Voyage to Enceladus
‘It’s in your blood.’
I let a moment of silence develop into discomfort. Staring down at the recruitment agent from atop the zamboni, I can almost see, in my reflection in her pale blue eyes, the pages of an old storybook her parents used to read to her. The round-cheeked Eskimo, face framed by parka mane, eyes crinkled into crescent moons by a delighted smile as he raises his modest catch from a hole in the sheet. My great grandparents left Nunavut around the year 2100, when the ice disappeared.
‘Racist bullshit.’ I start to turn away.
‘It’s science,’ she insists. Against my better judgement, I turn back.
‘People from the polar regions are genetically better adapted to extreme cold.’
‘You want to make me, Assistant Manager of Burlington Arena, an astronaut?’
‘It’s not a scientific mission, per se. It’s a residential one.’
My mother’s been breaking into tears several times a day since she found out. Dave Harkness, director of the Enceladus Residence Mission, said they’ll bring me and the other Missionary back if it doesn’t work out. I comfort Mom with the prospect of failure, since success would mean the rest of my working life on Saturn’s frozen moon. Then she starts to imagine every way the mission could go wrong. She’s taken to carrying a box of Kleenex around the house.
We’re a team of just two Inuit: me and a make-up artist from Saskatoon. The usual gender balance, or a sneaky plan to populate a new settlement? The make-up artist is named Eve, actually, but this must be a coincidence, because my name’s not Adam, it’s Robert. Still, my girlfriend Fran is convinced they have a secret purpose, sending me up there with a woman of traditional proportions (childbearing hips, generous breasts). If she’s right, it’s strange nobody from the team figured out that Eve’s not my type: I prefer Fran’s slim, boyish body. How could they develop a healthy new population from just two people, anyway? Fran studied biology at university, and suspects the scientists would try to introduce genetic variety into our children, manipulating their DNA from afar through our implanted microchips. I don’t completely trust Dave and his team, but it’s good money. ‘Danger pay,’ Fran repeats, shaking her head.
My girlfriend’s far from my mind as we make our approach to Enceladus’ south pole. I’ve never seen natural ice, and my eyes fill with tears. It’s as different from the hockey rink as the ocean from a mud puddle. The white surface glows with shifting veins of blue intense as a summer sky, turquoise deep as my mother’s favourite necklace. Saturn’s sandy marble, complete with rings, hangs at a slant, huge on the horizon, reminding us how far we are from home. As our shuttle descends, a spray of liquid bursts with sudden violence from the ice sheet. ‘Geyser,’ Dave murmurs with reverence through our headphones, observing from Earth through one of the many cameras attached to us and the ship. The boiling spume freezes into flakes, turning the empty landscape into a shaken snow globe.
We’ll be raising polar bears, packed into the shuttle as embryos, grown from the cells of an extinct parent. I’m looking forward to encountering these cuddly creatures in the flesh. Reindeer too: I thought they were imaginary, like unicorns, but apparently Santa’s team really roamed the Arctic once. Fifteen years ago, the Marica Mission discovered tiger stripes here: giant cracks in the frozen surface of Enceladus, the source of the geysers we saw on our descent.
The feet of our shuttle are so well cushioned we don’t even feel the impact of our landing. Eve, braver than me, is already standing at the door. ‘Let’s get out of this tin can,’ she says, grinning at me through the dome of her helmet. We’re about to stretch our legs for the first time in three years.
We emerge dressed in nanoheat suits not much thicker than the snowsuits our grandparents used to wear as children. Weighted boots against the lack of gravity make every step like running in a dream. Snow, a granulated sugar beach, crunches underneath our heavy soles
This will be the site of our new home: where spumes of hot water bring warmth from Enceladus’ molten core to its frigid surface. Dave’s team remotely manipulate the robots, setting up the four modular units that will make up our settlement: one for the polar bears, one for the reindeer, and two for our sleeping quarters and living area.
Meanwhile, we have exploring to do. We need to go where Marica never made it: into the tiger stripe, to take samples from the sea that covers Enceladus, under its icy outer layer. Scientists are doubtful we’ll find anything more than microscopic sea creatures living down there. Eve and I board the yellow submersible and slip into the stripe. Algae clings to the underside of the ice like a succulent spring meadow turned on its head. After a long dive we spot a dense black cloud rising toward us. Like a steel mill smokestack on the ocean floor, a mineral chimney encrusted with rust and jade is funneling ash. ‘Hydrothermal…’ Dave begins, then we all fall silent. Elegant antennae, crooked legs and a moving maw emerge from the fog, into the beam of the submersible’s headlight. Giant translucent claws the size of my torso, glossy black eyes bigger than your fist, on stalks thick as a bodybuilder’s arm. Unfazed by our alien presence, in a pincer movement it’s seized our ship. The glass begins to crack. Dave’s voice, calm because he can be, so far from danger, tries to tell us what to do.
Alison Frank is a short story writer from Toronto, now based in London. Her stories have been published in Tears in the Fence, The Bohemyth, Litro and Confingo. She is also the author of ‘Reframing Reality’ a book on Surrealism in French and Czech cinema. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank.