Escape Pod 724: The Season of the Storm


The Season of the Storm

by Jonathan Edelstein

Twenty kilometers outside Nkoloso Station, we stopped for gas.

The Titan rover turned and Misozi steered for a group of outcroppings; there were more of those now that we were getting to the uplands north of Kraken Mare. She slowed and stopped beside one of them, a cairn of ice-rocks fused into a column half again my height.

“Elias!” she said. “Let’s cut some.”

My eyes flicked to the dashboard display. “We’re not low.”

“Never hurts to top it off, and we’ll be up there a couple of days.”

Misozi was like that. She liked her margins of error large, and she’d never be satisfied with the gauges at eighty percent when they could be one hundred. She wasn’t going to change, and her habits had saved our lives a time or two, so I didn’t argue. Instead, I opened the door and jumped down.

There was a toolbox on the rover’s flatbed with the word “Banda” scrawled on it in an ancient marker; Misozi opened it and took out an ice pick and hammer, and I did the same with the box labeled “Yaluma.”

A breeze was blowing and stirring the dust and ice particles on the ground, raising even more of a burnt-orange haze than was usual in Titan’s sky. Enough dust was in the air that I had to wipe the face-plate of my suit, and I had the sensation of being in a cloud. I leapt into it; a single bound, in gravity one-seventh of what I’d been born under, took me to the middle of the cairns.

Out of habit, I looked for vinyl bugs; out of habit of even longer standing, I also looked for signs of cryovolcanism. There were none of either. The outcroppings seemed to be an icefall from higher up rather than an upwelling, and the telltale signs we’d come to associate with the maybe-microbes were absent. Satisfied that I was looking at nothing but dirty ice, I cut a chunk from the nearest part of the pile and carried it back to the rover.

Misozi already had the icebox cover open, and I added my piece of the rock to what was inside; three more trips and three more cuttings and the box was full. I closed the lid and saw the indicator light go on. Deep within the box, the ice would be melted slowly, the meltwater fed into an electrolysis plant, and the resulting oxygen injected into the engine.

The internal combustion engine. The engine we were using, in the year of our Lord 2068, a billion miles from home, to burn the methane that lay in lakes a hundred meters deep all over Titan’s northern latitudes.

Misozi shifted the rover out of neutral, and I still didn’t think she’d needed to worry. Every kilogram of ice would yield enough oxygen to get us two kilometers, and ten kilos would keep the motor going through the night to generate heat. We had at least a hundred kilos of ice in the box. Better to worry about the methane tanks, the other gas; those would be harder to replace up in the hills. But Misozi did like her margins of error, and there was something about the haze that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

We were moving again, and the rover bumped over the scree of ice-rocks and into a dry riverbed. The gully led up an increasingly steep slope, though still a gentle one by the standards of the homeworld; the highest mountains on Titan would be only hills on Earth. The air grew hazier, at times obscuring the bulk of Saturn at the near horizon, and a craggy ridgeline loomed in orange fog.

“If Luyando is right, we should find them up here,” Misozi said.

“The new vinyl bugs?”

She nodded. “The wind she picked them up on was blowing in this direction.”

“All kinds of new things in the wind.”

Misozi laughed, and I imagined the smile forming behind her face-plate. “That should be a song. The Windy Season? The Cold Gusts of Spring?”

“The Ice-God’s Breath,” I said. But that breath was bringing new things. For the fifteen years of south polar summer, the northern lake country had been calm and quiescent, but now the season was changing; the surface was growing warmer, evaporation from the seas was increasing, and the methane-laden winds were blowing harder. One of those winds a month ago had blown dust from the uplands, and in that dust, Luyando Mwiimbe had found a vinyl bug of a kind no one had seen before.

Vinyl bugs. They weren’t vinyl and they weren’t bugs, but when the unmanned American submarine found them twenty-five years ago, the crowdmind named them within hours. They were single cells with vinyl cyanide membranes, methane cytoplasm and networks of giant lipid molecules. They had no nucleus, but the lipid structures seemed like they might be organelles; there were some to make compounds from hydrocarbons and some to break them down, storage chambers that might be vacuoles, webs of filaments that appeared to transmit impulses. They were dispersed across the lake surfaces, but we still weren’t sure if they were alive or not; there were no signs of a reproductive cycle and they didn’t seem to react to each other’s presence.

If they were alive… we all wanted them to be, and so did a lot of people back on Earth. Living, reproducing microbes could be engineered. Maybe we could make some that could break down methane at ninety-five Kelvin the way our imported bacteria did at three hundred, and we could move Nkoloso Station’s plastics factory outside. Back home, if we could ensure against contamination, there were endless uses for life forms that could survive temperatures so cold; aiding in cryoprocessing or removing impurities during cryomilling. Maybe there would even be space applications. The Zambian government would own half our patents, but there would be more than enough to go around.

Maybe whatever was waiting in the uplands, with an organelle that the sea-bugs didn’t have, could tell us…

“Stop daydreaming, Elias,” Misozi said, as if she hadn’t been doing the same thing. I noticed that the rover had stopped and that the ground looked different up ahead. “We’d better take a look before we keep going.”

In a moment we were both outside, and there was something different about the surface; something black formed patchy, fractal patterns, growing larger and closer together as we looked up the valley. We approached them, keeping our movements slow in the microgravity, and I knelt beside one of the smaller patches and took a careful scraping.

I guessed what it was before my face-plate’s microscopic setting dialed in on it. “Vinyl bugs,” I said. “Colonies, maybe.” They didn’t come in colonies on the lakes.

“We should get the rover out of the gully,” said Misozi. “If they’re this thick here, we don’t want to disturb them.”

She drove slowly over the lip of the riverbed and we continued upward beside it. We were only a kilometer or two from the ridgeline and both of us could see that the patches were very large now; there were blankets of vinyl bugs, stromatolites of them, stretched halfway across the stream floor.

“Let’s stop here,” both of us said at once.

With the rover parked just above the gully, we knelt again in the midst of mystery. Misozi took another sample and ran it through a test kit, and I heard a grunt of surprise over the suit radio. “Adhesive,” she said. “They’re attached to the surface and to each other.”

I processed that for a moment. “I guess we know what that extra organelle is for.”

“That’s not all it might be for. The adhesive is being broken down.”

“It’s… you said being broken down?”

“They’re secreting something—that’s the only word I’ve got for it—and it’s breaking down the glue. They’re letting go.”

I thought of Luyando’s wind-blown bug. Maybe the letting-go had been happening for a month. The carpets of vinyl bugs were fraying with the new season…

“That might be what they’re reacting to—the change of seasons. Changing winds, temperature, air pressure… how long until all the adhesive is gone?”

“At the rate they’re secreting, it could be a few days—maybe longer.”

“They’re reacting to something, then.” At Titan’s temperatures, a few days was lightning speed.

Misozi didn’t answer, but carried her sample up to the rover. There were more tests we could run there and others that we could apply to the vinyl bugs in situ; we’d been studying the Kraken Mare bugs for two years, and we’d fed all that learning into our test kits. But the station had much more sophisticated equipment, and the first priority was to store the samples for transportation and tell them what we’d seen. I dug out containers of methane medium and filled them as carefully as I could, and Misozi recorded an image for transmission.

“Base to Three,” came a crackling voice acknowledging receipt. “Looks like you’ve found something.”

“You can say that again, Victoria,” said Misozi. “What we’ve found, I’m not quite sure.”

“It’ll drive Luyando crazy that she’s not up there.”

“Tell her to stand on the roof, and we’ll scatter some to the winds for her.”

“You can tell her yourself, Three. Anything else?”

“We’ll let you know tomorrow. Three out.”

I finished my task just as Misozi completed hers, and we stood outside the rover and looked down for a moment. Forty kilometers away and eight hundred meters below, the lights of Nkoloso Station were just visible, and beyond them the methane seas and icy islands of Kraken Mare. I realized, as I took in the view, how tired I was.

“Let’s call it a day,” I said—we still called twenty-four hours a day though it had nothing to do with either Titan’s or Saturn’s rotation—and we went to get the tent.

You can’t really live off the land on Titan, much as we like to brag that we do—take your suit off outside and you’ll find that out very quickly—but you can come closer than anywhere else outside the homeworld. There’s unlimited fuel in the methane lakes and unlimited water ice to juice for oxygen, and when we make the ice into drinking water, we can synthesize hydroponics chemicals from the salts that precipitate out. We can make plastics from the methane too, with a little help from bacteria we’d brought from home, so we’re never short of fodder for the 3-D printers. And with an atmosphere half again as thick as Earth’s, there’s no need for pressurized housing; if you’ve got heat and air, you can pitch a tent.

