“Fiji?” He remembered to ask.
“Fiji?” repeated Aji.
It didn’t interest her. She was socking supplies into a duffel bag for a junket to the Grand Lumineres. She chuckled privately about Fiji, and about SUM, and about futility. She said, “SUM definitely has a few debilities, a few peccadilloes. Just now it adores Titan, wants to visit. It likes Fiji, yes. But forget going there.”
“I didn’t want to go there,” he said.
Aji said, “I can remember once deleting – two-dozen? — copies of a SUM file on Fiji. They were extras. I don’t know who was supposed to use them. No brilliant scientist, he. I think it was about Fiji.”
The curiosity was plain in her face, by her gestures. “You’ve been studying, while I’m gone?” Aji commented, with more admiration, than a sense of betrayal; reconnoitering a course to explore the Grand Lumineres with SUM, the LifeRaft® Selective Monitoring Unit, the computer’s brain, required her to go below. He had guiltily used the opportunity to scroll the computer’s files, more or less a professional scientia–urge from the first. The cursor cruised through SUM catalogs, landing finally in the “O’s,” in a table after “Oranges, orange.” The subject raised his eyebrows: “Origins, life.” The file contained a number of photos, but none of Cro-Magnon, or Neanderthal man. The pictures were Rhynie chert images, from the Ordovician period on Earth, 450 million years ago. The contention was wrong, SUM’s contention. He knew animal fossils were two-hundred million years older than plant forms, or vegetation; everybody knew as much. These were images of cyanobacteria, phylum bacteria, and the origins of photosynthesis; included were dulcet photos of three-hundred islands from a South Pacific archipelago. Fiji.
“Centaurea maculosa,” an example of a pioneer species
“Origins?” he asked, like a British professor, with the dust from an old folder on his tongue. “Origins, Life.”
“It is slightly deadpan,” she replied. “That is SUM.”
She thought a moment, emotionally distracted by notions of her junket. “Let me think,” she said. “Fiji, Fiji. Fiji. It was probably about Pio, about pioneer specie at Fiji. Ah, shade-tolerant rain forests, salt-resistant trees. That’s all I recall, off the top of my head. Trees. It’s funny, actually.”
Aji said, with the hint of conspiratorial grin, “You know, SUM will notice if you peruse the files,” and, Aji said, with her mental disk full, “I don’t know any more about Fiji, honestly, just now. I don’t want to know more about Titan. I’d rather we were going to Enceladus.” She studied him, askance as well, by her chosen field, to fail to answer any question pertaining to science with, at the least, an opinion.
She said, “It’s funny, because the very first aeronauts, and many of the passengers, people who ‘discovered Earth’ from the Sombrero galaxy, when they first came to Earth, do you know what they said?”
“Let me guess. They said it’s a ‘terrible place of war, and misery.’”
“No, no, not at all,” Aji said. “See, the human eye can deceive us. We always look at things and only see part of what is there, right up to ultraviolet light, and light scales. We may not notice the obvious, or the most obvious, either way. They named called Earth the ‘Tree Planet.’ It’s listed that way in catalogs in Hydra. Truth is there are more trees on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way. Trillions to billions. There’s some trivia for you.”
“So we’re the tree planet.”
“I guess so,” Aji said. “The ‘Tree’ Planet. And there you are. Every place they looked, they were overwhelmed by all the trees. You know trees are perhaps the most innocent forms of life in all of Nature, but you’d have to reflect on that. They didn’t bother with cities. Forests. They couldn’t understand why people didn’t notice them, why they just drove by them, roads immersed in trees.” She breathed, a bit off her course. “About Fiji,” she said, scouring her mind. “Centaurea maculosa?”
That’s it,” he said. “That’s the one.” He thought of the picture in SUM’s file, “Centaurea Maculosa,” a purple, and white flower, like an orchid or lily, a pioneer species, it could grow spontaneously from the heated soil of Hawaii.
