Titan’s pale orange glow haunted Colonel Paul Mason. As Saturn’s sixth moon drew closer, so too did an enigma buried beneath swirling ethane clouds. He hoped he wasn’t too late. Sara, his wife, and his daughter, June, had already been missing for over a year. He prayed they still lived.
The colony’s last signal was an emergency transmission whose message was lost, scrambled by Titan’s thick atmospheric soup. After that, no one heard from Möbius Station again.
“Horizon Station. Nemesis Six. Entering Titan’s atmosphere. Over,” Mason said.
“Affirmative, Nemesis Six. Be advised, you have four hours before Chinese tac sats triangulate your position. Horizon Station. Out.”
The four crewmembers were secured tightly in an atmospheric entry module modified for Titan’s methane-rich environment. Mason’s team had trained extensively on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and then spent another year in cryostasis on the long trek to Saturn’s outer rings.
After emerging from his long slumber, Mason felt dehydrated. Trace elements of inert Xenon molecules remained in his body, colorless and odorless byproducts of the clathrate-forming gases that made human hibernation possible.
The granite-like Captain Norman Collins, the mission’s squat and muscular weapons officer, calibrated and boresighted the module’s rail guns. Lieutenant Maria Hernandez, the medical officer, monitored each team member’s vital signs with the fretfulness of a mother hen. Lieutenant Stewart Vanderbeek, the science and engineering officer, kept vigil over the module’s heat shield during the long descent into Titan’s opaque atmosphere. His thin, wiry form rippled with nervous energy, as he pecked away at his navigation display.
Timing would be tight. The mission’s first phase hinged on intercepting Icarus One, a prepositioned dirigible tethered ten klicks above Titan’s surface.
“Icarus identified. Deploying parachutes,” Vanderbeek said.
The module jerked as its descent abruptly decelerated.
Mason’s map showed a blip about twenty klicks from the module. He peered through his viewscreen to get a better perspective, but Titan’s orange smog made it impossible to see the dirigible from this distance. He’d have to trust Vanderbeek’s ability to navigate through the turbulent eddies and waves of Titan’s frothy atmosphere on instruments alone.
“Ten klicks and closing!” Vanderbeek reported. Seconds later, “Five…four…three klicks!”
“Slow down!” Mason yelled, struggling to hide his unease.
“I’m trying!” Vanderbeek was shaking.
Mason could now see the dirigible through the haze. “Change course!”
The module shook violently as Vanderbeek pulled back on the yoke. Mason watched in dismay as the dirigible vanished again into the fog and the module spun wildly off course. The crewmembers turned toward Mason, eyes wide with panic. “What now, sir?” Vanderbeek asked.
A klaxon sounded. Hull breach. Mason acted. “Get your dorsal gliders ready for deployment. Eject on my mark. Five-four-three-two-one. Mark!”
The module separated into four quarters, scattering the crew throughout a hydrocarbon sky. The dense atmosphere and turbulent winds generated from Titan’s tidal lock with Saturn twirled Mason like a baton.
Mason’s training took over. He splayed his body like a starfish to maximize its surface area and slow his descent. Once he was parallel to Titan’s surface, he deployed his suit’s dorsal gliders, increasing his coefficient of friction. Then he activated his high frequency radio antenna. “Nemesis One, Two, and Three. Nemesis Six. Radio check, over.”
“Nemesis One, Two, and Three. Nemesis Six. I say again, radio check, over.”
“Nemesis Six. Nemesis Two. Acknowledged. Over.”
After Collins and Hernandez responded in kind, Mason felt relieved his people were still alive.
“Nemesis Team. Nemesis Six. Proceed to objective Zulu via glider flight. Check your oxygen and pressure readings every five minutes. I don’t want any crispy critters on my watch.”
Mason aimed his glider toward the dirigible, soaring toward it. With a high ratio of atmospheric density to one-seventh of Earth’s surface gravity, humans could literally fly on Titan.
