By Willis Couvillier
The plane of Saturn's rings was spectacular. At this angle the light from Sol hit the icy rocks perfectly to give the appearance of glittery dust, a staggered circle of brilliant diamonds framing the colorful surface of the planet. Slowly the view of the original ringed planet shifted and the edge of Titan crept into view from the opposite side. At this proximity the moon dominated the view, easing around to eclipse the planet. As more of the living surface of this dwarf-planet satellite came into view, only one thing entered Maarren's mind--
This was not the vision he'd thought he'd experience as he died.
What the hell was he doing out here?
And why? Why?
Liu Han Maarren felt like he was in a coffin, buried alive. The safesuit meant anything but safety to him as he drifted, a tiny mote being merely another particle of ring dust to the uncaring planet lurking behind its moon. It was a confining encumbrance that he loathed, hated with everything in him. He didn't care if it was all that kept him alive. The only thing he saw in that was the torture as it delayed the inevitable, while he thought about it, over and over and over.
God he hated it.
He suppressed the impulse to strike his faceplate. The feed of data from his medcites scrolled over the inside top left of his visor, a mocking countdown to his death. Oh, he knew that he was beginning to experience the signs of oxygen deprivation. It was not like he could escape the demonic red digits scrolling across his peripheral view, reminding him of it. No, striking the faceplate was out. Any movement was out. The exertion would use extra oxygen. And that would shave crucial seconds from his life. Movement was anti-life. He could die with just the stars as his companions, instead of his good friend Saturn and her little boy, Titan.
He closed his eyes. Being angry at the universe and fighting helplessness drained him, leeched away his already fading energy. He didn't know what he wanted. With one thought he longed to sleep away the few hours until his final sleep, so that the torture would pass quicker. With the next thought his mind was fiercely awake, riveted with the tension of the situation, franticly seeking solutions to survive. He realized that he couldn't relax, couldn't sleep. Over and over in his mind scenarios churned, many crazy, few realistic, and none practical or do-able.
Calm down, he told himself.
How! he answered.
At the lower left corner of his visor the data feed from his safesuit's systems diagnostic continued to pulse, bright. In the corner of his vision he saw a green indicator blink away then return, orange, leaving the one indicator continuing to blink green-- the useless one. The one that let him know that the beacon was working fine-- not that anyone would find a warm body to rescue if they could reach him any time soon. And then there was that orange light. He wanted to scream at it. He knew the suit's oxygen was low!
Titan slid from his view, being replaced with the panorama of the star field. Multi-colored and variously sized specks clustered, forming constellations, with slightly larger specks of galaxies dotting the mesh. It was an incredible sight, truly awe inspiring-- the full Milky Way crisp and unfiltered by any atmosphere or man-made illumination. Maarren missed the twinkle, the glitter that an atmosphere gave to the stars. Without that, this grandeur was-- passionless, cold.
Atmosphere or not, the view didn't do much for him, under the circumstances.
It would be a while until his rotation would bring Saturn's rings back into view. Until then he'd just have to settle with seeing spots, rather, small colorfully tinted dots swarming against lots of black empty. He could admire all this, and he had, when the circumstances had been different. Part of his drive to get out here had come from his admiration, his desire, to experience the grandness of this magnificent immensity. It lifted life's perception to a new level, this did, and gave a person a humbling respect for the sheer magnitude of everything. Each time he'd had to be suited up and out, he'd taken a moment to admire his universe, drinking in the ambiance. In these moments, it was his, all his. The universe was his baby...
God was a jealous god, however.
It was the only explanation.
He, Liu Han Maarren, had dared to claim all of this for his own, and had seriously pissed God off. And now he was experiencing the consequences of that. He couldn't classify the chain of coincidences that'd put him here any other way.
The reflexive explosion of the residual fluid from his lungs forced Maarren into awareness. He turned his head to the side to spit out the driblets of Cryo-Plus from his mouth, then, grimacing from the metallic mint aftertaste, turned back to review the data scrolling on the inside face of the cyro cylinder. He remained still for a moment to gather his thoughts, then, as soon as his head was clear, used the virtual glove controls to open the chamber. Since he'd been brought out of cryo, there had to be a problem.
