Science Fiction & Fantasy

728x90 The Perfect Assassin



On the Shores of Ligeia

Seth Calder felt like he had barely dozed off when his alarm blared at 6:00 a.m. Level morning sunlight leaked through the blinds onto the birch and linen furniture of his Stockholm apartment. Amalia was already in the shower, so he lurched out of bed and went to check his news feed.

NASA TO LAUNCH MARS CREW TODAY, said the first headline. The picture showed the ten crew members in flight suits, grinning at the camera. They were the best of the best—fit, photogenic, heroic, multiracial. Seth wouldn’t have passed the first step of screening for the mission. A short, nearsighted astrobiologist with a bit too much weight wasn’t the kind of person the U.S. sent to space. Not that he begrudged them their glory—he wished them well. He had just leapfrogged over them. He hoped to be working on Titan today.

The shower stopped, and he went to go rouse Tidbit. She looked angelic asleep, a blonde wisp of a child. Seth had never imagined himself with children, and was constantly taken aback by his infatuation with this little being who had fallen into his life along with Amalia. “Time to get up, Peapod,” he said, shaking her gently.

Her eyes scrunched tighter. “That’s not my name,” she mumbled.

“Isn’t it?” he said with exaggerated amazement. “Let’s see, what could your name be? Is it Nanomite? Is it Bedbug?”

She giggled. “It’s Dannika. You’re the only one who calls me Tidbit.”

The bathroom door opened and Amalia looked in, wrapped in a towel. “Time to get up.”

The girl immediately sat up in bed. You could tell who the authority was in this house, Seth thought. So much for his parenting skills.

Amalia and Tidbit talked in Swedish over the breakfast table. Seth could pick up most of it, but he hated to speak it and expose his clumsiness. At last he looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got to get going.”

“Yeah, you’ve got to herd the Wildwoman to Titan,” Amalia said with a smile. Wildwoman was her name for Seth’s boss.

“Why can’t I go to Titan?” Tidbit said.

Seth smiled at her. “You know where that is?”

“It’s the biggest moon of Saturn,” she answered promptly. At seven, she already knew her planets and could tell you about red dwarfs and neutron stars. It came from living with an astrobiologist and a physicist.

Seth always walked Tidbit to school, since it was on his way to the Tunnelbana. It had seemed awkward in the days when Tidbit hadn’t yet decided whether he was an evil stepfather or not; now she chattered happily as they walked, but it still seemed awkward because it was such a dadlike thing to do. Is this really me? he kept thinking.

The streets were quiet and clean in the pastel light of morning. In fact, Stockholm always seemed to Seth like an artificial simulation of a city where everything actually worked. It lacked those touches a real city had—the dirt was missing, and the scary parts of town, and the homeless people begging at the train stations. He was used to Boston.

After dropping off Tidbit at school, he headed for the Tunnelbana to catch his train. On the long ride out to Kista he was so keyed up he had to force himself to concentrate on the news. The media outlets weren’t covering his team’s work with anything like the fervor they gave to the NASA launch. The Americans—odd, how he thought of his own country in the third person—had the edge on showmanship. Big, virile rockets blasting off were way more cinematic than the cutting-edge science the European Space Agency was doing. Ever since the change of administrations, the Americans had thrown all their money into a boots-on-the-ground approach to space exploration. It wasn’t surprising; the American space program had been founded by World War II veterans intent on conquering space the same way they had conquered the Pacific, in giant steel ships. Or maybe their thinking went even further back, to the age of Hudson and Pizarro, when men in ships planted flags on foreign shores in order to claim them.

Odd, for people who thought of themselves as progressive, how anchored in the past American paradigms were. But he didn’t resent them, he reminded himself. He wished them well.

No ships were involved in the ESA program where Seth worked. It wasn’t about square-jawed heroism. They didn’t want to put human bodies into space; they wanted to put human minds there.

Kista was a walkable, suburban campus of gleaming buildings housing high-tech research companies, interspersed with little parks decorated with tame trees. The brick building where Seth worked had a big satellite dish on the roof, but that wasn’t how they communicated with Saturn. A worldwide string of radio telescopes picked up the signals twenty-four hours a day, and relayed the data to the participating institutions.