The homing beacon on Mason’s arm illuminated his position relative to Icarus One. He was getting close. Four hundred meters. A small black splotch appeared beneath the hoary methane clouds. Mason dove and then angled toward his target. Reaching it, he grappled onto a ladder attached to the command module at the dirigible’s base. His team followed, disengaging their dorsal gliders and climbing inside.
Once his team was in, Mason sealed the hatch, initiated the pressure system, and turned on the oxygen pumps and heaters. “Give Icarus ‘bout twenty minutes to adjust to Earth’s atmospheric composition, then we’ll de-mask and start phase two,” Mason said.
Colonel Mason had been the last choice to lead this mission, and he knew it. While he possessed all the qualifications of command, the shrinks had vetoed his selection. Too personally involved, they’d argued. But time was money, and Mason was the only commander who could assemble a team and get to Titan on short notice.
Of course, the suits at Saturn Horizon Corporation had wanted to use clones. Much cheaper, and less legal liability if you ignored the Outer Planetary Genome Accords prohibiting their use. But the last thing the Chinese and Americans needed in their undeclared war over the outer solar system’s resources was an arms race spurred by the manufacture of expendable meat marionettes maiming each other in the cold vacuum of space.
After disengaging Icarus One’s tether, the crew steamed toward its next objective at Xanadu, about a hundred kilometers west along Titan’s equator. One of the brightest spots on Titan, Xanadu was a plateau the size of Australia. Burrowed several kilometers beneath Titan’s icy bedrock was Möbius Station, rich with oxygen synthesized from underground melt water.
As Vanderbeek piloted the dirigible, he seemed frustrated. “Vanderbeek, what’s got your goat?” Mason asked.
“Sir, this thing feels like it’s a hundred years old. Its gears are all worn and rusted.”
“Rusted?” Mason hovered over Vanderbeek’s shoulder, an annoying habit Mason swore he’d break because it made people nervous. “There’s no oxygen on Titan, son. No oxygen, no oxidation.”
“Sir, the only way oxygen could be here is if people brought it with them. Either that or this thing’s leaking it,” Vanderbeek said as he twitched.
“Just how much oxygen’s left? This model’s less than a decade old. I’d expect hardly any oxygen loss over that period.”
Vanderbeek scratched his head. “It’s at seventy percent oxygen capacity, but I don’t detect any leaks, so it’s possible someone used Icarus One before we did.”
“We have enough oxygen to get to Möbius Station?”
“We should,” said Vanderbeek.
Several hours later, the team reached the outskirts of Möbius Station, with its smokestacks dotting Titan’s surface like a checkerboard.
“Vanderbeek, drop anchor. Program the dirigible to retract the anchor in ten minutes and to head back to our rendezvous point on autopilot. If we fail, Saturn Horizon will need to send another team,” Mason ordered. “Everyone suit up and check your oxygen and pressure gauges. It’s time to disembark. Collins, does everyone have their rail guns locked and loaded?”
Collins gave Mason a thumbs-up.
“Alright then. I’ll see y’all on the far side of the objective. Good luck!” Mason launched himself from the command module’s ladder, pulled the ripcord to deploy his dorsal glider, and headed toward the surface. During his descent, he noticed none of the smokestacks rippled with the steaming carbon dioxide emissions he’d expect from a one hundred sixteen-person colony.
The team scoured Möbius Station’s surface for an opening. Every airlock they found was welded shut from the inside.
“Sir, it looks like someone cut this airlock open with a high-powered laser and then resealed it,” Collins said.
“Sounds just like a Chinese exo-squad. I think we’re gonna have to do the same thing,” Mason transmitted.
Collins pulled out a hand-sized cutting robot. He motioned for the team to disperse, then placed the bot on the airlock, and pulled out a remote. He gave a thumbs-up and then hid behind an ice rock about one hundred meters from the airlock. “Take cover. If there’s any free oxygen left in that hole, the bot’s laser could trigger an explosion,” said Collins.
The team huddled behind the ice rock as Collins remotely operated the bot. After some small bursts of flame, the bot cut an opening into the airlock.
