A close transit of a gas giant

The year is 2217.  A starship from Earth’s solar system has nearly completed its trip to a small space colony.  It needs to change its velocity, and according to the imagined physics of this future this can be best done near a really large planet.  From an unfinished SF story.

Older Than Jupiter, and Colder

The Observation Lounge was a bubble on the end of a tower and double lift-shaft that stuck out from the main body of the Habitable Quarter.  Its distinctive shape had gained it the nickname ‘Emperor’s End’ after the famous tower on the second Death Star in the classic Star Wars films.  It was however an extremely safe place, one where you could sit and see stars in almost all directions, including down through the transparent floor.  You could also see the eerie glow of the Gravitic Drive, and with the right background you’d see the silhouettes of the nearest three girders as well.  The other two corners – the hyperdrive and the cargo corner – were disappointingly small and ill-lit for anyone who tried finding them.  Almost invisible, unless they happened to be silhouetted against the brightness of the Milky War or else one of the rare gas-clouds that was bright enough to do the trick.  Passengers were usually surprised at how dim and dull most gas-clouds were without enhancements, unaware that most astronomical pictures were based on long exposures or else light-sensitivity far beyond the human range.

Also beyond the human range was the work of the robotars, as well as the true robots that assisted them.  At the cargo corner, one robotar and four lightly-supervised robots were selecting cargo modules deemed low-priority.  This was the task of the Senior Supercargo: the discarded items of cargo would be gently shoved away, since the Ludwig Feuerbach was no longer accelerating and had already achieved a long elliptical orbit round the gas-giant Lao Tzu.  They would be stable there for centuries, perhaps for millennia.  But it was expected that in a few weeks one of the new Runabouts would have been assembled: able to track down those cargo modules and give each a mild acceleration that would take it to Planet Statis in a few weeks.  From there, Gravitic Engine at Prime Base should be able to grab the module with a gravitic attractor beam and finally land it.

Things were more serious and complex at the hyperdrive corner.  Paddy was there as a giant robotar ten metres tall: roughly human in shape, except his ‘feet’ were prehensile claws and the fingers of each hand were a set of tools.  Three other small robotars were with him, height 0.6 metres, 0.3 metres and 13 centimetres, each controlled by members of his engineering team for a different specialist function.  They were also bright colours: electric blue for Paddy and yellow-gold, scarlet and emerald for the others.  This was colour coding and the same colour was used for the control kit, which could matter in emergencies.  Here it was all routine.

In addition to these and to several robots for routine tasks, Harry had a telepresence nearby in the Humble Tractor Vehicle, a solid dodecahedron 20 metres in diameter.  For this task it had extruded several arms to help with the detachment, and also sprouted some datalinks that were now attached to the hyperdrive.  Harry had a view from inside it and was acting as if he were working at an actual control-panel on the vehicle, while actually sitting with a helmet enclosing his head at a work-station next to the others in their robotar-handling suits.  But all of them were working in near-darkness, in human terms, lit only by the glow of the Gravitic Drive more than 700 metres away.  Yet to them it seemed as clear as daylight, since the robotars had short-range radar, as well as other sensitivities that could be added at will.

The job was complex: the hyperdrive had intricate connections and also several physical links with multiple redundancy, because an accidental detachment while still in hyperspace was presumed fatal.  No ship had ever returned to report such a loss, though the occasional hyperdrive had turned up still attached to the stub of its structural girders.  Hyperspace had wildly alien laws of physics, which allowed enormously fast transit between contact-points with the ordinary universe, but which snuffed out both life and solid matter without the special protection that only a hyperdrive or a few special and expensive devices could provide.  The need to avoid such accidents and also to keep control meant that the links to the ship were numerous and intricate, and had to be taken apart rather slowly.  Yet in normal space it was a safe and almost-routine task.  And once the hyperdrive was detached, the Humble Tractor Vehicle would lock onto it and move it a safe distance away.  There it would stay until the Ludwig Feuerbach began its fly-past and drastically changed its speed and vector.  Meantime the hyperdrive unit had a small gravitic drive of its own and could use it to stabilise its own orbit, if necessary.

