A mote in God’s eye,
a straw upon the tempest,
Old Artificer, one the Professor's fliers, sped across the gulf toward the marina. Shagrug punched up the music index and found it was all Bach. He chose the Brandenburg Concertos, always appropriate for space-travel, and soon the cab was filled with sound.
He took a slight detour to examine the starship-in-progress. He drifted slowly along its length, from the erosion-shield in the bow, past the probe- and warden-bays and the series of fuel modules threaded on the long laser-track, to the fusion driver reaction chambers, surrounded by radiation fins, and the huge antimatter-drivers mounted in the stern.
He could imagine the fusion reaction chamber blazing like a small sun, the long ship accelerating, whipping past Jupiter on gravity-assist, and vanishing into the depths of interstellar space, and then—comfortably far from inhabited space--the antimatter-catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion units igniting to carry the ship to the chosen near stars at incredible speeds. He could imagine Athena, the main computer, chattering to herself throughout the long voyage, sending off robot wardens to repair ablation-damage, finally deciding on targets, launching probes, and sending data back to Earth as the Wily Odysseus plummeted through the target system at 38,000 kilometres per second.
Shagrug had to snap out of his music-induced reverie; the marina was before him. He glanced over the dozen small ships tethered about the dumbbell-shaped satellite until he spotted Fancy Dancer. He docked and cycled, made his way down the ladder-well, his weight increasing as he passed storerooms, welding-shops, kitchens and barracks, to the outer shell, where he shuffled down a curving corridor to the canteen.
At the door, he glanced over the motley collection of roustabouts and spacers until he recognized Wog and Gay at a table in the corner. Wog's sandy mane was thinning now, but he still sported the earrings and eye-patch. Gay was still a luscious babe but looking a little dissipated.
"Is that Little Shagrug?" Wog shouted over the music.
"Little?" said Gay coolly. "He's not so little anymore."
"Sit down. Sit down. Let me get you one of these." Wog held up a glass of some half-dozen coloured liquids in layers.
"What the hell is that?"
"A Jupiter Sunrise. It won't harm you. Be right back." He plunged into the crowd.
"It's all right, Shag, really," Gay said, giggling. "My goodness, how you've grown." Her eyes sparkled with drink.
Shagrug sat down. "How's Fancy?"
"Like the rest of us: not bad, for an old relic. What are you doing here? You going to be working with us?"
"I came looking for Karil and Loris." He looked up as Wog returned with his drink. "Here. Try this. There’s more coming. The Professor said you were the last to see them."
"That's right. On Ganymede. They're fine. Karil's taken up solar-sailing."
"They have yachts for rent at one of the big orbiting hotels. Karil does a little piloting. Anything to make ends meet, you know. Of course, he specializes in female tourists."
"Stupid," said Gay. "You're talking about his mother's lover."
Shagrug found them just as amusing as he had when he first met them, as a child on Mars. He sipped his drink, marvelling at its apparent defiance of the laws of fluid convection. Gradually, the canteen began to seem a very pleasant place. The too-loud music, the too-dim lighting, the people who at first had seemed a noisy, drunken crowd, had all become quite jolly.
"To Captain Solla," he toasted. "He should drown in his soup." This seemed terribly funny to Shagrug and he collapsed in a giggling fit.
"Solla?" Wog repeated. "That bastard?"
Shagrug blinked. "You know the man?"
"Know him? He was our jailer on Venus."
Shagrug snapped his fingers, with some difficulty. "I forgot you were there. Fancy crashlanded in a dust-storm in the Argyre, right? You had some of the leaders of the Ancilius Group aboard, and the Quasi took the lot of you."
"That's what happened, all right. Fancy was devastated, though it was hardly her fault. They shipped us off to Venus without trial and put her in the pound. We didn't make out so bad--Gay and me--because they kept us in the orbiting part of the prison. But a lot of people disappeared down the Hole."
"Hell Hole. That's the official name. Pressure-dome on the surface. Escape-proof, they say, though..."
"From what I hear, the colony's no picnic either, Wog. They compare it to Devil's Island."
"Well, I never heard of Devil's Island, but that would be a good name for it. They put all the prisoners together in the agricultural cylinder. We were expected to grow our own food and take care of ourselves, plus grow the food for the guards and administration. What's happened is that a kind of tribal society's developed. The strong ones lord it over the weaker ones, take all the women, all the produce, trade with the guards for favours. You've got to get a protector as soon as you can, or you're finished.
"It's hardest on the women, but they're mostly political prisoners, and I guess the High Companies figure they deserve what they get. There are a couple of Lesbian villages, though I'm not sure they're any better. Toughest bitches you ever saw. No men allowed. Gay survived because she had me to protect her, and I survived because I'm a crazy son of a bitch. Or I was, then. You're right; it's no picnic. But the Hole, or the Oven, or Limbo, as they call it, that's much worse. Outside the dome you've got pressures of 90 atmospheres or so, temperatures that would melt lead..."
