Ligeia is Waiting
By Russell Hemmell
LIFE USED TO BE LIKE THAT. A wake-up call, a coffee too hot, complaints, and a day at work. Add and subtract steps during weekends—anything can be written off except complaining. And celebrations, holidays, marriages and funerals, binge drinking, sport competitions, and career choices.
Yes, life used to be all those things. Once upon a time, on that blue planet called Earth.
It was also the mythological era when people talked about exploring the Solar System, expanding mankind’s reach beyond its original cocoon. Discovering new worlds, building unlikely colonies, testing the limit of human adaptation in space.
Those days are gone now.
Suit up, gear check. Impossible to go out there without running the essential telemetry routines first. No matter how long we have been doing it, the margin for errors is zero. A mistake, and death is mathematically assured. One of the perks of living in space. Not that many others exist.
Saturn is low on the horizon, but we can glimpse at Enceladus from our location on high dunes. Today’s going to be nice.
“What are we waiting for?”
“For the optimal conditions. Don’t behave as if you’ve never done it before.”
More than two centuries have passed since the historical Cassini mission showed us the face of Titan, and we still find it beautiful—despite everything. I guess this is what it means being human. You keep marvelling. I look at the familiar view in front of my eyes, imagining how Earthians might have felt when seeing pictures of this place for the first time. Dazed, I believe. Elated. Willing to go and conquer it, unaware what that dream would have translated into.
With hindsight, I don’t know what they actually expected. But not what they got, granted. Otherwise nobody would be here now. For reality in space is different from any prediction, no matter how grim, and that’s something that has never changed. It’s to be unable to be outdoor without a spacesuit and a sophisticate life support, and never alone, because the risk of malfunctioning is simply too much for a single person to handle. It means a dull life, slaving in sterilised, comfortable, but anodyne environments, where nothing’s worth a day on Earth, swimming into the blue ocean and breathing without a mask.
“That’s not my usual scene.”
“No, but you’re here, as strange as it might look to me. So you’d better do something useful, Ashton, and inspect my gear instead.”
Yes, Ashton, you shut up. You’re a lucky one.
And luckier I certainly am. I’m the first generation born on Titan’s orbital. I can’t even remember anything different, only watching it on screen and thinking about my parents’ nostalgic stories. Before both got killed in the quest for the perfect colony of the Solar System, martyrs of an unsung adventure. From that day on, I’ve become one of the halcyons, the ones who test new equipment for living on gas giants’ moons. Outright suicidal, some say. But that’s what I do best. And the boredom I feel at times is nothing compared to the desperation I observe in the eyes of my friends, always indoor, living like underground rodents without ever seeing daylight. Yet the longing for a planet I’ve never seen, and I belong to nevertheless, never leaves me—nor leaves them.
“Cold as usual. Make sure your isolation layer works, Leah.”
“Ha-ha. I’d have already been as frozen as big blue freaking Uranus otherwise.”
I check mine, too. Lady’s right, but gliding doesn’t help either. As an engineer, I know that the moment we’re going to launch is the most trying for materials, and I prefer having no surprises.
“Gale force check.”
“Winds regular and no pattern inversion for the next two weeks.”
“Smashing. Possibility of rain?”
That’s part of the safety routines—we knew it in advance. Nobody risks gliding on the methane seas during the wind shifts that happen twice a year: they change the shape and dimensions of the sand dunes. Even less with rain, as rare as it can be. Those days, everybody stays in—and the hell with boredom, too.
“You said it before, Ashton, that’s not your scene. Why have you accepted to come?”
“I’ve decided to give it a chance.”
“I thought you were too serious for that.”
“You make it sound like a contagious disease.”
“Maybe it is. Your girlfriend must be worried.”
“I’ve no girlfriend.”
“No. Fancy taking the risk, Leah?”
“Are you asking me out?”
“If we survive today, I might do it.”
“If we survive today, I might accept.”
We touch each other’s hand, in that award-winning suit that leaves no room for tactile sensation. I can only imagine Leah’s soft skin under my fingers. That’s pleasant, nonetheless. But it’s a fleeting instant, and my attention is grabbed again by the view. She’s right, I do it for a living, not for entertainment. One thing wrong here, and you die. That’s not my idea of fun. But if this is the only kind of fulfilment I’m able to experience, well, maybe it’s the moment to change.
I admire the Vid Flumina that flows toward the sea in a beautiful estuary. Peaceful. An Earthian would mistake it for water, and try to dive in it. We know better.
She looks at me, reading my mind. I only see her eyes, but I know she’s smiling. “Conditions are perfect. Let’s go. Ligeia is waiting.”
We strap our graphene wings onto the exoskeleton, securing their joints to its shining structure. A gust of wind blows from the East, producing a sibilant sound. Spreading our wings like weird archaeopteryx, we look at the abyss and dive head down to the methane basin. Upward currents lift us for several hundred meters before we start gliding, spiralling along in concentric circles. Then up again, in a whirling dervish dance. Our paths meet and cross while we head toward the far corners of Ligeia Mare. Saturn’s rings shine in all their majesty, while the transit of Enceladus casts a round, dark shade on the sea’s surface.
Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. His recent stories have been published in “Not One of Us,” “SQ Mag,” “Strangelet,” and elsewhere.