The Cassini space probe begins its final pass of Saturn’s moon Titan. This flyby will slingshot the probe around the moon and set it on a return course to Earth. NASA are calling it Cassini’s ‘goodbye kiss’.
Nathan looks down on mission control through a bank of windows along the office wall. His project manager, David, is sat at his desk. He’s scanning through the folder Nathan handed to him a few moments earlier. A vein at David’s temple is pulsing.
“You realise that this is ridiculous, don’t you?” David asks. “Twenty years! Twenty years we’ve spent on this mission. And now this?”
Nathan turns to face David but doesn’t reply. He’s worked with him long enough to know when to keep quiet.
Passing over Titan’s northern pole, there is a flash on the left side of Cassini’s hull. Two brackets ping free and the dust analyser they were holding in place breaks off and plummets toward the moon’s surface.
“Unethical. Reckless. Stupid.” David’s words punctuate each page turn. “This mission has allowed us to discover so much more than any of us could have ever dreamt o—”
“Including the rivers and seas on Titan,” Nathan cuts in. Careful to keep his voice calm.
“Yes, including the bloody rivers,” David snaps. “You honestly thought that this was a good idea? To go against everything the team agreed on? What you agreed on?”
“We didn’t have the evidence that Titan could support life when we made those decisions. If we had, maybe—”
David holds his hand up to stop Nathan talking and turns back to the folder.
Scorched and mangled, the dust analyser pitches and rolls through the dense atmosphere. Drag rips at its edges and with each passing second, the analyser gets smaller, leaving a trail of debris across the sky.
“What if this is how life starts?” Nathan asks. “How it’s always started?”
“We don’t know that. And even if we did, you know it’s not our place to interfere.”
“What if it is?”
David removes his glasses and rubs his closed eyelids. He leans back in his chair.
“What if we’re here to pass on the baton?” Nathan continues. “What if we’re the next link in the chain?”
“All I’m hearing here are ‘what ifs’, Nathan.”
“But isn’t science built on ‘what ifs’?”
David slaps the folder shut and holds it out. “Yes. And what if we’re just men?”
A piece of aluminium the size of a pebble thuds down onto the hydrocarbon shoreline. It hisses as it cools against the barren surface. A blink later and there is a thwip sound, as the charred remains of the dust analyser splashes down into the sea.
“You’re an incredibly smart man, Nathan. But this? This isn’t you.” David waves the folder at him.
Nathan steps across the room and takes the folder.
“Shred this,” he says, as Nathan goes to leave. “And if anyone asks about it, deny all knowledge. It was an accident. Damaged brackets, nothing more. I don’t want this mission to remembered as the one that contaminated a moon. Even if you do.”
The spacecraft appears in the exosphere above the third planet from yellow dwarf star. It scans the surface and releases hundreds of probes into the atmosphere. They map the terrain, gather water samples and particles, and search for any signs of intelligent life. Initial analysis reveals the remnants of civilisations, but the ecosystem has long since collapsed due to the catastrophic deterioration of the atmosphere. Nothing has inhabited the planet in more than 3 billion years.
Aboard the craft, scientists sift through the collected data in the hope of confirming that this planet was the origin of their life, the life that arose from the vast hydrocarbon seas of Titan.