They looked up as the waitress came with more drinks. “Thanks, Honey,” Wog said, and slipped her some credits.
"Tell me about Solla," Shagrug said.
"He was the Warden. Strict. By the book. Not too bad, I suppose, as guards go. And he wasn't corrupt. Just about the only one who wasn't. In fact, he got into trouble for busting up a little scam that the administration turned out to be in on too. Anyway, the leader of the Ancilius Group was a fellow by the name of..."
"Salim Malik. He's a folk-hero on Mars."
"Well, I don't know about his being such a hero. I knew him, you see. He was brilliant--I'll give him that--brave to the point of madness, but cold. Women were crazy about him, though. Anyway, he really got religion in the Hole. Don't blame him, I suppose, but I'll bet it made him even harder to stomach. He escaped."
Shagrug was uncomfortable listening to a hero of the Rebellion being denigrated this way, but the last remark stunned him. "Escaped? But you just said the place was escape-proof."
"So they say. Officially, he died on the surface, which makes sense. He garrotted a guard and took off in one of those armoured crawlers they have. Solla went after him, which is just as crazy. In any event, Malik was never seen again, though lots of people claim he's still alive. You know how it is with heroes. Solla turned up later, raving mad. It seems his crawler malfunctioned, as they often do, and he was missing for weeks.
"Apparently the controls jammed when the sulphuric acid got into the steering mechanism and the damn thing began crawling around the lowlands in huge circles. Between the thirst and the claustrophobia and the loneliness, and finally the heat when the refrigeration began to fail, he went off the deep end. It was only a fluke that they found him at all.
"But he was a hero too, you see, so they brought him back to Earth and more or less put his mind back together. It would have been better for us if they hadn't."
"Because he was put back in the Quasi Police and promoted to Major, which put him on the High Companies Advisory Council. From what I hear, he's the one most responsible for sabotaging the Professor's requests for funds."
"I wish I was. He's still a super-patriot, you know, just like he was when he was hounding Progeny and the Martian Liberation Front. Anything for Earth. Anyway, he made too many enemies after a while, got paranoid again, pushed his luck with some pretty unforgiving people. They demoted his ass back to Captain again and sent him to Mars to keep him out of the public eye. Did you run into him there?"
"Run into him! He's commanding the garrison at our commune!"
"Jesus, we can't get away from that man. I can see why they quarter the troops in the communes now, after all the police-stations that were blown up. Had a hand in a few myself." Wog thought a minute. "You don't suppose Solla finagled that particular post on purpose, do you? He certainly seems to have something against the Prof. I mean, I know Kelley's always been pro-Mars, and he knew Progeny from his university days, and he's helped your family a lot at various times, but there seems to be something really personal in all this."
"I don't know," Shagrug said. "But I don't like it."
"I don't mean to say your family's in danger. Solla's not vicious. That's not his style. But he might be trying to keep an eye on the Prof's friends, trying to get something on them."
"Maybe. Johanna saw through him right away, you know. It took me a little while, but I realized she was right. You should see the way he wraps Terry around his little finger. Johanna says Karil and Loris would qualify for the Free Trader amnesty if they joined the commune officially, became Martian citizens under High Company law. That's why I'm here, to try and talk them into coming home when the Project's finished. They'll stand up to Solla."
"I think that's a good idea," said Gay. "It's about time those two settled down with somebody like Terry. They've pushed their luck long enough."
"That's right," Wog said. "Loris seems indestructible sometimes, and I swear Karil's got a horseshoe up his ass, but one of these days they're going to run up against something too big to handle."
From less than 20,000 kilometres above the clouds, Jupiter filled the sky. The tiny, elongated moon Amalthea raced on its half-day orbit, pointing like a compass-needle toward its primary. On its outer end, partially protected from direct radiation, a collection of surface structures hinted at the maze of tunnels beneath. A steady stream of sulphur particles spiralling in from nearby Io's volcanic surface rained down upon the minor moon, and crimson clouds billowed in Atalanta's plasma-wash as she touched down.
The landing-pad sank quickly beneath the surface and a great hatch irised shut above. The chamber was pressurized, and a flood of detergents washed the ship clean of radioactive dust. A single figure slid down the ladder from the windowed gantry-house and bounded across the deck in the micro-gravity as Karil and Loris emerged from the ship. The man extended a steel claw in greeting and smiled as Loris accepted it. Some visitors, no doubt, avoided doing so.
"Captain, welcome to Amalthea. I'm foreman here. They call me Zito."