None of this was currently visible from the Observation Lounge, not because it was particularly secret, but because it was easier to work without the possible confusions and minor heating effects caused by visible light.  And because that light would be massively increasing during the fly-by of the gas giant, so the engineers’ robotars were best left insensitive to it and in the dark for normal vision.  They expected to be finished well before closest approach and might then go and enjoy the view, if they had no other duties.  But with any engineering tasks, it was good to have a large margin for errors and accidents.

It was doubtful if many on the Observation Lounge would have bothered to spend much time watching engineers doing routine task, had this been visible to them.  Lao Tzu already appeared larger to them than the EarthMoon did in the skies of Old Earth, and its apparent size increased all the time.  And it was no static crater-scarred disk like the EarthMoon: it was a world of shifting bands of colour, even more glorious than the bands of Jupiter that had amazed watchers of the glories sent back by the classic Voyager spacecrafts back in the 20th century.

The observers were almost as colourful as the planet.  Those entitled and willing wore the various uniforms from the other branches of the Colonisation Service, this being a fairly formal occasion where Departmental Uniform was the norm.  Apart from crew in their usual Deep Blue with yellow piping, there were many in the uninteresting Silvery-Grey of Science or the Leaf-Green of Environmental Support.  Also some in the Burnt Orange of Habitable-Planet Exploration, the Pastel Orange of Uninhabitable-Planet Exploration, the Jet Black of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Brown with silver piping of Engineering (planet-based), and the Brilliant White of the Medical Department.  These last were the only crew not to wear the Deep Blue with yellow piping and were not in fact members of Starship Crew Department, though subject to the Captain’s orders.  There were also some members of Medical Department who were there just as passengers: these seldom wore their Brilliant White uniforms on a spacecraft or starship.  And when they did, it was a variant: Brilliant White with red piping to show that this was not their workplace and they should not be called on except in emergencies.  In this case they wore ordinary smart garments.

None of those in uniform had active Function Patches apart from the scientists.  The convention was that you didn’t display them except at your place of work.  One exception was Medical Department, whose own uniform was distinctive but had no Function Patch, since they disliked having their specialisms disclosed to potential patients except when treatment was being offered.  While Science Department, while rejecting indicators of rank, had also insisted that they were always ‘at work’ even when away from their laboratories or other sites.  And that it was absolutely essential to be able to see at a glance what a colleague’s area was, at least broadly.  So their Silvery-Grey jumpsuit uniforms showed a Function patch that was white with black indicators, a Double Helix for Genetics, a stylised branching Tree of Life for Taxonomy, an Amoeba for Microbiology, a Planarian Worm for Zoology, a Cabbage for Botany and many more.  But those were just the Main Function designators: most of them had two or three medium-sized siggles indicating a specialism and several more small siggles indicating an area of expertise. Elizabeth wondered vaguely what Marilyn’s would be, but could not spot her.

Most distinguished of all the uniforms were three men and one woman in a uniform of Scarlet and Ash-Grey stripes: the uniform of retired military personnel, elderly veterans of the war against the pirates.  With them was one rather overawed member of the Colonisation Service’s current Military Department, wearing his neat Scarlet with blue piping, but feeling very inferior to the veterans.  He had never seen action and didn’t expect to: he was due to join the 217-strong Statis Security Forces, which would involve a new uniform once his transfer was officially complete.  Only the uniforms of one of the Big Eight armed forces outside the Colonisation Service would have trumped the Scarlet and Ash-Grey.  On this particular trip, only Captain Campbell was entitled to wear such a uniform, the Brilliant White with dull grey stars and asteroids that was the Retirement Uniform of the famous Searcher-Warship Armed Forces who had done so much to defeat the pirates.  Except that it was unusual for crew to wear anything other than their current uniform in their own workplace, and he anyway never attended such gatherings.

