FICTION

JUNE 2020

2020-06_COVER.jpg

Last Float out of Dodge

by J.L. Royce

Ravi brought his float down through the haze, making his trademark hot landing. The methane crystals rose in a slow rooster-tail a half-kilometer high, a glittering curtain hanging in Titan's low gravity.

 

The tourists loved it, though there were none to see it today. Hang-gliding over the endless dunes, catching Saturn huge in the sky beyond the perpetual orange surface haze: that was Ravi’s day-job. Rooster-tails, folk tales and the legends of monsters lurking in the hydrocarbon seas: that was Ravi’s style.

 

In reality, he was just a taxi driver. But he wanted more. Despite decades of development, Titan was still a frontier, full of opportunity for those who could dream.

 

“Retract wings,” he told Juliet. “Prepare to dock.”

 

The ship crawled past the long queue of outbound craft. The marina was nearly empty: the tourists had fled. The depot of the icestone mine was deserted, the ungainly ice transports crawled through the Kraken Mare to their southern depot in the Walvis Sinus. This wasn’t a typical day on Titan.

 

His dream had made it this far: the proof was moored outside. But now his dream was in jeopardy.

 

Romeo was the only other ship at dock, save for the Colies’ small patrol craft. Ravi peered out of a porthole at the massive float, hulking high in the hydrocarbon soup: it appeared dark. Ravi was grimly aware of what that meant.

 

Fuming, he leapt back to amidships, where the docking passage was having considerable difficulty mooring to Juliet's hull. Finally the aeration indicator went green, and Ravi slammed his fist impatiently on the hatch release, revealing the meter-diameter triple-walled hose.

 

Its oscillations were alarming, unheard-of in the normally placid lakes of Titan. Ravi sealed the ship's hatch and bounded down the gyrating tube. At the junction, he shut down the passageway behind him, then sprinted the length of the corridor, descending into the buried complex of buildings that made up Carbon Bay.

 

*

 

Normally filled with the gaudiest advertising, the wallscreens along the way held nothing but the same repeated public service warning: Mandatory Evacuation. Ravi bounced along until he reached Traffic Control.

 

It was a control ‘tower’ in name only – just an array of instrumentation a few meters above the frozen surface. Inside the headquarters of Carbon Bay Traffic Control he found Vic, immersed in an airspace view.

 

A slow spiral of tiny floats curled up from the toy marina over his disordered desk, arcing away at the peak in various directions – all but east, where the storm hung.

 

Sweating and thoroughly unhappy, the traffic controller glanced up at Ravi and grimaced, shaking his head even as he continued his conversation.

 

“I'm just saying, you'd do better heading farther south,” he admonished someone on the comm. “If this beast doesn't go inland and die really soon, it could head anywhere within five hundred klicks.” He listened to the reply, frowning, and concluded, “Your funeral, pal. God bless, and all that.”

 

Vic flicked at a blinking float icon over his desk, closing the call, and turned to the gangly pilot fidgeting in front of him.

 

“Why are you here? Didn't you get the memo, Ravi?” He pointed at his own duffel on the floor. “You should clear out your quarters.”

 

“Nothing there – just show me the storm, y’bastard.”

 

The spiral of floats shrank as the view expanded to a hundred kilometer radius. At that range, the image was dominated by the largest storm Ravi had ever seen on Titan. Swirling slowly, its track back to Kraken Mare was a fifty kilometer wide swath of blinking icons: emergency calls, missing person reports, and downed craft. This was it: the once-in-a-Saturn-year storm; and this time it had decided to land squarely on Carbon Bay – better known to the locals as Dodge.

 

Vic grinned at the dour expression on Ravi’s dark face.

 

“Satisfied? Time to take your puddle-jumper and find another puddle.” He turned back to the queue of icons representing his outbound traffic.

 

“Where's my work crew?” Ravi demanded. “Romeo is quiet – did they finish already?”

 

Vic snorted. “Sorry, guess your money's good, but just not worth dying for – even if they are SEAsian. Go figure.”

 

Ravi was stunned. His dream, his Plan, was built on refurbishing the decommissioned SEAsian military float. The tech crew he'd found had been out of work since the armistice was signed. They were ideal for the job, knowing Romeo inside-out. Everything had been going so well …

 

“But what about my pilot?”

 

“They all headed down to Beihai,” Vic supplied, “if you want to go discuss it. Better get moving, though, before they find a squad o’honeys, start passing the pipe, get the storm party started.”

 

Ravi shook his head in disbelief. “Borrow some bandwidth?”