"I'm Loris, Zito. This is Karil."
Karil shook the cold steel hand, betraying no memory of recent unpleasant experiences. Most hazardous-duty personnel in the Jovian system were cyborgs. Zito was short and broad, with the massive skeleton and powerful shoulders necessary to anchor his bionic arms. He was middle-aged, probably approaching retirement, and his close-cropped hair was prematurely grey.
"No offense, Zito," Karil said. "But this place stinks as bad as Io."
"You get used to the taint of sulphur in the air," he laughed. "What you don't get used to is the nuisance-value gravity. The office is this way. Can I get you something?"
"Coffee." Karil said. "Please."
Zito paused a moment to run his gaze along Atalanta's sweeping form. "She's a beauty," he said. "Such economy of design. Damn near invisible in atmosphere too, I bet--like a knife-edge in the sky." He kicked off down the corridor, swinging from handhold to handhold with his powerful arms. Karil and Loris, used to free-fall, were able to follow him, and saw that it was much more efficient than trying to walk. In the office, one entire wall was a constantly changing display of the Jovian cloudscape. Here and there, lights blinked, accompanied by numbers.
"These are the extractors currently in place," Zito explained as he passed out coffee-bulbs. "That's the one working on the Professor's order. Number Five."
"Frankly," Loris said. "I was expecting a bigger operation. How many people do you have?"
"About two dozen. We're almost totally automated. The company doesn't like to risk exposing humans to radiation where robots will do."
"Can you give us a rundown?"
"Well, our purpose is to extract helium and deuterium from the Jovian atmosphere. We place the extractors in the clear strata between cloud-levels. Let me show you."
He touched a sensor on the console and a display appeared on the screen. "This level is ammonia cirrus. This lower level is ammonia-hydrosulfide crystals. Between the condensation levels is a layer of clear hydrogen-helium mixture. We keep the extractors at the proper altitude with what is basically a glorified hot-air balloon, using waste-heat from the power-reactor to generate lift. The pressure there is comparable to sea-level air-pressure on Earth, and the temperature ranges through the low hundreds below zero.
"There's another clear stratum at lower altitude, between the ammonia-hydrosulphide level and the lowest cloud-deck of water-ice, but we don't penetrate to that level very often. The pressure increases quickly as you descend, and a sudden downdraft could drop the aerostat through the clouds into twenty or thirty atmospheres. And of course, the radiation and electrical discharge makes communication difficult. In theory, the robots are intelligent enough to take action on their own, but the aerostats are slow to respond to command, and we don't like to take the risk."
"How do you get the fuel out?"
"We use glider-wing shuttle-tankers--not unlike your free-trader in design. That's the risky part. The shuttles are manned."
"Is that necessary?"
Zito shrugged. "Robots just aren't good enough. They can be programmed with the necessary flying-skills, of course, and their reflexes are faster than ours, but we find they lack something. A kind of instinctive feel for the vessel--like a river-pilot in a fog. I'm sure you know what I mean. We lost too many expensive robots in the early days; hazardous duty pay is cheaper."
"Have you flown shuttles yourself?"
"Still do. It's a remarkable experience. I remove my hands and plug directly into the helm. The view, of course, is breathtaking. I imagine you're familiar with atmospheric flight, on Earth."
"Well, Earth has only one troposphere--all the weather-hazards are confined to one thin layer. Jupiter has three, because different chemical compounds condense at different altitudes. You've got adjacent jet-streams flowing in opposite directions at a relative velocity near the speed of sound. You've got lightning bolts that would vaporize Ganymede City, and storms that could swallow whole planets. And of course, there's the radiation and the gravity."
"And when you've got the fuel into orbit?"
"We bump it to Aeolus for processing and transport by solar-sail tanker-train. That's the last we see of it."
"You're due to send a shipment to the Professor in a few days."
"That's right. Extractor Number Five, currently--" He glanced at the board. "--in the south equatorial belt 80,000 klicks west of the Red Spot, at an altitude of minus 45. That's 45 kilometres below the one-bar pressure level."
"Could we have a tour of the facilities?"
Zito showed them through the offices and workshops, the goat-pens and green-houses, the crew quarters and kitchens and recreation centre. A cyborg was exercising with weights attached to his body.
"This is Carlos. He's going home soon. Our tour of duty is limited here. On the shuttles you pick up a good deal of radiation, despite the shielding."
"Then, you haven't been down here long, yourself?"
"I came back. I had a desk-job on Callisto, but I missed Old One-Eye so much--" He gestured toward the port, where the Great Red Spot looked like a huge eye peering at them. "--that I put in for a last tour before retirement. The doctors okayed it, so here I am."
