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by Geoff Hart
There were no lights on the viewing deck, but then, they were hardly necessary. Jupiter hung overhead, the planet's salmon hues filling a window that stretched from one side of the room to the other, the light strong enough to cast a shadow. The illusion of proximity was so overpowering I felt I could reach right out and scoop up some of those clouds.
Earth occupies so little of the sky from the moon you can feel that distance as a wistful tug at your heart. I'd spent long enough at Velikovsky Base to lose most of my flatlander reflexes, but that experience hadn't prepared me for this at all. On Icarus Station, I was farther from atmosphere than at any time during my stay on the moon, but the monkey part of my brain wouldn't be fooled: anything as wide as Jupiter is really close. Tell yourself as often as you want that the planet's size is what's fooling you—that it's really far away—but you never believe it once you've fallen under the spell of Jove's gravitas.
Letting the view seduce me wasn't why I'd come, but it would've felt wrong to travel this far and not spend some time just staring.
The clouds roiled past outside the window, and brought back the same chills I'd felt when NASA reported those first tentative signs of life. I remembered that first probe finishing its aerobraking maneuver and hanging briefly poised over those magnificent clouds, until gravity claimed it and it fell at an ever-increasing rate into that incomprehensible turbulence. I closed my eyes and concentrated, and could still imagine the black of space fading from sight and the consecutive jolts as the drogue deployed to slow the probe's descent and the balloons inflated to slow it to a relatively sedate velocity. Most of all, I remembered the telemetry, old already by the time it reached Earth, and the pandemonium in Mission Control when the probe struck a surface that had no right existing that high in Jupiter's atmosphere. Even the eternal optimists at NASA had to send a second probe and then a third before they believed.
In the end, everyone accepted those tall, ribbon-like strands as more than mere visual artefacts: there was life deep within Jupiter's atmosphere, and not the gasbags of 20th century science fiction. Jupiter's "trees" were something altogether less exciting to those of us who'd grown up dreaming first-contact dreams, but we'd nonetheless discovered our first extraterrestrial life, and the exhilaration lasted months even outside the scientific community. But these life forms couldn't give interviews and were only plants, after all, so the bulk of humanity made minor adjustments to their world view and went on with their lives. The excitement died down, the public moved on to more familiar excitements such as the World Cup, and the traditional budget battles began again at NASA.
I opened my eyes, and reluctantly looked away from the window, shivering that same delicious shiver my teenage self had savored more than two decades ago. It was time to at least show face at the opening ceremonies, so I turned my back on old Jove and left, accompanied by the hissing of my Velcro slippers gripping and releasing the floor—and by a lingering vertigo, the sense of being drawn deep into those blinding clouds by the brooding presence at my back.
We'd be a long time yet, puzzling out Jupiter's secrets, but those of the human heart were more predictable. Notwithstanding the humbling view I'd left behind me, the view screens in the media room showed only the expected mundanities of the Interplanetary Telefactor Competition. All nonessential work had ceased and elbow room on Icarus had grown scarce as little green men on Mars—at least during dayshift. Visitors packed the station's commons as densely as safety regs permitted, and perhaps just a bit beyond: corporate sponsors and those they'd chosen to reward, the media, and a few tourists wealthy enough to afford a trip this far out from the Sun. I patted my shirt to confirm the presence of my media RFID, ticket to the festivities for as long as it showed green on Security's monitors.
A real journalist would have killed for that pass, but access to the ceremonies and the ceiling-high screens meant nothing to me for its own sake. Fortunately, others wanted that privilege badly enough to be susceptible to various forms of immoral suasion. Bribery, for example, worked much the same for everyone, whoever their employer, though you had to play your cards a tad more carefully with the Navy than with Company flunkies; doing deals was a way of life for sararimen, but the Navy only looked the other way if you had a deft touch and left no paper trail. Relinquishing my front-row seat to a debutante too well-chaperoned to be in play, but who'd caught the eye of night shift's Ops officer, earned me a few of her sweetly scented words in his ear and a few moments alone with that sufficiently distracted and vulnerable young man. Those moments and some 20-year-old Scotch earned me a private room on the station, plus shower privileges every second day. The room was a broom closet with tiedowns to keep me from drifting while I slept, the showers were briefer and colder than technically necessary, and far more comfortable quarters awaited me on Europa Base. But the room let me stay on Icarus, and avoiding the daily commute to and from Europa was worth those few inconveniences. If nothing else, it got me out from under the Company's watchful gaze for half the day, and under the Navy's less paranoid eyes.
Amidst the social frenzy in the media room, Security circulated in full black-tie garb, indistinguishable from the VIPs, both groups shaming the Press in our off-the-rack casual wear. Off-duty Navy officers stood out like snowmen in July in their crisp white dress uniforms, drawn both by the free champagne and the need to prove the Company–Navy marriage a harmonious one. I glanced at the view screens, each showing archival images of previous competitions to whet the crowd's appetite, then turned my attention to the crowd so I could play "spot the spook". I fingered a few likely suspects, but in the end, turned my attention more profitably to the hors d'oeuvres and champagne. When I had the start of a comfortable buzz going and the ceremonies were about to start, I made my way through the crowd and left in search of more interesting game.
The samples that NASA's final probe retrieved proved the Jovian trees to be more than an intellectual curiosity, though they were certainly that; indeed, their complex biopolymers made biochemists tear their hair and fling expensive equipment around the lab in frustration. But with no sentient beings to keep politicians funding NASA's Jupiter program, the rocket scientists moved on to other projects, and that would've been the end of the story if it hadn't been for a few moonstruck entrepreneurs. The economics of "logging" Jupiter made every bit as much sense as those that had earned fortunes for timber barons and their heirs well into the 21st century—which is to say that you could probably make more money in the long term investing in government bonds. But Nature abhors a vacuum, and the trick of making money extracting natural resources over long distances having long since been mastered, Jupiter proved different only in scale, not principle, given the high value of Jovian biocomposites.
Jovian Ventures PLC found their funding while enthusiasm for Jupiter remained hot, catching the imagination of venture capitalists with promises of Europa base. The plans were good, the sales pitch better, and the networking was inspired. Capital arrived by the truckload, NASA signed long-term research agreements, and the Navy leased ships to JVP to cover their own budgetary shortfalls. Military and commercial spin-offs from the tech that shielded fragile electronics and more fragile crew from intense electromagnetic fields and ionizing radiation made this menage à trois rapidly profitable. Indeed, the best research talent money could buy began generating a steady flow of declassified patents that paid for Europa base, not to mention classified tech that kept the Navy happy. Europa itself revealed several surprises, more royalties flowed from their solutions, and before you could say “IPO”, Europa base became a money-spinner for a handful of newly minted billionaires. But the shareholders who came late to the party wanted more return on their investments, and that brings us back to the competition, the trees, and my presence on Icarus.
I entered the station bar and looked up, as I'd done each time I entered. A trompe d'oeil mural of a grim-faced, tanned man adorned the ceiling, his muscular arms in wooden braces supporting a broad sweep of feathers; he soared amidst scudding cloud with a distinct orangey-pink tinge to it, the Mediterranean far below, yet his pained gaze focused on the sky above, where a small figure, similarly accoutred, plunged earthwards, trailing a stream of feathers and melted wax. Ad astra per aspera indeed!
I found the bar particularly conducive to trolling for information because the folks who did all the real work hung out here; better still, they were usually tired and well into their cups. I found a table with a good view of the door, velcroed my notepad to the table, and began whispering sweet nothings into the mike, projecting journalistic diligence while actually watching the room for likely candidates. When an attractive young woman walked in and seated herself in a quiet corner, I gladly let my authorial efforts lapse and paid full attention. Now let's be clear about something: I'm not your basic "hound", but the trip out to Jupiter orbit had taken more than two months, and it'd been a lonely trip. Navy swabbies are tough cookies, and guard their women jealously, particularly against civilians. Cold showers helped cool my ardor, but proved an incomplete defence against all those pheromones circulating in the tight space. So whatever her merits under other circumstances, attractive in this context meant she was neither escorted, nor station staff, nor male, and even the latter wouldn't have been a sticking point for someone less old-fashioned than me.
I watched her long enough to confirm she was truly alone, not wanting to step on any toes that might step back hard. She was working with her own notepad, oblivious to the rest of the world, so I told mine to go to sleep. Rising carefully, I tucked it into a deep pocket, collected what was left of my champagne, and crossed the room. I'd had plenty of time to practice walking in zero-gee, as there'd been little else to occupy my time once the shuttle from Earth went ballistic, so I moved gracefully enough to earn a raised eyebrow when she noticed me.
I smiled my best harmless smile. “Mind if I join you?” I tugged my collar, just in case she'd missed the press badge. Unimpressed, she nonetheless didn't shoo me away, and I took that for a good sign. “I'm doing backgrounders on the Competition and wondered if you'd spare me a few minutes.”
She had short-cropped, mousy-brown hair, but her eyes were an unsettling shade of brown so orange I suspected a cosmetic mod. The antique eyeglasses she wore in place of implants, riding low on her nose and clipped to her ears, made that unlikely. One side of her mouth crooked cynically, and she pushed the glasses back up to the bridge of her nose to get a better look. “That's not the most original pickup line I've heard since I arrived.”
Undiscouraged, I returned her smile, hooked a knee under the table for leverage, and pulled myself down into the seat across from her. “That's probably because I'm counting on my immense personal charm to win your heart where words fail me.” I held up a hand to forestall her response. “Honestly? I really am doing the journalist thing.” She didn't balk at that first half-truth, so I plunged ahead. “It's not that I'd hesitate to accept an offer from an attractive stranger, but I do have to earn my keep. Can we take it again from the beginning? I'm Jacob Stein... Jake.”
Her smile warmed considerably. “Natalia Fedorenko. Talia.” She didn't offer her hand, and I belatedly made my own extended hand do something useful, gathering my drink on its way back to me. We continued smiling at each other, the way people do during that awkward pause before someone thinks of the next conversational gambit. Talia found it first. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I relaxed. “You could, but I'm on an expense account, and the prices they charge here are appropriately astronomical. That's why the staff vacuum-distil their own hooch, in case you didn't know.” I beckoned for a waiter.
She raised an eyebrow and riposted. “They used to do it themselves, after a fashion, until I taught them how to do it right. One of the less formal but more interesting parts of my education.”
I blinked, and changed tack. “Touché. Russian?”
“Fifth-generation American. I don't think any living member of the family has ever been closer than New Jersey to the old country.”
“You're not Navy, and unless I miss my guess, you're not Security...” Her faded denim overalls and baggy sweatshirt didn't necessarily mean anything, since she might've just been off duty, but the fact I'd been allowed to sit next to her unchaperoned was a dead giveaway.
“Heavens, no.” She looked honestly offended. “I'm studying the Jovian ecosystem under a Company grant. The local ecology has proven—” she hesitated a moment “—challenging. I'm here to unravel those challenges.” The waiter arrived, took our orders with such an overtly poker face I made a note to grill him later, then departed silently.
“Pardon my predictability, but care to elaborate?” I hadn't abandoned my ignoble intentions by any means, but professional reflexes had just cut in. There'd been no mention of anything other than profitably overcome challenges in the official press releases and annual reports I'd spent so long studying, and damned little in the unofficial information I'd gathered.
“At the moment, no. I still have several studies to replicate before I can say anything definitive, and anything I do eventually say will have to be cleared by Company censors first. I signed the same nondisclosure agreement you did.” She watched my face alertly for a moment, then relaxed when I didn't suddenly whip out the 'cuffs.
Our drinks arrived, and the waiter scanned my badge. As he left, I eyed the drinking bulb somewhat dubiously. It was something less disreputable-looking than station stuff, which was made from God-only-knew-what recycled vegetables, but wasn't even remotely in the same league as the champagne I'd just been sipping. I swallowed a mouthful, wincing at its ruthless bite; unsubtle, but it had a certain charm that more than compensated for any lack of sophistication. I wiped my streaming eyes and cleared my throat so I wouldn't choke on my words.
“As a scientist, doesn't that put unfair constraints on your ability to publish? It's been a long time since I did any grad work, but I clearly remember the paranoia about getting published.”
She examined me more closely, and I decided that she really was attractive, even allowing for the length of time since I'd been this close to a woman. “True enough. But I plan to leverage the time I've spent here to get the Sierra Club or the National Geographic Society to fund a return trip. Sorry to tease, but I have discovered some fairly interesting things on Jupiter.”
“Down, boy. No, nary a one. But I'll tell you what...” She examined me speculatively. “If you can put together a good hypothesis from talking to the 'jacks, I could help you refine that hypothesis without actually directly answering any potentially embarrassing questions. Got to honor that nondisclosure agreement, after all. But for now, let's talk about something else.”
“Us?” I smiled my best smile.
She returned the smile, but shook her head minutely.
She examined my face long and minutely enough that I had to fight down the impulse to check my teeth for strands of spinach. When she spoke, a certain amount of distaste had entered her voice. “Actually, I'm not sure whether I find that circus more offensive or more counterproductive.”
I nodded, enjoying the chance to tell the whole truth this time. “Agreed. I don't watch monster truck competitions either.” Her smile widened marginally. I'd obviously scored a point, so I banked it and set it aside to earn some interest.
She drained her bulb without so much as a wince, and pressed it into the recycler. “It's a bit crowded in here, and I don't like the sort of attention we're attracting.” I glanced over at the bar, where a few lumberjacks and station staff had broken off their conversation and were watching us with knowing smirks. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice once said.
“There's a fine view of Jupiter from the viewing lounge, and it's not a Security area. I hope that's a better line than 'my place or yours'?” I rose carefully from my chair, leaving my half-full drink behind me without the slightest regret and offering her a hand up.
She met my eyes again, putting me under the 'scope again for a few seconds, then rose gracefully from her seat, ignoring my proffered hand. I made a mental note, changed course with my hand for the second time, and gathered up my champagne instead as she holstered her own notepad. We left the bar in a companionable silence, the station's normal operating noises and the rasp of our slippers the only sounds. The observation deck was still deserted when we arrived, and we sat a companionable distance apart on a broad, low couch before the horizon-spanning window.
The old god's throne still filled the field of view, and the salmon light filtering through the heavy glass viewports cast astonishing shadow patterns through the room. Once, I'd gone hiking in Canada's Northwest Territories during a solar maximum, and the northern lights had been like this, only less so. We fell silent, eyes locked on the spectacle floating before us.
After a time, Talia spoke. “The longer I stay here, the less significant I feel.”
Taking that for an invitation, I edged close enough to slip an arm around her shoulders, and we sat quietly that way for a time; it was nice to have some human contact to remind us of our importance in the grand scheme of things. Talia smelled faintly of lavender, plus a very pleasant female smell that was a nice side-effect of the rationed showers. When I'd left her enough time to get used to my arm being there, I attempted to kiss her neck, but she slipped nimbly out from under my arm.
“Hey! I thought we had an understanding?”
“Sorry, guess I missed a signal there. Is there a husband or boyfriend I should be worried about?”
Her laughter echoed in the close space, and those remarkable eyes sparkled. “Not exactly. But my girlfriend might have a few words to say on the subject. Karen's just reached shi-dan in Shotokan karate and gets awfully jealous.” I closed my mouth, ashamed that it'd somehow found its way open, and took a moment to readjust my mental map. She watched the mental wheels turning, amusement obvious in the sparkle of her eyes, then got to her feet. “Look, I've got lots of work to do tomorrow, and you look like you should finish your drink. Do your backgrounders, then call me tomorrow if you're really interested in my research.” Without waiting for my reply, she left the room.
I waited until her footsteps had faded, then suddenly uncomfortable before the philandering old god gazing in at me through the window, returned to the bar. The waiter and the lumberjacks made no effort to hide their amusement at my solitary return, and I saluted them with a wry smile and my drink, which had been left, with perfect foreknowledge, to await my return. I took another cautious pull at the drinking bulb, and this time managed to swallow without choking.
Eventually, we'll reproduce Jupiter's atmosphere on an industrial scale; after all, with the physics so well understood, it's just an engineering problem, right? But even if we do create a tabletop Jupiter, we'll still have no idea how to manufacture those wicked-complex biologicals that Jupiter's trees synthesize effortlessly. And until we figure out that trick, the Company will be out here harvesting the trees.
Harvesting is an interesting sort of word. It evokes echoes of big men, strong as bulls, knocking down overgrown Christmas trees with axes. But no human would ever work in Jupiter's atmosphere, since no technology we could dream up would protect even Paul Bunyan from the buffeting of winds strong enough to tear metal plate into scrap. So the Company planned right from the start to use teleoperated robots to harvest the trees; the engineering was in place by the early 21st century for terrestrial forestry, and all that remained was to transfer the technology to Jupiter.
Sophisticated though they were, telefactors still required human hands at the controls. But with significant signal-propagation delays and ridiculous amounts of power required to punch signals through that impossible atmosphere, something closer than Europa had been necessary, and that something was Icarus. The Navy had been eager to test its new toys in the radiation fields around Jupiter, provided someone else paid for the real estate, and the Company provided that real estate in exchange for trained staff whose dependents couldn't sue if something went wrong.
Research funds came easily. Commuting across time zones at Mach 2 on SSTs with Jovian-derived skins was "same shit, only faster", but dining in orbit not far south of Singapore after a moonlit ride up Jacob's Ladder made an altogether more romantic case for biocomposites. On the practical side, if you've ever been shot by one of your employer's competitors and lived to brag about it at the next Board meeting, you don't have to be persuaded of the value of biocomposite body armor. And if your budget runs more to beer and pretzels, it's the set of replacement bones that won Cleveland its fifth-straight Super Bowl last year that persuaded you.
Even so, interest in Jupiter inevitably waned until some marketeer proposed the Competition. You've seen the documentaries, so I won't elaborate, but on the face of it, you'd have a hard time finding a less likely subject for a competition than killing alien trees. But the Company needed Icarus, and some bright young lad in Marketing pointed out that lumberjack competitions had a long history, retained a certain atavistic fascination for urbanites, and would probably translate well to the high frontier. Throw in a few bikini-clad women shilling for the beer companies, bring in editors who'd cut their teeth on music videos, and you could turn a crew of blue-collar workers into professional athletes competing for big prizes. No holds barred, and whoever harvests the most trees by the end of the Competition wins.
I know: it sounds just as silly to me. But you can't buy that kind of stockholder support with a well-balanced annual report alone.
Those marketeers knew their stuff. They sold us a tall tale about human courage and the outright stubbornness that made it all possible, and proved it by showcasing large doses of plain, old-fashioned human skill and intuition. It was no mean feat operating a telefactor without losing it, and even good lumberjacks only harvested about five trees per hour, weather and topography permitting, with a high attrition rate for the "beavers". The namesakes of these robots apparently used to knock down trees with nothing more sophisticated than their teeth, and lacking an R&D corps to mechanize their operations, often ended their days by dropping trees on their own heads. Much the same fate awaited many of their human counterparts even relatively late in the 20th century, and traditions being what they were, the lumberjacks on Icarus also inadvertently sacrificed the occasional mechanized beaver.
Winning a competition required balancing the speed needed to win with enough prudence to avoid an accident that would put you out of the running. It took considerable editing to make the videos exciting. What made them so was the second part of the equation: the innate human desire to watch other people win large amounts of money and tantalizing prizes. So the Company went all-out with those prizes. Bragging rights and systemwide exposure on the big media networks were one thing, but the top three lumberjacks also won some quality time with the winner and runners-up of the Miss Universe pageant, another longstanding tradition.
Let's put this in perspective: your typical lumberjack is male, and as I've already complained, female Navy personnel are officially off limits. That alone wouldn't represent an effective deterrent were it not for the unofficial barriers—such as the fact that Navy personnel were responsible for saving your ass if anything happened to Icarus or the Europa shuttle, not an uncommon occurrence given the hostile local environment. Then there were various station services such as warm water for bathing and some therapeutic alcohol after a long shift, all of which were subject to rationing for reasons that remained obscure to anyone outside the Navy, and each newcomer received a very unofficial but no less effective demonstration of who controlled access to these resources. Given the differences in pay scales between lumberjacks and even the best-paid Naval officers, fraternization was inevitable, but that didn't make it easy or frequent.
So you've got high technology on the high frontier for people like me who thrive on that sort of thing. For traditionalists, you've got the human drama of tough, dedicated men and the occasional woman striving against the universe, at great odds, to bring home treasures for the good of all mankind. There are the beer commercials and physical struggle that draw the athletics crowd. And there's a chance to scope out this year's harvest and second-guess the markets if you play those kinds of games. Mix all this together and spin it right and you've got the surprisingly effective media circus that was my official excuse for coming to Jupiter. A good many people back on Earth had sunk their retirement savings into the Company, and much though they enjoyed the games, they wanted to be the first to bail out of the stock before it tanked if things weren't going as well on Europa and Icarus as they'd been told. I was here to tell them whether it was time to bail.
Early on the first morning of the competition, my room on the station paid off handsomely; it let me take aside the most interesting competitor before any real reporters arrived. Greta Thomson was that most rare of creatures, a female lumberjack—not, thank you very much, a lumberjill. Greta was about as far from the archetype as you could get. In the spike-heeled Velcro pumps she'd worn for the pre-competition dog and pony show, she stood all of 150 centimetres tall, and if she massed 45 kilos, it was only due to water retention in the low gravity.
During the long trip out from Earth, I'd had plenty of time to plan my attack. Thus it was that I caught Greta arriving for her usual early breakfast and steered her to a table for two in the mess hall before her coffee had cooled enough to drink. That first half hour before the caffeine kicks in is almost as good as last call at the pub when it comes to extracting information. We ate leisurely, chatting about nothing much between bites, and by the end of our meal, I'd negotiated a tour of her work room and an exclusive. The real media were going to hate my guts when I published that interview.
When we entered the empty work room, Greta kicked off her shoes and unselfconsciously stripped down to a translucent Lycra body suit. She was skin and bones, but there was flat, hard muscle fetchingly distributed on those bones, so I had more than just professional reasons to take a closer look. Through the bodysuit, her dark skin clearly showed thick calluses around her wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles.
The work room was uncomfortably cool, and hollowly echoed the shushing sound of our slippers. The dim ceiling fluorescents provided little illumination, so I paused to adjust my camera for the interview. While I did, Greta crossed over to a control panel beneath a large gap in the roof and pressed a key. I was focusing on the camera, but a movement in my peripheral vision drew my gaze upwards, and it was all I could do not to drop a year's salary worth of sophisticated electronics. My research had warned me intellectually what to expect, but the dangling wires and articulated limbs of the slowly descending harness shot a jolt of adrenaline straight through me and stood me up straight. While Greta hoisted herself smoothly up into her telefactor harness, biceps ostentatiously swelling more than the low-gee should have required, all I could feel was the rank sweat pooling in my armpits and beginning to trickle down my sides: for all the world, it looked like she'd been snatched from the floor by a gigantic mechanical spider, and spiders, mechanical or otherwise, give me the twitching awfuls. I breathed deeply and slowly in a partially successful effort to calm myself, then forced myself to take a few sequences from different angles. Through the abstraction of the camera lens, the harness just looked terrifying.
Greta's movements were sure and swift as she fitted her legs into the lower limbs of the harness, relaxing her biceps slightly once the harness took some of the weight off her arms. Supported only by her legs, she cinched a waist belt about her middle, then folded gracefully at the hips to adjust the leg supports. As she did, she conducted a running commentary.
“The harnesses are custom-fitted for each of us, of course; they have to fit as well as our own skin so the straps won't chafe right down to our bones. It also lets you stay more fully in touch with the beaver, and that's important for productivity.” She unfolded equally gracefully, straightening out and fitting her right arm into another brace. With one arm now bound into the harness, she gestured gracefully with the other, swaying gently.
“These struts here serve as an exoskeleton, and their length gives my muscles leverage. The weight and inertia provide feedback so I can control the beaver's operation. There's lots of tweaking of settings and time spent in the sims before we can match our movements effectively to those of the beaver. The gravity down there's obviously stronger than on station, and the trees are damn big, so the beavers end up handling huge weights. We have to use a pretty high leverage ratio to move them at all, but we can't risk forgetting what we're doing. So to balance strength with precision of movement, we basically accept a lot of exertion in exchange for keeping the leverage low enough to let us do the work right.” With her free arm, she tugged a helmet assembly down over her head and waited, visor up.
I licked dry lips, forced a deep breath, and asked a first question, speaking from behind the safety of the camera that was leaving deep marks on my face. I concentrated on relaxing that pressure, but doing that and talking at the same time proved beyond my capabilities; I concentrated on the talking. “I imagine that sort of workout protects you fairly effectively from low-gee bone loss, but doesn't it defeat the purpose of the harness—that is, to give you superhuman strength?”
She smiled beneath the helmet framing the upper half of her face. “Not really. We need the beavers to let us work down there, but if you're relying solely on brute strength, you're not working smart. It still makes for a tough workout, and even after a month or two, you're really beat by the time you shut down for the day. I spent my first week on serious painkillers until my muscles adapted. But there were accidents when we scaled the feedback too high. You'd get so caught up in the illusion of being there that you forgot about the real mass of what you're carrying; if you'll pardon the pun, making weight part of the feedback makes us more aware of the gravity of the situation.
“By the way, I see you spotted the calluses on my arms and legs,” she said, letting me know she hadn't missed the once-over I'd given her while she stripped down. “They're a direct result of those ergonomics.” She settled the helmet more comfortably over her head, then flipped the visor down across her eyes, but failed to conceal her amusement at my discomfiture; her reaction showed clearly in the lines that formed around her mouth and the mirth in her voice. The visor snapped shut with a click, and she settled her free arm into the remaining limb of the harness. With a sweeping lunge, she brought her left arm close enough to make some final adjustments.
“The visor's vital, for a variety of reasons. For one, it cuts out any distractions, so you can immerse yourself in your work; the virtch is so intense that after a few minutes you're actually down there. You don't get much sense of that from the competition... you really have to be in the harness. Of course, we also couldn't see without the visor; that murk down there is impenetrable in visual wavelengths, so we use a multispectral image-composition system.”
“Your visor presents human-friendly versions of the raw data.”
“Exactly. We have limited control over the combinations used, 'cause only certain wavelengths pass through the atmosphere, and they change dynamically as the atmospheric conditions vary. They call the whole thing MMM-TASTee.” She paused expectantly.
“I've always said engineers should never be allowed to name anything. They do love their acronyms, don't they? That would be 'Multiple-redundancy, Multifrequency Message Transmission, Adaptive Spread-spectrum Telemetry, right?”
“Someone's done his homework.”
“Yup. Diligence is my middle name.”
“So you know how the messages get back to us. Did you also know we can customize the visor's display? I can tap your camera into my telemetry later so you can see what I'm seeing. I've got a few palettes I use; most days, it's a rainforest, but sometimes I go for blacks and shadows... but then, I like the night. Others make the representation really abstract, like a kid's virtch game.”
“Can you move around a bit more? We're just about at the end of the time you promised me, and I want a few more close-ups before you tell the rest of the guys about our arrangement.” She chuckled and complied, and I took several involuntary steps back, sweat beading on my forehead. Even through the safety of the viewfinder, that translucent bodysuit and pale skin showed a biomechanical spider sucking the juices out of her struggling body and getting ready to come for me next. I stared resolutely through the camera, focusing on the geometry as she pantomimed climbing motions, left and right rotations, and moving to a head-down position. When I'd had enough, I told her so, grateful I could still control my voice. While Greta set about disentangling herself from the harness, I turned away and mopped my brow, trying to regain my composure.
Shuddering, I forced myself to keep my back to the harness looming in the background and focus on the interview again. I had yet to confirm whether my employers' fears were well-founded, but Talia'd half-convinced me something was amiss. I thought for a moment, decided I'd gained enough of the lumberjack's trust to try a more direct line of inquiry. When she moved around to face me, I asked the question. “So tell me, Greta... from some of the things I've heard, it seems there are a few small problems down on the planet... reduced harvests, more mechanical failures, a more difficult time taking the trees down successfully. Any comments?”
“I've heard the same thing.” She gave me an appraising look, and I put on that innocent look I do so well. “I suppose it wouldn't hurt to point out that anyone who can read between the lines of the financials knows our volumes and margins are down slightly, equipment damage is up, and the market prices of biocomposites are rising slowly. We've all got stock options, so I'm worth a few points less than I used to be, but it's no big deal yet. No idea how all that came about, but it's a fact. Maybe you ought to talk to that biologist who works for the Company. I hear she's working on the problem.”
“Thanks, I'll do that when I have a chance.” Poorly concealed amusement showed on her face, as if she'd decided not to share some private joke. Having already met Talia, I thought I knew the nature of the joke, but I didn't want to spoil Greta's fun.
As she slipped back into her station overalls, I shut down my camera and recording gear. Belatedly, I remembered not to leave that pointed question as her last impression of me. “Two final personal questions, if you don't mind, just to add some depth to the story.”
Her smile broadened as she took in the sweat stains under my armpits, and she wrinkled her nose. “Shoot.”
“First the obvious. How do you go to the bathroom in one of those things?”
Surprised, she laughed at me, a short barking laugh that echoed dully in the workroom. “Hey, this isn't slave labor, you know. We take breaks whenever we want, so long as we keep up a certain minimum production. A few of the guys hook themselves up to a bladder-thing so they don't have to unharness, but me, I took one look at the catheters they provide for women and figured I could sacrifice a bit of productivity. So mostly I just think of the Sahara, and when I really can't wait any longer, I unhook and use the facilities.”
I nodded. “That was the hard one. Second question: You're the only woman on the current tour of duty, and I was wondering why, and what it means to you.” I watched her face carefully to see if there'd be any subtext to her reply, but she didn't flinch.
“Part of the answer's kind of private, and I won't go into that for an audience. The on-the-record answer is that the money's fabulous, the experience is a mind blower, and it's great exercise; don't ever arm wrestle for money or drinks with one of the men, by the way.” She looked me over from head to toe and quirked a grin. “Heck, I could probably take you best of five. But like I said, the money's great. I figure on buying a place in one of the colonies with my savings. Space is addictive.”
She paused a moment before continuing, and though her eyes were still upon me, she was looking somewhere else. “So what's it like for me? Well, the male lumberjacks act like a bunch of pigs until you show them you've got the same balls they do. A lot of women couldn't handle that, but I grew up Black in D.C. and had two brothers in the Navy, so it wasn't anything new. Once you prove you can take it, they start taking you seriously and treating you like one of the guys. I'm also the only woman in a team of reasonably attractive and soon to be wealthy men; then there's station staff, and not enough women to go around there either. Back on Earth, with all those long-legged, bosomy blondes, nobody pays much attention to me. Here, the playing field is tilted awfully steeply in my favor, and I name my own terms. Don't get me wrong—your attention was flattering. But now I get to pick and choose.”
I nodded, not offended, thanked her, and escorted her back to the press lounge, closing the door on the spider with considerable relief.
You can see the day's competition in the archives if you're so inclined. For me, the most interesting part was what the censors wouldn't let us say. If I'd been a journalist, that would have bothered me, but I wasn't here to win a Pulitzer. The truth? Watching the competition in real-time is every bit as exciting as watching a chess match. We got the first cuts of the edited feed, and though there was certainly skill and even artistry involved, felling a tree every ten minutes gets almighty tedious if you're not the one doing the chopping, even with the time delay removed. The most exciting part was watching the workers affix "balloons" and pump the atmosphere out so they could lift the trees high enough for shuttles to collect them—but unlike the felling, that was over in a flash and had to be slowed down dramatically to remain visible.
The video that eventually makes it back home is considerably more exciting—what with a psychologically optimized soundtrack, the tape sped up by a factor of three or more, and intensive editing by the FX staff to conceal the resulting distortions. It was certainly easy for the Press to accept the official explanation—that you aren't going to sell much beer or stock unless the action moves along at a right good clip—but there's more to it than that. The accelerated video also sends the message of a fast-moving, productive operation that's just what shareholders need to see at the annual meeting. So I hooked into the feed to capture a few standard sequences with my camera, then left the viewing lounge to work up my first story and pass it on to the censors for transmission to my editor. One has to keep up appearances.
After filing my story, I wiped down my pits with a damp cloth and changed into some fresher clothes. That done, I caught a few winks in my room, mercifully undisturbed by spider dreams. At the end of the day, better rested than my colleagues, I returned to the viewing lounge to chat with the competitors.
One of the corporate sponsors, a well-known beer company, had launched a tank of their brew on a ballistic course to reach Icarus in time for the competition. The Navy's capture of the tank, suitably dubbed, made a great commercial. Real beer simply didn't happen up here, so after months of drinking near-beer made from fermented bread or reconstituted freeze-dried residues with all the charm of instant coffee, the real stuff was a hit. Not being a competitor, I didn't rate the imported stuff, and not being a masochist, I stayed safely clear of the homebrew, stuck with Talia's hooch, and watched the competitors enjoying themselves. After they'd gotten reacquainted with beer, the lumberjacks relaxed and opened up, but by then, the main crowd of journalists, exhausted by their journalistic endeavors and low gee, had caught the last shuttle home to Europa for the night.