“Let’s go!” Mason said.
The team descended a ceramisteel ladder, with their rail guns trained on the secondary hatch at the tube’s base. Once everyone was inside, Collins put the upper hatch back in place, resealing it with firmajelly. Mason activated a vacuum pump on the chamber wall, expelling excess methane and reducing the chamber’s atmospheric pressure.
Once the vacuum pump’s indicator light flashed green, Collins opened the lower hatch and the team entered Möbius Station’s oxygen-rich and temperature-controlled environment.
It was dark. So dark that the goggles’ night vision setting failed to capture enough ambient light to operate well, forcing the team to switch to sonar mode. Heat exchangers hummed in the background, while a steady drip-drop pattered in the distance. Aside from the carbon dioxide pumps, the atmospheric systems seemed to be working.
His sonar indicating an empty corridor, Mason activated the spotlights on his enviro-suit. He reasoned that if the Chinese had set up an ambush, they would’ve attacked by now.
“Vanderbeek, how’s the air? It safe to give the ‘all clear’?” Mason wanted to minimize the use of the enviro-suits. They were critical for operating on the surface, but their bulk would impede subterranean operations.
“Everything seems stable. Even the concentrations of carbon dioxide are within normal limits. The carbon exchangers only activate once CO2 levels reach a certain threshold.”
“Which probably means no one’s breathed the rarefied air here for quite some time,” Mason said.
“That’s a strong possibility, sir. Otherwise, the air’s safe.”
“Alright then. All clear. All clear.” The team quickly removed their enviro-suits.
“Vanderbeek, see if you can turn the lighting system back on. No use wasting our fuel cells.”
Vanderbeek quickly restored lighting after finding a nearby wall-mounted power module.
The station’s blue ceramic-paneled corridors seemed pristine. The team crept cautiously down a narrow corridor until the space opened up into a broader antechamber where things weren’t so clean and ordered.
Cracked wall panel fragments and white dust littered the floor in heaps. Blackened scorch marks covered seared sections of the wall.
“Scour the rubble for human remains. Looks like the Chinese’ve already been here.” Titan was the greatest prize in the solar system, with hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all of Earth’s oil and natural gas reserves. Yet something didn’t seem right. If the Chinese had attacked the station, they’d have defended it.
“Colonel, you need to see this.” Hernandez handed Mason a piece of thin white metal.
“What the hell you want me to do with this, L-T?”
Despite her six months of extensive training with Mason, Hernandez still seemed to bristle at Mason’s style. To Mason, she was an intellectual. A lifetime of reverence for the scientific method had cemented a healthy skepticism in her and seemed to make her hesitant to draw conclusions from limited data. “Sir, I’ve never seen nor felt a metallic substance like this before. It’s soft and flexible, yet restores its shape after I crinkle it.”
“You think it’s some new kind of Chinese body armor?”
Hernandez looked doubtful. “It’s possible. But if they’ve got the technological chops to create something like this, we’re in trouble.”
“Sir! Check this out,” Collins yelled from the far end of the chamber.
When Mason reached Collins, he saw faded blood spatters staining the wall.
“Hernandez, take some samples and upload the data to the eyes in the sky,” Mason said. “Hopefully we’ll get a DNA match. If not, they should be able to identify the blood’s genotype, and I bet it’s Chinese. While we wait, let’s bed down. Four hours on, four hours off. Two people on security at all times.”
“This is the first time we’ve acquired blood samples from Möbius Station, and we were surprised to find one of the samples isn’t human,” the voice on the comms device said.
The response frustrated Mason. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Have bots been here before?”
“Something like that.”
“What about the other samples? They Chinese?”
Mason’s heart stopped as he imagined the death of his family. “Whose DNA is it then?”
“I’m sorry, colonel, that’s classified.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
“Fine. What about the other DNA profile?” Mason said, struggling to hold back his anger about being out of the loop.
“The last sample is ninety-nine point seven percent human.”
“That’s not possible. Run the test again. Maybe the data was corrupted.”
