The sun was just rising and, with it, River Goldstein felt the usual sense of happiness the moment brought. It was a fortunate turn of events that had allowed him to suddenly find himself shortlisted to complete his PhD at the most famous of research facilities. The cresting sun was a bright spot of white light creeping beyond the black orb of the planet. The icy crystals and dust particles of Saturn’s rings highlighted the glorious light as it beamed towards the facility, banishing the depth of the vacuum’s darkness.
His attention wandered to the approaching vessel, its graceful sweeps a shadow against the backdrop of the sun, making the exact features of the ship unrecognisable. In the vastness of space the lack of real gravity made landing a spacecraft easier, but it still had its challenges. The approaching vessel kept firing off small bursts of carbon dioxide from the oxygen scrubbers in a multitude of directions, either individually or together, to slow the ship down or to turn it so that the belly of the hull was in even alignment with the opening that led down to the landing deck.
It was still beyond the range of the artificial gravity of the platform and was steadily gliding towards its designated berthing. A thrust of gas took it out of sight and River turned from the window that looked out at Saturn and went to stand in anticipation at a different window that looked onto the hexagonal landing deck. The arriving ship brought a shipment of highly classified matter. The whole facility was practically buzzing with excitement at what such a prospect entailed. The landing deck was bathed in flickering red glow from the warning lights that signalled an open airlock. As the ship neared, the details were revealed in red hues. Two bright spotlights flared to life as the pilot switched on his visual assistance, obviously deciding that the radar was no longer sufficient.
Ironic that in this day and age, man still finds comfort in using his own senses, mused River.
Hatches slid aside followed by the landing gear unfurling from the hull, like the legs of a giant insect. The ship looked like a large dragonfly, the designer of the craft having taken inspiration from Earth’s natural beauty. Mechanics dressed in spacesuits came walking out from the inner airlock, their steps made ungainly by the imitation gravity. The ship landed heavily, the landing gears compacting noticeably as they absorbed the impact.
The mechanics walked around the settled ship and began fitting an assortment of hoses and other cabling to it at various points as the outer airlock slowly began to close. Steam filled the landing area as soon as the outer doors had closed. The passengers and its cargo would soon be offloaded. River, having seen enough, decided it was time to head down to the airlock and greet the new arrivals.
It was an exciting moment for River. It was not very often that visitors made it all the way out to the facility. Only the fastest ships could make it out to Saturn in anything less than three months of flight; a ninety day voyage at least did not require stasis. Anything quicker would need hibernation in a stasis chamber to withstand the forces that could crush a body into its molecular building blocks. The Human Earth Confederacy, or HEC, only had a handful of these craft with more being built in the construction facilities on Luna. The dragonfly-inspired ship in the berthing was one of these, and there were only two of them in the fleet as far as River knew. Only the best pilots were allowed anywhere near these ships. Of course, should River’s research finish successfully, then a whole new manner of travel would be available and distances would not be as insurmountable as they were now.
Rather than use the main elevator, River chose to scamper down a small maintenance ladder; the inner airlock was only one floor below and easily accessible. A short climb brought him into a corridor full of activity as a number of travel-weary arrivals met eager tenants. With the outer airlock closed, the inner airlock was opened fully so that offloading could be handled efficiently. River had to push his way through the throng of people to get into the landing berth. Once inside, he stepped to the side to get out the way of those that had work to do. The pressure was still equalising inside the massive chamber, as oxygen was being pumped in and heated to establish the same temperature as the rest of the station. Outside in the darkness of space the temperature could be as low as minus two hundred degrees. River, like all other humans, preferred temperature ranges in the low twenties.
The ramp descended from the aft of the ship and River watched to see what was being extricated. A whole team of bodies was milling at the top of the ramp, busy in an organised chaos negotiating a large metal container on wheels. The lead scientist of the facility was standing below, shouting instructions at everyone. Tiernan Edison-McAuley was a beast of a man, not in physique but in character. Boorish and rude, he had the ability to instantly alienate any individual that was not party to accepting his nature. In this solar system there were frightfully few people who had to accept his character, but his abrasiveness was tolerated by those that mattered, and so he got away with it. He was, however, unquestionably intelligent and had held the position of lead scientist at the research facility in the orbit of Titan for almost twenty years. Countless discoveries could be attributed to his brilliance, which had fuelled his megalomania and arrogance. River and Professor Edison did not get along well.
Eventually the team succeeded in aligning the crate with the exit and slowly the massive steel rectangle began to roll down the ramp towards the facility itself. A smirking Edison followed the procession. He passed River without so much as a glance. The young man put his irritating superior out of his mind and looked up at the metal dragonfly.
Three figures remained at the head of the ramp and were conferring with each other. One was undoubtedly the person River had been waiting for. The others turned and headed back into the ship, which started down the ramp. River approached the foot, and as the figure withdrew his helmet River shouted out in welcome.
“About time you managed to bring yourself out here to the Saucer!”
“River, you bookworm. Glad to see you’re still alive,” joked his long-unseen friend. They had grown up together and the years had not diminished the confidence of the man. In looks he had followed his father to the letter; he had the exact same pose and loud booming voice.
“Although I might slowly be dying of boredom out here.”
“Come on, it can’t be all that bad. Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?”
“Yeah, I guess it is. But you probably want to get refreshed. Come, let me walk with you to your dorm and then we can meet in the rec-area?”
