Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Home Fiction Here there be dragons

Here there be dragons

The body washed onto the shore, lying on the tholin beach like the remains of a large blue fish. The suit itself was wrapped in a blanket of haze as the frozen air surrounding it condensed immediately upon contact with the warm matter within. There had been a breach—accidental by the look of the garment’s tearing. And the helmet itself had been wrenched open. The face inside was coated in a thin film of frosty methane—no doubt the result of bathing in the alien sea. When Pashta nudged the man’s cheek with his stylus, the face crumbled under the pressure. Seeing the pieces of cracked dermis flaking off was enough to make me squirm.

“Not the wisest thing Alamar’s done in his long lifetime,” Pashta noted as he stepped over the body. “I can’t think of anyone opening their visor to take in that balmy minus 137 Celsius air. Or go skinnydipping in this godforsaken sea.”

I knelt down and inspected the corpse’s arms. Alamar’s upper torso seemed to be tangled in a wire mesh. A flexible metallic support. It connected him to a pair of flat membranes that was all too familiar for anyone living on Titan.

“He wasn’t swimming,” I realised. “He’s still got some of his wings on him. The motor-assist must have fallen into the sea. We’ll have to request for salvage.”

Pashta stared at me, the glare somewhat muted through his visor. “You still want to fish his motor out of Kraken Mare? You think this was sabotage?”

I wagged my gloved finger. “Don’t want to rule out anything. Plus, the seas are calm. Any later in the day and we’d have waves.” Regular waves that could flatten shelters, I thought. The shoddy benefits of low gravity and low density fluids on a small world like Titan.

Pashta raised a finger towards the horizon. “Hate to break it to you, chief, but it’s not looking good even now.”Near the southern shoreline of Kraken Mare was a large cell of dark clouds assembling out of the haze. Brief flashes of lightning illuminated the interiors of these ponderous formations. But low sound. Slow thunder. Only the lapping of waves could be heard through our suits.

“Let’s get inside,” I said. Rain on Titan was anemic, like falling flakes of snow on Earth. It was the wind that proved lethal, however. The air pressure here was many times thicker than on Earth and even a slight breeze had the kinetic force of a typhoon.But Titan never formed storms. The driving force for weather on Earth was the sun. On Titan, the distant star created less dramatic weather. What little heat arrived here reflected high off the cloud tops—powering this alien rain cycle in permanent slow motion.

“Tagged the body,” Pashta said as he stepped away from Alamar’s frozen corpse. “God, it’s chilly. Aren’t you even a little bit cold?”

It was a beautiful day, I mused. Almost perfect. And with little ceremony, we spread our arms wide, unfolded our wings, and flew back to safety.

Our camp sat right by an escarpment facing Kraken Mare. A large section of the cliff had been intentionally carved out of the bedrock. The rock itself was useful. On Earth, the right temperatures and pressure allowed silicate to make up most of the crust. On the icy scalp of Titan, the regolith was made up of water ice. Ice that, due to the intense cold, was as hard as steel. A useful material if all you needed was a drink.

Pashta was first to doff his suit and partake in the fruits of our labor. “Do you think this was what wine tasted like?” he asked, raising his glass. It was water in its purest form—unmarred by the mineral cocktails that made Earth water so distinct. But unlike most people, I preferred my water ‘on the rocks.’

Pashta shook his head, incredulous, as the first cubes of ice settled into my glass. “Titan-borns. Like a whole new species. I bet you guys could never appreciate the sun.”

I looked out the window, past the shores to where I imagined Alamar’s body lay. “You’d be surprised. The old man made tropical beaches sound like heaven.”

“You guys would melt before you stepped foot on Earth.” laughed Pashta and he raised his glass in that most ancient of ceremonies. Pashta continued: “Did you imagine him going out like this? I always saw him as this old softy, you know? A romantic. He’d recite stories of Earth in the town atrium. I actually thought he’d die going home.”

I nodded. “But he was tired too. The cold isn’t an old man’s game.”

A few minutes later, Pashta retired to his quarters; leaving me with the pending paperwork for the investigation. If I could finish the salvage requests before the next turnover, we could head back to the city by the next Saturnian tide. God knows I didn’t want to be out here when the rain finally hit.Still, the rain in the distance looked deceptively calm. Already, the shower of methane particulates blanketed the southern beaches of Kraken Mare with a light mist. And past that, one could imagine a vast, placid sea—virgin-like in appearance—with little disturbances on the surface. In fact, the sea appeared so placid, it reflected the hazy clouds in near perfection.

But there was something solid there. Something large and omnipresent that hung high in the clouds. The dark shape of a large creature.The sinuous neck of a snake.

The fabled Serpent of Kraken Mare.

