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By Brian Davidson © 2009 I disbelieved Admunsen when he wrote they were careful, in Antarctica, when they listened to the gramophone. “We knew we should soon get tired of it if we used it too often,” he wrote. “Therefore we only brought it out on rare occasions, but we enjoyed its music all the more when we heard it.” When I read that, I laughed. I scribbled “Liar!” in the margin of the book. I would never tire of my music. But I do. Even the most eclectic and obscure tunes, I’ve listened to over and over again. I can no longer bear Johann Sebastian Bach or Bernard Greene. Robert Moog is as galling as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But I listen. Like breathing, like blood pumping, the music is a basic fact of life. Cut off the oxygen, I die. It is so with the music. Easter never comes here. Every day is Christmas. I heave no sighs of relief. Every day is a holiday. Every day is tiresome. I chose to come here, of course, like Admunsen chose to seek the South Pole so long ago. That he had companions is commendable. More important than activity – Admunsen abhorred idleness; “To be contented and well, a man must always be occupied,” he said – is companionship. Perhaps that’s why I always have the music playing. It gives the illusion that someone else is there. Busy, stay busy. Admunsen’s men, embarrassed that on a polar expedition they did not bring snow shovels, built a dozen. They tunneled into massive drifts of snow outside their tents and huts, building a smithy, a carpentry shop, petroleum store, larder of dead seals for their dogs. A technician built thermographs out of tins from canned fish. They hacked and dug and shored constantly as the sun, a massive ball of reddened fire, sank below the horizon for the South Pole’s three months of darkness, teasing them with the false promise of sunrise with a reddened horizon until all was dark. I, too, dug and shaped and shored, burrowing into the hard-packed ash and ice of the mountainside until I had more than passable shelter, including one pressure-sealed room I could flood with heated air for the days when the pressure suit became too maddening. This I used sparingly, husbanding its magic as Admunsen guarded the joys of the gramophone. The first time I used it, I planned to stay in the room for a mere sixteen hours, to thaw out, to shower, to rid myself of that persistent ankle itch that drove me mad in the two weeks it took to cross the regio. I stayed for nearly four days, relishing the freedom, the feel of the sunlamps on my arms, the ventilation ruffling the hairs on my short-sleeved arms. I did not want to leave. But I did. Perhaps that was why I indulge with the music. Bartok, Saint-Saens, Spike Jones and the Christy Minstrels chanted and burped my way past Carcassonne Montes, that jagged peak scraping at the starry sky. The Miraculous Mandarin of Bartok and the Capriccio Espagnol of Rimsky-Korsakov helped me build one of my emergency hovels there on the mountain’s sunny side. I’ve never been back. Carcassonne is cold and cruel, an odd thing to say, considering the colder and more cruel places on this globe and others. The crust was softer there. I early died in a cave-in, with Bartok’s Mandarin trilling in my ears.
I still listen to the Mandarin, just not in closed spaces. The Mandarin needs light, outside, with nothing but the stars above my head. You must wonder if I talk to myself, considering I am alone here. I do not. Even in company, I am a boring conversationalist. I do not listen to myself talk. I have the music for company. I think to myself; that is good enough. I do sing. Occasionally, when the supply ships fly overhead and some bored soul in the radio room is scanning the bands, flitting from freight traffic to satellite transmissions to the acid, bleating breath of distant Saturn, they hear me singing. Sometimes they call out to me. I call out to them. Never surprised to be overheard. I speak to them without hesitation, as if I’ve been speaking to strangers all my life. If they ask who I am, I tell them. Apparently, many of them are proud to have spoken to the Hermit of Iapetus. I’ve forgotten why I came here originally, so don’t ask. Vaguely, I think originally it had to do with a wild idea I had of prospecting the moons of Saturn, looking for exotic, low-gravity crystals to sell. I’d sell them as star seed crystals to the crusty mystics and faith healers who have found the power in their Earth-borne gems diminishing. “Stones are to the earth as the heart is to the man,” or so said Louisa Poole, their prophet. What is prophet to one is profit to me, I decided. So I came. But my memory may be faulty. It’s quite possible I came here to get away from everyone else. Or because no one else was here. Or because I had the money and after planning and planning and planning that trip to Malta, Malta suddenly sounded very, very boring. Or maybe the star seeds told me to come here. Any reason is just as likely. Some of the people who talk to me – tourists scuttling to or from Saturn’s rings, bored school kids or engineers with high-grain antennas on the Moon or Mars – ask what I miss the most. I tell them all sorts of odd, random things, many of which they send me, at great expense even at base freight rates. Nutter Butters. Cacti. The color blue – a female ring tourist from Florida sent me a pair of blue patentleather shoes which I store in my safe house at Carcassonne. I tell them not to send anything. Sometimes I refuse to answer the question. I am a