WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES
The rock fall killed me. I just didn’t know how long it would take to die.
I was face down with something heavy on the back of my legs. My visor display was dark. If the suit had lost power, death was already at my elbow.
“Tak, confirm operational.” A soft insect buzzing. “Repeat, confirm operational.”
“[buzz] – [click] – confirm. But I’ve had better days, dude.”
“You and me both. Run full systems check.”
“Running, dude.” Some joker programmed the suit computer with the voice of Keanu Reeves in Point Break, squinting in the sun and waxing his surfboard. Usually it cheered me up.
I chinned the radio switch. “Willis, this is Darlo. Do you read?”
“Willis. Darlo. There was some kind of cave-in. I still have power. Checking systems. Are you OK?”
More static. I chinned off the radio. Willis should be fine. She stayed in the crawler, after all. It was another poor sap who entered the cave. Me. I tested the movement in my limbs. Both arms were free. I could lift my left leg but the right didn’t budge. I had sensation in it, but something pinned it down, something with some serious mass; with gravity less than a tenth that of Earth, I could expect to shift a sizeable rock unaided.
“OK, dude, systems check complete.” Tak sounded as businesslike as he ever did; like he’d just spotted a shift in the swell and zipped up his wetsuit. “Batteries seventy-six per cent, oxygen sixty-five. Suit intact. Heater cycling between sixty and ninety, nitrogen scrubber -.”
“Wait, what’s with the heater?” The suit’s heating systems normally ran at around fifty per cent.
“Losing heat fast. Possible radiator vane compromise.”
That figured. The suit had fantastic insulation and in normal use some heat got vented away through tiny metal filaments on the back. If the rockfall had damaged them, the heater would need to compensate.
“So how long have I got?”
“You can lie here for nearly five hours, dude.”
“Yeah, but I plan to get moving.”
“Hey, did I mention that the GPS sensors are damaged and I can’t get a signal from the crawler or the base?”
“Lucky I know the way out. How long have I got with normal motion?”
“Probably four hours, but that heater’s a bummer. Might need to go easy on other power.”
“Is that why we’re lying here in the dark? You didn’t say the lights were damaged.”
“Main flash on.”
The beam lit up in front of me. I was face down on a layer of ice. Where my visor touched the surface, the ice fizzed and crawled upwards as if tiny worms were escaping. Probably traces of frozen methane in among the water ice, melting in the slight heat given off by my suit.
I lifted my head, directing the beam horizontally. There was about six feet of icy ground ahead of me, ending at a wall of rubble and ice. I pointed the light higher, but could see no top to the obstruction. So far, so bad. But that way led deeper into the cave. That was where I’d been heading when the cave fell in, and I certainly wasn’t going that way now. I wanted to go back.
I had a simple plan. Walk back through the tunnels to Willis and the crawler and then take it easy with a hot drink while she drove the four miles back to Ligea Base. All I had to do was remove whatever was trapping my legs. And hope the tunnel behind me wasn’t blocked. And hope my power lasted long enough to stop me freezing in the -180C temperature. Simple.
“Tak, main flash off. Save power while I decide what to do.”
The beam cut out and darkness sprang on me from the shadows. My head was still up and I saw her clearly. She sat with her back against the pile of ice and rock, her legs stretched before her and her hands in her lap, as if she were at a picnic. She wore the blue dress with white polka dots that we buried her in. She smiled at me.
“Not here. Dear God.” I lowered my head to the ice. “For Christ’s sake, my eyes are open.”
I had a psych assessment before we left Earth. It was a standard part of the Titan programme. By launch day they knew everything; blood pressure, electrical activity of our brains, bowel movements, pH of my semen – you name it.
My last session with the shrink was two weeks before launch. Her name was Vanessa Bell. She had an office in the training camp; polished wood floor and beige walls, floor to ceiling window with a view across the base to the distant needle of the Galileo rocket, with its cat’s cradle of support gantries. Dr Bell didn’t do couches; we sat in low armchairs and chatted over coffee.
I thought we had finished when she said: “Tell me when you last saw your wife.”
I knew it was coming, and I had my answer ready. The last place on the mission was between me and Jacobs. I was at least his equal on physical fitness and the technical skills the crew would need. If they left me behind, it would be because the shrinks decided he was less flaky then me. There was never any doubt about Willis, the Titan golden girl. The first seat on the ship was always hers. The agency knew where their funding came from, and how much safer it would be when they beamed back pictures of gorgeous Felicity Willis, suited up and braving the elements. The grunt work was for me or Jacobs, and I was determined it would be me.
“Your wife?” Dr Bell prompted. “When did you last see her?”
Every time I close my eyes.
“I’m sure it’s all in my file.”
“You tell me.”
“Four years ago. It was a car crash.”
“Tell me what happened.”
I took a long breath. I could do this. It was a test, like any other. Say the words, tell the story. Get out of here smiling, and Jacobs can watch the mission on TV.
“We’d been away for a few days. A seaside cottage in Cornwall. It was a long drive back, and -.”
“This trip, was it for any special reason?”
You’re going to make me say it all, aren’t you?
“A celebration,” I said. Through the window, two miles away on the Launchpad, they were loading supplies. A red crane pirouetted in slow motion, the operator was visible in the cab, a black dot on the pink sky.
“We’d been trying for a baby. She got the positive test result and we wanted to celebrate. We didn’t tell anyone else at first. It was too early and we knew it could easily go wrong. But we treated ourselves to a long weekend by the sea.”
“It was. She was at that early stage of pregnancy, when it doesn’t show but you get tired and sick, so we didn’t do much. Just the two of us; breakfast in bed and windy walks on the beach.”
Kissing on the beach as the wind whipped my face with her hair. A full moon lays a silver trail across the bay, like a ghostly road leading across the sea and into heaven. I see her clearly as I sit in Dr Bell’s room, just as I see her in the frozen dark of the cave on Titan.
“It looks like we could walk along the moonbeam and into the sky,” she said.
“It’s a bit harder than that.” I was already in the programme then, although my chance of actually leaving Earth remained remote.
“Would you really go away for so long?” The wind was cold and when she wriggled in she fit perfectly under my arm and against my chest. She always did.
“I don’t know.”
“Not if we have a baby, surely?”
“You think a baby is harder to leave behind than you?”
“And the accident?” Dr Bell broke in on my thoughts. “When did that happen?”
“It’s a long drive back to London. Much easier to do at night, when the roads are clear. On the motorway north of Bristol a lorry skidded across three lanes and hit the car in front of us. I managed to miss them but it was raining hard and I lost control. We hit the central barrier and spun round before the car turned over.”
“Everything happened slowly. I heard screaming brakes, car horns, and a couple of collisions like hammers hitting panes of glass, but it all sounded far away. The car came to rest upside down, across the two inside lanes. There was a brief moment of calm, as if someone had thrown a switch. We were both hanging from our seat belts. I turned my head and she was looking at me. She had such beautiful brown eyes.”
“She said: ‘Are you all right?’
“I said: ‘I’m fine.’
“‘Hold my hand.’ She was about to say something else, but I never heard it. I didn’t get to hold her hand either. Another car hit us on her side, spinning us round again and shoving us off the motorway and onto the grass verge. It took an hour to cut me out. I talked to her that whole hour but she never replied.”
“I’m so sorry,” Dr Bell said.
“Bad things happen. You can’t change them. You just get on with life.”
“Did it make you more determined? To get on the mission, for example?”
It meant I had nothing more to lose.
“I just got on with my job. That’s how you cope with it. It’s what she would have wanted.”
I picked up my coffee, but it had gone cold. The sky beyond the Launchpad had washed out to a dirty grey. At the end of the session, I shook Dr Bell’s hand and turned to leave.
“One thing I notice, Mr Darlington,” Bell said behind me. “You never mentioned your wife’s name. What was it?”
It’s in the file, you bitch.
“Lorna.” Her name cracked my voice and uncorked my tears. “Her name was Lorna.”
“You’re not here,” I said to Lorna in the Titan cave. “Tak, main flash back on but turn it down to save power.” The light came back on and lit up the cave floor and the mound of frozen rubble that walled off the way ahead. No one was there, polka dot dress or otherwise.
“Tak, I need to get moving. Anything I need to know about what’s on my right leg?”
“I can’t measure how heavy it is. Composition mostly water ice. Some streaks of frozen ozone, so don’t warm it up too much.”
“How are we doing on suit systems?”
“Batteries down to sixty-eight.”
“Jesus! Why’s it draining so fast?”
“Losing heat, dude.”
“Dial it down another ten per cent. I’ll keep warm once I’m moving. Keep the beam on for now.”
