TC2U

TC2U-RINGS

When Ithuriel and Jabniel depart Palato with a full tank of water, they have to decide where to go. All Ithuriel knows is that he wants to get very far away from the Eyes of Thaumiel. That rules out Xanthos and Hippo. And the Eyes are even starting to creep into the Eggbeater too.

The ship he had been given bore the malevolent name Insolent, typical of all the ships in the Navy of Thaumiel. Ithuriel renamed it Chivalrous. It is an early design, roughly cylindrical, somewhere in size between a corvette and a frigate.

By the process of elimination their choices are whittled down to basically just Jupiter. So Ithuriel sidles the ship into the ID Grid, his credentials are accepted, and Palato is replaced by Hyperion. As easy as that.

There is plenty of food aboard but no showers are possible during the voyage, only sponge baths, and once every two days Ithuriel and Jabniel wash their hair in a plastic bubble with elastic collars for the neck and both arms to contain the water.

The bridge is lit with dim blue lights and the constant hisses and whistles and chatter on the HF band tend to lull them to sleep. Once every few days they have an honest-to-God real contact, another ship passing in the night only a hundred thousand miles away or so.

Jupiter and its moons make a miniature star system of its own within the Solar system. It is some 32 million miles across if you count all the asteroids scooped up in the planet’s gravity. For practical purposes it is only two million miles across if you considered it to be just Jupiter, four big moons, and small change. Still, even this smaller version is four times bigger than the Earth-Luna system and there is a lot more to see.

Ithuriel selects an elliptical orbit that allows him to view all the major moons close up, one after the other. On one orbit, as Jupiter eclipsed the sun, Brand spots a very thin back lit ring. Naturally he had known about the ring but it hadn’t occurred to him to try it until he actually saw it.

The ring is deep within the gravity well of Jupiter. When he circularizes his descent ellipse the ship is running on fumes. Certainly he does not have sufficient water as propellant to escape again. So this move is a gamble.

The ring is really just a narrow set of ringlets, far skimpier than the glorious rings of Saturn, but no one is mining the ice there. It is cherry. Ithuriel snuggles Chivalrous in among the floating pieces of ice and pulls up next to a thirty footer.

With a little hot water still in the ship’s tanks, a space-suited Ithuriel melts a hole into the ice and secures an umbilical between the ship and the ice ball. He gets a cycle going, with hot water melting the ice, and cold melt water being sucked back into the ship’s tanks. Part of the new water is diverted, heated, and cycled back out to the ball to melt some more ice. In a week he has the tanks nearly full again, but the ice ball is a jagged mess.

Then Ithuriel gets underway again, and finds a hundred footer near the outer edge of the ring. He attaches a transmitter to it, and gently rams the front of Chivalrous against it before bringing the ships engines up to full power. The ice ball blocks the impact of the remaining smaller ice-balls on the rings edge as they plowed their way out into clear space.

When sufficient velocity has been obtained to send the ice ball towards Earth, Ithuriel starts braking Chivalrous with retrofire. Through the front view port he watchs his ice ball shrink to a point, destination somewhere in the asteroid belt. He would negotiate the sale of the ice later.

Ithuriel is about to pat himself on the back when Jabniel slinks into view with her long legs open for business to give him a bit more than a pat.

Gambling that carbon is going to become expensive Ithuriel and Jabniel prospected for graphite. But misfortune strikes once again. A large eruption on Io of almost pure carbon depresses harvest prices and wipes out all of their gains. Just one year after getting married Ithuriel is back to his original resources. And so, with the reluctant, hard-won agreement of his wife Jabniel, Ithuriel lights out for Saturn, which takes the better part of two years on the ascent ellipse.

While they are enroute the little ice ball Ithuriel had sent hurling towards Earth from Jupiter’s ring reached the vicinity of the Moon but apparently breaks cherry in the lexicon of ice ball cowboys. That is, the individual Ithuriel contracted to receive the ice and make payment, a Mr. Roth Wardian, takes possession of the ice but never comes through with the money. Although it pained him greatly to do so, Ithuriel contacts Dory directly, (using the way available to all B’nei Elohim) asking for help.

