Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

Mystic Canyon

by T. Richard Williams

For David Grinspoon and Laura Danly
in gratitude for their assistance and their remarkable vision.


1.

In Jake Youngblood's world, the sick and dying went. They were the explorers: the ones the gene therapists couldn't or wouldn't fix, the ones who weren't "eligible" for nanomachines; healthy enough to function, but certainly not around for the long haul. There was nothing to lose that way.

Publicly, the Leadership didn't force anyone (privately, they loved the economics of the idea) and the truth is, volunteers did step forward -- and gladly. For the last 15 years they'd stepped up to the plate for the long, tough journeys when no one else would. A win-win situation, right?

Absolutely. Well, until recently that is. After all this time -- as if the concept of "Terminal Volunteers" was something shockingly new -- the human rights do-gooders were stepping in and claiming it wasn't humane, that sending people like Jake on dangerous one-way missions was tantamount to saying that human beings were expendable, to saying that since they're sick anyway, it didn't matter.

Of course, some less-than-charitable folks actually did say things like that: "So what? They're gonna die anyway."

But what did Jake say? "Let 'em fight." As far as he was concerned, it was all politics anyway. The Life Activists cared about as much as the Leadership. It was about them and their agenda, not Jake or his buddies.

Besides, Terminals like Jake really wanted to go on One-Ways. So thanks to them, the first scientific bases on the Moon and Mars were set up, a robotic mining center on Mercury was established, and just recently the scaffolding on Ceres for the first Asteroid Belt observatory was finished.

Now Jake was on his One-Way to Titan, to prove things, after a century, once and for all. And as always, while the Activists screamed about the callousness; the Leadership praised his courage. Jake just said what he'd always said: "Let 'em fight -- let 'em kill each other off."

What did he care? As far as Jake Youngblood was concerned, the greatest discovery in history was about to be made. He'd be there. They wouldn't.

2.

July 8, 2106 - Mia Youngblood's quarters on Selene Base - Late night.

Mia was finally alone after a harrowing day -- her brother's rally, having to say goodbye to him, the launch itself, and then that damned press conference. With a sigh of frustration, she plunked down into her favorite chair, gave the order, "Network -- on," and watched the room grow dim while a four-foot HoloScreen materialized in front of her.

Caught in mid-sentence, Walt Singer was describing the launch earlier in the day, the Screen filling with a wide angle shot of Ghost Dancer shooting out over the rugged northwestern limb of Mare Frigoris. "...Of course," he continued, "not everything went as smoothly as the launch. As can be expected, a local contingent of the Activists mounted a protest during Youngblood's farewell speech."

There was a three-quarter shot of Jake standing at a makeshift podium earlier in the day, followed by a wide cut to the crowd gathered on Selene Base's tarmac, a restless, ambiguous gathering of about three hundred supporters and protestors. Some were cheering him on but detractors often drowned out the others with chants like "The Leadership Kills" or "Choose Life."

Singer asked, "So what did you make of all that?"

And there was Jake seated behind his console on Ghost Dancer in real time, already about a million miles from the Moon. He quipped, "Ya really wanna know?"

"Of course," Singer encouraged.

Mia smiled at Jake's less-than-subtle reaction to Singer, an overly-friendly, toothy-smiled newscaster with one of those artificial baritone voices the Network seemed to love. There was something in Jake's dark eyes that told her exactly what he thought of Walt Singer, which made her smile even more.

"Frankly I looked out and thought, What a bunch of stupid cartoon characters, with their ridiculous placards and leaflets."

The HoloScreen now showed the launch bay at Selene. Apparently Jake had just silenced the pack. On cue, the lights in the cavernous launch bay dimmed and one focus beam flooded Jake on the dais near his spacecraft, marked in large letters: Ghost Dancer.

"Friends," he began, but someone immediately shouted a slur against the mission. Not thwarted, Jake shot back: "Listen, you might not like what's happening today, but many of us have worked together here at Selene for over ten years side-by-side, and..."

Applause and more rumbles.

"...in less than two hours, I'm heading out to Titan on what may be the greatest adventure any human's ever taken."

He had to raise his voice bit by bit as the murmurs became louder. "The two most recent probes have found tantalizing evidence that there's real life out there -- not like the fossils of Mars -- but life that's still active and evolving."

