Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part V

Older parts can be tracked here.

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.


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.


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.

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