publish the data.  The findings were not obvious, so no one noticed.  But the second probe was the first official Space Union project.  And the Space Union does not operate strictly under NASA guidelines.  Even still,” he said, pointing to the screen, “the data are not conclusive.  That is why we are sending you.  That is why we are not satisfied by just  sending probes.  Something this important, this significant, requires the presence of a human mind.”

Sergei sat with his arms crossed.  “Or maybe the Chinese are involved.  I think that’s a more likely explanation.”

“Perhaps,” admitted Oleksey without enthusiasm.  “But what do we know of their program?  They are very secretive.  Their efforts to colonize the moon have been less than successful, so it’s doubtful that they could have reached out so far into the solar system.”

“But you want to make sure that we reach out before they do.”

“The Space Union does not admit to being in a competition with the Chinese.  This is not the cold war.”

“What about the children?  What do we tell them about this?” asked Julia.

Carmen and Oleksey looked at each other.  Carmen said, “We feel that it would be best to wait.”

“Until they are a bit older,” said Oleksey.  “Perhaps even after the journey has begun.  Children are not so good at keeping secrets.”

“Neither are adults, when everything they do is broadcast on a television show,” said Timothy.  “This is something we need to talk about.  Prepare for.”

“You will be prepared,” said Carmen.  “For the most part, you already are.  We selected you very specifically for your suitability to this type of mission.”

Helmut laughed.  “I was wondering why on Earth you chose me.  I’m still wondering, to be honest.  I think it’s because my wife is so wonderful that you had to take me along for the ride.” He put his arm around Min dramatically.  Min blushed and shook her head.  “But I understand.  I am still ready to go.  We all knew we were signing up for a risky job.  What do you think, Min?”

Min put her hand on Helmut’s arm, which was still around her shoulders.  “This is exactly what we signed up for.  I wish you had been more up front with us, but I’m still in.”

“Same here,” said Timothy.  “The Bells are ‘go’”.  He did not look at Anita when he said it.

Sergei was nodding.  Then he looked at Julia, who was scowling, and said, “Maybe we will discuss it privately.  We have come a long way.  I would not want to quit now.”

“We will discuss it privately,” said Julia.  “What worries me the most is that we have established a precedent of hiding information from the astronauts, and I’d hate to think we have to spend the next decade, or more, second guessing everything we hear from mission control.”

Oleksey shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“We could have waited until you arrived at Titan,” said Carmen.  “It’s not fair to say we’re hiding information from you.  We’re telling you.  Now.  Weeks into a multi-year training program.”

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Jing Schultz—Junior Astronaut

“I wish I could just be an adult already.  I’m so sick of being treated like a child.  The grown-ups go off and have secret meetings and they act like we’re babies.  We’re astronauts!  We qualified just like they did.  We can handle anything.  I’m going to be the first person the get their Phd in space.  I want to be in charge of all the experiments.  We don’t really have a scientist on the crew—I mean, Lili’s Mom is a surgeon, so she studied medical science, and Mrs. Bell is a chemist, even though everyone calls her a firefighter—she was a volunteer firefighter, in her spare time—but really she worked for a big company that makes industrial chemicals.  That doesn’t really count.  Mrs. Svensson is an exobiologist, which is so cool!  But she’s not going.”  Jing paused her rapid speech to get a breath.  “Maybe I’ll study exobiology too, she could help me, since she’s on the backup crew.  Or maybe regular biology.  But anthropology is neat, and psychology—a long trip in space will be a good chance to study human behavior.  I’ll have to start designing some social experiments—but my Mom is a computer scientist, and there’s lots of computers on board the Christiaan, but that’s more like engineering than science—“

#

Lili was breathing heavily as she rounded the last corner of the outdoor track for the fourth time.  Her legs were starting to burn, but she was feeling confident that she could beat her personal best in the 1,000 meters.  And Olivia was actually behind her, for a change.

