The storm raged quietly along the surface, a swirl of colors colliding, mixing, weaving. Layers of gas clouds tumbled across one another, their brilliant shades of red and purple highlighted by short bursts of lightning. Winds galloped along at more than a thousand miles per hour, stirring the atmosphere and keeping the roiling chaos churning in much the same way it had for billions of years.
Above it all drifted the jeweled rings, chunks of ice and dust that varied in size between grains of sand and ten-story buildings. Their dense orbits stretched out hundreds of thousands of miles, occasionally sparkling like a crown in the dim sunlight while casting a thin, dark shadow across the face of the storms. The tightly packed debris in the rings rolled along, nudging and shoving, forever keeping watch over the unruly gas giant below.
Saturn toiled along.
Scattered near and far, its squadron of moons maintained their dutiful orbits, subjects kneeling before the majesty of the king, tossed about by the immense gravitational tugs and seared by the overwhelming inferno of radiation. Several dozen of these minor bodies drifted near Saturnâ€™s dazzling rings, themselves a product of an earlier moon that had been shattered by a rogue asteroid or comet, the pieces now trapped in a mindless dance that circled the giant planet.
Keeping a respectful distance, and shrouded in a cloak of dense atmosphere, the largest of these moons obediently tracked through the vacuum of space, cutting a path that kept it clear of the rings. Dwarfed by the Herculean planet, it still laid claim to its own cloud system and weather patterns. Rather than water, its rivers and oceans were pools of liquid methane, carving channels and shorelines that dotted the surface, a surface impossible to see through the screen of haze and fog. An eerie orange glow masked the surface, bathing it in a dull light that made the large moon seem almost alive, breathing.
As it circled Saturn, a route that took it a little more than two weeks to complete, Titan had its own companion in space. Right now, in an artificial orbit, a metallic pod shot around Titan, spinning slowly as it navigated, the light from Saturn occasionally glancing off its sides, mixing with the orange tint of the moon to form a ghostly shade. The smooth steel of the pod was uniform except for two small windows on one end, and exhaust ports on the other. During its slow, deliberate trek around the moon, block lettering could be made out on one side, along with small emblems of flags that lined up under a window. Inside it was dark, quiet, waiting.
It would not be quiet, nor waiting, much longer.
Lita Marques sat before the mirror in her room. She deftly tied the red ribbon into a knot, pulling her dark hair into a pony-tail and lifting it off her shoulders. She eyed the end result with a neutral glance, then gazed past her own reflection to the smiling girl who sat cross-legged on the end of Litaâ€™s bed. â€œAll right, Channy, whatâ€™s so funny?â€
Galahadâ€™s Activities/Nutrition Director, clad in her usual bright yellow shorts and T-shirt that made a startling contrast against her chocolate-toned skin, replaced her grin with an expression of innocence. â€œFunny? Oh, nothing funny.â€ She uncrossed her legs and scooted them over the edge of the bed. â€œJust wondering why you bother to make yourself look so pretty every day and then refuse to let me set you up with someone.â€
Litaâ€™s eyes rolled. â€œWhy did I bother to ask?â€ She made one final appraisal in the mirror, then turned to face Channy Oakland. â€œI appreciate your intentions, Miss Social Butterfly, but Iâ€™m perfectly capable of meeting a boy on my own.â€
Channy raised one eyebrow. â€œUh-huh. And quite a great job youâ€™ve done in that area, too. Weâ€™ve been away from Earth for, what, four months now? Not counting your lunches with Ruben Chavez, youâ€™ve been out with. . . . hmm, a whopping total of zero boys.â€ She leaned forward and picked a piece of fuzz off Litaâ€™s shirt. â€œAnd we wonâ€™t count Ruben. You only talk with him because heâ€™s from Mexico, like you.â€
â€œHey, I like Ruben. Heâ€™s one of the nicest guys on the ship.â€
â€œOf course he is. But you know darned well what Iâ€™m talking about, and itâ€™s not chatting over an energy block in the cafeteria.â€
Lita shook her head. â€œChanny, do you think it would be possible for you to go two days without trying to play matchmaker? When Iâ€™m ready to see someone, I will. Besides,â€ she added, â€œI havenâ€™t seen you exactly setting the shipboard romance gauge any higher.â€
â€œThatâ€™s because Iâ€™m still in advance scouting mode right now,â€ Channy said, winking. â€œIâ€™m compiling data, see? Give me another few weeks and Iâ€™ll set the hook.â€
â€œRight,â€ Lita said. â€œCompiling data. I like that.â€ She smiled at the Brit, then stood up and walked over to the built-in dresser and rummaged for a favorite bracelet. The dorm rooms on Galahad were relatively small but comfortable. Each crew member shared space with a roommate, but the work schedules were usually staggered to the point that each person was able to have time to themselves, a valuable commodity on a ship loaded with 251 passengers. Lita, one of Galahadâ€™s five Council members, was responsible for overseeing the shipâ€™s Clinic, or Sick House, as it was lovingly referred to by the crew. Her roommate, an outgoing fifteen-year-old from India, was currently at work in the Engineering section. Channy had stopped by to accompany Lita to dinner.
