Saturn’s moon, Titan is a terrible place to live – who’d be crazy enough to settle there? A #1 New Release on Amazon. View the trailer, read the preview below. Get the book!
Fynn pushed back from the space plane’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. He’d never been in orbit before and was lucky this tour came before the fall semester began. Public news about the Herschel was as close as he’d gotten to his father’s project, or to his dad, in months, so to visit the ship before it left Earth orbit was doubly thrilling.
In the seat beside him, his sister leaned forward.
“Want to swap seats?” he asked, continuing to stare at the ship. “Are you getting a good view?”
The Herschel looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together. The ship lay alongside the Collins Spaceport, a tee-shaped collection of living and working modules providing final assembly for interplanetary spacecraft. From the space plane’s approach vector, the spaceport and ship were silhouetted against the huge, nearly full Moon, and connected by a passageway fragile as a straw.
“You keep the window,” his sister said. “I’ve been here before.”
“You never told me that.”
His sister, Maliah, was pushing thirty but as enthusiastic as a kid. “There’s lots I haven’t told you. I’ll race you to the ship when we dock. There’s a surprise waiting for you.”
“We’re supposed to wait in the dock for an orientation lecture. The flight attendants said they have an important announcement.”
“I’ll explain everything you need to know.”
Since setting foot in the space plane, Fynn felt as bouncy as his sister. Excitement agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach, but he never could resist one of Maliah’s adventures. “Okay. You’re on.” They strapped in for docking.
The other passengers, including their mother, floated obediently through the ample airlock to a well-marked waiting area for their orientation lecture. Maliah pushed Fynn the other way.
They entered a wide white tube, bare except for lines of lights and rings of handholds enameled in safety-yellow. He kicked off to follow her.
He’d studied diagrams of the ship. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space with nothing to run into, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, gaining speed.
Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.”
Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins ringed the central module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag clipped alongside. Another level of shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dark core.
Fynn stared through layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw. “Where are we?”
Maliah was triumphant. “The Herschel’s a colony ship. We’re going to Titan.”
She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated along a sleek pod. The center of the module was empty and wide enough for several people, a shaft running through through the shadowy core. Clammy, stagnant air left Fynn shivering in his sweatshirt and jeans.
He gripped Maliah with one shaky hand, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research vessel, built to study the Saturn system.”
“So the mongrels think.”
“Don’t call them that.”
“Why not? They call us a cult.”
“My friends at university don’t.”
“You’ve spent too much time away. You called outsiders mongrels when you lived at home. You’re back with us now, back with your Kin, and headed to our new home.”
“But…” Fynn gulped. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”
“That doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I promised Dad. He picked my thesis topic.”
“You always were daddy’s good little boy. Well, Dad’s waiting for us.” Maliah kicked against a pod and towed Fynn upward, toward the Herschel’s bow, rising past level after level of pods.
He swallowed hard, his mind scrambling for words. “But, the research consortium. They expect a crew of scientists to board next week. What about the mission’s corporate sponsors? Subscribers worldwide?”
“Not to mention the latest crypto-currency bubble,” Maliah said. “Won’t they be surprised?”
Fynn grabbed a pod and jerked her to a stop. “I’ve seen media coverage of this mission. I’ve seen the inside of this ship, and this isn’t it.” He waved into the shadows in confusion.
Maliah beamed. “That’s been my job. Creating fake feeds to convince everyone it’s a science mission while we really packed the Hershel for a colony.”
She kicked off hard, pulling him loose. “Our suppliers were all kept in the dark. We only allowed specially approved workers onboard, and they’re all Kin. Then, to bring up the rest of us, Doctor Tanaka had to overrule the mission’s Board of Directors. It was quite a battle arranging tours.” She giggled. “So I’m told. But even a mongrel can’t be fooled forever. We’ve got to hurry and break orbit.”
Light-headed and queasy-stomached again, Fynn allowed her to tow him along. He wasn’t convinced, even as they cruised past the steel pods reflecting glints of LEDs. What about school? What about his father’s instructions? It was too much to believe on his sister’s word.
“Look, there’s Dad.” She slapped a pod to hurry into several crossing beams of light.
The tightness in Fynn’s chest became painful. Why hadn’t Dad told him any of this?
Their father waved a thin arm, his khaki sleeve flapping. Other figures in white coveralls floated below him next to rings of pods hinged open under narrow spotlights. They were medics from the Kin’s own clinic, and one of them snagged Maliah.
“Maliah Rupar? Fynn Rupar? If you’d take your shirts off, please.” She was only a few years older than Fynn, had been in the Kin’s school barracks with them, and certainly knew who they were, so he ignored her question. After a lifetime of training, however, he followed instructions automatically and pulled his sweatshirt over his head. His brand-new, cardinal red sweatshirt with engineering stenciled down one arm.
When he pulled himself around to face his father, he was looking in a mirror. They’d both inherited sharp black eyes and dark skin from the Indus Valley. A smile spread over his father’s broad face, however, while Fynn bit his lip. “Maliah says we’re going to Titan.”
Dad gripped the closest pod and clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s right. We’ll have a world all our own to conquer. It’s the greatest challenge in human history.”
The medic frowned. “Chief Engineer Rupar, I must insist we proceed.”
Fynn hugged himself with one arm, secured by the medic’s grip on his other side. “What about our plans? You want me to get a doctorate, and I’ve worked hard.” Angry words flashed through his mind, tangling his tongue. But he adored his father and, since childhood, wanted to please him. “Why didn’t you tell me? Ow!”
The medic had pressed an injector against his arm.
His father’s smile flattened. “I’m sorry for the deception. You have a right to be angry. But we had no choice. Our secret was hard enough to keep, and you were leaving for university. Now, what you learned there qualifies you to be on my team, to get this colony up and running.”
Fynn’s throat closed around his protests. To work with his father, who’d spent so much time away from home, was something he’d always wanted.
“I’ll be on the surface when you wake up. We can talk then. Right now, I must apologize to your mother.”
Passengers from the space plane approached, floating or clutching handholds, some with faces full of confusion, others glistening as tears crawled across their cheeks in zero-g. Graceful and athletic, their mother was at the front of the crowd. Maliah got there first to greet her.
There was a lot of Mom in Maliah. His sister’s face had more color and her hair was golden rather than pale blond, but she resembled their mother while Fynn did not. A few dark Indian faces stared out from the crowd behind them, and even fewer with the Asian heritage Kin termed Samurai. Most showed the pale coloring of his mother’s Viking ancestors.
Mom waved to him from inside Maliah’s arms. Her face was ashen. She hadn’t known. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t share his father’s secret.
The medic slid a half-mask over Fynn’s head and he jerked his attention back to her. “If you don’t want to drown in stasis fluid,” she said. “This mask must fit tightly.”
“Stasis?” Fynn understood the open pod for the first time. The inside was smooth with a half-dozen slender tubes floating along the walls. It would be a tight fit. “I can’t get in that thing. Is stasis even approved for human use?”
“There’s no way to accommodate over four hundred people on an eighteen-month flight without it. Now, don’t worry. Stasis development is well advanced, and we won’t seal you inside until you’re asleep.”
The medic continued talking about aerosols in the breathing air and modified metabolism rates. Fynn knew he should be terrified, but his pounding heart slowed as a sense of contentment spread through his chest and warmed his face. He wanted to ask what was in the injection, but his tongue refused to respond, and he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
A medic rubbing her with towels brought Maliah fully awake. Her head was congested, and her body felt cold and numb. “Are we there?” Her voice sounded far away.
“Sure are, parked in orbit above Titan. The pilots have been awake for some time. They’re ready to take you down.” The medic pulled coveralls over her legs as Maliah steadied herself against the pod.
It was disappointing not to feel excited, but stasis aftereffects left her mind blunted. She’d been told to expect that, and so had planned what her first move would be after she woke.
Across the module, her mother was toweling Fynn dry. Fynn looked dazed, but her mother’s lips were pressed into a flat line. Maliah expected her to be angry since she hated to lose control, but didn’t want to deal with it. “Mom, I’m going to the shuttle.”
Maliah maneuvered forward without a sideways glance until she reached the Herschel’s dock.
The dock was a round, empty room with four evenly spaced hatches. Maliah kicked toward the one door standing open. Through a short airlock, she entered the shuttle and glided into a center row of passenger berths arranged like bunk beds stacked three high and four long. Using fingertips, she moved along an aisle to the bridge door, which also stood open, and then through a short tunnel between life-support compartments to a bright, open command deck.
“Permission to come aboard?”
In slow motion, the pilot spun up from one of the seats. He was a chubby man with graying hair and smile lines crinkling the corners of his eyes.
“Hi Maliah. How’re you feeling?”
Her muscles ached, her sinuses throbbed, and one ear was clogged. “Terrible, thanks, Evan. Yourself?”
“Almost normal, but then, I’ve been awake for three weeks.”
“I was hoping for a view.” Enormous monitors covered the front and side bulkheads and the overhead of the bridge. “Flip on the cameras.”
“Not much to see until we leave dock. The rest of the Advance Team can’t be far behind you. I should get in the back and encourage everyone to strap in.” Evan pushed off, gliding directly through the center of the hatch frame.
Maliah followed and found several people had drifted in. Fynn faced his best friend Drew. They’d oriented their feet against the deck as if they were standing. Drew was tall like Fynn with the same lanky build, so school coaches had always teamed them up for sports. Her brother had given Drew’s long nose a permanent crook in a boxing lesson.
She was glad Dad assigned Drew to the Advance Team with Fynn. Those two had met on her brother’s seventh birthday, the day he’d moved into the Kin’s barracks, and they’d been inseparable until university. Since Drew’s parents returned to the adult barracks right after he moved, he’d always came home with Fynn on barracks breaks, so Maliah knew him as well as she knew her own brother.
She glided along the aisle. “Hey guys, how’re you feeling?”
Drew snuffled mightily. “Like I’ve got the worst flu.” He exaggerated everything, but since Maliah felt awful too, she nodded in sympathy.
“And I can’t feel my left foot,” he said.