“Negative, Colonel. The signal you sent was crystal clear, and we ran the tests several times to be certain.”
Exasperated, Mason threw his hands in the air. “Horizon One, what the hell am I supposed to do with this information?”
“Well don’t be shy. Out with it.”
“The DNA profile is nearly identical to that of Homo neanderthalensis.”
“It’s Neanderthal DNA.”
The slanted hole bored into the ice was a perfect cylinder. Whoever created it had cut through advanced ceramisteel. Twelve hours after arriving at Möbius Station and after an exhaustive search through its vast subterranean labyrinth of storage compartments, laboratories, and living quarters, this crevice was the only thing left to explore. Mason’s only solace was that the colonists had to be somewhere on the other side of that hole, alive or dead.
The bore glistened with melt water from the station’s higher thermal gradient. It had a three-meter diameter and opened into a black abyss. Sonar indicated it stretched about a klick into Titan’s crust, where it bottomed into a chamber.
Mason radioed headquarters, “Horizon One. Nemesis Six. Investigating the bore. We’ll report our status every thirty minutes. Nemesis Six. Out.”
The team descended the ice burrow’s steady grade at a slow, measured pace, keeping their rail guns on a swivel.
The absence of light amplified Mason’s other senses. The steady drip-drip of melt water splashed and reverberated below. Sound travelled farther in Titan’s lower gravity, and the air grew colder in the descent, quickly dropping twenty degrees Fahrenheit.
“Sir, what do you make of this Neanderthal business?” Collins asked.
Mason spat out a wad of chewing tobacco and watched it float toward the tunnel floor. “Hell if I know. My best guess is that the colonists were working on some sort of genetic experiment that went tits up.”
Lieutenant Hernandez shook her head.
“Don’t like my theory?” Mason spat again.
Hernandez paused for a moment and then said, “Sir, I wish your theory were true. I just don’t see any evidence to support it. In all the chambers we’ve explored, I didn’t see any lab equipment capable of conducting advanced biological research. If you cross-reference the original colony ship’s manifest, there’s also no evidence these colonists transported any significant biotech equipment.”
“What’s your theory?”
“Well, sir, without any more data, I haven’t got one.”
Vanderbeek fidgeted, drawing Mason’s attention. “You got a theory, Stew?”
The science officer shook his head. “No, sir, but this whole Neanderthal thing intrigues me. They say Neanderthal DNA accounts for one to four percent of the non-African human genome.”
“At some point in our evolution, early humans interbred with Neanderthals.”
“So what the hell happened to them?”
“To this day, anthropologists still don’t agree on why the species disappeared. Some say Neanderthals failed to adapt to a change in climate. Others think primitive humans wiped them out. But who knows? It’s always puzzled me that a species with larger brains and stronger limbs failed to survive, but we did.”
Mason spat again. “I thought Neanderthals were stupid.”
“It’s likely they were more intelligent than Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”
“Unless, of course, we find ‘em down here,” Mason quipped.
The ambush was perfect. The intruders didn’t register on sonar. Lieutenant Hernandez’s screams were the only thing that marked their presence. Those same screams lingered long after her disappearance, as the tunnel conspired with low gravity to perpetuate her piercing echo. Whatever had taken her had disappeared into the cold blackness.
“Hernandez. Report,” Mason ordered. “Hernandez. Report!” The uncontested abduction terrified Mason, but he did his best not to show it.
“Load up with EM flechette rounds,” Mason said, “our primary mission now is to rescue Hernandez.”
The survivors formed a wedge with Mason at the center, rail guns at the ready.
“Looks like we’re near the end of the line. Collins, when this tunnel ends and we reach the T-intersection, I want you to go left and secure the corridor. Vanderbeek, do the same on the right. I’ll scan both ends while you’re working and make a decision on what we’ll do next,” Mason said.
Collins and Vanderbeek did as ordered.
Mason scanned the right corridor, which extended about fifty meters until it dead-ended. He then scanned the left tunnel, which stretched for over a klick. “We go left.”
