The Plumes of Enceladus

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Illustration

The Plumes of Enceladus

by Stewart C Baker

 

Andry (T1 minus forty hours)

Just after lift-off, a man walked up behind Andry and rested one hand on the handle of her wheelchair as if he knew her.

“Quite something, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing with his free hand at the floor-to-ceiling window of the public climber.

Andry grunted, wondering if he was trying to flirt with her. More likely he was talking down to her, mistaking her lack of legs for a lack of wits as all too many did. Instead of responding, she kept looking out at the white-flecked gray rock of the Andes as it receded into the vastness of the Pacific.

Chimborazo Spindle was a marvel, truly. All the spindles were. Every time Andry rode a climber, she remembered her grandmother’s speeches about the view from the long-gone ISS. But she had seen the Earth recede from the window of a climber car a dozen times now, and it had started to take on the flatness of commonplace. The man wasn’t helping.

“You should see it from the top,” he said.

Andry rolled her eyes and studied his reflection in the glass. He looked roughly her age–maybe a little older–and was dressed in the white shirt and khaki pants of a civilian space industry worker. But he lacked the ID or branded jacket of any of the major corps. One of the future tech junkies, then, she thought. The men and women who spent their money riding climbers to watch launches from the upper orbitals.

She wondered what he would say if he were to tell her that she was a V-Corp pilot, and that in six months’ time she would be further out from Earth than anyone before her. She touched the ceramic container of ashes which hung around her neck. Her grandmother had never lived to see the spindles completed, but her spirit, at least, would make it.

“The view down here’s too close,” the man continued, not seeming to care that she was ignoring him. “Same with the lower orbital. At Upper, there’s just a thin gray line where the spindle fades away to Earth. Ah, you oughta see it, miss. It’d make your heart melt.”

At that, Andry swiveled her chair to face him fully. He wore a grin on his face, his eyes focused on her and not the view. The look in them was just as she’d expected: condescending without being cruel. If she was being honest, normally she relished that look–or, more accurately, the look that replaced it when she took the speaker down a notch or three. It was a part of why she took the chair, instead of wearing prosthetics. But today she wasn’t in the mood.

“Die in a fire,” she said, then shoved past him and out of the room, found a small view-screen set in the wall of a service corridor, and spent the rest of the evening staring at the two tracks of the spindle stretching out in both directions, flat gray lines with no variation and little sense of motion.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Frank (T2 minus one day)

Usually, Frank was the first out of a climber when it reached the top. Things to do, people to see, places to go–the same old routine, up there just beyond geostationary. But this time he hung back, waiting for the V-corp pilot to leave. Andry, her name was, according to the files T-Zai had sent to his ConScroll when he’d agreed to fly the mission.

Listening to her curses as she struggled with her antique wheelchair in the microgravity around the spindle proper, he grinned. A lesson in pride there, he thought, and he’d seen how easy she was to aggravate on the way up. Proud and aloof, and resentful of other people. All the hallmarks of hubris. He would put that to good use, later on.

Once Andry had disembarked, Frank stepped nimbly off the climber and headed to the viewing dome that topped the spindle’s space port. Even accounting for the secrecy that surrounded any extra-planetary launch, it was uncrowded–V-Corp’s public relations staff had done their job well. As a result, the dome was filled more with the low, cool hum of perpetual air conditioning that marked any extra-planetary endeavor than with the chatter of gawkers. But still there were a few, a dozen or so dedicated space-heads sitting in folding chairs and on stools at various spots around the room, looking more at home there than some of the people who ran the spindle.

Asking around, the coolness of the super-pressurized clear material that made up the windows under his fingers, Frank heard all sorts about the mission’s supposed purpose. Just another asteroid mineral-extraction jaunt, said a man with a bushy white beard and a hat that said “gone fishing.” No, argued a young woman with her hair shorn off in clumps, they were finally going to colonize Mars.

A small group of young men with binoculars and notebooks–boys almost, Frank thought; they couldn’t be out of high school, surely–said the ship was a show-piece, and wasn’t going to do anything more than fly around the moon and back in a few short hours. They went on and on about construction breakthroughs, theories tested and confirmed, and other pseudo-technological gibberish.