Aji said, “SUM likes maculosa. It is actually an eastern European specie, but SUM’s file clicks to Pio from it.”
“Right,” he recalled. “Origins? Origins of life?”
“I should have warned you,” Aji said. “Everybody has their own favorites. Some people like the droid from Lost in Space, whatever, and so does SUM. I love to watch the Aurora at the poles of Saturn. It tells me Saturn is young, younger than Earth. That’s interesting. The solar wind acts like a percolator, an old coffee or teapot, on these planets. It gets less attention from the Sun, and less heat. The aurora tells me Pio is at work on Saturn, and other places, Nature is still raising it; it’s evolving from a frozen mass. That’s what I believe. It’s a matter of time before Nature has nurtured all these places into Goldilock orbs.”
“Man likes to control destiny.”
Aji said, “But, time and again, we wish we had left it to Nature, maybe – every time.”
“We’ve been devoured,” Aji told Nap, the U.S. Navy liaison, on Earth. Her tone was official, as if people were routinely devoured in orbit. Nap’s empty grimace appeared on a Skypish screen aboard the LifeRaft®. Her face displayed a rare gravity. Titan was not Aji’s favorite place, but SUM, the computer, was technologically delirious. He expected SUM would shortly resemble a disco ball of dithering, flashing lights.
He supposed it began as it was, a cloudy day, in the darkened meteor belts of Saturn’s beiging rings, the LifeRaft® finishing the seventh Concorde of a piano monologue of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, a variation by “Jelly Roll” Morton. He was unsure which, the Muzak, or Titan was becoming most discomforting.
“Devoured?” Nap repeated.
Aji breathed, instilled with patience. “I guess the best word is ‘consumed.’ There’s a matter of degree.”
It happened much the way Aji most feared; frustrated, she tried to explain it to him: the LifeRaft®, and its two passengers, one, an American native from Coney Island, in New York, simply were “consumed” by Titan, one of Saturn’s moon. It was how it was always described. Aji said, finally, “Titan,” she said. “This mustard ping-pong ball!”
Nap responded, “You obviously weren’t ingested.” There was an unspoken expletive. Nap iterated, “You’re consumed. Is that like acquired?”
The New Yorker elaborated, “It’s like, we would say – stranded?”
Nap asked, “But nothing is going to eat you?”
“Eat us?” she replied. “Really.”
“Probably not,” the Coney Islander said. “Maybe. Right?”
Nap was incensed by her non-sequitur. “I object to the ‘ping-pong’ statement. Do you want to correct our record? Titan is, like, everyone’s favorite moon? If you’re close enough, it looks just like Earth, a little fuzzy Earth, but some people believe it could become another Earth, the next Earth. So –”
Notwithstanding, with a paucity of knowledge, the New York man said, “It’s better than Enceladus, which is the complete opposite. I say. It’s a big, old snowball, except for that river.”
Nap corrected him. “That is called a ‘tiger stripe.’ The famous, famous blue, ‘tiger stripe.’”
Aji afforded more patience, having emerged from the orbit of Saturn and its herald meteors, space junk, and the constant pelting of general debris. She implored SUM to contrive a way to escape the environmental force of the enormous Titan, one of Saturn’s sixty-two moons, the second largest in the Milky Way. Aji suggested, “Let’s go to Enceladus, yes?”
“No one does that,” SUM bannered quickly, in sequential teal lettering on the LifeRaft® screen. She amused them retelling how SUM, the computer, was said to disappear to Titan anytime a LifeRaft® could not be found.
An afterthought, and momentarily, SUM replied to her plea about Enceladus, flatly, “No.”