The lumberjacks were a surprisingly taciturn lot, and if I'd been content to do only the standard journalistic prodding, I might have left it at that. There was certainly some truth in Greta's characterization, and many of the reporters wrote it down exactly that simplistically, thereby missing the point: like any other stereotype, this one provided a handle on which to hang prose, but didn't hold up under closer examination.
A few of the 'jacks were just as simple as the stereotype led you to expect, and a few were as weird as you'd expect if you thought seriously about the kind of man who'd travel so far from home and a normal life just to kill alien trees and get rich. But one, Tomas Ortiz, exemplified the problems with buying into stereotypes. Tomas was lean, but like the others, had respectable muscle mass for someone who'd lived in low gee for a year. Having done my homework, I picked him for my next serious informant. After we'd exchanged the usual pleasantries and I'd gotten him to sign the model release, I started the formal interview.
“You come from Venezuela originally, don't you Tomas?”
His voice had a gentle lilt to it, but he spoke fluent, largely unaccented English. “Yes, by way of Lakehead University. I did my undergraduate degree there, in forestry, but with full intentions of coming to Jupiter when I graduated. There aren't many positions still open for foresters on Earth, what with recycling and competition from the prairie grass plantations. But basic forestry principles apply here too, and the money is excellent. I want to get into grad school when I finish, and there's no funding to support forestry grad students any more. So I figured I'd come back with my own research money, and that would set me up until I could get a degree, make a name for myself, and attract some funding.”
I thought about the male Latino angle, and figuring he was expecting it after a day of interviews, explored it, tongue firmly in cheek. “So the machismo of the job wasn't a factor?”
Tomas smiled a shy smile that broadened when he realized I was teasing. “Sure it was. 'Jacks still have a pretty good reputation for virility, and it'll be fun to play that up when I get back home. The rest of the guys enjoy the innuendo as much as I do, and we have a lot of fun at Greta's expense. Greta's the only woman on the current team.” There was a note of respect in his voice, and I nodded.
“It must get lonely, then. I understand the women on station staff are pretty much off limits, and the tourists are few and far between. How do you handle it, waiting a year between dates?”
“It's not actually a year, not for most of us. Don't forget, a Navy ship comes in every few months to refuel. Their crews are nearly half female, and the few who manage to 'fraternize' without getting caught by the officers eventually get bored with their shipmates. Kind of an interesting twist, don't you think, a bunch of working guys waiting for the ships to come in, filled with randy lady sailors?” He chuckled and I joined him.
“I understand that in between shore leaves, there are other consolations.”
He looked amused. “You're talking about those rumours of widespread homosexuality, aren't you?” I looked innocent, and his smile broadened. “Yes, there's some of that. Not a lot, but more than the Navy likes to admit. I wouldn't emphasize it in your story, though. There're proportionately more gays and lesbians on Earth than there are here. You'd think people would have gotten used to the idea by now.”
“You'd think. So what else is there? I mean, from what I've seen, you guys work hard, and there isn't much time left at the end of the day before you catch some sleep, but over the course of a year, there's still a lot of time to kill.”
Tomas sipped his beer. “I won't speak for the others, but I spend a lot of time on astronomy. I used to stargaze for hours back on Earth, 'cause the night sky is spectacular in Maracaibo. It's not too shabby in Thunder Bay either, but you know how much the atmosphere blocks out even on clear nights, and a boy from the tropics doesn't find the Lakehead too conducive to sitting outside with a scope during most of the academic year. You know why there are so few Canadians? Their testicles are frozen for half the year.” We shared a laugh before he continued. “Anyway, here, with no sun and no atmosphere, the view's spectacular beyond anything I'd ever imagined, and you wouldn't believe the pictures you can get through the station scopes if you book some viewing time during the night shift. I've got quite the portfolio back at my bunk, if you're interested.”
“Just to lend some credence to those rumours?” He stared blankly for a moment, then laughed loud and long when he got the joke. We toasted each other, him with his beer and me with some vacuum-distilled hooch, well diluted with reconstituted fruit juice. “What about the other 'jacks?”
“We do all the blue-collar stuff you'd expect... we drink large amounts of alcohol, play a lot of poker, watch sports beamed up from Earth, and so on. We're usually too beat to do much in the way of real sports, though a few fitness nuts put in extra hours of training on weekends. There was even a guy in the previous team that used to do weights in the centrifuge after a full shift on the beavers; if you cover sports, you must've seen him in the Mr. Universe competition this year. We definitely don't have deep academic discussions, and the station staff doesn't have much to do with us most of the time. They're a good bunch, all in all. Still, I'm looking forward to finishing my tour and getting back into a more intellectual environment.”
Try the direct approach now that he'd gotten outside a few beers? “Speaking of environment, I understand you fellows have been having a few problems down on the planet. Harvests are falling off, more damaged beavers, and so on. Care to comment?”
Tomas frowned, took a long pull at his beer, and watched me carefully for a moment before replying. “Well, off the record, the statistics speak for themselves, so I won't speak for them.”
“So you admit there are problems?”
“I didn't say that, did I? But it doesn't take a genius to see that the financials aren't what they used to be. Just as a point of interest, most of us have a stake in the Company through stock options; we get those cheap as a performance bonus. But I've been thinking about selling mine for a while now. Maybe in a few months, when my tour ends. But you mentioned problems, so let's talk off the record.” He waited until I turned off the camera, then continued. “One example is that we're having more wind, though that atmosphere's too damn thick to really talk about wind. So we are having a tougher time felling the trees safely without losing them or a beaver. As well, communications are a bit more difficult, though nothing we can't handle.”
“Can you explain why?”
“I could speculate, but there's that nondisclosure agreement we all signed. Let's just say that we've been working on Jupiter for such a short time that we don't really have good baseline data on what to expect. Could just be that the initial conditions we encountered were atypically easy, and that we'll simply have to get used to more difficult conditions, or that this is storm season and we'll just have to wait it out.”
The tone of his voice suggested that this forester from Venezuela was sober enough that I hadn't fooled him for a second, but I had one more piece of evidence to file away for future reference. I asked a few more easy questions to weaken his suspicions, then gradually eased out of the conversation as the beer began to take its toll and he started growing quiet and broody. Before I left, I arranged to get together after the competition to see whether any of his astronomical photos were worth buying for my hypothetical publisher, then called it a night.
The next day, after a bracing shower and breakfast, I called Talia. Preoccupied, she deferred me until that evening, and I spent the day in the station library, trying to fill in the more glaring gaps in my background knowledge so I wouldn't look the complete rube. The library was as well stocked as I'd expected, with a competent search engine, but I found some curious holes in the material on Jupiter and the trees, stuff that was in the databases but restricted to station staff. I might have been able to hack into those files without Security catching me, but it wasn't worth the risk. A few colleagues pressed me about why I was avoiding the competition, so I mentioned Greta to remind them who was the smarter journalist. They took the hint and left me alone. The ones that didn't hate me for scooping them wrote me off as an amateur, albeit a cunning one, and left me in peace. By dinner, I was bleary enough to skip the meal, and opted for a nap in my broom closet. I sleep like a dead man in low-gee, and my notepad took four tries to rouse me.
When I arrived at Talia's lab, an empty hold the Company had donated and furnished, I wasn't surprised to find a teleoperator harness hooked up and ready to go. What did surprise me was the seat and helmet sitting a short distance away. Talia, busy adjusting some equipment at the main console, greeted me distractedly, then proceeded to ignore me. Nearly an hour passed before she dusted off her hands and came to join me. Despite having dressed warmly, I found the room chilly, and my inability to take my eyes off the telefactor harness only exacerbated the problem.
“Glad you could make it.” Genuine enthusiasm filled her voice, a relief given the note we'd parted on. I also heard a trace of triumph I expected to find out about soon enough.
“Even after yesterday?”
She hesitated, then smiled. “Yes, even after yesterday. You made an honest, and flattering mistake, but I'll let bygones be bygones if you will. I've found something important I need to share with someone.”
“All right, I'll bite. What have you found?”
She shook her head. “That's not how we play the game. Remember, I can't tell you anything that hasn't been cleared, so you'll have to form your own conclusions. I hope you're brighter than you pretend to be.” I blinked at her choice of words, but she avoided my eyes and kept talking. “So you can reach your own conclusions, in a fully legal manner, I've obtained permission to take you down for a tour. I've slaved another headset unit to my beaver so you can come along for the dive.”