Frank, who happened to know exactly what V-Corp was up to, just smiled and nodded at whatever they said. These gullible types would swallow whatever bait V-Corp dangled in front of them. The real story wouldn’t come out until the ship was well on its way back with its payload of scientific and psychometric data, and its tanker-full of Enceladus’ ejecta.

Out on the launch arm, the ship’s housing started to move. At first nothing more was visible than a hairline fracture–a long sliver of light, and then only if you knew where and what to look for–but as the huge block reached its final position, it split into five triangular pieces, peeling like some kind of strange and impossible flower to reveal the V-Corp tanker.

The ship was massive, easily twice the size of anything that had been built so far. The bulk of the body was made up, Frank knew, of water storage, with fuel at the aft near the enormous engines which jutted out there. The biggest change from most designs, though, was the living quarters, a long tube of rooms and corridors wrapped around the girth of the ship, and which had already begun its gravity-simulating rotation. On smaller ships, that would leave you with unconscious crew, or worse, and even now V-Corp was hedging its bets by sending out the tanker with a single pilot. Hedging its bets and trying to pull a media coup, he thought. First woman past Jupiter.

The sight of the ship set the viewing dome abuzz with chatter, people pulling out their ConApps and streaming video to their net-friends down on the surface. Frank watched silently, contenting himself with a grin. He wondered what they would say if he told them T-Zai was going to beat V-Corp at their own game, less than a week from now on Kenya Spindle. The ship was much smaller, true, and based on a more conventional bola schematic, but it needed far less fuel, and had a few other benefits that V-Corp’s radically different craft lacked.

And, of course, he was a much more accomplished pilot than the slip of a half-broken girl V-Corp had chosen. The ship wasn’t going anywhere until pre-flight checks had been finished, and that would take almost a day, so Frank rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and strolled out of the viewing dome towards the Earth-view room he’d booked for a night of relaxation.

A toast, Andry, he thought. To my future success.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Andry (T1 plus eight days)

Andry was starting to adjust to the rhythm of life in transit, getting used to the ship’s nooks and crannies and to pulling herself about in the half-g environment of its living quarters. Each day started around 0700 UTC with two specially designed calisthenics routines. The first of these used nothing but her body, but the second used her prosthetics as well to help her acclimate to both types of movement. Then she’d shower and skim through the day’s news releases while she ate a light breakfast.

After that, she had routine maintenance and experiment checks in the bulk of the ship, drifting from section to section clear through to 1400, when she broke for lunch. She was just settling in for her afternoon meal on the eighth day when Williams from Control came over the radio. “Bad news, Andry,” he said. “T-Zai’s in the game.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m sending you a few articles–they just announced it this morning.”

She dug out the standard ConScroll pilots used to keep in touch with Earth during long flights, unraveled its paper-thin surface, and waited for the satellite signal. Even this close, data transfers took something like a quarter of a minute.

She scanned through the file without really reading, ignoring the infotainment hyperbole and corporate speak until the word Enceladus jumped off the screen at her. She flicked the text to a stop and read more carefully:

In an unusually open press release, T-Zai stated that the ship is intended for Enceladus, Saturn’s frozen moon and still one of the most impressive examples of cryo-volcanism in the system. Smith, head of T-Zai’s space arm, claimed that the multi-national’s aims were twofold–

“Well?” Williams asked.

“I see it,” Andry replied. She flicked back to the top of the article and read, her incredulity growing.

It wasn’t any surprise that T-Zai had kept their latest mission a secret, but it was identical to her own in almost every way. Even the flight paths were similar, though T-Zai had launched from Kenya Spindle and their ship design was more typical.

“Too late now to do anything about it,” Williams said. “We can’t even announce our own mission without looking like fools. Our PR department just put out the standard ‘no comment’ press release a few days back.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing you can do, now. Sit tight; keep going. We’ll sort it out ground-side.”

“Roger that.”

After she cut radio contact and finished reading the files Williams had sent over, Andry felt restless. Normally she’d use this time of day to read or watch a movie or something, but nothing she glanced at appealed to her. She checked over the ship’s route, an entirely unnecessary action, then pulled herself out of the lounge’s chair and staggered off to her sleeping couch, the tunk of her prosthetic limbs against the floor loud and hollow in the empty silence of the ship.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Frank (T2 plus 6 hours)

“You never listened, Frank; all you care about is yourself and space.”

