LAST CHANCE GAS – Part III
Universal Media Syndicate
TITAN – The final chapter in the mysterious saga of the missing E.S. Armstrong has yet to be written. The vessel is out there somewhere beyond the human boundary: that much is known. Whether the ship is crippled and adrift in the emptiness of deep space, wrecked upon the barren surface of an asteroid, suffered a collision with a meteor or has met some other unpredictable fate remains a topic of pure speculation. On Earth, far-fetched alien conspiracy theories, so much a symptom of this age of exploration, abound. Here on Titan, the Armstrong’s last port of call, there is a firm yet quiet faith that she must one day come home.
There is a palpable sense of relief in the filtered, recycled air of the Last Chance Gas complex when the E.S. Champlain touches down. One of their own, like the prodigal wanderer of myth, has successfully returned from an extended mission in the great void. The Champlain is inbound, stopping on Titan for refueling and maintenance before undertaking the next leg of the relay back to Earth. The hulking hull of the ship fills in all of the gaps in the refinery’s lattice pattern of scaffold and piping, its ovular shape suggesting an ancient dirigible, one of humankind’s original airships.
The 16-wheeled accordion crew shuttles have begun splashing through the relentless green methane rain from the landing pad and disgorging their riders. The Last Chance Gas mess hall is filling up. The atmosphere above the long picnic-style tables and benches is thick with gree-gree vapour and fluids flying from toasted drinks. The video bulwarks flick a moiré pattern of real time Titan data (the weather among other things is always a concern), entertainment shorts and advertisements for goods and services which may only be had closer to Earth. The noise is akin to an idling rocket motor. The scene is a celebration, a tacit reminder that despite all of the progress and technological leaps, human life is frail and at great risk in these merciless and distant environs.
Champlain Commander Alicia Yuan has been around. “But only if you’re talking about the solar system,” she laughs. She is sitting with Last Chance Gas proprietor Jimmy Singh and Grant Turnbull, the refinery’s overseer. The trio has known each other for years, ever since Singh opened a night club on the First Martian Colony. “I remember The Brass Tiger well,” says Yuan. “It was notorious. But what happened at The Brass Tiger stays at The Brass Tiger.” There is an aura of exclusivity to the reunion, interlopers are welcome but will always remain outsiders. The jokes and japes are fast and furious. “I’ll tell you this much,” Yuan shouts above the din, “Jimmy likes me better outbound because that means I’m carrying a cargo of goodies for him. Grant likes me better inbound because it means he gets away from Jimmy for a well deserved holiday.”
The talk soon turns serious, as it must and then to the fate of the Armstrong, as it will. The space travel relay system is innovative in its simplicity. Starships journey in stages from fuel point to fuel point. Titan is the end of the line or figuratively, the ends of the Earth. An outbound vessel from Singh’s Last Chance Gas will eventually near mission critical, the point of no return. The trouble is, mission critical is not an absolute U-turn co-ordinate on what may be an incomplete navigational chart.
“Ships’ ranges vary,” says Turnbull. “Once you’ve reached Titan and you’ve off-laden all of your cargo, you’re able to carry that much more fuel.”
“(Armstrong Commander) Yannick Saul was no cowboy,” Yuan maintains. “We trained together and he knew his ship, every O-ring and rivet, knew its limits.”
Singh adds, “I’m a businessman, not a scientist. But I can tell you that whatever the laws of astrophysics are, none of which I pretend to understand, weird things happen to time and distance out here. It’s possible the Armstrong communicated a distress signal. It may take years to reach us.”
Oddly for a perfect vacuum, space is full of noise. There is a constant background of static believed to be an echo of the Big Bang, the universe’s creation. Primitive radio waves and even beams from long ago extinguished sources of light become bent and distorted, knotting themselves into the pulsing fabric of the unknown. Nothing ever vanishes.
“Foo fighters,” Yuan says, using a phrase coined by 20th century aviators to describe strange atmospheric phenomena. But so far only silence from Commander Yannick Saul and the E.S. Armstrong throughout the white noise of the galaxy. “Whatever my mission is, whatever any Earth Ship mission is, we all have standing orders to locate and if possible, rescue the Armstrong.” Yuan stands up; her ship requires its Commander. “If it was the Champlain lost out there, my ship, I know Yan would be all over it.”
Copyright UMS 2414.