Maarren realized what was wrong as soon as he left the cylinder. Pushing out, he floated directly up, hovering over the bank of passenger cylinders. There wasn't any direct thrust to generate a directional pull from the momentum. Since the computer deemed it necessary to wake him, the automated system must have failed to correct the problem with the drive.
"Date check, AI."
"It is currently12:42 hours on Novenber 14th, 2182, Commander Maarren." The AI replied immediately with its default feminine voice, doubtless meant to be soothing. The original AI programmers had never been in space, obviously.
Just under 8 weeks until dock. "ETA and course update."
"We are 3.7 hours behind schedule. We are maintaining course, Commander."
Not too bad-- yet. "What's wrong with the barge."
"The drive has malfunctioned."
Indeed. "Auto repair?"
"The automatic repair system does not respond to the activation command, Commander."
"Give me a systems review." Maarren pushed over to the console chair while the AI summarized the state of the ship's operations. It'd been a couple of centuries since that first ion drive had been tested, and they still couldn't get it right. On that historic run, the ionization grid had shorted out, shutting down the drive. The problem had cleared itself, amid speculation of stuck comet dust in its spacing, but it wasn't until private industry jumped into the space race and took up the challenge of making space profitable that the earlier speculation was confirmed. Their engineers came up with a design that included a fairly effective self-cleaning repair function, which led up to the design of the first barge transports. Since those early days, ion propulsion barges had been found to be an ideal way to supply the outer science orbitals. With cryo for personnel and with most systems automated, regular shipment runs had been developed, providing an effective supply source to the stations. For decades the system had proven itself, since the first staggered runs to now, with only moderate changes to ship design being required. The barges pushed along smoothly-- unless, however, the grid picked up dust that the automated repair systems couldn't completely clear.
Then a human had to be awakened, such as was the case now.
Maarren shook his head, giving the console screen a last glance. Pushing out of the chair, he set his motion toward the rear hatch. The longer that the drive was down the worse the situation could become. The barge was nearing the reversal point, and needed to have the main drive operational. It had to reverse for braking-- the barge was already in Saturn space and approaching Ring Station 2, and although all of the positioning jets were fine it still required the main drive to slow the ship down to a safe docking speed.
Maarren finished sealing up the safesuit. Ready to exit to the hull, he said, "AI, communications open?"
"Yes, Commander. Your transmission is clear."
Everything checked ok-- the results from the pre-exit diagnostic scrolled on the inside of the visor of the safesuit, updating him with the status. All the gasses were fully charged, the line connectors secure, the suit magnetic's checked ok, the nanite repair system at ready, the medcites were logged in to the safesuit's computer system. Everything was a go.
"AI, evacuate the chamber." He could feel the air being withdrawn from the room more than anything else. The safesuit was a secure safety environment, and filtered out everything that couldn't be transmitted in. He could see tiny movements of dangling items as the air was sucked away, but not hear anything.
"Completed, Commander. The vacuum is established."
Maarren opened the outer hatch, slowly pulling himself out. At about the half-point, he reached over the lip and secured the physical line to the drag mount. Still holding onto the line, he adjusted his motion until he could snap down his feet and lock down the MagStrides. Once he was secure, he moved towards the rear engines, a figure advancing slowly, appearing not unlike a staggering robot as he walked on the hull.
"AI, try initializing the engine again."
Nothing. A moment later the AI's voice entered his helmet again. "There was no response, Commander. The diagnostic continues to indicate a grid short."
Damn. Of course this wasn't going to resolve easy.
"Initialize the rear engine manual repair console."
Maarren took a moment and stood on the hull looking at Saturn. The barge passed close to Titan on this route, and this was one of the rare times a person could admire the incredible view that the proximity to the ringed giant and its satellite offered. At this moment, this was his, all his. It was amazing.