With that, Jen disconnected, leaving him with only the ship’s emptiness and the acid taste of bile in his throat. She hadn’t even let him talk to Emily, their daughter.

On the other hand, he understood how it must feel. With less than two months’ notice, he’d left them alone for almost four years–only a little longer than they’d been married, and twice as long as Emily had even been alive.

Even if it was a life’s work that had gotten him here and a childhood dream fulfilled to see the rings of Saturn–maybe even because of that–it was going to feel like abandonment and betrayal.

Hell, it was. He’d hoped the ConScroll would make up for it, at least a little, but. . .

Still, nothing for it now. He’d already passed the moon, and the big engines at the back of the tanker were still firing. He was committed, beyond committed, and if the whole thing was a mistake it wouldn’t be his first. At least this one would pay them well in his absence.

Well enough to start another family with some Earth-bound groom, if that was what Jen wanted. He pinched the bridge of his nose and pressed his eyes closed until staticky shapes danced in the darkness behind them.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Later, when the pain had lessened a little, he radioed the V-Corp ship.

“Race you, little lady.” He felt a knowing smile pull across his features even as he said it, the too-aggressive fly-boy persona he’d adopted for the mission coming to the fore.

There was silence for a good ten minutes, and when the other pilot responded her voice was cold and flat.

“What do you want, white-shirt?”

“So you do remember me! How sweet. But my name–which you might have done me the courtesy of asking foreight back on the spindle, by the way–is Frank. Frank Lauder.”

“And mine’s Andry, as I’m sure you know.”

“Sure do, little lady. Don’t take it personally; business is business.”

“This is more than business,” she shot back.

Frank thought on Jen, on Emily. He wondered whether they would be there when he got back–but it was too late now. Too late, and what he’d wanted, besides.

Andry’s voice cut back in on the radio. “No witty come-back, white-shirt?”

“You’re right enough. There’s science, fame, and more than a few other things riding on this little voyage. But when you get down to it, the rules are the same: the winner will be whoever’s fittest.”

“Is that so?”

If he thought she’d sounded cold before, he’d been wrong. Each syllable was a particle of ice, the sentence as uncaring as the airless space outside the ship’s hull.

The chair, he thought.

“Hell, I didn’t mean it like that. I was just . . .”

But the signal had gone dead. There was only himself and his memories of home.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Andry (T1 plus eighty days)

More than two months had passed since the T-Zai ship contacted her, but Andry observed strict radio silence.

As with many things, this wasn’t as hard as it would have been in the early, heady days of space exploration. Her ConScroll kept her more or less abreast of everything going on Earth-side, and Control handled so much of the ship’s movement by telemetry that direct contact was really only necessary in case of an emergency.

For tasks beyond the mundane–some of the collection jobs she used the ship’s robotic arms and drones for, in conjunction with Control–she ignored Frank’s jibes and signed off as soon as she was able.

On the 80th day since launch, the ship passed through Mars’s orbit. Although the planet was nowhere near, her heart softened some at the invisible milestone. To think that she was one of only a few hundred to have gone this far out, and that one of the others was just behind, the both of them far from home. . .

If she was being honest with herself, she hadn’t been that mad to begin with. It was part strategy, trying to get a lead somehow.

Whoever’s fittest indeed. She snorted, flicked on the radio, tuned it to the main frequency, and said, “Sure beats the view from the top, Frank.”

“Does it ever,” he said, his voice slightly raw.

They didn’t talk more, but the timbre of the silence had changed. The lack of sound was neutral, where before it had been strained.

The next time Frank spoke, a few hours later, his voice was almost companionable. “Two months, twenty days, sixteen hours, and forty-three minutes.”

“Liar,” she said. “If you were going that fast, you’d be seeing Jupiter now.”

“It’s not where we’re going, Andry. It’s where we’ve been. Nearly three months you held that grudge–Jesus god, don’t you get lonely?”

“I like being alone. Would have thought you’d have to, to want to come out here.”