Fynn rubbed his thigh. “I’ve got a numb spot on my leg. But the medic says it should clear up over time.”
“Hey, Drew.” Maliah aimed to distract them from any worries. “There’s some dirt on your lip.”
He stroked his sandy brown mustache. “Ha ha. I’ll have you know it only took me three months to grow this.”
The pilot came by, asking them to strap into a berth.
“Fine by me,” Drew said. “I want a bottom bunk.” He tossed his yellow gear bag and rebounded into Fynn before maneuvering under the straps and rolling to face the hull.
Maliah shook her head. “That guy can sleep anywhere.”
“There are only three medics waking people,” Fynn said. “Well, four with Mom helping. They said they’re bringing thirty-six people out of stasis today.”
Maliah nodded. “That’s right. The Advance Team’s supposed to shuttle down together.”
“It’ll take an hour. Does this sleeve work?” Fynn held out his left arm, pointing to a section of his coveralls. Fiber-based electronics were super-pliable, but in new cloth, they left a telltale stiffness.
Maliah grinned. “Yes, absolutely, and it runs off body heat. Activate it with your thumb here, in the corner.”
Fynn pressed the spot and organic LEDs lit up a narrow display down his forearm. He touched a music icon. “Hey, that looks like my playlist.”
“I have something for you.” Maliah fished through her bag and held out a data cube, a high-density unit no bigger than a thumb tip, with its tiny green access light glowing. “I downloaded all the books and media from your cloud account before we left.”
“You hacked my account?”
“Yes, and you’re welcome. I have Drew’s too.”
“He’ll appreciate that. I do, too.” Fynn might have been working up some anger over the hack, but now, whether because of her gift or stasis dullness, he deflated. “Really I do. Thanks.”
“Anything for my little brother.” She’d always brought him gifts. When he was a little kid, still at home after she’d moved to the barracks, Maliah would sneak across the playing fields with a caterpillar in a bottle or a cookie from the big kids’ mess hall. Of course, she didn’t get the same intense adoration from him now, but she smiled, warm inside.
“But, couldn’t I download files myself over the Herschel’s comms?” he asked.
“Sorry, Fynn. We don’t expect the mongrels to fund communications with us. Not after we hijacked the Herschel. But I brought a pretty good cybernet system for the colony, with as much popular media as I could store after uploading all the technical stuff. And you have your cube. So there’s plenty of entertainment.”
Fynn’s eyes widened. “No comms with Earth? You really stole this ship? Won’t the consortium report a hijacking to the government? Send someone after us?”
“Ha! Officials will say it’s not their problem. As for the consortium, where would they get another ship? You think the Mars colony will give up one of theirs to chase us? Besides, as soon as we left, the mongrels probably started suing each other. So no one’s coming. You’ll feel better once your head clears. Get into the center bunk. I’ll take the top, but I’m going to the bridge first.”
She took a long look around this time. The four chairs were large and comfortable, each with a five-point harness and one wide arm inset with a touch screen and a few toggle switches. Otherwise, the bridge was barren of gauges and switches, or any obvious control devices. They were pretty much riding inside a robot, with the shuttle’s artificial intelligence housed behind bulkhead panels.
Maliah slipped into a harness and closed her eyes. With nothing to do but wait, her muscles unwound. They’d succeeded. She felt light inside, not just from zero-g, and pressed a palm against her chest to feel her heartbeat. In a few minutes, she fell asleep.
Maliah woke at a sharp clunk and fumbled for her harness straps.
“I disengaged the docking clamps,” Evan said. “Our maneuvers are pre-programmed until we clear the ship. Relax and watch the monitors.”
The shuttle’s tapered rear hatch lip slid free from the dock without a tremor. Then Saturn slid out from behind the Herschel, and Maliah forgot everything else. The shuttle’s cameras caught the planet fully illuminated, its beige face streaked with bands and braids of subtle color. The equator bulged, making Saturn a flattened sphere that overflowed the monitor’s screen. Here in Titan’s orbit, close to Saturn’s equatorial plane, she viewed the rings edge-on, a narrow group of light and dark strands across the planet’s swollen midline.
Evan slipped his hand into a control glove. Saturn swung away, stars filled the screen, and then Titan coasted into view, a brownish disc thanks to its perpetual hydrocarbon haze. They were so close to the moon that its image curved across the screen.
They hung above Titan’s night-side, but it glowed in light reflected from Saturn. The color lightened through dull orange to murky yellow where the cameras focused through the top of its dense atmosphere. At the edge of space, a thin layer of blue faded into blackness.
Maliah brought a shaky hand to her lips as she gazed at a greater challenge than anything mongrels faced in lunar bases or Martian colonies. Below those clouds lay a frozen world, waiting for the Kin to mold it into a home, just as Doctor Tanaka promised. Her pulse quickened despite lingering stasis dullness and she reached toward the screen, soaring despite the harness.
Still groggy from stasis, Drew barely noticed the flight to the surface. Everything had changed so quickly. One minute he’d been looking forward to a tour of a research ship, the next he was stuffed into a steel pod, and now he was halfway across the solar system on Saturn’s largest moon. There was nowhere to hide. His stomach knotted hard as a rock and he felt clammy all over.
