“Forge and Fledge” by Lauren C. Teffeau
“And how did that make you feel, Zhen?” Dr. Veler asks in that soothing monotone of hers.
I know every inch of her office on the upper level of the rig. The metal desk she primly sits behind, legs crossed at the ankles. Motivational posters in flimsy plastic frames. The eternal orange-tinted gloaming beyond the window. When the hydrocarbon clouds part, I can sometimes make out the rig’s shadow as it drifts over Titan’s frozen, craggy surface.
I look down at my work boots. Droplets of grease fleck the toe box. “Dunno. I mean the training’s all right, but I’d rather be in the machine shop.”
Dr. Veler taps something into her touch screen. “You feel safe there? The machine shop?”
Safe? That’s a strange term for it. But then again she’s always twisting around my words. “I like being there when I’m not in class, if that’s what you mean.”
“What else is there for someone like me?”
Dr. Veler eyes me over her screen. “You’re angry.”
“What? No. I’m…” I look down at my hands, white-knuckled and knotted together. My chest heaves with each breath.
“We’ve talked before about your attitude.”
My head snaps up. “But I’m not…like him.”
“That’s why we have these sessions. To keep it that way.” She holds my gaze, then turns back to her touch screen. “You’ll be seventeen next month. You can be something more than your parents, Zhen, but you have to want it.”
I cross my arms. Usually, I don’t totally hate my sessions with Dr. Veler. When we first met, she told me she believed in nurture versus nature – otherwise she wouldn’t have signed on for such an unglamorous position with a remote mining facility. She seems like she actually cares. Although her line of questioning makes me want to cut things short today. But if I bail, she’ll say it’s just another example of the genetic heritage inside me we’ve been working so hard to keep subdued.
Dr. Veler drums her fingers on the desk in time to my heartbeat. “Let’s return to your vocational training. Your company trainer’s been pleased with your aptitude.”
I stare at the ceiling. Rig staff members take turns babysitting me and the other kids in a converted meeting room every day. When they run out of things to teach us, they farm us out to a vocational trainer for part of the school day to see what position on the rig we’ll be best suited for once we’re old enough to legally do the work. The company never planned for us to be here, they’re sure as hell not paying to ship us back to Earth, so they may as well find a use for us.
Dr. Veler sighs, setting aside her touch screen. “At your request, I contacted your extended family.” She pauses, like she always does when she’s trying to come up with just the right words. “Your mother’s parents are dead, and your father’s…well, they disowned him before he was even sentenced here.”
Technically, I’m an orphan of Titan. But I know who my mother is – she just can’t claim me because she’ll always be a prisoner of the system. She told me once my father was another prisoner – they’d meet during shift changes and one thing led to another. That wasn’t so shocking. After all, every kid on the rig has a similar story. But when she said my father was killed during the convict uprising on the rig a few years back, that was different. It meant I had to go to weekly meetings with Dr. Veler on top of my classes.
I lift a shoulder at the news. It was a long shot. Dr. Veler hoped to convince my relatives to give me seed money for a transport that could take me to one of the Martian colonies – if not Earth itself – where there’d be more education and employment opportunities. After all, I can’t help who my parents are. I don’t deserve to be shackled to the same fate. But no one seems to care that me and the other orphans are rotting out here.
“I’m sorry, Zhen,” Dr. Veler says.
“Are we done?”
She blinks away the hurt quickly, her professional self once more. “Next week, at our usual time.”
I should call it a day and rest up for my morning shift with the company trainer. But a live current hums underneath my skin, leaving me itchy and raw. Dr. Veler says whenever I feel one of these moods coming on it’s best to distract myself with something else. My father’s poor impulse control forever hanging over me.
It’s not like I can go outside. I’ve read enough Earth books to know what I’m missing. No green. No wide-open spaces.
I’ve been outside once, away from the rig’s artificial gravity field. Had to bundle up in a pressurized suit insulated to guard against the subzero temperatures. What surprised me most was the way the atmospheric pressure weighed down my body even as my steps buoyed me up thanks to the moon’s low gravity.
An odd combination one of the engineers told us makes it possible for the rig to hover above Titan’s icy surface. She winked and then said that the high pressure and low grav made even human flight possible. Not that there’s anywhere to go.
I settle on the machine shop – no matter what Dr. Veler thinks about that choice.
Tokala greets me as I suit up and get my goggles and gloves into place. Crunch times when they need stuff machined fast, I’ll pitch in, but mostly I work on my own projects. Tokala’s had some of them mounted to walls around the rig – says they brighten up the place. Not sure I believe that, but if it means I can keep working down here, that’s fine with me.
The first time I met him, he got in my face, demanding to know where I got my “toys.” I was eight – the youngest in the pack of orphans running wild through the rig before the company got the injunction to enforce mandatory contraception for prisoners.