 

Not waiting for a reply, he pushed aside a jumble of icons and avatars at the corner of Vic’s desk. He had little hope they'd left the ship operational, and without a pilot, how could he get both floats out in time? Remoting into Romeo's flight computer, he scrolled through the logs, only to find one engine off-line and the other in 'PM mode.'

 

“Preventing what?” Ravi muttered to himself. “Take-off?” He looked over at Vic with a bleak expression.

 

“How long?”

 

“Keep your spacing, stop crowding,” Vic exhorted over his comm. “Douche bag,” he growled.

 

“No dear – I was talking to the other douche bag, the one cluttering up my office.” He closed the call with a frustrated wave.

 

Stretching his considerable bulk, Vic scanned the weather models floating at the edge of his desk, sharing space with the time-delayed feeds from several Earthside porn sites. He returned his attention to Ravi.

 

“Two standard hours,” he replied, “three at the outside. I'm shutting down here in ninety minutes. We should have all the floats away in just over an hour, then I'm gone.”

 

He studied Ravi's grim expression, then tapped at his desk console.

 

“Here’s my going-away present! I'm putting a half-tank of refined into Juliet, on the house. Well,” he amended, “on the colonial government. Bad for recruiting, to strand your colonists in a superstorm, just because they can't afford to evacuate themselves.”

 

He chuckled. “Besides, if I don't pump it, it'll just go back in the harbor, where it came from.”

 

Ravi was roused out of his despair for a moment. “What about you?”

 

“New Wollongong,” the controller replied. “I’m getting a ride on the Happy Jack.” He pointed at the icon of the docked Colonial Militia patrol vessel.

 

That at least brought a smile to Ravi's face, despite the situation. “Visiting your ex? Well, good luck with that. Say hello to him for me.”

 

Vic bit his lip. “Yeah, y’know, it’s not his fault he cracks a fat every time a cutie walks by. In fact, it can be fun. Just hard to live with on a daily basis. How’s your family?”

 

Ravi frowned. “It’s tough, on Luna. They’re at the downsiders’ mercy. If I can get my cargo service going here, Romeo going non-stop between any settlements, I’d need help…”

 

The controller was silent; he’d known the pilot since he was a skinny émigré teenager running errands at the port.

 

“Well, you can’t fight the weather.” Vic slapped his hands on the edge of the desk, sending a clutter of open documents and messages fluttering aside in the display.

 

 “Queue it up for departure, skipper. I’ll see you in another life.”

 

Ravi shook his head. “Not yet. How are the waves on the storm front?”

 

“Low and slow around here, but Gold Coast reported fifty meter breakers – unheard-of. Better get out now.”

“Not until I've checked Romeo,” Ravi insisted.

 

“Checked for what?” Vic scoffed. “Stowaways? The BVM’s miracle?” He crossed himself, reflexively.

 

“No; I’ve got a plan …”

 

Ravi’s pacing had begun to worry the controller, who raised a hand. “And just what – who – does this ‘plan’ involve?”

 

“I’ll shut down the heaters on the floats, pull the comm and guidance modules, open the cargo bay, and … abandon ship.”

 

Vic shook his round head. “You cool the methane in the nacelles and Romeo’s gonna sink. Scuttled? Not in my marina,” Vic objected.

 

“Besides, the waves coming would likely take that derelict right off the bottom and toss it into the middle of town. Hell, other side of town.”

 

Ravi grimaced in thought as Vic dialed through a directory to bring up an animation.

 

“Colonial Weather has been modeling wave action in various coastal locations – including here.” The cross-section of Carbon Bay’s shoreline showed waves powering deep into the hydrocarbon sea’s bed and hurtling frozen hydrocarbon slush above the shore.

 

“You can see how these waves are gonna dig out the shoreline. You want to be out here” – His fat finger pointed beyond in the animation – “in the channel where it’s deep, far away from where the waves build.”

 

“Then I’ll just have to tow the big boy out with Juliet.”

 

“Uh-huh. And how are you gonna tell Romeo to open the hatches, if you’ve already taken the …”

 

Vic’s voice trailed off, a look of disbelief on his face.

 

Ravi was pacing the small office. “You just tow with Juliet for me, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

 

“No! I’m as busy as a cat buryin’ shit –” he opened the airspace display again “– and, by the way, you’re nuts.”

 

Ravi sighed. “How’s the station? Anybody home?”

 

“Dead,” Vic replied, poking the security feed.

 

The placid Earth beach scene across the room was replaced by a succession of empty corridors. “The Colies did a sweep for life-signs, just to make sure we didn’t have anybody sleeping one off in a corner.”

 

“Nobody’s left on the Strip? They’re all gone?”