A thump penetrated his confusion. They’d arrived and he groped at his harness. From above, Fynn tumbled past him to the deck and gripped a berth to steady himself.
Warm air burst in when the hatch opened.
“Smell that plastic.” Drew covered his nose with both hands. “I’m gonna gag. It’s thick enough to chew.”
He inhaled through his mouth. “Does Titan smell like plastic?”
Maliah leaned over the berth above him. “No, at least, I don’t think so. A little oily, maybe. The dome’s made of layers of plastic. Once we set up utilities, wet filters will scrub that smell away in a few weeks.”
Drew sighed slowly. “Someone should have set them up already.”
“We are the someone.” Maliah swung her legs over her berth’s edge and dropped gracefully to the deck. “We’re the Advance Team, chosen from four hundred-eight colonists for this assignment. It’s an honor.”
“Wait a minute.” Fynn jerked his head toward her. “Four hundred-eight? There are more Kin than that.”
Maliah bit her lip. “Only people young enough came with us.”
“What do you mean, young enough?”
“Risks from stasis are associated with age. It’s too dangerous for elders. And for little kids.”
Drew’s chest went cold. “The medics said stasis was safe.”
Fynn talked over him. “Where’re our grandparents?”
Maliah’s shoulders drooped. “On Earth.”
“Do they know where we are? What’ll happen to them?”
Maliah’s chin jutted out. “Doctor Tanaka provided for the Kin we left behind.”
Drew was thankful to escape their argument. Tingling in his hands wasn’t from stasis, and he had to get a grip on himself before chills spread through his body. Jokes and cynicism shielded him from the fear inside, the fear that he’d lose control. If he had a meltdown here, everyone would see. He was more scared of that than of being kidnapped to Titan.
He crawled from his berth and took a few steps. Talking would calm him. “This is so weird. Words like walk and jump won’t mean the same thing ever again.” He hopped on his right foot – the left one was still numb – and held his breath as, body stiff, he resettled on the deck. A lopsided grin spread over his face. He was okay. He was going to be okay.
Silence waited ahead as they filed out the back of the shuttle and, when Fynn stepped over the hatch frame, he knew why.
The team entered a dimly lit dome. Fynn couldn’t judge the height for certain, but lights like lines of stars traced the ribs of an immense umbrella from zenith to horizon. He walked forward a dozen paces, or what would have been a dozen paces on Earth.
Fynn was buoyant, as if he was walking in a dream. This could be fun. He jumped, windmilled his arms as he hung in the air, and collided with a man gazing into the gloom.
From behind, Maliah squeezed his shoulder and Fynn leaned close to her. “I watched all the media stories about the Herschel’s science mission to Titan,” he said. “Did reports tell the truth about the power source? Is there a nuclear reactor outside somewhere?”
“Yes,” she said. “The pioneer robotic mission to prove out technologies – that was real. It’s been on Titan for three years, powered by a reactor exactly like the one on the Herschel.”
Drew rolled his eyes. “Isn’t that great? We travel to the only moon in the solar system where a person is protected from cosmic radiation, and you plop a nuclear reactor down outside our habitat.”
“There’s shielding.” Maliah jutted her chin forward for emphasis.
“Why’s it so dark in here?” Fynn asked.
“These lights came embedded in the dome, just to get us started. Our job includes installing lots more.”
Bins surrounded them, shiny plastic boxes glinting under the tiny overhead bulbs. Some were waist-high and some taller than Fynn. Interspersed among the shadows were loaded pallets mummified in plastic. It was as if a scaled-down train had derailed in the dome and scattered its cars.
Fynn drew in a long breath. The air was warm, damp, stagnant, and heavy with a sickly smell.
The team wandered through the cargo and gathered in an open area where ropes of lights strung between pallets drove back the darkness.
A loud sneeze made Fynn flinch. Drew was at his elbow.
Fynn’s forehead furrowed with concern. “You okay? You look terrible.”
“It’s just these Ever-Clean coveralls.” Drew fingered the cold, slippery fabric. “Blue’s not my color.” He tapped his sleeve display, sending a signal through hair-thin wires coated with pigmented polymers, and the coveralls shifted to pastel green. “That’s better.”
Fynn’s father stepped into the pool of light. Behind him was a row of base cabinets, and he hopped easily onto the countertop. A smile shown on his dark face. “May I have your attention? Welcome to the village dome. Welcome to Titan.”
His words broke the ominous mood. Cheers erupted and echoed through the dome. The men and women of the Advance Team raised their arms, pumping fists overhead.
Maliah started the chant. “Kin, Kin, Kin.”
The team joined in. Fynn had shared that cheer at every sports game and every rally, all through school. At the peak of one mass jump, he glimpsed his father again, a loose sleeve fallen back from his brown arm as he pumped his fist.
Fynn was breathless when the last wave passed through the group. They shook loose from each other and quieted.
