Monday, 10 February 2014



Universal Media Syndicate


TITAN – The work is hard and fraught with risk, the hours are endless and journeyman steamfitter Grant Turnbull is compensated accordingly. He would not have it any other way. “Welcome to my world,” he says atop an enclosed gantry overlooking Titan’s enormous methane fuel refinery. “You get used to the smell,” he adds. “Eventually.”


The synthesis of methane, overly abundant on Titan’s surface and even in its monsoon-like storms, into rocket fuel has allowed humankind to travel ever farther within the solar system, to push the boundaries of research and exploration. There is a peculiar elegance to the plant itself, an almost alien beauty to the rows of tanks, networks of piping and enclosure of scaffolding. It is the epitome of centuries of increasingly sophisticated and efficient industrial design.


Almost all of the refinery’s processes are fully automated and much of the extremely hazardous work is performed by robots which are of course oblivious to the conditions on Titan. “The trouble with ‘bots,” Turnbull says, “is that no matter how perfectly they’re programmed, they’re still limited by their programming. There’s always a need for a little human ingenuity and experience. It’s amazing what you can jury-rig with a roll of duct tape and a dab of solder. A ‘bot can’t do that. Not yet, anyway.”


Turnbull is coming to the end of his six calendar months rotation and due for one month’s leave. He has lived this grueling schedule for well over a decade now. “You need to be wired a certain way for this type of work. Close quarters and little or no time off. A lot of people arrive here expecting to make a quick pile and then move on to somewhere else with a better quality of life.” Turnbull nods in the direction of the green-hued gravel dunes on the shore of the lake. “The souls of the departed are out there,” he says. “The most common method (of suicide) is to simply pass through the air-lock wearing your gym clothes or something. I watched a man die out there once, as naked as the day he was born. It didn’t take long but it didn’t look like very much fun either. He was a friend of mine. I was two minutes too late.”


Titan Last Chance Gas does have a wellness protocol in place for its 75 employees. Counter-intuitively, new hires must sign a waiver releasing the operation from any responsibility. “We monitor things as best we can,” Turnbull maintains. “The recommended regimen is strict: work, exercise, sleep.” And what about the prevalence of gree-gree? It can be a problem, Turnbull admits. A dilemma. A paradox. “I think it’s almost Titan’s best attraction, in a way. People come here just to get it. And then, I don’t know, maybe it gives them the courage or stupidity to take that walk outside and die in the methane rain.”


The E.S. Champlain is due to arrive on Titan in just a few days’ time. Turnbull has made arrangements to hitch a ride to Mars where he will spend his leave from Titan. Why not the warmer climes of Earth? “I’ve never been to Earth,” Turnbull says. “My father and my uncles helped construct the server farms on Mars. That’s where I was born. Earth? I’ve seen video. It looks okay although I doubt I could stand the gravity.”


Journeyman steamfitter Grant Turnbull is a rare breed indeed.


Copyright UMS 2414.

Part two of a series.

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