I didn’t talk much then, just collected scrap metal and plastic then cobbled everything together into silly sculptures and figurines. I’m pretty sure I stuttered when I explained this to Tokala. But he just grunted, and when I saw him again, he brought me some leftovers from the machine shop. Said when I got older he’d let me on the shop floor.
These days, he says once my vocational training is done, he’ll formally request me for a position. They’ll pay me peanuts, but maybe one day, one day, I’ll earn enough for my passage away from this place. But I’m not holding my breath.
I take out my latest project from the storage lockers lining the back wall. Tokala once asked me what it’s supposed to be. Told him I didn’t know, but that’s not true.
I lay everything out on a workbench. Overlapping metal and plastic feathers riveted together. Kept in segments to hide the truth. The light catches the silver and bronze rivets, the polished edges of the plastic. My chest constricts at the sight of my wings.
Dr. Veler says it’s healthy to have a creative outlet for all the emotions locked up inside. They need to get out, to be free. Let your mind soar, she told me once, and it will be easier to forget my prison. I haven’t told her about these. She’d probably say something like because I’m so secretive about them, I don’t know, I must have an unhealthy fixation on their symbolic nature or some crap like that.
There’s no winning with psychiatrists.
Dinner’s usually tinned military rations or rehydrated nutrition bars pressed into molds with a rotating array of sauces dumped over top. The convicts are kept busy enough it doesn’t matter so much what they eat, so long as they do. Orphans aren’t so lucky.
I take my tray and join a woman in an orange jumpsuit, ankles hobbled by magnetized shackles. She has brown hair going gray and a face that was once beautiful, now unremarkable. But a small smile changes all that when she sees me and slaps the plastic chair beside her.
“Zhen. How was school today?” Shima asks.
I scoff. The “school” is the minimum required by law since the mining company realized too late they’d be responsible for any offspring their penal workers had. Dr. Veler’s been giving me extra work to do for months so I’d have an easier time getting caught up if I ever left this place. Not that it matters now.
Shima chuckles into her water. “You should’ve seen it. I was called into the shift leader’s office today–”
“What was it this time?”
“Hey. What’s with you? I could’ve done something good. You ever think of that?”
I raise my eyebrows. Shima said what she did wasn’t so bad to warrant sterilization, same with many of the other convicts. That’s why she was given the opportunity to work off her sentence. But she never told me how much time she had left. I always assumed it was until her body finally quit on her.
Shima holds up her hands. “Fine. I’ve been a couple of seconds late with my timing on the line. Marty thinks it’s my joints, repetitive stress, whatever. Gotta appointment with the company doc tomorrow. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.”
I take a bite of some sort of loaf covered in a thick yellow sauce with green specks.
“While I was in there, the foremen asks Marty to come to the observation room when his shift’s over. I give Marty a hard time about it – ask him what he’s done wrong. He tells me there’s been a research vessel in the area. To examine how Saturn affects Titan’s orbit or something.”
She leans toward me. “But get this. They refused the staff’s greetings and offer to socialize even though they’re moving through the area slow enough to stopover. Marty denied it, but I think he was disappointed – bet they’re starved for fresh faces.”
Shima’s eyes twinkle despite the cafeteria’s tinny light. “Like a bunch of uptight scientists would have anything to do with the morons here. Ha!”
“Still, new faces couldn’t hurt.”
She nods. “Marty said after this the staff may need to reinvigorate the social life on the rig for ‘morale’ since our next shipment isn’t for another month.”
I roll my eyes.
“I know. Me and the others are still annoyed they busted up the gaming ring a few months ago.”
I push around the so-called food on my plate with my plastic fork. “But didn’t someone die?”
“What’s good for morale is different for us. And death ain’t so bad when you’re chained to the line.” Shima frowns into her cup.
I bite my lip. “Dr. Veler contacted my relatives on Earth to see if they’d sponsor my travel to one of the other colonies or something.” The words rush out of me. “Your parents are dead.”
Shima snorts. “I could’ve told you that.”
I blink up at her. “You knew?”
“Well, yeah. They’re my parents.”
And my grandparents, but I guess that’s never occurred to her. I shove back from the table.
She looks up. “What’s with you?”
I square my shoulders, electricity crackling under my skin. “Told Tokala I’d help him in the shop.”
Her eyes narrow, then she smiles. “You’re a good kid, Zhen.”
I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve never been close. We don’t talk about these kinds of things, so when she does act motherly – the times I can count on one hand – I freeze up, hyperaware of the awkwardness.
I settle on, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Back to the machine shop. The only answer for today.
Tokala’s closed things up. But he gave me the override code within six months of first letting me onto the floor.
I get out my wings. I can’t ignore what they’re supposed to be. Not any longer. Dr. Veler said it herself. I need to find a way to fly from here, rise up from my past. I don’t care if my poor impulse control’s taking over or not.
When we learned in school that on Titan, people can fly, I started working on my wings. And I guess subconsciously I’ve been waiting for a reason to see if the rumors are true.