Had their been members of the Starship Crew Department on board who were not members of the crew, they would not have worn uniform.  That was an unbreakable rule.

Between them, the uniforms comprised 184 of the 391 people present.  The rest either had no uniform or did not choose to wear it.   Several people remarked to close friends that there was no one at all in the Metallic Green with sky-blue piping of Climate Control, because all of those entitled to wear it were embarrassed by the disaster on Statis.  The actual friends of such people politely turned a blind eye to this understandable decision.  They were safely lost in the mass of the non-uniformed, most of whom were wives, husbands or children of the uniformed.  A few of them were employees of the Colonisation Service rather than members with the understanding of lifelong service, and they too wore no uniform.  There were no independent settlers: Statis was not yet open to anyone who might wish to go it alone.

In the control centre in the middle of the Observation Lounge, Elizabeth briefly brightened the room’s lights and then dimmed them.  Everyone attending was now aware that the presentation had started and that loud private conversations should cease.  They had the option to switch to the official commentary, if they so wished, using either headphones or middle-ear implants.  If they preferred to keep these off, listen to music, quietly chat or whatever, this was fine just so long as they did not disturb others.  Everyone applying for access to the Observation Lounge had needed to show an understanding of these rules and agree to abide by them before they were let in.  Since it was much the best place to view the fly-past, almost everyone was there.

Elizabeth looked at the monitor and found that 256 of those present were tuned into her: a typical number.  So she began:

“Welcome.  For those of you who don’t already know me, I am Lieutenant-Captain Elizabeth Durand.  The Captain is not fond of these sort of events even at the best of times, so I normally handle it.  But note that I will need to leave during the flypast.  I have arranged for someone competent to take over at that point.

“As you were told earlier, we are just now detaching the Hyperdrive.  Causing damage that will cost millions to put right, but human lives come first.  The Hyperdrive unit once detached will still follow us like a faithful puppy, but our Gravitic Engines will soon start massively changing our speed and vector using the Janvar Effect, giving us the fastest possible passage towards the local star – the sun of Statis that most of you will soon be living under.  Our destination is Planet Statis, which is actually closer to us than the star is, but we will once again use the Janvar Effect to drastically slingshot again at the star and finally achieve a matching vector and velocity with the planet: we would need fifteen days to achieve that end if we went the shorter way.  Journeys in space are often surprising, with the shortest path not being the best.

“Regarding the detachment of the Hyperdrive, I have received permission to briefly illuminate the scene.”  Suddenly a powerful spread of light-beams from the main body of the habitable corner of the ship shone upon the Hyperdrive corner, brilliantly illuminating the near ends of girders linking to it and the distant figures of Paddy’s robotars and the Humble Tractor Vehicle still working on it.  This was noted by them as a small distraction: a minor extra wavelength that was ignored by the sophisticated sensory organs of the robotars.  The engineers were busy, and not currently sensitive to visible light, so they basically ignored it.

“The large blue human-like figure is a robotar operated by our Chief Engineer, Paddy Doyle.  The vehicle is our Humble Tractor Vehicle, which will soon be used to push the Hyperdrive safely away from us.  It will be retrieved on our return journey, while the Humble Tractor Vehicle returns to us immediately its job is done.”

This was true as far as it went, but misleading.  The Humble Tractor Vehicle would indeed return after pushing away the Hyperdrive.  It would also launch the Firelance, as she would detail later.  But its final mission would be to pick up the SkyShuttle Iphigenia and launch that in turn.  The complex dynamics and interactions would mean that the Iphigenia would speed away so fast that it would get to Planet Statis in just five days, while the Humble Tractor Vehicle would arrive three days after that.  It would not be available for use by the starship during the slingshot round the sun, which was a slight extra risk.  Had she been in charge she would have explained all this, and endured complaints if the necessities were not accepted.  But the Captain had decided otherwise, and he had the last word.