His father’s voice sounded hollow in the cavernous space. “I know you’re eager to start work, but the medics insist you take a day to recover from stasis. We can’t afford fuzzyheaded mistakes while we’re assembling life support systems. So for the rest of today, get used to Titan’s gravity, and familiarize yourself with the labels on these cargo containers. Anyone feeling up to it, find the bins stenciled Mess Hall and set up tables and chairs. Stow food in these cabinets and leave cooking equipment on the countertops. We’ll sleep in the shuttle tonight.”
Fynn’s mother led Maliah to his side. “Let’s go see your father.”
“Greta! Kids.” His father spread his arms and hopped down in slow motion.
“Yash, we made it.” Greta hugged him in a long, tight embrace.
When she let go, he held Greta’s face in both hands for a moment before planting a quick kiss on her lips. “Are you furious with me?”
“You’re lucky stasis dulls emotions,” she said. “And I’ve had the entire shuttle flight to calm down.”
“Leave the mess hall cargo to the others. You and the kids will each lead a crew, so you should review your assignments for tomorrow.”
Fynn’s stomach sunk. “Lead a crew?”
His father smiled. “I spent too much time away from my family these past years, so I’m making sure we’re together now. As Chief Engineer, team assignments are my prerogative.”
Greta tapped Maliah’s arm. “Let’s leave the boys to talk.”
Yash crossed his arms and stared downward for a long moment. Fynn was fidgeting when his father looked up, his dark eyes serious. “You’ve every right to be angry.”
A little boy’s pain nibbled at Fynn’s resentment. “You trusted Maliah, but not me.”
“I trust you completely. I knew four years in a mongrel university wouldn’t weaken your loyalty. Installing utilities is good training for a much bigger task. I’ll rely on you in the coming months.” Yash placed both hands on Fynn’s shoulders, and his broad face softened into a smile. “Son, I couldn’t bear it if you weren’t here with me.”
Fynn’s mouth opened but he had no words. He wrapped his arms around his father, as much to hide the tears prickling his eyes as to draw him close.
Fynn waited while Drew passed a stack of chairs along a bucket brigade of men and women and then pulled him aside. “You’re on my crew. Did you know that?”
Drew extended his left arm, jabbed his thumb against the sleeve, and made a fuss of swiping the display. “So I am. Lucky you.”
“I need your help to figure out what I’m supposed to do.”
“Why don’t you ask the team? They were all part of the big colony secret.”
“All of them?”
“I think so. I’ve been listening to them talk. They’re all thrilled to be here.”
Fynn’s stomach churned, but he’d show his father he could do this. “I’m supposed to be the crew leader, and I’m not gonna make a fool of myself tomorrow.”
Fynn led Drew through the cargo bin shadows to the dome’s outer edge, trying to hurry without launching himself off the dark gray floor. Bouncing from foot to foot was becoming easier to control, but Drew shuffled.
If Drew was trying to be funny, Fynn didn’t appreciate his humor. “What’s the matter with you?”
“My foot’s still numb.” Drew’s tone turned serious. “I’ll fall over.”
“Oh, sorry. You should talk to my mother about that. Do you want to hold my arm?”
“Hell’s bells, no. Just slow down.”
The dome’s plastic wall rose a few paces beyond bundles of pipe and a row of tanks lying on their sides, strapped to pallets. They stopped in an open space where lights ran down to the floor. The LEDs were deeply embedded, so they left the wall black and threw a wedge of light across grates in the floor. Fynn knelt and extended a hand over one. “I don’t feel any airflow.”
“Of course not,” Drew said. “We’re the someone installing utilities, remember?”
Fynn examined the nearest pallet. “This tank is part of the wastewater recycling system. I’ve got to figure out how all this equipment goes together.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard.” Drew ran one hand along a smooth white tank. “This looks familiar. One of my high school jobs was in the water treatment facility. Look. The letter C’s stenciled on this one.”
Fynn walked past the tank. “Hey. There’s a white circle on the floor with a letter inside.”
Drew smiled as he walked toward the dome wall. “Put tab C into slot C. Simple.”
Fynn held his pad up, peered into the shadows, and heaved out a sigh of relief. “The diagram’s drawn on the floor.”
Muscles in his shoulders unknotted. No wonder Dad said he could handle the utilities. This was easy. If he followed his father’s instructions, everything would be okay.
He pulled the pad against his chest and frowned at Drew. “What’re you grinning at?”
“I recognize this equipment. I know how to run the water system. Don’t you see? I was trained to be part of this colony all through school and didn’t even know it.”
“I bet Tanaka’s been planning this all our lives,” Fynn said.
“There’s more to it than that.” Drew’s words tumbled out. “I’ve been talking with the others. Everyone else on the Advance Team was part of the hijacking. Except me, you, and maybe your mom. Your father brought you. I thought…” He caught his breath and continued more quietly. “I thought I was only here to keep you company. But I have a skill too.” The grin returned. “The Kin sent me for a degree in genetics, so wastewater microbes are right up my alley. I bet there’s a starter packet in here.”
