1329 words • 5~8 min read

What is it like to sail across Titan’s methane seas?

coverTitanA simple writing prompt–what would it be like to sail across Titan?–has taken me on a 20,000-word journey through the intricacies of life on Saturn’s largest moon. Join the Salvager on a journey across Kraken Mare to land the score of a lifetime, if the rest of the universe doesn’t get in their way. Discover the weird, wonderful world of Titan and her coastal colonies and confront the challenges of sailing across an alien world.

A Crack in the Sky above Titan takes a lot of the ideas developed during Field Notes from the Future and extends them out into the extremely distant future. At what point do humans, heavily augmented with hardware and software, stop being human? What rights are retained when a person contains no human parts? How does art evolve in a future obsessed with technology? And how exactly do you sail via celestial navigation with no polar star and an atmosphere of dense haze.

In honor of this new launch, my other novella, Prepared, an adventure in doomsday prepping, seasteading, and catastrophic sea level rise, is free to download all week long.

A Crack in the Sky above Titan.

 

Read an excerpt from my latest novella, below:


It’s snowing on Titan.

No. Snow isn’t the right word. Methane clathrate, precipitated in the lower atmosphere. When the wind blows across Kraken Mare, it falls.

Earthly sailors underestimate the methane seas of Titan. They look up into the universe and see only stillness. Waves measured in centimeters that never break. Waves that roll on through the oily darkness of a world shrouded in orange haze.

Methane seas deceive.

All worlds look placid from the Earth’s vantage. The vast distances create the illusion of calm. The violence of our home world tempers our perception. But all words rage, if you look close enough.

The oceans of Earth are deep and dense. Ships of substance can glide across an angry swell, can punch through breakers that rise taller than the highest peaks of Titan. There is anger in the Earth’s oceans. A fury, deep and abiding.

I cast off rage long ago.

On Earth, I once captained an old-fashioned sailing yacht with a hull formed of concrete and steel. She was fast and graceful; her keel, long and aggressive. She was heavy. She needed water’s density to buoy her against the pull of the world. A ship like that could never float on a sea of liquid methane, even in Titan’s low gravity. She would sail straight down into Kraken Deep and not slow until she found the seafloor, 200 meters below.

Methane seas do not forgive. The Earth may be angry, but Titan relentlessly unsympathetic. Her grudges are measured in epochs.

Snow on Titan means wind. There is no bluster. Titan’s winds are slow and stately. When they blow, they blow for days. I’ve been waiting weeks for this wind. Titanic weeks. 16 standard days to the rotation.

Wind means a chance to sail clear across the Kraken.

There’s a salvage job out there, waiting for me. A few hundred kilometers south of Trade Winds. Risky, but lucrative.

I’m a long way from Trade Winds. South 60 is the southernmost outpost on the shore of Kraken Mare. Trade Winds is as far from me as a coastal colony can be.

The pilot ramp pulls my ship out into the harbor. I clear the port and raise the impossibly thin main sail. It catches the breeze. The gondola rises.

The moment of lift, when a stationary gondola climbs onto plain and begins its journey is the moment of most danger. The slightest variation in surface tension can send the ship tumbling off axis. Too far and the gondola drops. Liquid methane pours over the gunwales. The scuppers bog down and begin to swamp. Whatever advantage physics granted the craft is gone, lost in a feather light slick that floods the hull. The ship goes down, the crew condemned to a cruel death.

It ends in moments. Seconds if you’re lucky, minutes if you’re not. I’ve seen a ship founder. The captain and crew knew, they knew as soon as the first wave rolled, but still they could do nothing. They marked every milestone of a textbook failure as they accepted their fate.

I was too far upwind to save them. I claimed salvage on their ship.

Half meter waves rolling at just the wrong angle are certain death on Titan.

You cannot swim in liquid methane.

You cannot float in liquid methane.

A standard human cannot carry enough buoyancy to survive a plunge into liquid methane. An exposure suit may save you from drowning, just long enough for the cold and the deep to kill you. Even a vacuum suit will eventually fail.

A standard human cannot survive at all on Titan. The air is so cold that frozen water is hard as stone. Even if the nitrogen-laden atmosphere had enough oxygen to supply a standard human, their lungs would freeze on first breath. A standard human exposed to the harsh environment of Titan would die, instantly.

Only augments live on Titan.

That’s not to say that death is inevitable on the seas of Titan. The gondola is a masterpiece of materials science, maritime engineering, and two planet’s worth of seafaring tradition. A hybrid of Inuit and Celtic origins, the skin-on-frame craft trades wooden stays for infinitely-adaptable carbon nanotubes and heavy hides for continuously-repaired polymetallic sheets. Her displacement is perfectly calibrated to cargo and crew.

My ship, Calliope, rolls with the sea until her sail lifts her onto plain.

Calliope has no motor. No prop could gain enough purchase to propel such a craft through the methane sea. On Earth, we called it dark water, when water of different densities move against each other and the turning screw stops its ship. On Titan, we simply call it the sea.

Kraken Mare belongs to the wind.

Calliope surges forward. She glides across the methane waves, her micron-thin skin barely touching the surface.

I love the winds that roll in with the clathrate snow. I love the cold against my face. I love the chill on my skin. I love the way the sail sings as it glides across an alien sea. I love the way it stings my tongue and burns my lungs.

I left Earth to sail alone across the stars. The augmentations were expensive, but I have no regrets.

I am a sailor on the seas of Titan.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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