On this occasion, there is an hour and forty minutes of round trip travel time for the neutrino transmissions. When Ithuriel spells out what happened, he asks Dory if she can take care of his Roth Wardian problem. After discussing the matter with Robyn (who passes along that she loved and misses her son Edgar very much) Dory agrees to look into it.

As it turns out, Ithuriel was not the first ice prospector Roth Wardian broke cherry with. He had quite a bad reputation. No one in the inner system would do business with Wardian anymore, which is probably why Ithuriel found it so easy to get a contract with him.

With the money from Ithuriel’s hundred-foot ice ball from the Jupiter ring Wardian went out to the asteroids, where the B’nei Elohim initially lost his trail. When they picked his scent up again, they were ready to shove a Brushfire missile up his ass, but they ran into a little problem which Dory explained to Ithuriel several months after his first call.

DORY
We know exactly where Roth Wardian is now. I’m including the oneline orbital elements for his rock in this transmission. The thing is, Edgar, we can’t touch him. There’s nothing to hit. He lives inside this cluster of boulders called the Gravel Pile. They’re all just sort of floating there, more or less loosely held by gravity into a ball. It’s a lot like Phobos. If it was a solid rock we could crack it open maybe, but the Gravel Pile is already cracked. It’s one thing to strike this asshole from a destroyer in passing, but your mother is not willing to send anyone in there to dig him out. And I’m sure that’s not what you’re asking us to do. So accept our apologies and go with my love. Your mother sends her love too. Better luck next time. Dory, out.

Saturn is almost a hundred times heavier than the Earth and deeply cold, something like 350 degrees below zero, because the faraway sun only gives about one percent of the light and heat to Saturn that it does to the Earth. But that is still about five thousand times brighter than the full moon in Earth’s night sky, and the eyes could adjust to that, so seeing wasn’t really a problem.

The ring system of the planet is truly big. In fact, if the famous braided F-ring is taken to be the outer edge, it takes light a full second to cross from one side of the rings to the other.

The B-ring is the brightest one, because it is about six hundred feet thick. The second brightest is the A-ring, which is one hundred and fifty feet thick. These broad rings are made of countless pieces of ice, ranging in size from microscopic fragments of snowflakes to miniature moons.

When Chivalrous arrives in the ring system of Saturn, Ithuriel lays claim to a six hundred-foot ice ball sitting in the middle of a local thickening of one ringlet in the A-ring. The nearest neighboring ringlet is thirteen miles away and moves at only a brisk walking speed relative to Ithuriel’s ice ball, just three miles per hour. The narrow gaps between the innumerable ringlets are mostly clear of ice.

After his planned burn to send the ice ball closer sunward, a fourth of Ithuriel’s water would be gone. If his ice ball were re-melted at that point and allowed to become a solid ball again it would have a diameter of only 475 feet across instead of the original 600.

There didn’t seem to be any way around the requirement for a second burn at the destination. The end customer had to circularize the descent ellipse, or the ice ball would start to climb back out toward Saturn’s orbit again due to the conservation of angular momentum. A second burn would reduce the ice ball in mass yet again, and it would be as though Ithuriel sent down an ice ball only 380 feet across. But Ithuriel thought he knew a way around this requirement.
According to Dorys data there is a mile-wide collection of smaller rocks, boulders, pebbles, and sand, all spinning just fast enough to keep from sticking together, but not spinning fast enough to fly apart. Roth Wardian owns it, and he makes a tidy profit mining its innards, because he could borrow around anywhere inside it without the expense of drilling solid rock. Wardian called it the Gravel Pile.

JABNIEL (alarmed)
Roth Wardian! Are you crazy? That’s the same guy who ripped us off!

ITHURIEL
Jabs, this time its different. We’re going to ride the ice down to market, and when you talk to him, you’re going to let him you’re coming down, with who knows how much muscle. That should keep him honest.

He reckons that his ice ball could crash into the Gravel Pile without blowing up. Oh, it would break up alright, but the fragments of ice would just be swallowed up inside the Gravel Pile and Wardian could go in there and grab ice chunks easier than other companies could drill for ice on asteroids that already had great veins of the stuff running through it.

The asteroids are all on different orbits with different periods, and the relationships between them are always shifting. Sometimes a lot of water-rich asteroids drift close together. Supply outstrips demand and water prices plunge, at least for that region of the Belt. Other times a desert form when few or no asteroids bearing water are be in a region, and the price of water sharply increases.

All of these situations are compiled and documented in the Old Spacers Almanac (Old but really going on all of seven years old) that is transmitted to subscribers throughout the system. Ithuriel knows the Gravel Pile is entering just such a desert.

Ithuriel also knows Roth Wardian would remember his name, so he lets Jabs negotiate the contract under her prenuptial name of Jabniel Bat-Naseth. Roth does know of Jabs father Naseth on Barbelo, so he was eager to do business with her. He is also well aware of the coming dry spell, and that’s why he agrees to Jabs idea to crash the ice ball into his Gravel Pile, and why he also agrees to pay Jabs almost insane asking price.

Roth know Jabs is coming down with protection, possibly even an Eye of Thaumiel, so he doesn’t plan to break cherry on her like he did to Ithuriel, but when all was said and done, Roth figures he will still make a killing. He’d have the only asteroid with water ice for millions of miles around.

The Gravel Pile is closer to Jupiter than to Mars, firmly in nephilim territory. Wardian had his start as a B’nei Elohim boytoy but he went rogue, and when he scammed Ithuriel on his first ice ball that gave him enough capital to move to the outer Belt. He is one of just a handful of humans who have set down roots beyond Mars.

But it is slow going, all the negotiations between Wardian and Jabs, because round trip for radio transmission at light speed between Saturn and the Gravel Pile is three hours.

In all of the vast area of Saturn’s rings, the arrival of Ithuriel and Jabs by all rights should have gone totally unnoticed. They should have made hardly more than a blip. But the radio negotiations with Roth Wardian, conducted entirely in the clear, attracts the attention of the Stratis gang, a small group of nephilim parasites.

Stratis could have never done the planning and the thinking for the stunt Ithuriel proposed to do, but he didn’t have to. After he sat there and listened in to everything Jabs said, Stratis got it into his thick head that if he moved really close to the Jabs kid, say only forty or fifty miles, and watched her like a hawk, it could be his ticket out of the Rings. When it was underway he could take over the iceball, kill Jabs, and ride the ice ball all the way down.

The Stratis gang is mobile. They have a taut little warship about the size of a corvette. It is a bit smaller than Chivalrous and could be controlled by just three men, or even just two men in a pinch. Stratis parks inside Ithuriel’s ringlet 75,000 km from Saturns cloud tops, but just forty miles to the east, or spinward, of Ithuriel.

By Saturn’s standards, this isn’t being a good neighbor. It is akin to parking ones mobile home flush up against another one. Ithuriel knows this sign cannot be good.

Ithuriel uses the engines of Chivalrous to melt a small pond into the surface. Quickly, before the ice froze again, he sinks Chivalrous into the ice until he strikes bottom. He melts more ice and sinks again, and again, using the retrorockets to push them all the way through the ice until the back of the ship is just poking through the other side of the ice ball, with only the engine nozzles and the back door sticking out into space. Then he lets all the water freeze again, which unfortunately puts some dents into his ship as the ice expands.

For the next few months Ithuriel melts many veins into the ice of his snowball, which allows hot water to make a slush to be used as propellant for the big burn.

Ithuriel digs a large chamber in the precise center of his ice ball, and there he constructs from scratch a number of research macros. He also builds a pair of hand-held macros for defense, much like the Golden Gift (or the silver copies that were the newest armament of House Gerash) in the event of a home invasion robbery attempt by their neighbors.

Chivalrous is well-stocked with canned and frozen food from Palato and the Jovian system, but even the large stores scattered throughout the ship and now also the interior of the ice ball were not sufficient to tide them over on the long inbound crossing that Ithuriel proposed to do. So Jabniel became something of a gardener. The prospect of starving to death halfway between Saturn and the asteroid belt focused her mind on this new hobby to a very intense degree.

Brilliant as he is, Ithuriel makes a small but crucial mistake during the assembly of the macros he builds for himself and Jabs as personal defense. One time when Ithuriel is working in the central chamber he is caught off-guard by one of Stratis henchmen, Azkeel, who has managed to get into the ice ball by stealth. He had Ithuriel in his cross-hairs, dead to rights.

But Jabs, working inside the Chivalrous, happens to see them together on a screen so it becomes her turn to be Ithuriel’s knight in shining armor. With a stab of her finger on a nearby button, the air quietly begins rushing out of the central cavern. Ithuriel catches a ruffle of paper, realizes what is happening, draws a breath, and holds it.

Azkeel, however, does not know what was happening so he continues to breathe in and out as the air rapidly thinned. Black and white dots dance across his vision as he grows more and more confused, and too stupid to drop the faceplate on his helmet. In a few seconds after that he is unconscious.

Still observed by Jabs, Ithuriel grabs his hand macro and turns it on the prone Azkeel, erasing his head. But the intruder’s head returns to visibility, intact, seven seconds later, none the worse for wear.

Jabs hits another button to begin restoring the air to the cavern. In less than a minute Azkeel stirs back to awareness.

Ithuriel panics and tries to erase Azkeel’s whole body. His head remains visible, and his body returns to view seven seconds later.

Ithuriel is desperate but he has an idea. He steps closer and fires one more, focusing the beam on Azkeel’s chest.

Generally, water inside the human (or nephilim) body is not free. It is mostly trapped in the spaces between knots of proteins, which are like tangled phone cords. Even blood is just a thick syrupy mess, almost a gel. Ithuriel fires his bad macro at Azkeel once again, at his chest and even though his chest could not be phantomized anymore, the fresh air in his lungs was being phantomized for the first time. All the air molecules in his lungs drift right through each other instead of bouncing off each other like before. So there is no more pressure. His lungs became bottomless pits ready to accept any additional amount of air.

So Azkeel takes an involuntary final gasp that goes on and on as long as the macro continues to fire, until maybe ten times his lungs normal capacity is crammed with phantom molecules of air in quantum flux, all superimposed one over the top of each other.

Then, seven seconds after Ithuriel turns the macro off, all those molecules start obeying Pauli’s Exclusion Principle once again, which says they cannot occupy the same space at the same time. All that suddenly superheated high pressure air comes roaring back out of Azkeel’s mouth like rocket exhaust, taking flaming bits of what used to be his delicate lungs along with it. It is an incredibly painful but relatively quick death. And that is the end of their intruder problem.

ITHURIEL
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Jabs entered the ice cavern armed with her own macro, and finds that the stranger is already dead.

JABNIEL
Who the hell is he?

ITHURIEL
Probably one of our nosy neighbors. I don’t know how he got in here, but I don’t want to wait around for another try by those guys. We have no choice. Get ready for departure.

Some time later, Ithuriel realizes the mistake he made with his defensive macro. He considered it a feature rather than a bug. Ithuriel calls a macro that does not break internal chemical bonds a sub-macro and the thoughts of many future applications present themselves before his darting mind.

There has been no news from Azkeel since Stratis dispatched him to Ithuriel’s iceball, but he knows something was up. Predictably, when Ithuriel starts his burn, Stratis shadows him with his own ship.

Ithuriel’s navigation calculations involve the use of a right triangle. One leg of the triangle is the 4 miles per second of velocity change Ithuriel needs to get from their circular orbit in the A-ring up to escape velocity. The other leg of the triangle is the 3 miles per second of velocity change he needed to get from Saturn to the Gravel Pile. The third leg of the triangle, then, 5 miles per second, is the bottom line, the total velocity change he needs to come up with. It is going to consume about half of the ice ball’s water as propellant just to get the journey underway.

Anything in orbit around Saturn that isn’t flying exactly along the equator will cross the equator twice on each circuit, once going from north to south, and again going from south to north. As the ice rock begins moving away from Saturn, at every equatorial crossing Ithuriel skillfully weaves through narrow gaps in Saturn’s A Ring where the sheet of floating ice is thin or non-existent.

It took many days. After each ring crossing he has a twelve hour rest period before preparing for the next one. During these down times, Ithuriel pieces together what happened with his macro and the intruder, and this suggests a narrow path out of their predicament, but he had to work quickly.

When they are free of the A-ring and emerge into empty space, Ithuriel stops weaving the iceball by manipulating the exhaust stream and sails straight and true. Stratis notes that Ithuriel’s random maneuvering has ceased.

STRATIS
Loreth, you may now register our displeasure with this Jabniel bitch for the loss of our colleague Azkeel.

They lob a shell from their railgun, which flies across the intervening space and hits dead-center, right between the six roaring engines of Chivalrous hexagonal drive section. The back door is taken out in the explosion, and air begins to rush out of the ship.

JABNIEL
We have lost hull integrity,

Jabs strikes buttons that close a series of hatches between the habitation module and the service tunnel to the rear.

ITHURIEL
If we survive this little tussle I’ll go back there in a suit and repair the damage.

JABNIEL
Return fire. I thought this was a Gerash warship.

ITHURIEL
I’d love to, dearheart, but this Gerash warship has its nose buried in six hundred feet of ice and has its ass sticking out in space. Were going to have to just try to evade them. All I can do right now is program random course changes and hope they won’t be able to connect with another round.

And there is another problem looming. The F Ring, focused by shepherd moons, and even braided in spots, is too dense to plow through, and too wide to hop over on the ascending and descending nodes. It sits out there at the edge of the ring system like the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

But the F Ring only blocks the slower descent ellipse used to get an ice ball from Saturn to the outer edge of the asteroid belt. The faster ice balls headed for Mars or Earth-Luna just miss grazing the outer edge of the ring. Due to this basic fact of astrodynamics, no one has ever actually tried to send ice from Saturn to the outer asteroids until Ithuriel’s current stunt, certainly not Stratis and his ilk.

After setting the nav console to weave randomly when it flew, Ithuriel leaves with Jabs. They float to the simple spherical cavern at the exact center of their ice ball, reached by a long thin tube melted into the ice.

As the ship whips the iceball this way and that to evade more of Stratis incoming shells and the cave seems to turn around them, Ithuriel and Jabniel suit up. They hovered in free fall next to a pair of new gadgets.

As they reach final approach to the F Ring, Ithuriel gives his wife a verbal heads up.

Ithuriel’s entire ice asteroid, including Ithuriel himself, his wife, and the Chivalrous, is sub-phantomized by an omni-directional burst from the first gadget. The air in the small room, no longer confined by collisions with the walls or by collisions with each other, rushes out almost instantly. Ithuriel and Jabniel are temporarily in a total vacuum.

The actual passage through the F-ring takes far less than one second.

Ithuriel and Jabs feel nothing. Nor do they see anything but a momentary blankness. With even their retinas sub-phantomized, their retina do not block photons of light, just as their bodies do not block the ice of the F-ring as they pass through. But seven seconds after Ithuriel’s gadget pulsed they can see again.

Some liquid oxygen prepared by Ithuriel beforehand is quickly brought to a boil by the second gadget and fills the room with air again so Ithuriel and Jabs can raise the faceplate on their vacsuits. They accomplish their breakout to clear space beyond all further obstacles.

ITHURIEL
We made it through!

LORETH
No collision! The F-Ring wasn’t so much as ruffled by her passage!

STRATIS
Jabniel must have found a hole.

He recklessly steers his ship in after her. Not a glimmer of the truth, that they used a macro to penetrate the F-ring, registers in his mind.

LORETH
There’s no hole! Veer off!

But it was far too late. A red glow infuses an arc of the F-ring. It comes from kinetic energy as his unlamented ship disintegrates and the broken fragments ping-pong through the ice, followed by secondary explosions as his disintegrating magazine of railgun rounds detonate. This time the F Ring is ruffled. And that is the end of Ithuriel’s Stratis gang problem.

ITHURIEL
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.