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Check*mate*


In the future

Aaram sat in the corner going over the pros and cons of his decision. He was not convinced about what he had got himself into, but there was no going back. He was traveling far, yet there was little  that he could take with himself. He sat there mulling over his decision and waiting for the cab to arrive. He had studied abroad and had spent little or no time in his home country. With a height of 6’4,  fair complexion and a broad built he didn’t seem like a misfit amongst his western counterparts yet he wished that there were more Indians traveling with him.

He heard the sound of the horn and picked up his small bag. He tried to work on looking convinced and enthusiastic. He couldn’t communicate his misgivings about the plan to  others. They wouldn’t understand. Nobody would take it kindly, specially Mark. He went and sat next to Natasha. It was going to be a long journey, largely  because of the awkward silence.

The office was hectic with activity. Stuart had ordered the entire team to check everything once again. He couldn’t afford any glitches in his dream project and was determined to see it completed. The problem of  exploding population needed to be addressed immediately and he would ensure that it was.

There was excitement all over and why wouldn’t there be? Finally there seemed to be a solution to the problem of an ever growing population, the space crunch and the resultant shortage of resources. Science had so far  failed to solve the problem it had created. Stuart had been one of the staunchest supporters of the movement aimed at  immortalizing people and putting the aging process on hold. The issue had been hotly debated due to its possible repercussions. Scientists had boasted of being able to reclaim the dead , provided traces of them could be found in the form of energy. How would more people be accommodated? Would it be ethical to keep people away from those they love if the possibility of  bringing them back existed ? No, they couldn’t afford to give a green signal to this project, unless Stuart and his team are  successful.

As soon as Aaram, Natasha, Mark , Jonathan and Kewin arrived, Stuart sent them for debriefing. Everything had been planned. They were going to leave soon. Aaram’s attempt  to speak to Stuart met with resistance . His doubtful eyes met others composed ones. His eyes lingered momentarily on Natasha’s beautiful hair which offered a sharp contrast to her otherwise no nonsense looks. He then went and sat in the shuttle and everyone else joined him. Jonathan and Kewin were  engrossed in a mundane conversation. Mark maintained an aggressive and hostile stance and Natasha was her usual quiet self. Everything was just as it had been for  the past five years. Suddenly the shuttle lurched with a thudding sound  leaving  them startled. Its sudden acceleration made everyone look visibly tense and excited. The  feeling was comparable to that of hurtling down in a joy ride.

“It is strange to even imagine that we’ll land on a gas giant…”, scribbled Aaram. He always wrote in his diary when tense. He mentally went over all the statistics for the nth time: diameter, 75000 miles; mass, 95 times that of earth; distance from the sun, 886 million miles; rotation period, 10.5 hours; temperature at cloud-tops, -310F; main composition, hydrogen and helium; known moons…

After the mass deaths on Mars despite all the precautions this project seemed to be the next most viable option. No other celestial body would be able to support life. It’s hard to imagine a planet less hospitable for life than Saturn. The planet is comprised   mostly of  hydrogen and helium, with  traces of  water ice in its lower cloud deck, but its moons could. They had never traveled such an astronomical distance before and the uncanny resemblance of the composition of the moons with the  earth made Aaram shudder. The thought that the planetary bodies closest to earth were not inhabitable, but   Titan, the moon of one of the members of the gas giants offered possibilities was vaguely disturbing. The risk involved was too high. Aaram brushed aside these thoughts and went to join Jonathan and Kewin for a game of cards. Mark bestowed on them an icy stare and resumed sending updates to the office.

A visibly enthused Stuart  addressed the media. He informed them about  the plan  to explore Enceladus and  Saturn’s icy moon, Rhea once Titan had been examined because these two moons also had a breathable atmosphere. The media was in a frenzy and infused the public with similar excitement. Models of Saturn, aliens and Titan were being manufactured and bought across the globe. Stuart was in high spirits. The only thought that nagged him was, how he would face all of them. He was sure of their forgiveness. He could bank upon their understanding once they were back safely.

Mark informed everyone that they’ll first send updates when they’re near Saturn and only on further instructions would they leave for Titan. Nobody questioned, they all nodded. Doubting and questioning were not an option when Mark disseminated information. Two months had elapsed. The excitement that had been replaced with fatigue returned as they neared their destination. The shuttle was abuzz with discussions and  numerous possibilities. On a particular day when the heated arguments had turned ugly, Natasha dissipated the tension by saying, “Now we can make the phrase in another world come true.” Everyone dissolved into a laughter even Mark’s visage cracked. Even though the shuttle maintained status quo , the fact that they had reached was thrilling. The office gave them permission to leave for Titan.

Guilt overcame Stuart but he thought he was doing them a favor. His team wouldn’t understand right now.  He thought for a while and finally communicated  his message. The fact that he told them first and not his team made him feel remorseful. “Sometimes you have to see the bigger picture”, he thought to himself.

Jonathan and Kevin would go first as per the plan. They were to inform others if everything was fine, before they stepped down. Thirty minutes had elapsed, tension was palpable, you could almost slice through the silence. The unspoken question was, What could’ve happened? They were just supposed to step down and inform everyone. A tentative  Aaram said,” Should we brief the office?”. Natasha concurred. Stuart had to be informed. Just as Aaram began to establish contact with Stuart, Mark thwarted his efforts and pushed him aside roughly saying,  “They’re probably having fun at our expense. Those assholes are upto some prank.”

After ten tense minutes, Mark decided that they should go down and look for them. He ignored their suggestion of informing the office. They were  enveloped by a sense of unreality  yet driven by their purpose which in part was propelled by fear. But for the difference in gravity which was only one-seventh of the earth’s, the two places were quite similar . Sound carries farther on Titan than on Earth, or even Mars or Venus. They screamed their names but to no avail. They observed the river-like channels that seemed to be tantalizingly similar to the  dry streambeds in Earth’s deserts. Jonathan and Kewin couldn’t have gone far. If only they knew in which direction…

They could hear a murmur.” Yes, we’ve found them”, said an awed Aaram. They walked towards the shadows.

Stuart sipped his coffee and leaned back comfortably. His eyes gleamed with joy when he thought of the fame that awaited him and his team. There was a twinge of unease. He hadn’t received any message from them yet. He dismissed the feeling.

“Let me go, just let me go”, sobbed Natasha. She couldn’t remember anything. She stared at the blood trickling down from her left arm and started sobbing again. It was dingy and dark. She banged her fists against what seemed like a metal surface. She was haunted and daunted by the thought of being abandoned on this hostile and ‘alien’ land.

His head was throbbing and the abrasions on his body stung. The smog around was too thick. Mark started walking aimlessly until he was arrested by a shrill scream. Was it Aaram? Yes. He looked dazed and pathetic. He was relieved to see Mark. They stared at each other vacuously for a while. Neither wanted to voice it, but finally Aaram broke the silence, “We’re not the only ones here.” They should’ve considered the possibility. Titan’s atmosphere  consisted of compounds similar to those present in the primordial days of the Earth’s atmosphere. There was a fair chance that…

“Oh! So this was Stuart’s big secret. He had dropped some hints about hiding something from us on a few occasions,” said Aaram. He hadn’t mentioned anything about exotic life on Titan. Mingled feelings of fear, excitement and a sense of betrayal surged in them.  Aaram screamed in disbelief, “How could he do this to us ? “After a brief lull, Mark reasoned,”If Stuart planned it this way, there must be a reason for it. I’ll go and look for the others, you wait right here.”

Mark walked away at a fast pace towards the shuttle to inform Stuart. Others could go to hell, after all, who remembers the second person who stepped on the moon.

Aaram stood there reminiscing about the last five years. No, he couldn’t remember a single pleasant moment. For a minute he thought about Natasha but she too had always ignored his advances. He was going to look for whatever/whoever was here. It had to be intelligent, whatever it was, nothing else could explain the condition in which they had found themselves. Shiver ran down his spine at the thought of being the first one to see extraterrestrial life. Consulting others would divide the glory. The dice had been cast.

Stuart smiled to himself hugging the book close to his chest. He was warmed by the thought of the pleasure his team would derive at the inclusion of their name in his book. He hadn’t taken their permission but he knew they would forgive him. He hoped they hadn’t guessed the surprise. This was his big secret.

The realization of how dangerous these people could be dawned on Mark as he moved towards the shuttle. After all they had assaulted them. He reached the place where the shuttle had landed.

On reaching earth, they were inundated by unimaginable affection and attention. The small loss was forgotten. This was the  discovery of the millennium. Their names would go down in the annals of history. They were interviewed and their face splashed all over the news channels and the internet. Hollywood sensed a new sensation in them. Soon they would visit Enceladus and Rhea. They basked in the glory and fame. The one person who was happier than them was Stuart.

They attended the meeting which discussed the possibilities of bringing back those who had died recently.” Maybe they still existed around them in the form of energy”, thought Kevin. He was  guilt ridden about what they had done with the three of them. To have assaulted them and abandoned them. It was a sure death. His grouse won over his conscience,” but they had never given him his share of credit”, he mused. Jonathan and Kevin signed the various papers. Everyone was talking about them. They were NEWS. They had finally got their due.

Mark sat their famished, cold and near death. At the same place with a huge burnt patch where their shuttle once stood. Death would be a relief.

Jonathan and Kevin returned from the meeting which discussed the possibility of bringing back the dead.” I hope traces of their energy are not found”, joked Jonathan. But they could only hope…

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