He showed them the hangar, where one of the shuttles was being repaired. It did bear a certain resemblance to a free-trader--a flying-wing pressure-tank with a pair of fusion drivers and a cramped bridge tacked on, almost as an afterthought.
"How are we coming along?" Zito asked the mechanic underneath.
"It's not going to be ready in time, Zito. We'll have to use Scorpio when she comes back from Number Three."
"We have only the dozen shuttles," Zito explained to his guests. "This is Virgo. She was caught in a downdraft and the shakeup damaged one of the ailerons and loosened a few welds. But one of the other shuttles will be back in time.
"We have to run them every hundred hours, so we keep them pretty busy. Returning up the gravity-well is not the problem you might think because we use the 12.7 kps rotation at the equator. We only need 10 kps to kick in the re-jet."
"Reverse ramjet. Instead of sucking in the air and injecting fuel, like you do in Earth's atmosphere, we suck in the atmosphere as fuel and inject oxygen. It's about time for dinner. Will you join us?"
"We'd love to."
In the small cafeteria, Karil and Loris sat with the crew at the single large table. All were cyborgs, typically built, some with one artificial arm, some with two, and many with large patches of artificial skin hiding who knew what bionic parts. They used their own knives and forks, as attachments, and lifted their metal cups with magnets inset into their palms.
Visitors, especially female, were obviously a rare treat, and they outdid themselves to entertain their guests. They told harrowing stories in an offhand manner and with a dry black humour and showed a surprisingly poetic appreciation of the beauty of Jupiter's inner atmosphere--a sight known only to them.
Dessert was interrupted by a frantic message over the comm. "Zito, we've lost contact with Number Five."
They leapt from the table and flew through the corridors to the office. A man was sitting at the console, tapping sensors with a grim expression on his face. One of the lights on the board had gone out.
"Can you raise her?" Zito asked as he bent over the console.
"Not a word. I was getting the standard robot chatter--position, altitude, wind-speed, conditions normal--and suddenly nothing."
"Damn. With Virgo down and Aquarius on her way up with a full tank... Where's Taurus?"
"Just entering the equatorial zone now. If they're going to rendezvous, she'll have to fly halfway round the circumference."
"No good. If all the systems on Number Five have failed, she'll be dropping like a stone by that time."
"Zito," Loris said, "is there any reason why we can't drop down ourselves and take a look at this aerostat?"
Zito looked at her. Doubt and elation fought for control of his face. "I have a confession to make," he said finally. "This is the third time we've lost an aerostat like this."
"It's got to be more than accident, Zito. You and the Prof are up against the same enemy. I'm sure of it."
"Do you have adequate shielding?"
"You'd be risking your life for a few tonnes of fuel."
"No, we'd be risking our lives to find out what's happening. That's our job as much as yours, you know."
Zito beamed. "Let's go, then."
They raced through the corridors again, burst into the hangar, and vaulted up the ladder into the ship. The drivers were already firing up.
"You heard, Atty?"
"I heard more than you think, Loris. I was in communication with the robots on Number Five, having an interesting conversation which I could not begin to translate, when suddenly they began to shut down the aerostat."
"They what?" said Zito.
"They began rattling off numbers and the systems began to shut down. I queried your central computer about these numbers and was informed that it was a parts manifest. Naturally, knowing the condition of your shuttles, I began to prepare for launch."
"Way ahead of us, as usual, Atty. This is Zito."
"Pleased to meet you, Zito."
"Likewise, Atty. Where can I strap in, Loris?"
"In the well, with Karil."
Loris strapped into her couch. The others dropped down the astrogator's well and did the same. The hangar was already being evacuated and in a minute the hatch irised open above them, revealing the stars.
"How's your heart, Zito?"
"Original equipment. Don't worry about me, Loris. I can take gees that would flatten a younger man. And on a full stomach, too.”
Atalanta lifted off, plasma roiling beneath her, drifted up through the hatch, and rose above the installation. Jupiter mounted the close horizon, peering at them with its single red eye. Atalanta roared into acceleration along the 270-kilometer length of Amalthea and plunged toward the planet.
Jupiter seemed to expand like an inflating balloon. Cloud-details became sharply defined--dark belts, bright zones, the swirling white anticyclones of the southern hemisphere circled by dark filamentary rings, ostrich-plume cumulus in lacy patterns, and thunderheads towering like mountain ranges. The cloudscape flooded across the sky, the horizon flattened and finally vanished altogether.
"We're entering the stratosphere," Zito said. "There's a thin smog of hydro-carbon aerosols. We'll be passing through a temperature inversion layer. Once we're below the effect of sunlight on the outer atmosphere, the temperature will drop to 173 below, and then increase steadily, 1.9 degrees for each kilometre of descent."