hermit. That is my right. Mostly I miss other people. That sounds odd coming from a hermit, but it is true. It’s no good being a hermit if there aren’t other people around to shun and avoid. I told that to one contactee once. That’s how I got Gloria. Gloria now inhabits one of my worn space suits in a jumble of rocks in Cassini Regio, one mannequin arm held up to the sky, catching the perpetual rain of dust that falls from Saturn’s enormous, invisible ring. A lovely woman Gloria is, he suit besmirched by the rain of hydrogen cyanide; she holds poison in her outstretched hand, offering it to the universe. A fitting monument for a hermit, offering poison to those who might come to break my solitude. I put her in Cassini so I have an excuse to stay away from there. Only one man – an engineer working on Phobos – asked the one question I relish answering: What is my last memory of Earth? I tell him this story: It was on a Sunday. I was scrubbing the basement toilet, working hard with a pumice stone to scrape away the hard water stains. I went to flush the toilet and the flushing lever broke. I went to the hardware store for a new lever. As I stood there in the plumbing section, trying to decide between white plastic and chrome-plated metal, flush-mounted or extended mount, I realized this was the most monumental decision I’d been called on to make that week. Further contemplation cause me to realize it was the most monumental decision I’d been called on to make that month. That year. Next thing I
remember, I was on a Saturn-bound spaceliner with two and a half tons of gear in the cargo hold. The captain called on his passengers to look out the portside observation window for one last glimpse of earth, a blue jewel hanging in the black sky, escorted by the Moon, a dazzling white star. I stayed in my steerage cabin, swinging the replacement flush lever in my hand. I did indeed pull a Roy Neary on my family. I’m fairly sure I did them a favor doing so. No one loves a hermit, even one who lives in the basement, goes to work four days a week, mows the lawn, shovels snow, skulks like a cipher. For the first two years, I sent them birthday greetings, Christmas cards – I brought a box of them for some reason and had no one else to send them to. My youngest son sent the only reply I ever got: a drawing of me, in a space suit, exploring the mountains of Iapetus. He would have come with me. In an instant. I loved that boy. He must be fourteen, sixteen years old now. Sometimes I dream of playing catch with him, hiking up the extinct volcano near our old home with him. Walking through the woods with him, calling to him, watching his round, bright face turn around to smile at his father, laughing at his cautions and warnings. The picture lies folded with the envelope that bore it in one of Gloria’s pockets. I could not bear to look at that drawing; it broke my heart. I was glad when Gloria came so I could place that burden on her and have an excellent reason to shun the terra she calls home. I miss the marigolds. My wife didn’t like them, said they smelled bad. But I grew up in a house where the marigolds spilled out of the flower beds and grew in the grass and grew in the gravel. I used to scoot the gravel aside with my hands and make roads for my tiny cars through the marigold forest, with that smell of marigold constantly in my nostrils. Iapetus smells like almonds, when I get a whiff of dust entering a safe house. Space is not empty, I tell some of the people who call me. It’s full of poison. The universe is intensely hostile towards life, pelting planets with meteors, filling the interstellar void with cyanide, killing satellites and mitochondria with cosmic rays. I do not doubt life exists on other planets, I say. Life is not an aberration. But the universe, I say, is not as densely packed as is Manhattan, as is Singapore, as is Tokyo, as is Mexico City. Look at Earth. Life exists there in a million varieties, yet there are places on Earth no living thing can survive for long. Admunsen discovered that as he trekked towards the South Pole. I am reminded of it daily as I walk the wastelands of Iapetus. In my cargo, I brought three hatchets. Three hatchets. I expected to find trees, I suppose. But I used them. Wore two out digging my first safe house on the sunny side of Engelier Crater. Later I improvised lasers to melt the underground caverns I’ve scattered about the surface. I’ve got ten or twelve of them now that I maintain and use occasionally, maybe another eight I built but abandoned. With a scarcity of convenience stores on this lonely rock, a man has to have a few places he can go to hide when he need to be hidden. And replenished. I power my scooters and safe houses with the hydrogen extracted from the cyanide, extract oxygen from the rocks and ice and generally live fairly well for a man whose nearest neighbors are on Titan, millions of miles further into Saturn’s gravity hole. Yes, I’ve been involved in mapping this tiny moon. Not that the International Astronomical Union has been pleased with most of my activity. Oh, they didn’t mind my naming craters for Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Stanley Kubrick, and others eminent in the arts and sciences. But Hoagland’s Ridge, they didn’t much appreciate, especially when I told them, jokingly, that one of the reasons I came to Iapetus in the first place was to find Hoagland’s massive buckminsterfullerene and probe the deep secrets within. I’m not sure about his science, but that he’s intensely interested in Iapetus, there is no doubt.
Where do I get my supplies, they ask. They always ask that. What do I eat, and where do I poop? I eat what I can. Some things, like the cans of refried beans, I have gravity-dropped from the federal spacers going to and from Titan. Orbits and trajectories, of course, make these drops infrequent and the captains – and in some case only the cargo stewards – do it for me out of charity, because aside from the IAU, no official agency really wants to acknowledge my existence. Officially, Iapetus is uninhabited, and is part of the Saturnian Wilderness, consisting of the tiniest and outermost moons where, technically, the footprints of man aren’t supposed to appear. At best they call me a squatter. I once got a nastygram from Greypeace, upset that my digging and walking were scarring the surface of this otherwise virgin world. But no one comes to get me. As if I’d leave if they did. I’m sorry that I ramble. You have to understand that hermits aren’t hermits because they hate talking. I’ve known some rather talkative people in my lifetime, and though they lived in populated areas, they all talked like hermits. We never meet. Successful, friendly hermits get together to shun each other. “Iapetus, this is Saturn Seven. Iapetus, this is Saturn Seven.” It’s Steve on the radio. He’s a flight officer for one of the regular shuttles from Mars to Saturn. I use him often as a courier. He drops supplies, relays messages, sometimes just calls to chat. People have the wrong idea about hermits. We like humanity plenty. When Steve calls, it’s a rarity for me to make him wait. If he calls me more than three times and I don’t answer, he says, he’s ready to jump ship and descend to find out what’s the matter. I don’t know why he likes me. He says he’s envious, but I don’t believe it. I live on Iapetus, and I’m not envious of myself. But I’m not envious of Steve, either. “Steve,” I say when he calls – it rankles his superiors to hear him talking with someone who won’t follow normal comm. Protocols, but I am a hermit, after all – “this is Iapetus. What ya got?” “Just wanted to warn you,” he says most often. “We’re getting ready to do a waste water dump and thought you might want to get outside where you can see the rainbow.” Code, of course. Officially, they’re not allowed to drop stuff to me. Although sometimes the spacers do perform their dumps over Iapetus or Persephone when they pass nearby, just so gravity can take care of an errant hunk of ice that otherwise they’d have to report to ships that follow. He’s getting ready to drop something for me. Electronics I can’t manufacture here. Orange juice. Spares from socks to sprockets. This time, a letter in the jumble: Dad, I still call you Dad, even though Mom doesn’t want me to. I’m supposed to call Dennis ‘Dad,’ but it doesn’t feel right. I call him Daddy Dennis when Mom is around. It pisses him off, but it makes Mom happy. He’s Dum-Dum Dennis when Mom’s out of earshot. At least that makes him laugh. I want to tell you I’m coming. I’ll be eighteen in a month and there’s no way Mom can stop me. I told her I’m joining the Marines, so she doesn’t know. I’m actually signed up as a
propulsion trainee on one of the Moon to Mars milk runs. I figure six months there, if I do my work right, I’ll get my certificate. Arthur – he’s the guy I signed with at Mars Missions – says they’re always looking for propulsion operators on the runs to Jupiter and Saturn. He thinks after a year or two with him, I can get out there. Tell me what you want me to bring, although I’ll bet you don’t need much. Better yet, tell me what I need, because I’m coming. And if Mom can’t stop me, neither can you. Your son, Liam I tell him to bring soap. Soap is one of the few things I use in bulk as I wander Iapetus. The moon, of course, is famed for its darkened leading edge, its white trailing edge. Few know that the dark matter plunging to the planet from space is sticky. It’s a mixture of hydrogen cyanide and an odd batch of hydrocarbons, which seem to abound in this region of the solar system. I have a theory most of it comes from Jupiter, pumped out by the hundreds of thousands of gallons from the giant’s atmosphere, spewed by convection currents and blown to Saturn by the solar wind. It gets everywhere. Day to day, week to week, the layer isn’t thick, but it builds. Every six months or so, I enter a refuge and thoroughly clean my space suit. Keeping the helmet clear is essential, as there’s nothing worse than claustrophobia while wandering an airless plain. The stuff does mean I don’t have to import grease or lubricants; the stuff that falls out of space onto the planet is sufficient for greasing what little bit of machinery I have. I also tell him not to come. Iapetus is a dangerous place. Sixteen times, by my count, I’ve nearly died, either by oxygen starvation, landslide, falls, cave-ins, decompressions and once – I swear – by meteor. I’ve set my own bones. And the silence. Which is never quite silent. Even on the most quiet nights, when I lay asleep or dozing, staring up at the stars or at the grey of a refuge ceiling, I can hear the voices. The ears become attuned. Saturn calls, scratching and squealing on the upper radio band like a needle on a worn vinyl record. Records are not anachronistic; I have hundreds of them here, accompanied by ten turntables and ten thousand needles. My electronic recordings are constantly rearranged or erased by radiation storms or errant cosmic rays. Saturn sings in bleeps and bloops and thrums. Sometimes I swear I only imagine it. Soap. I tell him to bring soap. I have in my wallet a photo of Liam. He sits in his smiling mother’s lap, one hand to the side, the other clenched between his legs. His chin is tilted downward so his head appears big with blond hair. His eyes are narrow like mine always are. He grins so hard he has dimples. I smile like a bloated Muppet, mouth agape. Sometimes I look at that photo and the bleeps and thrums of Saturn seem to come out of that gaping mouth, an inhuman screech, something Donald Sutherland would emit. Something others should fear.
Soap. Bring lots of soap. The avalanche that nearly killed me returns in my dreams. I’m much more frightened of being buried alive than dying of a decompression. Admunsen feared suffocation. And the image of the helpless woman, living in the shack on the edge of Death Valley in Zane Grey’s Wanderer of the Wasteland; that image returns. With the madman who married her and brought her to the desert to kill her launching rocks from the cliff above, trying to crush the shack. He couldn’t just leave. He couldn’t leave. Soap. Water, I can make. With hydrogen and oxygen, the synthesizer makes the water. I could swim in the water I make. A pool. An Olympic pool, with just a little cyanide, not chlorine, to kill the germs, if there were any on Iapetus. I’m sure my tolerance of cyanide is quite high. I’m exposed to it every day, probably with every breath; I’m not sure I trust my equipment’s purifiers. Soap. Bring soap. Lots of soap. The time will pass in a flash, I think. I’ve been there thirteen years already. Soap. Say a word too often, it sounds ridiculous. It loses meaning. I’ve done that now with soap. It reminds me of the garbled Christmas carol I thought I heard from the radio, long ago: Soup on the rooftop, drip, drip, drip . . . down through the chimney comes ol’ Saint Nick. The voice asks, “Isn’t Nick also a name for the Devil?” I reply: “Yeah. So?” Saint Nick. Saint Nick. Saint Nick. Maybe he’ll bring soap. It’s at times like this I have to wander. Staying in a refuge when the voices are talking loudly is not a good idea. You never put the suit back on, and pretty soon you think you can open the door and walk out onto the back porch of the house you grew up in and go off to smell the marigolds, or chase the dog who has stolen the socks off your feet. So I put the suit on. I double- and triple-check the seals, the joints, the connections. The oxygen packs. When all is right, I leave. I dig up more raw material for the synthesizers. I make sure the high-gain antennas aren’t corroding. I find a hundred chores that need doing. No idleness. Admunsen at Framheim kept busy. He kept his men busy, digging new workshops and offices out of the drifts of snow that snuggled against their tents and shacks. They built sleds and dog harnesses, shovels and radio equipment and filled entire rooms with slaughtered seals.
I’m sure they had soap somewhere in their warren of rooms and tunnels. And I set myself to pondering some problems. Saturn’s Hexagon, for one. Long ago, some orbiter spotted the Hexagon, a cloud formation, spiraling around the planet’s northern pole. People made much of it, saying since nature does not work in straight lines, it had to be a sign of intelligent life. Hoagland went further, looking at photographs of Iapetus itself, spotting what he thought was not a circular limb, but rather a limb bent and contorted into the angular fullerene. Shapes, shapes, shapes, not natural. Forgetting, of course, that trees have straight lines, rings. That snowflakes display startling angular geometry. Crystals. I don’t mind that people search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I just wish they’d look into the universes inside their heads a bit more. Liam wrote again. Said he definitely had the Moon-to-Mars job. And that with the extra money he could squirrel away, he’d buy soap. Arthur C. Clarke's spaceman Robert Kleinman is cryptically to have said "Space is small; only the planets are big." In the years I have wandered Iapetus, I have not found ground to dispute him. As A boy, I reveled in reading about Saturn's moons. The giant Titan was the tempting home of liquid seas of methane and other petrochemicals, the human inhabitants of Clarke's Oasis City. The books I read described Iapetus as tiny. Odd, but tiny. Miniscule compared to Titan, to the Galilean moons of Jupiter, to our own moon, Luna -- when I discovered it had a name, it was the Moon to me no longer. Iapetus is not tiny. As a boy, I found that magical formula that allows one to determine the surface area of a sphere: r2
It was simple, then, and elegant, to determine that Iapetus has a surface area of about 6,583,650 square kilometers depending upon which estimate of the moon's radius one uses in the formula. I always chose the more conservative estimate, a trait I inherited from my mother. That is immense, say, compared to the inside of your average spacer, which might stretch to meet 12,000 cubic meters. But Admunsen explored Antarctica, a continent that covers 13.2 square kilometers, twice that in winter when the sea ice expands. To Admunsen and his compatriots, Antarctica seemed tractless. Often they traveled on their 99-day voyage in blizzard conditions, feeling their way forward gingerly, so as not to fall into a crevasse or become lost in the jumbles of ice and mountain. Some days, they covered nineteen, twenty miles. Others they sat in their tent with the wind howling through the guy wires. Once they sat for five days in a gale, waiting for it to abate. Finally, they took down their tent, carefully trying not to break its brittle, ice-coated canvas in pieces, and harnessed their dogs to voyage in the wind because they could no longer bear to be idle. "There's nothing so bad as lying weather-bound like this," Admunsen recalls a companion saying, while another added: "IT takes more out of you than going from morning to night." So as they wandered from crevasse to crevasse, bridge to bridge, glacier to glacier, occasionally
catching a glimpse of the dome-shaped Mount Helmer Hanssen, "its top as round as the bottom of a bowl, and covered by an extraordinary ice-sheet, which was so broken up and disturbed that the blocks of ice bristles in every direction like the quills of a porcupine," he wrote. "It glittered an burned in the sunlight -- a glorious spectacle. There could only be one such mountain in the world, and as a landmark it was priceless. We knew that we could not mistake that, however the surroundings might appear on the return journey, when possibly the conditions of lighting might be altogether different." But even Helmer Hanssen was lost in Antarcitca's immensity. A landmark it may be, but when landmarks disappear beneath the horizon, one knows one is walking in an immense land. In space, the landmarks are always there. Yes, the distance between them is in light years, but the guideposts are there to be seen nonetheless, without fretting over erecting spare ski poles in the landscape in order to guide one's return journey, without fretting over leaving a sledge erect against a pile of butchered dog carcasses awaiting human bellies on the return journey. And in space, one rides in a coccoon of aluminum, silicon, and other metals. One is propelled. One voyages when one sleeps, with computers monitoring the journey and the shirt-sleeve weather inside the immensity of cold space. In space, all one has to do is wait. Only on the planets -- and the moon -- does one have to walk. Space is small; only the planets are big. This I have tried to explain to Liam, in letters ferried to Mars by obliging couriers. I'm not sure he understands. I have recommended that he read the account of Admunsen, for I know it is available in the testosterone-dripping libraries on the Moon and Mars. I hope he reads it. I hope he takes home the lessons of the Butcher's Shop. I got another letter from Liam, saying he's now got a job as assistant propulsion engineer on a liner from Mars to Saturn. He's not sure, he says, how long he'll stay on the liner, but it sure it'll be a year at least, because no mater how much the liner people enjoy supplying the Hermit of Iapetus, no power on Earth, Saturn, or Sol will move them to change their travel routes in order to detour to my icy home. It's elven months, thirteen days from his writing that a liner will come near enough to Iapetus to make a drop of this magnitude possible. Anxiety. I have felt twinges of it since I arrived here. The day my suit developed a rupture. The three weeks I lay in a refuge with an odd sickness I was sure would kill me. During the avalanche that occurred when I drilled into that soft deposit while looking for silicon. But anxiety is a hermit's friend, constantly there, nagging, urging one to take extra care, providing the wearing nourishment of andrenalin in order to make survival possible, not probable. Admunsen, too, experienced anxiety. They left their crampons at the Butcher's Shop, sure they would not need them beyond that point, not knowing of course of the glaciers and ice fields to cross between them and the pole. They ate their own dogs. Starting out, they planned on eating their own dogs. It was supernally logical. They could carry only so much food for so long on the sledges pulled by the dogs. Some of the food stores they hauled far inland, far towards the pole, and then offloaded it, leaving it in caches for the return journey. But always with them, their rolling stock, their dogs. At the Butcher's Shop, they killed twenty-four of the beasts, six to a man, as planned. The first shot came as Admunsen stood in the tent, stirring pemmican over their primus stove. "I am not a nervous man," he wrote, "but I must admit that I have a start. Shot now followed upon shot -- they had an uncanny sound over the great plain. A trusty servant lost his life each time.
They fed the entrails to the other dogs, who, hesitant at first, devoured what was offered. "It had been arranged," he wrote, "that we should stop here two days to rest and eat dog. There was more than one among us who at first would not hear of taking any part in this feast; but as time went by, and appetites became sharper, this view underwent a change, until, during the last few days before reaching the Butcher Shop, we all thought and talked of nothing but dog cutlets, dog steaks, and the like. But on this first evening we put a restraint on ourselves; we thought we could not fall upon our four-footed friends and devour them before they had had time to grow cold." Anxiety over the inevitable quickly passes, I decided long ago. If not, I would have been dead of anxiety years ago. When one leaves even the thinly-populated realms of Mars for the frontier of Saturn, one has to expect that, among the rocks and crevices and craters death lies waiting, not caring tuppence if we die in a suit on an open plain or in an avalanche or by a suit rupture just outside a refuge. To worry over such contingencies is foolishness. Not that I was uncautious; far from it. Like Admunsen, I made preparations beforehand what should be done to forestall death and prolong life, even if it came at the cost of a servant. Or twenty-four. Stashed around Iapetus, far from the shelters, lay boxes of supplies, oxygen bottles, shelters, spare batteries for the dogs -- really four-wheeled service vehicles purloined from the low-gravity hangars of Phobos -- but I called them my dogs, for they served me well and also uncannily carried many parts that could be used to quickly repair a suit or a communications beacon or another essential bit of survival gear if the need arose. I, of course, was sparing with what I would cannibalize, but I knew, inevitably, that the last of the dogs would rumble to a stop and never go again, because it was impossible to secure the necessary spare and bulky parts to repair them. Suit cloth and bits of aluminummongery I could have dropped from a liner, but wheels, gearboxes and such, were too weighty for the light Saturn liners to carry, and the manufacturers on Mimas and Titan too stingy with their finished products to lend them out to a scraggly outcast on a yin-yang moon, even if the scraggler could pay. Was I nervous about Liam coming? Yes. I would not be a hermit otherwise. It is our lot and our duty to dread the coming of another to enter the solitude, not of our surroundings, but of our minds. The surroundings help. Never believe a man who says he enjoys driving for the sake of getting to a destination to enjoy the fruits of the voyage. A man drives to empty his mind as the vehicle passes through tractless wastes or the heart of a city. And never believe a hermit who says he is not nervous. I sing with Carly Simon: We can never know about the days to come But we think about them anyway, yay And I wonder if I'm really with you now Or just chasin' after some finer day Anticipation, anticipation Is makin' me late Is keepin' me waitin'
And I tell you how easy it feels to be with you And how right your arms feel around me But I, I rehearsed those lines just late last night When I was thinkin' about how right tonight might be Anticipation, anticipation Is makin' me late Is keepin' me waitin' And tomorrow we might not be together I'm no prophet and I don't know nature's ways So I'll try and see into your eyes right now And stay right here 'cause these are the good old days (These are the good old days) And stay right here 'cause these are the good old days (These are the good old days) (These are the good old days) (These are the good old days) (These are.....the good old days) Nervously, I await Liam's arrival. And I have prepared further, just as Admunsen did. I thought, today, I saw squirrels scampering on a ridge in the Voyager Mountains. Scale sometimes is the problem. Born on Earth, my brain is attuned to thinking that the horizon is far from where I stand. Twenty, twenty-one miles or so. I forget the number. The Moon looks enormous rising over the horizon, be that horizon distant hills or a copse of trees only a few miles off, because of that scale. We know how far away the horizon is. Subconsciously. So with the Moon rising over something so close, it appears huge. When it is not. It is the same size, objectively, at the horizon as at the zenith. On Iapetus, the horizon is much closer. And Saturn, when it rises, is enormous, in comparison to the Moon, in comparison to the body on which I stride. So I know the squirrels on the ridge at Voyager are illusions. Landslides. Tumbling rocks. But scampering, fur-lines, sniffing tumbling rocks, chattering at me perched in pine trees as I pass by, warning others of my presence in their habitat. I have not begun to feed them. Yet. And Liam is coming. His last letter arrived twelve days ago – I still use Earth days here, as to the crews in the space liners above, the colonists on Mars and elsewhere. He sent it just prior to his thirteenth voyage on the Mars-to-Saturn line, and on that thirteenth voyage Aurora will pass close enough to Iapetus to make a gravity drop practical. I have two weeks until he arrives, if all goes well. I probably will not mention the squirrels. I saw my own father slip into dementia as he lay in the hospital bed, weak from congestive heart failure. His uncombed hair, he said, made him look like Cosmo Kramer, a character in an old TV show