During a change of direction, a “jelly roll” in a floating state within Saturn’s rings, Aji had finished plotting new coordinates for the New Yorker’s safe return to Earth, and Coney Island. He overheard her review of SUM’s statistical report on Saturn and its stability, understanding only the term, “Zero.” Aji had told SUM there was no change in Saturn’s status, but the computer disagreed, and contradicted her; the instability, it said, was indicated by a thousand “contextual” decimals. Aji, an experienced scientist, found the phrase inexplicable. She assumed SUM was encrypting numbers, in order to collect more information on Titan. “It is time to go, SUM,” she protested, laboriously. “Enceladus!”
The computer reported, dully, “This isn’t Enceladus.”
Aji said, “Even he knows that. Never mind, SUM!”
The data about Saturn always consisted of minimal variations, but never read Zero. Aji knew there were never any decimals. If correct, and not purposefully massaged by SUM, the implication was Saturn had moved. It was imperceptible, and it was not demonstrable, without years of mathematical computation. Aji decided it had little, if any, scientific import. But SUM, contrarily, like a child with a new toboggan, on a snow day, initiated more research, including, possibly for more elbow room at its PlayStation, an attempt to view Planet X, or “Planet 9,” the Milky Way’s mystery planet. Aji was angry. “Saturn is unstable,” she told it. “Or stable. It’s supposed to be ‘unstable.’ Either way, let’s go.”
She murmured, “Zero is just a number.” A video SUM would later provide, perhaps in defense of its zeal for Titan, showed Aji oddly nodding, several times and in private, with “the gravest expression.”
Epillary, or the epilogue for one’s personal story, Ernie knew, was a delicate matter, for sailors, New Yorkers, computers, mothers like Aji, or her son, Will Adorjan. Epillary extolled how it ended, informed a morale, and may construe the “one’s private opinion.” She admired Ernie’s sensitivity. He imagined a discussion in Coney Island, in the early midlight, and penciled it into his chapbook, the fodder for a koan, but certainly it was not real. Ernie relaxed in an arm chair, at an oak table, in a dazzle of sunlight. There was his empathetic, and dispassionate “Aa-aah.”
“A pity,” she said, careful to avoid any sign of condescension. “I liked the one about the winterberry.”
“Delightful,” Ernie agreed.
“But unrealistic,” she said. “It may have silver in its linings. Nature isn’t gentle. All you need to do is listen to it.”
“Like with a stethoscope,” Ernie nodded. “I’d find it frightening, ma’am, frightening to hear.”
He had been mulling Jupiter’s appearance in the shield of the LifeRaft® before their “consumption.” He was comparing it favorably to “California fuchsia,” and told Aji to “acquire a slab of Jupiter to use as backsplash.” Their objective originally was traverse past İo, the usual course, and its primary launching pad to diject to the Deep Vast. SUM had dispensed with it on the approach to Saturn, leaving Aji blank, and speechless. She had presumed SUM would want to study Saturn in passing. He had become comfortable in the LifeRaft®, just the same, despite the “Jelly Roll” Muzak, and more colorful. He dubbed İo “a fruitcake,” and grew friendly with SUM when Aji was resting, or below in the “glass canoe,” exchanging with SUM dirty jokes. He found the LifeRaft® was a grand place to be; nowhere was as comfortable as the pod, with his condition, a terminal form of heart failure, and his “user-friendly” passenger chair. It looped him to a biological drive control operating on a basis of “perceived preference,”; it layering sugar-free parfaits, and dispensed zero colas, and uncolas; it polished his nails, and infused medications, according to recent instruction manuals; the pod’s “selective entertainment choices” included music, temperature, and a television stream; fan speeds, drafts, heat, food, lunch, all were issued through a non-invasive, intravenous cord attached to his index finger, like a pulse gauge, or plastic staple remover. He like to diject, and traverse. “Let’s do İo,” he said.
“I wish,” said Aji. “There’s nothing I can do. Hydra wants us to monitor Saturn for a while, and the Milky Way, because of SUM’s new designation. Titan. Titan. I knew this was going to happen. Hydra has taken control.”
