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The Thinking Molecules of Titan: Ending by Brett Grayson

Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. This is one of four endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.

Brett Grayson writes:

She shrugged and handed the iPhone back to Mason. Just then, Dr. Rosen rushed up to their table. "You're all here, thank goodness," he said, out of breath. "Have you been talking about the patterns?"

The geeks shot a quick look at each other and answered in unison, "Yes!" It was Alex who asked the obvious question. "Did you run all the way from the lab just to talk about the patterns?"

Rosen nodded fast. "We gotta get back to the lab and figure something out," he said, looking sweatier by the moment. Mason and Claire locked eyes. Were there really dancing molecules on Titan?

Showing he meant business, Rosen pulled out a handful of cash out of his wallet and paid everyone's tab, definitely overpaying.

Alex was stunned. "Is this for real?" he asked. Regan scarfed down the last bite of the pie and exclaimed with a mouth full of crumbles, "This is so exciting!!!"

They power-walked back to the lab as Rosen explained the urgency. "Nine years ago, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, right? It was celebrated across the world as a scientific breakthrough. But no one knew, no one cared about where the RTG's landed!"

They hurried past the corner of Green and Wright. Mason made sure to give a quick glance at Alma Mater, still standing.

Elliot asked, "The RTG's?" Elliot—and everyone else—knew that the radioisotope thermoelectric generators simply provided the fuel for the Huygens probe. "What about them?"

Rosen stopped and whirled around, just before swiping his ID card to enter the lab. "Don't you see? The RTG's have been sitting on Titan for years and years, releasing radiation from the…"

"Plutonium-238," Claire interrupted. "The RTG's used Plutonium-238 because solar energy would be insufficient around Saturn. I remember NASA was deathly afraid about the RTG's not making it out of our atmosphere."

They entered the laboratory, gathering in a tight circle. The NCSA building was famous for its cramped lab spaces, especially compared to the newer labs at the Siebel Center for Computer Science building down the street.

"So," Mason asked aloud, "is the idea that Plutonium-238 sat on Titan and all the while released radioactive materials into the environment… and that got the molecules to start hopping around? You're suggesting that is what's causing the molecules to, uh, think?"

Rosen looked at the group, somber and matted with sweat. "My friends," he uttered, "we have created life."

Alex shook his head. "Come on, this is ridiculous. Plutonium-238 doesn't work like that. We don't live in the comic books, guys!"

"But who knows what it does to the molecules on Titan?" Claire said.

Rosen held out his hand like a crosswalk officer, signifying an end to the conversation. "I didn't bring you guys back to the lab to debate the effects of radioactive isotopes on foreign planets. There's more to the story. Bruce, who all did you tell about the pattern?"

"Just Mason. I texted him an hour ago. And," he gestured to Alex, Regan and Claire, "we were talking about it at the diner."

Rosen looked relieved. "Good. I contacted ESTEC and they didn't pick up any reading at all," he said.

Alex smirked. "OK, hold on," he said. "None of the sixteen European countries picked up on the pattern? Not even Romania? What else do they have to do??" That got a giggle out of Regan.

"Well, we've got proof right here," said Claire, pointing to Mason. "I heard it myself on Mason's iPhone," Claire said.

Rosen's eyes darted to Mason. "You transferred the recording to your phone? May I see it?" Mason queued up the audio and handed his iPhone to Rosen.

"This is the only recording of the pattern," said Rosen, coolly.

Claire was perplexed at Rosen's assertion. "What about the lab's archives?"

"I destroyed the archive, Claire. This communication from Titan, or whatever it is, cannot be allowed to exist. I'm sorry… but this has to be done."

And with that, Rosen tightly gripped the iPhone and smashed it on the corner of a table-mounted vacuum gauge.

Mason lunged at Rosen, yelling "STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!" Regan shrieked. Alex just stood and stared in disbelief.

Elliot and Mason grabbed Rosen, trying to wrestle the phone from his hands but to no avail. He fought his way out of the tussle and continued violently smashing the phone against pieces of lab equipment, this time a steel safe. Those iPhones are surprisingly resilient. After a few more cracks, it exploded into a thousand shards, taking chunks off Rosen's fingers. He collapsed on the lab floor and clutched his bloody hand. "I did it!" he yelped.

Elliot and Claire frantically picked up the pieces of plastic and aluminum but knew it was a futile effort. The phone was destroyed, and with it the alien audio. Regan had called the campus police, who would be there in seconds. Mason kneeled down next to Rosen. "Why," Mason uttered. "Why did you do this?"

"Mason, don't be stupid, we had no choice. ESTEC didn't hear the pattern, and we shouldn't have either. Don't you get it? If the world found out we created life on another planet, it would turn everything upside down. There would be panic in the streets, total chaos. We can't play God, Mason! We averted disaster by destroying the only bit of evidence… thank goodness, we averted disaster."

Mason sat there next to the bloodied, exhausted Rosen and replayed the night's events in his head.

That's when the Urbana policemen ran in, ordering everyone to stay put so they could find out 'what the hell just happened.' Mason stood up and turned towards them, dusting himself off. "It's OK, officers," Mason said with a smile. "Rosen's never heard of iCloud."

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