I got both hands beneath my chest, raised my upper body and twisted to the left. I saw what looked like the sheared-off tip of an iceberg across my lower body. It looked big and heavy, but there was a hint of shadow above it, which gave me hope that I was not completely buried, just pinned beneath a fallen chunk of the cave roof.
“OK, I think I can see how to shift it. Cut the beam to save power.” The light snapped out. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
In the instant before I lowered my face again to the ice, I saw Lorna on the other side of the rock that pinned my leg. She was still in the impossible blue dress. Her head and shoulders were open to the poisonous Titan atmosphere, which would freeze my lungs in mid-breath if I were to remove my helmet.
“Tak, can you detect any heat sources other than me and my suit?”
“So there are no other lifeforms in here?”
“Nobody here but us chickens.”
I kept my head down and slid my left leg sideways, until my ankle pressed against the cave wall. I braced my left hand against the same wall and pushed away so that my lower back pressed hard against the debris on my other leg. The leverage offered by the cave wall did the trick; the rock rose a few inches and I felt my right leg slide along the icy floor towards my left. It came free and I pushed harder, now with both legs braced against the wall. Once the rock moved, the feeble gravity gave me the advantage and I was able to twist back and out from under before the huge chunk of ice, iron and silicon rocked back into place. I was free.
Three months after Lorna died I was in the Lab late, taking advantage of quiet hours to run my computer through the presentation screen, giving me high-res, eight by ten views of the latest Cassini IV shots of Titan. A dark, jagged rectangle, surrounded by areas of almost painful brightness. The dark bit was the plain some wit had named Shangri La. The bright areas around it were almost certainly covered in ice, but we weren’t sure what made Shangri La so dark. Add it to the list of fascinating things we might learn from Saturn’s moon. The lakes of liquid methane, with their mysterious shifting coastline and islands; the clouds that might rain methane, ethane and propane; the possible underground ocean, warmer than the surface.
The other offices fell quiet after eight. People had homes to go to, families to see, friends to meet. With Lorna long buried and consoling friends not coming round so much, I just had work.
The main lights were off to make the Lab dark and give me a better look at Shangri La. The clock on my computer screen said it was nearly nine. I put down my pen and rubbed my eyes. Maybe I should go home. Problem was, whenever I went to bed I faced the certainty of long hours awake. It felt better to keep working until I fell asleep.
I put my arms on the desk and lay my head on them, my forehead pressed against my shirt sleeve. I squeezed my eyes closed. I could fall asleep right here. Maybe that was the answer; just stay at my desk until I slept and then wake up and carry on. I pushed my chair back from the desk and lifted my head. For some reason, I kept my eyes closed as I turned my head. The Lab was so familiar that I had a mental image behind my eyelids of its layout and contents. I could have got up and walked around without opening my eyes.
Lorna stood by the door. She wore a long black coat that I remembered from our honeymoon in Scotland. She looked like she was waiting for me to leave with her.
I opened my eyes and the doorway was empty.
I drove home through light rain that blew like soot between buildings. I couldn’t sleep so I sat by the garden window. We had two armchairs that faced each other. It was where Lorna and I sat in the evenings, sharing a bottle of wine. Lorna would read me bits from the paper or a book she was reading. I would tell her things about the moons of Saturn that she never found as interesting as I did. Alone now, I leaned my head back, closing my eyes.
Lorna was in the chair opposite me. I wanted to reach forward and touch her hand, but if I gave in to that impulse what did it say about my grip on reality? I remained still and enjoyed the sight of her. She smiled and bowed her head over a book in her lap.
I fell asleep and when I woke up it was three in the morning and I was cold. Lorna was gone.
“Tak. Main beam.”
The chunk of ice that had pinned me took up half the width of the passage. Beyond it, the rocky walls disappeared into shadow. I took a couple of careful steps forward and directed the beam beyond the boulder.
The passage was about four feet wide and six high. It was blocked almost to the roof by a wall of fallen ice and rock, leaving a strip of shadow at the top perhaps six inches wide.
“Someone hasn’t been shovelling the snow off their drive.”
“It may not be as bad as it looks, dude.”
“I’m struggling to see how it could be worse.”
“The obstruction doesn’t extend far, and the fall cut away some of the roof. I think you can get over it.”
“Did I ever tell you I love your optimism?”
“It gets better. I’m picking up the crawler carrier signal.”