"Current temperature," Atalanta said, "is 113 below. Pressure is point-one. Descent velocity 26 kps. My outer hull is beginning to heat up."
"You'd better head for the relative calm of the jet-stream off your starboard bow, Loris. We want to avoid those two merging anticyclones over there. I wish I had a more precise..."
A cloud-map suddenly appeared on the big screen and Zito laughed. Their position, bearing, and velocity were displayed in bright green, sharply visible against the orange and white background. Zito removed a finger, stuck it in his belt, and replaced it with a light-pencil.
"Karil, I think this is our best course. The aerostat's last reported position was right here. It was drifting..."
"West," Atty interrupted, "at 50 meters per second. According to my calculations, it should be dropping through the ammonia-hydrosulphide cloud-level in 25 minutes at this point." A light appeared on the map.
"That sounds about right. It shouldn't be off course by very much. Zonal velocities change very little. It's only the shear between belts and zones and the perturbations of cyclonic movement that create variable wind-velocities. But these can be incredible."
"Air-temperature minus 123. Pressure point-six," Atty said.
"The dark belts are cool descending air," Zito went on. "The bright zones are cloud-covered rising air. If we lose altitude too fast, head for white cloud and that will give us some lift. With an escape velocity of 60 kps, you'll need all the help you can get."
"I'm feeling the gravity," Karil said. "My arms feel like lead already."
The sky was turning blue above them now. They plunged through drifting feathers of white cirrus. Condensation drops formed dancing beads of boiling ammonia on the friction-heated viewport. Suddenly they were levelling out and streaking through a corridor of clear atmosphere between cloud-levels.
"My god," Karil said. "It's magnificent."
Above them was a ceiling of wispy white cotton in a lovely blue sky, and far below a mountainous cloudscape, with towering crags, rolling hills, vast canyons and valleys. Bolts of lightning flashed among the peaks, flickering fitfully, and sometimes a hole would open to reveal a glimpse of deep blue, like Earth's ocean beneath massing storm-clouds.
"We're at the one-bar level," Atty said. "Temperature 108 below." Her sonic boom shattered the still atmosphere.
"I have a radar-image," she went on. "The aerostat is descending swiftly through the lower cloud-level."
"Are you game to go after it, Loris? We'll be out of communication."
"We haven't come all this way to turn around and go back now," Loris said.
Atalanta banked, seeming to stand on wingtip for a second, and then dropped. She plunged into the clouds and the port was obscured as if by billowing smoke. It was like diving into a planet-wide forest fire. Powerful beams of yellow light flashed from Atty's bow, piercing the blackness. For a while, smoke boiled through the beams, and then they burst into another clear zone.
A twilit gloom surrounded them. The clouds overhead blotted out the sun, except where rents appeared in the distance and shafts of sunlight shimmered like fluorescent pillars. Below, darkness loomed--ice-crystal cloud like a surging black sea.
"Pressure approaching seven bars, Loris. Temperature 13 below."
"Any sign of the aerostat?"
"It should be off the port bow, 11 o’clock."
"There it is!" said Karil. "Allah! Look at it!"
A huge globe, lit by exterior floodlights, was drifting beneath the ceiling. The balloon envelope glittered as it spun, and the lights of the control-gondola, like eyes, made the lower section look like some Satanic manta-ray, its upturned wings bearing the globe on its shoulders. Atty banked and swept toward it.
"I don't understand," said Zito. "It seems to be functioning again. And there shouldn't be any lights on in the gondola. The robots don't need... Christ! There's a shuttle on the docking trapeze."
"Hanging underneath, like a bat. It's not one of..."
Suddenly, Atalanta banked and went into a power-dive. Acceleration threw her passengers back into their couches.
"What is it?" Loris demanded.
"I felt the touch of a laser. Missiles coming in."
"From the shuttle?"
"No. Behind us. They've got fighter escort."
The screens were wiped clear, and a bewildering array of curves and numbers appeared. Zito stared in perplexity, finally made sense of it--a tiny, delta-winged form at a great distance, smaller objects homing in on them at high velocity. They would be smart-missiles, laser-guided, heat-seeking. There was no way human reflexes could hope to avoid them, but Atalanta might, if her passengers could stand the acceleration.
Atalanta roared through the skies. Even Zito's powerful arms were pinned to the couch-arms, his massive body crushed to the padding. He rode like a trainee in a centrifuge, wishing to God he had not just had dinner.
The ship levelled off for a refreshing instant, and then suddenly dropped out from under him. He was thrust painfully into his restraints, saw the missiles flash by the viewport, missing the ship by meters, and then begin to turn. Laser-beams darted from Atty's wingtips and the missiles exploded in eye-searing bursts of light.
