Chapter One: Shakedown

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby,
Ruby, will you be mine?

Nacho Hurtado’s tune is more than 4 centuries old—by Dion and the Belmonts, as he could tell you from his encyclopedic knowledge of that era. He’s singing it mindlessly again as he sits at his console and studies the ooze all around us, looking for a good way down.

No, I don’t mind Nacho singing. Anything to help him avoid a bad way down!

Besides, I too want Ruby—Rubyzin!—to be mine. Twenty years ago, it had never been heard of. Now half the civilized world wants to plop down money for some. Rubyzin is a lot of things to a lot of people … the Peace Maker, the Date Maker, the Deal Maker. And to those of us crewing the Pink Passion, floating like a missed piece of eggshell in a high-pressure egg cooker … the Billionaire Maker! A kilogram of Rubyzin will pay for our trip here from Titan. If we bring out two kilos, our investors will be ecstatic. The Pink Passion’s hold can carry a hundred kilos. Optimism, anyone?

“Where’s ‘here’?” you ask? In the Ooze Zone of Neptune! That’s the layer between the atmosphere’s gaseous part—where the hydrogen and helium act like air and the methane, ammonia, and water act like clouds—and the solid part—where the pressure is so crushing even the hydrogen and helium are solid. In the middle-pressure Ooze Zone, where the components range from liquid to solid, we’ll find Rubyzin if we’re both lucky and careful. And if we don’t keep our wits about us? Grinding ice blocks will flatten us into smaller and smaller remains of what used to be a ship, or we’ll get frozen whole, deep inside a miles-across iceberg, to be found some eternity later, if ever.

So, yeah, it’s OK if Nacho sings that stupid song mindlessly and endlessly. Anything to preserve his efficiency. No matter if he never gets past the chorus. No matter if he has a voice like an—

“Neptune!” you exclaim. “Why Neptune? Isn’t an Earth/Mars government–supported corporation mining Rubyzin deep below the clouds, in the ooze of Jupiter?”

“Why, yes!” I answer politely. “Indeed, they have invested billions in Rubyzin Extraction, Inc., to mine Rubyzin ‘safely and economically’ using robot probes.”

Yeah! And those bastards have given REI monopoly privileges! But figuring out how to dodge around in a lower Ooze Zone is still beyond robot navigating ability. Until scientists have a good way to describe turbulent flow, no robot is going to master the Jovian ooze. So REI’s Rubyzin output is low, way below Solar System demand. We in the Pink Passion want to fix that.

We aren’t alone. There are hundreds of ideas floating around Titan Colony about how to mine Rubyzin, and we’re among hundreds of people willing to give those ideas a try.

Believe me, we looked hard at sneaking into Jupiter! The planet is a big place, and its ooze layer is thick. Much of it could be well-veined with Rubyzin. But word on the Titan street—and inside its bars—was that the Jovian Interdiction Patrol is highly effective, with a dozen fast patrol boats circling the planet and state-of-the-art surveillance to back them up. A lot of people have been trying to sneak in without an REI license, and a lot of people have gotten caught, almost all on their way out. In fact, about half the Rubyzin REI puts on the market is JIP-confiscated. (Of course REI denies that.)

So we looked for an alternative. Saturn might have provided one on our doorstep, but the Titan Colony government made a deal with the REI devil and now there’s a Saturnian Interdiction Patrol as well. So we decided, why not go for the far end of the line before people start thinking seriously about it: Right on past Uranus to Neptune!

It took some serious convincing to get this boat financed. Most scientists with an opinion about it argue that the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune are too thin, too cold, and too icy at the bottom, so either they’ll have nothing resembling Rubyzin, or it will be of poor quality.

One counter­argument is: Have you bothered to look?

But the stronger counterargument is: Have you seen the street price of Rubyzin these days?!?