Seth headed up to the auditorium, expecting to find his boss, Dr. Katrina Beshni, holding forth to anyone gathered there. Today would be her moment in the limelight, and she relished it. It was two hours before the exploration of Titan was scheduled to start, but the auditorium was already filling with members of the astrobiology team, drinking potent Swedish coffee and talking about the climate data collected so far. The big screen was showing a “live” feed from the lander on Titan. The time delay due to the distance was almost eighty minutes, but that was as close to live as humans had ever achieved. The scene was a rocky plain shrouded in orange fog. It was shown in visible light, though enhanced to make it look brighter than it was. If Seth had been there in person, it would have looked dimmer than a gloomy, overcast twilight on Earth. Not to mention that, if he actually had been there, he would have been instantly frozen into a block of ice in the -180oC cold.

All over the world, he knew, scientists were gathered in offices and auditoriums, watching the same feed. At the moment, the robot wasn’t doing anything but running some diagnostics; the scene wouldn’t get interesting until Dr. Beshni’s program took over. In the meantime, some of the scientists clustered by a television showing preparations for the NASA launch.

He scanned the room for his mentor. Dr. Andreas Helberg, an intimidatingly eminent biochemist, was coming toward him.

“Have you seen Dr. Beshni?” Seth asked.

“You are the one who normally keeps track of her,” Dr. Helberg said with a hint of reproach.

Seth checked his phone, but there was no message from her. “I’ll check her office,” he said.

She wasn’t there, so after a stop in his own office to leave his coat and pick up a flash drive of files, he headed down to the virtual reality lab in the basement. Kjeld was at work there, in a studio so packed with equipment it nearly hid him—which was hard to do, since he was a big, brown-bearded Viking of a man.

“Is Dr. Beshni here yet?” Seth asked.

Kjeld shook his craggy head and glanced at the clock. “Call and tell her to get down here, would you? Dublin’s going to hand over to us in ninety minutes.”

“She’ll show up,” Seth said. His mentor had been working toward this day for fifteen years; he knew she was not about to miss it.

Institutions all over Europe were sharing the lander they had sent to Titan. Since its touchdown last month, technicians in Dublin had been deploying, testing, and calibrating the robot explorer; Dr. Beshni would be the first to use it for actual science, and Seth would be monitoring. The robot’s schedule had been set up for a long time; Beshni would have only three hours before handing off to a climate researcher in Hamburg.

Seth went into the adjoining room where the VR setup was, along with the computer station where he would be riding shotgun. When he woke it, it showed the same scene as in the auditorium upstairs.

His phone gave off the mating call of a bearded seal, and he looked at the text that had come in. It was from Dr. Beshni and said only, EMERGENCEY—call.

Instantly, he called her. It rang, then went to voice mail, so he called again. This time she answered. There was a lot of background noise. “Where are you?” Seth said.

“Emergency Room, hospital,” she said. “I am walk into a hole in the street. My leg, I broke it. They are putting pins in it. I tell them, I have no time for this today. They say yes, now.”

Seth could just imagine. She had probably been looking at her phone, but she was perfectly capable of falling in holes anyway, she was that absentminded. It was a good thing she would never have to go to Titan in reality.

Someone was telling her in Swedish to put down the phone. “How long?” Seth asked.

“Three days, they dream. You must take over.”

“Me?” Seth said, feeling paralyzed.

“Who else? Stupid surgeons!” The phone went dead.

Seth stood for a moment, panic-stricken. She was the genius; he was just the lowly postdoc who shadowed her, cleaning up the chaos. She had been going to narrate her remote-control tour of Titan for the worldwide audience in her trademark fractured, headlong English.

Shaking a little, Seth went back to Kjeld’s den. “She’s not coming,” he said. “She broke her leg.”

Kjeld stared a moment, then said, “Well, isn’t that just like her. Better suit up.”


“You know this robot and this VR setup better than anyone. Do you want to waste our time?”

That was not an option. They had been waiting for years.

Seth went into the toilet to calm his nerves. He could do this. The artificial intelligence program that would drive the robot was as much his work as Dr. Beshni’s—more so, in fact, because she hadn’t had the patience for the boring bits. But knowing that several hundred of the most important people in the discipline would be watching—that was the part she thrived on, and he didn’t.

Alyssa Chiu was waiting to assist him in the VR lab when he returned. Word had traveled fast. “Wouldn’t you know she’d do something dramatic today,” Alyssa said. “As if the pinnacle of her career weren’t enough.”

“She was probably distracted,” Seth said.

Their VR equipment was state of the art—a full-body suit and helmet, with a circular 360-degree track with railing. He pulled on the suit and gloves, then stood growing hot as he waited for a signal from Kjeld through his earpiece. Alyssa sat where he should have been, in front of the computer screen. The rest of the biology team was following on the screen upstairs.