She smiled, a pleasant sight made more so by her obvious excitement. “Yup. That atmosphere's more like a terrestrial ocean, so I figure dive's the right term—your choice whether you prefer scuba dive or sky dive. Anyway, if you're feeling up to it, we're set up for you to come along.”
“I've done some diving, so this won't be a totally new experience.”
“I'll take that as a 'yes', but we'll see about that last bit.” Talia led me to the seat, not without some trepidation on my part, and hooked me into it, linking my camera into a jack on the chair's arm. She was too excited to notice my hesitation, and by focusing on her, I managed to force myself to approach that giant mechanical spider without fleeing the room; even so, my sweat was a sharp, acrid presence on the cool air. “Remember, your unit's slaved to mine and you have no motor control; you won't be able to maneuver independently, so you'll see only what I show you. We can chat normally, but if I tell you to shut up, do it. Beavers are expensive, and I can't afford to risk mine because you were playing the wide-eyed tourist and distracted me. If you become a problem, I'll cut you out of the circuit. Understood?”
I nodded, and she slipped the helmet over my head; it was fresh out of storage, and the visor's metallic tang mostly concealed my own aroma. The last thing I saw of the room as the visor folded down across my eyes was the spider, but before I could panic, I found myself on Jupiter, gazing through a murky blue-green haze at a dense forest of gently waving tree trunks. After a moment's disorientation, old memories of a more familiar terrestrial ocean helped me to begin making sense of my surroundings. Talia had chosen a palette that conformed with her ocean metaphor, and the perspective was easy to adapt to. The only false note was the absence of any sea floor below me or gleaming sea–sky interface above. The differences in the vegetation were to be expected, but knowing what to look for made the experience eerily familiar. I heard the sound of clothing hitting the floor.
“I won't be long. Take a few moments to acclimate while I secure my harness.” I was briefly tempted to lift the visor, but memories of the spider cured me of the impulse. The view wobbled vertiginously, then settled down to a gradual swaying motion. “You'll notice the colors aren't too alien. I've found that using a terrestrial palette reduces disorientation. There's no point in using true-color images, since most of us aren't equipped to appreciate radar and infrared wavelengths. I did my doctorate on California kelp farms, so it was a natural choice.” The view wobbled again, then swung suddenly left and abruptly back to the right. I gripped the arms of my chair against the sudden vertigo.
“Okay, we're set. Hang in there. It's murky today, so I'll swap frequency groups and see if that helps.”
My vision blurred briefly, then cleared and brightened, with more pale greens in the palette, like the diffuse lighting you get on a hazy summer day before a thunderstorm. I blinked to clear my eyes, and when I opened them again, we were moving and the focus had improved. Moving by telefactor resembled those popular immersive films taken from roller coasters or stunting aircraft, only much slower; everything moved, but you had no physical feeling of motion until you accepted the illusion and your brain began compensating for it. I was already engrossed.
“These trees are a mature stand. You'll note that they're laterally compressed, like big ribbons, with the longer dimension paralleling the prevailing current. In cross-section, they're shaped like elongated teardrops, with the fat end facing upwind. Their immense strength keeps them rigid, but even those amazing composites aren't strong enough to stop such long trunks from snapping under the shear stresses imposed by the current. I couldn't figure out what keeps them together until I realized their shape produces a strong Bernoulli effect. Their profile actually adjusts in response to changes in current direction.”
“You've completely lost me, Talia. Could you back up and take it over from the top, but this time in Russian or something easier to understand?”
She giggled. “Sorry. Think of an airplane's wing and you'll get the picture. When their cross-section changes, it creates lateral 'lift' to one side or the other. That buffers them against changes in current direction and lets them remain vertically stable. Makes it tricky to hang onto the trees, mind you. You have to be tremendously careful not to touch the trailing edges; they're razor sharp, and will cut steel.”
“I haven't noticed any current, now that you mention it.”
“That's because we're moving along with the trees at some enormous rate relative to the true surface of the planet, which is easy to forget if you carry the metaphor too far and think of the trees as being rooted in the same sense as their terrestrial analogues.”
“So we're blowing in the wind at the same time as the trees?”
“Heavens, no. The display filters out anything moving fast enough to disorient us, including most of the atmosphere. We're moving along as fast as the forest, so long as we hold tight to a tree. Gusts would send us flying if we didn't; Doppler radar warns us of the really bad ones so we can take cover. If we weren't constantly anchored somehow, we'd be swept away instantly, collide with a tree, and be destroyed. We're anchored to one of the trees right now. Here... look.” The view panned smoothly down to reveal one metal 'hand' clasping the smooth surface of the tree that supported us. The fingers of the hand formed a crook at the end of the manipulator arm, and clasped the tree's upstream edge; the current drove the beaver downstream of the tree, forcing the crook snugly against the tree's central bulge. As I watched, the hand opened slowly and gracefully, moved some indeterminate distance farther down the trunk, then swung slowly shut. An additional hand, designed for fine manipulation, swam slowly into view, shaking slightly, and the camera panned downwards until it came to rest on a slow-moving white blot on the trunk.
“Ah! A snail.” The manipulator reached out to grasp the 'snail', and pried it from the trunk. Before I could get a closer look, the snail wiggled free from the manipulator, and in the blink of an eye disappeared from view. “As I said, there are strong currents down here; they're every bit as bad as deep-sea mudslides.”
“So the plants became streamlined to avoid being blown around. What if the light source is oriented in the same direction as the current? How do the plants capture the light?”
“Look around you. Notice any strong light sources?” There weren't any, of course. “The light at these depths in the atmosphere is sufficiently diffuse that the plants don't have to turn to follow a moving light source; in fact, the strongest light sources are from lightning discharges. There's no phototaxis or phototropism that I've been able to detect.” We continued our motion, making slow progress downwards.
I reflected on the terrestrial ocean analogy. “There's something else I'm not clear on. I understand terrestrial photosynthesis, but how do these plants capture energy? I thought the carbon cycle was the only biologically viable method. Surely there isn't enough free oxygen for that to work here?”
“You're right, but thinking that oxygen's essential is a common misperception. You do have to specify rather exotic conditions to come up with an alternative that works with anything resembling efficiency, and even a relatively inefficient terrestrial plant would have these babies for breakfast if the two were competing for resources—not that they ever could, since the conditions here preclude 'normal' carbon-based life. What's important is that the local equivalent of the anthropic principle applies: the conditions in a very specific zone within Jupiter's atmosphere are such that they permit a specific set of life forms.
“The atmosphere is primarily hydrogen, ammonia, and methane, but there's also a mess of complex organics in concentrations ranging from trace levels right up to easily detectable quantities. The obvious replacement for CO2 in terrestrial ecology is CH4; the vegetation uses all that free electromagnetic radiation to strip hydrogen from the methane, add on various micro- and macronutrients from the surrounding soup, and build the results into those marvellous polymers that brought us here. There's a net release of hydrogen, and the tail end of the cycle involves reducing certain carbon compounds back into methane again. The key factor is Jupiter's atmospheric pressure, which is strong enough to hold the reactants in close proximity; that, combined with all that energy, permits chemical reactions that would be impossible anywhere else. Needless to say, the whole process is much slower and less efficient than oxygen-based photosynthesis. Most of these mature trees are older than human civilization. But with no competition from more efficient organisms, it works well enough to have populated this whole stratum with life.”
She paused to let that sink in. “If you look a little below us, you'll see a large bulb on the stem we're descending.” The camera zoomed in to focus on the bulge. “That's a bladder, one of the more commercially valuable components. It serves much the same role as air bladders in terrestrial kelp. The trees metabolize the tissues at the center of the bladder, and use the resulting vacuum to store hydrogen released during photosynthesis; if the tree can't collect enough hydrogen from the atmosphere to meet its metabolic needs, it 'burns' the stored hydrogen along with those special carbon compounds I mentioned to generate metabolic energy. I'd give either leg to be able to dissect a bladder and find out what they use instead of ATP, but the cell contents degrade too fast when you bring them into the lab.” She sighed forlornly. “Anyway, with the hydrogen withdrawn, the bladders essentially become vacuum chambers, creating buoyancy; even carbon fiber wouldn't be strong enough to support something this big against the winds without some additional gimmickry. A few lateral branches here and there provide vertical lift like a plane's wings, but there aren't enough of them to support all that weight.
“By the way, you've gotten rather quiet. Have I lost you yet?”
“No, I'm just being boggled. But it's a near thing. I did my homework before the interview, otherwise I'd have been in left field from the start of the lecture.”
“Lecture?” She sounded puzzled, and went silent for a moment. I could imagine her mental shrug. “Don't stay boggled. Just interrupt if you have a question. We're heading a little deeper, towards ground level, so I can demonstrate my discovery. Keep quiet for the next little bit; it takes some concentration to get down safely.”
Far below, I began to discern a horizontal surface amidst the gently swaying trees. As we drew closer, it resolved into a dense, low-lying ground cover. Faint, tantalizing stirrings became apparent here and there in the undergrowth, but I held my peace, waiting for the all-clear. Eventually, we reached the ground and 'stepped' gingerly down from our tree.
“Phew! That last step always bothers me. If you miss your hold, you'll fly for miles before you can grab something, assuming you weren't shredded by the trees first. Anyway, feel free to ask questions now.” The field of view panned towards one of the wriggling motions in the undergrowth and we moved towards it.
“The first thing that comes to mind is just what we're standing on. I thought that beavers couldn't withstand Jupiter's surface conditions; for that matter, I wasn't clear that anyone had agreed there was a surface, as such.”
“Correct. The actual surface, or what passes for one, is a good many kilometres below us. I won't say just how far in case you've got a problem with heights. We're standing on a mat of vegetation that lives only in a narrow atmospheric band. The vegetation creates a surface solid enough to support a variety of life forms; it's the functional equivalent of a forest soil, although the holdfasts for the trees actually root a kilometre or two below us in a different kind of layer. I can give you exact figures, if you need them for your article. Based on some shared characteristics between the trees and the soil, I hypothesize that the forest floor evolved first, then the trees evolved from some of the taller life forms, but I haven't had time to prove it; I've got bigger fish to fry. I suspect that the trees reproduce vegetatively. It's also possible that they reproduce sexually, and exhibit masting behaviour like most terrestrial species, but if so, I've missed the seed-fall. That would be something to see. God, there's so much to learn here.”
The trees that stretched out of sight overhead made mature redwoods look like bonsais. “Thanks, the figures can wait. But speaking of life forms, why haven't we seen any? Apart from plants and that snail, I mean.”
She chuckled. “Simple. Most keep pretty well hidden, for the same reason that we never let go of the trees or something equally solid. The forests mostly drift along at close to the same rate as the rest of the atmosphere, but gusts and storm currents accelerate faster than motile organisms could respond. Anyway, here we are at one of my big discoveries.” We stopped beside a squirming patch of ground, and the fine manipulator reached out smoothly and began tugging at the surface. After a brief struggle, it broke through and a second manipulator darted into the widening gap. After a moment, it emerged with something long, white, and wriggly held firmly in its grasp. As soon as the manipulator emerged from the protective cover of the vegetation, the creature stopped struggling. It looked like nothing so much as a flattened white worm, with an impressive array of bristly protuberances that were rapidly withdrawing into its body cavity as we watched.
“That'll win no beauty contests.”
“You have a predictably narrow esthetic sense. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful and important part of the local ecology. I call them 'grubs', and they seem to churn the ground in much the same way as earthworms churn soil. They also seem to parasitize the trees, like terrestrial Hemiptera, and are one of the more important causes of mortality in older trees. Are you ready for the really big show? Watch this.” With a flip of the manipulator, she propelled the grub overhead, and the view panned swiftly to track it. Unlike the snail Talia had released earlier, the grub drifted away almost leisurely. Then something flashed into our line of sight to envelop the grub.
“What the hell is that?”
That was something about the same apparent size as a dinner plate, bristling with its own array of hooks and wriggly things and suspended at the end of an almost invisibly thin string that trailed off into the forest directly upwind. “A sea otter, kind of.” Talia sounded proud of herself. “They feed on the grubs that get blown out of the ground through carelessness, a storm, or as a result of overly diligent eating, and they can catch snails crawling on the stems. They also burrow into the ground and dig out the grubs, but their main adaptation involves catching their prey in flight. They're the other significant part of the local ecology.” As we watched, the "otter" turned sideways into the current, and began hitching itself slowly upstream until it disappeared behind a tree trunk. “The really big ones have a range of about fifty metres. They turn sideways to the wind to get the maximum thrust when they pursue a grub, then face into the wind to minimize resistance while they return to their perch. Marvellous adaptation!” Talia repeated the demonstration twice more, moving progressively farther afield to find the next otter. Eventually, she paused. “This is fun, sort of like feeding squirrels, but we'd better move on to the next part of the tour.”
We accelerated and began moving off in a direction that was, so far as I could determine, no different from any other. Talia navigated rapidly around the trees projecting from the vegetation beneath us. I cleared my throat, not wishing to distract her, and after a moment, our pace slowed. “Question?”
“Yes. How is it we're moving so fast now, and that the grub didn't disappear as fast as the snail you tossed into the current earlier, and just how in hell can you find your way around down here anyway?”
A chuckle. “That's more than one question, but the answers are simple enough. First, we can move faster now because we're in a boundary layer adjacent to the ground, and it's a surprisingly thick one because of the unusual geometry. As a result, we're experiencing laminar rather than turbulent flow, which means much less resistance to movement and much less serious consequences if we lose our grip. If the grub had reached the turbulent layer above us, it would have blown away as fast as that first snail I showed you. For the same reason, with less chance of being detached from our supports, I can afford to be less cautious in moving about. As for your final question, we use absolute positioning systems, sort of like the GPS satellites back home. Your headset doesn't show my heads-up display because you haven't been trained to interpret it.”
“I stand in awe...”
“Don't be snide. I'm not saying you wouldn't have figured everything out eventually, but there wasn't time to set you up with the full gear and brief you on the displays. Now hush, I'm bursting with excitement and I want you to see the other part of my research.” We made good time, and after a while we came into an area where the trees thinned out and began looking unhealthy—that is, many had ragged strips fluttering downwind of their stems and had developed a perceptible lean. Abruptly, we came to a vast opening in the forest, and Talia slowed dramatically, taking each step with deliberate care.
“The rest of your project?”
“Yup. I did a small, controlled harvesting trial to calibrate the effects of different harvesting methodologies.” We moved forward a little more carefully, encountering progressively larger gaps in the long lines of trees towering into invisibility overhead, until we came to a gap torn in the ground. Through the gap, we gazed downwards to where the blue-green haze swallowed details. I looked for, but did not see, any sign of the tree that had fallen to create the gap, nor were other trees below fighting upwards to take its place.
“I've visited the Amazon reserves, and though it's dangerous to draw parallels, this strikes me as vaguely wrong. Shouldn't there be understory vegetation fighting to make it up into the stronger light?”
“Like you said, it's dangerous to extrapolate: different ecologies, different applications of the same rules. Remember, there's no sunlight to rise into. But take a closer look and see if you can't spot anything interesting. She did a slow pan across the edges of the holes, and after a time, I saw it. There was a distinct and faintly ominous undercurrent of motion in the vegetation at the edges of the hole. Lots of motion.
“My guess would be that we're looking at more of the grubs you introduced me to earlier.”
“Bingo. Lots of the little buggers. Want to see another little experiment?” I grunted assent, and she reached the fine manipulator down into the hole to pluck out a grub, a much fatter one than those we'd seen in the denser forest. The manipulator arm shook perceptibly as it thrust into the hole, but as Talia said nothing, I assumed this was normal and let it lie. “All right, here goes, time to feed the squirrels.” With a slow movement of her arm, she tossed the grub gently upwards—and it disappeared with a velocity that would have shamed a rocket. The manipulator arm was now shaking violently, slowing its oscillations only gradually as she brought it back in close to the beaver.
“Current? Is that why the manipulator arm is shaking?”
“Uh huh. Want to try again and see if any otters are lurking around?”
“That sounds suspiciously like a rhetorical question. Might I assume that there aren't any?”
“Assumptions are free, unlike my tongue. But I imagine it would prove interesting to determine just what current velocities the otters can withstand before their tether lines give out. Even if I'd done such research,” she said coldly, “I wouldn't be able to answer your question.”
“I don't have any sense of scale here, Talia. How wide a clearcut did you make here?”
“Call it a hundred metres, less than what the company usually makes.” I remembered her earlier estimate of the maximum tether length, and a piece of the puzzle clicked into place.
“What about the current?” The manipulator hadn't trembled like this earlier. What had increased the current strength?
“I really can't imagine,” she lied. “Something seems to have disrupted the local boundary layer.”
“Um hum.” I thought back to one of the forestry texts I'd read to prepare myself for this tour, and threw out a leading question. “Must be a lot of windthrow here then... an 'edge effect', I believe they call it.”
“Now that you mention it...” She sounded pleasantly surprised.
“Uh huh.” There was silence for a moment as I juggled the pieces. “You said the grubs parasitize the trees, right? And that the trees grow very slowly because of their inefficient metabolism?”
“Yup on both counts. The grubs also feed on natural regeneration and on the forest floor itself if there are no trees. The trees withstand the browsing much better.”
“What does the company do to minimize windthrow?”
“At the moment, they don't know what causes it; they lose beavers regularly enough once a cutover reaches this size that they tend to move on to another stand, so nobody's studied the phenomenon until now. But they do make assumptions. Before I came here, they were guessing it had something to do with random storms. Once I'd had a chance to do some fieldwork, I began suspecting parasitism of the trees, and it didn't take long to figure out the grubs were at the root of the problem. Given that they had no idea what sort of pesticides could possibly work on such a screwy biochemistry, they tried something much more basic: explosives. The shockwaves generated at these atmospheric densities kill the grubs quite nicely.”
“Right... Given the density of the soup we're swimming in, the effect must be spectacular.”
“Yup again. And the otters seem particularly susceptible to the explosions, and the explosions only seem to be exacerbating the problem. When my report is filed, they'll know why.” Talia fell silent, and turned us away from the hole. At a safe distance, the beaver settled gently to the ground, two hands locking onto adjacent trees to hold us in place. “Let's head back up to the station; I have a report to file.” There came a moment of dislocation, and I found myself staring at a blank visor. I had enough to think about that I completely forgot the huge mechanical spider lurking in the darkness behind me. After a time, I heard feet hitting the floor, followed by the rustle of clothing, clearly audible in the silence. I blinked in the sudden light as she lifted my visor, her other hand still smoothing shut the Velcro that sealed the front of her overalls. There was a large, damp patch round about her navel where the sweat from her exertions had pooled.
“Looks like you've got the problem solved. They ought to be grateful, right?”
“Ask me tomorrow. In the meantime, you've been a polite and interested guest, but I'll be burning some midnight oil to finish the report on time...”
“Of course. Let me know how it turns out.”
“Not likely. Gag rule, remember? But I'd love to read your story once you've got a good first draft ready. Good night.”
I left, emotionally drained and my body icy cold from sitting motionless in the chill of the room. I had some serious thinking to do.
I finished a poor second attempt at a first draft of my report round about dinner time the next day, encrypted it, and embedded it in an innocent story on the competition, where Company censors would never find it—or be able to read it if they did—before they transmitted it back to Earth for me. Then I sat back in my chair in the bar and began working listlessly on my dinner. The report was going to confirm my employers' suspicions, but some details just plain didn't fit. I wanted to hear Talia's opinions before I submitted it. The few reporters still talking to me had looked at me like I was crazy when I skipped the press conference with the winning lumberjacks. Greta had been edged out of the winners' circle by three guys I hadn't talked to (Chen, Holgersen, and Mahomed), and loudly attributed this—with a certain unmistakable irony—to her lack of interest in dating Miss Universe or the two runners-up.
Talia walked in and made straight for my table while I was retrieving my dinner from the microwave, where I'd just warmed it for the third time. From the set of her jaw, things hadn't gone well. I offered my untouched bulb of hooch and she took a long pull without saying a word. After a few more moments of silence, her shoulders relaxed, and a weary grin came over her face.
“Might one assume that the Company wasn't pleased with your report?”
“One might assume.” She frowned at me a bit suspiciously, then patted a pocket of her overalls. “And here's my ticket home, now that they tell me my work here is done.” She took another long pull at the drink.
I leaned forward across the table. “That's not all, is it?”
She gave me a long, measuring look. “No. There are a few things in the report that I hadn't fully worked through when you left last night. Like the edge effect around clearcuts.” There was challenge in her eyes.
“Let me ponder that one for a second.” I did so for more than a second, aided by strong coffee that hadn't taken at all well to repeated reheatings. “Got it! You've proven that there's increased windthrow around the edges of the clearcuts. The disrupted boundary layer increases turbulence and wind speed.”
“Something like that.” The alcohol had worked on her surprisingly fast, and her lazy smile made me wonder if she'd slept at all, or eaten, last night. I looked closer and saw the bags under her eyes, the disordered hair, the sheen of old sweat on her forehead. She still smelt awfully nice, but there was a bit of a gamey edge to it.
“Hang in there, I'm stumbling towards a conclusion. Felling the trees opens up the forest, so you get increased wind speed, which causes more windthrow, which opens the forest up further, which causes more wind, and so on.”
“That sounds suspiciously like positive feedback, and natural ecosystems evolve powerful mechanisms to stop such phenomena—or else the systems never arise in the first place; in fact, negative feedback is the rule of thumb.” Her smile grew a bit wider.
“Yeah. Right. And how do the grubs fit in? No, don't answer that—you don't want to trip over the gag order this late in your tour. Let's see. The openings are too wide for the otters, that much I've already figured out. The otters eat the grubs, and the grubs eat the trees, but once the gaps get too large for the otters, the grubs breed without any predation and undergo a miniature population explosion. With no trees to feed on, they start eating the ground, and that undermines the trees and creates those gaps you showed me. To control the grubs, the Company uses explosives, but the explosions kill the otters, and the grubs come back faster than the otters. Voila! Classic case of eliminating a predator from an ecosystem.”
Talia saluted me with the drinking bulb. “Bravo! Your hypothesis sure sounds logical, though I can neither confirm nor deny it on or off the record.” She blinked somewhat owlishly, regarding me over the top of her glasses. “Can you finish the story with a final, suitably melodramatic touch?”
“Hmmm... let's see. Declining productivity, more lost beavers, reduced yield of undamaged trees, increasing the damage by using explosives. Didn't you say that harvesting productivity depends on atmospheric and topographic considerations?”
“I didn't, but it's true. And of course clearcuts are more efficient than single-tree selection cuts, which would produce smaller and more ecologically acceptable edge effects. I've demonstrated that, by the way, though not in sufficient replication to give you any credible statistics. It costs too much and takes too long to perform such experiments, particularly when your stockholders expect high returns on their investment and your profits are down. Their harvesting pattern wouldn't be a problem back on Earth; in fact, some forests actually regenerate best through clearcuts. Go on.”
I reclaimed the bulb and took a good gulp myself; the caustic liquid neatly removed the coffee's aftertaste from my mouth, but at a cost. I winced, and it took two tries to clear my throat enough to talk. “Profits have begun dropping, and if the Company can't keep shareholders happy, they need efficient harvesting more than they need to solve other problems.”
Talia took back the bulb, took another large swallow, then slumped bonelessly in her chair. “That covers all the pertinent facts. But remember, you figured it out for yourself; I just provided the encouragement. I've completed my research, and once I've packed up my personal gear, I'll be hopping the next shuttle back to Earth. I can't publish, but I may still be able to return some day with another grant—if I can convince anyone that I did useful work here. Of course, the story might leak out somehow, and then I'd be the logical choice to come back for another study.” She glanced at me with dawning hope.
“My story can't leak out either.”
Suspicion grew in her eyes. “Jake, be honest. The only story you're going to file is with the Company, and they'll see that it never has a chance to leak. Right?”
I smiled, pleased at having fooled her. “I'm not who you think I am. The story definitely won't make Time Magazine, but it will reach the sort of people who read The Wall Street Journal, and oddly enough, their interests should accord quite nicely with yours. Nicely enough to maybe even fund a return trip for someone who could solve their problems.”
The suspicion disappeared slowly, replaced by a growing astonishment, then a wicked grin spread across her face. “Here's to nondisclosure agreements!”
I clinked my coffee against her bulb of hooch. “Amen to that.”
This story was written as my attempt to see whether I could tell an interesting "scientific detective story" in the Analog tradition; that is, an infodump-packed story in which the scientific principles were the main point, and one that despite the modern trend towards computers and biotech in hard SFF, harks back to the genre's traditional engineering roots. Despite that, I also tried to create likable and realistic characters whose natures and relationships were integral to the story. (Jake's considerably more of a "hound" than my usual protagonist, thus fun to write.) Given the goal and intended market for the tale, the balance still ends up more heavily on the side of the science, but I hope acceptably so. This one almost made it into Analog, but despite several flattering and encouraging letters of comment, I could never quite suss out how Stanley Schmidt wanted it revised, and he wasn't willing to provide details, so I eventually gave up.
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