Not only are we on Neptune instead of Jupiter, we have a different style of vessel. The ships and probes on Jupiter were designed by Earth’s brightest and best … who are, in their opinion, submarine engineers. A logical choice, you might think, since Earth’s ocean floor is also a high-pressure environment. But that’s a false association of ideas. Nowhere is Earth seawater similar to what you find deep in the gas giants, so submarine design isn’t real relevant to designing a vessel for moving around in gas giant ooze. We took a different approach. We decided, “This goo is a lot like what bacteria experience—thick, murky fluids filled with lots of random obstructions. We should base our design on scaled-up bacteria, not pressured-up subs.”

So we’re using cilia and flagella equivalents, not propellers, for propulsion. And like some microscopic flagella, our two (we have one fore and one aft) also function as sensors. They’re real effective at telling us about conditions one to ten meters around the ship—about close-by chemicals, such as veins of minerals, and about trouble, such as when the crack we’re in is about to freeze up, so we can back out quickly using the aft flagellum!

This concept is radical enough that Janos Bolyai, our propulsion engineer, has patent filings in on this “Bacta Crawler” idea, as he calls it. He hopes his children, if any, will get something out of them.

But despite having far better equipment than those REI fools on Jupiter, we still have to stay on our toes. This environment is not friendly to us low-pressure types.

So right now we’re floating in the upper layers of ooze and deciding if we want to go deeper. I’m the pilot, so I give the orders. Right after I find out what those orders should be…

“The ship is checking out. Are we ready for deeper?” I ask.

“We’ve still got broken cilia,” says Janos.

“How many?” I ask.


“Three out of one hundred? I think we’ve got plenty of safety margin. Let’s go.”

After a pause: “All right, Khan. But if we lose two more, five total, we turn back,” Janos insists. “I’ll keep working on fixing the broken ones. At least it’ll give me something to do until we find Ruby, if we do.”

“There’s a crack directly below us that looks optimal,” reports Nacho, sounding pleased. He’s our “weatherman” and navigator, who reads the ooze and tells us where to go on the large scale. I, as pilot, decide where to go on the small scale.

We’ve been shaking out the ship for a month now in the upper ooze, the part that’s sandy to gravelly in consistency. We’d scheduled two weeks for shakeout at this level, expecting to shake out again for a week down at the level where the lumps are between house-size and city-block-size, in a crack between those lumps. We figured we could float in the fairly permanent upwells at that level, and that Rubyzin would be close enough that we could detect it from there and plan how to mine it.

The next layer down, rock-and-boulder size, isn’t a real problem. What’s kept us here an extra two weeks is getting through the level below that, with the car-to-truck size chunks. The crud in the upwellings there is moving too fast! When we try to speed down into an upwelling, the trash floating in its current dings the ship, which we could stand, but we also get real damage, like the broken cilia Janos is talking about so morosely.

We’re pretty sure that, lower down, the larger sizes of the trash and slower speed of the upwelling will work in our favor. We just have to get there! The pressure to move down isn’t just our own frustration, either. It’s our limited supplies. That, and the fact that this ship costs millions a day to run, and we crew members supplied only a fraction of those millions. (Yeah, we put our money where our mouths were, along with some really rich people. And now we’ve brought our asses where our money is.) We need to solve this problem soon, or there’ll be a lot of unhappy people when we come back—including us.

Yesterday we agreed on a different approach: Instead of trying to burrow our way down through an upcurrent, we’re going to make our own downcurrent. We’ll use the explorer probes to spread out a net and calm the atmosphere around us into an unnaturally large volume—about house-size—which should then congeal and sink like a rock through the car-and-truck zone. Below that, it will still be small enough for us to split it open, which we’ll do when we get to the house-and-palace zone, and off we go.

“Spreading out the net,” I announce.

A few minutes later: “We have a bungalow-size ice block around us, and we’re moving down.” Everybody cheers.

There’s no piloting to do while we fall, so for the next hour Floro Domicó takes the lead. He’s science, and he tells us what instruments to run and what parameters to measure as we go down. He’s a kid in a candy shop at times like these. Janos gets all three cilia fixed, too.

As we hit the house zone we split open our boulder and sail into the upwell that Nacho found earlier. It’s smooth as silk. Well, in truth the ship is rocking and rolling so much that many of you reading would get seasick. But it feels like silk to us, because in this part of the world feeling like you’re on a roller coaster, descending through a fluid upwelling, is a lot safer than feeling like you’re on a sofa, which would mean you’re locked inside something big, and may have a new home for eternity.

The really good news is Floro announcing three minutes later, “Houston, we have paydirt! I have traces of Ruby showing up on the scanners.”

“What, so high?” Janos says what we’re all thinking. We figured the Ruby would be down another thirty kilometers, at least.

“It’s parts per billion, but it’s here,” Floro replies. Yeah, we’ll still have to go a lot lower for something extractable, but it’s there to extract!

“So, down the crack? Into the Womb of Ruby, Nacho?” I ask.

“There’s gold in them thar cracks, man, but be careful. It’s death-on-a-stick, too,” Nacho replies, surprisingly grim.

“Careful is my middle name, but I never use it,” I say, and I head the ship down.

The next eighteen hours are something of a blur. I’m kept very busy coordinating with Nacho. He points me towards the most active parts of the crack system, and away from those he thinks are dying and becoming rock, and I keep us going down, down, down. While we keep the ship mobile, Janos and Floro scan for Rubyzin.

We get into the kilometer-across zone, and various kinds of mineral veins start showing up in the blocks we pass by. These blocks are long-lived enough that the freezing-melting process has started some distilling, but their veins are small, soft, and not of Rubyzin. We need to go deeper.

In the tens-of-kilometers-across zone, the blocks are hard enough to do some serious grinding—they’re more rocky than muddy. I have to be careful that I don’t put the ship in the grinding areas as well as the freezing up areas. On the other hand, the upwelling fluids are actually a bit more fluid than those above, so as long as I choose right, movement is easier. The cilia part of our propulsion system really comes into its own at this level. I can use the cilia to crawl along a boulder surface, and the flagella sensors are really good for warning about upcoming crush spots.

About Hour Six, I’m getting tired. I’ve been doing some serious navigating for a long time now. Then Floro announces, “I think we’re right over the top of something useful,” And I’m no longer tired.

“But we can’t take this crack any longer, Floro,” Nacho tells him. “It’s getting quiet. Try heading 270 for 500 meters, Khan.”

And so it goes. We maneuver around sideways, and sink, and maneuver around sideways and sink. It’s fun, but I’m getting even more tired now.

When Hour Twelve has rolled by, Floro says, “Launch a mining probe.”

Dazzle! We’re where we need to be! A vein of Rubyzin is within 100 meters of the ship. As much as I want to watch that little miner probe do its thing, I tell Nacho he has the helm, and I take a break. I fall asleep over a sandwich in the galley. Three hours later, Janos wakes me up with a big shit-eating grin all across his face.

“Time for you to take us up, Khan,” he says with a look that shouts, “Yes!”

“How much did we get?” I ask, still bleary-eyed.

“We won’t know for a while, but a lot. The probe filled up on paydirt.”

“Filled up? On one run?” I say.

Janos’s grin somehow gets bigger, until his normally dour face looks ready to split. “Yeah.”

The next three hours are incredibly happy for me. While the other three catch naps if they can, I ride upcurrents up, which means we’re moving at a blistering pace, comparatively, and I really don’t have to do much tricky navigating except to be sure we stay in the mainstream of each upcurrent. After we break into the “air” zone, which is just super-pressurized fluid with no ice chunks, it’s easy to find the way to our deep atmosphere station, just above the Ooze: Zoo Base.

In our separate lairs we all sleep the sleep of the dead. Another eighteen hours pass before we get the number on what we’ve brought up: 4.85 kilos of medium-grade Rubyzin. But it’s different from Jupiter Rubyzin, with a blue tint rather than a red tint. Well, there are blue rubies and red rubies in nature. Will Blue Rubyzin be worth as much, more, less? We won’t know for sure until Floro makes cream of it.