Mason turned, then oblivion.
Mason awoke in a soft bed in the far right corner of a brightly lit four-by-four meter cell. A solitary figure stood beside the bed. As Mason took in the man’s features, something felt very wrong. The man could’ve passed for Mason’s older brother. He was much thinner and less muscular than Mason, but anyone living on Titan for an extended period would experience some degree of muscle atrophy.
The man seemed uncomfortable — as if he wasn’t sure how to handle this encounter. “Colonel Mason, I don’t know how to put this, but I’m Colonel Paul Mason.”
The other Paul Mason had been tight with information. Colonel Mason had no idea about his team’s whereabouts. He didn’t even know where he was, though he suspected he was somewhere deep beneath Titan’s surface.
Wherever Colonel Mason was, the room had technology more advanced than anything he’d ever seen. His room had four impenetrable walls with no visible entrance or exit. When Paul Mason entered, he walked through the wall. It didn’t matter. Colonel Mason didn’t need an exit to execute his plan.
The elder Paul Mason arrived right on schedule with Colonel Mason’s breakfast. “How ya doing this morning, son? Feeling any better? I’m sorry there’s no tobacco. I feel your pain. I had to kick my habit cold turkey a few years back.”
Colonel Mason launched himself at Paul Mason with all the agility and grace of a drunken whale out of water. Paul Mason seemed only happy to oblige, using his years of experience operating in a low gee environment to his advantage. The elder Mason casually peeled away from Colonel Mason’s attack and used Colonel Mason’s momentum against him, driving him into a wall.
“Son, you’re dumber’n you look,” the elder Mason jibed. “I forgot how impatient I used to be. I know you want answers, and I’m doing my best to get you them, but you need to earn my trust first. This ain’t exactly an auspicious start.”
Colonel Mason lay crumbled in a disheveled heap on the cell’s cold blue floor. His elder self stood there, waiting.
“You calmer now, stud?” the elder Mason asked.
Colonel Mason nodded. “Are you gonna tell me what happened to my team and the colonists?”
“Your crew’s doing fine. The colonists are fine too, but we’ll have to take things one day at a time.”
“Bullshit. I need proof. I want to see my crew now.”
The elder Mason shook his head and laughed. “I thought you might say that. Unfortunately, they’re also in quarantine, but I can give you the next best thing.”
Holographic representations of Hernandez, Collins, and Vanderbeek materialized in the center of the cell. “Y’all all right?” Colonel Mason asked.
“I’m in one piece, sir,” Collins answered. “Though I hope they don’t court martial me when I return earthside for failing to evade capture.”
Colonel Mason chuckled. “Son, I don’t think there’s anything we could’ve done. Hell, I doubt there’s anything anybody could’ve done. We’re all just lucky to be in one piece.”
“Sir, have they told you how they were able to capture us or why they’re living down here?” Hernandez said.
“And sir,” Vanderbeek interrupted. “Have they explained why our hosts all look like older versions of us?”
“You too, eh?” Colonel Mason laughed. “Unfortunately, no. I’ve been fixing to ask that, only my temper got in the way.”
The elder Mason looked at the colonel. “You satisfied your people are safe?”
“Maybe. Will I ever see them in person?”
“Of course. You’ll join ‘em as soon as the quarantine ends, which should be in a month or so. That good enough for you?”
Colonel Mason nodded.
The elder Mason smiled. “Say bye to your friends.”
The holograms winked out. Colonel Mason inclined his head toward the elder Mason. “Now, can you tell me why the hell I’m talking to myself?”
The elder Mason appeared to force a smile. “Not today. You still haven’t told me why Saturn Horizon sent another team here.”
The question confused Colonel Mason, “Another team? We’re the only one they sent.” Colonel Mason was losing his temper again. “You know damn well why I’m here!” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m upset. I just want to see my family.”
The elder Mason’s furrowed brow said everything. Colonel Mason made the same expression when something bothered him. The elder Mason looked away, and then nodded. “I see.”