But, he had a job to do. Sighing, he turned back to the task, sliding his tread, pulling the tether line along. He eyeballed one of the gas jet thrusters, but continued when everything he could see verified the earlier systems report. Soon he was at the rear, and there, turning off the boot magnetics, he swung around the tail cup in a controlled flip and float that landed his feet back on the metal, on the inside of the tail cup's rim. As he contacted the surface, he re-initialized the magnetics, re-securing himself. A couple steps in and he was at the control pad to the repair port.
Sliding open the locker-sized chamber, he pulled out The Brush. A running joke, it resembled nothing less than an archaic Earthside cleaning brush. Dust particles frequently accumulated in the grid. Automatic repair worked by rapid heating and cooling the grid, with the result of the dust being dislodged by the expansion and contracting of the metal. Ideally this would be all that was needed, but occasionally dust wouldn't work itself free, maintaining the short. For these times there was The Brush-- a tool with numerous nozzles and a pressurized hydrogen flow designed to blow dust free.
Maarren crept along the grid, carefully covering the surface with the gas. Then, a third of the way into the job, it happened.
The MagStrides failed.
The Brush blasted him directly into space, with force strong enough to snap him back when he reached the length of the tether. Dazed, he whipped back, striking the round of the barge's tail cup full on his side, jamming the tether joint hard into his ribcage. For a moment he blacked out, and then as consciousness returned he saw he was free-floating away from the barge. The impact had snapped the tether from its connection to the safesuit.
Still dazed, he threshed around, flailing like an infant tossing a tantrum. Closing his eyes, he breathed in twice, deeply; calm, relax, control the panic, use the training to clear the mind and assess the situation. Finally his thoughts settled down-- when he faced the barge he set off a short gas burst to push him to his ship. Nothing happened. Trying again and getting the same result he began to feel the panic set in, then frantically worked the virtual control pad, trying to get the jets to work. As his drift slowly turned the view away from the rear of the barge, the chill of realization struck.
He was adrift in open space. And he was alone.
Maarren rotated to a position that brought the distant tiny circle of the rear of the barge into view. He had tried to contact the AI after he'd snapped loose, but hadn't received an answer. His gas gun dead, his transmission non-operational, the integrity of the nanite patch down to 89% and dropping, his hope for rescue dim-- Maarren had little to keep his mood positive. Then he saw the clincher-- the barge's ion drive momentarily flickered, and then the ion stream flared out as the drive fully came online.
Yep, God hated him. No doubt about it.
Times such as this definitely made it hard to keep the faith. Perhaps, though, a time like this was when you had to.
The close edge of the outermost of Saturn's rings came into view. In the distance-- not that anything here was close-- an elongated speck sat offside in the midst of a galaxy blob. He once knew the name of that comet. He didn't know where that knowledge was now, but it had been there once. Most that came to mind was that it was a number. There were a lot like that, this far away from home. There were so many objects out here, from the larger asteroids in the belt to the smaller moons around the giant planets to all the new finds being made out in the Kuiper belt, all just numbered. So bold and magnificent, yet made so anonymous.
The status lights at the lower left of the visor display continued to blink, the orange one now red. The green beacon indicator remained unchanged...
Maarren's breath was hard and would probably mist the faceplate if the safesuit weren't designed against it. He didn't need the red blinking indictor to tell him that the air was critical. His own body told him that, more and more so each time he turned. His rotations were his count-down clock. He lost count long ago, so he could only figure the end was soon. He'd lost sight of the barge a few turns back, but by then it was only one bright ring spot amongst the vast myriad glitter of ring spots.
Maarren weakened. He felt it from the fatigue pushing in on him. He felt it from how his feelings changed, how he didn't have the hate any longer. His desire to fight was fading, and he realized that it wouldn't be long before his cognizance would follow. It wouldn't be long now before he would fall into a coma, and there, die.
There was a ripple on the cloud-haze on Titan's surface that hadn't been there last time he tuned. Blinking the wet from his eyes, he looked for a moment, thinking that God how he loved that fried shrimp po'boy he had the one time he visited Earth. They didn't have anything like that back home in Mars Polar.
His breath caught. He wasn't sure whether it was from the worsening air or a sob. He didn't care, not that much, anyway. He would take care of it. He would decide his death, not wait, not let it just happen.
They did wonderful things with frozen people, they did.