“It is an old tale,” Alamar said sagely. The memory of his retelling remained perfectly preserved by the cold. “You can summarize humanity’s interest in exploration thusly: it was a quest for the familiar. The Saturnian moon had rain, lakes, seas, and all the necessary elements for life as we knew it. It was not a great leap of the imagination to assume the moon had some slippery ice-fish swimming up one of its frigid rivers.”

The old man patted me down as we sat by the central fountain of the town square. People were still milling out of the nearby mess hall when the old man then sneered. A bouncing new group of arrivals entered the main atrium. They were clearly tourists by the way everything excited them.

“Nevermind that the place was colder than a mammoth’s testicles,” Alamar continued. “When our generation first arrived to settle the place, it was a bleak welcoming.Hardly any sunlight and it was muddier than a faulty outhouse.”

Alamar’s use of language was second to none. But as far as the story went, it was indeed an old one; a worn down tale spoonfed to us by the first settlers. But if I knew Alamar, he was bound to go off script at some point.

“I mean, hand it to TitanCorp,” said Alamar as he grandly gestured to the city. “They really turned this place around. You could almost imagine this whole paradise was here on Titan when we landed.But on those first few weeks, we knew we were out of our depth. Man’s grasp being further than his reach and all that. Our shelters were poorly assembled. Our rations were slowly diminishing out in the cold. Many died from Hypothermia. And to top it all off, no sign of life at all. This place had less bacteria than your doctor’s q-tips.”

“We decided to go out to the large sea. At the time, Kraken Mare was declared off-limits to us due to the unpredictability of its waves. But if we were going to die out in this cold, it might as well be atan actual beach. Or its closest, frozen equivalent.It wasn’t an easy trek to the shore, I assure you. The sluggish rain kept interfering with the instruments and was becoming more of a nuisance than a novelty. But after it cleared, we found ourselves by the great sea. And the fluid looked inviting enough to drown in. Butbefore we could do so, one of us spottedit.”

“The dragon?” I said as I took a bite of my sandwich.

“Serpent!” Alamar corrected. “Try keeping the details in line, child. It was the serpent. It’s long silhouette stretched across the Titan sky, its scales reflecting a menagerie of colors. We all cowed in place as it swam between a gap in the clouds.”

“You sure it wasn’t just Oxygen deprivation?” I asked, humoring the old man.

Alamar groaned. “Today’s tourists hardly dispute it.”

I nodded at this. It was almost in Titan’s nature to turn things apocryphal. Sightings of the great serpent were frequent. Whole industries near the sea had been set up to claim the currency of gullible visitors. Meanwhile, smarter heads claimed it was the result of natural phenomenon; something the clouds of this moon were wont to do given time. But it resisted observation, avoided study. Eventually, it remained a tale of Titanic legend; like the Green Flash on Earth or the Loch Ness monster.

“When we saw it, dying early became a fool’s game,” said Alamar wistfully.

“Our professor tells us you guys moved to the beach as a strategic move,” I said, finishing the last of my snack. “Better access to resources, running fluid to power dams for energy, and far more seasonal temperatures.”

“Your teachers know jack,” spat Alamar. And now his voice softened as his weary eyes searched my own. It felt far more intimate than was warranted.I would not stare so intensely into his eyes again until our paths crossed a final time at the beach.

“What are you doing outside?”Pashta’s voice was loud and crisp as it came over the suit’s intercom. The young Earth-born began to berate me on the set of rules I had broken just going outside. Chief among them was not turning on my heater. In all honesty, it had slipped my mind.

“I’ll be fine. I think Alamar went to the beach to investigate something.”And before Pashta could reply, I extended my arms out and leapt towards the sky.

Flying was the best way to get around the thick atmosphere of Titan.A lot of the first settlers initially struggled with the high-pressure, low gravity environment—moving as if they were slogging through a kind of semi-permeable membrane of air. Combined with the muddy nature of the moon’s surface, walking became a real chore the moment you stepped outside.

But flying changed that immensely. The first Titan flyers were daring adventurers, strapping makeshift wings to their arms like those haphazard early aeronauts from history. People had far more success here, however, even if their early designs had been immature. Today, the modern flying assist was a far more superior and streamlined device; capable of keeping a person airborne for three hours before it ran out of power. It was even designed to keep flying should its occupant provide no input whatsoever.

Which was why TitanCorp was so vested in sending us out here to solve this case. The harness should have kept the old man from dropping into the sea even if he went unconscious. But if that was ruled out, the next likely scenario was that these failsafes had backfired. Or that Alamar deliberately sabotaged his device.

“Come back, chief,” Pashta urged. His voice was becoming less substantial the higher I climbed into the cloud cover. “The weather forecast is bad. Winds are reasonable: 12 knots at most. But the windchill is calculated to be minus 170 Cel at least. Your suit won’t be able to compensate for the heat loss.”

I took one last glimpse of Titan before the clouds completely enveloped me. Kraken Mare stretched far into the distance. And while the horizons here appeared much closer than those of Earth, it was still an entire world, a moon. I was a gnat inside a giant washing machine. It was easy to imagine the ground ceasing to exist the moment I entered the haze.