Once the word was out, the torch had been lit. The Activists started shouting, trying to shut him down.

But a voice hollered back: "Let him talk for Christ's sake!" The camera quickly searched the crowd; after a few jerky shifts, it zoomed in on Jake's sister.

The image froze on Mia, her shoulder-length raven hair caught in mid-swirl as she turned to shout at the crowd.

"And that is...?"

"My sister Mia."

"You came to Selene Base together, correct?"

"Yes. We came with my parents twelve years ago."

"Because...?"

"My parents, Mia, and I were part of a small group of Navajo Indians leaving Earth to establish an enclave of Native scientists on the Moon. Many of us -- for all kinds of reasons that we don't have time to go into now -- had been denied the life-extending gene and nanotherapies that are now common on Earth; some of us were still sick with nearly extinct illnesses like cancer or heart valve disease..."

"...Which is what you have," Singer interrupted, obviously trying to make a point with the viewing audience.

"Yes. I've got a seriously compromised ventricle valve. Medication has kept me from having a dangerous bout of congestive heart failure, which is why I'm able to go on this mission."

"This may be a dumb question..."

Then why ask it, asshole, Mia thought.

"...but now that some of the laws have changed, are you angry? I mean, if they'd been enacted just a few years ago, you might have had a chance to live longer, right?"

"Yes, I'd be able to live longer, but Walt, I'm not angry. Really, I'm not."

Mia liked the sudden first-name-basis familiarity. Jake was playing with Singer, and he didn't even know it. Oh, how she loved it when Jake jerked the system.

"I mean that," Jake continued. "Sure, it would've been nice to get gene therapy, but since I'm too far gone, even with today's technology, I wanna make the most of the time I've got left. That's why I volunteered. And to be honest -- even if there had been therapy available, and I was all better right now, I'd still have volunteered. This mission's just too important not to go."

Again, trying to make a point with the audience, Singer said, "That's pretty courageous."

"Maybe," Jake said. "But it's true. I'd go whether I was supposedly dying or not. Listen, my attitude is simple, Walt: We're all gonna die sooner or later, anyway. All the nanobots and genes won't stop the shuttle bus from running you over five minutes from now -- so make the most of what ya got."

Singer laughed: "Sounds rather stoic."

"Not at all, Walt. It's being realistic."

A wave of reality tugged Mia's stomach: This was as close as she'd ever get to her brother or his "wit and wisdom" ever again. She tried to refocus on the interview.

"Let's go back to the Rally for a moment," Singer said, trying to move the interview along.

There was a close up of the Base Commander Jenkins, getting up during a protestor's outburst.

"Jake Youngblood's been your friend and colleague for over a decade," Jenkins said. His imposing voice boomed through the chamber. "He didn't have to speak today. But he knew how many of you felt and he made the decision to gather you here. As far as I'm concerned, that's another example of his courage."

There was a spattering of mild applause.

"We know how the Activists feel about this..."

"Then why does the Leadership allow it!" And the shouts grew bolder.

Finally fed up, Jake leaned over towards the Commander, whispered something to him, and then walked off.

The interview went back to Jake in real time.

"What did you say to Jenkins at that moment?"

"Something like, 'I don't have time for this crap; let's get the hell out of here'."

"So you were really angry at that point?"

Jake's expression seemed to say, Is this guy for real? But he answered seriously: "Damn straight. I'm heading out on one of the great exploratory missions in history and a bunch of hoopoes wanna make trouble? Sorry, but I don't have time for that."

Singer tried to make a joke, "I hate it when you hold back like that, Jake."

Jake grinned: "Yeah, I guess I'm pretty blunt."

"And what about Jenkins himself?"

"Don't go there, Jake." Mia said aloud to the Screen. Jake didn't.

"He's a fair man. I don't see eye-to-eye with a lot of the Leadership, but the Commander's always tried to be fair." It was clear he wasn't going to give Singer any ammo, so Walt moved on:

"Here's one final image I'd like to show our viewers tonight."

As the crowd at the rally was being dispersed by Base security, the camera settled on Mia and Jake hugging each other. "Tell us about Mia," Singer asked with cloying familiarity.