“TRACK!” Both Miles and Axel gave the warning just before they flew by on Lili’s right.  They were in lockstep, Miles just barely ahead of Axel.  Miles drifted back to the left-most lane and Axel made a move to his right in an attempt to pass.  Lili was silently rooting for Miles, although the rivalry seemed pointless now.

Just as they came out of the corner onto the straight, Axel abruptly cut to the left and collided with Miles, who went down hard and tumbled into the grass.  Without a glance backwards, Axel continued to power forwards.  Miles came to a stop and clutched at his knee, which was badly scraped and bleeding.

“Are you all right?” Lili asked breathlessly as she stopped next to him and offered her hand to help him up.  “He just knocked you over, that was not cool!”

Lili had to step aside quickly as Olivia passed them, still running at full speed.  Lili drew in a sharp breath and let it out in frustration through clenched teeth.  She again put her hand out to Miles.

Miles pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes as he watched Axel rounding the next corner.  He brushed Lili’s hand away, jumping to his feet and trotting down the track.  He was limping, and Lili could tell he was in pain.  “Miles, you should stop, you’re hurt.”

“I’m fine,” grunted Miles.  He started picking up speed and said “watch this”.  Lili started jogging again, realizing that her chance at a decent time was ruined.  She worried that Miles might be seriously injured, and now he was going to make it worse by trying to catch up to Axel, who had what looked like an insurmountable lead.

Lili watched Miles pass Olivia like she was standing still.  He was running as if it was a hundred meter sprint, even though he had already run over a kilometer, and he was gaining ground quickly.  Axel glanced back and for a moment a look of surprise crossed his face as he realized Miles wasn’t still on the ground.  He bent forward and picked up his pace.

Miles passed Axel with less than ten meters to go before the finish line.  Lili wanted to cheer but she didn’t have the breath for it.  She still had a half lap to go herself, and she was gaining ground on Olivia.  A quick glance at her wrist showed a time that was still well under her personal best if she could sustain it through two more corners.  After Miles slowed to a stop he turned around and began to cheer Lili on.  Axel was hunched over, retching into a drainage ditch.  He had pushed himself too hard trying to stay ahead of Miles.

Lili thought it would be perfect justice for the Svenssons to both lose.  It seemed like the perfect story, but it wasn’t to be.  Olivia put on a great burst of speed at the end, and Lili came up short.  To make it worse, she missed her best time by three seconds.

She didn’t bother with a cool down lap.  She doubled back to Miles and said “You need to report that.  He deliberately tripped you.”

“What’s the point?” asked Miles.  “I still won.”

“Look at you, you’re bleeding.”

“It’s just a scratch.  Don’t worry about it, Lili.”

“If you won’t say something, then I will.”

“Please don’t.  It won’t solve anything.  Besides, I’m a little embarrassed that I let him trip me up.  I should have been ready for that.”

“You should at least confront him about it.  Don’t let him get away with it.”

Miles laughed and pointed to where Olivia was crouching next to Axel, who was lying prone and groaning miserably after emptying his stomach.  “I didn’t”.

#

The Interview Room—Olivia Svensson—Junior Astronaut

“I told my father we should drop out of the program.  There are business opportunities on Mars, and if we wanted, we could book passage on a transport later this year.  We would get to space before any of the others, even the primary teams.  I don’t think I could stand to be on the ground crew for the whole mission.  And I don’t like Houston very much. It’s too hot.  I miss Stockholm.  And skiing.  We used to go to the resort at Vemdalen a few times every year.”  Olivia had a wistful look on her face.  “If we go to Mars we won’t get to go skiing, but at least we won’t be stuck in this place forever.  And we also won’t be stuck in some dreary little capsule for years and years.  I never really wanted to go to Titan anyway.”

#

Lili had never actually held the controls of an airplane before.  Not in real life. She sat in the front seat of a shiny white and blue T38-D, with her father riding in the seat behind her.  Sergei’s voice came over the small speakers in Lili’s helmet, which had been made specially for her—it was bright yellow, with her name etched in bold green letters on both sides.  “I’m going to take my hands away from the stick now.  Are you ready?”

“Ready,” she confirmed.  She didn’t feel ready.  Flying in a simulator was one thing, but this was a completely different experience.

“You have the stick.”

Lili felt the aircraft wiggle a bit under her grip, but she kept it straight and steady.  Her feet put even pressure on the rudder pedals, and her left had rested easily on the throttle.

“Ok, Lili, I want you to execute a banked turn 90 degrees to the left, nice and easy.”

She applied pressure to the stick, and adjusted her feet, just as she had been taught in the simulator, and the aircraft eased into a turn.  She had an expansive view from the bubble cockpit.  “Oh wow, is that Galveston?  We’ve got a great view from up here.”

“Watch your altitude, Lili,” warned Sergei.  “Give it a little more throttle when you turn.”

She pushed forward on the throttle and the jet shot upwards more than she had intended.

“Hold the stick steady,” said Sergei in a calm voice.  “Go ahead and straighten it out.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“No worries, you’re doing fine.  Now let’s go back to the right until the heading reads 110 degrees.”

She managed this turn with a bit more finesse.  “Max is going to be so jealous,” she said.

“You’re right,” said Sergei.  “He’s worried he won’t meet the height requirements before we launch.”

“That would be a shame,” said Lili.  “All he’s ever wanted was to be a pilot like you.”

“If they made smaller planes he would be already.”

They were headed out over the water, and everything was blue.  Lili felt a sense of freedom like she hadn’t felt in a long time.  Like anything was possible.  She weaved the small jet back and forth in easy curves and began to get a feel for the controls.

“I could get used to this,” she said after they had spent a half hour conducting basic flight maneuvers.

“It’s in your blood, Lili.  It’s in your blood.  Now let’s get back to base.  You think you’re ready to land this thing by yourself?”

“What?  Land?  Really?”

“No, not really.  I was joking.”

“Not funny, Dad.  You’re supposed to tell funny jokes.”

“Ok, how about this: what do you get when you cross a snake and a plane?”

“Um, I don’t know.  I haven’t heard that one.”

“A Boeing Constrictor.”

“Ooh, that’s pretty bad, even for you.”

“Hey, don’t criticize.  I’m your flight instructor, it might cost you a few points.”

“I flew perfectly today.  Well, almost.  But you can’t take points for not liking your jokes.”

“You know what, Liliana?”

“What?”

“If you had flown through a rainbow, you would have passed with flying colors.”

“A rainbow—?” she paused for a second, and then she got it.  “Oh, right.  Flying colors.  I get it.  Ok, that’s not bad.”

“Ha ha, see, my jokes are always funny.”

He let her take the controls again on their way back, and she handled the communications with the tower on their approach. He didn’t take back the stick until they were a few hundred feet from the ground.

After they landed, Max greeted them and peppered her with questions.  Rather than show any jealousy, he was very excited about her day, and wanted to hear every detail.

“Did you do a barrel roll?  Or a loop?”

“No, silly, I never went upside down.  It was my first flight.”

“Oh.  I would have.”

“Not if I had anything to say about it,” said Sergei.  “A good pilot is not over confident.  Maybe in the movies it’s Ok for pilots to have—what’s the word?”

“Bravado”, said Lili.

“In real life those types don’t last so long.”

“I do loops and rolls in the simulator all the time,” protested Max.  “What’s the difference?”

Sergei laughed.  “Hitting ground hurts a lot more in real life.”

#

The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Astronaut

“I remember that day,” she said.  “It seems like so long ago now.  Back when things still felt new.”  Lili stared at the camera in silence for a few seconds and let out a long sigh, shrugging her shoulders.  “I don’t know what else to say.  Really.  What can I possibly say that I haven’t already said before?  It’s all getting so repetitive.  Everything.  The training, the interviews—can we just go to space already?  Let’s go.  I’m ready.”

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