Chapter Four: Back Again

We call Amelia Airhead up and the descent through Neptune to Zoo Base goes smoothly. Even though we’re in a god-awful hurry, we inspect the floating base fully and carefully when we arrive. To this day there are only a handful of human-built structures that can stand pressures like those of the Ooze Zone, so we have to check if the Zoo really is enduring. One thing we quickly find is that a lot of helium has migrated through its hull—so much that we’re all talking like Mickey Mouse for about six hours before the life support system can purge it back to normal levels. We also shiver a lot. Helium can suck heat out of a person much faster than any other gas. But we live with it, and once the inspection is complete we hustle to get the Pink Passion ready again.

Nacho updates us on the weather. “We’re much closer to one of the spots now—one of the great storms we can see even from Titan. This means the turbulence is going to be higher. This is good and bad. It’s good because we should be able to get down and up faster. It’s bad because it’s new. This planet has mysteries, and some should be here. Stay on your toes, Khan.”

I nod. Yeah, my job is going to be a lot more interesting this time. But we know a lot more now.

“Is the same way of getting through the boulder-zone going to work?” I ask.

“It should. If anything, we may want to take even more advantage of it. If the turbulence is right, we should be able to ride it even lower, and break out in a big convection cell. Then we can slide down the edge of that to the Ruby layer.”

“Get your motion medicine ready, folks,” orders Floro. “If we do that, this will put a jet-ski trip to shame.”

Only hours later we’re ready. We’re all primed, all up, but we’re all dog tired—those hours since arriving have been busy ones, and the hours of descent before them were wearing.

“OK, boys,” I say, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s dinner and beddy-bye time. I want us all fresh on the run tomorrow.”

“Awww, Ma, do we have to?” Nacho whines convincingly.

“You have to!” I shake my finger at him. “And, uh, … you have to eat all your vegetables at dinner!” Everyone laughs. We haven’t seen real vegetables since we left Titan. “We leave in ten hours.”

The night is restless for me. It’s not pleasant being back in the Zoo without fresh supplies. The unknown is in front of us once again. We have to be sharp, sharp as any man ever gets. I finally get a little shuteye.

None of us are as up the next morning, but we’re all a lot more rested and our net effectiveness is higher. We’ll have a lot more endurance for the upcoming challenge. We launch the Pink Passion and start our flying teacup ride down to the Ruby layer of the Ooze Zone. Things don’t feel much different until after we spread our probes and become a rock. As we hit the bottom of the boulder zone, we feel the turbulence go up. Deep booms penetrate the hull as other boulders crunch into ours.

“Keep it together, Khan.” Nacho is excited. “Keep it around us until we drift off to the side of the cell. There’ll be a reverse current there, headed down. Break out when we get into that.”

“Is our boulder going to hold together?” asks Floro.

“I hope so,” Nacho and I say together. I continue, “I’m watching. If it breaks, I’ll start sailing us.”

There’s a lot of banging and a lot of sideways motion. Then we start down, fast!

“We’re at the side,” says Nacho.

“I’m going to leave us inside,” I say. “This is fast and I’m still hearing a lot of banging.”

“Remember, this block is getting bigger and tougher fast,” warns Nacho.

Minutes later the ice-block breaks, but not because of me. First there’s an abrupt halt to our descent, then a huge groan and a sharp crack. Our block has gotten wedged between a couple of bigger ones, then crushed by them. I’m at the controls squirming our way through the quickly dissolving block wreckage and heading for the down current that’s working around the blocks that have crushed us.

Yeah, this is fast, all right. Within hours we’re down at the Ruby zone. And it isn’t long before Floro has spotted a vein. Dazzle!

But then a problem. As we head for the vein we discover a huge horizontal cross current in front of us, about five times as fast as the verticals we’ve been experiencing.

“We can’t cross that! It’ll carry our ship way downstream. We don’t have the power to match that velocity,” I complain.

“How unusual,” says Floro, calm as always. “Let me check this for a bit. Everyone take a break and eat.”

I’m frustrated, but I say, “Okay, we’re safe enough for a while,” and we all do as he says. It’s not that we don’t need the break and the food; we’ve been hard at it for six hours. As we’re finishing up, Floro comes in looking relaxed.

“There is a solution,” he says, sitting down to his own meal. Then he says no more.

Grrr! It’s times like this that I want to strangle the man for being so cool-headed. But we all know that wheedling him or yelling at him will only make him stop and explain that he needs to fuel himself before he gives us the details, and then continue eating—if anything, more slowly—so we wait … and watch the clock tick … second … by … second…

Grrr!

Finally he finishes … leans back … and says, “What we are experiencing here is like a canyon wind back on Titan or Earth. It’s fast and furious but very local. We can let it carry us downstream because it will end in a kilometer or so, where this crack widens out. We can then head for the Ruby vein.”

“You’re sure of this?” I ask. “It’s not like a Mississippi River of ooze that’s going to carry us down to the great Pacific Ooze Ocean thousands of miles away?”

“The Mississippi issues into the Gulf of Mexico. And see for yourself.”

Floro puts his readouts up on the room overhead. And, yeah, if you look at them the right way you can see the huge funnel effect he’s talking about. The fast current will peter out quickly. Nacho confirms that it makes sense. “I’m sure I would have seen it myself, if I’d spent some time on it like Floro just did. Not that I’m ungrateful for the break!”

I slap Floro on the back, pretty hard—kinda hoping he still has something in his mouth he could choke on a bit, for making us wait so patiently. But it’s a hot solution to our problem!

We man our stations, cross our fingers, and cross the river! Its huge turbulence puts our previous rides to shame, but that turbulence has also broken all the usual junk down to peanut size, so there’s no trash worth dodging.

On the far side … there it is! Ruby!! We send out collectors, and within three hours we have another two kilos. Dazzle, this is getting easy!!!

The price of Ruby is going to come crashing down, down, down!

We head back to base uneventfully.

From Zoo Base back into space is also uneventful. We had to put the base to bed with a whole lot less reserve than previously, and we had to be quick. But our luck holds, and we reach Crown without mishap.

Now we have our negotiating ace in the hole and we can worry about Titan issues.