Part four of Arc of Iapetus
by Robert Gibson
4: the reel
Seth Hurst tapped the keys of his navigation system, which in theory gave him all he needed to set course for Iapetus.
At the same time, he kept a naked-eye watch through the windows. This was for his own peace of mind, as well as the beauty of the scene. The pilots who lived longest in the Saturn system are those who actually look where they are going.
The bulking glory of Saturn and its rings, the tiny brilliance of the Sun, the black of Space – these alone ought to have comprised the view. Not the satellites: they, even Titan, ought to be (at most) hardly noticeable dots or tiny spheres. Yet such was not the case.
The worldlets were accompanied by coloured zones, pale, glowing stains in the fabric of their surrounding space. Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Hyperion, Iapetus and Phoebe, as well as the larger moon Titan, each sailed through space seemingly surrounded by a lenticular smudge twelve to twenty thousand miles in diameter. The tilts of these haloes varied seemingly at random. Their hues differed: red (Mimas), page green (Enceladus), purple (Tethys), white (Dione), yellow (Rhea), orange (Titan), light blue (Hyperion), violet (Iapetus) and dark green (Phoebe).
None of this parade of glowing zones could possibly be due to ordinary electromagnetic radiation. Detectors outside the Saturn system could not pick any of it up. These rays, uniquely, were rays that went so far and then stopped.
Some natives might know the meaning of it all, but if so they were not telling. Let the scientists back on Earth tear their hair over it, shrugged Hurst; he had his destination to worry about. Anyhow, the awesome spectacle of the “haloes” was comforting, in a way, once one got used to it – it encouraged the idea that “seat of the pants” navigation within the mini-system would be possible if the need arose.
If one had to make a quick getaway in an alien ship, for instance…
What was he thinking of now?
Grimly, he concentrated on what he had just learned for sure.
The Saturnians were afraid of the Iapetans.
Hurst groaned at the thought. The Saturnians – afraid! And he was being sent where they feared to go!
The trouble was, he could not refuse. The Saturnian intelligence was overwhelmingly able to convince. It was pointless to complain of “compulsion”. He himself had no choice but to want to undertake this mission – whether he wished to want it or not.
He felt he had no free will; he felt as though he were a fish being reeled in to his doom – and yet he could not disagree!
And all because of the fact he had learned, about Iapetus.
The Saturnian whom he had met had studied the place from orbit with remote-sensors so powerful as to enable it to carry out a species-count of the Iapetan biosphere.
The result was bad news, apparently. Left to himself, the Earthman would have struggled to understand why. So what if the species on Iapetus were numbered in their thousands rather than in the tens of millions which were the norm for the Saturn system?
A blast of awareness soon put him right. The blast was composed of a kaleidoscope of thought-fragments: previous inconclusive or contradictory studies, coupled with an amazing, deep-rooted fear of change. Yes, the Saturnians were really worried! The dominant race on Iapetus had something no one else had.
Call it Gravity Three.
Iapetus is small, too small to keep its atmosphere by means of Newtonian “Gravity One”. Nor has it the species complexity to live by biotic Gravity Two, in the manner of Rhea and the other worldlets.
Yet the Iapetans walk their world and breathe air… and (Hurst felt guilt and a stab of accusation from the alien force within his mind): the Iapetan troublemakers are humanoid, in fact, as close as makes no difference to human in shape…
Sort out the mystery, you Man, said the voice in his head. They are a threat to us all.
Hurst slumped at the console for some minutes. Then, wearily, he sat up, stretched and blinked. Ignoring the various navigational indicators and screens, his gaze roved through the control cabin window and out into the halo-splotched firmament.
The violet smudge surrounding Iapetus, the eighth moon, had already grown noticeably larger in his field of view.
He stared while that world revealed itself as a disk, its equator banded by its incredible range of mountains, twenty miles high – the Arc of Iapetus.