He spun loose three shipping bolts that secured the tank lid, a flat flange that fit easily between his extended arms. From inside the tank Drew held up a sandwich bag filled with loose mossy fibers. “Here it is. This is a selection of desiccated microbes, ready to wake when I drop them into water. Exactly what we need to digest waste from the toilets.” He pulled out a larger bag. “This is dog food, to get the bugs started. Have you checked the toilet technology yet? Do we have space toilets? I don’t know if flushing will work in fourteen percent of Earth’s gravity.”
Drew tossed the bags back into the tank. “I’ll be on the maintenance crew after utilities are installed. Look ahead on the schedule. What’ll you be doing?”
Fynn tapped the schedule and swiped left, following activity bars. His tasks were color-coded. After Dome Utilities, a bunch of bars clustered under Methane Combustion Power Plant.
He’d learned about Titan since kindergarten and those lessons weren’t faked. It was huge for a moon, its surface blanketed by a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and hydrocarbons. And cold enough to rain methane. “I’m going to run a power plant.” He opened an information window. “We’re powered by a nuclear reactor now. It arrived with a robotic mission ahead of us. But it’s small.” Fynn’s eyes widened as he considered the implications. “A single uranium alloy sphere like a golf ball, with a limited useful lifetime. After a few years, power production drops off, and I bet it’s already dropping.”
“We’ve got the Herschel’s reactor,” Drew said.
“Which remains in space with the ship. A combustion power plant will make the difference between life and death down here.” Fynn sucked in a deep, shaky breath. Hydrocarbons weren’t used much on Earth anymore, not to generate power. But there was an unlimited supply on Titan, and any hint of global warming would be welcome.
The classes his father had chosen for him and his summer job at a living-history museum gave Fynn both the theory and experience he needed. He could run combustion chambers and Stirling generators to produce electricity. Fortunately, classical thermodynamics was his favorite subject.
Near the village dome’s center, someone had set up lights on telescoping poles. Fynn paused at the row of base cabinets where the team had chanted and cheered, and scanned dozens of long, narrow tables. It looked a lot like the mess hall Fynn grew up with. He counted chairs and, sure enough, each table would seat the bunkmates from a single barracks unit. Beyond the tables, lights illuminated a large arched panel in the dome with Greenhouse stenciled in the center.
The Advance Team could fit at three tables, but people scattered themselves around in small groups. His parents occupied a table close to the dome wall. With their heads bent together in conversation, they were apparently enjoying their privacy.
Maliah bounded over. “Figured it out yet? I’ve been waiting to eat supper with you guys. The drinking water’s in dispensers by the microwaves, and meals are under here.” She opened a cabinet door to reveal shelves stacked with brown boxes that each fit neatly in her hand. “Packaging goes in that bin over there. We’ll store the plastic, from meals and from the cargo too. It’ll all become feed for 3-D printers on the Herschel.”
Fynn chose a box, examined the label, and read out loud. “Chili with beans, corn bread, crackers, cheese-filled snack food.”
Drew reached to a lower shelf. “If it has beans, it’s not chili. This one is spaghetti, pears, crackers, and fruit-filled snack food.”
They shuffled through barbeque beef, chicken with noodles, stew, tortellini, meatballs, and vegetarian fettuccine.
Drew dumped his meal box out on a nearby table. Two flat packages labeled Spaghetti with Meat Sauce and Pears skittered across the table, followed by smaller vacuum-sealed squares. He tapped the one labeled Crackers against his palm.
Maliah grabbed a package. “Feel it. It’s squishy inside and ready to eat. Just needs to be heated, though you could eat it cold.”
She handed out condiment packets from one four-liter tub on the countertop and beverage powders from another, and they piled their entrees into the microwaves.
Fynn scooped out a spoonful of chili. “Not bad. Beans give it some body. The crackers are like cardboard, though.”
Maliah squeezed her cheese-filled snack food and licked the thick orange paste. “So what do you guys think? Isn’t this the greatest challenge in human history? Kin will build a new world.”
“But we left people behind,” Fynn said.
“The best are here, from all three branches of the Kin family. Samurai like Doctor Tanaka himself, Archetypes like Dad and Fynn, and Vikings like your buddy Drew.”
Drew snorted. “My university has a fine archeology library, and I’ve been reading about our supposed three branches.”
Fynn concentrated on smearing some thin peanut butter on a cracker. Maliah was dedicated to Tanaka’s theories and arguing seemed pointless.
“Don’t be so literal minded,” Maliah said. “Those terms are meant to be poetically accurate.”
Drew wrinkled his nose like something smelled bad. “There’s no link between your poetically accurate groups, no more than between any other cultures. Not with each other and not with the ancient Indus Valley.”
“You’ve only heard the summary presented in the barracks school. You should listen to Doctor Tanaka explain his genetics studies. He’s brilliant.”
“Then why hasn’t he ever published his findings?”
“Why should he? To impress the mongrels? Just because you took a few classes in genetics…”
Drew sat up straight as if offended. “My degree is in genetics. That’s impressive enough for someone…” He pulled out his flat pad and dropped it on the table. “To assign me to the Herschel’s biology labs, once the ship’s reconfigured.”
Fynn interrupted them. “Don’t you think we should concentrate on the job in front of us?”