“Now that I’ve answered your question, tell me where the colonists are.”
The old Mason smiled. “We’re all thriving here with the Titanians.”
“The Titanians? Does this have something to do with the DNA we found on Möbius Station? Are you telling me there really are Neanderthals on Titan?”
The older Mason seemed uncomfortable, as if he’d already said too much. After a long pause, he said, “Your name for them, not theirs.”
“How the hell did they get here? Are they some biological experiment gone awry?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“No. They’ll explain when they’re ready.”
“What about my wife and daughter?”
The elder Mason looked Colonel Mason in the eyes. “They’re not your wife and daughter.”
When the seven foot tall Neanderthal male entered the room, his musky stench nearly knocked Mason to the floor. While he was thin and had a weak musculature, his barrel-shaped chest and broad shoulders seemed more robust than the average human’s. Mason chalked the creature’s height and weaker musculature to Titan’s low gravity.
The male regarded Mason with highly expressive eyes that seemed to belie a far deeper intelligence than the creature’s brutish build would’ve suggested. The Neanderthal had a prominent brow ridge that separated his pale-white face from his sloped forehead, which receded into a wild shock of scarlet hair. His large squat nose, protruding jaw and weak chin underscored his otherness.
In a low guttural growl, the Neanderthal addressed Mason in perfect English, “Colonel Mason, I’m Lormak. Welcome to our home.”
Mason didn’t know where to begin. “Why are you holding me hostage?”
Lormak held up his hand. “You’re a guest, not a hostage.”
“What are you? Why’re you on Titan?”
“Think of us as distant racial cousins. We fled here from Earth over thirty-thousand Terran years ago.”
“You’re telling me you’re an honest-to-God Neanderthal?”
“Your word, not ours. But yes. We evolved from that species since we fled Earth. Titan’s habitat necessitated that.”
“This is insane. Neanderthals were primitive hunter-gatherers. How’d you get to Titan?”
Lormak smiled. “What makes you think my ancestors were primitive?”
“The fossil record.”
“You put more stock in your fossil record than you should. As with anything in science, the record is incomplete, and sometimes truth gets shrouded in myth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your people have a story about an ancient and advanced civilization lost in prehistoric antiquity.”
“Atlantis?” Mason said in disbelief.
“That’s the name some used. Others called it Lemuria.”
“So what’s the truth?”
“We were far more advanced than humans at the time. We regarded your ancestors much as you do chimpanzees – feeling a certain kinship but also recognizing our intellectual and cultural superiority. The heart of our civilization was in the British Isles. About forty thousand years ago, a series of super volcanoes erupted in Europe, choking the skies with sulfur dioxide that blotted out the sun. The earth cooled dramatically, ushering in an ice age.
“The eruptions were so sudden that my people hadn’t stocked enough food to survive such cataclysmic climate change. Our leaders sent some of us to the closest place in the solar system that could sustain life. The rest remained on Earth competing or interbreeding with humans to secure what meager provisions they could.”
“I don’t believe you,” Mason said. “If your civilization was so advanced, why didn’t it have the foresight to store or make enough food for survival? And why is there no trace of your civilization in the fossil record?”
The Neanderthal laughed. “Sometimes a civilization becomes so efficient it eliminates any margin for waste. Our technology was so advanced it produced food a day before my ancestors consumed it. To maintain social stability, they engineered planned obsolescence into all they produced, ensuring lifetime employment for the population. Everything was biodegradable. Without maintenance, their buildings faded into the wilderness within a century. After the eruptions, my people gathered the surviving technology and placed it on the ark to Titan. Those who couldn’t leave scattered throughout a violent and primitive world to forage for food. While they were smarter and stronger than your kind, their caloric requirements were much higher. Most starved, and their technology died with them.”
Colonel Mason struggled to take it all in. The story the Neanderthal weaved was fantastical. Without proof, Mason’s superiors would ridicule him. His career would end in disgrace. “Why haven’t you returned to Earth?”