The tent Misozi and I put up wasn’t as low-tech as it looked; it was sealed tighter than a lion-drum, double-layered with a vacuum between to keep the cold out, and had a hose to bring in air from the electrolysis plant on the rover. But watching it inflate and driving stakes into the ice with a hammer felt low-tech, and when I lay on its floor in my indoor clothes and looked on Saturn looming heavy through the cloud cover, I felt like I was a child again, camping at Chilengwa na Lesa and gazing at the stars.

We cleaned the suits and did our microgravity exercises, and Misozi sat reading The Left Hand of Darkness while I looked for patterns in the sky as I’d done when I was a child. It was a different sky, but the distance from here to infinity was the same. I watched the clouds move across Saturn’s visage and form the shape of a bird, a tree, a great orange starship.

I wondered if anything was moving through those clouds now—an American lander, maybe, bringing materials and construction robots for the base they were building at Ligeia Mare. I’d seen its foundations once; it had been building for ten years already, and when it was finished in another eight, it would house a hundred people and have all the comforts of home. They said the Chinese station in the southern hemisphere would be like that too, and the ones that India, Europe and Nigeria had just started to build. Their people would live in palaces.

Nkoloso Station wasn’t a palace. But we were here. We weren’t waiting for the robots to build a castle for us—we were the ones who were used to doing things on a shoestring, and we were the ones who realized that on Titan, a shoestring was enough. We might have hitched a ride on a Chinese supply launch, we might have reached back to the twentieth century for our motors, we might have cut to the bone and beyond to get the most out of the mass allowance China lent us, we might have to thumb a ride home a few years from now, but we were here. Before NASA, before the ESA, before ECOWAS Space—we were the first humans to explore Titan in the flesh, and its secrets, if there were any to be found, would be ours. The hare does win the race sometimes.

Dreaming of biological treasure, I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, we went back down to the riverbed to see how far the vinyl-bug colonies extended. A hundred meters up from the rover, they began to get thinner, and they petered out entirely as the stream split into hundreds of small wadis that ran from the highest points of the mountain. We marked where the summit was, eighty meters above, and made our way back systematically, recording and cataloging and looking for variations between samples.

“Something’s happening,” Misozi said three hours later.

I stopped short. Those are never words anyone wants to hear on a hostile world, especially in the tone that Misozi said them. But whatever she’d seen was happening to the vinyl bugs and not to us, and I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

“The adhesive is dissolving much faster,” she said. “They’re secreting a lot more of the solvent. They’ll be completely unanchored in a couple of hours.”

“Let’s take an environmental snapshot,” I answered. This solvent might be useful, and if so, we needed to know the conditions under which the vinyl bugs produced it. I took a reading of the temperature, wind speed, air pressure…

“Come over here, Misozi. The bottom just dropped out of the barometer.”

She got up, startled, and came to look at my readings. She took out her own data unit, ran it, shook her head and ran it again.

“I’m getting the same thing. We’re not looking for a storm, though—not this early in the polar spring.”

“No, we’re not,” I agreed, but neither of us was convinced; there was so much about this place we still didn’t know. I suddenly wished that the weather satellite that the Chinese planned to orbit when their base was finished was already up there.

“Get back to the rover,” I said, but Misozi had already made a great leap out of the streambed, and I could only follow.

“Three to Base,” she was saying when I got there. “Three to Base. Can you hear me, Victoria?”

“Base to Three. You’re breaking up a little, but I can hear you. What’s the problem?”

“Give me your air pressure readings.”

“No problem,” Victoria said. I could hear her puzzlement, but there was a clatter of keys being pressed, and a moment later, her voice was altogether different. “I’ve got 143.5 kilopascals and dropping.” Normal was 146.7. “You’ve got the same?”

“Lower. We’re heading into the 142s.”

I could hear keys punching again. “If it were that much below normal at home, we’d be looking at a gale—maybe a cyclone.”