On the screen, more missiles were homing in. Atty banked again and roared off. The missiles changed course. Through the port, there was still no sign of their distant attacker, but the pirate-shuttle dropped free of the aerostat and peeled off into the clouds.
"More missiles coming, Lor," said Atty.
Loris glanced down at the screen. "Jesus, Atty, look at them all."
"Loris, the aerostat cabin is pressurized. I detect oxygen."
Loris smiled grimly. Atalanta roared off toward the aerostat, banked about it, and streaked toward the first salvo of incoming missiles. At the last instant before impact, she dropped out of the line of fire with stomach-wrenching suddenness and the missiles flashed overhead into the aerostat behind them. A huge ball of flame erupted off their stern-quarter, and suddenly the sky was filled with heat-seeking missiles homing in on the blazing target like bees returning to their hive at sunset.
"What happened?" Zito demanded. "How did you do that?"
"You said the robots don't need lights. The shuttle crew must have been on board, working. They left the cabin pressurized. I figured there might be enough oxygen to ignite the hydrogen in the envelope, and an explosion like that would pull the heat-seekers off our tail. But the fighter's still out there somewhere. Atty?"
"On our tail, Loris," Atty said calmly, and dropped like a rock. The fighter dove after them, blazing with laser-fire. Atty plunged into the water-ice clouds below like a fishing cormorant. They were swallowed up in darkness.
"Any more missiles?"
"I believe they've all been wasted. It looks like lasers at close quarters now, Loris."
"I'm taking over."
As she spoke, Loris tapped a switch in her couch-arm. Sighting binoculars dropped down before her face, and a trigger-assembly popped up in the centre of the helm. Under manual control now, Atalanta shot upward, crushing her passengers into their couches, burst from the clouds, and whipped about in a great full loop. The pursuing fighter erupted from the clouds before them, Loris squeezed the trigger, and the target blossomed into a lotus of flame.
"Karil, where's the shuttle?"
"On the screen now. Trying to get away. Looks like close quarters is not their style."
Loris glanced down at the screen and accelerated to the attack, streaking down the corridor between cloud-levels.
"Atty..." Zito began.
"She won't answer," Loris told him. "I've shut her down. Otherwise she'd try to stop me. First law. No killing."
The fleeing ship streaked up into the ceiling and vanished. The freetrader plunged into the clouds, ploughed through, crossed the clear stratum, and tore through wisps of ammonia cirrus, leaving a long arc of contrails behind. The ship ahead of them left a trail of its own--a long comet-tail of ice-crystals.
"They're dumping their cargo," Zito said. "Trying to get away."
"Good," Loris growled. "I don't want them getting away with the Professor's fuel. But I don't want them reporting back either. I want them to just disappear. If I can get within laser-range before they reach communication-altitude..."
"They're unarmed," Zito said quietly.
"That's why Atty’s been shut down. I'm going to kill the motherfuckers."
The cloudscape stretched away to the flat horizon, where a tiny sun burned through the cloud-cover, dying the cloudscape a dozen shades of purple and red. The clouds parted and the fleeing ship appeared in the darkening sky, like a bright star. Loris gripped the trigger and peered into the sight.
Suddenly a dozen similar stars blinked into existence beside it.
"Jesus," said Zito, "it's a fleet. Where the hell did they come from?"
"It's only chaff," Karil said. "Shredded aluminum. It reflects light and radar like a real ship." His fingers darted over the keys before him. "My computer can sort it out--not as fast as Atty could--but..."
"Just concentrate on spotting that ship," Loris said. "They've almost reached communication... Jesus Christ!"
Loris yanked the helm hard over and Atty spun sideways. There was a deafening roar and a convulsive shudder they felt through their couches. The hatch behind them shut with a clang. The lights on the bridge winked out and the whine of the drivers ceased. The ship continued to rise, slowly now as it began to lose momentum, gliding silently in the empty sky.
Loris punched off the manual override. "Atty!"
There was only silence. Karil held his breath.
"Atty! For God’s sake."
"Assessing damages, Loris." Her voice was calm. The lights on the bridge came back on.
There was a general sigh of relief.
"What happened?" Zito asked.
"Aerial mine," Karil said. "Proximity fuse. Hidden in the chaff."
"Loris," Atty said quietly, "that was not the most brilliant move of your career."
"I know. I know. But I had to override. I was on the attack."
"You were on the kill. An unarmed, manned shuttle."
"No lectures, please, Atty. Just the damage report."
"Well, your banking manoeuvre appears to have saved the bridge and the upper fuselage. We are badly holed below and have lost life-support everywhere but the bridge, and we have lost power to all systems but communications. There is a mayday-call going out right now. I believe we have reached communication-altitude, but we are now at the top of the arc and will begin to..."
"What? All systems?"