"She's my kid sister and my strongest ally."

"What did she say to you at this point?"

"How about -- none of your fucking business," Mia snapped at the Screen. But she knew Jake would take the high road once again.

"She said she was proud of me and that..." Jake had to stop for a second. He was clearly trying not to get emotional -- especially in front of good ol' Walt -- but he couldn't help himself. "She told me that our parents would be proud and that our ancestors would be watching over me."

Going for the extra points (and sounding ever-so-unctuous): "To fill in the audience, Jake and Mia's parents both passed away about five years ago from untreated heart disease."

"Yes, so Mia and I are the only family we have. For me to go on this One Way was a big decision. From a scientific and historic perspective, the choice was easy, but the hardest part was knowing I'd have to leave her behind."

Imitating encouragement, Singer said, "Well, based on what we saw at the rally, she definitely can stand up for herself."

"Oh, that she can. Mia's almost as bad as me. She knows how to speak her mind."

"Damn right!" Mia shot her fist in the air, then laughed.

The Screen showed brother and sister walking in opposite directions off the tarmac.

"Before we close tonight, any last words?"

"Yeah." Jake looked directly into Ghost Dancer's onboard camera. "I just wanna tell my sister, if she's watching this, that I love her, and that I'll always be there for her. Mia, I'll send my spirit guide whenever you need it."

Mia didn't hear the rest. She couldn't hold back any more; she started to sob. And for that one moment, her once cozy cabin on Selene's B deck had never seemed quite so dark, so small, or so lonely.

3.

Early afternoon, December 14, 2106 - Titan

Humpty Dumpty looked like its namesake: Brilliant white and egg-shaped, about 4 meters tall and 2 wide. A viewplate 7 centimeters thick wrapped itself half way around the top and allowed Jake a pretty wide range of vision, while three pairs of high intensity probe lights at the very top (nicknamed "Humpty's Halo") could illumine the murkiest scene. Inside, he sat in a fairly narrow contoured seat, his legs dangling and attached to sensors that told the outside tractor treads where and how to move. Similar hookups on his hands and forearms manipulated an exterior set of arms.

Surrounding him were banks of voice controlled instrument panels that extended scientific probes into air, liquid, or ground. Thrusters on the back could propel Humpty through liquid, while the treads provided movement over solid substances. Yes, it really did look like an impossibly large egg set on top of a pair of tank treads.

Quite the sight, maybe ridiculous looking, but a marvel of technology that Jake and his friends at Selene had built, designed with Titan's environment in mind -- lakes and streams and slush, much of it methane and other compounds that would be gases anywhere on Earth. Humpty's appearance was less important than its ability to endure the cryogenic temperatures for hours on end.

As Jake struggled to get Humpty through the front entrance port of Ghost Dancer his first day on Titan, he thought for a moment about the Activists who had booed him -- and about those who cheered him on -- and simply muttered his favorite mantra: "Let 'em fight." Because once he was settled in, all systems go; once the hatch to his shuttle craft lifted open, revealing the icy orange and yellow world beyond; once the tractors started to roll down Ghost Dancer's ramp to the surface; once he felt Humpty sag and lift gently as it began crossing the icy mud of the surface, he could have cared less about any of them. The journey he'd begun a year ago when he spoke on Mars to the money suits who ultimately funded this mission was complete at last. He was here. Really, finally here, and he said aloud: "Sis, you'd love this!"

4.

January 2105 - Olympus Base, Mars

Nervous, Jake knew he had to come up with something that would grab these guys, a presentation full of the details -- without getting deadly dull -- a speech that would entice a room full of wealthy industrialists to open their pockets and subsidize the rest of the Ghost Dancer project and its pivotal rover, now called Humpty Dumpty by pundits and engineers alike. The Leadership had already promised Jenkins about 50 percent of the funds. Somehow they had to find the rest, and Commander Jenkins had faith the Native scientist was up to the challenge.

Of course, Jake also knew there were a few Activists out there who had serious reservations about sending him -- or anyone -- on a One-Way. It was quite the task, but Jake was getting to like fighting against obstacles and wanted to believe it was part of his nature -- or as he sometimes said to himself, It's in my Native blood.