He just hoped his eyes wouldn't rupture from the decompression.
Mom, I hope I made you proud, he thought, blinking at the moisture again. I'll see you soon, Mom.
The indicator didn't blink now. It was a solid red bar.
Maarren reached up to his faceplate to release it. It wouldn't move, the seals seemed frozen and wouldn't take his command-- was that also malfunctioning? He felt his arms at his sides, realized they hadn't moved...
For a moment it appeared that his mother saw him.
He knew that is wasn't real. She'd been on the machines for a month now. He couldn't remember if he'd even told her he loved her, before she fell into the coma. She was all the family he had, and he couldn't even remember if he'd told her he loved her. The last thing he remembered them talking about was how he thought about joining up, getting out to work the outer stations, maybe even working on the new science station that was going up in orbit around Uranus.
That was before their last fight, though.
Now she was dead. She was flesh, with machines and tubes and electricity keeping the flesh warm.
It didn't matter their differences. He loved her. He knew she loved him, too, even with their disagreements. They were all that each other had.
A couple Meds and a nurse waited by the machines. "Mr. Maarren..." one of the Meds said.
He nodded. He couldn't say a thing, now. He watched, distant inside of himself with expressionless eyes.
One by one the Med who had spoken shut down the machines. The nurse removed the tube from her mouth. He turned away as she began to pull aside the covers to remove the other tubes.
His mother was dead.
He killed her. He hadn't even been able to tell her he loved her.
He could never let this happen to him again.
He came out of the hallucination, the memory, with damp eyes and an echo of the past pain heavy on him. The space agencies screened all applicants deeply, with long batteries of psychological sessions. An applicant had to be capable of dealing with solitude, and had to have minimal ties to any place they may call home. When he'd been accepted, it'd been the happiest moment of his life.
He wanted to go home.
"God," he thought, "I'm sorry. Can I go home? I don't want to be here any more, please..."
Boy that had been one fantastic sandwich!
For a second he regained clarity, but it didn't last. His vision was becoming spotty now, with moments where it faded inward from the edges, then moments where bright haze blotches flared in to obstruct the view. He was about to die and all he could think of was food. No memories from Mars Polar, nothing from his childhood, just a sandwich he'd had once on a tour of Euro-Chin Space Agency from a stand that wasn't even on the same continent as Old New Orleans.
The haze from Titan stretched from the surface, grasping up, reaching into his safesuit. Even the non-stop data stream generated from his medcites to his faceplate monitor was swallowed into it as the haze thickened, as it brightened into an all encompassing living thing that took him up, and slowly faded him towards a deepening darkness.
He was-- aware.
He was being jostled around with enough force to pull him from the thick darkness. Slowly lucidity returned to his thoughts, and as he become aware of light on the inside of his eyes other things also began to register. Sounds of breathing other than his. Odors other than his sweat and breath and fear. Sounds and scents and the feel of life. He tried to say something, but nothing made it out. He couldn't even get his eyes open, and the strongest sensation he was aware of was the darkness attempting to re-take him. Relentless, it gently eased in seeking to reclaim him, then backed off only to push in again at the edges of his mind trying so hard to keep him in it. Again he tried to speak.
The voice was the sweetest thing he heard.
"Oi!" The gruff bark was familiar, the voice of Miles Hammond. One of the other station crewmen being transported back on the ion barge, he and Maarren often got together when Maarren was at station. "Mom! I ain't nobody's Mom, what!"
"Miles. He is delirious, we have to get him into the tube. We have to get the StemRegen treatment going." Grady Paine admonished, his voice serious, determined. Both of the rotation crew were out of cryo? They had to have been his rescuers. No one else could have been close enough to get to him in time.
Lady Saturn with her diamond tiara. What a sweet vision she is, he thought.
The jostling worsened. He had to tell them, had to let them know. He had to tell them how thankful he was. He croaked out a bit of noise, not knowing if anything intelligent made it out. Then, as he began to fall back to the darkness,
"Hurry!" Paine's voice came as the jostling grew stronger, more rhythmic.
"Going!" Then, "What the 'ell's a po'boy?"