"That is correct. To put it bluntly, I am now a 35-tonne glider."
Loris was speechless for a moment. "How can that be? What about back-up?"
"All dead, Loris. I cannot tell you precisely how it happened because I was shut down at the time. As you know. Some systems were destroyed outright and some fused by the explosion, but there appears to have been a systems-overload, a cascade effect, and most of the remaining systems were shorted out before you could cut the override and put me back in control."
"Or perhaps," Loris said, "the fact that you were disconnected actually saved your life."
There was a moment of silence. "Perhaps so, Loris. A full diagnostic, once we reach port, may tell us the truth. In any event..."
Systems diagrams were flashing on the screen. Loris studied them glumly. She still had control over the flaps and rudders, and they could glide, but where? There was nowhere to land. Suddenly, the interior bridge-lights winked off.
"Jesus! What now?"
"The shuttle is returning, Loris. It pains me to say it, but I believe they have weapons after all. I can detect..."
"Really?" Loris said and shut her off in mid-sentence. She let the ship stall and spin, begin spiralling in toward the cloudscape below. The approaching shuttle would appear in the port, then the view would sweep across empty clouds, and then the shuttle would appear again, a little closer. Loris's finger rested on the trigger. She waited until the ship appeared one last time, close enough to see human faces behind the ports. She put a beam straight into its bows. It blossomed into a tangled mass of steel and cartwheeled into the clouds. Pieces of wreckage fluttered down behind it.
"That reduces our problems to one," Loris said, and switched off the override. "Atty, see if you can get online to..."
"They are contacting us now, Loris."
"Hey, Zito," said a voice. "This is Yanek. I hope that's not your mayday."
"It's ours, all right. We found an unidentified shuttle draining the tanks on Number Five, down in the lower clear. They had fighter support. We're damaged. The best we can do is glide until somebody picks us up."
"Your signal is weak, Zito. But we've got your position from the mayday. We can get to you in about 24 hours."
"No good," said Karil. "We've only got emergency life support. In about eighteen hours it's going to get awfully stale in here."
"Yanek, where's Aries?"
"Southeast of Big Red." The voice was almost drowned out by static. "South tropic zone."
"Damn!" said Zito. "Look, Loris, I've got an idea, but it's going to be a rough ride. It's your ship."
"It's your planet, Zito. You know this big ball of weather, not me."
"Right. Yanek, apprise Aries of our situation. Tell them we'll rendezvous south-east of the Spot. We're taking the Red Eye Express."
There was a moment of stunned static. "Christ, Zito, you'll be eaten alive."
"What can I say, Yanek? We're in a glider. We need updrafts. And that's the biggest damned updraft God ever created. If we can tail-wind the jet-stream corridor between shears and pick up the southside current--a good 360 kph--we might be able to ride the rapids into the eastern calm so Aries can pick us up."
There was only static.
"What do you want me to do?" Loris asked.
"Pick up that jet-stream over there. It's about 3000 klicks wide. You can't miss it. Like landing in the Atlantic Ocean."
"I see it. High and white. Disappears over the horizon. How far can we ride it?"
"All the way to the Red Spot."
The sun had set, and the sky was black as Atalanta glided in, dropping smoothly out of the sky into the broad band of clouds.
"Zito," said a voice.
"Yanek again. Aries says they can reach the rendezvous-point in time, and we've sacrificed a comm-satellite to talk to you. She's dropping fast and I don't have much time. I thought you'd like to know there's a big tanker in orbit. This morning they sent down four ships, supposedly to tend their own aerostats in the northern hemisphere. None have come back."
"Four of them?"
Static was beginning to build again. "That's right. I don't know if there's a connection, but I thought you should know there are two more ships around somewhere."
"What's the name of that tanker?" Karil asked.
They could barely hear the response for the static. "Just a moment. Here it is. Registered to Feronia Industries. It's the Poseidon Earthshaker."
The stream was flowing eastward at more than 300 kph. To the south was another flowing west at 110, and to the north another, also flowing west at 180. The shear between these streams set the clouds below to boiling like a witch’s cauldron.
"There they are," Atalanta said. "Directly astern."
Every eye darted to the rear-screen. A pair of delta-winged ships was gaining on them.
"Atty might be able to pick off their missiles with her stern-lasers," Loris said. "But if it comes to close quarters, I can't fight them. Not without power."
"I don't think they'll want to follow us into the Red Spot," Zito said. "Unless they’re as crazy as we are. They'll try to shoot us down before we get there."
The jet-stream narrowed to a mere thousand kilometres. The turbulence rose in heaving mountains of cloud on both sides and the stream roared through a relatively narrow defile, carrying the ship with it like a raft in white water.