“Which job?” Drew asked. “Making a meal from mushy spaghetti?” Sarcasm, as usual, but Fynn noticed Drew bit his lip as he stirred his food pouch. Maybe he was scared. Maybe Fynn was, too.
Thankfully, Maliah wasn’t inclined to argue. “Enjoy your mushy spaghetti while it lasts. We packed individual meals as a reward for the Advance Team, but after these are gone, the rest of our food is freeze-dried and stowed in buckets. That’s why we can’t wake the next group until the greenhouse is producing.”
Drew jerked his head up. “Wait a minute. You’re telling me we don’t have enough food?”
Maliah’s golden forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Enough food for what?”
“Enough for… Well, I don’t know. The mission we hijacked was supposed to rotate crews every five years. How long will we be here?”
“Forever. Don’t you get it? This is our world now. The Kin’s world. No one’s going back to Earth.”
Drew turned pale and his throat convulsed.
Fynn grabbed his arm. “You okay?”
He choked out a shaky laugh.
Fynn turned wide eyes to his sister. “Seriously? We’re never going home?”
“Are you guys trying to annoy me? That’s what a colony is – permanent. The Herschel is a colony ship. Like I told you.”
Drew’s eyes bulged and he grabbed his water glass.
“No way you can ruin my mood.” Maliah pointedly turned her back on Drew and faced Fynn. “You found your assignment? And your instructions? Does everything look good?”
Fynn was numb and muttered in a flat tone, keeping his eyes focused on the table. “Yeah. I see exactly what I need to do.”
Maliah bounced in her chair. “Me, too. I found all my bins and nothing’s damaged. As soon as Dad has the ground floor of the tower built, I can move the servers in. I should have our cybernet running before he finishes assembling the barracks. Then we’ll have a comfy bivouac.”
Drew continued to stare into his spaghetti as he talked. “Suppose we go on strike? Refuse to assemble your comfy bivouac?”
“You won’t. What would be the point?”
Drew looked up hopefully, his eyes darting from Maliah to Fynn. “Maybe none of this is real. If it weren’t for the gravity, we could be anywhere. The medics drugged us. Maybe that’s why I feel floaty. This could be a barracks exercise. Remember?” He rapped Fynn’s arm. “Remember the winter camping trip? No warning. They woke us before dawn.” He laughed weakly and shook his head. “I’ve never been so cold in my life. But we survived and then we went home.”
Maliah rubbed Drew’s back. “I’m sorry. It’s a lot to take in and I forget you’ve only know about the colony for a day. A day of consciousness, that is. You’ll feel better soon.”
She pointed to Fynn’s sleeve pad. “Find your manifests for the combustion plant. There’s something exciting in there.”
Fynn tapped through schedule bars and there, after links to installation videos, were pages of text. Below the power plant equipment, he found what Maliah meant and read out loud. “Surface suits and fliers.” Fynn raised his eyebrows. “So we get to go outside and see what Titan looks like. And… fly?”
Maliah smiled, her amber eyes gleaming. “Low gravity and dense air means, yeah. We’re gonna fly.”
Fynn couldn’t think of anything to say. His high-tech coveralls were clammy and his hand trembled as he spooned up some chili. He could barely swallow past the hard lump in his throat. Maybe the fear would pass if he concentrated on the fliers. Whatever those were, they sounded like fun.
Their work began the next morning after a maple-sausage patty breakfast, when they broke up into crews. Three medics joined his mother, two cyber specialists followed Maliah to her bins, and most of the others went with his father.
Fynn faced Drew plus six other Kin. This was his crew, and he knew them. Like most of the Advance Team, they were within ten years of his age. Apparently, youth was a plus for setting up the dome’s systems. Even if he’d never shared a classroom with some of the people patiently watching him, they’d all played sports together at one time or another.
Fynn took a deep breath, double-checked his flat pad, and led them to a robot. “This stevedore is assigned to our crew.”
The bot’s waist-thick column set on a wheeled base. Outrigger appendages folded into each side, and four telescoping arms were strapped tightly to the column.
“Until the cybernet’s active, the robot has to be operated remotely. Any of you familiar with the controls?”
“Me.” Rica Ness stepped to the bot, flipped open a panel, and unclipped the manual control pad. “I’ve got over forty hours of training on this stevedore model. I’ll do it. If that’s okay with you.” She wasn’t asking a question.
“We need to put all the large pieces of equipment in place. My fath…” Fynn interrupted himself and consulted his pad to hide a moment of confusion. Everyone would have noticed his family was in charge of the crews, but it didn’t seem wise to emphasize the fact.
It made sense to call his father by name in front of the group, just like anyone else he worked with. Fynn cleared his throat. “Yash’s crew is assembling the clinic and tower first, but once they start on the barracks, in front of our recycling system, we’ll have to work around them. My job is to keep in touch with them and make sure we coordinate our efforts. But you’ve all seen the assignment, right? And the installation instructions? So no one needs me to tell them what to do.”
Casper, a square-jawed guy a year or two younger, raised his hand. “I was a procurement agent, and no one taught me anything about this.” He waved at the tanks, wide-eyed and shaky.
