Science Fiction siblings near future first contact space flight

Titan Descansos

By James Van Pelt
Jan 9, 2021 · 2,085 words · 8 minutes

Photo by Jamie Street via Unsplash.

From the author: Have you ever seen little crosses or bunches of flowers by the side of the road and recognized the tragedy commemorated there? This is a way to recognize the dead, to mark the spot of their unexpected passing. It seems a very human thing to do. And so, when we go deeper and deeper into space, what parts of our humanity will we take with us. Will we recognize it when we find it?

            If you’re not famous, you think that famous people experience a different sort of life from you, that they don’t shop at convenience stores or they don’t get haircuts.  You don’t think about them spending time, just like you, driving their car.  But they do.  Even if they were an astronaut, even if they’d been to Titan, they still might have a dead brother.  They still might have their little traditions, same as you.

            The roadside memorial came up on my right: a wooden cross wreathed with decayed flowers next to a barbed wire fence.  A weatherworn cardboard sheet with a photograph taped to it leaned against the cross.  I pulled the car onto the shoulder, as far from the traffic as I could get it, but a semitrailer rocked me as it blasted by.  Highway 50 is straight here.  Grand Junction to the north-west, Delta to the south-east.  Colorado residents sometimes call this stretch the “stinking desert,” but it’s semi arid at worst.  Dry grass and scrubby brush that drops down to the Gunnison river about a mile from here on one side, and the same, maybe a little drier land that rises toward the mesa on the other.  Beautiful country at sunset or sunrise when shadows cut across, making what is green a dark and mellow shade and highlighting the rolling landscape, but at noon, when the sun blasts down, it’s flat and dusty, a lot like our old home in Santa Fe.  You would think an accident would be impossible here.  A truck veering off the road would hit nothing more substantial than a three-wired fence or scrub oak as dry and insubstantial as toothpicks for hundreds of yards, yet this is where Gabriel rolled his truck.  State Patrol said he probably fell asleep, dropped a wheel off the shoulder, then over corrected.  They found the truck fifty yards from the highway on its top.  Gabriel landed another fifty yards beyond that.

            I pulled the cardboard off the cross.  The picture was of the two of us camping eleven years ago.  Gabriel sat on our cooler, a beer in one hand and a frying pan in the other.  I stood behind him, holding a fishing pole and looking glum.  Nothing bit that morning.  We had pancakes again.  It was my last vacation before the Titan lift-off.  

            The staple gun stuck the new cardboard with the same picture to the cross.  I’d laminated it so it would last longer.

            Gabriel knew I walked on Titan.  He sent a congratulatory message.  I sent a thank you back.  At the speed of light, he had to wait three hours for my reply.  No real personality in the messages, of course.  He couldn’t very well say, “How the fuck is it?” in an e-mail that everyone in the world might read, but that would be more like him.  We’d save the rudeness for when I got back, when we could buy each other beers and remember when we played astronaut in the back yard.

            Mamá called roadside memorials descansos.  It comes from an old New Mexico funeral custom where the coffin was carried from the church to the camposanto, the cemetery.  When the pallbearers needed to rest, they put the coffin down.  The stopping was the descansos, a resting place before the body reached the final destination.  Mourners might leave flowers to mark the spot, sometimes with a little wooden cross among them.  Like a descansos, roadside memorials commemorate the body’s rest before reaching the cemetery.

            It was an unremarkable piece of land.  The state hauled away the wreck long ago, and a rancher repaired the barbed wire.  Saturn would have been visible that night.  I checked.  Clear sky, dry, deserty air, no city lights.  Gabriel might have looked my direction that night, before he crashed.  Now, I smelled sage and the river, which was out of sight.  The sand, brownish red and fine grained, slipped from my fingers.

            According to the mission logs, I was on an EVA in the Titan rover when he died.  I wouldn’t learn about it for almost twenty-four hours.  No real night sky on Saturn’s largest moon.  It’s a hazy, dark, orange air during the day with the sun so far away.  At night, no stars.  Even Saturn, that great, ringed giant isn’t visible.  I couldn’t see the Earth, of course, not that I had the luxury.  Driving the rover required constant attention.  Liquid methane puddles and ponds dotted the area around the habitat.  They weren’t deep, but the ground became viscous at their edges and could bog the rover down.  We’d used the second rover to extricate it several times.  I was investigating a radar blip a couple thousand meters away, behind a low hill we called Mount Olympus.

            They built the rover’s cab like a Kansas combine.  Enclosed against methane rain or wind, but not air tight.  The atmosphere on Titan is thicker than Earth’s by about half, so no need for a pressure suit, but we needed thermal protection.  All that concerned us was keeping the temperature in.  The weather on the surface was almost minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and a light breeze whispered past the windows.

            There’s a lot to like about Titan.  Sound, for example.  I’d been to the moon, Mars and Ganymede.  All silent except for human and machine noise.  Titan, though, had a voice.  I imagine during the equinox, when the winds picked up, that it positively roared.  Rain hissed as it slowly settled at a sixth of Earth gravity.  Methane creeks made happy bubbly noises when they over-spilled their basins.  Rocks clacked against each other when I kicked them.  Occasionally there was thunder.

