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Crisis on Titan

Conor Powers-Smith grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He currently lives on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, where he works as a reporter. His stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex, Scifia, Fantastic Frontiers, and other publications. This is his third publication in Daily Science Fiction.

"Thanks for that report, Joan. I'm sure Jack and Jackie will find a good home."
[Lower-Third Caption: Fade out, "Furry Friends Forever;" Fade in, "BREAKING NEWS: Crisis on Titan"]
"Now we want to update you on the situation on Titan, and for that we join our science correspondent, Shavonne Robinson, on location in Albany, Australia. Shavonne?"
"--ank you, Janet. I'm here at the southwest tip of Australia, where we're just moments from our first glimpse of the tragedy unfolding on Saturn's moon, Titan. In a few minutes, orbital positions will allow Titan to be seen from Earth for the first time since the disaster that began at the Chemical Quality Corporation mining facility there, and that has since claimed the lives of seventeen hundred people."
"We've raised that to twenty-three hundred fifty."
"I'm sorry?"
"Twenty-three hundred fifty people. Apparently the original figures didn't include family members living with the miners."
["Death toll nears 3,000 in Titan disaster"]
"Oh. That's--"
"You're confident we're going to be able to see it, Shavonne? How far away is Jupiter, anyway?"
"Well, Saturn is... at the moment, about eight hundred thirty-seven million miles from Earth. But, yes, by all calculations, it's going to be visible to the naked eye."
"And it hasn't burned itself out, as some had predicted?"
"No. Titan is still very much on fire."
["Titan still burning"]
"Any information on the cause of the disaster?"
"The fire must've started in one of the habitation domes, and spread through the network of pipelines that supply them with Earth-like atmosphere. There's not enough naturally occurring oxygen in Titan's atmosphere to support large-scale combustion. The extractors that draw oxygen from Titan's ice appear to have remained operational long enough for the fire to spread to the surface, which is covered with lakes of liquid methane. Methane wants to combust. That's why we use it for fuel. That's what CQ was doing on Titan in the first place."
"How long until it does die down?"
"Well, there's no guarantee it will. Once some of those methane lakes are burning, gaseous methane will bond with the abundant nitrogen in the atmosphere, producing nitromethane, an extremely robust explosive. This is where the chemistry starts to get... dark. Nitromethane's a monopropellant, which means it can burn in the absence of oxygen, because it already contains a small amount in its molecular structure. There's a threshold beyond which enough nitromethane is present in the atmosphere to keep the cycle going indefinitely, and we have every reason to believe we've crossed that threshold. What's happening on Titan isn't so much a fire as one continuous, self-propelling explosion."
["Titan still exploding"]
"But there were survivors."
"Something on the order of two hundred executives with private craft managed to get out in time. So far we haven't heard from any surviving miners. Or family members."
["200 miraculously survive Titan disaster"]
"There seems to be some activity behind you, Shavonne. Is something happening there?"
"I think it's almost time, Janet. Hold on. Okay, this is the area of sky where Titan should appear. Just stars now, as you can see. A clear, moonless night, so-- Oh."
"I don't know if you can see this, Janet, but it's--"
"We have you, Shavonne."
"It's incandescent. Very small, just a pinprick, but very bright. Orange, or yellow-orange. This is four-fifths of a billion miles away. Can you imagine--"
"This is the one with the rings, right?"
"Shavonne? Did we lose her?"
"I'm here."
"This is--"
"This is the one with the rings."
["Saturn the one with the rings"]
"Is it possible--"
"Yes, that's a real concern. We're expecting a good deal of ejecta. Certainly ionized particles, and probably larger chunks of matter as well. Titan has about one-seventh Earth's gravity, about a quarter its escape velocity. The models range from a temporary disturbance of the rings to total fragmentation."
"And that brings us to the financial repercussions."
"It does?"
"What would you expect the cleanup on something like this to cost?"
"Whatever CQ decides it should cost, I guess."
"But we've seen companies held accountable in cases like this. There was the uranium spill on, uh, Uranus, wasn't it?"
"On Io, actually, but--"
"And that mercury poisoning scare on... I want to say Mercury?"
"That was Europa."
"And then, the fracking of Olympus Mons. There was all that talk about cleanups, recalls."
"There was talk, yes. Critics would say that's all there was."
"And the Big Red Dot, on Saturn."
"After the disruption of the Great Red Spot, CQ did initiate a much smaller disturbance, in Jupiter's atmosphere, but--"
"The Little White Dot. Adorable."
"But many would call that a public relations stunt. And that storm lasted just a few months before dissipating."
"Uh huh. We're going to need to go to commercial in about twenty seconds, Shavonne. Is there anything else we should know?"
"In twenty seconds?"
"Call it seventeen."
"We haven't talked at all about the team from the Search for Extraterrestrial Life that was conducting research on Titan."
"What happened to them?"
"They were incinerated, I'm sure. But--"
"Seven seconds, Shavonne."
["Crisis on Titan... Stay tuned for further updates"]
"Some of the samples they were reporting in the journals--"
"Very quickly, please."
"We have every reason to think they were about to find evidence of life on Titan. The first life outside Earth we've--"
"And we're out of time. Stay tuned, after the break we'll be talking to diet guru Ian Stevenson, who says bone-density loss on those long interplanetary flights could be the best thing that ever happened to your waistline."
[Fade out, "Crisis on Titan...;" Fade in, "Zero-G and Gorgeous"]
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 17th, 2013
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