“What do you think you’re going to find up there?” Pashta demanded.

I flew higher and higher into the jetstream. “I think Alamar saw something.”

The rain came slowly. The droplets hung in the air like amorphous baubles glowing in the dim light. Their movements were so imperceptible that it felt like I was crashing into them. Each droplet was the size of a large marble that struggled under its own surface tension.A number of warning prompts appeared on my visor. The rain would cool my flying harness much more rapidly, it said. The onboard computer was advising me to land immediately—a suggestion that was quickly overruled. No doubt Pashta was throwing a fit as the same prompt should have appeared in his monitor on the ground.”Pashta? How are my vitals?” I asked.

There was a weighted pause as the radio settled into a pleasant hiss. “Chief. I’m getting new information. Your harness is becoming… lighter. The changes are incremental. Microscopic. Can you do a brief once over before you get any higher?”

Immediately, I flew spreadeagled through the nearest cloud gap. Something was clearly wrong. The edges of the wings were chipped off. Hairline cracks spreading from the edges were rooting themselves in the material. Each tear fanned out until a webbing of fractures came together at multiple critical points on the harness.

“What’s the ambient temperature?” I ask into the microphone.

“Minus 165 Cel. Your heating apparatus is straining,” said Pashta.

“The harness is breaking apart, earlier than expected.” I can only hope that my tone was even and calm throughout the whole exchange. “It’s exhibiting similar self-destructive characteristics as seen on Alamar’s own device. Lowering altitude now and beginning emergency crash procedures.”

Pashta’s grunt was audible. “Weren’t these things rated for minus 220 degrees? Close to zero Kelvin?”

I descended from the upper cloud canopies, balancing my speed against the wind chill that threatened to shatter the wings in one heady rush. “I guess the guys at TitanCorp didn’t do much practical testing in Titan rain,” I said.

“Who would? Until now, no idiot’s stupid enough to fly into the clouds during a downpour.”

“Well, I don’t think this harness is going to make it to the ground in a single piece. I’ll try to smoothen out my descent to reduce strain on the wing surfaces. Aim for the sea. Once the thing breaks apart, I’ll use the emergency parachute to steer myself into a soft landing.”

“This is crazy, chief. The parachutes could be frozen over.”

“Hey,” I said, a meager sense of bravado bulding up.“This’ll be a good story to tell the other guys at TitanCorp. About how your idiot boss tried to recreate the events that lead to another man’s death—and did so with remarkable proficiency.”

Pashta’s laugh was the warmest thing yet. “You really think Alamar flew into the rain on a whim?”

“He was a bitter man,” I reasoned.“It may have been his final way to go. He hated it here. Everything was alien to him.”There was a loud burst of static and then a brief flash of lightning in the distance. The rain, as quickly as it had manifested, dispersed with the next pass of wind. And if it weren’t for all this haze, it would have been a clear, dim day.

“He wasn’t really that bitter,” said Pashta finally. His voice came softly over the radio. “I asked him once if he regretted ever coming here. He didn’t say. He did miss Earth a lot. He did. But he still believed the universe was a beautiful place. I mean, I get it. Who wouldn’t make it all the way out here if they didn’t think so?”

The final straw was a crosswind. It tore through the wing membrane and shattered the machine upon contact. The flat pieces of the device spread with the wind and disappeared into the haze. My stomach lurched forward as the descent became sharper. It was hard to tell visually how fast I was falling. The clouds obscured any sense of speed.

And suddenly, there was light. I must have entered a pocket of open air amidst the clouds; a rare find as the canopy over Titan tended to be uniform across the surface. Above me, I could see the tinge of an amber sky and the remnants of stars peeking through the cover. Saturn, once completely occulted by the atmosphere, was now visible. Its rings caught the passing sunlight in golden waves, reflecting it downonto the moon.

And then, I spot it.

In the center of the gap was a huge form; a vast, colorful arch that disappeared into the clouds from both ends. The creature’s great neck loomed over my tiny, immobile form. Its scales came in bands and lineations that decorated the entirety of its long body.The Great Serpent of Kraken Mare.

Only, the creature seemed to be noncorporeal—as solid as the haze surrounding it. And the more I stared at it, the more its dimensions appeared flat against the sunlight. It was a ghost, a mirage, a trick.A giant bridge made of light.

Only a small portion of it could be properly seen amidst the clouds. The complete structure, if I was right, was immense, extending beyond the horizons. Its appearance after a downpour may have been no coincidence either. The Titan sky must produce these lightforms as often as it rains. The clouds then occlude them, making it nearly impossible to see from the ground. I wondered if such creatures existed on Earth or anywhere else.

I wanted to stop, to halt my descent entirely, to bask in its aura. I pulled my ripcord and prayed for the parachute to appear.

 

 

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