Updated: Oct 1, 2020
17:34 hours. 17th March, 2034.
ICSE. Detroit. Earth
“Given that the Explosion happened a mere five years ago, do you believe that the risk was worth it?”
‘Was it? Worth it?’ wondered Dr. Samuel Reed, Flight Director for the SX-II manned mission to Titan. It had been an hour since Christopher Langford and Paul Carter had made history by landing on the moon of Saturn. A press conference was held at the International Center for Space Exploration (ICSE) to brief the media about the rest of the mission.
“As you know, we have studied the surface of Titan before launch and everything seems to be going in order. Let’s all pray for the best and hope to bring our boys back safely,” Dr. Reed replied mechanically.
The Dragonfly missions were a culmination of six years of hard work, a consolidated budget of eleven countries, and countless sacrifices. ‘But was it worth it? Was it worth the risk?’ he found himself asking again. The Explosion that the New York Times reporter was referring to was a freak weather phenomenon that changed Titan five years back. Multiple exothermic reactions and surface eruptions had shaken the planet. As a result, its surface temperature was raised by a considerable amount, making it more habitable.
Scientists and analysts from around the world had debated over the exact cause of this phenomenon. Some had theorized that this could have been caused from a concentrated amount of oxygen, possibly an oxygen tank buried into the surface. No one had been too keen on shedding any light on the origin of the hypothetical oxygen tank. But those were just theories and those were of little worries to Dr. Reed. Just before the press conference, Katherine, the Data Processing System Engineer, had given him a 1302 alert.
A 1302 alert in the mission meant that a surface anomaly had been spotted. The rover, Sherlock, that was successfully deployed on the surface of Titan was giving unfavourable readings from its multiple gravity gradiometers.
“We can’t say for sure but there seems to be a sudden increase in the gravitational pull,” Katherine had said.
Anomalies were a part of any space mission but something about this made Dr. Samuel Reed uneasy. Gravitational anomalies can be nasty. He checked his watch. It was nearly time. He signaled the Public Relations Officer to end the press conference.
Some of the members of the press rose from their seats to ask for the high definition landing clip. Dr. Reed smiled to himself. Chris Langford - the first man on Titan. His quote after landing was already making headlines.
“And now mankind stretches its legs.”
20 mins after touchdown.
Chris checked the readings from the ground sensors. Sherlock was now fully operational, giving steady sensor readings except for a 1302 alert. Before landing on the surface, the Capsule Communicator from ICSE had given it a check on his request. It was an anomaly signal, nothing to be bothered about, they had assured him.
Surface temperature and pressure readings were normal. The texture of the ground was sandy and the rover had sunk about an inch into the gravel. Paul was on the other side of it, checking the latches and levers for automatic control.
Chris looked to his east, where the gigantic rings of the gas planet were visible. The sky was warm yellow from the light of the rising sun. It took sixteen earth days for the sun to rise here.
‘It’s beautiful’, marveled Chris.
The radio beeped into life:
“Dragonfly base, this is Detroit. Give us a check on your status.”
“Roger Detroit, surface readings are normal. The ground seems sandy. Very fine grained. There is nothing here except the Crater and some dunes,” replied Chris.
The Crater was a mile long smooth shallow surface where they had chosen to set up their base. It was code-named Atlantis. Sherlock would circle around it and set up a perimeter while they would inspect the surface for a temporary base.
The radio beep resounded once more:
“Right. Take a minute to look around and scout. We will let you know when we initiate phase two.”
Chris took a step forward and started to walk. He felt light, very different from his training sequences back at Earth. His partner Paul was checking the oxygen tank and the space suit video cameras. Chris looked up once more to see the amber colored sky and the red shifted light of the sun, rising ever so slowly. It was beautiful. The tiny red dot of the 1302 alert kept blinking on Sherlock.
ICSE. Detroit. Earth
Dr. Reed set the coffee cup down at his station. It felt better to be back in the familiar control room, away from the cameras and the recorders. He ran through a quick progress update. Everything was as planned. The video feed from Sherlock was up on the monitor, alongwith the video feed from Chris and Paul’s suits. The sensor readings were streaming on the far right of the screen. Dr. Shankar was taking periodic updates at Capsule Communication (CAPCOM).
Everything was fine. Everything except for the 1302 alert. Dr. Samuel Reed tried not to think of it. He shot a quick glance at Katherine. She was deep in work at her station. He prayed that the anomaly was simply an error in calculation. He knew the odds were against it, but Dr. Reed still prayed. He checked his watch, it was 18:00 hours.
“Alright people, it's time to start phase two. I see we have visuals. Requesting EVA to initiate exploration”, his voice boomed over the control room microphone.
There was a brief scurry of noises, heads nodded and coffee cups were set down. Sara
Krovinski, the Extra Vehicular Activity Officer started with her set of instructions. The mechanical voice of the CAPCOM started once more:
“Dragonfly, this is Detroit. We are initiating exploration. Please set Sherlock to automatic and advance towards Atlantis.”
“Roger Detroit. Setting Sherlock to automatic. Path set to encircle the boundary.”
‘Everything was fine,’ Dr. Reed assured himself as the visuals from the amber planet slid on the giant control room monitor. He glanced an eye over the readings. Everything looked as it should. A red 1302 alert blinked at the very bottom right.