            Planets have a smell, too.  Regolith from the moon smells like burnt gunpowder.  Mars smells like sulfur.  Titan reeks.  We decontaminated the suits when we reentered the habitat, but the methane and ethane stench lingered.  It was hard to believe that Earth’s atmosphere might have once been a rich, hydrocarbon soup like Titan’s.

            A smoggy late dusk under heavy cloud cover best described a drive at noon on Titan.  I steered by headlights and found my way by the nav screen.  The radar blip could be a rock situated the right way to bounce the signal, or a mineral deposit, or nothing at all.  We’d investigated dozens of radar anomalies.  We liked doing it.  NASA scripted so much or our mission.  There were science experiments to be set up, samples to be gathered, observations to be made.  Responding to anomalies meant that we were human.  That’s why we came instead of self-directed robot explorers.   

            Rover I handled the rocky-strewn terrain easily.  The hill tilted me a little, but that meant I was above the liquid, hydrocarbon muck below.  Not much chance of getting stuck.  Up here, the Rover crackled as it fractured the thin crust on the surface.  Underneath, the soil was a soft sand.

            The headlights revealed a hump in the surface that I steered to go around.  The blip was close.  As I approached, the lump resolved into a cairn, but not just rocks on rocks.  These seemed organized and fitted.  The cairn stood stark in the Rover’s lights; a long shadow cast behind it.  A breeze caught dust from under the wheels and swept around the rocks.  I climbed out, put my suited hand against the stones.  The pile was nearly as tall as me, and this close, the artifice was clear.  How could this be a natural formation?  I went around it, dragging my hand as I went, and on the far side, a low opening appeared.  On my knees, I shined my light inside.  Partly buried in sand, metal objects glinted back at me.  My breath quickened.  I knew I should call it in, but I wanted to make this moment last.  Two, small metal boxes and what looked like a helmet.  I reached in, brushed dust from the helmet’s front.  Beneath, it was a clear faceplate, too small for an adult human, and way wider than it was tall.  We had not left it here.  Ours was the only expedition to this area on Titan.

            I had discovered the first sign of extraterrestrial life.

            Somewhere around the time I knelt in front of a cairn on Titan’s surface, within an hour or two, when I was about nine-hundred million miles from home, Gabriel rolled his truck.  Time of death was hard to pin down.  A guy in a jeep spotted his overturned vehicle mid morning.  But by then, our news had already reached Earth.  I’d been broadcasting a live feed, the now iconic, grainy picture of my gloved hands pulling a strangely shaped helmet from the dark.  Anyone on Earth watching knew we weren’t alone about an hour and a half after I did, after the signal flew at the speed of light across our solar system.

            By the time we returned home, the space budget had tripled.  New expeditions were scheduled to all the planets.  Ambitious plans to explore the asteroids were being finalized.  Who left the helmet?  No one believed another space-faring species lived in our solar system.  They had to be extra-solar.  How did they get here?  Had they mastered the power of faster than light travel?  If they could, we could.

            Then, the specialists went to work.  What could we learn of the others’ metallurgy, their manufacturing techniques, their engineering, their biology?  You’d be surprised how revealing a helmet could be.

            The two boxes were less helpful.  One contained four small metal discs, about the size of a quarter.  Each had a design etched on the front and two small hooks on the back, like a clasp. We’re they coins or buttons?  What did the design mean?  The second box contained nothing.  Had whatever been in it degraded in Titan’s hydrocarbon atmosphere? 

            We found no trace other than the cairn, but Titan’s surface changed with the seasons.  Winds reshaped hills, wore away features, and covered what was once exposed.  Unlike the moon, our footprints lasted only a day.  By our best estimations, measuring wear on the stacked rocks, the cairn might only be a hundred years old.  Had the others been visitors like ourselves?  Or did they have a more permanent presence buried beneath one of Titan’s migrating dunes?

            Earth asked a thousand questions, and they all ended with who were they?  Did we share enough with them that when we met, for surely we would, that we’d have a way to communicate?  Discussion about the others circled the globe. 

            I think, though, that they’re a lot like us.  We have speculated why the cairn existed, but no one has an answer.  Behind me, another truck passed on the highway.  It was loud and filled with its own momentum.  The driver probably didn’t look my way where my car was parked beside the road, and when I left, even fewer would notice Gabriel’s tiny cross.  None would stop to contemplate his photograph or wonder who he was.  Still, if you drove down any highway, if you looked, you’d see the roadside memorials, the descansos that mark the memories of the ones we loved.  Because we honor the spot where the dead rested, we reveal something of ourselves, something about our hope that we will not be forgotten.

            I wish I knew the name of the other who wore the strange helmet on Titan.  I do not know what the disks in the box were, or what vanished from the second box, but I’ll bet they meant something personal to whoever left them.  I’ll bet the others on Titan stood in the methane rain and placed these small items in memory.  I’ll bet they loved like we love, and the loss they felt burned like it burns in us.

            Because they are alien, we believe they must be different, that their lives cannot be like ours in any way.  We don’t think about them living from moment to moment, working their routines, finding reasons to go on, just like us.

            We don’t think that they might have the equivalent of brothers, and that they might miss them.

            The dead flowers crumbled in my hand.  I scraped them away from the wooden cross.

            God, Gabriel, the days are lonely without you.


This story originally appeared in Alien Artifacts.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."