TC36


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

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

On this occasion, there was an hour and forty minutes of round trip travel time for the neutrino transmissions. When Ithuriel spelled out what happened, he asked Dory if she could take care of his Roth Wardian problem. After discussing the matter with Robyn (who passed along that she loved and missed her son Edgar very much) Dory agreed to look into it.

As it turned 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 was 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.

“We know exactly where Roth Wardian is now,” she said. “I’m including the one-line 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 was truly big. In fact, if the famous braided F-ring was taken to be the outer edge, it took light a full second to cross from one side of the rings to the other.

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

When Chivalrous arrived in the ring system of Saturn, Ithuriel laid 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 was thirteen miles away and moved at only a brisk walking speed relative to Ithuriel’s ice ball, just three miles per hour. The narrow gaps between the innumerable ringlets were 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 away around this requirement,

According to Dory’s data there was 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 owned it, and he made 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.

“Roth Wardian!” Jabniel said with some alarm. “Are you crazy? That’s the same guy who ripped us off!”

“Jabs, this time it’s different.” On the long hop to Saturn Ithuriel had shortened his wife’s name from Jabniel to Jabs. “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 reckoned 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 were all on different orbits with different periods, and the relationships between them were always shifting. Sometimes a lot of water-rich asteroids would drift close together. Supply would outstrip demand and water prices would plunge, at least for that region of the Belt. Other times a “desert” would form when few or no asteroids bearing water would be in a region, and the price of water would sharply increase.

All of these situations were compiled and documented in the Old Spacer’s Almanac (“Old” but really going on all of seven years old) that was transmitted to subscribers throughout the system. Ithuriel knew the Gravel Pile was entering just such a desert.

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

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

The Gravel Pile was 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 was one of just a handful of humans who had set down roots beyond Mars.

But it was slow going, all the negotiations between Wardian and Jabs, because round trip for radio transmission at light speed between Saturn and the Gravel Pile was 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, attracted 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 was mobile. They had a taut little warship about the size of a corvette. It was a bit smaller than Chivalrous and could be controlled by just three men, or even just two men in a pinch. Stratis parked inside Ithuriel’s ringlet 75,000 km from Saturn’s cloud tops, but just forty miles to the east, or spinward, of Ithuriel.

By Saturn’s standards, this wasn’t being a good neighbor. It was akin to parking one’s mobile home flush up against another one. Ithuriel knew this sign couldn’t be good.

Ithuriel used the engines of Chivalrous to melt a small pond into the surface. Quickly, before the ice froze again, he sank Chivalrous into the ice until he struck bottom. He melted more ice and sank again, and again, using the retrorockets to push them all the way through the ice until the back of the ship was 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 let all the water freeze again, which unfortunately put some dents into his ship as the ice expanded.

For the next few months Ithuriel melted many veins into the ice of his snowball, which would allow hot water to make a slush to be used as propellant for the big burn. And once, just once, during all his preparations, Ithuriel and Jabs were paid a visit by some of their nosy neighbors.