I looked up from the radio and out the rover window, and while it wasn’t a gale yet, the wind was definitely picking up. I could hear the wind blowing now—the first time I’d ever done so on Titan—and dust was thick in the air…

“Misozi! Look at this!”

“Give me a minute,” she said. She sounded annoyed, as she often was when she was interrupted, but when she saw what was outside the window, she fell silent. She saw the same thing I did: hundreds of tiny red points of light borne on the wind.

“Bioluminescence?”

“I don’t know. But we’ve never seen anything else on Titan do that.”

She’d opened the door before I could say anything else, and she was bounding back toward the riverbed, wind or no wind. “Get back here!” I called. “We’ve got to…” But I saw she wasn’t listening, and I went out to get her. I reached the slope where she was standing, and this time I was the one who fell silent.

The winds were swirling in the riverbed, channeled by its sides, and they carried red constellations in their wake. And below them, the vinyl-bug colonies had erupted in a riot of blue and green.

“Look!” Misozi said. “The more lights there are in the air, the more on the ground. It’s some kind of quorum sensing—the bugs in the colonies can sense the density of the ones on the wind. Maybe they’re sensing how often the wind-borne ones hit them.” By now, she’d stopped talking to me and was theorizing purely to herself, and she seemed rooted to the spot.

“Misozi. We’ve got to get out of here. You’ve got your recordings—let’s go!”

But it was already too late. Lightning flashed above the ridgeline, and methane rained down from the clouds in thick oily drops. Above us, the rain was starting to stream down the wadis, and in minutes the riverbed would be a torrent. Lightning flashed again and the wind rose to a crescendo, and it was suddenly hard to stand upright.

“The tent!” Misozi cried, and even as she did so, the wind ripped its stakes from the ice and it went flying into Titan’s sky. Both of us raced for the rover, the vinyl bugs forgotten, thinking only of escaping to lower ground. I reached the door, opened it, got into the driver’s seat and opened the throttle.

We’d gone less than three hundred meters when it happened. The rover drove over a small outcropping, raising the driver’s side higher than the passenger side, and just then, a gust of wind picked it up from underneath. I had no time to react, and I could only sit there in horror as it rolled over, slid, and lodged in a crevice between two folds of ice. Outside, the wind had risen to a roar; inside, the engine was silent and still.

By one of God’s small blessings, neither Misozi nor I was seriously hurt. I was shaken, bruised, bleeding in a couple of places, but all my limbs answered and nothing was broken. Misozi wasn’t quite as well off—she had a cut in her scalp and I could see blood trickling down the side of her face—but she, too, had no broken bones and none of her injuries were life-threatening.

Our suits were a somewhat greater blessing. If they had torn, or if the hookup for replenishing the air supply had been damaged, we’d have been done for. But even on a shoestring, we’d made sure the equipment that really mattered could take a beating, and the suits had come through with flying colors. We couldn’t take them off, and not being able to clean and bandage the cuts wasn’t ideal, but the bleeding would stop soon on its own and we’d cleaned them with sterile wipes last night. We could survive.

The rover had come to rest with the passenger side on top, so Misozi opened her door and pulled herself out. I followed suit a second later; I had to pull myself up two meters to clamber out the door, but that was an easy task in Titan’s gravity even for an injured man.

Outside, in the lee of the rover, we took stock. The engine was dead. I’d look later to see if it could be fixed, but for now it wasn’t taking us anywhere. The ice melter and the electrolysis plant, though, were still working on battery power. We would still have air and drinking water, and Misozi stopping for more ice on the way suddenly seemed wise in retrospect.

The radio, too, was working—we found that out a moment later when we called Nkoloso Station. “We’ve got a situation here, Victoria,” I said.

“That sounds like a bit of an understatement.”

“The rover’s dead, but we’re all right. Can you send someone up here?”

The silence stretched out a long moment. “Not in this weather. The wind, the rivers between you and us—it’s too risky. Can you wait until the storm blows out?”

I thought about that. “Maybe. If it only lasts a day or two.” But storms on Titan could last four days, and I didn’t think the battery would last that long.

“We’ll get someone out to you as soon as we can,” said Victoria, but we all knew that might not be soon enough, and I wasn’t very hopeful when I cut the transmission.

Misozi and I sank down to the ground and sat cross-legged in the pouring methane. The rover sheltered us from the wind—there was that, at least—and we leaned against it and took some time to recover.

“They’re not really different at all,” Misozi said after a few minutes. I wondered what that could possibly mean, here in the middle of a hydrocarbon gale, and I had no answer.

“The vinyl bugs, here and in the lake. They’re the same. It must be their life cycle. During the seasons, the bugs in the lake absorb energy and the ones in the mountains reproduce, but when the season changes, they switch places. The wind blows the lake bugs out here and the rivers bring the mountain bugs to the lake.”

It seemed absurd to talk about vinyl bugs here and now, but I was drawn in despite myself. “What about the adhesive organelle?”

“They must be able to swap genetic code like bacteria do. When the lake bugs get blown into the mountains, the mountain bugs give them the code they need to make the glue. That must be what the quorum sensing is for—maybe the colors are a signal, to match the bugs that have the code with the ones that need it. Maybe they get something in exchange… yes, I know I’m guessing, but imagine!”

She was guessing, but something made me certain she was right. And… “Breaking down the adhesive—that might be quorum sensing too,” I said. I was caught up in the speculation now. “It starts when the density of bugs blowing in from the lake reaches one level and accelerates at a higher level—one code to start the migration and another to finish.”

Through the haze and rain, I could see Misozi nod. “We’ve got years of work ahead of us,” she said, “but we’ve found a treasure.”

We’ve got years of work ahead if we can last the next few days. The thought goaded me to my feet and I went to look at the engine. If we could fix it and get the rover upright, we might have a chance. But when I opened the hood, I looked upon disaster. The timing chain had snapped and two of the cylinder heads were warped and bent. I could fix that in the shop at the station, but not up here.

“It wouldn’t make a difference anyway,” said Misozi, who’d come up behind me. “You heard Victoria. We’d have to cross rivers to get home.” She looked over to the river that had lately held the vinyl-bug colonies and I followed her eyes with my own; it had become a raging flood full of ice-rocks washed down from the ridge. No, a rover couldn’t cross that.

“Maybe it’s not too far to walk,” I ventured, but thought better of the idea even as I voiced it. In microgravity, we could cover forty kilometers fast enough that our suits’ oxygen and heat wouldn’t be exhausted, and we might even be able to jump the rivers with a running start. “But one wrong move, in these winds…”

“We’d be rolling downhill the rest of the way,” Misozi said, completing the thought. “We’d truly be Nkoloso’s children.”

I burst out in sudden laughter, tinged with hysteria but laughter all the same. We all knew the story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who’d decided a hundred years ago that Zambia should build rockets and send missionaries to Mars. He’d recruited cadet astronauts—including a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl; Misozi liked that—and set up a training camp. That was the time when Zambia was truly poor, so he’d trained them for zero gravity by rolling them downhill in 200-liter oil drums.

The project had never gone anywhere, not in the 1960s, but for all its absurdity, Nkoloso had something of the visionary in him. He’d dreamed of going to space on a poor man’s budget, and the dream had smoldered in us for a century until we found a place where we could do just that. Naming the station after him had been whimsy—we’d all been drunk when we voted to do it—but there was also something more.

“If you find any barrels,” Misozi said, “let me know.”

There wren’t any barrels, but maybe, if Nkoloso’s spirit inspired us, there were other things we could scavenge. We could use spare tenting material to trap waste heat. We could cannibalize everything that had a battery—the radio, the printer, the data sets if we had to. It wouldn’t be comfortable if we had to stay in the suits for four days, but maybe we could make them last.

“Or maybe we won’t need to,” I said. “Maybe we can fly.”

“Fly?” said Misozi. It wasn’t really a question, and I knew what she was thinking. People could fly on Titan; with gravity a seventh of Earth’s and an atmosphere half again as thick, muscle power and strapped-on wings were enough to get humans into the air. We’d both done it, even; Chilambe Kaweme, our materials man, had made a few sets of mylar wings for Nkoloso Station, and we sometimes used them for short-haul trips or just for fun. But none of us had ever tried to find out if muscle power could keep us going for forty kilometers, and none of us had flown in gale-force winds.

“A downdraft or a bad crosswind will slam us into the mountainside,” she said carefully.

“Not if we get enough height. And look.” I pointed toward the space beyond the rover where vinyl bugs were flickering in the wind. “As long as they’re glowing, they’ll point the way! We look for the lights ahead of us. If we see them move suddenly downward, we know to steer around them. We’ll follow them around the eye of the storm, all the way home.”

Misozi stood there for a long moment, not saying a word. I could see she was still skeptical. I could also see that the idea called to her. She made a motion as if counting on her fingers, and she had a figuring expression on her face.

“The batteries probably won’t last,” she said. “Let’s make some wings.”

We dove into the locker behind the rover cab—we scavenged, as true children of Nkoloso would do. We could use the spare tenting for the wing surface and straps, and Misozi grabbed some and began cutting it down. For struts… but no, there was nothing in the locker or the toolboxes that was long enough to keep the wings rigid. Was there something on the rover chassis that would work? No, the metal was too heavy, and it would take too long to cut with the tools we had…

“Misozi,” I said. “Is the printer working?”

She climbed into the rover cab, hanging upside down halfway through the passenger door, and tried turning it on. “No,” she said. “But I can see what’s wrong. I can fix it.” She disappeared fully into the cab, and a moment later, I was the one hanging through the passenger door and bracing myself on the gear-shift.

“Three to Base,” I said, keying the radio. “Can you get me Chilambe?”

Within minutes, I heard Chilambe’s voice. “What do you need?”

“I’ve got the data unit hooked up. Can you send me your patterns for wing struts? I’ll have to fine-tune them, but they’ll give me a place to start.”

“Coming,” he said, and a moment later, “check your mail.” I did, and the pattern was there.

Back outside, I opened the pattern and designed feverishly. I measured the wings that Misozi had cut; the fastenings would do, but the main struts would need to be shorter than the pattern called for, and they’d have to be thicker if it were going to survive the winds. The secondaries would also need to be stronger, and if I could improvise mortise-and-tenon connections between them and the struts…

“The printer’s on line,” called Misozi, and I climbed back up and connected the unit. There was just enough plastic and enough water to keep it from cooling too fast—stopping for more ice on the way had definitely been a good idea—and though the printer seemed maddeningly slow, it took less than an hour before we had our parts and fastenings.

Misozi took a last look at her samples, but even she shook her head. “They’ll keep,” she said. “Luyando will come back for them if she has to walk the whole way.” She strapped the wings to her arms and, again in the rover’s lee, stood up with them outstretched.

She suddenly seemed an alien being—a winged figure standing against an orange sky with Saturn behind her, a figure that would have been beyond my great-grandparents’ imagination. Or, suddenly the thought came to me, maybe not. I wasn’t Lamba, but growing up in Ndola, I’d heard Lamba stories, and one of them was that of the awantu, people who lived on and maintained the sun, moon and stars. In the stories, the awantu weren’t gods or spirits but people of another creation—with different ancestors, but people like us. Maybe we were the awantu now. Maybe space had always been our destiny.

And before I could continue the thought any further, Misozi ran with the wind, jumped, and flew.

If I had any second thoughts, I had to abandon them now; whatever lay ahead in the winds, I would ten times rather face it than remain alone in a storm a billion miles from home. I, too, crept out from shelter, broke into a run, and took flight.

It was like nothing I’d ever done before. In the calm of northern winter, I’d had to work hard to get lift, but that wasn’t a problem now; the wind caught my wings and practically threw me into the air. But it didn’t stop throwing me. I was buffeted by cross-currents, tossed by eddies, thrown from side to side and up and down. I was moving at speeds I’d thought were impossible, but it took all my effort to keep a course.

I strained to see the vinyl bugs’ lights, but they were hard to catch in the swirling haze. They weren’t as dense in the air as they’d been on the riverbed, so their quorum sensing was weaker and fewer of them had activated their bioluminescence. When I did finally see flickering ahead of me, it was too late; I saw them sink in a sudden downdraft and flapped my wings desperately, but the wind blowing me after them was too powerful.

The force of the downdraft was like a hammer, and for a horrifying second I thought it would rip the wings from my arms. I lost purchase and tumbled, almost in freefall, spiraling toward the icy hills. Elias Yaluma, 2032-2068, I thought, and wondered if anyone would come back to erect a grave marker.