No response. She went back to her maintenance, figuring he’d talk when he felt like it, but an hour later he still hadn’t said anything.

“Frank, you okay?”

“How do you handle it, really? I know you’ve got the same set-up I do, but don’t you miss touch, real eye contact? Chrissake, I’ve been talking to myself just to hear a human voice that isn’t coming from a monitor.”

Andry thought back to the psych-evals V-Corp had given her in the run up to launch. At each, the shrink had been surprised that she showed so little inclination to miss human contact. Though why she should was a mystery–it wasn’t like she’d ever had much of it back on Earth anyway.

She remembered what the shrink had said in response to a particularly sarcastic remark of hers: “Things are different out there, Andry. Planet-side you might be fine as a loner, but when you’re hundreds of thousands of miles away from anything you’ve ever known . . . some people just can’t take it.

“If you do feel yourself going a little strange, focus on the objective. Set up something strong you can believe in and pour all your uneasiness into that. Sometimes you have to lose yourself a little in order to find yourself again.”

Andry smiled at the irony of it. She very much doubted V-Corp had expected her to use advice from her psych-evals on a T-Zai rival.

“Well, Frank,” she said over the comm channel, “I’m a woman. We just do better out here.”

“You think that’s it?” He still sounded haggard, but at least he’d stopped moping.

“I know it is. Approach route, hell. I’ll be siphoning water while you’re still watching Saturn’s rings and thinking how much they remind you of your mama’s cooking.”

He laughed. “Big words, little lady. Going to be hard to live up to, though. I’ll be parked at Enceladus while you’re still gawping at the first sight of those rings.”

Aggravating as that self-sure arrogance had been on the way up Chimborazo Spindle, Andry felt her smile stretch into a full-feral smirk. “We’ll see about that,” she said, then switched the channel to Control.

“Williams,” she said, “you said we got fuel to spare, right? Tell me what you think about this . . . ”

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Frank (T2 plus seventy-six days)

With Martian orbit behind them, interplanetary space and the future history of space exploration stretched out towards Jupiter, as far away as they’d already come.

Frank snapped a photo of Earth, a distant blue speck foregrounded by the opposite edge of the bola that gave him something like gravity. That was one admittedly aesthetic benefit of manned spaceflight–unlike robotic missions, where photography was strictly point and shoot, he could take his time selecting a shot that looked good.

The photos were supposed to go to T-Zai’s PR arm for sorting and release to the public. This, really, was the point of the mission, as far as Frank was concerned, with all the hullabaloo about Enceladus little more than filler for the over-eager media consumers back on Earth. This photo, though, Frank set aside for Jen in a message titled “missing you.” She’d long since stopped answering when he tried to call. Over the next few days, he spent his free time on the message, trying to get across the wonder of the stars’ slow crawl, their total lack of empathy. “I’m coming home,” he ended it. “When this is over, I’m coming home for good.”

It wasn’t until a week later that he stopped hoping for a response.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

The next few months of the journey passed like treacle.

There was little in the way of course corrections or navigation problems–all that was handled Earth-side–and the few experiments scientists had paid T-Zai to take on were self-sustaining. Nothing needed hands-on attention unless something went wrong, and nothing did.

The ConScroll helped a little, but the time lag drove him crazy sometimes. Besides, with Jen not talking there wasn’t much to do except browse the news feeds and check the mission intranet for chatter and briefings.

His conversations with Andry were the only things that really broke the monotony. They’d share tall tales from their respective training camps, compare benefits and working conditions across their two companies, and grouse about the universal similarities. Lunchroom talk, more or less, but the fact that he could say something and not have to wait five minutes for a response made all the difference.

Still, they never talked about the personal. Every time he wanted to talk about Jen, Frank reminded himself that Andry was the competition, not a friend. Even if their banter was friendlier and they spoke every day, there was still the under-the-surface understanding that Enceladus would change it all. From time to time, the tension erupted, spewing from nowhere like the cryo-volcanoes that were the targets of both their missions, and souring the conversation until one or the other of them went off in a fit.

A particularly bad exchange had seen Frank through the Main Belt in silence. He spent most of the transit kicking himself. Even though a collision in the belts was almost a statistical impossibility, he still half-expected it, and the awareness of just how fragile even a state-of-the-art ship was made him wish he had someone to talk to.

