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Jovian [MultiFormat]
eBook by Donald Moffitt

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Like all human colonists born into the crushing gravity of Jupiter, Jarls Anders commands tremendous physical strength and survival ability. And, like his fellow Jovians, Jarls has grown up innocent, easy to exploit. Shipped between Jupiter, Venus, and Earth in indentured servitude, Jarls finds his life in constant danger--not just from the harsh landscapes of distant planets, but also from the treacherous politics of human aristocracy. Navigating the solar system proves much easier than navigating political conspiracy and a government coup. Jarls's only chance for survival is if he can leave behind his rustic innocence and build a strength of character to match the strength of his body. In JOVIAN, author Donald Moffitt creates a fast-moving SF adventure packed with grand themes and big ideas sure to please fans of his other titles and of brand-new and classic SF adventure alike.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 2003
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012


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1

* * * *

A STIFF HYDROGEN wind screamed past Jarls, making a din in his helmet and threatening to tear him loose from the floater's outer scaffolding. He tightened his grip on a strut and leaned cautiously outward for a respectful look at the immense salmon-colored cloudscape below him. Lightning flashed in its crevices; violent eddies of raw color churned its seething surface. Above, a tiny sun cast a broad shimmering path on the cloud deck. In the distance, Jarls could see Port Elysium, an iridescent bubble that contained farmlands, well-stocked lakes, and the villages of the twenty thousand people he called his neighbors. It was riding the storm well, twisting slowly in the maelstrom of the Great Red Spot's approach, but remaining stable.

A hand as hard as iron clamped itself around his upper arm, making itself felt even through layers of padded thermal suit. "Time to go inside," his uncle said through a howl of radio noise.

Jarls turned his head. The bulky shape clinging next to him was massively overdeveloped even for a Jovian, with a chest like a packing crate and treetrunk legs. Uncle Hector was a comforting presence to have on a work detail.

Jarls himself had grown to a pretty good size. On Earth he might have passed for a rather solid young man whose hobby happened to be weight lifting. But no earthborn weight lifter could have attained the density of muscle that bulged at Jarls's thighs and upper arms, or quite matched the thickness of his torso. The unyielding hardness of his body, molded by Jupiter's crushing gravity, was needed to support a Jovian weight of close to five hundred pounds.

"I'm going to ride it down out here," Jarls replied.

Hector lifted a shaggy eyebrow. "Sensible people don't take chances. I've got to stay outside to ride herd on the siphon. But even the latching crew's sitting out the descent inside the cabin."

"I want to know what it feels like, not see it through a porthole."

"All right." Hector cracked a grudging smile of approval. "I guess you're old enough to make up your own mind."

"Commencing to trim," a laconic voice buzzed in Jarls's ear. There was no second warning. On Jupiter, people learned early in life to pay attention.

The superfluous personnel on the work platform below started to file up the ladder to the floater's belly cabin. A half-dozen spread-eagled shapes remained clinging to the outside strutwork of the great silver egg, like Jarls and Hector. One of them began edging toward them. Jarls recognized the well-worn suit belonging to Gord Murdo, the foreman.

"Hang on," Uncle Hector said.

Jarls didn't need to be told. A thousand kilometers below the seething orange cloud deck lay the surface of a hydrogen sea that no man had ever seen, or ever could see. If you lost your grip and fell, you didn't have to worry about splashing into it. Long before you reached its indeterminate boundary the increasing pressure would crush you into a shapeless blob, and the steadily rising temperatures would cook what was left of you. Below that strange ocean lay a stranger realm yet-a core of hydrogen so compressed that it turned to a liquid metallic form. There, at pressures of more than three million atmospheres and temperatures above 11,000 degrees K, the dissociated molecules that once had been your precious self would float in eternal suspension.

Jarls wiped the unsettling image from his mind and waited. It took a long time to reach negative buoyancy. The vacuum shell was big--it had to be in Jupiter's lightweight upper atmosphere of hydrogen laced with helium. The early floaters had been little more than hot-hydrogen balloons. But the combination of hydrogen and the inevitable oxygen leaks from suits and cabins had proved too dangerous. So the huge egg enclosed nothing but vac- uum-the one thing in the universe that is lighter even than heated hydrogen--and the trimming was done with helium filtered out of the outside atmosphere.

There was the tiniest of shudders, and the blimplike vehicle began to sink, almost imperceptibly at first. Jarls checked its progress with a glance at the floating anchor rig, hovering about a mile farther east. It was just visible past the curve of the floater's shell, a tall tetrahedron with a froth of flotation bubbles at its top. The thick monomolecular hose that ran from it to the floater was a looping arc that dwindled to invisibility after the first quarter mile.

"Pull in those lines!" the radio said sharply in Uncle Hector's voice. "Snub that hose end before you lose it!"

Jarls looked down at the work platform, where four burly roustabouts were struggling to restrain the gigantic coupling that had lifted dangerously on its fastenings when the descent began. He began automatically to inch downward to help; on Jupiter, you didn't wait to be asked.

"They can handle it," Hector said. The iron fingers gripped Jarls's arm again.

The work gang beneath hauled in on the guy lines, and with pure brute force wrestled enough hose inboard to wrap a bight around a stanchion. The hose was thick as a log and obstinately rigid, but Jovian muscles were equal to a task that would have taken a donkey engine on Earth. They lashed it efficiently into place. There was a jerk that made the floater sway, and then, as some distant capstan came unstuck, the hose commenced to unreel smoothly.

"Nice going," Gord Murdo said, coming up next to Hector and helping himself to a handful of strut. He acknowledged Jarls's presence with a nod. Jarls noticed that the foreman had made the crawl across the vac egg without bothering to use a safety line; a bad example, but it wasn't up to him to comment.

The roustabouts beneath received the compliment with raised faces and a thumbs up. They were three men and a woman, hulking bruisers all of them.

Hector grunted. "We don't need a loose coupling whipping around. Not this close to the Spot."

"Lot of turbulence," Murdo agreed. "That's what probably pulled the siphon loose in the first place."

Jupiter's sloshy outer layers rotated at different speeds, depending on latitude, and the immense whirlwind that was the Great Red Spot periodically passed Port Elysium to the south. It never came closer than about 15,000 kilometers--a margin wider than the planet Earth-but that was close enough. Port Elysium always battened down during the passage. But the floating city couldn't do without its water and oxygen, and these could only be obtained from the ice crystal layers below the ammonia clouds.

Port Elysium had to tend its wells, no matter what.

A vast chasm opened in the layer of ammonia clouds, and the huge silver ovoid dropped straight through. Abruptly, the marble- size sun was cut off. The floater lay in deep shadow. Jarls caught his breath at the scary majesty of his surroundings. The cloud walls on either side were inky black, and darting forks of lightning crackled within them. There was an almost continuous roll of thunder in Jarls's ears now. Jupiter's hydrogen-helium atmosphere transposed sounds a couple of octaves higher, but there were always deeper sounds waiting on the threshhold of human perception to be heard in turn.

Ammonia snowflakes were beginning to melt against Jarls's helmet, making rivulets down his faceplate. He wiped them off with a sleeve. It was cold in the upper clouds-about 130 degrees below zero--but the pressure here was still a comfortable one atmosphere. About fifteen kilometers down, the floater reached the bottom of the rift and was swallowed by pink mist. The blankness was disorienting for someone used to Jupiter's vast horizons.

Then the floater broke through into another clear stratum. Jarls drank in the sight of a new cloudscape, stretching to infinity.

"Well, how do you like it, youngster?" Murdo said. "First time down this deep?"

The unbroken carpet of clouds was more brownish in color than the orange-pink ceiling above. It was composed of ammonium hydrosulphide crystals, precipitated out of the hydrogen atmosphere at the differing pressure and temperature levels here. Already, Jarls could notice that it was getting warmer. He switched off his suit heater.

"No, I've seen it before," Jarls replied. "But only through a porthole."

The foreman nodded soberly. "Nothing like the real thing, eh? I'll tell you one thing. It's a sight no Earthman will ever see with his own eyes."

Uncle Hector said sourly, "Earthies don't have to come down here. They can sit in their corporate dens on Callisto and Olympus Habitat and skim our wealth from orbit. And there's not a damn thing we can do about it."

"Come now, Hec," Murdo protested. "Jupiter gets a royalty on every load of hydrogen the mining satellites scoop out of our atmosphere. And the surface jobs we do for them help our credit balance. You've worked for them yourself."

"Royalties!" Hector exploded. "One tenth of one percent on a gigatonne? It's robbery! And we've only been getting that since '32, when one of Earthcorp's orbital siphons crashed through the North Equatorial aerostat and killed thirty thousand people. As for Earth wages, they can keep them! We're a source of cheap local labor for them, that's all. They treat us like peasants. We're being exploited. That's why Jupiter's the backwater of the solar system."

"You always were a radical, Hec," the foreman said. But his own face had clouded at the recitation.

The political talk made Jarls uncomfortable. It came from getting old, he decided, all this endless palaver about abstractions that had nothing to do with real life. Real life was about being young, and feeling your juices, and doing things and going places. He looked down at the giant planet spread around him. Now that was real-the hydrogen winds that tried to pluck you from your grip, the immensity of the roiling cloudscape below, the sound of thunder in your ears, the nagging lifelong pull of Jupiter's two and one-half gravities against your muscles and your body's joy in defeating it.

"We're being skinned and you know it," Hector said. "Jovian hydrogen keeps the solar system running, and everybody makes money on it except us."

"It's the gravity," Murdo said defensively. "That's what keeps us isolated. You know what it costs to raise a ship out of this gravity well. The whole planet doesn't own more than twenty ships, and it takes ten or fifteen cities going shares just to lift one. It's just too expensive for the rest of the solar system to trade with us. That's why off-planet goods are so high."

"They've got their foot on our neck," Hector growled. "We're here to be plucked. The South Temperate Zone consortium tried to break the hydrogen monopoly by orbiting a siphon of their own, and look what happened. They couldn't sell one miserable cargo anywhere in the solar system. It's all under the thumb of the Earth-Venus cartel. Twenty cities went broke, and their children are still paying for it."

"We're still a young planet, Hec. Some day the Deep Tap project will pay off, and Jupiter will take its rightful place in the solar system."

"You and I will never live to see it, Gord."

"The Deep Tap's technically feasible," Murdo insisted. "The hypercarbons able to withstand the heat and pressure have been around for a couple of centuries. We've reached depths of over a thousand kilometers. A lot of good men and women have died trying to sink more sections of it. If we could just get the financing to carry it through..."

Hector's voice sounded tired. "We'll never get the financing from off-planet. Not from the steely-eyed gnomes who run Earth. They'd be cutting their own throats. It's up to us Jovians, us against them."

"That kind of talk..."

Jarls was glad to be able to interrupt. "Look!"

They followed his pointing gauntlet. Some kilometers away, a flock of flapping dots flew in loose echelon, making a broad arc against the rust-colored clouds. There were twenty or thirty of them.

"A hunting party," Hector said. "Heading toward the Great Red Spot."

"A little out of their depth, aren't they?" Murdo said.

"Must've got caught in an updraft. But the air's soupy enough for them here. Feels like about six atmospheres."

Jarls had noticed the increasing thickness of the atmosphere himself as they sank. It slowed down your movements, but it also took away some of the terrible drag of gravity, like lying in a bathtub.

Hector's craggy face had come alive. "Good hunting for the flapjacks when the Great Red Spot comes around," he explained to Jarls. "Means an upwelling of organic molecules for fifty thousand kilometers around, and an explosion of the small life forms. And that attracts those big floating colanders that the flapjacks prey on."

Jarls strained to see the distant specks. Jovian life was plentiful, and the small thistledown forms that inhabited the upper atmosphere liked to congregate around Port Elysium. But he had seen these big hunters of the middle depths only on holo.

As he watched, the formation veered. Jarls's heart thumped in his chest.

"They're changing course!"

Hector nodded. "Looks like they're coming over for a visit."


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