CHAPTER 74

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The perpetual twilight that lasted for eight Earth day's began to give way to a Titan night. With over four hours to nightfall, Phoenix and Ariel's path grew dimmer with every step as they closed in on Habitat One. Technically, at anytime they could sleep for another three hours and twenty minutes like they had been doing but when they awoke they'd have to push strong and steady to make it by sundown. That was a risk Phoenix wasn't willing to take. He wouldn't put Ariel in that kind of danger for a nap, or himself for that matter.

Over the last few hours, he'd grown exhausted, and then out of nowhere, he'd found a second wind. A strong second wind. One that he wasn't used to in all his years as a Naval veteran.

It was easy to overlook or fail to see, but it all came down to the serum.

According to Dr. Lawson, or Sarah, whichever she preferred to be called, when they were gassed back at Site B on Earth, or at some point afterward, they had been given the Titan X serum. The drug or combination of drugs thereof had granted them immortality and increased strength and stamina. That would explain the second wind. Whenever their bodies grew weary from exertion, their super cells would do whatever super cells did, and regenerate, or reenergize.

Phoenix glanced over at Ariel...she was moving along at his side with a pep in her step, at a decent clip. No sign of slowing down or becoming fatigued.

"Whatcha think? Can you keep going the rest of the way without a snooze?" he said.

She bumped her fist against his arm. "Are you kidding? I feel great."

"Good because if we slept for another three-twenty spell, we'd have just over an hour to reach the habitat."

"That's plenty of time."

Phoenix smirked. "More than enough."

Ever since they crash landed on Titan and departed from the escape pod, he'd had connection moments with Ariel. Not anything too close. They had thermal suits that prevented certain physical activities. But her personality gelled with his. Since Nova passed away—a second time—he'd felt a passive drawing to Ariel like a comet being pulled toward the sun. He was that comet...hurdling toward an unknown destiny, and she was that sun...bright and brilliant, and infinitely warm.

Ariel stopped walking and checked her wrist display. "Only one hour to Habitat One." She furrowed her brow. "As you mentioned earlier, we're now ahead of the pair of dots closing in on us, west of our position. And the other pair are still stuck in the same location near Mackay Lacus, that small lake. Something is obviously wrong."

Phoenix nodded in the direction they were traveling. "Walk and talk." Once they were on their way again, he shared his thoughts. "Whoever they are, Sarah and that Wolf guy, or Callisto and Luna, they're probably not faring too well. Could be dead or maybe their suits malfunctioned and they're frozen solid. We can worry about them later, once we make it to the habitat."

"Once again, I agree, but I don't like it."

"Me either."

As they forged on, the mountainous ridges that were clustered around the north pole looked like jagged knives jutting into the yellowish sky. A misty fog clung to the lower elevations and the more they walked, the terrain rose under their feet. The path to the habitat led them straight through the foothills of those rugged peaks, forcing them to pass through a bank of fog. It was similar to fog on Earth, but Phoenix had to remind himself that the mist wasn't made up of water. It was methane. As the sun hung low in the sky behind them, it created an eerie glimmer of light on top of the cloudy mist, painting the brown mountains to the north with a slick glistening of moisture. Phoenix figured it was an illusion like a mirage in a desert. Either way, the only concern they had was picking their way through the fog.

By his estimation, visibility had lowered to less than fifty percent. They had to be careful. They didn't want to take a wrong turn and get off course or walk off of a steep cliff.

"Switch off your helmet lights and use the ones mounted on the back of your wrists," he said.

Ariel did as Phoenix advised and added, "I noticed the lights earlier but figured we didn't need them since we had the helmet mounted beams."

The wrist mounted flashlights cut through the bottom of the fog, illuminating the carbon soil with a ghostly brown glow. Because the beams were aimed low, the higher parts of the mist disappeared. It was the same thing as using low beams versus bright headlights with an automobile back home. Now they could see and that meant they could keep moving.

Well into their mountain hike, the ground slanted down again as they reached the highest point of the trail they'd been walking and started down the other side. As they continued, the fog broke and visibility improved. Soon, they left the mountains behind as they trekked to the northeast, moving just off center of the north pole. As they pressed on, the carbon-covered ice beneath their feet flattened out into a low plain once again.

Phoenix checked the map on his wrist display. "It's straight ahead. Less than hour away. We should run right into it."

"As big as the habitat is, it's small compared to this open plain."

"We won't miss it. Our suits are homing in on its beacon."

As they drew near, the sun dropped lower, reduced to a pinpoint in the sky. The area ahead of them became enveloped in a growing shadow. The fog had slowed them down and nudged them closer to nightfall.

Along the way, they adjusted their arduous trek to remain in line with the habitat's beacon. The shadows increased and night began to fall on the gloomy landscape of Titan. If they didn't find the circular shape of the habitat soon, they'd run the risk of being stranded in the barren wilderness for an eight-day-long night, possibly wandering around in circles trying to home in on the beacon. But as night finally shrouded them, three beams of light pierced the darkness and provided a visual reference point like a lighthouse on a distant shore. Before long, the three-story structure, as big around as a small coliseum emerged from the dark with three floodlights brightening the surrounding grounds around it.

The circular habitat was painted white with an orange rim around the uppermost floor below the round but slanted roof. The brown carbon material stuck to its exterior, dirtying its appearance, reminding Phoenix of a base in Antartica back on Earth, splotched not with white snow, but instead with grimy carbon. Habitat One would be their base of operations for the extent of their stay on Titan. And without a spaceship to get off the ice ball moon, that stay might be longer than anticipated.

Phoenix stopped at a set of metal steps that led up to a doorway illuminated by one of the floodlights. He lifted the silver case up a bit to bring it to Ariel's attention. "Let's see if anybody's home, and eventually, if and when Sarah gets here, see what's inside this case."

"Sounds like a plan to me. Care to give the door a knock?" Ariel raised a brow.

"Don't mind if I do," Phoenix replied, relieved to have reached their destination...the warm confines of Habitat One.

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