With the last rivet welded into place, my metal and plastic feathers in perfect order, I have my wings. I just need a subzero suit.
Those are kept in the maintenance bay. It’s not hard to bypass the door security – orphans learn to do that early on – and I grab the first suit I find. I get it on, seal it up tight, then fit the wings’ rubber and canvas straps over my shoulders. Like two halves of a heart, the wings run the length of each arm, the tips jingling against concrete floors as I make my way to the upper deck.
I stand on the railing. The thick atmosphere settles over me as door alarms protest. The other orphans – and the convicts – are always setting them off. I’ve got a few minutes at least to work up my courage before security comes. I stare into Titan’s haze.
There’s nothing here for me. I knew that for a while, but…now is the time to do something about it.
I jump off the railing, higher than I ever could’ve managed inside the rig. My heart stops as my ascent slows, and I tip forward into the sky.
The drag of the wings digs the straps into my shoulders almost immediately. Opening my arms wide, I hold them like that for a count of three, and wait for that fraught moment when I’ll know just how good my handiwork is.
The wings hold. I pump my arms, fly a few feet higher, and lean right to angle myself toward my future.
If the research vessel is here to monitor Saturn’s interaction with Titan, that makes it easy to navigate. I just have to aim for the yellow-orange disk eclipsing the sky. With luck, I’ll catch up to the ship before it gets too far.
The suit keeps out the cold – true. But the heat my body exerts to keep me aloft is thick inside the layers, slow to escape. Sweat pricks my eyes as I flap and glide and flap some more.
I fly around clouds of hydrocarbons when I can. Titan’s covered in them. Methane, ethane, tholins…it’s cold enough they behave like water on Earth – collecting in clouds, raining down on the surface, and then returning to the atmosphere where the process starts all over again.
A huge hydrocarbon pocket’s dead ahead, unavoidable. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the reduced visibility and increased drag as I sink into it.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. I hit something and nearly double over in pain. My eyes widen at a lifeless body in a pressurized suit just like mine, hovering in the cloud. There’s no telling how long the body’s been trapped here.
Oh god. There are more of them. Dozens… Too many helmets knocked aside, revealing ghostly pale faces, slightly bloated, eyes open or closed, blood staining their suits, slash marks cutting through the thick material along necks and wrists… The cold, the hydrocarbons, must slow the rate of decay.
Dinner claws its way back up my throat. I choke it back as I try to maneuver between the bodies. I can make out the company’s logo on some of the suits. Bodies usually get incinerated on the rig. But this…so many… The convict uprising?
I’ve pieced together enough of the history to know a team of convicts were assigned to repair a faulty exterior handling unit. A dangerous mission requiring self-propelled pressurized suits with safety lines tethering them to the rig. And now those suits are the very things keeping them in gruesome orbit around Titan.
Instead of repairs, the convicts cut the lines and tried to highjack control of the rig. The company security force fought them off. I’m not sure if tensions between the convicts and the rig staff will ever go away.
I should keep going, keep my head down and get out of here, but I’m looking for him. The one who gave me life and then made it worse.
A figure on the periphery demands my attention. There’s nothing special about it, except for the black hair, glossy dark just like mine. A sturdy build that’ll be mine in a few years.
Without thinking, I’m already banking to sweep around and take another look. I blink back sweat and something else as I stare into my father’s face.
He’s not scary, not in the way I expected from all the hushed tones in which he’s been mentioned over the years. I have his cheekbones and jaw but Shima’s lips and nose. His eyes are closed, relaxed, despite the iron-brown stain across his front.
But he’s still a stranger. And he can’t hold me back any longer. I won’t let him.
My stomach heaves. I’ve got to keep going. I’ve got to find the research vessel. My only way out. With my wings, they can’t doubt my determination. I’ll prove myself useful. I’ll prove I am more.
A few flaps of my wings, and I escape the cloud.
I force myself to ignore the nausea. I barely register the burn of my shoulders and pectorals. I only have eyes for the dark blip on the horizon. The research vessel.
If I had hesitated, if I hadn’t learned about it from Shima… No. I won’t think about that or the fact I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Tokala. But Dr. Veler will understand. At least she’ll try.
The bright lights urge me on. As I get closer I spy an observation deck where I can strip off my wings. Set down what I’ve been carrying so long. They can chain me to their machine shop if they want. I don’t care.
So long as the vessel leaves Titan’s orbit one day, that’s all that matters.
About the Author
Lauren C. Teffeau was born and raised on the East Coast, educated in the South, employed in the Midwest, and now lives and dreams in the Southwest. In the Summer of 2012, she attended Taos Toolbox, a master class in writing science fiction and fantasy.
When she was younger, she poked around in the back of wardrobes, tried to walk through mirrors, and always kept an eye out for secret passages, fairy rings, and messages from aliens. She was disappointed. Now, she writes to cope with her ordinary existence. Her work can be found in a variety of speculative fiction magazines and anthologies.
To learn more, please visit laurencteffeau.com.