“Why didn’t you say? Full transmitter power. Willis, are you getting this? Willis, it’s Darlo. I just need to clear some rubble and I’m on my way out.”
At high power the sound of silence was painfully loud in my helmet.
I bet Willis was grateful now that she let me be the one to invent Titan potholing. At first, I thought she would pull rank on me when I said it should be me. The reason we were on Titan was because pointy heads back home had convinced themselves it was the likeliest place in the solar system to find some kind of life. Thick atmosphere, and a temperature range that meant methane could mimic water on Earth and appear as liquid, solid and gas, even offering up hydrocarbon-based weather. After the disappointment of finding the methane sea of Ligeia was lifeless, one genius suggested we should look underground; more stable temperatures, signs of liquid beneath the surface. I convinced myself that I wanted to be the one who got his name in the history books by emerging from the frozen cave with a handful of hydrocarbon moss.
“Tak, have you had anything other than the carrier signal?”
“Not yet, dude. I’ll stay on it while you’re digging.”
I clambered on all fours up the sloping mound of ice and rock. I reached one arm into the narrow gap under the cave roof and scraped about a cubic foot of rubble back towards me. It was mostly small pieces, and I let them spill down the slope and roll onto the cave floor.
“You may be right, Tak. It seems to be moving easily.”
I began to encounter larger pieces of rubble, but Titan’s weak gravity allowed me to slide them back and past me. Within a few minutes I had widened the gap to about eighteen inches. I paused for a brief rest.
“Willis. Do you read? It’s Darlo. Don’t drive away without me, OK?” Static again. “Tak, how we doing for power?”
“Fifty-nine per cent.”
“Dim the beam a bit more and dial down the radio. I’ll try Willis again when -.”
I can hear you.
“Wait. Tak, full power. Willis, are you reading me?”
“Tak, did you get a fix on that? How far?”
“Fix on what, dude?”
“She just said -. Oh, never mind. Just save power like I told you.”
I returned to my snow clearance. I never thought I’d long for a shovel in my hands. The larger chunks lower down were pressed together more tightly and I needed to hammer at them with my forearm to shift them. But they moved, and the space beneath the roof was soon wider than my suit helmet.
I leaned forward and directed the light through the newly-enlarged gap. I saw the narrow walls I had passed just before the roof fell on me. It had taken me about an hour to get this far in. With luck, which mainly meant no more blockages, I could get out quicker than that. I scrambled forward and eased myself on my stomach across the top of the pile I had partly cleared and half-slid, half lowered myself down the other side.
I directed the light upwards. Maybe the rockfall had exposed a colony of Titan orchids that I could take home. Or better still, a shortcut back to Willis and the crawler. The beam found nothing but bands of dark rock and seams of ice. A tap on my visor made me flinch, and a smear of blue liquid drew a line down the toughened plastic. I wiped it away with a glove and examined my hand. The blue liquid bubbled gently on my fingers, giving off strands of dark steam.
There were seams of frozen ozone in the rock and ice, and it looked like they were melting. Maybe the heat of my passing weakened the cave walls. That wasn’t a nice thought. Time to get moving.
It’s funny how easily you get used to things. It became my ritual to come home from the lab, throw my bag and coat on a chair and pour a whisky. After I drank it, I would close my eyes and shuffle slowly from room to room, arms outstretched to keep myself from bumping into any walls. Sometimes Lorna would be in the chair by the window. She would look up when I came into the room and smile. Other times she was in the kitchen. I’d watch her through my closed eyes and wonder what she would cook me if she could. I got so used to it I expected her to be there when I came home. The times when I closed my eyes but couldn’t see her were a disappointment.
Once, I had a particularly tough day. I was exhausted after months of fifteen-hour days and it was the night before they announced the mission crew. I was certain I hadn’t made the cut. I could see it in the eyes of everyone I spoke to, hear it in the voice of my boss on the phone. I just knew it had all been wasted; a decade of work and ass-kissing, grinding on after Lorna’s death – all wasted. I got home long after midnight and walked my ritual walk through every room with my eyes shut and palms extended.
Lorna wasn’t there; not in the armchair, not in the kitchen, nowhere. I was properly alone. I was shocked how sad this made me feel, like she had died again. My house was as empty with my eyes closed as it was when they were open.
It was only when I went to bed that I found her. I turned out my bedside light and closed my eyes. She sat cross-legged on the carpet beside the bed, looking straight at me from a couple of feet away. Her face was troubled, darkened by a frown. It was as if she knew what I needed, this night of all nights – someone to watch me while I slept.