When he got through safe, he radioed back to Andry. If the projections the T-Zai control team had given him were in any way accurate, she was still halfway through. Usually when they talked after a flare-up, their conversations were terse, strained things. He tried to keep his tone light as a way of apologizing.

“Well, that’s me out,” he said. “Best watch out you don’t hit anything with that monster of a tanker you call a ship.”

Andry’s voice came back bright and clear. “Nothing to worry about, Frank.”

It was so unlike her–and the bantering tone they so often adopted when relations were good–that he was taken aback. “What?”

“I’m already through.”

He slammed open the mid-range imaging read-out, scanned back to where her ship should be. Nothing. Further ahead, further, further still. But when he switched to the short-range, she wasn’t there either.

“Where are you?” he said.

“You’re looking in the wrong direction, Frank. Or didn’t they tell you T-Zai boys that the Solar system isn’t flat?”

Muttering to himself, Frank scrolled down on the scanner until he caught the tell-tale blip of the V-Corp tanker. She was about fifty miles behind him, and gaining visibly.

“Shit.”

“I thought you’d like that. See, that’s the thing about this ‘monster of a tanker I call a ship,’ Frank. It’s got fuel to burn, and mass to back it up once we get going. Better tell your ground crew to step it up a notch if you want to–”

He smashed the signal over before she could finish. “Control,” he snarled. “Damn your impotent hides, we’re going to lose.”

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Andry (T1 plus one hundred eighty-five days)

Jupiter took Andry’s breath away. Shielded from the giant’s radiation by the super-dense, nanofactured materials of the ship’s hull, she floated for hours by the port-side windows, watching as its pale tans and murky orange-browns swirled past in constant, eddying motion.

When she’d had her fill–or almost had it, anyway–she flicked the ConScroll to broadcast mode and spoke.

“People of Earth. When you see this message, something like half an hour will have gone by since I drifted past the biggest planet in our system in this lonely little mobile outpost.

“Jupiter,” she continued, “fifth planet from our Sun and the first of the gas giants.”

Grimacing in the safety of her head, she recited the words as they appeared on the ConScroll’s prompter. Stilted, dull things, those words, written by freelancers back Earth-side to give her daily broadcast some educational value.

In the two-and-a-half months since V-Corp had decided to make her mission public, the company’s PR arm had come up with more and more ideas to sell their value to the world. The broadcasts had started out as simple things, a daily journal of where she was, how she was doing, and whatever else she thought was interesting.

And, of course, The Race. When the PR guys talked about it, Andry could hear the capitals in their voices, see it in the flashes of their eyes and too-white teeth on the ConScroll’s conferencing software.

The Race. That was how they were going to sell the giant screw-up that had seen her and the rest of the company maintain total silence up to now. They were going to announce it to the world as all part of a plan, an attempt by V-Corp to steal T-Zai’s glory in a hell-for-leather dash more than halfway across the Solar System and back.

The ConScroll blipped in her earpiece to let her know the prompts were ending soon, and she came back to herself as she finished the last of them. “Isn’t it amazing to think where we are now, and where we’ll be in another twenty years?”

Then, with another blip, the slow flicker of text was replaced with a few flashing words: T-Zai update.

This was what really mattered to V-Corp and most of the people still tuning in. She turned her back to the Scroll for a second, looking out on Jupiter. The PR guys wouldn’t mind–it made the whole thing seem dramatic. She rolled her eyes, then turned back to the ConScroll, clutching her grandmother’s canister in a gesture she’d adopted as her signature pose for this part of the broadcast. The sooner this was over, the sooner she could get back to the mission.

“The T-Zai ship–Frank, for those of you following along at home–is about a day behind me, trailing a little as we use Jupiter’s gravity for a bit of a boost. He’s been gaining, though, I have to say, so we’re not in the clear yet.

“At this rate, he might even catch up by, oh . . . I don’t know . . . Uranus? Pity we’re not going out that far. Sorry, Frank.”

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

“‘Sorry, Frank.’? That the best you could come up with?”

“Just trying to make it easier for you, Mr. trailing-a-little.”