“That sounds really good, six weeks of stasis is a little too much for me.”
“Six weeks? You obviously have not been out to Gliese! That’s a good fourteen years,” laughed River, slapping Stuart on the back as he guided him into the facility.
River had shown Stuart to his rooms and then made his way to the recreation area to wait for his friend while he refreshed himself and took care of any unmentionables that might have accumulated during stasis. The discovery of stasis was incredible but it did have its drawbacks; heavy constipation was one of the very unfortunate ones.
An ensemble of characters used the recreation area. Paraphernalia that represented the history and culture of the many different creeds of human life that populated the research facility decorated shelves and the walls. While all the scientists were at most times a sombre crowd of individuals, they did have the odd occasion where they would relax and let their austere guards down and celebrate like recently graduated students. From the walls hung flags from various territories and nations, accompanied by other props like antler racks and number plates. The rec-area was just like a mid- western pub out on some bizarre desert route. Although, in this case, the desert route was a frigid dark void with no oxygen, millions of kilometres away from the nearest self-sustaining civilisation.
The sliding doors shut with a subtle clank behind River as he stepped down into the large room. A large, single window that showed the Saturnian moon of Titan with its yellow methane atmosphere dominated the far wall. Walking into the rec-area always made River feel like he was stepping out into the darkness of space. The visage of the outside created the sensation of being drawn out into the nothingness. He knew it was his general susceptibility to anxiety and always had to work to bring it under control. A few minutes sitting at a table would calm him and he would grow more comfortable until eventually he would forget about it.
He ordered himself a light Martian beer, a reddish pilsner brew that contained practically no alcohol; he still intended heading back to the laboratory later in the evening to complete some paperwork on the results of his experiments earlier in the day. He paid by swiping his access card rather than using cash. Cold, hard cash was rare on any of the remote facilities, regardless of their nature. Credits were the more common form of payment.
When he was halfway through his beer the doors to the rec-area slid open to allow Stuart in. As most people seemed to be, Stuart was taken in by the sight of Titan through the large window, but unlike River he recovered quickly and scanned through the room finding his friend. He casually strolled up and pulled back a chair, flipped it around to bring the backrest to the front and straddled the chair, leaning with his chest against it.
“Feels good to be clean and refreshed. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to stasis, but the discomfort is worth it for the flying,” he declared with a glint of amusement in his eyes. “So what are you guys working on so far away from home?”
“You know I can’t talk to you about that,” chuckled River.
“Yeah, I guess not. RF601 is very secretive.”
“And with good reason, most of what we work with here is still too experimental and potentially dangerous for the knowledge and details to become public domain.”
“Yeah, yeah, spare me the lecture,” sighed Stuart.
“So how have you been in general? You planning on hanging around here much longer?”
“I’ve been well, actually. No place is perfect, but it’s an immense honour to be working here with the distinguished people that make this their home and office.”
“Distinguished?” asked Stuart incredulously.
“Well, yes.” River was confused. The saucer of RF601 was the leading research facility in the solar system, and all of the greatest advancements of the last three decades had been discovered in the top-secret laboratories.
“I’m just winding you up. I’m happy for you. Tell you what, let me order you a congratulatory shot of something.”
“No, Stuey. I still need to work.”
“Come on, Riv, how often do I get to sit and have a drink with you?” pleaded Stuart. “Besides, I ship out in two days’ time. After we’ve refuelled and restocked I’m off to meet up with the Jovian Sector Border Patrols.”
“Is Jupiter all the way on the other side of the sun? I don’t quite realise the planetary orbits.”
“Well, why should you? It’s part of my job, not yours,” grinned Stuart. “No, Jupiter isn’t on the other side, it’s in line, so still a long way away. So? How ’bout it?”
“Oh, all right then.”
With a hoot of victory Stuart jumped up and headed over to the bar counter to elicit the shots and a drink for himself. He returned promptly after having been served quickly and efficiently. The rec-area was quiet, but would be filling up soon. Stuart placed the two shots of clear liquor down on the table and placed his bottle of the same Martian beer, only the normal lager variety, next to the two shots.
“What did you get?”
“Dunno, I just asked for the strongest shot they have.” He was still grinning. It was the winning grin that he had always displayed whenever he’d managed to convince his studious friend to defy the normalities of his sober world.
“To your successes,” toasted Stuart.
“I wouldn’t tip that back,” came a dry and hoarse voice from the closing doors of the rec-area. Edison had chosen to arrive on the scene, much to River’s disappointment. The old man seemed to materialise out of thin air frequently. River suspected it was purely to upset his plans.
“Sir, I’m on break?”
Stuart looked perplexed, but bit his tongue; being a military man he understood the dynamic between superior and inferior. Instead he watched the exchange intently.
“I’m calling all non-active personnel back on duty. The newly arrived samples are taking the utmost priority now, and I won’t have you drunk at your post,” stated the old scientist coldly.
“Why?” asked River suspiciously.
“I will not be questioned by someone such as yourself. Get yourself decontaminated immediately. We begin working on the samples tonight,” concluded Edison. He marched off without waiting for a reply.
River sighed loudly. “I guess I’m left with no choice. We’ll have to catch up another time.”
“No use letting good liquor go to waste,” declared Stuart, dropping his shot and tucking away River’s with equal zeal. He pulled his face at the strength of the liquor. “Wow! That stuff is like paint stripper. Love it.”