“And Saturn Below”
by Wade Ogletree
With its dragonfly array, the tubular vessel rotated before me. Its name came into view, looking almost as crisp as when it arrived: “Kronos III, Polar Explorer“. The crystalline plastic tether pointed needle-like at the gaseous planet below, and nothing I saw told me why the ship was dropping orbit. I reported my all clear and prepared to dock.
From halfway around the planet, Roberta cautioned, “She’s a second–hand piece of junk, Miguel. If she’s not worth saving, write her off and get out.”
“Be careful what you say. I hear your heart, but the company would hear only your words.”
“You hear my heart? I don’t think so. You don’t even speak the language.”
The business at hand kept me from responding. I piloted the shuttle until the coupler slid into place and the docking clamps grabbed hold. Before I unhooked myself from my seat, I took another look out past the ship to the planet beyond. From my usual station, the rings stretched overhead, drawing their lines across heaven’s dome. Here, beneath Saturn’s southern pole, I could see a large stretch of the rings, laid out flat before me in broad sweeps of purples, grays, and beige.
At last, the airlock opened. I unbuckled the harness, and gently propelled myself from one ship to the other. The Expert Program’s interface greeted me.
“Welcome Señor, what are your instructions?”
“Status report, por favor.”
The Expert Program, the E.P., rattled off its report, but it had nothing more to offer than was already known. Three hours earlier the electrodynamic tether’s internal current had fluctuated uncontrollably.
In my ear, Roberta said, “What can’t be done to that ship in the next hour, won’t be done at all. We’ve got five hours before the devil comes home. Five hours, Miguel.”
“Yo se, mi amor. I’ll be back before then.”
I floated planet-ward, climbing upside down by means of a centrally located ladder. Our main vessel, The Tolkien, simulated a one-G pull, so weightlessness had become a novelty again. The joyride ended when I reached the bottom of Kronos and unscrewed the faceplate that covered the anchored end of the tether.
“Can you fix it from there?” Roberta asked.
“I hope so. This isn’t a good day for a space walk.”
“I’m kidding. You know I’m kidding. Now give me a moment.”
Nothing seemed obviously wrong, which was a disappointment. I ran the meter checks, one by one, hoping to find something that failed to match the specs, but everything checked out. In frustration, I demanded, “What’s the problem here?”
Though I had been talking to myself, the E.P. took my question literally. “A fluctuating current within the tether compensates for stress-induced failure. For unknown reasons, three hours and fifteen minutes ago, that fluctuation temporarily failed.”
“I know that, but what caused the failure?”
The E.P. paused before answering. “It is impossible to explain the unknown.”
Hmm, I thought. How philosophical.
Roberta chimed in. “If it’s not on board, it’s got to be in the tether. Send out the drone.”
“In a moment,” I said. “I need time to think. I completed a flyby, and the tether’s sheath was unscathed. If I attempt an exploratory repair, I’m likely to do more harm than good. I want to know what I’m looking for.” Of the E.P., I asked, “We’re still running the tether at full current?”
The E.P. confirmed that we were.
The tether acted as a simple sail, allowing the vessel to move from one orbit to another. The speeds and complexities of Saturn’s magnetosphere enabled this to work off the current generated by the tether’s interaction with the field. No power from the ship was ever required.
That was the way it was supposed to work. As I pondered the problem, Kronos was steadily dropping orbit, despite the current pumping through its tether.
Again, Roberta griped in my ear. “If it’s a problem with the ship, I don’t understand why the E.P. didn’t find it.”
That got my attention. It was an Expert Program, designed to handle all human knowledge within its limited area: electrodynamic sailing vessels. Roberta was right. If there was a problem with the way the ship was operating, the E.P. would have known, but this tether was an open system. The end of it was unsheathed, open to its environment. This created a phantom loop, using the ionosphere as part of the circuit. I let out a long, pent-up sigh of frustration. “I knew that would come back to bite us.”
“What?” Roberta demanded. “What is it?”
“I told you when the company sent us E.P.’s designed for Earth-orbit vessels that there would be problems. I think we’ve run into one right here.”
“And that is?”
“The cause of the fluctuation isn’t the ship. It’s in the magnetosphere, and our E.P. doesn’t know enough to see that. No se di cuenta. Bring up the intraplanetary system readings for the exact time of and just before the anomaly. Tell me what you find.”
There was a pause, and then Roberta asked, “You want to tell me what I’m looking for?”
“It will have something to do with the difference between the E.P.’s Earth-orbit reference and our Saturn-orbit reality.”
I let myself float freely in the darkness, the light from my headgear offering the only illumination. It fell on metal walls and girders, the ladder, the open faceplate, and other consoles. I ignored them all as best I could without cracking my head on a sharp corner.
Roberta wanted a quick review of the differences between the Earth’s magnetosphere and Saturn’s. I supposed she thought my ramblings would help her spot a detail she would otherwise miss. Unsure what a logical starting point would be, I blathered. “The icy moons, the rings, and Titan’s atmosphere work together to form a magnetosphere more complex and active than Earth’s…”
I frowned, knowing the E.P. could never grasp the awesome reach of Saturn’s power. Photons from the sun and the electrons and ions from the plasma were continually smashing into the rings and the icy moons. The reach of it was overwhelming. I lost myself in the sheer magnitude of its scope.
“You’re getting awfully quiet.”
The sound of her voice stirred me. “How much time do I have?“
“Did you find anything?”
“Maybe,” she said. I recognized the strain in her voice.
“I know this is out of your comfort zone.”
“I’m a fleet manager, not a scientist.”
I could imagine her lovely face hovering over the main screen, its green light flickering on her almond flesh. She kept her hair pulled back, but black strands would have fallen loose. When I left, she had been wearing the standard issue sweatpants and a ribbed, sleeveless tee. Since then, she would have also donned the bulky sweatshirt, to warm herself against The Tolkien’s chill. I chose to ignore that fact. In my mind, I kept her in that little, form-hugging tee. I had married a beautiful woman.
What she said next chilled my flesh. “At the time of the anomaly, there was a drop in the equatorial magnetic field.”
I might have cursed. In my ear, Roberta mumbled a quiet, “That sounded significant.”
Forty-five days earlier the sun had unleashed a series of X-class solar flares, the largest aimed directly at Saturn’s path. We had been monitoring the approaching interplanetary shock ever since. If the shock created a magnetic storm, it would be situated over one of the poles, placing Kronos at ground zero. The ship’s systems had checked out, and we had left the vessel in polar-synchronous orbit, eagerly anticipating the wealth of data that Kronos would collect.
“Miguel, talk to me!”
“The magnetic storm we’ve been expecting, one of its effects is a planet-wide drop in the equatorial magnetic field.”
To the E.P., I said, “Jettison the tether. Engage thrusters. Bring us into a synchronous orbit below The Tolkien.” They were only maneuvering thrusters, but they would last long enough to get the ship away from the pole. Without the tether, the ship would be crippled, and a crippled ship caught in a Saturn–sized magnetic storm stood little chance of survival.
Roberta screamed in my ear, something about the difficulty of getting a replacement tether and other options needing to be considered. Whatever it was, it kept me from hearing the E.P., and I asked it to repeat itself. Its words were cold and simple: “Jettison failed.”
Roberta breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Now when this is over, we’ll repair the existing tether and stay on budget.”
“Maybe you should remember what you said earlier about this being a second-hand piece of junk.”
From her tone, I knew Roberta thought I was being argumentative. Unfortunately, I was preparing her for a hard truth. “Kronos is a dead ship.”
Her voice was quiet, almost penitent, as she asked, “Why?”
“The electromagnetic drag on the tether is still pulling the ship out of orbit, despite the current. If we can’t jettison the tether, we’ve lost the ship.” Of the E.P., I asked, “Did you fire the thrusters?”
“What’s our heading?”
“Kronos is plotted to reach synchronous orbit below The Tolkien in twelve hours, forty–two minutes. With the current rate of orbital loss, however, the ship will begin terminal descent in eight hours, thirty–six minutes.”
And the interplanetary shock would hit well before that.
I took one last look at the anchored end of the tether, hoping to find a way to jettison it manually. I knew no such option existed. I had begun grasping at straws. It was time to write the ship off and get out.
I instructed the E.P. to upload its records to The Tolkien. Then I grabbed hold of the ladder and propelled myself upward to the airlock. As I floated into the shuttle and strapped in, I realized how quiet Roberta had become. She was worrying over the budget. That was her job.
“The loss is the company’s fault,” I told her. “They were conned by the lowest bidder into using a maladapted E.P. A Saturn-orbit model might have understood the problem and reacted in time.”
Her voice came back firm and fiery. “You think they’ll take responsibility?”
She had me there. “No, they’ll still blame us.”
“Us? The health of the fleet is my responsibility. You’re a scientist. What do scientists know about business? I don’t need this, Miguel. I could have had a perfectly healthy career, safe and sound on Earth where I belong, instead of following your stupid dreams.”
I was about to respond, but she shushed me. “Hold on. We’ve got some serious kilometric radiation spikes.”
The airlock hushed closed. “Now? Are you sure? It’s too early.”
The Saturn kilometric radiation would go nuts when the shock hit, but spikes now didn’t make sense, not unless there was something moving ahead of the main shock. Then I saw the dancing lights of the aurora below me. I was in trouble. I heard the locking clamps disengage, and had just begun the careful retreat when Kronos went mad. It rocketed upward and clipped the airlock, spinning the shuttle around until my thrusters collided with the passing vessel.
