Read the first part of Titan Towers (a selection from Sharing Sol) here.
Landon Walker sat dimly aware, shaking against the straps of his bucket seat, inhaling the scent of…burning ozone? Antiseptics? He blinked furiously against the white haze obscuring his vision and detected instrument panels lining the circular space that surrounded him.
He was inside the lander.
Two shadowy shapes moved about him, whispering, rocking the lander side to side. Crewmates. He had to assist whatever they were doing. Tried to move. Couldn’t flex so much as a finger. The after-effects of cryogenics left him in a state of paralyzing detachment. They’d warned him about this possible side effect. Impaired vision, too. For a man who liked to control his environment and everyone within range, he might as well have died already.
Understanding seeped through him, cell by cell, warming him drip by drip, like a narcotic in reverse. They hadn’t planned to awaken him until orbit was achieved.
Now he was awake.
Which meant they must be there…here. Titan.
He hadn’t wanted to separate from his bride for as long as this first manned mission to the surface of Saturn’s famous moon would require, but the boss had insisted. No one refused H.F. Washington.
In spite of his reluctance to play astronaut, Landon couldn’t hold back the tidal forces of elation that swept through him now, trying to thaw the paralysis of his mind.
A billion plus kilometers, and Landon had slept through the entire journey.
“Dr. Walker?” said a honeyed voice, as sweet as Summer’s. Couldn’t be his wife’s. Summer opted to live with her parents in Colorado during his absence.
“Dr. Walker?” said the woman’s voice again, not Summer’s. “How do you feel?”
A face bent over his face, flooding his hazed vision. Her smell of antiseptics washed over him. He couldn’t remember her name.
“Just nod if you hear me,” she said. “How do you feel?”
Never better, he meant to say with intended sarcasm, but the words didn’t emerge, either.
“It’s okay, don’t try to speak,” she said. “I should let you know that we have a slight problem.”
“Pro’lem?” He managed to spit out the dreaded word, the word no one wanted to hear in unforgiving space.
“Shhhh,” she said, patting his hand. Her touch felt hot on his flesh. Giselle. That was her name. “We’re going to have to speed things up, that’s all, transferring into the float-rover. The lander put us down slightly off course. Instead of landing on one of the islands, as we expected, we landed in the middle of an ethane sea. We’re sinking. Captain Norris is preparing for ejection. We just hoped we’d get to use the lander a bit longer than this.”
Landon’s lips twitched, trying to form words to the protest that clutched his mind. H.F. had planned for such a possibility, considering the extent of Titan’s ethane seas. They’d run through the drills. He tried to unbuckle. A muscle spasmed.
“Relax,” Giselle said, massaging his arm beneath the seat straps. “Nothing you can do about it. I’m going to add a stimulant to your feeder to help with post-awakening. Might give you a headache for a bit. Don’t worry about it. We’ll help you transfer at the last possible moment. Your equipment is already on board the float-rover, so your project is not in danger.”
Her words spun around in his head like a swarm of Summer’s precious rescued bees. Giselle whisked away. The meaning of her words stewed inside him.
He channeled all of his mental strength into his body, sending brain commands to each of his extremities, but nothing responded. He could almost feel the ice that had frozen him for a billion kilometers shifting and breaking apart. He was going to have to wait out the thaw. He couldn’t speed it up. He didn’t wait well, idle.
He was aware of movement around him as his colleagues raced from instrument to instrument. They’d all known that the lander was a one-way trip. The lander wasn’t supposed to get them off this moon. That ride would come from a cone-shaped capsule riding piggy-back atop the float-rover that the captain was preparing – without Landon’s help – to eject from the lander.
The question was, how far down into the sea had the lander sunk already? After detachment, the float-rover could navigate under the sea for short depths, down to a couple hundred meters. It could probably rise to the surface, unless they started from too far down. The seas were a kilometer deep in places.
Nothing he could do about it.
Summer’s bees buzzed through his mind, and he drifted. It would be all right. Got to trust H.F. His people would find a way out. Got to trust… Got to trust…
* * * * *
Landon woke up to murk and gloom. A sleep curtain draped beside him, and he could see each fold of its cloth. Vision was working again. Even better, he was still alive.
He itched. He’d gone into the cryo-tank naked, and now he noticed that someone had dressed him in the stiff cloth of an International Space Agency jumpsuit – Giselle? Its stiff newness was creased with wrinkles from being folded away so long. Tethers held him in place to his bunk inside the capsule…
No. They were straps, not tethers. Gravity, faint as its force tugged at him, held him loosely to the thin mattress, and straps kept him from rolling out onto the floor. The craft that held his bunk shifted, rocking with some sort of currents. That was gravity they bucked against.
Joy surged through him as he realized he’d awakened inside the float-rover. Norris had done his job and gotten them safely away from the sinking lander. The captain had saved them despite Landon’s inability to help.
Landon lifted his arm against the gravity to unclamp the straps. He struggled to sit up and managed to smack his head against the low-hanging ceiling above him. Someone else’s bunk. He rolled his legs off of his mattress and pushed through the curtain, tumbling a couple of feet to the floor. Pain hammered his head. Trying to stand, he buckled and fell again.
Footsteps pounded, and the float craft rocked. Arms encircled him and pulled him upright.
“Lean on me,” Giselle said. “Why didn’t you call? We’d have helped you.”
Landon grunted. His legs flopped beneath his torso, out of sync with the commands his brain tried to send them.
“It won’t take you long to regain your strength,” Giselle said, as if she could read the frustration in his mind.
And then, after their six-month stint here, he would have to go back into the cryo-tank for the return trip.
“I know,” he said. His voice worked. The surprise that something functioned almost dropped him to the floor a second time, but Giselle caught him and propped him up.
“Easy,” she said, steering him into a padded chair at someone’s console. He floated down into it, feeling as if he’d shed a hundred pounds. But he didn’t feel wasted away. His flesh puffed plump around his bones. Nutrients had dripped into him over time. Or else the ice treatment had swollen him.
Cryogenics was deemed safe these days. Even the FDA had approved the procedure, and they were always the last holdout. The days of losing a small percentage of test subjects – under ten percent, he believed – were thankfully over.
So it was safe enough. Still, he didn’t like it. He never liked losing control. He never liked depending on someone else – or artificial intelligence – to watch over his care and maintenance.
Giselle handed him a mug of warm tea and a vial of drugs. The fog slowly evaporated with the last of his ice thaw, and the murk settled out of his brain. The console he sat before he recognized as his own. His fingers moved across the touchpad, checking the status of his tachyonic equipment.
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