27 mins after touchdown.
Chris took the lead for the exploration phase. Paul followed closely at his heels, as they advanced towards Atlantis. It was the perfect spot to set up a temporary base and collect data as per the aerial scans. The amber hue of the sky made it look like a dried up oasis.
Chris stopped at the boundary of the Crater to wait for Paul. Paul was wheeling around, taking in as much as he could. This gave the camera a 360 degree view of the surroundings.
“Detroit this is Dragonfly. We are now at the boundary. Surface looks smoother. No sign of any moisture or liquid.”
“Roger Dragonfly. Please proceed with the descent.”
Chris switched his radio to intercom so that only Paul could hear him.
“What do you think caused this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Paul, look how shallow this is. It's no crater.”
“I don’t know. Maybe something from the Explosion?”
They were now at a relatively plain level. The rising sun above the Crater was still barely peeking. Chris switched back his intercom.
“Detroit, we are at Level 0. Surface looks smoother than usual. Nothing else in sight except for…” Chris paused briefly, “there’s a rock like formation at the center, about half a mile away.”
ICSE. Detroit. Earth.
Dr. Reed was studying the screen intently, looking for anything that seemed unnatural. He scrutinized the stream of sensor readings. Everything was fine. The rock formation that Chris was talking about was barely visible. It was being reconstructed and enhanced pixel by pixel. The generated image looked like an object on which sand had accumulated over the years. He was so engrossed in the process that he did not notice Katherine walking up to him.
He knew from her face that it wasn’t good news. She took him aside before speaking in a hushed voice, “It doesn’t look good Sam. Initially we thought it was just an anomaly. Instrument error. But readings from multiple gradiometers show the same thing. The crater surface has an abrupt increase in gravity.”
Dr. Samuel Reed was perplexed. He did not know what to do with this information. This must have been found out long back before the mission was even thought of. He kept calm, as was his nature.
“What’s causing it? Can we still set the base there?”
“Sam”, Katherine touched his hand before speaking again. “I showed the data to some colleagues and they say the same thing. The gravitational waves. The pattern. They look like the event horizon of an Einstein-Rosen bridge.”
Dr. Reed’s mouth curled in a smile which he could barely contain. ‘A wormhole? Surely she wasn’t serious. It was almost a myth.’
In the background the CAPCOM microphone beeped with the voice of Chris.
“We are now approaching the formation. The ground seems terribly smooth. Detroit, it's getting heavier to lift our legs. Could you give us a check on the oxygen supply?”
The EVA team gave a reading of the oxygen supply of their suits. There was plenty for the mission. Everything was fine. Dr. Reed spoke again, trying not to sound too critical.
“Katherine, if it's a wormhole, what caused it? How did we not get the data before?”
She simply looked down. As Data Processing Engineer it was partly her responsibility. She replied after a moment of silence.
“Whatever’s causing it is at the center of the Crater. Most probably the rock formation that we…”
But Dr. Reed was not paying attention any more. All eyes were on the screen. Emergency alarms were blaring. Something terrible had happened. At the far bottom right of the monitor a red 1302 alert blinked on quietly.
33 mins after touchdown.
“Detroit this is base Dragonfly, send immediate backup”, Chris bellowed into the radio. He knew that the rest of the crew aboard the spaceship SX-II would take half an hour to reach them. It was enough to panic but he kept calm. He had to.
Chris was barely a foot away from the sandy rock formation when it happened. Paul had called out his name a couple of times in the intercom. When he turned around to check on him, Paul was already knee deep in the sand. The quicksand, Chris realized was all around them. Probably the entire Crater was filled with it. Even his legs had started to sink gradually, as he yelled for help. There was no training for this, no sequence, no maneuvers. He tried leaping. Titan’s gravity should have allowed him to almost fly. To his surprise, Chris could not escape. His feet sank a little more.
The radio beeped:
“Hold on guys. We have informed the crew. They are coming.”
Chris steadied his breath. Everything would be fine. He switched to intercom to tell Paul not to move, and that help was coming. Paul nodded but did no’t look very convinced. His legs were no longer visible.
The rescue mission would take time to arrive. There was nothing to do but wait. Chris turned slowly. The rock formation was well within his arm’s reach. His feet sank a little more. He tried not to think of it.
“Detroit, this is Dragonfly. I have the rock formation in front of me.” Chris turned towards the object straightening the camera on his suit.
“It looks like humanoids buried in the sand”, Chris relayed, leaning in. Curiosity was driving him now. He was almost knee deep in the sand. ‘It could not be...’, he thought as he studied the object.
“Detroit, the figures… they look like burnt astronaut suits.”
There was a long pause before the radio beeped again.
“Roger Dragonfly. We have visuals. Could you turn them slowly?”
Chris extended a shaking hand and turned the figures. The oxygen tanks were blown off long back. The figures inside had turned to a frozen charred skeleton. He turned around the second figure, clustered in the hardened sand, to check their badges.
The long weathered badges on the charred spacesuits shined in the amber light of the rising sun: Christopher Langford. Paul Carter.
Out by the boundary of the Crater, Sherlock the rover circled the perimeter. A red 1302 alert blinked on its body.