The battered shuttle tumbled through space.
The damaged thrusters failed to react to my command. Roberta screamed in my ear. In smooth tones I told her I was fine, but I knew she could see by her readouts that my heart was racing. The thrusters failed to respond. Saturn spun in and out of view.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. Slowly the panic started to subside, and I was able to apply myself to understanding what had happened. That proved easy enough. The SKR spikes indicated another, more significant drop in the equatorial magnetic field, weakening the forces that had been working against the tether. Without these forces holding Kronos back, the tether and the thrusters, working together at full capacity, had rocketed the vessel skyward.
I felt a little better now. At least I knew what was happening to me. I thought it strange that, though I might die, I felt calmer knowing the cause. It was part of my constant need to know, the very need that had driven us to Saturn.
Roberta’s voice, now so kind and reassuring, said, “I’m coming after you.”
I thought of Kronos then and told its E.P. to cut the thrusters. There was no need to waste the energy. At least for now, the ship was fully operational.
I cut her off. While fighting with the thrusters, trying to hotwire them back to life, I talked, hoping the sound of my voice alone might calm her fears. What came out of my mouth surprised me. “You were right. From the moment this position came open, you were right, and I was wrong. I shouldn’t have dragged you halfway across the solar system. We should have stayed on Earth and raised a family.”
A family? That certainly would have made my mother happy. The last time she had called, what had she said? When she was our age, she already had six children. Six. And we had none. At the time, I had laughed it off as a mother’s twisted sense of priorities, but now I thought maybe I had my priorities reversed. Maybe I needed to reassess what was important in life.
Once again, Roberta snapped me back to the moment. “Miguel! What about Kronos? Can you use Kronos?”
I blinked, not sure what I had heard or what it meant. Outside, Saturn spun in and out of view three times. It took that long for me see the obvious: Kronos could be my savior.
My enthusiasm, my certainty I could make this work, got me through the next two hours. It kept at bay the possibility that I was sealed in my own coffin, doomed to spin lifelessly in orbit around the planet I had presumed to love.
I forgot for a time the power of the magnetosphere: the surging, swirling plasma feeding off the solar ultraviolet energy and the ionized molecules constantly torn from everything in its grip. Eventually, it would ionize my molecules and assimilate me unto itself. As the planet had figuratively become part of me, I would literally become part of it—Chronos eating his children.
Through the E.P. I had Kronos calculate my position and come to my rescue. While on approach, the E.P. suddenly said, “Kronos is a dead ship.”
The statement took me off guard, but I did my best to respond. “Maybe not now. We have some time before the surge wears off. We might make it out of here.”
Uncertain how fast I was going, I was concerned about how long it would take the ship to reach me. My velocity, however, was relatively low, and Kronos made rendezvous inside of twenty minutes. I felt good.
I used the time to run a diagnostic on my airlock. It checked out.
Kronos arrived. I had the E.P. bring her alongside the shuttle and then, with small adjustments to her thrusters, duplicate the shuttle’s spin like a dance partner. I could see, inch by inch, minute by minute, the progress we were making until, at last, Kronos orbited the shuttle perfectly, our airlock doors in exact alignment.
The thrusters held as I guided her in, and the coupler screeched angrily as the ships connected. Then Kronos locked onto the shuttle and counteracted her roll. For two hours, Saturn had spun past the shuttle’s tiny window, but now she slowed and almost stopped.
I toggled the airlock controls and started unhooking my harness. The silence, though, was unmistakable. I had been expecting the gentle hush of the opening doors. Those doors remained closed.
I yanked at the manual override, but the doors refused to budge. I closed my eyes and focused on the problem, trying to let the solution come to me, but nothing came. It was then that my enthusiasm finally failed.
It was the E.P. who said, “The doors will not open.”
I closed my communication circuit with Roberta before answering. I told the E.P. to do the same. I looked at the walls of the shuttle and realized that these were the walls of my coffin. I was going to die.
I asked the E.P., “Do you know what melodrama is? It runs in my family. I get it from my mother.”
The E.P. asked, “What are your instructions?”
“My mother’s always been a faithful believer. She sent a cross and Bible with us as going–away presents. I’ve no idea where they are.”
Kronos was silent. Kronos. The Romans gave the name Saturn to Chronos, the Greek god of time who consumed his own children. The Expert Program. Kronos. Saturn. Time. In that moment, I cried out to them all.
“Can you hear me?”
The cold voice came back, “What are your instructions?”
My mother had known a God who answered her. Prayer. I could think of no better time to pray than this, but I knew nothing of prayer and no one to pay to.
Saturn slowly rose into view. I spoke, perhaps to the planet itself. “This is loneliness,” I said. “No children. No God. I have everything I wanted. I have you, or, at least, you have me. Do you know that? Do you even care?” Her earthen bands were silent. I would die, and she would not mourn my passing.