Frank’s laugh was warm, something she never would have expected after their first meeting, or even after they’d passed Mars. Lately they’d been on good terms. Something about the combination of melodrama and dry statistical information their respective PR and science teams tried to cram into the broadcasts made it impossible to take themselves seriously. After two or three they’d opened up to each other almost completely.

After a slight pause, the T-Zai pilot spoke again: “Still nothing from Jen.”

“She’ll come around.”

“Yeah, maybe. I just worry it’ll be too late. Emily turned three a month ago and I still haven’t heard from them. Don’t even know if the flowers I asked mission control to send got there or not.”

Andry pulled back from the radio and sighed. This endless funk of his depressed her. It was all he ever talked about–his wife, his child, his self-described failures.

Worse, no matter how strongly she tried to redirect his attention to something else it didn’t work. All his daily actions were a link to his past somehow–checking the ship’s course or its experiments reminded him of how far he still had to go to get home. The ConScroll was worse. Even asking him his plans for his return didn’t help.

Lately she’d been thinking of another tactic. She gripped her grandmother’s canister where it hung loosely around her neck. It was the one thing she hadn’t really explained to him all the way, the reason why she needed to be out here so badly in the first place.

“Back when my grandma was an astronaut on the ISS, it was about as far away and lonely as we are now, relatively speaking. No spindle, nothing like the level of approachability we have today. Space travel was more dangerous then, with so much still untested.

“My grandpa was stuck on Earth for months at a time, sometimes longer, raising my dad and both his brothers. I won’t say it was easy. Back before she died, my grandma used to joke about the hard times between them. The ones when he’d scream at her over the video uplink, then storm off in a huff. One time she even ruined a whole batch of micro-gravity biology samples over it.”

“But that was a space station, Andry,” Frank said. “We’re at least a year away from even turning around, let alone landing. Even in those days, the shuttles ran every few months.”

“I guess so, but what I’m trying to say is that they’ll wait, Frank. As long as it takes.”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely. That’s what love is, right?”

“And if she doesn’t love me?”

“Then find someone who does,” she snapped, “and move on with your life.”

A pause, longer this time, stretching out until she had to fill it herself.

“Sorry, Frank. It’s just . . . I’m tired of hearing it, okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

When she disconnected, she felt like a heel, but it was true, and damned if she was going to help him with his pity party any longer. Grumbling, she threw herself back into her work. He’d get over it.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Frank (T2 plus two hundred seventeen days)

From the angle his ship came in, the much-touted rings of Saturn were little more than ragged dirty lines across its surface. The largest inner moons stood out amongst the hundreds of thousands of tiny moonlets. Further from the planet, Titan menaced empty space with its own massive presence. The T-Zai mission had stashed its return fuel there, but with Andry and V-Corp only a day behind, Frank couldn’t risk collecting the tanks until after he’d filled up with water from Enceladus.

Now more than ever, the voyage was a race. Neither team had planned for another large body in orbit around the icy moon, nor had they been able to agree on a way for both ships to collect at the same time. Whoever got there first would leave first, and Frank intended to make sure that was him.

“Approaching target now,” he said into the radio. “Going to stop on a dime, ladies and gents.” This far out, of course, the reportage was little more than habit. With communications to and from Earth taking close to an hour, he was for all intents and purposes on his own.

Except of course for Andry. He grinned, then switched frequencies.

“Looks like I’ll beat you after all.”

The other pilot’s voice came back without a pause. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll overshoot. I’ll be pulling in water by the kilo while you’re circling Saturn for a second approach.”

“Wait and see.”

Back when they were halfway between Saturn and Jupiter, he’d have agreed. That was when he realized the only way he would get to the goal before Andry did was by keeping his velocity as high as he could, as long as he could. For weeks after, he’d worried at the problem of transitioning into Enceladus’ orbit, but he couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t leave him a crater on the icy moon’s surface.

It had been after their biggest argument–the one where Andry got all sanctimonious about her grandparents–and they were still a little strained, mostly avoiding anything personal. In one of their typical banter sessions, Andry mentioned in passing that V-Corp had stashed its own return fuel in orbit around Saturn itself, close to Enceladus. All she’d have to do, she bragged, was boost a little out of orbit to start her trip home.