“Fifteen minutes,” Kjeld said.

“Why don’t you explain to the audience?” Alyssa said. She was handling the outgoing signal. “Put on the helmet and I’ll put you through.”

The helmet was showing an environment of Swedish woods so as not to be claustrophobic. It was a little distracting. “You’re on,” Alyssa said.

Seth cleared his throat. “Um, hello everyone. This is Seth Calder, Dr. Beshni’s assistant. I have bad news. She broke her leg this morning.” He could imagine the consternation and eyerolls spreading. “She’ll be all right, at least she was when I talked to her. But she won’t be able to join us today. Sorry, you’re going to have to put up with me.”

“Ten minutes,” Kjeld said.

“We’ll be starting in a few minutes. We’ll have to spend some time calibrating the suit, but the program will start right after that. I’m not controlling the robot, obviously; but I’ll be able to sense its environment in more detail, and I’ll try to tell you about it.”

Because of the time delay, it wasn’t possible to control the robot in real time, so their team had created an artificial intelligence program designed to react like a biologist. It had been transmitted to Titan and pre-loaded in the robot’s brain a week ago. Up until then, Seth and Dr. Beshni had been putting the final touches on it by running the robot’s identical twin across the terrain of the Swedish arctic. The AI didn’t actually know any biology—all it was trained to do was to recognize things a biologist would find interesting. Seth had spent many tedious days teaching the neural network to look in promising places and react appropriately to what it saw. Now, if it didn’t perform, everyone would know who to blame.

“Switching over,” Kjeld said.

And then Seth was on Titan.

“Oh my God!” he exclaimed.

The resolution was much sharper than he had expected—no comparison to the fuzzy video feed the others were following. He could see details in the surrounding rocks, shadows and flow marks in the sand. The robot’s camera-laden “head” had a nearly 360-degree view, but Seth had to turn to see behind him. There stood the lander that had carried him—rather, his robot body—to the surface. It was now acting as charging station, lab, and communications relay to the orbiter. The heavy orange clouds were bright behind it, so he knew that direction was south. He could only see ten or twenty feet around him.

“Initiating haptic interface,” Kjeld said on his earpiece.

Tactile data flooded over him. A chilly, humid breeze touched his face, and he wrinkled his nose at the chemical scent. The smell represented the atmospheric chemistry without duplicating it, since the actual atmosphere of Titan would have been odorless but unbreathable. What he was experiencing was what an organism evolved to live on Titan would have felt. In a way, the robot was such an organism—designed for conditions humans were not.

“Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said.

The view suddenly cleared. The fog dissipated and he saw the landscape around him. He was standing on a sandy, rock-strewn plain at the base of some rugged hills. The ground sloped downward to his right, into a gully where a stream flowed. Seth turned to trace the stream to its source in the snow-capped mountains to the south. The scene looked so much like an afternoon in the South Dakota badlands, it was hard to remember it wasn’t a stream of water. Liquid methane took the place of water here, and water ice formed the rocks.

A slight rise hid the view to the north, and he wanted to see over it. The robot, pre-trained to replicate his curiosity, began to move in that direction. It was actually a four-legged vehicle, designed for clambering over rugged terrain, but Seth couldn’t see the back legs, and so the illusion of walking was convincing. When he came to the top of the rise, he let out a breath. “I’ll be damned.” Before him lay the indented coastline of a sea stretching to the horizon. Ligeia Mare. Streaks of wind rippled the calm surface. The nearby stream curved off and flowed eastward into a valley.

“Quit talking to yourself and tell us what you see,” Alyssa’s irritated voice said in his ear. He had forgotten that everyone was listening.

“Um, it’s probably nothing you can’t see for yourselves,” Seth said. “But for me, it’s so real. I’m actually there.” He sounded like a blithering fanboy, he knew; he couldn’t help it. The experience was breathtaking.

If he had been there, he probably would have walked on, awestruck, toward the seashore. But the robot made a more logical decision, to investigate the gully. “Whoops, I guess we’re going to look at the methane stream,” he said in his role as conductor of this tour.

The opposite side of the stream gully was eroded and showed clear stratigraphy. “The geologists are going to want to take a look at that,” he commented. Perhaps he would as well, if his search for life turned into a search for fossils of life. At the moment, he and his robot were much more interested in the soft hydrocarbon “sand” the color of sweet potatoes, especially in the puddle formed by an eddy. The robot focused in on some foam at the edge of the puddle. “Oh, boy, pond scum!” Seth exclaimed.