Finding the accessory she wanted, Lita slipped it over her wrist and turned back to face Channy. â€œLet me ask you something,â€ she said. â€œAre you as curious about our upcoming appointment at Titan as you are about my love life?â€
Channy shrugged. â€œOf course. Iâ€™m just not sure exactly what weâ€™re doing. I asked Gap about this . . . this pod thing weâ€™re supposed to pick up, but he was pretty busy at the time and never really explained it to me. And good luck getting a straight answer from Roc about anything.â€
This brought a laugh to Litaâ€™s lips. â€œOh, heâ€™ll shoot straight with you eventually. What exactly do you want to know?â€
â€œWell,â€ Channy said, â€œif this pod is supposed to have been launched by the scientists on the research station orbiting Titan, how come we havenâ€™t heard from them? Nobody seems to be saying much about that.â€
â€œYeah, itâ€™s a little creepy,â€ Lita agreed. â€œThirty scientists and engineers, all working for a couple of years on a lonely outpost near Saturn, and suddenly nobody can get in touch with them.â€ She walked over to the desk across the room and called out to the computer. â€œRoc?â€
â€œHello, Lita,â€ came the very human-sounding reply. â€œWhatâ€™s on your mind?â€
Lita couldnâ€™t hear the computerâ€™s voice without seeing the short, lovable genius who had programmed the machine. Roy Orzini, one of the champions of the Galahad project, had been responsible for outfitting the ship with a computer capable of controlling the life-support systems, lights, gravity, and other crucial functions of the spacecraft. As a bonus he instilled an actual personality into the thing; his personality, it turned out, for the talking computer soon demonstrated the same wit and sarcasm as his creator. Royâ€™s Computer was soon shortened to RoyCo, and eventually to Roc. He was indispensable to the five Council members, almost an older brother along for the ride.
â€œIâ€™m trying to explain to Channy about the pod weâ€™re picking up pretty soon,â€ Lita said. â€œAbout the research station that has gone silent. But Iâ€™m not sure I really know exactly what itâ€™s all about.â€
Roc remained silent a moment, then said, â€œWell, if you love mysteries, you should really love this, because itâ€™s not just one thriller, but two: the disappearance of the research crew, and this metal pod weâ€™re supposed to snatch out of space.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s the story on the scientists?â€ Lita said, sitting down at the desk. â€œWho are these people anyway?â€
â€œA combination of biologists, medical researchers, engineers, and technicians,â€ said the computer. â€œMaybe not the group voted â€˜Most Likely to Party in Space,â€™ but all brilliant in their fields. The research station is a small space station in orbit around Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and one of the most important bodies in the solar system.â€
â€œWhy?â€ Channy asked. â€œWhat makes Titan so special?â€
â€œLife,â€ Roc said. â€œOr, at least one of the best chances at finding it off the planet Earth. Titan, you see, has an atmosphere, and oceans.â€
â€œOceans?â€ Channy said. â€œYouâ€™re kidding.â€
â€œNot the kind youâ€™d want to surf in, my friend,â€ Roc said. â€œThese are oceans of liquid methane. But bubbling around in that poisonous soup are a lot of the building blocks that eventually led to life on Earth billions of years ago. This research station has been studying Titan for several years.â€
Lita picked up a stylus pen from the desk and tapped her cheek with it while she listened to Roc. Now she paused and said, â€œWhat have they found?â€
â€œThatâ€™s just it,â€ said the computer voice. â€œAll of their reports have been labeled â€˜Classified,â€™ and â€˜Top Secret.â€™ Nobody knows what theyâ€™ve found. But apparently, at about the same time Galahad launched, something happened around Titan, and all contact with the scientists was lost. The last message was pretty garbled, didnâ€™t make a lot of sense. But it mentioned a small pod that was jettisoned into Titanâ€™s orbit, waiting.â€
â€œWaiting for what?â€ Channy said.
Excerpted from The Web of Titan by Dom Testa.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2010 by Dom Testa.
Published in 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.