She was glad that the presentation had so far gone smoothly.  She noted that the numbers tuned in had shot up to 358: clearly the illumination had grabbed attention.  She switched it off, and saw numbers drop back to the 290s.  Content with that, she continued “Note that the engineers will not have been significantly disturbed by the illumination.  The robotar units show their handlers only what is relevant to their work.  They can use visible light and some other wavelengths, but radar is the norm.

“To recapitulate, while passing the gas giant we will use the Janvar Effect to radically speed up and change our vector.  During this process, the Firelance will detach itself.  You will not see this: it is on the other side of the ship, and also would not be visually interesting.  The Humble Tractor Vehicle when it returns from detaching the Hyperdrive will launch the Firelance also.  For those who don’t know – I see some puzzled faces –  a Firelance is a dangerous emergency vehicle using a controlled thermonuclear explosion that makes it very much faster than anything we can manage in this ship.

“For safety reasons, the Firelance must also be in a different trajectory from the one we will be following.  The planned launch will loop it backwards round the gas giant and it will then be ignited on the other side of the planet, just in case it blows up all at once, which does occasionally happen.  If all goes well, you will get the distant sight of a sprinting thermonuclear device going off on its own path as we pull away from Lao Tzu.  It will reach Planet Statis in just one day, and the Gravitic Engine at Statis Prime Base should be able to seize it and bring it safely down, with a cargo of vital supplies.  This can be done because its mass is relatively small, tiny compared to this starship.

“After watching the Firelance, you can stay and watch the gas giant recede, if you feel like it.  Beyond that there will be nothing much: we will have a dull few days in interplanetary space until we get closer to the sun.  We don’t pass anything interesting, unfortunately, not even an asteroid that would be visible without binoculars.  But we will be getting closer to Planet Statis and you might wish to send them some comforting messages.  Even converse a little as the talk-back time shrinks from hours to mere minutes.

“That is my introduction completed.  A young lady who is a qualified Planetary Scientist will talk you through the actual close passage.  In the interim, my little boy who is a bright and well-informed 10-year-old will give a little talk about how we all got here, if you wish to listen.”

She notices that the numbers tuning in had dropped to about 180, not bad.  The board did not show it, but she guessed that most of them were either female or males with children of their own.

Little Timmy stepped up with a nervous smile and then began:

“I’m going to tell you about the various ways you might have got here, and if it bores you it is easy to switch me off.”  This got him some encouraging gestures from several ladies, so he continued: “I’ve seen more of it that most, because mum and dad went back to Earth when they decided to have my little sister Jane, and we visited two aunties and an uncle who each have their own families, and came back on a splendid ride.  We took off from the Peterborough Spaceport, the same as lots of you must have.  This shot us up and out over the Wash and the North Sea, and then the Fists of Thor in the Scandinavian mountains boosted us to the edge of space.  Where we were picked up by the Finnmark Geostationary Ogre, which is one of the Earthlight chain of gravity stations and flung close to the sun, the EarthStar I should call it.  There we were put on a Sundropper and the Solskin chain of gravity stations flung us out to Fenris Station, which took us about a day and we didn’t pass anything interesting on the way.  I’ve seen the suns of seven solar systems apart from the EarthStar, but I’ve never seen Jupiter close up, nor the EarthMoon either.”

At this point his confidence failed, so he said “and at the Fenris Station there is the Fenris Device.  Which is where it gets complex, so I’ll hand over to mum who’s the starship’s Lieutenant Tenant – the Lieutenant-Captain so she known all these things.”