A magnifying camera telescoped from the robot’s body, and its field of view appeared in an inset, as if he were looking through a magnifying glass. It showed nothing wriggling or swimming, but there were some translucent bubbles. Seth’s breath caught with excitement. “We need to test those,” he said. “If they are vinyl cyanide or polyimine membranes, and not just nitrogen bubbles, we might have hit the jackpot.” If he had trained the robot right, it would take a sample. And sure enough, it reached out its sampling arm and siphoned the scum into a tube to be taken back to the lander for more analysis.

There was, of course, no chance that Earthlike life would exist on Titan. What they were searching for was far more exciting: life that had evolved using completely different chemistry. Seth was hoping for hydrogen-based life forms that metabolized acetylene instead of glucose. If they found it, it would mean that life was universal and could evolve anywhere.

But what hydrogen-based life would look like was completely unknown, and recognizing it might be a challenge. Seth scanned upstream and downstream for something else interesting, but saw nothing. The robot, however, took off down the gully, and soon Seth figured out what it had seen. “That rock shows differential shading on one side,” he explained. “On Earth, that might be desert varnish, or even evidence of lichen.” Under magnification, it looked like nothing more than a whitish crust from evaporation, but the robot dutifully took another sample. The mass spectrometer back at the lander would at least tell them the chemical composition.

“This is going really well,” Seth enthused as the robot climbed the sloping bank again. “It’s noticing all the right stuff and taking the right actions. I couldn’t—ˮ A drop of rain hit him on the head, or seemed to. “Hot damn, it’s raining!” He looked up, and there was a dark cloud overhead. A few drops pattered around him on the ground. The climatologists would be envious at missing this.

“Seth, remember your audio is live.” Alyssa sounded amused.

As the robot headed off toward the seashore, Seth said soberly, “You can see all sorts of evidence of the methane cycle. Rainfall, erosion, evaporation, probably springs of ground ethane—all exactly like on Earth, just different chemistry.”

The land grew more rugged as he neared the shore. At last the scene opened before him—a rocky, indented coastline with eroded cliffs plunging into the sea, like something from Big Sur, except there was no surf; the sea was strangely still. The wind would have ruffled his hair if it had been real. Below, he could see tidal pools in the rocks, rimmed with a crust of yellowish deposits, possibly benzene. The entire landscape before him would be combustible on Earth; but here, without oxygen, it was stable. In fact, here oxygen was the rare and flammable liquid.

He wanted to climb down to get closer to the shore, but the robot was programmed to know its limits, and rock climbing was not one of its skills. Instead, it activated a telescopic lens and focused in on the pool edges.

“What the . . .” Seth could not figure out what he was looking at. The pools were fringed with a ruff of stiff, lacelike crystals. They formed small pyramidal shapes like a grove of miniature Christmas trees. “Crystals?” he wondered aloud. “I’ve never seen crystals like this. We need to get a sample.”

As he scanned the landscape for a safe way down to the shore, the rain began in earnest. A gust of wind buffeted him, driving the rain across the clear dome of his eye-cameras. The robot ignored the weather and headed toward a promontory with a better view of the seashore. Seth was scanning for a slope that might lead safely downward when his view tilted, throwing off his balance. He looked down, and saw the ground under his large pad-feet sinking, giving way. “Oh, no!” he shouted. The robot tried to step back, but an entire section of the cliff was caving in. Everything turned sideways. All his senses told him he was tumbling downward, rolling, falling, bumping, then skidding down a steep slope, and finally coming to a stop with the rain pattering around him.

He had wrecked the robot. Billions of dollars, decades of work, thousands of scientists watching, and he had literally fallen off a cliff. “Oh God,” he said miserably, “what did I do?”

Of course, he had done nothing. It had all happened over an hour ago. But it had been his program running the robot, his curiosity that had led it to the edge.

He lay pitched sideways on a slope of rubble. He was considerably closer to the seashore now, and could see from his canted perspective that the cliffs behind him were, in fact, riddled with caves, eroded underneath like the frozen curls of breaking waves. It was no wonder the ground had given way.

“Well,” Alyssa said in his ear, “that’s one way to get down to the shore.”

“Shut up,” he answered. “You can’t make me feel worse than I do already.”

As he lay there, wondering what to do now, he heard the most unexpected sound imaginable—the whine of a mosquito. His first thought was that something had gone wrong with the robot’s hearing. The sound faded, then came back, varying in pitch. “There must be a loose wire . . .” he started to say. Then something flitted across his view.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed.

He wanted desperately to deploy the net that was one of his sampling mechanisms, to catch whatever it was for a closer look. But the sampling arm was pinned underneath him. There was whir of machinery, a thwack of ice-pebbles against his carapace, and his viewpoint shifted. The gravel underneath him gave way, he slid downward, teetered, and with a jolt came to rest on the ground, miraculously upright. Orange dirt pattered down the slope behind him.

He realized that the robot, reacting to its curiosity programming, had tried to extend the sampling arm, and that was all it had taken to disturb the slope and set him upright again.

The robot stood still, running diagnostics, for several minutes. Seth spent the time scanning the slope, the air, everything, for what had made the insect sound. At last the robot took a step forward, and relief washed over Seth. Could he be so lucky that it had not been damaged?

The maddening buzzing came back. Seconds later, he saw something swooping toward him from the sea—a small gray body the size of a seagull, with three propellers atop. It had noticed him, and came close, hovering, so close he could see the camera lens and the lettering on its side.

“A drone?” Seth said, bewildered.

It rose straight up, and was joined by another one, then two more, till there was a swarm of half a dozen drones, all swooping down one by one to look at him as if he were a circus attraction.

“Alyssa,” he said, “are these our drones?”

“Uh, no,” she said.

They had considered sending drones, once. They were perfect for large-scale surveying, and in the thick Titan atmosphere, flying was easier than on Earth. But the ESA’s top priority was looking for life—and for that, you had to get down on your knees in the mud.

“Then who sent them? The writing on them is Chinese.”

“Yes, we noticed that. We’re checking it out.”

The flock of drones swooped low, then scattered—some heading east along the coastline, some west, some straight out to sea. He watched them disappear into the distance. Nothing he had seen on Titan had surprised him so much. It was inconceivable that someone could have a secret space program that had beaten the EU here. But either he was hallucinating, or there they were.

“They’re lucky I didn’t try to catch them in a sample net,” Seth muttered.

The rain had passed on, and the fog had cleared. The sea was burnished copper under a tangerine sky. He stood for a moment, listening to the wind and the solitude. It was beautiful here, he realized. Strange, but beautiful. He hoped it would never get crowded.

The robot lurched forward, resuming its biology program, untroubled by the appearance of little flying machines where none should be.

“Seth, you’ve still got a problem,” Alyssa broke in. “You need to get back to the lander somehow.”

It was true; his batteries would run down in fifteen hours or so, and he would need to recharge. The robot was just a sample-collector, and all the real equipment was back at the landing site. Looking up at the sheer cliffs, he now faced the same dilemma he had before, but in reverse; somehow, he had to get up them.

“Alyssa, can you tell where I am on the map?” He was hoping it might steer him to a reasonable route.

“Sorry, it’s not detailed enough to help,” she said. Titan’s thick atmospheric clouds made visual mapping from orbit impossible, so radar was all they had. She added, “We know you’re 1.2 kilometers north-northwest of the lander.”

He was surprised he had come so far. “How much time do I have?” he asked. “Are my three hours nearly up?”

After a pause, Alyssa’s voice said, “You exceeded your three hours twenty minutes ago. Hamburg ceded their time to you, because you were having so many . . . adventures.”

They didn’t want to have to clean up the mess he had made. The very public mess. He nearly groaned. “Never mind, I’ll figure it out,” he said to buck himself up.

There was a pause. “Sorry,” she said. “I just got word they’ve decided to shut you down.”

“No!” he protested.

“The decision was made above our heads. They are going to deactivate the robot to conserve the batteries until they come up with a plan to get it back to the lander. They’re sending the instructions now.”

“Then I still have eighty minutes.”

“Go for it,” she said. “Just don’t fall in the lake, okay?”

Meanwhile, the robot was unaware of the consternation back home. It took off to investigate a glassy puddle in the icerock. There was a slight breeze blowing, but the pool seemed unnaturally still, as the sea did on a larger scale. When he got closer, Seth could see that either the liquid had a particularly high surface tension or there was a clear film over the surface, like a thin plastic wrap. “On Earth, that would be a biofilm, a bacterial colony,” Seth said aloud, hoping someone was still listening to his discoveries. “Here, it might be acrylonitrile. If so, it’s still important. We think acrylonitrile might play the same role here as phospholipids on Earth.” The robot reached out its sampling arm, but as soon as it touched the pool the film broke and disappeared. The robot took a liquid sample anyway.

Seth scanned the landscape impatiently for the white crystals he had seen from the cliff, but could not locate them. The robot’s attention was on the seashore, and it made its way steadily over the icerocks toward where the waves lapped. Seth could hear them hissing against the pebbles. A flat ledge protruded out into the methane sea, and the robot proceeded out onto it, going so close to the edge that Seth nearly shouted at it to stop. It did.

From this vantage point, Seth could peer down into the sea. The liquid methane was crystal clear, and the ledge plunged down several feet—or was it several meters?—to a rocky bottom. As the robot extended its arm to take another liquid sample, Seth saw something un-rocklike in the depths. At first, the robot didn’t seem to notice. Then it extended its magnifying arm until it submerged under the surface, and the view became clearer. There was a cluster of something that looked like brownish pinecones on the seafloor.

Seth nearly whooped in exhilaration. Instead, he put on his best professional voice. “That looks distinctly organic. That is, not necessarily carbon-based, but complex. I suppose it could be some sort of odd erosion pattern, or a concretion, but we need to get a sample to be sure.”

The robot snaked out its sampling arm, but the objects were too far down. “Damn it!” Seth couldn’t help but say.

“Seth,” Alyssa interrupted, “your time’s up.”

“No! I’m just getting somewhere.”

It was intensely frustrating. He felt sure that he was seeing evidence of life all around, but each time he thought he had some proof, it was too far away, or it dissolved into ambiguity. He gazed around at the landscape, trying to absorb every detail, to write it on his memory. Then the robot lurched around, heading away from the shore. Midway between the cliffs and the sea it stopped. Seth’s world went blank.

When he took the VR helmet off, he found he was soaked in sweat, although he had felt chill up to now. The suit was clammy. “That was amazing!” he said to Alyssa.

“Yeah, it really went well, except for the part where you nearly wrecked the robot and marooned it without a power source,” she said.

“I meant that we learned a lot more than I expected on the first time out.”

“Right. We’re convening in the conference room upstairs for a postmortem. Why don’t you get dressed and join us?”

Postmortem sounded a little premature. But he grabbed his clothes and headed for the washroom for a quick shower.

When he entered the conference room, the scientist who had been talking fell silent and everyone around the table turned to look at him as he tried to slip inconspicuously into a seat. No one clapped or said “congratulations.” The accusatory silence stretched on until someone cleared his throat and said, “Well, all we can do is speculate until we get samples back to the lab on the lander.”

The conversation resumed then, and Seth soon realized it wasn’t the robot’s postmortem; it was his. Or at least, his program’s—and therefore the astrobiology team’s.

“Tantalizing as the evidence is, we can’t risk running that program again,” Dr. Helberg said. “At least, not until it is revised. It is far too accident-prone. Just like its creator.”

He meant Dr. Beshni, Seth knew, but he couldn’t help taking it personally. He wanted to defend the program, but a warning look from Alyssa kept him quiet. He dreaded having to break the news to his mentor, and prayed she wouldn’t be out of surgery for at least a week. Somehow, he needed to redeem the program before she found out. Biological research couldn’t be put on ice now. There was too much at stake.

“What about the drones?” he asked. “Have we found out who’s running them?”

“It’s a Chinese program, apparently,” said a white-haired South African whom Seth knew only as Dr. Gault. “You may remember their moonshot a decade ago, when the spacecraft was lost. My guess is that it was simply using the moon for a gravitational assist so it could beat us to Titan and show us up. We haven’t yet been able to talk to anyone in charge.”

“What did the writing on it say?”

Alyssa answered. “It just said dàhuángfēng, Bumblebee. The name of the drone, apparently. Cute, but a phone number would have been more helpful.”

“Why do you ask?” Dr. Helberg said icily.

“Just thinking we could get them to help.”

Someone down the table said, “Even a hundred drones couldn’t lift the robot back to the top of the cliff.”

The conversation turned to the upcoming press conference, and the mood got even more dour as they contemplated the public shaming ahead. Seth saw that he and Dr. Beshni would inevitably get scapegoated.

At last Dr. Helberg said, “The navigation team in Copenhagen is going to create new instructions to get the robot back to the lander. We can’t say anything more about the future until the robot is saved. Of course, once they have done that, if they succeed, we can ask them to look at our AI program and do something to fix it.”

Butcher it, Seth thought glumly. Make it so risk-averse it would never go anywhere interesting.

The meeting broke up soon after. When Seth returned to his office, he saw that the sun was low in the sky; the whole day had passed in what had seemed like a few minutes. He checked the news to see if anything had leaked; if so, it had been crowded out by breathless anticipation of the American launch, which hadn’t yet taken place. There was nothing about China.

“You want to go for a drink?” Alyssa said, looking in from the hallway.

He wanted the drink, but not in company where he would have to hide his head. “I think I’ll go home,” he said.

His brain was still spinning down dead-end paths when he came into the apartment where Amalia was watching live coverage of the American rocket on its launch pad. She muted the sound. “I heard you had a little accident today,” she said.

So the story was all over the university. He wasn’t going to be able to escape it: cockamamie Dr. Beshni and her reckless assistant. He slumped down on the couch beside her, took the glass of wine from her hand, and downed it in one breath.

“That bad?” she said.

That was the source of his frustration, he realized. “No,” he said, “it wasn’t bad at all. It was wonderful. I was on Titan, Amalia—in a way I could never be there in reality, because I didn’t have to worry about the cold, or the fact there’s no oxygen. I didn’t have to spend ninety percent of my attention worrying about surviving, as those poor chumps on Mars are going to have to do. They’re going to regress to survivalists: worrying about how to get water and air and food, how to deal with bone loss and radiation. I was there in a body designed for the environment, and in ten minutes I was already doing science, making discoveries. All I want now is to go back. And the chances of that seem really slim now.”

She gave him a hug, which was nice, but didn’t really solve his problem.

“I think this Titan bug is contagious,” she said. “It’s all Dannika could talk about, too.”

“Did she see our press conference or something?”

“No, she’s got some sort of new video game about Titan. She’s playing it now.”

“Good,” he said gloomily. “Maybe she’ll be the next one in the family to go.”

“I’ve got Indian takeout,” she said. “Should I warm it up?”

“Sure,” he said. He didn’t want to sit drinking wine all evening, like a loser.

While Amalia was in the kitchen, he wandered into Tidbit’s room to see what she was doing. She was wearing her VR goggles and earbuds, but a display related to the game was up on the screen of her laptop. The graphics immediately drew Seth’s attention. They showed a map of Titan’s lake district—a strikingly accurate map. Whoever had put this together had done their homework, and timed the release perfectly. The map was littered with little symbols in a rainbow of colors.

“Hey, T,” he said, pulling up a chair next to her. “What’re you doing?”

She pulled out one earbud. “It’s a Titan game,” she said. “I have to tag interesting things. If my tags turn out to be good, I’ll get more time tomorrow.”

She peeked out from under her goggles and pointed at the map. “The magenta ones are my tags,” she said. “I chose the color.”

The tags were clustered around the southern coast of Ligeia Mare, exactly where he had been earlier that day.

“Can I try?” he asked.

She handed over the goggles. Immediately, he was back on Titan, flying like a bird over the coastline. The graphics were hyper-realistic, and very accurate—the rugged shore, the orange sky. He could almost feel the chill air whipping by, and smell the simulated tang of methane rain. “How do you control it?” he asked.

“You can’t, really,” Tidbit said. “It goes where it wants to go, but it’s attracted by other people’s tags. The thing is to see something new.”

“Have you seen a broken-down robot on the shore?” he said wryly.

“Oh, yes, that was tagged long ago.”

Just then, his viewpoint swooped downward with jaw-clenching speed, and he saw something moving below him like gnats, like birds—like drones.

He tore the goggles off to look at Tidbit. “Where did you get this?”

From the bedroom door, Amalia explained, “She got it from school. Her class won a lottery to participate. What’s the matter?”

“This isn’t a game. This is real.”

He couldn’t believe it. They were letting children run the drones?

“Give me the goggles back,” Tidbit said. “You’re using up my time.”

Amalia handed him a carton of biryani and a note from Tidbit’s teacher. He set down the carton and scanned the note. It gave a numerical Internet address and codes for logging into the game at a particular time. Farther down, there was a paragraph explaining that it was a global citizen science project from a Chinese software company.

“Tidbit,” he said tensely, “are you anywhere near the broken robot?”

She was back on Titan, absorbed in what she was seeing. “I think so,” she said.

He realized that her drone was symbolized by a flashing magenta dot on the map. He seized the touchscreen and zoomed in on the symbol. At a larger scale, the map became extraordinarily detailed. In fact, it wasn’t a map at all; it was aerial photos, pieced together from the feeds of a dozen drones. Every few seconds it refreshed, filling in new spots. They were mapping Titan at an extraordinary rate.

“I can’t imagine how much processing power this is taking,” Seth marveled.

There was a cluster of tags down the coast from Tidbit’s drone. He centered the spot on the screen and zoomed in. The detail wasn’t quite clear enough to see the robot, but the spot was labeled in Chinese characters. Mixed among them were three European letters, ESA. “That’s got to be the robot,” he said. The nearby terrain looked right—there was the cliff, and the ledge he had gone out on to look into the sea. He scanned eastward down the coast till he came to Tidbit’s drone at the mouth of a river.

“Tidbit, put a tag there.”

“Why?” she said. “There’s nothing interesting.”

“Yes, there is. A river with a wide valley. A gradual slope the robot can get up.”

On the map, he followed the river southward until a tributary came into it from the right; then he followed the tributary. The detail ended, giving way to the blurry, useless radar images. But when he zoomed out, he saw a tag on a spot about a kilometer inland that could only be the lander. “This has to be the stream that runs through the gully near the lander,” he said. “The robot might get its feet wet, but it can get back.”

“My time’s almost up,” Tidbit said. “I’m going to lose the connection.”

“No! Not yet!” Feverishly, Seth started saving screen shots of the map along the route from the lander to the robot. He had just saved the next to the last when the screen went blank.

Tidbit gave a cry of disappointment. But Seth gave her an ecstatic hug. “Tidbit, you’re a star,” he said. “Where’s my phone?”

Kjeld answered on the third ring. There was a lot of background noise. “Seth, where are you? We’re all at Zorro’s,” he said.

“No time for drinking,” Seth said. “I’ve got some information to pass on to the navigation team in Copenhagen. Are you in touch with them?”

“I can be,” Kjeld said slowly. “What sort of information?”

“I’ve got a route to get the robot home. Here, I’ll send you the first part of the map.”

The background noise fell quiet. He could imagine them all, clustered around Kjeld’s phone. “Where did you get this?” Kjeld said.

“You know those drones?”

“Yes, we haven’t been able to find out who’s controlling them.”

“That’s because it’s children controlling them. School children all over the world. I got it from my daughter. Never mind, I’ll fill you in later. The important thing is, they’ve mapped most of the route between the lander and the robot. Here, I’ll send the rest of the images.”

“Holy crap,” Kjeld said as he received the screen shots.

“Can you pass these on?”

“Ja,” Kjeld said, momentarily sounding Swedish.

“Sorry if I broke up the party,” Seth said, feeling not a bit sorry.

“Don’t mention it. Now get off my phone.”

Seth hung up, feeling good for the first time in hours, and gave Tidbit a high five. They all went out to the living room, where Amalia poured some more wine for Seth and herself, fruit juice for Tidbit. The muted television was still covering the American launch, but now a reporter was on the screen. Amalia turned up the sound.

“. . . will be rescheduled in approximately four days. If you’re just joining us, the launch has been scrubbed due to a malfunction in the hydraulic system . . .”

“Who cares?” Tidbit said.

“That’s right,” Seth said. “We don’t need a pokey old rocket ship. We’ve been there.”

Amalia gave him a hug. “That’s not for saving the robot,” she whispered. “That’s for being a good dad.”

He realized it was true, and he liked it. They really were a family now.

And they had all been to space. The American way was never going to get them there. The European way would only get the elite experts there. The Chinese way had gotten everyone there, even Tidbit. And all over the world, kids and space buffs and students were going to be able to go. It was against all the rules of institutional science—it was undisciplined, tumultuous, proletarian. But once the public found out they could ride a drone through the clouds of Titan, the reaction would be ecstatic.

And some day, perhaps the physicists would solve the time-delay problem with some quantum magic, and they could all be there in real time, building things and solving problems and exploring, and still be able to breathe and eat curried chicken when they were done.

It wasn’t just the solar system that looked different now. So did Earth.

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s books include Dark Orbit, a space exploration adventure; Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, a two-book fantasy about culture clash and revolution; and Halfway Human, a novel about gender and oppression. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, Realms of Fantasy, and others.  She has been nominated for the Nebula Award three times and for the Hugo twice. Gilman lives in Washington, D.C., and works as a freelance writer and museum consultant.  She is also author of seven nonfiction books about North American frontier and Native history.