“I’ll be OK,” I said. “Who wants to go to Titan anyway?”
Next morning they posted the crew names. Mine was among them.
Fifty yards up the tunnel I hit another blockage. This was smaller, and it only took me ten minutes to clear space and scramble over. But every obstacle cost me time and energy. I couldn’t afford many more.
“Tak, you can reduce the heaters another notch. This is warm work.”
“You don’t want to go too low, amigo.”
“I can afford a bit more. If I’m melting the ozone around me I must be putting out heat that I don’t need.”
“That’ll be the damaged vanes.”
“Thanks for reminding me.” The passage had grown wider and I was able to move faster. I stepped up my pace to a kind of half-jog, half shuffle, with my arms out to my sides to ward off the cave wall if I slipped. “Anything from Willis?”
“Still just the carrier signal. It’s no further away.”
“So there’s one bit of good news. She’s not given up and driven away yet. Maybe I won’t die after all.”
“Want me to calculate your chances, buddy?”
“No. Keep it a surprise. Wait a minute”
A slight movement on the edge of my vision. I stopped and swung my helmet beam over the ice walls. At first I saw nothing but what I had seen everywhere else; grey ice, streaked through with braids of ammonia and ozone, studded with chunks of iron or silicon and smaller, round lumps of what I at first assumed was ice.
The pieces of ice were moving.
There were about a dozen of them. They looked like pale, almost translucent pebbles, ranging from two to six inches across. Wherever the beam fell most brightly, the ice pebbles slid gently to the side, easing away from the light, like sunbathers edging into the shade. I leaned closer and I could see that where the pebbles met the wall they sprouted short filaments, like the bristles on a scrubbing brush. These moved in a slow rhythm, pulling the pebble along the wall.
“Tak, beam off for ten seconds.”
In the sudden darkness, I was conscious of Lorna watching me from ten yards further up the tunnel. For once I was more focused on something else. The light came back on.
“Wow! Are you getting this?”
The light revealed that the group of pebbles had moved. Five were arranged in a small circle, with the largest one in the centre, as if it were the hub of a bicycle wheel. As soon as the light returned, they moved again, sliding apart towards the edge of the circle of light cast by my beam.
“Well, mission accomplished. Do you think I should take one with me? Or ask them to take me to their leader?”
“You need to keep moving. A sample would be good.”
“I’m going to leave them here. Your video will have to do. With the low gravity I assume they are pretty fragile. I can’t carry one and dig my way past any more rockfalls.”
I was about to move on when I felt a soft impact on my left shoulder, followed by a staccato rattle on the top of my helmet, as small pieces of debris struck me from above. Acting on instinct, I flung myself forward along the tunnel. I felt a rush of air pass me, displaced by something large coming to ground on the place I had been standing moments before.
They make these spacesuits tough, which is lucky, because my leap slid me at least fifteen yards along the cave floor. Atmospheric pressure on Titan is greater than Earth’s, so the suits aren’t pressurized and a breach would not be explosive in the way it would in orbit. But I didn’t fancy any holes in the suit in an atmosphere cold enough to freeze methane.
Behind me, a chunk of rock and ice had fallen from the roof of the cave. It was about the size and shape of a children’s paddling pool. Some pieces of ice had broken off and landed near me. I picked one up. It was jagged around the edges except for one side, which was curved. Along the curve were tiny indents, as if someone had scraped at it with a small metal blade, causing the ice to melt and refreeze. I leaned back and directed my torch at the ceiling.
A circular hole in the cave roof marked the place where the fall had come from, exactly above where I had been standing. Around the edge of the hole were more of the pebble-creatures, at least a hundred of them. They were on the move, flowing like an incoming tide around the edge of the new hole in the ceiling and sliding in a ragged convoy along the roof towards me.
“Maybe the natives aren’t friendly.”
About a dozen of the creatures had already formed up in an arc and were squirming against the roof. They moved slowly from side to side, as if washed by invisible waves. Beneath one or two I could see the tiny threads in rapid motion. As I watched, more pebbles reached them, and fanned out to extend the arc, moving it closer to a full circle.
“Tak, what do you think they’re doing?”
“Do you think they made that roof fall?”
“Maybe it’s something you said.”
I backed away, keeping the beam on the roof. As I moved back, the half-circle broke and followed. I turned away and began to run.
I told no one about seeing Lorna. Who needed to know? The mind does strange things and if this was my way of coping with grief, where was the harm? With my eyes open I was all business, no one better at my job. That’s why I got the gig alongside Willis to land on Titan, leaving Smith and Anwar in orbit, and twenty other hopefuls back on Earth.
What I saw with my eyes closed, that was my business.
I thought I was over it by the time we blasted off. I closed my eyes during the final countdown, strapped into my berth on top of the three hundred feet of high explosive that powered the launch. I thought I might see Lorna in the cabin next to me, but she didn’t appear. Nor did I see her on the long journey out past Mars and Jupiter.
I missed her. But maybe her job was done.
I came to a junction where the passage split in two. Both ways looked the same; both sloped gently upwards. I didn’t remember this branch when I came in. Maybe my little Titan friends were digging new tunnels.
“Willis? Are you tracking me? How far are you?”
I took the right fork. There were no more cave-ins, but I had lost track of how long it had taken me so far, and how much further there was to go. My breath was loud inside the helmet, with an unpleasant sobbing sound to it. I willed myself to slow down but my feet wouldn’t obey. I felt if I stopped for even a moment I would be buried under a frozen avalanche unleashed by little pebbly millipedes.
“Tak, how we doing on systems and power?”
“Batteries down to forty. Oxygen fifty. Everything else fine.”
“Lucky I’m nearly there. Oh shit!”
The tunnel bent sharply to the left. As my helmet beam lit up what lay ahead of me I stopped, fighting the urge to turn and run back into the depths.
The walls and roof of the passage were coated in a thick swarm of the living pebbles. Some were larger than the others I’d seen; as wide as six inches across. Where the light fell on them, they became agitated, rippling down the icy walls and piling up on the tunnel floor.
“Tak, I don’t know if I can get through.”
Close your eyes.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Tak, cut the light.”
The brutal darkness made my breath stick in my chest. My imagination conjured a silent swarm crawling towards me, preparing to climb my legs.
The Titans had relaxed and edged away from my path while the light was off. With the returning brightness they changed direction and resumed their movement to block my path, like cells of fat clogging an artery.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Do what, dude?”
“I’m not talking to you. Cut the light again.”
In the renewed darkness, Lorna was in front of me, about ten yards away, just beyond the point where the Titans had massed. She was turned three-quarters away from me, looking back over her shoulder. She gestured me towards her with one hand.
I buried her in that dress because she wore it when we were happiest together. She wore it for the first time on a hot day when we spent the afternoon at a friend’s garden party. We walked home through a sudden summer storm, which soaked us in seconds and made the road fizz with the spray from a million fat raindrops. The wet dress clung to her body and she giggled as she whispered in my ear: “I’m not wearing any underwear. I haven’t all afternoon.”
“Now you tell me.”
“We’re nearly home. Now you can do something about it.”
“Maybe I should get you out of those wet clothes.”
She got pregnant that day, we were sure of it.
Keep walking. Come to me.
Lorna held out a hand and took a step away. I clenched my eyes shut tight, the better to keep her in view, and walked towards her. I could imagine I was approaching a wall of the pebble-creatures, their sharp brush-like legs scrabbling eagerly for my visor. Something under my boot gave way with a soft crack.
“Sorry.” Another liquid crack, then several more. It felt like the ground was covered with egg-boxes. Something brushed my hand and then fell away. Lorna was pulling further away, enticing me on with her outstretched arm.
Three, four more steps and the repellant cracking beneath my feet ceased. I walked on a dozen more paces before stopping, all my focus on the receding figure of Lorna ahead of me in the tunnel. I had a powerful urge to turn back and use the beam to see what I had left behind, but I was now too afraid to use the light.
“Willis, can you still track me? How far have I got?”
I kept my eyes closed. Lorna was fifteen yards away now, hands on her hips. I resumed my careful shuffling walk.
I don’t know how long I continued like that, but it felt like hours. The only sound was the deafening wheeze of my own breath in the helmet, the only thing I saw was the impossible vision of my dead wife leading me through the dark. A couple of times I slipped. The horror of falling over into a nest of multi-legged ice-eggs almost forced me to open my eyes, but I managed to stay upright and kept my focus on Lorna, who remained a few paces ahead, leading me up the gently sloping tunnel.
“Wait. I need to rest.” I reached out an arm, intending to lean against the tunnel wall for support. My glove met only empty space, making me stumble slightly and open my eyes.
Something dark moved at my feet and it took me a few seconds to work out it was my shadow. Beyond it was the cave opening that I had entered hours before. I turned and saw the pale bulk of Saturn, hanging low in the sky. The sky was its usual dirty mustard colour and a dark smudge of clouds churned above the horizon, suggesting a storm brewing.
“Tak, weather check?”
“Partly cloudy with a chance of methane snow.”
“Better find my ride. Lights on now. No sense in tripping over when I’m so close.” I resumed walking, moving away from the cave towards the place where we parked the crawler.
“Willis, I’m out. Are you hearing me?” I moved beyond a low spur of rock and saw the back of the crawler; a row of wheels as tall as me, draped in a thick chain of caterpillar tread, a bank of solar panels on the back of the squat storage bay. I let out a long breath that I hadn’t known I was holding.
“Willis, I can see you.” The navigation light on the rear of the crawler was dark, which was odd. Maybe Willis cut it to save power while she waited. Five more paces and the front of the crawler came into view.
Or rather it didn’t. From the mid-section forward the crawler was embedded in a wall of rock. Where the cabin should be was a boulder of ice as big as a truck. The crawler was designed for heat and mobility. It wasn’t a tank and the rock fall had squashed the front section flat.
“Tak, I thought you had the crawler’s signal.”
“Just the carrier, dude.”
I saw what he meant; the beacon was on the back. It would keep transmitting even when other systems were damaged. Even when there was no one on board to transmit anything. Poor Willis.
“OK, Tak. Four miles back to the base. Let’s say two hours if I move quickly and don’t get lost. How are we for supplies?”
“Maybe an hour of oxygen. Possibly a bit more on batteries.”
The crawler’s storage bay was accessed through a panel above the large back wheel. The contents were intact; two spare suits attached to metal brackets, sealed boxes of emergency food packs, metal canisters of water. And six oxygen tanks.
“Tak, undock oxygen tank two.” I put both hands behind my back and the metal cylinder dropped into them with a soft hiss of escaping air. I dropped the used tank to the icy ground.
“Storm coming, dude.”
“This day just gets better.” The distant blot of cloud had doubled in size. Thin streams of dust, or possibly snow, snaked around my ankles, fleeing the approaching cloud. I clicked the fresh tank into place after a couple of false starts. All those months of repetitive training drills. I jumped down from the caterpillar tread.
“That’s the oxygen sorted,” I said.
“Cool,” the suit said. “We just need to make the power last twice as long and everything’s fine.”
I faced the storm, which unfortunately was in precisely the direction I needed to go to Ligea. I couldn’t feel the wind through my suit, but small flakes of methane snow had begun to rattle against the helmet visor. The onrushing clouds were now almost overhead, obscuring all of Saturn except the highest arc of the outermost ring. My shadow had gone, swallowed by the swelling dark.
I closed my eyes. She stood in front of me, and a little to the side. While Titan’s freezing wind beat against my suit, Lorna’s dress moved slowly in the warm wind of a day that was years in the past and 800 million miles away.
“I hate to say it, dude. But things don’t look good.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll make it.”
This way. She took a step away from me, stopped and raised her arm.
“Tak, cut the heater to ten per cent and shut everything else down.”
“Woah! You sure?”
“Lights, comms, the lot. How much battery does that give me?”
“Maybe ninety minutes. But what about navigation?”
“I don’t need it. I can find the way.” Snow swirled around Lorna and thrashed against my helmet. I was tempted to open my eyes but I feared she might disappear again.
“You get five minutes more battery if you shut me down, dude.”
“Do it, Tak,” I said. “And thanks, buddy.”
A soft click in my ear signaled the shutdown. I was adrift in darkness, silent except for the persistent chatter of ice crystals against my helmet. Lorna still stood with her arm extended, waiting for me to walk with her into the methane blizzard. I stepped forward, eyes still clamped shut.
Are you all right?
Hold my hand.
This time – at last – I did.
“When I Close My Eyes” © Chris Barnham, first published in Interzone in August 2017
Chris is the author of two novels and about twenty short stories, which have appeared in places like Galaxy’s Edge, Compelling Science Fiction, Interzone, and two recent Best of British SF anthologies. He lives physically in London, virtually at www.chrisbarnhambooks.com.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann