Under The Ice-Cliff

Under The Ice-Cliff

By Rob Norman

Jupiter, like a great onion we are delving through layer by layer, sits permanently behind our close horizon here on icy Ganymede. As the moon forever turns its back on the seething face of the gas giant, we are shaded from much of the hard radiation that bathes the inner satellites. Though we are studying him more closely than has ever been undertaken before, we are the first humans in history never to have Jupiter rise into our firmament.

Even so, the discoveries we are making are startling; and the imaging team are beginning to behave very strangely. Goldsmith, for one, is quite frantic of late, talking constantly and having little time to eat, sleep or wash. Lilliat and Andriessen, conversely seem depressed in spite of the torrent of new data that promises so much for their field. A few short weeks after the commissioning of their apparatus, their scientific reputations made, these young men and women were falling into a kind of madness that I think must lie in wait for sensitive minds wherever they find themselves in this freezing universe.

My name is John Urquart. I am on the engineering team; one of the Big Boys of course! It was never any different if you fancied a deep space mission. But even an engineer in my position is hardly given to extravagant language: if anyone thinks that to cross the gulfs between planets and set up shop on such alien shores is only a technical feat, then they know nothing! There is madness aplenty out here. Death too, of course, but that's taken care of. We can keep ourselves alive, but we are so far from home and nothing we see (and there is a great deal to see) gives any rest. Much of it is marvellous, unimaginable, yet so terribly cold and our understanding of it so feeble.

So what are the imaging team saying? Most of it is said by Goldsmith. The graphics he feeds us need weeks and months of scrutiny: layer upon layer of streaming cloud, hydrocarbon foam, transparent gas, thunderstorms the size of continents, and now those deep, stable structures strung out beneath the equator, fourteen thousand kilometers below the cloud-tops, each larger than Ganymede itself. The man is in a frenzy. In the refectory the other day he was heard shouting at Jean Dobie, head of engineering, "It's not a matter of what causes these formations. It's what their function is. They're organs, God dammit!" Lilliat and Andriessen seemed acutely embarrassed, Lilliat since then keeping to her room and working from there. I think Goldsmith is heading for a breakdown.

My own work concerns the Probemother, the small factory in polar orbit around Jupiter that designs, manufactures and launches the probes that are our senses within the atmosphere of the planet. Commissioning now complete, my time is mainly spent overseeing work in progress aboard the Probemother and see to materials supply which comes mainly from Ring material. Good, creative work; the best engineer's job in the solar system. If you've not got a family, that is! After a seven or eight year tour of duty like this, what kind of specimen normal kids would feel they had for a father, I just don't know. It would be more than the length of absence that would alienate them, I'm certain.

It's hard to avoid coming back to how ghastly it feels to be in a place so foreign with so many revelations just waiting to burst in on us. I never expected the excitement and joy of discovery to be overshadowed so soon, but I must persevere.

For several years now we have known of a number of types of quasi-organic life forms in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Although epoch making in that it was the long awaited first detection of extant extraterrestrial life, the discovery was not greatly surprising, as such creatures had been postulated for decades. What is emerging now, however, is less predictable. It was expected that we would find an ecology of plankton-like creatures, some drifting passively among the clouds, others perhaps more active and even predatory. Such a community is not apparent. Although the organisms can be separated into obvious types with great differences in size - the megacytes are almost a kilometer in length - we have yet to witness any interaction between any two creatures or the birth of a new individual. This is in no way analogous to a terrestrial ecology. There is another story to it; something we are missing. We are working with the hypothesis that the forms we know of are only an errant phase of a life cycle with crucial stages that belong in regions as yet unexplored.

Some types seem confined to surprisingly stable jet-stream regions at very particular depths and, as far as we have been able to sample, all members of a "species" seem identical. There is a genetic system of sorts which involves organic molecules of gigantic proportions. The size of a man's arm is typical for a single quasi-chromosome. Such, of course, will never be handled by human scientists; at room temperature and pressure, these tissues would vaporise explosively. We are just beginning to map the structure of the vast spherical ocean that is our largest and most energetic planet. Day by day, the deep radar imaging is bringing into focus a complex and disturbingly well ordered architecture that is confounding all expectation. And finally, this belt of moon-sized bladders girdling the equator at great depth. We have yet to determine the material they are made up of, but there are shadows in the better images that hint at elaborations within.

Jean is calling a meeting to discuss a proposal to replicate the Probemother in order to double our collecting power. The price of this would be to suspend the launch of fresh probes for at least a month while the 'Mother manufactures a replica of itself. I doubt the proposal will be carried.

At the meeting, most of the station personnel were present; some eleven or twelve souls, all in a state of protracted suspense but each bearing it more or less cheerfully. Jean Dobie, although head of engineering, has another more informal function. She is liked and people around her succeed because she desires it of them. There is a lot of subtlety in the construction of deep space teams and I'm certain that her particular aptitude was a deliberate ingredient at some level of administration. I could see the need for her leadership in a good half dozen faces as that meeting assembled.

Goldsmith had not turned up and Jean chose to open with a question to his colleague Andriessen. "How's Jacob doing this morning?" Andriessen briefly looked around the table then hid her hands and directed her gaze below it, saying, "Not well, I think. He's become...impossible to work with. I..ah.."

"He's disrupting the work of other sections," interrupted McRae of the science team. "Someone should shoot the bugger." There was an uncomfortable silence. "Well there you go," he said quietly.

I found myself thinking aloud, "Until yesterday I never thought I'd be able to listen to a man shouting "It's alive" without laughing." This raised a smile or two but the atmosphere remained grim.

Jean said, "You all know that if one of us out here is subject to a mental breakdown that gives the rest of us a very serious headache. It's the kind of thing that's theoretically selected out of the candidates for this kind of mission, but let's face it, there's not a lot of precedent for having to look Jupiter in the eye and none of us is Flash Gordon after all. We're just going to have to be patient with him and have the psychoactives at the ready. I can't see him taking them voluntarily at this stage; he seems quite unapproachable. That may change but I can forsee the need for coercion, much as I recoil from the thought."

I exchanged a glance with one or two others in the company to whom the task of restraining a maniac might soon fall. All seemed to shudder inwardly. "Well perhaps it won't come to that," she murmured then continued, "I suppose the main thing we should be concerning ourselves with this morning is replicating the 'Mother. Or not as the case may be." She looked around at each of us. "Personally I'm in favour but I'll listen to other ideas."

Gordon Rose of the science team moved in his seat and all eyes shifted his way. He cleared his throat, squinted forward and said, "Well I'm against interrupting the launch schedule at this stage. Here's why. We've had some very promising updates from the Great Red Spot program. May I?" He keyed into the table-top display as he spoke. "We've had a hundred or so probes in the GRS for several days now. A few survive and are still collecting. There's a lot of data still to be processed but we're getting a picture of quite extraordinary density and temperature gradients below the centre of the Spot. This graphic here is for temperature; the one for density looks practically the same. In a few hours we should have much better resolution and, I think, plenty of good reasons to keep new probes coming.

"We're dealing here with pressures that compare with those at the core of the planet. This, you all know is completely unexpected for such a relatively superficial region. It could be as radical a find as the equatorial bladders. Another thing; we're getting a lot of data that may connect some of the radio anomalies with structures underneath the density maximum. It's beginning to look as if the Great Red Spot system is the source of a lot of short wave noise that's being reflected internally within a layer of clear gas only a few kilometers thick. We're not yet sure of the extent of this layer or if it has a shape we can map, but it seems to be behaving rather like an enormous wave-guide. And again..." He took a deep breath and grinned. "This the proper hard sell, Jean. I'm sorry... there's evidence of modulation in the short wave emission, but we need a longer time base to sort it out. And more probes, as the ones in there can't be expected to last more than a few more hours. There!" He leaned back in his chair and put both palms on the table.

Jean whistled and said, "My God, you haven't had your feet up all this time, have you Gordon? Well unless anyone's got a compelling argument for immediate replication, I reckon we can keep going until, say, this time next week. Then we can look at our position again, perhaps. We all happy with that?"

I met Anne Lilliat in the corridor that afternoon and spoke to her as to one perhaps unready for dialogue. "Oh, I've been busy," she replied smiling, at once cautious but well disposed. She had been contemplating the autumnal beech wood that appeared to surround us. I stood with her and listened to the bird song reverberating through the ancient coppice. I caught the unmistakable russet flash of a wren as it shot across the red-gold carpet to alight on a fallen branch. A series of hops of preternatural lightness, a burst of melody of startling volume and it was gone; vanished into a bank among the ferns. A tiny packet of pure vitality; as large a spirit as you will find on Earth or anywhere. We both laughed, delightedly succumbing to the illusion as is expected of us by the providers of such technology.

"This is not a landscape I'm familiar with," she said. "I was brought up near the Mexican border and the country I know is much harsher. Where are we? Northern Europe, surely!"

"British Isles, perhaps. Ireland? We could find out if you're curious."

She shook her head. "It's OK. Do you have time for time for a coffee break?"

"Well, no. But I'll join you anyway."

Detailed dynamic projections like our beech wood are fairly memory intensive and I wanted to avoid seeing the wren execute those same dazzling moves as she must within a minute or two. To have that moment repeated would have been to lose it utterly. We proceeded to the lounge, which today was a verandah high above the Old Town of Lisbon. A cafetiere and melamine cups appeared through the table top and we drank and made small talk from wicker chairs before she asked after the situation with Goldsmith. I explained our fears for his sanity and for the stability of the team.

"You must have been concerned about me as well," she said squeezing her thumb with the fingers of the other hand, regret showing in all the angles of her body. "Withdrawing like that: it must have been weird enough having a guy shouting at you about pagan gods without his closest colleagues locking themselves away. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It must have been worse for you than for the rest of us."

"Shit! You're not kidding! I think he sees me as a special adversary. He called me a conservative, a fundamentalist, a materialist and all that before he started getting abusive. The things he said when no one else could hear; I couldn't repeat them." She wept softly and I squeezed her shoulder, then her hands. "I got worried he would get violent and I just had to keep out of the way."

She wiped her face with her sleeve then turned on me a look that recalled all the vague but debilitating fears of recent days, "But what if he's right?" I could only return her stare: there was nothing I could say or think at that moment. "What if the world is not what we thought and we're all just being Scribes and Pharisees, telling him he's crazy. At the very least, we'd have to look again at the sun, the earth, the galaxy even. For Christ's sake, I didn't come out here to overturn any paradigms, least of all the one we've all built our goddamn brilliant careers on! We were the brightest and the best. My self esteem was the size of a planet. I'll be famous and rich and have the pick of the jobs and the men when I get home. But right now I want to know nothing and to feel nothing."

I embraced her and said only. "I know. I know."

Late that evening I returned to the lounge. my distractedness was undiminished and I had no particular object in going there beyond a desultory search for relaxed company. Someone was there, sitting forward in a chair absorbed in the view, which was of an ice-field with the swollen orange globe of Jupiter hanging seemingly inches above the horizon. Too late to withdraw without him knowing I was there, I recognised Goldsmith and felt that lurch in the abdomen that goes with the impulse to run and hide. He looked sharply over his shoulder at me, returned his gaze to the view and said, "Come and look at this."

I moved over beside him and stood uncomfortably, wondering what he could be needing me to witness. He smelt bad. "Sit down, John." His tone, though not quite peremptory, was undeniable. I sat in a neighboring chair and without thinking ordered a cognac from the arm display, although I had had no intention of drinking that night. Rust coloured streamers folded and squirmed across the face of the planet, which was slanted at about sixty degrees to our horizon. Goldsmith sat with face upturned, lips slightly parted, eyes full of the sickly Jupiter light. I couldn't tell which, the gas giant or the madman, was the more immediately intimidating. For that instant, it seemed the two were complicit in a ghastly conspiracy to cast the whole of the company away on some beach of unvisited desolation. What was this new universe they would together batter us into waking up to? I felt like saying, "Why us? Why now? Couldn't this at least have waited until we had our feet on the ground?" Knowing the futility of remonstrating with him, I took a hefty sip of cognac and kept silent; I would let him lead any discussion and agree with him wherever necessary.

After what was probably only a minute or two, but seemed to me like an hour of congealed thought, the lounge door swung open admitting several silhouettes against the brighter corridor light. Animated conversation abruptly ceased as it was realised who had occupied the lounge; the door closed and we were alone again. I immediately felt as if I was martyring myself by being there and briefly entertained the fear of contamination. What would be being said about me, this minute? Goldsmith had looked over his shoulder and for a moment his eyes stayed on the door, containing what I thought could have been a mix of contempt and sorrow. He then looked at me.

"I've been treated very unfairly, you know."

"I'm sorry about that," I replied, not knowing if my delivery was as convincing as I intended.

"You saw that," he said, indicating the door. "It's not you they're avoiding. It's me. I've had this for days now. Everyone's changed." He paused then said the thing I'd hoped he wouldn't. "And you'd rather be somewhere else right now, I can tell." The contempt was creeping into his voice now and my discomfort redoubled. However, he didn't seem to require an answer and resumed his scrutiny of the Jovian cloudscape. The dark brown spot of a moon-shadow was beginning its slow passage along the opaque whiteness of the equator. "We're going to have to learn a new language, John," he said in a milder tone. "Is this what it is to be going mad? Nobody believing what you say; you knowing it's only their malign ignorance that excludes you. I can't express it properly. There's nothing I can say that doesn't turn people against me. We just haven't got the words."

There were lines in his brow that I didn't remember, though they seemed as old and as deep as faults in a boulder. His fear and pain were so manifestly greater than my own that I was ashamed of my earlier thoughts and ashamed of the rejection he had experienced from others, alienating though his conduct might have been. Paradoxically, this was followed by a sensation of hope. I said, "The words will come. Don't worry so much about them and don't mind so much what people say. They're afraid of you, yes. I'm afraid of you. But if what you're work gives us is true then we'll thank you for it. Eventually."

"But look what it's costing me. I'm not a fucking madman, buttonholing people, telling them I'm the Messiah and ready to lead them into a bright new world. I may have been an arrogant asshole but my grip on reality is better than anybody thinks; better than I can stand myself, maybe."

"You must keep on with your work, Jacob. There's something extraordinary about the GRS; something you can really get your teeth in," I finished off my glass. "This is going to be a hell of a time. There are things we're afraid of more than we are of you. Things we'd rather not believe. I don't know how you sit here with that looking down on you." I avoided looking at the image of Jupiter.

"It knows me, John. It'll know the rest of you when you're ready."

"I'm a mechanic, Jacob." My voice had nearly departed me, despite the almost absurd melodrama of what he had just confided. "I make things and I fix things. I may be good but I'm no visionary." This immediately sounded trite in the circumstances, and fighting the near paralysis in my throat I almost babbled. "Chip away at it! We'll know the truth eventually."

"You're hoping I'll prove myself wrong. That's it isn't it?"

I put my hands over my face and sighed, "Yes."

He once more sat forward in his seat but his gaze seemed fixed on the ink-black sky between the ice-cliffs and the limb of Jupiter. "I don't blame you," he muttered. "I don't."

I left him shortly and retreated to my room, hurrying so as to avoid meeting anyone else. The whole station would know by now that I had been sitting with Goldsmith and I was in no mood to be questioned or to have inferences drawn from any reticence on my part. In addition, I was unsure of how much ground I had given on an issue that by rights was no more than a delusion of his. What I had said now seemed inconsistent with my own position and that of my saner colleagues to whom my first loyalty ought to be owed. I felt confused and a fraud. The brandy had exacerbated my tiredness and I slept for a long time.

It was about nineteen hundred the next day when Gordon Rose's voice called us all to our displays. In the air before us was the imaging team's visualization of roughly a million cubic kilometers at the centre of the GRS system - an elaborate vortex with density gradients in false colour. Gordon cycled the colours to show the detail, then zoomed in on the centre. Layers of cloud expanded and dropped out of view until we were looking at a volume several orders of magnitude smaller. Gordon's voice-over gave us brief explanations.

"The concentric layering we're seeing here is real exotic material. These are temperatures and pressures we associate with far deeper environments. You can see how spherical the layers are becoming. This could be the metallic hydrogen that has been postulated for the sub-mantle. The whole thing is rotating differentially, the angular velocity increasing towards the centre.

"And now the centre. Gentlemen, ladies - the greatest enigma in the solar system..." The graphic now cut to a cross section and we could see that within the spinning membranes of hydrogen metal was a spherical void. "This void," continued Gordon, his voice thick with tension, "is one hundred twelve point three kilometers diameter and, apart from some plasma at around four thousand kelvin, is a complete vacuum." From my workstation I could hear gasps and muttered expletives. My own jaw slackened and I had to grip the arms of my seat to forestall a sick vertigo. "If anyone has a suggestion as to how to support a vacuum beneath a shell of metallic hydrogen at several million atmospheres, I'll buy them all the beer they can drink! There's more."

The display zoomed in again. A speck at the centre that I hadn't noticed at the previous scale swelled into another sphere. "The final mystery," intoned Gordon. I couldn't tell if he was enjoying himself or if all this was bringing him to an edge that filled him with dread. For myself I could feel that edge creep closer than at any time during Goldsmith's mania. "This perfect sphere, diameter one point zero one four kilometers - the centre of the Great Red Spot - we have a ninety one percent probability that this is a diamond."

The core of Jupiter has long been assumed to consist of diamond, carbon being among the more abundant elements in the body of the planet. It was not the stupendous wealth that the Eye represented that had us all close to hysteria that day on Ganymede. It was the realization that here, tens of thousands of kilometers above the core, was an equilibrium so massively unstable that one awful question eclipsed all others: "What is it for?"

This discovery was a turning point in Goldsmith's illness. Not the least part of this was his crucial role in it's unraveling. He applied almost immediately afterwards for transfer to Earth, seeing the new findings, I gathered, as a vindication of his lapse into apparent folly. Something had happened which made it possible for him to live with his appalling vision and I don't know if it was simply witnessing others being shocked into recognizing it. Perhaps I'll never find out for sure; although he appeared serene at the time of his transfer, he was not the same man I had shipped out with.

Although he was not party to the intense debate and the dialogue with Earth concerning the Red Spot Anomaly, we could not, try as we might, talk ourselves out of sharing his view of the matter. It was suggested by someone that the Anomaly may be an artefact of some advanced technical culture with it's origins within Jupiter. Someone else suggested an artefact of a culture from outside. But these lines were not argued very seriously. We concluded that no artefact could have been so inextricably a part of the dynamic structure of the planet. Indeed later we were to find that lower sections of the vortex that buoys up the Anomaly are the source of the short-wave noise reported by Gordon Rose. These emissions are conducted in a complex network that extends about the entire planet. We are recording slow modulations in the emission, but we are a long way from deciding what, if any, meaningful information they contain.

Indeed the Great Red Spot, a feature on the face of Jupiter that has been visible from Earth since the invention of telescopes, is no less than a great sense organ. Goldsmith called it "The Eye" and the name will stick, I don't doubt, although what manner or wavelength of energy it has evolved to focus and what impressions are thereby conveyed to this colossal being, are matters still beyond us.

Copyright 1997 by Rob Norman

You can e-mail Rob at: robn@cableinet.co.uk

About the Author: Rob Norman is a web designer based in Edinburgh, UK. This is only the most recent of his professional hats however: previously he has worked as a theatrical lighting designer, musical director, technical author and illustrator. He hasn't travelled much in the last 20 years, but gives slide-illustrated talks on the geology and natural history of the Highlands of Scotland, a region he knows intimately. His Webpage is at: http://wkweb4.cableinet.co.uk/voirrey/

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