He’d made up some excuse right then to cut comms, and given Control a call. At first they thought he was crazy, but they wanted to beat V-Corp bad enough that eventually they relented. A few new waivers later, he had a custom-designed simulator and their approval to match orbits with Saturn, not Enceladus, when he neared the end of the mission, and to wait as late as he could to slow down.

He’d done the maneuver more times than he could count on the sim: zoom into Enceladus’ orbit path just ahead of its current position, and then burn fuel in a sudden, sustained burst that would slow his ship enough to be caught by Saturn’s gravitational pull. After a few false starts, he’d managed it with just enough left over to get to the plumes of water ice particles which shot from the moon’s southern pole.

And, of course, to Titan after he’d collected, albeit at a sedate pace. Still, it would be enough to see him on the path back to Earth and Jen and Emily while Andry was still filling the tanks of her ungainly ship at the fountains he’d just left.

There was only one problem with the idea, and it was why T-Zai had shown such reluctance. No matter how he played with the variables in the simulator, the G-force that resulted would knock out any human inhabitants of the ship. He’d be unable to make any course corrections or adjustments until he awoke.

There was nothing to be done about it now, though. He set the thought from his mind (the ship’s computer was a better pilot anyway) and settled into the pilot’s couch.

“We are go, Control,” he said into the radio, and then gave the computer the order to execute the program the techs had cooked up based on his experiences with the simulator.

Straight away, the boosters fired. The couch–the whole ship–was designed to soak up Gs like this, but it still hurt. The room around him shook; a wave of pressure built and built against the front of his skull, and just when he thought it would stop it built some more. The roaring, too, was immense, an unending crescendo of noise.

But it was working. Enceladus shifted from a grey blur to a moon, a clearly visible body of icy rock. He could see the plumes, a spray of glittering fabric spreading out from the moonlet’s pole and into the thin uniformity of the planet’s E ring, a shimmer of white against the blackness of space. Like diamonds, he thought, or pebbles in a riverbed, or . . . or . . .

Then his ship was past it, and the buffeting got stronger, more insistent. Just before blacking out, still reeling from the sight of what he had traveled so long to achieve, he spotted a blip on the ship’s radar, there just ahead of Enceladus: a fuel tank emblazoned with the V-Corp logo, half the size of his ship and sitting directly in its path.

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

Andry (T1 plus two hundred twenty-two days)

Andry saw the wreck even from her distant position. After passing Enceladus, and skimming through a portion of the icy ring of Saturn which jetted from its cryovolcanoes, the T-Zai ship’s exhaust ignited her spare fuel tank. The explosion was violent and immediate, a cloud of micro-debris which reached near to the edge of the ring the moon orbited inside of, and which she was sure would obliterate any trace of the tanker.

She watched in silent horror, unable even to think, everything taken up by a pressure in her lungs, a prickling at the edge of her eyes. But when the cloud started to disperse somewhat, Frank’s ship was still there, rotating slowly, at this distance appearing as though it had just stopped, somehow, matching Enceladus’ orbit exactly by some miraculous feat of precision and luck.

“Jesus,” she said. Then, over the radio: “Frank! Frank, are you reading me?”

No response. She swore and switched frequencies.

“Control, we’ve got a situation here. The T-Zai pilot’s hit one of our refills. His ship seems stable, but I can’t tell from here. I’m going to match velocities with it and take the MMV over. Can’t raise the pilot on the radio, so that’s the only way. I’ll collect the water afterward.”

“I’m going to record the rescue on the Scroll, but I won’t transmit until everything’s in the clear. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

A little over an hour later, her ship’s orbit matched with the silent T-Zai ship’s, Andry suited up and pushed away on the MMV–the car-sized rocket V-Corp astronauts used for maintenance and other external activities.

Frank still hadn’t responded to any of her comms. She didn’t know if he was pinned to something and unable to reach the controls, unconscious, or if the T-Zai tanker’s radio had just been knocked out. Even if all she found was a corpse . . . well, Frank and his family deserved better than a slow decay in space with no funeral.

