Even at noon, it's dark here. I fight the pointless urge to swing the image amplification tubes up and away from my helmet visor. The thick brown haze is unrelieved in all directions, with a light methane drizzle that's been going on for the past three weeks. Huddled in a small listening post, dished out of the surface and lined with insulation, the greyscale of thermal imaging shows very little. From the transformer I'm sitting on, trying to glean any extra heat I can, I can see the cold icy plain and the warmer power line half-buried in it. The plain is otherwise featureless, small chunks of water ice on a slushy, filthy substrate. The heating elements in my suit aren't keeping up because of the rain, perhaps I should move around a bit, try to keep blood flowing. Fishing around in the bottom of the fighting pit, I retrieve and buckle on my snowshoes. An IR spotlight comes to life with the flick of a switch, and I clamber up over the breastwork of the post.
My skis and poles are stuck into the slush behind the post, by the path back to base. A quick glance at my wrist shows that there's still forty minutes left on my watch. I have begun to hate my rifle for the heat it absorbs from my hands. I hated this moon from the first time I laid eyes on it. The omnipresent stench of aromatic hydrocarbons is forever in my nose, seeping in through helmet seals, window gaskets, airlocks. The steam decontamination cycle in the airlock at base does little to mitigate it. In a pouch on my thigh, the ever-present reminder of the hazards here: a sulfanegen injector, because the atmosphere on this Godforsaken moon has cyanide in it. Squelching over the landscape, kicking aside occasional "rocks", I regret ever signing up for this. The x-pattern of the heat elements in my suit burns in contrast with the bitter cold. A rifle designed to function here has to be heated the same way. The alloys would be too brittle otherwise, but down at ninety-three kelvin, everything works right. That's a lie, nothing works right, but the rifle shoots at least.
Look around, run through the routine that is as natural as breathing, white-hot, black-hot, image-amp, and back. None of the view modes reveal anything new. The spotlight at the LP/OP blazes into the haze-dark noon, an idiot's waypoint. The ground beneath my snowshoes crunches and squishes, the dark tholin ooze that rained down over millenia sticking to my feet like tar. It's a witches' brew of low-temperature chemistry, awful shit that boils away in a normal atmosphere and sets off the chemical alarm inside our base if you forget to decontaminate when you head in. Having checked and made sure there weren't any bad guys trying to sneak up on my post, I start heading back. The smart mines out here know better than to go off for me, but they could also freeze over and let someone get close. The winking status diodes tell me all is well. The parapet of the position with its moronically-beaming light provides a warm Titan welcome. Twenty minutes left on watch now. It is with small joy that I set the rifle back down on the firing step and unbuckle my snowshoes.
Switch the light off, just in case. A heat-seeking missile could home in on it from over the horizon under these circumstances, and we don't want that, now do we? I busy myself in the pointless task of scraping the ammoniacal goo off of the deck plating. The motion sensors, not to mention the infinitely patient bounding mines, will keep an eye out for me. Switching from IR to image-amp helps pinpoint where my boots have smirched the deck. Long minutes of ineffectual scrubbing occupy me, no thoughts passing through my head save my hate for this moon. At long last, my relief shows up. We're under radio silence, but the atmosphere here is thick enough to talk to him. While he sticks his skis into the slushbank behind the rear parapet, I turn the watch over to him and buckle my own skis on. I sling my rifle over my shoulder and begin to pole myself back to the firebase. The blue-white tones of the image-amp tubes contrast with the dull ochre glow visible along the bottom edge of my faceplate. The leveled path is picked out in grainy phosphorescence, vanishing into the haze after a few meters. White-hot infrared shows the trail and the half-buried power line running all the way back to base.
I have come to understand how the Roman legionnaires in Britain must have felt. Dragged out to the cold, dark edge of existence for the sake of the Empire, fighting back savages who melt into the countryside as soon as you give pursuit. Nothing has changed in the centuries since then. I was born beneath blue skies, on a world with warm sunlight and cool breezes, where the only thing that falls from the sky is clear, pure water. I know that there are trees, but I haven't seen one in years. Rumor has it that Huygens City has a park with trees, but that's so far away it may as well not exist. What I see before me, and what I just skied away from, constitute my whole world for the rest of my tour.