Drew stepped next to Casper. “We’ll watch the video for installing the system, me and Casper, and then start moving Tank A into place. Okay?”
“Great.” Fynn raised his eyebrows to Drew in a fleeting, thankful expression before turning his pad to the crew. “Find your installation videos and don’t skip the safety reminders. Tanks may not weigh much in low gravity, but mass times velocity still equals momentum, so don’t get crushed.”
The others paired up to claim tanks while Rica stood by the stevedore. “Help me unpack the bot,” she said. She opened another panel in the robot’s base to reveal a compartment full of hand tools. She and Fynn began cutting straps around the stevedore’s column.
Rica wore her hair the way Fynn remembered from school, short and curly. And bright pink. She’d ignored a lot of teasing, since girls usually wore long hair pulled into braids or ponytails. In Titan’s low gravity, the short cut bounced prettily around her face. But her expression was as serious as ever, so Fynn bent over his work.
“The structure crew has a stevedore too,” he said. “We can borrow it if two robots are needed to upend the tanks.”
“Oh, I think I’ll be fine with this one.” Rica answered without taking her eyes off the bot. “Everything in the dome is designed to be easy, like a giant erector set.”
Fynn lay on his back, staring at the barracks’ ceiling. Each unit had one door, thirteen beds, and an attached washroom. Except for following the curve of the dome, the barracks were laid out like the Kin compound on Earth. Another difference was construction. Plastic struts and panels were slotted and snapped together, just like all the dome buildings. With no summer heat or winter cold to worry about, the panels were thin. Fynn sniffed. He was getting used to the smell of plastic.
The three rows of men’s barracks reached a quarter the way around the dome and set directly in front of the air and water recycling systems. Across the dome, on the other side of the central tower, identical units held the women’s quarters with their recycling systems. Enough beds for over four hundred colonists eventually, but the Advance Team took advantage of the space and spread out.
Fynn and Drew had a unit to themselves. They both changed out of their clammy Ever-Clean coveralls into the jeans and shirts they’d worn on the space plane.
“Whoever designed this place got the color right,” Fynn said when Drew returned from the washroom. “Mint green, just like at home.”
“I never liked the shade, but it’s better than the primary colors on the outside.”
“They’re not all primary colors. There’s orange, green…”
Drew harrumphed. “All bright as a kindergarten playroom.” He unfastened the walking brace on his left foot. Greta said he was likely to regain some feeling and until then the boot, intended for a broken ankle, gave him stability. “First night in a new barracks. This brings back memories. Say, once the Herschel’s turned into a space station and I’m living up there, I’ll be close to the 3-D printers. What should I make for you? How about a copy of that science fair trophy you kept under your bed forever?”
“That’s kids’ stuff.” But Fynn wondered where the trophy was now. Maybe his grandparents kept it. If Maliah really had downloaded his cloud files, he had pictures of his university room. Maybe Drew could reproduce a poster or his toy heat-engine Dippy Bird that bobbed up and down to a glass of water. Classical thermodynamics. “Drew, what would you want from Earth?”
“What I want is to be on Earth.” He plucked at the tip of his mustache. “What makes them think they can drag me to Titan for the rest of my life?”
“It’s not like there’s anything you can do about it.”
Drew flopped onto his back. “It’s easy for you to accept. Your family’s with you.”
“What about your parents? There’s a list of passengers…”
“Hardly matters. I never visited them on Earth. Why would Titan be any different?”
Fynn tried for a soothing tone. “Then nothing’s changed. It’s you and me, and Maliah. My parents like you too.”
Drew reached across the narrow space between their beds and rapped Fynn on the shoulder. “Yeah. Well, goodnight.” He often cut conversations short, and even on Titan, he could fall asleep in an instant.
Drowsing on his thin, narrow mattress, Fynn remembered his own first night in barracks. On his seventh birthday, instead of being released from class to go home, his teacher had delivered him to the boys’ barrack chief. It should have been a proud moment. Children belonged to the Kin, not to their parents. To be raised in a barracks was to grow up proud, strong, and disciplined.
He’d waited outside the door while the rest of his unit washed up before an afternoon of javelin practice. Across the playing fields stood rows of small cottages where couples lived. Most returned to the barracks when their children left, but his mother a medical doctor, so she was allowed to keep their cottage. Fynn could see home. He ran.
His mother scolded him before handing him to his father, who walked him back to the barracks. “The boy was comforting his mother,” Yash said when the barrack chief took Fynn roughly by the collar. He’d been confused at the time, because Mom hadn’t even given him a hug. Years later Fynn realized that, by covering for him, Yash saved him from punishment.
Then Yash had knelt to whisper in his ear. “You’re a big boy now. Don’t embarrass me.”
As he lay in this new, plastic barracks, Fynn remembered the disappointment in his father’s broad face back then. Instead of trickling down, tears spread across his cheeks, spread to a sheen by the low gravity. Fynn blinked hard to clear his vision and wiped his face. His seventh birthday was far in the past. He always made his father proud after that day. He’d make him proud on Titan, too.
So, who’s crazy enough to try to conquer Titan and what deadly dangers await? Read the book to find out. Order Today Don’t miss this story.