Stop stalling, he psyched himself. Just talk.

"It's been a hundred years, so it might be difficult for us to imagine what the reactions were like back on that cold January morning in 2005. First there were those mind-bending pictures of Saturn itself -- and its impossibly beautiful rings, undulating like veils of silk in the depths of space. The Cassini probe had arrived in one piece, having made the 1.5 billion mile journey unharmed, and its instruments functioned well beyond expectations, sucking in pictures and data like a cosmic sponge."

On a HoloScreen floating behind his podium, a slow progression of century-old pictures faded in and out.

"Then came the real test. Would the European Space Agency's Huygens probe that had hitched a ride for the previous 7 years be able to detach and make a landing on the solar system's second largest moon? The Christmas day deployment and the spectacular landing on January 14th answered that question resoundingly. Beyond doubt, this was one of humankind's most remarkable and successful voyages of exploration to date."

The famous Huygens image of the orange ice-water rocks on Titan's surface were displayed around the chamber, suspended at various angles. At a signal from Jake, lilting "space" music filtered in -- a background ambiance meant to heighten the pictorial effect.

"And those early images from Huygens like the one you're looking at now were -- and still are -- tantalizing, aren't they?"

A hologram of the equally well-known Huygens panoramic shot surrounded the spectators. "Look. Coastlines, potential riverbeds, fog, clouds, yellow-orange stones of rock-hard water ice, an endless list of wonders from a world." Jake let them savor the vision of canyons and river beds.

"Besides the pictures, lots of remarkable data streamed in, reams of information that took many years to absorb and be fully understood. Some of the more puzzling facts revolved around the dense, smoggy atmosphere, including why there was still a relative abundance of methane on Titan despite the breakdown of such hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere due to ultraviolet activity. That detail added to photographic data, which included 'ground fog' and dark regions resembling icy tidal plains, led to some interesting speculations.

"Well, here we are, a hundred years later, and we actually don't know that much more. Creating our bases on the Moon and Mars became priorities in the early 21st century, but when Mt. Rainier blew in 2044, the scientific community needed to become focused on the more immediate, urgent, and important issues of global survival as the twenty-year "Ice Age" settled in. As much as we wanted to, exploring had to be put on hold. Surviving was obviously far more important.

"Fortunately things improved, and now, in the last decade or so there's been a renewed interest -- and the resources -- " (Jake hoped that wasn't too heavy-handed a hint to the billionaires in front of him) " -- to re-investigate, to pick up where we left off so long ago on our quest to find out more about our Solar System's outer planets."

Pictures from the two recent Titan probes began to float slowly above the audience, moving from front to back and from side to side, dissolving into the domed roof of the auditorium.

"A pair of robotic probes, which landed on Titan during the last eight years, each confirmed, before their instrument packages shut down, that Huygens' findings were right on target." (Jake avoided the phrase "mysteriously failed"; he didn't want to cast any doubts when things seemed to be going well.) "Back then, one explanation for the abundance of methane near the surface was the possibility of a composting effect taking place over significant areas of the surface itself or perhaps just beneath in the splits and cracks of the icy topography."

Now, Titan 2's picture of what looks like moss lining a crack in an ice rock fills the void behind Jake. "The two recent probes have also proven that the surface of Titan is indeed composed in great part by water ice, which -- at Titan's temperatures of 179 below zero Celsius -- has the density of solid rock. Yes, those orange-yellow "stones" we've all ogled at are indeed water. And where there's water, even it's rocky, and there's methane, there's bound to be life.

"Then we discovered cracks and crevasses," he continued, as close ups of pebbles and rubble swam around the auditorium. "And where there's a crack, some really freaky things can grow."

Several versions of the "moss picture" surrounded the audience, along with some equally mysterious music. Jake wondered if the music was a bit over the top, but the audience seemed to be taking it all in. Heck, he smiled, everybody likes good theater, and if it gets us to Titan -- hell, enjoy it.

"And what might happen if, even on a microscopic scale, living microbes were piled on top of each other? On Earth, when organic compounds are layered over each other -- or compressed together -- one of the results is heat. This kind of environment on Earth also produces a host of gases like methane, which is the reason one found vent shafts at large-scale "compost" sites like garbage dumps back in the 20th century -- so that there wouldn't be a buildup of hydrocarbon gases."

Many in the audience chuckled as a projection of an ancient landfill floated across the space above them.

"Similarly, on a planetoid like Titan," -- scenes of its rivers, lakes, and giant canyons waft through the air, eye-boggling in their rich detail -- "one thing we've had to consider was the possibility that the interactions of hydrocarbons or exotic cryogenic life forms just centimeters deep in cracks or in methane 'slush' were producing not only the 'extra' methane in the atmosphere but also the slightly higher temperatures all the probes had detected at the immediate surface. After the discovery of totally alien life forms in Earth's oceans and deserts, does the possibility of cryogenic life seem impossible? Not at all."

5.

December 14, 2106 - Mission Entry 429

...The hatch lifted. At only a meter a minute, I thought I'd have plenty of time to take it all in. And for a few minutes I did. There it was -- like all those pictures from Huygens and the first two Titans: The sulfurous yellow and orange ice rocks, the marshy looking bogs, the perpetual breeze, the methane fog charging over the rivulets towards the half-klick high canyon wall, the dim pinpoint of the sun sending its sorry beam of light through the racing clouds above. For one brief moment I wished that I had more than four weeks of life support. I became greedy, a glutton for knowledge of this totally alien place.

And then came Humpty's touch down -- the first human and his rover rolling over the undulating surface of an outer world.

But then, barely a few seconds off the ramp, over my Com -- the bang. Sudden. Loud. Sharp as a large branch cracking.

I couldn't turn in Humpty fast enough to see what or where on the ship, but just as I was about to look back, a piece of thick tubing came crashing down from the ship, splashing as it made impact. I knew what it was immediately: The relay antenna -- the very antenna that would've allowed me to send every picture, every piece of data back to the Orbiter circling above and from there back to command headquarters on the Moon.

And in one flash, I knew exactly what had happened to Titan 1 and 2. Some one -- or some group -- really didn't want -- and NEVER did want -- the truth about this place to come out. What could be one of the great moments in human science might never be seen by anyone but me. And that's when my Native feistiness kicked in...

6.

Later that afternoon, December 14, 2106

Bent over the viewer, Jake examined the debris carefully. "Son of a bitch." He stood up. "Clever devils, aren't they?"

He looked again. His gut churned. "What the hell do I do now?"

The silence in the cabin was broken by the clicks and whirs of equipment. A HoloScreen materialized in mid-room and a virtual version of Fallon, one of Jake's co-workers on Selene, appeared. He said in a pleasant enough but vaguely mechanical voice: "Can I help you, Jake?"

Jake smiled at an old memory: "Houston, we have a problem," after which he actually laughed out loud.

Virtual Fallon raised an eyebrow: "Explain?"

"Don't sweat it. Anyway, I've just lost my main antenna. I've got to figure out how to get all my data back to Selene."

"Perhaps we could go over..."

Jake suddenly felt impatient dealing with something as patently fake as a hologram. "You know what? Thanks for the offer, but..." He gave his Virtual co-worker back at the Base his best friendly-good-morning-hope-you-have-a-great-day smile: "Let's chat later. Signing out." And the screen swooshed down to a dot of light and disappeared with a slight pop.

After Jake had circled the work station in the center of the cabin a couple of times, he said resolutely: "Mission Entry No. 429 continued."

...They planted nanobots at the base of the communications antenna to chew it off. Somehow they rigged their activation to correspond with the opening of the hatch. God only knows why. I never could figure out fanatics, and I won't start now.

But I'm telling you straight: They -- whoever "they" are -- probably did the same thing to the two recent probes. I think I can tell you exactly what happened -- their transmitters were chewed up by nanites. Traditional explosive devices would've been immediately detected well before launch. Since nanobots are already used in some of the systems, they went undetected. In my case, bots were placed in the support rigging at the base of the antenna unit. They chewed through the metal in less than a minute and then self-destructed. My antenna simply snapped off the ship -- which explains the sound I heard. Clean, simple, ingenious...

"Pause Entry 429." Jake walked over to the ship's view port.

"So how do I do this? What do I do? I don't have time for speculations."

Virtual Fallon started to re-appear. "May I..."