“Not everything, but enough to do my job and keep you all safe” said Elizabeth.  “If you cast your mind back 83 days or more, the Fenris Device actually performed two functions.  First it would have grabbed and slowed your Sundroppers or other vehicles to rendezvous with Fenris Station, the Fenris Nodeport which is actually 3.7 million kilometres from the Fenris Device, for safety reasons.  Then once we were all on board the Starship Ludwig Feuerbach and safely launched, we were given a new and distinctive velocity and vector by the Fenris Device.  Before we even entered hyperspace, we were adjusted so that we would emerge with the correct velocity at the other end.  Not a huge velocity in interstellar terms, but still 100,000 kilometres per hour with respect to the solar system of Planet Statis.

“In the past this has puzzled people, so I will explain in detail.  Without the adjustment we would have kept the vector and velocity we had in Old Solar System, when we emerged from hyperspace.  If we’d done that, we would have been moving quite fast relative to this solar system, and probably in an unhelpful direction.  I forget just what, because it is never the same twice, since there is considerable proper motion involved in it.”  She saw some concern and added “the ship has two highly qualified pilots to handle it, along with three skilled navigators and the captain oversees them.  I too can navigate and pilot as well, but mostly I take care of other matters.  I wasn’t directly involved with either our departure from the Old Solar System or our arrival here.

“Any questions?  Raise your hand, and whoever I point to should go to the nearest fixed microphone.”

There was a wave of raised hands.  She chose one woman who asked “Just what is this ‘Fenris Device’?”

“It is an enormously powerful Gravitic machine built around a small black hole that was created by the induced collapse of one of Neptune’s smaller moons, a moon called Larissa.  And was then moved to an independent orbit around the sun further out than Neptune, so that it would always be within Goldspace.  Its creation was integral in the establishment of the Old Solar System’s first regular Nodeport: some would say the first anywhere, though the Dog Star Corporation also has a reasonable claim.  But ours is still fit for service with its original core intact, whereas theirs has been fully reconstructed at least eight times.”

“Why ‘Fenris’?” asked the same woman.

“That’s from Norse legend via a science fiction writer called Brian Stapleford.  But I’ve been told that he had it confused: the Fenris Wolf ate the Norse god Odin, and it was two other wolves that chased the sun and moon.  But that’s your share, lady, I’ll move to someone else.”

She chose a teenager, who said “Don’t we have three hyperpilots?”

“Four, including me.  Two regular, but Atmospheric-Pilot Baxter qualified on the trip.  He has a background in atmospheric piloting, as some of you may know.”

One man laughed grimly, while several more look upset. Elizabeth knew why, and was keen to move on from the matter, which she now wished she had not mentioned.  She pointed to someone else, who asked “I just wondered, how much would a trip to Planet Statis cost if we had to pay for it ourselves?”

“Good question.  Once this world is open for settlement, an UnderC trip on a Migration Craft would cost maybe 130,000 Ecu, plus the additional burden of more than 43 years elapsed time passing in what the passengers would experience as just a single year.  I trust we all understand about Einsteinian Time Dilation: if not there are useful lectures about it on the Intranet.  But just that single out-of-time trip would cost you more than five years wages for someone on EIC’s median wage.  Not that many people would actually pay that: almost all settlement within EIC is paid for by governments.  No one makes a fortune out of settlement or land speculation, and no one does very badly either.  That’s how our culture chooses to handle the matter.

“As for travelling by hyperspace as we do, with time passing no faster for us than for the rest of the universe, it is hard to say what an individual might be charged.  The cold equations of economics means that no more is spent on this ship than is needed to do the job with reasonable safety and comfort.  Even so, I doubt that any one of you could have afforded this trip.  I did a rough calculation after a similar question last time: if we sold tickets, we’d be charging more than seven million Gold Ecu for a single trip.  Colonisation Service starships don’t sell tickets, of course, and this place has not so far become a tourist destination, but it seems the right sort of price.  And of course I’m no more able to pay such a price than most of you.  Crew on a ship like this would earn maybe 50% more if we had an equivalent job in the Old Solar System.  We do this for the glory of seeing other planets, other suns.”

There were nods of approval, but some of the scientists looked bored by this vulgar talk of economics.  So she pointed to someone else, who asked “are those girders the hyperdrive is attached to made of SuperSolid from the Dog Star Corporation?”