 

“What did I just say?” Vic raised an eyebrow, and chuckled. “Takin’ the old fella out for one last fling? I admire your youthful enthusiasm, but is this really the time?”

 

Vic spun a finger around the feed selector icon, scrolling through the settlement cameras until he came to a mall filled with lurid signage. The bars and brothels once rowdy with miners, pilots and tourists were uniformly dark.

 

“Sorry – the girls are gone, the boys are gone, the sheeple are gone – hell, I think they even evacuated the Joy-Bots. Gone to follow the tourists.”

 

“I just thought I could get somebody to make me a sandwich,” Ravi muttered. “I haven’t eaten all day.” He eyed the half-liter take-out container sitting in front of Vic, a pair of chopsticks emerging from the top like comm antennae.

 

Vic noticed his interest, and pushed it towards Ravi.

 

“Here, last supper’s on me – Cricket Lo Mein – you just made me lose my appetite.”

 

Ravi eagerly took up the container, munching steadily, his mind on the task ahead. “Will the town survive, do you think?”

 

Vic grinned. “Hell, we survived the war. Miners dug deep – Dodge will be fine.”

 

The controller turned his attention back to the slowly rising spiral above his desk.

 

*

 

It had taken Ravi weeks of his spare time to successfully translate the SEAsian user interface of Romeo into a crude rendering of Standard so he could risk powering up systems. Unfortunately, its programmers had taken a few short-cuts in organizing their code. Hence the appearance of a flashing message in SEAsian did not surprise him in the least.

 

Pointing his handset, he read the superimposed translation and nodded.

Weather conditions not favorable for take-off – really?”

 

He initiated shutdown of all electrical systems, including the nacelle heaters, followed by the ship’s control systems. With a last glance around his still-unrealized dream, he hopped out of the captain’s chair, secured the helmet of his chillsuit, and headed back to the cargo bay.

 

The Juliet’s tow strand was already hitched to the nose of Romeo. All he needed to do was get the oxygen out of the cargo bay, open the hatch, grab Romeo’s brains, and head for the topside hatch to leave the ship.

 

In theory.

 

The fact that the temperature outside was around -180C, of course, complicated matters.

 

“You know,” Vic came through the suit comm., “that suit’s meant for walkabouts, not swimming in the thick.”

 

“I’ll be quick.”

 

Vic had put Carbon Bay Traffic on automatic after seeing off Happy Jack.  With Ravi’s help, he’d closed the last pressure doors in the station.  Now Juliet was the only flight-worthy ship left at the marina. Ravi had left Vic sitting at her pilot’s station, clutching the stick and waiting for the word from Ravi to pull.

Waves tall enough to notice were unusual; waves of hydrocarbon slush tall enough to knock a person over were unheard of – until now.

“C’mon oldie; you taking a nap?” Vic nagged over Ravi’s suit comm. “We’ve got do this now. We’re due for a meter of rain.” The storm could bring a torrent of organic slush that would damage or destroy any above-surface features of Carbon Bay.

 

“Yeah … ready,” Ravi said, though he sounded uncertain. “Let’s go.”

 

A few moments later, a shudder went through Romeo’s hull, and the big ship began to yaw to port, as Juliet pulled it away from the dock.

 

“Easy! Don’t over-rev the turbines,” Ravi complained, grabbing the pilot’s console where he stood. The chillsuit he wore was not well suited to sitting down.

 

Juliet was pulling Romeo off-shore to where a shelf of hydrocarbon sludge lay approximately fifty meters beneath the lake’s surface.

 

“It’s getting nasty out here,” Vic warned.

 

Ravi could feel the big ship’s roll increasing. “I’m standing by the heaters.” The craft’s RTG produced electricity for the control systems, the waste heat of its radioactive decay conducted into the nacelles. “Detaching dock umbilicus.”

 

He brought up his suit helmet and fastened it, checking suit integrity. “On suit environment; flushing atmosphere.” Before he could risk opening the ship to the fuel-rich environment, he had to remove the breathable air and replace it with non-reactive nitrogen.

 

The minutes stretched on. Romeo was starting to pitch, the motion growing larger as they crawled into position off-shore. Finally, the air was flushed, and Ravi turned the valves routing reactor heat to the topside radiators instead of the tanks.

 

“Get a move on, mate,” came Vic’s voice over the suit comm. “You’re sinking.”

 

Ravi lurched clumsily back to the wiring closet, punching the buttons hand-labeled as Emergency Shutdown on the modules. Progress bars and more SEAsian messages filled the smudged wall displays.

 

“You on your way out?”