“When my ancestors arrived on Titan, it was a one-way trip. We had to start over. By the time we’d relearned everything we’d forgotten as a civilization, several generations had been born here. By that point, we were better adapted to Titan than Earth. There was no reason to return.”
Mason nodded in understanding. “What of the colonists? Why did you kidnap them?”
“We didn’t. When we tunneled into their colony, they attacked us. We’d come in peace, but they’d responded with violence. So, we subdued them before they could signal Earth. At first, they resisted, but over time they came to understand why your people could never know of our existence.”
Mason smiled. “You really don’t understand humanity do you? My people will keep coming until they learn the truth.”
The Neanderthal looked pained. “We know that too well. Your people keep sending missions to Möbius Station, and we’re sick of watching them die. That’s why we’ve brought you here.”
“That’s not true!” Mason was apoplectic.
Lormak shook his head. “Yours was the tenth such mission, and you aren’t who you think you are.”
Mason fought his urge to argue, but he couldn’t deny his elder twin’s strange existence. “Why’s there an older version of me on Titan?”
Lormak’s eyes gleamed with intensity. “Paul’s not an older version of you. You’re a younger facsimile of him. Your memories are not your own, but were taken from Paul’s stored consciousness when he first embarked on a similar mission.”
“You telling me I’m a goddamned clone?” Mason said.
“They grew you and eight of your predecessors in a vat. After rescuing the first Paul Mason and his crew, we closed the tunnel and watched the others die. Over and over again. We had to make it stop. That’s why we brought you here.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re going to give you a choice. If you destroy Möbius Station, you may return here and become part of our community. Otherwise, you can try your luck on Titan’s surface.”
“In other words betray my people and live, or face certain death,” Mason hissed. “No way.”
“Suit yourself. We’ll release you within the hour.”
Mason considered his options. If he was a clone, he was nothing by a pawn. “Wait! Can you prove it?”
Lormak nodded. “I’ll show you the bodies.”
Mason looked upon eight versions of himself encased in ice, all in varying stages of decomposition. It was hard for him to reconcile himself with the fact that his masters saw him as nothing more than an expendable tool. They didn’t deserve his allegiance.
Mason turned to Lormak. “Why us? Why can’t you do it?”
“We will if you refuse, but we respect life and wanted to give you a chance to demonstrate your loyalty.”
“I see. I’ll do it on one condition. I want to see my family.”
“They aren’t your kin, but I’ll arrange a meeting.”
Sara was much older than Mason had remembered, and June had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Sara couldn’t look Mason in the eyes, while June played with her curly blonde hair. He figured they’d rather be anywhere but here. Even he felt awkward despite the emotions welling up in his chest. Yet they still felt like family, even though he knew deep down all they really shared was the real Paul Mason’s memories.
Mason fought back a torrent of tears. He mostly succeeded until a single droplet traced down his cheek in the slow motion of Titan’s gravity. “I want you both to know that until today, I thought I was a husband and father. While I know that’s no longer true, I’ll still always love you both.”
Mason broke down and cried, and the women’s tears soon mixed with his own.
Colonel Mason and his team navigated through the deserted station in wedge formation, rail guns at the ready. Mason was desperate to find out what happened to his family. Möbius Station’s oxygen pumps were operating at full capacity, yet enough methane had leaked into the station that the slightest spark could blow it all sky high.
“Sir, you got to see this.” Collins pointed to a rectangular contraption fused to the corridor wall.
Mason went to investigate. His eyes widened when he recognized the explosives. “Abort! Ab…”
Then nothing. Humanity’s presence on Titan would have to wait a decade or more before Saturn Horizon or one of its competitors could reseed the colony.
Sean Patrick Hazlett is an Army veteran living with his wife and three children in the San Francisco Bay area, where he works at a cybersecurity company. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, and Sci Phi Journal, and others are slated to appear in Galaxy’s Edge and the Writers of the Future anthology. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School, a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and bachelor’s degrees in History and Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Before graduate school, he served as an Armored Cavalry officer at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where he trained U.S. forces for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.