Roberta’s voice broke over my own, promising that she was only an hour away now. One hour. An hour and a half after that, the interplanetary shock would hit.
I opened the circuit so she could hear me. The melodramatic heart of my mother, beating at full strength within me, whispered, “Turn around. You still have time to make it back.”
“I’m not going without you!”
I closed the circuit again and sat in silence. Then, to the planet, I said, “She gets it from her mother, too. But her mother is scary, not a weeping Madonna like mine. Roberta spits fire, but her mother breathes it.”
I looked away from the window and asked the E.P. to check on my current trajectory. Under my breath, I said, “When her mother learns what happened here, I’ll be glad I’m dead.”
I needed to do something to make this easier on Roberta and figured the least I could do was meet her half way. In my despair, I had overlooked that fact that I would no longer be on my original course. Our entire livable space amounted to five orbital vessels: five pinpoints in space around a rather large planet. Wherever we were headed, I figured it would be the middle of nowhere, and I was right.
I told the E.P. that our renewed destination was The Tolkien, but this time I set us on a fairly direct route, plotting to give only enough distance between the two ships so that Kronos and The Tolkien could pass each other by, should Kronos be dead weight by then.
The E.P. stated the obvious. “The objective is to meet the shuttle en route.”
“If you come up with a way to get me out of my ship and into hers, let me know.”
“This is a salvage operation.”
“You could call it that.”
“The coupling system in the approaching shuttle is not malfunctional. It could tow Kronos to safety.”
“Not as long as we’re still coupled.”
“It seems probable that the damaged coupling system will allow for a disconnect. Kronos can be salvaged.”
“I’m glad for you. How about me? You got a plan to save me?”
Again, the E.P. paused. “Ignorance renders all speculation moot.”
Pure, unadulterated wisdom, and utterly useless.
Left to my own devices, I could see only one unverifiable solution. I figured that I could disengage from Kronos, and, assuming that the airlock would open once the two ships were no longer attached, I could space walk from one ship to the other. Easy.
The diagnostics, as before, checked out for the airlock systems. If the malfunction was in the coupling system, then it might have interfered with the airlock. It seemed logical. Unfortunately, the only way to test it was to disengage from Kronos, and the time had not quite come for that.
Still, I had a plan, and that felt good.
About an hour before the interplanetary shock’s scheduled arrival, a giant grabbed me by the tail. Kronos was losing orbit. I moved to disconnect the two ships, but caught myself in the last moment. As long as we shared the same downward velocity, breaking free would do me little good.
To the E.P., I said, “Engage the thrusters and give the tether its full current.”
The cluster of ships slowed, stopped, and actually began a slow crawl heavenward, but Saturn’s grasp was quickly gaining strength. I felt our progress die. In a matter of seconds, Kronos would no longer be able to fight the downward pull.
I disengaged the locking clamps, and instructed the E.P. to maneuver Kronos clear. The E.P. said, “Kronos cannot maintain orbit long enough to rendezvous with the shuttle. Kronos cannot be salvaged.”
The worn-out thrusters sputtered and died, but it was enough. Kronos banked away. Suspended in space, I watched as Kronos III, Polar Explorer lost the fight and slowly sank, its dragonfly array stretched out like the arms of a drowning man.
Its receding form remained in view for the next half hour, and I kept watching, hoping to see it rocket skyward again as the magnetic surge lost its strength. It never happened, and finally the speck in the distance disappeared. Kronos was gone.
“Miguel, I have you in visual. I have you in visual.”
Snapped out of my thoughts, I pulled on my helmet, checked my harness, and then toggled the airlock. It let out a long, extended hush as it released the interior atmosphere, equalizing the pressure before exposing me to the void beyond. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
I floated out of the shuttle, and for an instant there was nothing below me but Saturn herself. I glanced at the striated cloud bands and saw the flattened polar horizon, an effect of the planet’s rapid rotation. The old spark of wonder awakened in me, but it was no longer enough to feed the fires of my obsession. I left Saturn behind and slipped into Roberta’s waiting embrace.
The shuttle pumped in new atmosphere, and Roberta and I slipped off our helmets and snuggled as best we could. I told her she was beautiful, but there was so much more I wanted to say. I made my plans as we flew back to The Tolkien; that evening I would tell her I was ready to go home. I was ready to start a family.
For now, though, we sat in silence, holding each other, and when the interplanetary shock finally hit, we watched the lights play like ribbons in space, filling the void where Kronos had been.
Wade Ogletree ‘s story “The Sphinx and Ernest Hemingway ” was published in Fantasy Magazine #2. “A Picture’s Worth” was featured in Dark Passages: The Best from Double-Edged Publishing 2005. He has a half-dozen publications online and runs the fiction critique site: Better Fiction.
Story © 2007 Wade Ogletree. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish