PLEASE NOTE: This story contains some mild violence, and mature themes. Reader discretion is advised.
This is my confession: it's all my fault.
Here we are, over a billion kilometers from home, stuffed into a sardine can dragging an unstable bomb across space. It's big and it's getting bigger, but they built the housing extra large to accommodate its relentless growth over the course of our journey. We can broker no delay, lest the housing fail. We're grim but we're determined; we're claustrophobic but we have stiff upper lips. The recycled air stinks with duty. And, like I said, it's all my fault.
My name is Tim, and I'm a civilian contractor assigned to Titan. I'm an infographic engineer and my specialty is encryption envelope manifold topography. My minor at school was metalibrary architecture, but I haven't coded anything in years. It's boring.
I'm fat. I tell people it's a glandular problem, but it's not true. I'm just a bad person.
I mention this because it's yet another thing that serves to separate me from the bulk of personnel on Titan, the overwhelming majority of whom are military or ex-military. People like that think it's a party to go jogging; their idea of a good time is doing high-G chin-ups until they barf. They're all svelte and tight, and I'm a walking jelly doughnut. So, it's fair to say I never really fit in.
I graduated with honours from the University of Huo Hsing, and within ten minutes of the ceremony I was approached by a naval head-hunter. "Your score is through the roof in enveloping," she said. "Have you ever thought about a career at Saturn?"
"I don't think I'd make a very good soldier," I told her, turning pink.
"Perhaps not," she agreed, "but Titan needs your brains. There are select roles we staff with civilian specialists in exchange for very favourable remuneration. That's a competitive salary on top of earning your military credit without ever having to do a single push-up. Think about it."
I did. Who wouldn't? Earning my military credit would get me tax-exempt status for life, which would please my parents, and getting to actually get out there -- getting to actually see the System -- would make my childhood dreams come true. I fantasized about the possibilities as I lay in bed at my parents' house, watching the churning clouds in the time-lapse scale holographic model of the ringed world that had hung in my bedroom since I was six.
I still have it. Like an idiot, I brought it with me. But I keep it in the bottom of my trunk.
It seems like nothing but a cheap toy when the real thing is hanging over your head, staring at you through the ceiling through every hour of the day. It makes you shiver if you think about it too much -- that monster world, so close, unblinking.
On my way out to Titan I remember being so eager to see it. After breakfast I was always the first one up to the observation deck to press my face against the cold glass, to see if I could catch a glimpse of our destination. At first it looked like a fuzzy amber star, but it grew. At first I was delighted and then, later, terrified.
As the days passed the yellow orb continued to swell until it seemed like we couldn't get any closer without going right through it. But still it grew. The whorled stripes banding the gas giant were briefly beautiful and then humbling, then baffling, then incomprehensibly intimidating. As the globe filled the view the stripes started to look like what they really were: weather systems larger than whole planets, relentlessly roiling, shading from the sun in its secret depths storms that had been raging longer than the human race has been human.
Indifferent is the word that Saturn seared into my mind: an indifferent giant, longer and stronger and more sure than anything ever conceived by the insect apes who flit around it.
Those rings aren't decorations -- they're the accumulated rubble of events the violence of which we can barely fathom. In time the rings will fade, and eventually be replaced a hundred histories from now in the wake of some other cataclysm that would dwarf the devastation of even our most ambitious wars.
It's just too damn big, and too damn old.
Saturn gives me the creeps.
Another reason the whole place is spooky is because you know what a lonely outpost you're clinging to. Titan is just a single Aresian camp surrounded on all sides by the worlds of the Joviat. I mean, it's not like the dirty pioneers on Iapetus and Rhea pose any threat to us -- on paper we're all part of the same big Solar nation -- but it's hard to forget how much they hate us.
On the other hand, Jovian disenfranchisement is the whole reason I got to Titan in the first place. If you listen to our politicians you know how they're always fretting about the prospect of a revolt, and you have to know those political speeches are very watered down versions of the anxious warnings from the navy's top strategists. That anti-Jovian paranoia is the cornerstone of Titan's culture, because it's something we have to think about all the time. It's our work. There's no beating around the bush: we're out here for just one reason.
Advanced weapons research.
Granted, Titan also serves as a waystation for ferries inbound to or outbound from the heliopause bases beyond Pluto, and we also act as a platform for expeditions into Saturn's atmosphere to study the swirlies and sky-bugs. As far as the general public is concerned these fripperies are our raison d'etre on Titan.
The general public has no idea.
And neither did I, until I arrived. I wasn't tipped off by the psychological examinations or the security tests -- I figured that was just standard procedure for an anal-retentive military. It wasn't until they explained to me that the penalty for talking about my job was death that I started to clue in.
"Any discussion of [REDACTED BY ORDER OF THE ROYAL ARESIAN NAVAL INTELLIGENCE CORPS] is considered a capital offense," said the lieutenant in charge of my indoctrination. "Let me be positively clear: that doesn't mean leaking secrets -- that means any discussion or hint of discussion concerning any [REDACTED]-related matters. Is that understood, freshman?"
"Yes, it is."
"You will address me as sir."
"You may be a civilian but this is a military establishment. Our culture is now your culture, freshman. Make it your business to conform, starting today."
"Sir yes sir."
"You are not qualified to assess the security clearance of other personnel. That means your assumption is always that your mouth must remain shut unless you are specifically ordered otherwise."
"Sir yes sir."
"Tell me, freshman: what is your duty department?"
"Sir, they told me to report to --"
"Secure your word hole, freshman!"
"Sir? You just asked me --"
"I just ordered you not to discuss your assignment with anyone regardless of your perception of their authority. Were you not listening, freshman?"
"Sir, I'm sorry sir."
"You'd be sorrier if you were dead. Remember that."
And I have. I can scarcely forget it. I left his office shaking, drops of sweat tickling down my sides under my shirt. I went back to my cramped cabin and ate a tub of yogurt, a quart of popcorn, a bag of beef jerky, two chocolate bars and an entire bunch of bananas before I felt steady enough to breathe freely again.
Suffice it to say I can't say much about my day to day work.
The off-hours were generally okay, though. I have a few friends, and they joke around with me even though they're military. They're alright. The navy people don't usually deign to so much as speak to contractors so I feel lucky to be included in their laughs, even if sometimes I'm only included because the laughs are at my expense. It's not a big deal: in school I put up with worse.
Nobody on Titan ever slapped my belly until it turned red, for example. Nobody ever pulled my pants down in front of the class, or loaded pencils in my butt crack.
"Hey Fatbags -- coming for a drink with us?" they'd say.
"Really? Oh, yeah. Just let me finish up here."
But when I turned around they would've left without me so I always arrived alone. When they were drunk they'd dare girls to kiss me, or warn newcomers that I'd sit on anyone who didn't hand over a food tax from whatever they had in front of them. This always caused them great amusement when I walked through the cafeteria only to have all the newest recruits offering me scraps. "I don't want your food," I'd explain, but then I'd usually eat it anyway.
All of that seems such a long time ago now that we're out here, on our way to the sun, towing our catastrophic cargo. How I got from Titan to this ship is a kind of involved story, but I guess that's why you're here, right?
I'll get to it. Like I said, this is a confession.
And, like so many tragedies, it all begins with a girl.