he loved. He spoke to Jerry and George, despised Newman. He wanted a Heineken from his native Holland, despite his teetotaling Mormon faith. We got one for him, despite ours. He took a few sips. Said, “It doesn’t taste as good as I thought it would,” then asked us to hide the bottle. We did. Spiders on the ceiling of his hospital room. We couldn’t leave him alone, because if we did, the spiders would drop from the ceiling and crawl on him, something he couldn’t bear. We took it in shifts to stay in his room, keeping the spiders at bay. I don’t think I’m going insane. As I said, the squirrels I know are imaginary. Tricks of distance and light. But one does not wander alone on the surface of a dead moon for eight years without picking up a few eccentricities. Perhaps the squirrels are mine. My mother had cataracts. I may have something wrong with my eyes. In that case, Liam’s coming is fortuitous. Rather than asking him if he can see the Horse and Rider – Mizar and Alcor, twin stars in the handle of the Big Dipper – I’ll ask him if he can see the squirrels. No squirrels, good eyesight. I can rely on him to by my eyes. I will wait to see how he likes life on Iapetus first, perhaps, before mentioning the squirrels. We’ll stay away from the Voyager Mountains for a while, as I’ve never seen the squirrels elsewhere. Isolation, even in the company of your estranged father who left you and your mother and your siblings to wander on an icy rock halfway across the solar system has got to be kind of a shock, and I’ve even kept myself beardless and, unlike most hermits, a bit plump. He shouldn’t have to pass the rest of his life with a character from a Zane Grey novel. Especially a slightly crazed one babbling about squirrels. I could bring it up obliquely, perhaps. Share my favorite French phrase: des ecureuils en cahoutchouc – rubber squirrels – to break the ice. Maybe not. We’ll talk about Iapetus. How to live. How to survive. How his mother and his brother and his sister are doing, where they are, who they married, the names of my grandchildren and such. I won’t mention the squirrels. I have a few metaphors for what it’s like walking on the surface of Iapetus. Some of it is like walking on powdery snow overlaid with a layer of frozen drizzle. Crunch and poof, crunch and poof. I usually don’t sink beyond my ankles, though the are parts of the moon on which the dust is thick and I sink to the shins, or sometimes the knees. It is mostly ice, though of what kind I don’t know. I do know it’s from these ices that I get the oxygen – and water – necessary for life. Sometimes the snow is mixed with black petroleum jelly – that’s the consistency. Exposed to the vacuum of space, you’d think it would be firmer. But it sticks and slops and wipes off with a gloved hand. The region where Iapetus shows its black face is where the jelly is more prevalent. But then there are rocks. Ordinary rocks, shaped into craters, gullies, mountains and valleys. And caves. A cave in the Voyager Mountains is where I built my first shelter, sixteen square meters protected from the surface by concrete foam and plasteel beams. It is by far the largest shelter I ever built, and sometimes I wonder why I was so extravagant, as I rarely stay in a refuge for more than a week or two.
I spend most of my time outside, in the elements, such as they are here. Silicon and iron, petrochemicals rained down from Saturn’s Dark Ring. Dust and pebbles, boulders and layers. I tell the few who ask that I’m no geologist. At best, a guy who has wandered a bit. A planetary scientist from Pasadena once said he’d pay for me to get a degree – by correspondence, obviously – in geology because he said I was in a unique position to aid planetary sciences through my first-hand observations. I told him I’d think it over. I also told him this: Once I took my sons, Liam and Isaac, on a walk through an ancient lava flow about fifty miles south of where we lived. It was in a place in Idaho called Hell’s Half Acre. After the first few yards, the trail – dirt weaving between sagebrush and cheat grass and a few scrubby junipers – disappeared into the cracked lava rock, an endless field of undulating, broken fractures. The loop trail was marked by poles topped with blue paint. To proceed, we had to march from one pole to the next, picking our way over cracks twenty or thirty feet deep, one foot, two feet, three feet wide, down into gullies where the lava collapsed, up to level plateaus where the rock had enough rock underneath to stay level. Liam led the way. He climbed the gully walls. Isaac was the pole spotter. If we couldn’t see one, he’d glance, mouth agape, grin toothy, until he spotted the next pole. Never took him more than a few seconds. I knew the rock was basalt. There were bits of obsidian. Basalt and obsidian, because that’s what I knew about. The crack in the earth where the molten rock came out, we didn’t walk to. But with an extinct volcano on the horizon, I kinda had the idea from where all this stuff came. The boys were thrilled. We clambered over rocks and climbed cliffs and peered into the cracks and marveled at the prickly pear cactus and the owl pellets we found, stunned at the wildlife in this remote place: lizards, beetles, birds galore. And the silence. We could stand on a rock between the cracks – rocking it gently to and fro with our weight – and hear only the soft rumble of rock against rock, and the calls of the birds. A little breeze. No other interruptions. Then we went home and told Mom. She was not impressed. I can learn, the told the man from Pasadena. But it’s not like being there. And the only reason I need to know what kinds of rocks are out there is so I can find the right stuff to feed the molecular strippers so I have oxygen and water. He’s trying to find a university willing to work with a correspondent student more than a billion miles away, who could only communicate in a roundabout way by radio and couriered messages. I came without computers, other than shiftless drones that run my equipment. No word processors. No video cameras. No way to send digital photographs, not only because there’s no wireless Internet, but because there’s no camera. Hermits have no need to record the places they see. They see them most every day. Or never return to them. He said he’d send a package to me. I haven’t seen it yet. I read once that a Dutch sailor, marooned on the island of Saint Helena for some crime, fell into such despair at being left alone that he dug up the body of a fallen comrade and set to sea in the coffin. But being a Dutchman, of course – and a sailor besides – he was used to crowded, close quarters. Being