The habitat portion of our base is jacked up on stilts, the heart of Firebase Eight. A cooling tower rises from behind the ice-block wall which protects the physical plant from incoming fire. Here, at least there are lights. Honest-to-God visible-spectrum lighting, meaning I can turn off the thermals for the first time since I left the hab. Even fully lit, the place is unappealing. The palette ranges in hue from mustard to ochre, with sepia-toned tholin deposits formed on top of every exposed surface. The camouflage cover to my suit would be quite effective, were it not for the sky-blue helmet. The howl of the methane turbine generator penetrates through that helmet of mine. The autonomous guns in the battery stand their watch patiently in the center of the base, barrels pointed to some unknown azimuth. The floodlight reflections glint from the lenses on the sensor packs, and glow on the brass shells in the ready racks.
Taking care not to trip over any of the myriad power lines running along the ground, I finally return to the airlock. The seven-times-too-easy climb up the ladder brings me back into the realm of society, a sign that humans other than myself and my relief still live. Open the hatch, throw myself inside, close the hatch. Where there are soldiers, there is graffiti. This bit is new, a quick scrawl on the inner door of the lock. "WHY ARE WE HERE" without an interrogative. The steam jets activate to boil off most of the surface contaminants. It's unpleasantly warm, even through the insulated suit. While I wait on the decon cycle, I recall the answer to the question. It's all about Mars.
This firebase is one of many in a chain which secures the area around Kraken Mare. On the shores of that strange sea, automated factories suck up methane day and night, sending tank cars full of the filtered product to Huygens City, where it is combined with liquid oxygen cracked from the water ice bedrock to serve as rocket propellant. The rockets launch hourly, the glare from the rockets lighting up the city like the sunrise it will never truly see. The sole export of Titan is nitrogen, in as many forms as can be extracted and sent down the long fall to Mars.
The airlock lets me through into the ready room. First stop is the armorer's cage, to hand in my rifle and ammunition. Finally, I can get out of my suit. I make my way to my locker and get on with it. Helmet first, onto the shelf at the top. Breathe deeply of the air in here, the Titan smell of hydrocarbons overlaid with more human smells. I can hear weights being dropped in the gym down the passageway, dishes clattering in the galley, the low hum of conversation that we take with us everywhere. Load-bearing gear next, then the camouflage outer covering. Life support pack onto the charger, boots in the bottom corner, thermal layer hung on its hook, under-layer into the laundry bin by the door. The boots and coveralls for indoor wear are downright comfortable after all that, with a sky-blue beret to top it off. It's time for some rest, a spot beneath warm blankets calls to me.
Mars needs every bit of nitrogen it can get. Nitrogen to bulk up the atmosphere, nitrates to enrich the soil, ammonium nitrate explosives for landscaping, and hundreds of other uses. Titan has it all in abundance, and the UN-approved program to terraform Mars took that into account. So did the wild men in the Martian badlands, the ones dedicated to keeping Mars red. Not satisfied with sabotage and terrorism on Mars, some of them snuck onto flights out here, and vanished into the hinterlands. The extraction projects began to see the same problems that had plagued the terraforming effort on Mars for years. To the UN, the same solution was warranted. Colonial Authority troops were sent on what turned out to be the only assignment worse than the big red itself.
Further into the habitat, past the cabbage smell of the galley and the studied hum of the operations center. The OIC's door is open, but the glance through shows that our officer in charge is sleeping at his desk. No need to bother the poor man, who's found out how little West Point prepared him for the outer solar system. The small LZ is visible through his window, the arrowhead shapes of attack drones awaiting the next strike mission. Rumor from Mars has it that things are getting tense down there. Here, an entire flight's worth of colonists that landed in Dilmun are whispered to have up and left for the hills the other week. The bunkrooms are at the other end of the hab from the airlock. Officers in one, battery gunners and drone mechanics in the next, and the infantry platoon split up between the next two. I open the airtight hatch to my bunkroom and step inside.
Tightly packed bunks, lockers around the periphery of the room, the soft sounds of men asleep after a long day. Eyelids heavy, outweighed only by my leaden limbs, I stumble towards my own rack. Boots off and on the deck, lift myself once again too easily into the top rack. The hum of ventilation fans, soft snoring, the smells of sweat and coffee, yesterday's cabbage and the omnipresent hydrocarbon tang. For future generations to be born under a blue Martian sky, I am made to endure this. The lowest level of Hell was supposed to be bitterly cold, reserved for traitors and those who broke oaths. I wonder what betrayal I must have unknowingly committed to be consigned to this dark Cocytus of a moon, to be beneath unending haze in a place where liquid water is as molten rock. All I can do is sleep, to stand watch another day.
SciFiQuest 3017: The Frontier that Wouldn't End - Many thanks to RedOmega for inspiration and proofreading.