It took something like four hours to cross the space between Enceladus and Frank’s ship–the time passed slowly, Saturn’s bright bands of cloud lighting her way, hundreds of thousands of miles above and to her left. Control got back to let her know that they’d received her communication, and that she should continue as she saw fit; she thanked them, and kept going.

When she was a few miles away from the T-Zai ship, she fired the MMV’s reverse thrusters and came to a gradual, bone-grinding stop. This close, it was clear that even if he lived, Frank wouldn’t be taking any water home. The micro-debris had opened up a huge, gaping rent all the way down one side of the tanker. Jagged strips of metal and nano-carbon stuck out everywhere, and the ship was still surrounded by a small cloud of fragments–almost a mirror of Saturn and its rings.

Andry radioed Control again, describing the scene. “I’m going inside,” she finished.

She maneuvered the MMV to the nose of the spinning ship and tethered it to the outside of the airlock, pulled a plasma cutter, a sealing sheet, and a spare suit from the small craft’s supply cubby and carved a hole in the airlock’s outer door. Once she was inside, she sealed the hole off again and cycled the inner door.

She sent one more radio to Control, then switched to Frank’s frequency. “You still in here?”

When he didn’t respond, she shook her head and pulled herself through the door. The ship’s interior was dimly lit by emergency lighting only, but her sensors showed a comfortable level of oxygen. Still, she kept the suit on as she drew herself along using the rungs set into the corridor walls. Better safe than sorry.

V-Corp’s ship was different from hers, but it didn’t take long to locate the pilot’s room. She clipped her harness to a rung near the chamber’s sealed door and wrestled with its emergency latch until she got it open. Inside, it was even darker than the rest of the ship, and equally still.

“Frank?” she rasped, her voice tinny and unnaturally loud through the suit’s speakers. She keyed the release on her helmet and opened the visor, then tried again: “Frank?”

Her stomach clenched and churning with acid, she shone her flashlight into the room. A shifting cloud of debris—glass mostly, and parts from some machine or another that she couldn’t recognize—filled most of the space. Off to one side, Frank’s lifeless body tugged in a slow, jerky orbit above the pilot’s chair, connected by one strap of a safety harness. One of his arms had been broken at the shoulder, and the arm of his suit stretched over his head, moving independently of the rest of him. His face, uncovered, had been lacerated, so that droplets of rich, red blood beaded off and spun out into the room, where they pooled loosely against the corner of the wall and ceiling.

Andry shut off her light, swallowed drily a few times, and sent a terse message to Control: “He’s dead.”

THE PLUMES OF ENCELADUS Page Break

She lashed Frank’s body to the MMV with some of its emergency cord. With the spare suit’s mirrored visor down, the only sign of something wrong was the little bundle tied to his neck which carried of his a few personal artifacts. One of them, a photo showing Frank with his wife and daughter, she’d kept out. She’d found it clutched in one hand when she pulled him down, and had worked it free, straightened it out, and taped it to the side of the canister which held her grandmother’s ashes.

When she was about halfway between the two ships, she slowed the MMV and turned to face the near-blinding glare of Saturn. She hefted the canister in one hand, the other secure on the small vehicles handle, and made as if to throw it.

But after a moment’s thought, she let the hand drop and dug through the supply capsule until she found a long-range transmitter and a self-guiding solar sail–the sort usually used for delivering small packets of rock from an asteroid surface-walk to a more distant laboratory station. She broke the seal, stuck the canister and Frank’s portrait inside its payload compartment, and activated the device. Then she aimed it out into the vastness of space and let go. They’d keep each other good company out there, her grandma and Frank’s family.

She watched until she could no longer see the tiny object, then placed her hand on Frank’s helmet. “Well,” she said, a forced hint of levity in her voice, “what say we go get us some water?”

That’s when the tears came, just the tiniest bit of moisture at the corners of her eyes. Let them come, she thought. Let them.

She fired up the MMV’s jets and started back for Enceladus, thinking already of home.

_______________

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, haikuist, and speculative fiction writer. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and COSMOS, among other magazines. Stewart was born in England, has spent time in South Carolina, Japan, and California, and now lives in western Oregon with his wife and two sons­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll say he’s from the Internet. His website is http://infomancy.net/

Leave a Reply