“Well yes.  Or almost.  As some of you already know, starships like ours are generally built around several melded girders, usually arranged as the edges of one of the five Regular Solids that have been known to humans from very early times.  Almost always they are made of SuperSolid metal, a state of matter unknown to humans before they visited solar systems with type-1 supernova remnants.  SuperSolids were once the monopoly of the Dog Star Corporation, but now there are dozens of sources.  The girders that our own starship is built around were fabricated at Procyon and sent at nearly the speed of light as part of a batch of several hundred shipped to one of the vast orbital factories round Jupiter, where the Starship Ludwig Feuerbach was actually assembled.  The Jovian Combine is a neutral sovereign body that does business with almost everyone, but they were only trusted with making the girder framework.  An EIC assembly line operating in a volume of space leased from the Jovian Combine added all of the rooms and storage space and life support and various engines, all of which is detailed on our Intranet if you are interested.  A high-grade team also installed various security systems that remain confidential and which even I know very little about.

“Does that cover it?  We are quite close to the fly-by.  Next?”

“Could you please say more about the difference in speeds between solar systems?” asked a thin young woman who wore the Leaf-green uniform of Environmental Support.

“The Witling Factor?  Certainly.  The velocity of planets within solar systems are significant, tens of kilometres per second.  But interstellar speeds are also not trivial.  Most stars near the Earthstar are moving at around 20 kps relative to Earthstar: that is in the region of 72,000 kilometres per hour.  The Earthstar is in the same region of space as three existing super-clusters, one quite young and associated with the Pleiades, another older and associated with the Hyades, a third distinctly older and including Sirius.  Neither the Earthstar nor the star of Statis is associated with any of these.  And all three are so widely spread out that they pass through without interacting with each other.  Each is assumed to be derived from an open cluster that has gradually been dispersed: they retain a similar speed and vector but are no longer gravitationally bound.

“Our own solar system is no part of any cluster: most stars older than a billion years orbit the galaxy as singletons or binaries.  Also a few trinaries and higher, such as the amazing six-star collections like Castor – which has no real connection with its Gemini twin Pollux, incidentally; they just happen to line up when seen from Earth and Pollux is a singleton orange giant near to the end of its lifetime.  It’s more than 700 million years old, but has twice the mass of the EarthStar, which means it lives fast, dies young by the standards of stars, and will eventually make a beautiful stellar corpse as what is misleadingly called a Planetary Nebula.

“Our own EarthStar is much older but has many billions of years of happy existence ahead of it.  It orbits the centre of the galaxy at more than 200 kps, and it was only in the 21st century that astronomers tracked down the other stars it used to hang out with in its original open cluster.  And the whole galaxy has its own motion among the galaxies of Local Group, due to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy billions of years from now.  The Local Group as a whole shares the grand expansion that stems from the Origin Event, what they called the Big Bang when its causes were still a mystery.  But relative to the Cosmic Background Radiation, the closest we have to a universal framework, the Earthstar has a relative motion of no more than 369 kps.  In cosmological terms, that is a bit below average.

“Between the Earthstar and the star of Planet Statis, another ancient singleton, there is a difference of about 16 kps.  But the Fenris Device is in orbit, and so is Lao Tzu, so additional adjustment need to be made for each particular trip.  Like I said, it was not my task.  It will be on the way back, because we have no way of telling them in advance when we are arriving, and no easy way to adjust our speed to re-match that of the Old Solar System before we enter hyperspace.  There is a ‘slot’ reserved for us to emerge in, relatively close to the Fenris Device, on the assumption we return more or less on schedule.  If that happens, it will be relatively easy for them to adjust us down to an entirely tiny relative velocity, allowing us to disembark fast at the Fenris Nodeport and wait for a refit for our next voyage.  What’s much more likely after our necessary adjustments for the crisis on Statis is that we arrive late and go to a much more distant volume of space that is being reserved for us until we return, to avoid the dreadful possibility of two starships passing close to each other at high relative velocity and perhaps causing a Higg-Frig.  But since almost all of you will be staying on Statis, that’s not your problem.