She seemed unusually rattled when the pod did land on Titan, and in no time reported to the microphone, “We are consumed.” She told him, “Titan is a popular place, yes, like Earth. Just the same.” She allowed, amenably, how nearby Enceladus, another moon of Saturn, was described her husband, Bud Adorjan, as “a cold white dumb spot.”
He heard a sound he might never forget. Aji had switched to Audio to begin a monitoring stage, to determine if Saturn was “stable.” The sound reminded him of Florida, and a tropical storm. It pervaded the command area through the speakers of the LifeRaft®, the actual sound of Saturn, and of space, the world where Saturn was situated, the sound beyond the thin walls of the pod.
Editor’s Note: These are the actual sounds in the vicinity of Saturn, 11-22-03, as recorded by NASA’s Voyager.
Helplessness, and a lack of control, were not part of Aji’s most treasured aeronautical experience. He believed actually heard Aji finally call Nap an “Earthling.”
Nap was flipping pages encased in a plastic binder, an emergency manual. He asked politely, “Are you ‘stranded?’”
“Consumed,” replied Aji. “It’s called consumed. We might even call it devoured. Never mind. It means we can’t leave. We’re unable to leave.”
“Con-sumed,” Nap said. “I don’t have that.”
Aji said, “Never mind!”
Nap was unhappy in a variety of ways. “Well?”
The LifeRaft® had taken a swoop towards Titan reminding him of the Cyclone at Coney Island. Aji glowered; he said, “Nah!”
Titan had its “Alaskan” moments.
“It’s not too windy,” he offered, after a while, noticing the weights in their boots. The winds on Titan could equal twice the power of a category-five hurricane. “Why didn’t we just land on Saturn?”
Aji was amused. “We could have, but it has no surface. We would step onto it, and come out the other side, theoretically.”
Aji told him snow was unusual; in balmier spots, it was a vapor, or ethane, in a normal temperature of minus-179 Celsius. Titan was inviting from certain vantages, a broad, green atmosphere, many the outlines of unexplored continents. He noticed how slight the LifeRaft® was on the surface of the immense Titan. SUM plowed the pod into the snowbank. Aji said, tired of the frustration, suggested, “Let’s take a walk. Hydra’s going to use the remote for all the possible data near Saturn. We may as well.”
She toured, “Titan was one of the first of Saturn’s moons to be developed by the company. It’s the largest. Once this whole place was filled with aeronauts, too, they were everywhere, like a military base. They had all the bells, and whistles. It’s been decades since the last left Titan, left the Milky Way, really. Mining for a time, but once the adventurous could jet to the Vast through İo, to the Bootes Void, they were gone.”
They were positioned to walk Titan’s south pole, somewhere dangerously close to a giant methane lake, the Ontario Lacus. Titan’s air was dense, and yellow, with a thick fog, and an occasionally stunning sapphire haze. They avoided the shoreline. Aji mentioned, “As the saying goes, at least it’s not Ligeia Mare.”
“M-Mare?” he asked, recalling the name of a hospital volunteer.
“At least it’s not Ligeia Mare,” Aji said. “It’s the other pole, the north pole of Titan. That one is two hundred feet deep in methane, and about the size of three Lake Michigans.”
“Ligeia – what?”
“Ligeia Mare,” Aji said. “It’s a lake.”
He frowned, warily, and noticed a string of sparkling gems in the “snow.” He said, “Look!”
She ducked with her helmet. “Diamonds in the dust, they call them. It rains crystallized carbon – diamonds – now, and again.”
He reached for a string. She said, “No.”
They returned to the LifeRaft®. They found SUM had scuttled a satellite line to Nap at the Navy base, but it was whirring, as if they were late. The newly-adopted path was to İo. “Anything new?” she asked it. “I guess you can ignore me, forget Enceladus.” SUM offered no reply. They were mollified, however, as shortly they again were floating buoyantly in dark space, and gazing at the broad splendor of the Milky Way, and the beauty of Saturn, ninety-five times larger than Earth, smooth, and beige and white.
Aji was reticent, and complained,“What I meant was, – SUM doesn’t realize how, – one, solitary minute on Titan could become six years. We just don’t want to make a mistake. Computers are man-made machines. And space is, by no means, tame. We could have been ‘consumed’ by Titan’s winter for fifteen-hundred years.”
They were speaking more fluidly on the path to İo. He was startled to see Aji light a cigarette. She talked about Icarus, the “farthest known star from Earth,” in the constellation Leo.
Aji said, “I wish I knew how much life has changed in that time. The first flash of light we recorded from the very furthest point, Icarus. History, in all of its color, and glory, is it very old news? What has happened? The closest light is four light-years away, Centauri. That took 137,000 years – 137,000 years of history — to reach Earth. It means the light flickered from Centauri, in true time, just as some 500 homo sapiens began the human journey in Africa.”
He said, “In other words, what has happened on Icarus, or Centauri, in nine billion years?”
“What is U.T.?” she agreed. “The light from Icarus beamed away before the Milky Way galaxy had formed.”
“What’s happened since?”
History is a distant onlooker. Ernie offered, “His neighbor, Gabriel, tried to call Kapitolina. She stayed in Minsk. She eventually married a fine man selected from her father’s ministry, a man from Minsk, the early 21st Century. They opened a Wok ‘N Roll on Airfield Street. Gabriel relocated to a fishery in Gloucester, Massachusetts, along with Krakow, the macaw. They mourned for their deceased father. You know, he never tended to the drive-by injury that day, the pellet from a Lady Derringer, when he was walking on the street outside the apartment. The infection proved fatal. The old man, Red, they say, still haunts the restaurant in Coney Island, on Alley 13, Lou’s. I think it’s their imagination.”
“Really,” she smiled.
Aji said, “I love to watch the Auroras at the poles of Saturn. It tells me Saturn is young, younger than Earth. That’s interesting. The solar wind acts like a percolator, an old coffee or teapot, on these planets. It gets less attention from the Sun, and less heat. The aurora tells me Pio is still at work on Saturn. Nature is still raising it; it’s evolving it from a frozen mass. That’s what I believe. It’s a matter of time before Nature nurtures everything into Goldilock orbs.”
“They perk,” he said. They discussed nature, and destiny. He objected, rather futilely, “Science obtains less, and less knowledge.”
“A little knowledge?” Aji said, challenged, but her narrow defense implied the conversation was about to end. He contemplated the purple, white flower, the “Centaurea Maculosa.” He said, “SUM, in a way, seems to want to say we met the ‘aliens’, – life from another planet – a long, long time ago, the flower, the maculosa, the phylum bacteria.”
“Maybe, maybe that,” Aji said, her voice trailing off.
He knew Aji said “maybe” when she was onto something else, something other than Fiji, or Hawaii. She was more silent, content with the mysteries, each of these “slight facts,” these “notes from Nature,” because he would not understand, because she did not understand, and, moreover, SUM did not yet understand. Aji knew, soberly, SUM was preparing to discern, something else, something Hydra always wanted to know.
She said to him, “You’ll have to ask her about carbon, and about the stars. Ask Nature.”
He said, “Nature makes perfect sense, eventually. Did you ever notice that?”
Aji said, “There are a thousand, million trillion planets in a veil of time,” and reeled with the gravity of it.
“Any human life would necessarily have to be older than us,” she said. “We are younger. We don’t believe it, for some reason, in our heart of hearts. If we had a map of time, if we had a Rose Line, it would reveal countless civilizations, a zillion concealed from us; everywhere remnants of greatness, and failure. Earth is a remote island in the universe, in Laniakea, like a Key, or a very obscure Curacao. But we can hear their echo, by the sea. We can see the echo of light.” ◊
Theme (above): “The Original Jelly Roll Blues,” by Scott Cotton | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 41); inlink.
Created by Soda Tom
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