alone takes practice. And discipline. And the inability to see squirrels on the ridge where squirrels ought not to be. Once, on a restless night, I roamed our house from room to room. The boys were in bed. Their mother was in the laundry room, sewing. I often startled her – on accident because I walk so quietly – when I entered the room and spoke to her, her back to the door. She teased me that night. “Are you feeling needy,” she asked? I laughed as well. “Not really,” I responded. “Just restless.” The restlessness that night led me from the basement upstairs where I cooked a midnight snack, then went to bed after reading a bit. A month later, I was on Iapetus. I’m often startled at the speed of my flight. We were happy. We had two beautiful sons, going to school. I had a job I enjoyed. I look back and ask myself, why did I run? We had our differences, same as any married couple. But we didn’t fight. We disagreed over the standard things: money, child-raising, shoes piled by the doorway, socks thrown in a pile under the bed. And cereal. We bought two boxes of cereal while on vacation in France, and I had the temerity to eat an entire box without sharing. That was the worst fight we ever had. Miniscule things, that we look back and laugh at. Well, mostly laugh at. The cereal thing, I think, still irritates her. I was restless. Still am. I walk ten, fifteen, twenty miles a day, checking equipment, planting wires for the seismographs – I finally did get that package from the scientist in Pasadena – and not noticing the squirrels. I have nervous legs when I sit for a meal, twitching a leg, a foot. My father had nervous legs. He was a Dutchman, though he never set out to sea in a coffin. He was, briefly, an ordinary soldier in the Dutch army. He told stories of the country boys wrapping the city boys up in a carpet so they could demonstrate how they could lift them trussed, but instead sat on their faces. He also leaped into a river with his gun held high over his head to show the rest in the company how it was done, and had to be dragged from the river by a fisherman before he drowned. He left Holland for America, traveled west. Wanted to be a farmer but instead became a bricklayer who quit for a year once to drive a truck, loads of coal or grain, but then back to the bricklaying but always adding on to the house, turning a chicken coop into a guest house – no bathroom, no electricity, a bed made of plywood and the walls plastered with mortar. He was restless, too. And Liam is still coming. Now just seven days away. As the Bubble carrying Liam from the Mars-Saturn Shuttle caught the planet's sunglow and glinted like a star, I watched him fall. Did I look like that, a meteor, a snowflake, Glinda, Good Witch of the North, falling from the pitch black of the sky, falling from the stars as the rings of Saturn and that enormous yellow planet hung at a crazy angle over the dark horizon? A native of Iapetus might have looked at that moving object, perhaps thinking it was yet another visitor from the debris-strewn space around its mother planet. In its life, the native has seen dozens of objects fall from the sky. This one looks to be on the big side, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. Another wandering bauble that becomes a smear and then a streak and then an explosion of rock and ice on a hillside or plain nearby; dust that flies into the sky and wanders into the stars, perhaps taking bits of the original object with it.
But this object is different. As it moves across the stars, tiny flashes of light emerge from its leading edge. At it approaches, it does not continue to accelerate. It gets slower and slower. Its shape changes from a point of light into a slowly growing orb, Saturnlight glinting off the edges and also off the object in the center, a wad surrounded by a clear sphere of ice. Closer still, it's clear the object inside the sphere is moving. Appendages stroke the inside of the sphere, clearly hollow. The lights on its leading edge transform into jets of gas, spurting out of the sphere, slowing its descent. The object -- it has to be a being -- inside the sphere braces appendages against the sphere, as other appendages stroke its side, seemingly activating the jets, keeping its lower appendages oriented towards the moon's surface. The being inside the sphere is clearly Liam. He's grown a beard, but I recognize the nose, the eyes, the dirty brown hair, the toothy grin. He sees me below. I'm sure he looks puzzled. How did I know where he would be descending, how would I know to be there watching, watching as he descends from the sky to the surface of a moonlet that has grown over the past several hours from a point of light to a sphere to a world. It looms. How did I know? I got lucky. I saw the star descending and guessed where it would fall. I hoped to be near enough to see him -- and have him see me -- before he landed. It's a lonely place to land, as I know from experience. I could not, I laughed, let the squirrels be the only welcome he received. For the last few hours, I've tried to figure out what I'll say to him when he emerges from the Bubble. "About time you got here," I think, or "Let me show you around." They seem pedestrian. Boring. But fitting. Three or four minutes now. Let the record show that when Liam and I greeted each other, the following exchange took place: "Welcome to Iapetus, son. I hope you don't regret coming already." "Not yet. Is there somewhere I can go to change? I've been sick in my suit."
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