I wrenched my wings around in a last attempt to avoid being dashed against the surface. It was more a prayer than anything done with forethought, but somehow it worked; the wings propelled me out of the downdraft and I steadied myself again.

I looked for Misozi and saw her ahead and far above. I climbed toward her, putting distance between me and the ground. At five hundred meters, I felt safer; at a thousand, I was almost comfortable. I realized that steering was becoming easier, that I was getting the feel of the winds. I was learning to fly.

Or so I thought. I soon learned how much Titan still had to teach me. By now, we were flying almost parallel to the mountains, and crosswinds came in every time we passed a rift or river valley; when they met the main storm, the turbulence was vicious. The struts creaked and bent as I fought to right myself. I was too high now to plummet to the ground, but as the winds buffeted and tossed me, one of them blew a knot of vinyl bugs into my face-plate and I had to strain to see. For a terrifying second, I thought that the red glow was blood, but then I realized it was on the outside of my suit, and a moment later I shook it clear.

I flew hard to get out of the cross-drafts and catch up with Misozi, and just as I did, a crosswind blew in from the last of the upland valleys. From somewhere, it had picked up a mother lode of vinyl bugs, and they flashed like a galaxy as we flew into them.

“A million million stars to guide us,” Misozi said over the suit radio. She dove and swooped through the vinyl bugs and climbed out the other side. She was enjoying herself. And suddenly, I realized that in spite of all the terror, so was I. People had dreamed of flight as long as people had dreamed, and even if the storm killed me a second from now, the dream had been made real. I dove after her, and points of light surrounded me as they had, long ago on Earth, when I’d gone to swim in a phosphorescent bay.

We followed the bugs around the edge of the storm. The air was less fierce now that we were headed toward the lake and we were high enough to let the winds carry us, so I dared a look down. It was all laid out beneath me: the mountain range; the icy volcanoes; the rivers winding down to the lowlands, a system as large as the Zambezi even if it flowed only at an interval of years. We were above the coastal plain now; windswept dune fields lay below us and Kraken Mare dead ahead, already filling with vinyl bugs from the mountains and dispersing them to the next stage of their life cycle.

A sudden cross-draft and creaking struts reminded me that I’d better pay attention, but I could see the lights of Nkoloso Station now, and just ahead, Misozi started to descend. It wouldn’t be easy to land in the storm, but what, since we’d come here, had ever been easy?

We flew lower and lower, guiding ourselves toward home. Below, where the rivers flowed into Kraken Mare, a million million stars were shining.


Host Commentary

by S. B. Divya

And that’s our story.

This story checks a lot of my favorite boxes – exploration, scientists at work, survival in nature, ingenuity, and adventure. I love how resourceful the main characters are, and how they care as much about their discoveries and samples as they do about their personal safety and well being.

I also really like the international picture that’s painted of who gets to explore this new planet. Edward Nkoloso was a real person with a real dream, albeit one that wasn’t particularly well realized, but his story shows that the dream of space exploration doesn’t belong to any one segment of humanity.

Like the story of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which you can find on Netflix, this story shows that growing up with hardship can shape incredibly smart, creative, and resourceful people – people who can fly home, whether that home is Zambia, Malawi, or among the stars.

Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.

If you’d like to support Escape Pod, please rate or review us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite app. We are 100% audience supported, and we count on your donations to keep the lights on and the servers humming. You can donate via Patreon.com by searching for Escape Artists – or via Paypal through our website, escapepod.org. Patreon subscribers now have access to exclusive merchandise and content.

Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.

And our closing quotation this week is from a Zambian proverb, which says, “When you run alone, you run fast. When you run together, you run far.”

Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your auditory adventures through time and space.
Come back next week for a story about connections across the multiverse.

About the Author

Jonathan Edelstein

Jonathan Edelstein was born in 1971, is married with cat, and lives in Queens. In addition to a previous publication in Escape Pod, his work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. His literary heroes include Chinua Achebe, Ursula Le Guin and Bernard Cornwell, and when he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

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About the Narrator

Maxine Moore

Maxine is a creative who has dabbled in a variety of fields, including theater, radio, photography and now, voice acting! She can often be found watching movies and arguing about them, drinking tea, traveling, or enjoying a good book. She lives with her husband in the Washington D.C. area.

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