"Don't even think about it." The flickering image vanished immediately. Jake stared up at one of the Com speakers. "Besides, I never did like you, Fallon. You freakin' Activist mole!" He smiled. "There. That felt good."

"I'm glad, Jake." The Fallon voice replied seemingly out of nowhere.

"O, fuck off." And the system disconnected with a definitive click.

"Fine, be pissed. I really don't give a fuck." His adrenaline surged as he began pacing around the small cabin. "OK. So -- my bottom line is this: How am I going to get all these entries, all these pictures, all this data up to Ghost Dancer's Orbiter and then out to Selene? If the antenna's out -- how do I do it?"

He ended up back at the port, staring at the dusky tangerine world beyond. A shiver ran through him, a sudden stab that passed as quickly as it came, and he heard himself say aloud, "Go to the lake."

Jake was puzzled for a moment and then saw about 30 meters from the ship the edge of what appeared to be a shallow lake that stretched for about a klick towards the canyon wall in the distance. He could tell from the way the fog was wafting along the shoreline (and the low-flying clouds scuttling in the sky) that there was a two or three knot breeze blowing, making what looked like ripples on the mere's surface.

He said it again, "Go to the lake." It was a totally compelling, intuitive urge.

Looking out for another minute or so, the "urge" became stronger, until he finally said, "All right already! I'm going, I'm going."

7.

Mission Entry 430

...I'm swearing it was my Guardian Spirit who planted the seed. At the very moment I could have given up, I said, "Hell, I made it this far, let me get outside, take pictures, take samples, explore." That was the call inside me -- Go explore. Go to the lake. Even if I couldn't get any of entries or pictures back to Selene, I could still explore -- and for what it was worth, one person in this nutty solar system -- ME -- would know the truth.

So, I re-entered Humpty, went down the ramp a second time, and rolled towards the edge of a lake. Of course, I couldn't help myself -- there was a lot of stopping and starting, and what might have been less than an hour's trip became two. Prod sticks and probes every few meters revealed what I just knew to be true -- that there was indeed microbial life all over the surface. Nothing like on earth -- bizarre, carbon-based molecular structures in configurations I'd never seen before. The analysis would have to come later. For the time, I just recorded observations.

In fact the oozing, murky "mud" first detected by Huygens was a veritable soup of life flowing over and around water rocks. Hydrocarbonic "plankton," "barnacles," and other forms worked their small way into whatever cracks and crevasses were there.

Then at the foot of the lake, I saw it. The capital letter "D" Discovery of a lifetime, the one that made possible my sending all this data back to you.

A spherical animal, no larger than a soccer ball, popped up to the surface of the lake only a few meters in front of me. Then another. And another -- suddenly and rapidly, like air bubbles in sparkling water, until there were about a dozen of them. Then just as unexpectedly, the first lifted out of the oily liquid, escaping like a lazy soap bubble, followed randomly by the rest, one by one, rising gently despite the breeze -- undulating blue-green balloons, each followed by trails of orange and pink tendrils like those that might be found on a fantastic flying jelly fish.

Humpty's recorder captured the whole event, which you -- hopefully -- now have.

...Rolling into the lake, I felt light-headed from the excitement. In a few minutes, my viewplate went under, and there I was descending slowly. I promised to stop when I hit a few fathoms. Humpty was built to sustain enormous pressures, but I didn't want to risk it. I knew all along I was going to die, but I also wanted to take in as much as I could.

Liquid methane is clear, but this lake -- and probably all the lakes on Titan -- was sufficiently contaminated with other organics to make it fairly dark and murky. Because the ambient light was pretty weak, Humpty's high beams kicked in rather quickly, bright enough to illumine about five meters ahead.

The incline was very slight, and to make the long trip short, it finally leveled off about twelve fathoms under the surface.

More of the balloon creatures clustered around boulders at the bottom. But they seemed much smaller -- ping-pong sized. I touched one with my robotic arm and a slight electric charge registered. My sensors determined immediately a build up of hydrogen gas inside the sphere. Almost like a blow fish back on Earth, the animal "inflated" itself and eluded the digits of my arm, quickly rising to the surface. Dozens of others in a circle around Humpty inflated and shot towards the surface, emitting a high-pitched, Dolphin-like string of clicks and squeals.

Of course they were probably scared shitless -- Hell, I can only imagine -- something the size of me suddenly appearing -- Big Mama emerging from the gloom and nudging around with mechanical arms -- I'd run and screech, too...

Anyway, that's when the idea hit. Float the data up to the orbiter. Yes. Cannibalize some parts back at the ship to make a transmitter, load it with every scrap of data I can, and then send it high enough to broadcast the stream out to the Orbiter.

With what? A balloon.

Made with what? The liner bags in the decompression chamber.

Filled with what? With hydrogen, of course.

And where would I get the hydrogen? From my water supply. My ship was equipped to convert human waste and small amounts of the water rock found on Titan. I'd have me a good old fashioned high school electrolysis experiment. Use the water in the tank, get power from my Helium-3 Source, capture the gas, funnel it into the balloon, and -- voila -- launch the balloon with a transmitter package rigged to send the message on a repeating loop, just in case the Orbiter went in and out of range during transmission. And then...on to Selene Mission Control.

Let the Activists chew on that one.

8.

January 2105 - Olympus Base, Mars

"...and on Titan, what might such life look like? Here's where fact and fiction, plausibility and possibility meet face to face." Artist renderings of bizarre creatures cascaded from the dome and through the room. Holographic, three-dimensional beings -- birds, fish, tube worms moved through the audience. When one vaguely pterodactylic flying reptile rubbed its virtual beak against a man's nose, he let out a dramatic scream so loud that the rest of the spectators broke into laughter. As the menagerie flew off to perch on a distant cliff top, Jake continued: "It's doubtful whether such large forms exist on Titan, but then again, who expected 20 foot tube worms living in an 'atmosphere' of iron monosulfide three miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean?"

9.

December 16, 2106 - Mission Entry 435

...which is why I decided to make one last trip into the lake before I sent the balloon up. I was running on very borrowed time, but I had to go.

I'd used a lot more of my water and air supply than I thought I would to create my blimp. Of course, the balloon had to be larger than I originally planned because of the weight of the transmitter package. At 38.56 kilograms, it was heavy, but I had to use whole sections of my onboard system because I didn't have a welding torch or heavy duty metal saw to take out small sections. (Make note fellas: Next time, send along a really good tool kit. Even if we are One-Way rides, you wanna make it easy.) On top of the transmitter, I also needed to create the battery that would power it. I used some of the Helium-3 nodules for that. But that was even more weight. Ugh.

And I had to make sure that the package rose high enough to send its data stream to the Orbiter. Even a few hundred meters short could mean the signal wouldn't reach. So my little balloon suddenly became twice as big as Humpty.

But still, I wanted to make every second count. There was a small "canyon" at the bottom of the lake that I wanted to explore. My gut -- maybe my Guardian? -- told me that I needed to go...

10.

January 2105 - Olympus Base, Mars

"Life on Titan? As a character in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises says, 'Isn't it pretty to think so'."

Jake closed the folder that held his speech, the music faded, and the last hologram disappeared. As the lights came up, the audience was already on its feet. Jake even thought he heard a "bravo" from somewhere in the back, and when he looked at Jenkins, he knew they had just gotten their ticket to ride.

11.

December 18, 2106 - Mission Entry 436

...I'm playing Dvorak's New World Symphony and they're just staring at me through my viewplate, a pod of them -- here on the lake bottom, maybe twelve fathoms under the rippling waves and the tar flake snow above me. Maybe twenty or thirty of 'em coming right up to the window, taking a long look, and bumping gently, before heading back to the floor. Maybe they don't like the music?

Not hostile bumping. Just curious, like me. Who's the big fella in the egg suit? They're wild looking. A pair of bright phosphorescent green eyes stuck on either side of a 30 centimeter body. Their colors are spectacular -- greens, purples, streaks of orange and yellow. Like a kid's crayon box. I once saw something like them in a museum showcase: an Ostracoderm -- the so-called "shield skin" fish -- jawless, a kind of cartilage skeleton, lots of dermal bones to help define the head and front of the trunk, and single gill slits on either side of the head. On Earth they lived 500 million years ago. On Titan, they're living right here and now at the murky bottom of a hydrocarbon lake. Living, swimming, and bumping up against the viewplate of Humpty Dumpty.