The pursuing craft dropped into the jet-stream and began to overtake them. Missiles flashed from their bows. Lasers flashed in response from Atty's stern, while Loris did her best to take evasive action, banking from side to side, rolling over, dropping into the depths and rising again.
"We've got to get down, out of sight," she said. "We can't outrun them."
"For God's sake, be careful," Zito told her.
Atalanta dropped out of the jet-stream and skimmed just above the dark clouds below. Her pursuers followed, battered by turbulence, but still gaining on her. A laser flashed over her starboard quarter, missing her by meters.
Atalanta dropped still lower, darting between towering thunderheads, dropping into valleys, banking right and left about billowing peaks. Suddenly one of their pursuers was caught by hurricane-winds and flipped into the clouds below. The pilot of the other craft seemed to take fright and the ship gained altitude. It put on a burst of speed and streaked overhead.
"They're trying to head us off," Karil said. "If they..."
His mouth dropped open in wonder at the sight before him. Loris dared to lift her eyes from the instruments and followed his gaze.
She had seen something like it once, flying low over the plains of her native India, as the Himalayan range thrust suddenly like a granite wall in her path. But this was cloud, blood-red in the light of the rising sun behind, stretching out of sight in both directions, casting a crimson shadow for hundreds of kilometres across the cloudscape. The Great Red Spot peered at them.
"We're the mote in God's eye," Karil said.
Their attacker made an Immelman turn and raced toward them, lasers flashing from its bows. Atty banked to avoid the searing beams and suddenly fell out of the sky.
A windshear had caught her, and she was spinning out of control. Dark clouds boiled up about her and she was engulfed in blackness. Her passengers were tossed in their couches, alternately crushed into the padding and thrust up against the restraining straps as the turbulence tried to rip the ship in two.
"I can't get control," Loris shouted.
Below them was a literally bottomless sea of hydrogen, rising to tens of thousands of degrees and pressures that compressed the gas to a metallic state. A downdraft like Niagara Falls sucked them into the depths.
"For God's sake, Zito, where's this updraft of yours?"
"I don't know. I don't know."
"Depth minus 167 kilometres," Atalanta said calmly. "Temperature 160 degrees. Pressure 30 atmospheres."
"Atty's not built for this," Loris said.
The temperature in the cabin was rising. The hull began to groan. Loris wrestled with the controls, but still they plunged down the planet's throat.
Suddenly, sunlight poured down upon them. They shot into a vast canyon between the clouds. Lightning-bolts flickered in the heaving walls like veins of gold in a cliff-face. Before them, a precipice of scarlet cloud thrust into the heavens, towering above them and stretching beyond the horizon on either side like a tsunami of blood. Karil knew that it stretched 500 kilometers deep, down into the icy cold, like Satan’s prison in Dante’s Inferno.
"Hard right rudder," Zito shouted.
Loris banked. The wind caught them and hurled them down the canyon.
"We're caught in the slipstream along the edge of the storm," Zito said. "If we can ride it along the southern edge without getting sucked in, we're home free."
Loris was shaking in her restraints like a rat in a terrier's jaws as she fought to keep the controls steady. Atalanta raced through the canyon.
Karil thought it was like being a fly caught in a wind-tunnel--if the walls of the tunnel were alive and trying to swat you. Great masses of cloud would sometimes reach out from the storm beside them or surge up from below.
"Oh, shit!" he said. In the rear-screen he saw the pursuing fighter drop down behind them. Loris saw it too, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her entire concentration was on keeping Atalanta steady, banking the ship a few millimetres this way or a few millimetres that way, like a surfer balancing on a board as he was being carried by a giant wave. The ship behind them was having the same difficulty, but it was powered, and it was gaining. Lasers popped out of its bow, and they could see the red dot on the rear-screen as it acquired its target.
They were sitting ducks. They held their breath.
A cloud-surge reached out from the Great Red Spot like a bloody hand and snatched the pursuing vessel out of the sky. One split-second it was there, and in another it was gone.
The sky above was blue and clear. The storm spread in a vast red anticyclone off the port side, ridges and valleys of crimson thunderheads in great concentric ovals to the horizon and beyond. Off the starboard side was a deep blue chasm, and before them a vast plain of gently drifting cloud like the morning mist in the Mariner Valley. Above it hovered a single delta-winged ship.
"Zito. Zito. Is that you?" said a voice.
"Well, who the hell else were you expecting?"
Karil sat in shock. He was vaguely aware of the rescue-ship swinging toward them, banking circles about them while voices on the comm laughed and shouted congratulations. Loris was shaking in her restraints, her hands frozen to the controls. She looked down at Karil. "Let's not do that again, all right?"
The Aries grappled Atalanta with the same gear used to grapple the aerostat-tanks and they were carried to safety beneath its belly.