By Margaret McGoverne
Marlow Haru was two years, a billion kilometers, and three planets from home, on the most distant planet visible to the naked eye from Earth. The night before he set off on his journey to Saturn, Marlow had sat up until midnight to see the gas giant as a small yellow light in the sky for the last time from this vantage point, a small town in the Northern Hemisphere to the right of the Atlantic Ocean.
But Titan, not Saturn, was his destination. He recalled his arrival on Saturn’s largest moon on the refinery transporter vessel; it shook and juddered slightly as it descended, piercing the opaque atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and ethane smog that shrouded the satellite. The liquid hydrocarbon lakes, the real reason he had been flown half-way across the solar system lay in the polar regions, and he was surprised to see a smooth, crater-free surface as the craft traversed the unhealthy looking clouds of gas. Only the occasional cryovolcano, spewing smoky plumes of ammonia into the upper reaches of the atmosphere betrayed his destination as the icy moon that had been penetrated and mapped thirty years before, by NASA’s unmanned robot probe Cassini–Huygens.
Following the discovery that Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere had created vast bodies of liquid methane and ethane , it was only a matter of time before mankind turned its thoughts to creating an outpost on Titan to exploit the free fuel reserves that dwarfed those remaining on Earth. Those oily hydrocarbon lakes that had pooled at the moon’s poles were an irresistible brew to oil-strapped humanity. The financial implications of the discovery of the first stable bodies of surface liquid found off Earth far outweighed the scientific. Methane, also known as natural gas, could be used to heat homes and power vehicles, turbines, and more. Within a decade an alliance of countries with the necessary technology and budgets had put their differences aside and accelerated the quest to build spacecraft capable of transporting the precious methane. Several huge refinery bases had been rapidly established on Titan – one for each major player.
While these momentous activities were occurring half a solar system away, Marlow Haru was gaining an engineering degree, a job, a wife. He watched the news updates on the Titan project with detached interest; wouldn’t it be great to travel all the way to Saturn? But his family ties restricted these thoughts to no more than a pleasant, wistful distraction. Life was good on earth; he and Jennifer bought a small place not far from the coast, and they spent most of their free time walking, swimming, and sea kayaking. They were happy, even when no patter of tiny feet arrived after a couple of years. Sitting on the grassy sand dunes with his girl next to him, watching the breakers crash endlessly on the smooth, wet sand, Marlow felt no stellar wanderlust.
Jenny left him soon after their fifth wedding anniversary when they discovered that Marlow was infertile. There had been tears, pleas for forgiveness and understanding, and, trancelike, he had acquiesced. What else could he do? He threw himself into his work but it wasn’t enough; his duties as a maintenance engineer for a large utility firm were undemanding, and the bonhomie at work ended with his shifts.
Their decree absolute came through as the national newspapers carried recruitment calls for people to travel to Saturn within the next three months. He was young, fit and there were openings for engineers at the refineries. He was the perfect candidate; he had no ties, and he was swiftly offered a ten-year enlistment at the British-owned refinery situated at the north pole of Titan, on the shores of Kraken Mare, one of Titan’s largest methane lakes.
The refinery was huge, a soaring mass of walkways and towers, its lights smouldering orange and indistinct in the fog-thick atmosphere. The methane was piped from the lake and converted to a refrigerated liquid petroleum gas for ease of transport back to earth. LPG took up less than 1/600th of the space of the gas in its natural state and was stable and non-toxic; the culture at the refinery was efficient and safety conscious, but relaxed.
Marlow’s duties were simple and undemanding. The only additional equipment he had to wear was an oxygen mask; atmospheric pressure was similar to lying on the bottom of a swimming pool and didn’t interfere with his duties, which were to inspect and maintain the electrical plant. He was frankly overqualified to be conducting vacuum pressure tests on the switchgear and opening and closing the massive circuit breakers but he was paid very well for his services – besides which, he had signed up for ten years; the prohibitive costs of travelling to Titan meant that the refinery companies wrote in large punitive exit clauses to employees’ contracts.
In his spare time, he donned extra warm clothes, his air tank and a pair of optimal infrared hyperspectral imaging goggles and went hiking along the rugged coastline and small islets of the Southern tip of Kraken Mare, which marked the outer edge of the refinery