 

“No … seventy percent on the shutdown.”

 

Vic cursed. “Be ready to sprint.”

 

A klaxon sounded through the ship, dampened but audible, followed by an unintelligible message. Ravi didn’t need a translator: his ship was sinking.

 

The control panel blinked, and he pulled Comm, followed by Nav and Life. The Tac bay was empty, the module removed along with the cannons and smartbombs when the ship was decommissioned. The interior lights blinked, and the ship went dark, air circulation halting as well. The modules went into the Security locker, radiation and vacuum safe, which Ravi secured.

 

“On my way,” Ravi announced. Switching on his headlamp, he hopped clumsily down the darkened corridor, unused to moving in a full environmental suit. It tripled his mass, and despite Titan’s low gravity, made for a clumsy walk.

 

“Your hatch is only a meter above the soup,” the traffic controller warned, anxiety growing in his voice. “Whatever you’re doing, do it faster.”

 

With baby steps, Ravi climbed the ladder from the main deck, through the topside weapons control station to the bubble housing the outside hatch. Only intended for use with docking equipment, it had no airlock, so he sealed off the chamber below. Ravi reached up, twisting the wheel to manually open the hatch above his head.

 

It broke off in his gloved hand.

 

“Say again?” Vic asked, responding to Ravi’s stream of expletives.

 

“Slight problem …” He dropped the wheel, which slid to the deck and bounced with a clang; then re-opened the port down to the ship.

 

“I don’t see you on the hull …”

 

Dropping through to the main deck, he headed back the way he had come.

 

“I’m in Fire Control, by the weapons bay.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Topside hatch is non-functional. I’m going to try to go out below.” He dropped down into the empty compartment once housing armaments, climbing back along rungs on the bulkhead so he could slide the access doors shut above him. He dogged them down with another manual crank.

 

“Wish me luck,” Ravi said, dropping slowly to the bomb bay doors. “I should bob right up – if I can get past the edge of the hull. And the boil doesn’t … well, never mind.”

 

“You’re nuts,” Vic repeated. “But, you’re sinking fast, so good luck.”

 

Ravi thought of praying, as he grasped the exterior hatch crank, but kept it brief.

 

“For God’s sake, don’t break,” he muttered, and gave it a twist.

 

The bay doors swung open a few centimeters, and Ravi was suddenly standing in a maelstrom of boiling methane and ethane, as the supercold lake contacted the still-warm atmosphere of the ship. It threatened to knock him off his feet, despite his mass.

 

“It’s like an old-fashioned fish boil in here, Vic,” he joked, giddy at the absurdity of what he was attempting to do. The suit’s adaptive coating could keep the chillsuit from freezing up, consuming the surrounding methane to do so – but at the cost of his oxygen supply. Ravi cranked the bay doors wide, legs straddling the opening, as the boil subsided and the liquid level began to rise, turgid and slow, into the bay.

 

“Get moving! Gonna sink even faster now!”

 

When he had the doors cranked a meter apart, Ravi judged he could safely make the jump between them. Arms above his head, he leapt, straightening legs as he rose, then pushed back off the ceiling with all his strength.

 

Ravi had plenty of time to consider his jump, in Titan’s low gravity. As he entered the rising liquid, he prepared to grab the bay doors to force himself out of the ship – but slowed and bobbed back up into the half-full bay instead.

 

“Didn’t make it!” he exclaimed. “Have to try it from the bay doors, now that –”

 

He cried out as something grabbed one of his booted feet.

 

“Something’s got me!” he cried.

 

Vic laughed. “A legendary lake boogie, perhaps?”

 

Ravi tried to control his breathing – but something was pulling his leg.

“Aw, stop squealing like a little sheeple – and quit struggling! I sent your camera drone out, with a tether. I’ve got hold of your boot.”

The force was small, but sufficient to drag him slowly under the surface until his outstretched arms could reach the edges of the bay doors. Curling and then straightening his arms, Ravi was finally able to push himself clear of Romeo’s underbelly. He could see the drone, now, and dragged himself along the ship’s underbelly in the direction of its cable. Suddenly he was past the curve of the hull, rising faster and faster until he broke the surface and flew into the dusky orange sky, hanging long enough to see the running lights of Juliet, floating nearby.

 

 

“There she blows!” Vic cackled. “Great video. We’ll all laugh about it, someday. Now can we get out of Dodge?”

THE END

JL_Royce_edited.jpg

J. L. Royce is an author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. From time to time, he may be spotted lurking in the North Woods, searching for the elusive psychological moment.   

Fiction by J.L. Royce:

"Last Float Out of Dodge" June 2020