“So, I’ve explained how we got here, and why we emerged travelling at no more than 28 kps relative to this solar system and its orbiting debris, one grain of which did ping a girder but caused no significant damage.  We have to do everything the hard way.  Obviously there is no Nodestation and no Sundroppers for a solar system with no more than a eleven thousand inhabitants – it starts to be considered worthwhile when the numbers reach a million, which most of you can hope to live to see if Statis becomes your permanent home.  But for now and for the foreseeable future, this starship has to do it all by itself.  We arrived with a moderate velocity, because even though the Fenris Device could have given us the right vector for a fast arrival at the planet, we would have gone whizzing past it without the means to slow down.  We could have been given a fast-trip passage to the local sun, where we could have slowed using the Janvar Effect.  But we emerge with our normal shielding partly out of action due to oddities caused by being in hyperspace.  Experts carefully considered the dangers and advantages and decided it was best to start out relatively slowly and use a convenient gas giant to speed us up.  Our captain like all other normal-service captains within the Colonisation Service has only limited authority to change such things.

“To recapitulate, after we emerged safely from hyperspace, we were able to accelerate a little in interplanetary space, but not much.  But quite soon we will pick up speed at Lao Tzu using the Janvar Effect.  That’s the reason for this close passage: enjoying the view and deploying a few science satellites are just the icing on the cake.  It’s not needful in the Old Solar System, which is why most Starship crew would never have done a close flyby of Jupiter or Saturn unless they went their as tourists.  I honeymooned at Saturn, the best location that is cheap to reach from Old Earth, but I’ve never seen Jupiter close up.

“We are currently some 140 million kilometres from the local star.  We get there in eight days, about 190 hours, travelling at a speed of about 730,000 kph or some 203 kps relative to the local solar system.  Rather less than a thousandth of the speed of light, but pretty good for a material object in normal space.  Once there, we actually have to slow down again, once again using the Janvar Effect to achieve changes that would not be possible using Newtonian mechanics.  We slow to bring ourselves down to the right speed and vector to rendezvous with Planet Status.  We could have sped past it slightly sooner, but we need to come close with a sufficiently small difference in velocity for a Janvar Duet with the Gravitic Engine at the Statis Prime Base to be effective enough to give us zero relative velocity with respect to the spinning and orbiting planet.  And if that sounds hard, it is hard, but we have done it many times before.  It should not give problems.

“This trip to the planet via the local star is faster than normal, you understand.  Normally we keep the hyperdrive attached, and would move slightly more slowly.  Because of the emergency on Statis we are moving more quickly, but all still fairly routine.  A small amount of cargo is also being dropped, but no passenger personal cargo nor any of the equipment that some of you had been planning to use in the next three or four months after arrival on the planet.  The dropped cargo will have been retrieved well before that, we expect.”

At this point she noticed Anna handing over Jane to Sandra in catering – Jane had been good all along, mostly awake and beaming at the world with happy delight.  She probably liked the bright colours and had accepted Anna without trouble.  But now it was nearly time to move on.

“And there you must excuse me, ship duties.  I’ll hand you over to Anna Loretta, who is a newly qualified Planetary Scientist from the Genius Program who has mastered almost all of the published literature on the planet we are passing.  And is also able to present it in a way that will not baffle those of us ignorant of Planetary Science. She has a PhD based on some aspect of Gas Giant internal workings that’s too detailed for me to follow.  She’s here to test her ideas on a set of Gas Giants that have only been superficially studied up until now, beginning with this one.”

Anna stood up and curtsied to the crowd.  There was some cheering, mostly from young men.  She noticed also that the numbers listening, which had dropped to some 170, had now reached an all-time high of 378.  She’d expected that and hoped that Anna would handle it OK.  But now she must move on.

Walking down the corridor to the liftshaft, she noticed Fred the Astrophysicist sitting alone in his neat black uniform and seeming none too happy.  If Marilyn had dumped him, Elizabeth thought it a good choice – but where was she?  Never mind, there was much else to do.  And Anna was now starting her own talk, sounding very sure of herself.  She was nervous in small groups, but was also one of those people who can talk to an audience with complete confidence. And it was her specialist subject, as she made clear:

“Ladies and gentlemen, and children also, thank you for letting me be here.  Thanks also to the Lieutenant-Captain and all the crew.  And thanks to my family and everyone who brought me to this wonderful moment, which however I will not waste by saying too many thanks.”

There was a ripple of laughter, and she picked up a few more listeners who wondered what the joke was.

“So let me begin by telling you that this world we see before us is much less like Jupiter than you’d be likely to think.  And its proper name is Lao Tzu (Statis) or Lao Tzu of the StatisStar: the name has been used elsewhere for various planets, moons and asteroids.  But Statis is the only Planet Statis: there is special protection for habitable worlds which must always get a short and entirely unique name.  And decent: some people have tried slipping in obscenities in minority languages, particularly variants on ‘Vagina Valley’ for rift valleys that do have a passing resemblance.  But the Pan-Human Authority have all known languages on file and spot such things.

“Like almost all Gas Giants, the ‘surface’ of Lao Tzu is just cloud, one of several dozen different sorts of cloud, usually six or seven varieties that are the top of a cloud-stack at different points on the surface.  Lower down these become dense enough to be called liquid and can be regarded as oceans.  But you shouldn’t view it as a sudden change from gas to liquid: the two smoothly merge into each other and there is probably no ‘ocean surface’ that you could point to.   On some gas giants there can be continent-sized pockets of quasi-liquid within quasi-gas, or different quasi-liquids or actual liquids within each other.  But whether Lao Tzu is like that, we don’t yet know.  The planned program would have had us dropping large probes into it in a couple of months time, once the Runabouts are ready.  But with all of the sorrows on Planet Statis, it might take longer than that.  Human lives must come first, even ahead of valuable new science.

“Meantime there is a lot we do know.  As some of you will be aware, Jupiter gives out more heat than it gets from the sun.  Within Jupiter, helium and neon are still condensing, ‘weeping’ out of the atmosphere and falling as strange rain towards the deeper layers.  But the Statis solar system is much older than ours and this planet was always much larger the Jupiter.  Our best guess is that the ‘weeping’ has mostly ended and it is internally stable and cold.

“This ‘best guess’ is based mostly on viewing the gas bands and the occasional giant spot.  This world lacks the pattern-forming consistency of our own Jupiter, which regularly creates and then destroys a ‘red spot’ that was once mistaken for a single continuous object.  But we do have a nice though short-lived giant spot coming up along our planned path.

“But it is not just giant spots.  This world is much older and colder than Jupiter and so has mottlings as well as bands.  And a nice range of colours, much more resembling Jupiter than Saturn in the Old Solar System.  Almost all gas giants have bands, as indeed do ice giants, though they may be bands of very similar colours and be hard to spot.  And the bands are mostly the product of the world’s enormous size.  Back in the 20th century, they took one of the global weather models they had developed for Old Earth and changed it so that it was modelling a Jupiter-sized Earth.  Which is physically impossible, of course, but what was interesting is that it showed just the same bands, alternate bands travelling in opposite directions.  This insight has since been many times confirmed, and it is a matter of size.  Earth is large enough to have the beginnings of banding, with four main jet streams and occasionally more.  Here it is developed full-grown, and the colours are excellent.

“But we are getting closer now, so best I stop talking and just let you observe.  I’ll mostly stay silent and just chip in the occasional sentence to explain particular features as we pass them.”

Copyright Gwydion M. Williams

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