Of course, you know that now, don't you? I've sent the first 435 entries up in the balloon. Hopefully the signal reached the Orbiter and started transmitting back to Earth. The guys who sabotaged the ship thought they'd defeat me. Well, guess again, suckers: Hydrogen balloons float in Titan's air, too. How'd I do that? Electrolysis of my water supply. Yeah, you heard me -- I used up my energy sources and my water to get out the message. Hell, I was gonna die anyway.

Well, if anyone ever gets back here -- and decides to track me down, they'll find Mission Entry 436 -- made just in case some of the original data gets screwed up. I need you to know all this. I want Mia to know what happened to her big brother.

Even though you know the rest, Mia, I wanted you to hear this in your brother's voice. My gut was right, Mia. Here in this eerie, dark place at the bottom of a lake on Titan, prehistoric lampreys scour along icy sand, taking in their remarkable cryobiotic nutrients -- dancing, floating, paying a visit to Humpty, staring me in the eye -- creature to creature from worlds a billion miles apart. There aren't adequate words for all this. Which is why I hope you get the pictures. You'll see for yourself. And a poet far better than I can write a song about these colorful beings I've found here: the balloon beings, the ostracoderms, the multitude of mosses and molds. Life, life, life -- everywhere.

When the balloon lifted off and disappeared into the clouds, my fear was overwhelming. I had no way of knowing if anything I'd made really worked. What if the balloon exploded in a stratospheric blast of lightning? What if the transmitter fell just short of its goal of 20 kilometers high?

Like I said, that's why I made this last entry while I still can.

Mia, you know I couldn't just stay in the ship. Anyone can die in a tin can. I knew I had only an hour or two left at most. I had to come back to see my balloon fish -- and these fellas scraping along the bottom, sucking up the ooze. These miraculous creatures who actually live in hydrocarbon lakes, thriving at 179 below zero Celsius -- all part of an elaborate ecosystem beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. Yes, if I'm going to die a little sooner than expected, I want these beings to be my send-off to the land of the Great Spirit.

Am I glad I did this? How couldn't I be? Am I sorry I'm gonna die here? Hey, I knew this was a One-Way. I accepted that a long time ago. I hope you have, too, Mia.

So if you find this some day, just know I died with a smile on my face, hanging out with some new pals in a mystical canyon at the bottom of a distant sea.

12.

In the end, his last thoughts weren't about the strange fish dancing before him. No, as his mind lost hold of consciousness, it was Mia he saw. At the very moment his life seemed to fizz into a kind of remarkable whiteness, he was there again at Selene Base, standing at the podium a few months before when he had searched the crowd gathered on the tarmac for anyone who might be friendly and understanding, anyone who might be able to support his decision, and saw his sister Mia's face shining brightly in the middle of that restless crowd. Once again, she was there, and in that final nanosecond of life on Titan, it was her eyes that looked into his, guiding him all the way home.

THE END


© 2008 T. Richard Williams

Bio: T. Richard Williams is the pen name for Bill Thierfelder, Professor of English at Dowling College, a liberal arts college on Long Island, New York. Mr. Williams has been writing stories and verse for over two decades. His recent work includes two volumes of poetry—How the Dinosaurs Devoured the Humans and The Letter S; a collection of science fiction and narrative fiction called Ten; and a memoir of his 115-mile bike ride across Long Island during August of 2005 called Deliberate Living. He has also published short fiction in Wild Violet, an online literary magazine. He lectures regularly on poetry and other literary topics in the Northeast and is a popular professor who teaches a wide range of topics, from world literature to science fiction. He is also the founder of The Diversity Project, an organization sponsored by Dowling College that presents regular town hall meetings on current issues of diversity, prejudice, and bias. He has been involved in various social causes for many years, including volunteer and activist work for the Momentum AIDS Project (New York City), GMHC, LIAAC, and LIGALY. He is currently a regular contributor to Outlook Long Island Magazine. He resides in Oakdale, NY and is an avid cyclist, gardener, and hiker. TRW's story The Twelfth of Never appeared in the February 2008 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: 'T. Richard Williams'

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.