Part Three of Arc of Iapetus
by Robert Gibson
3: The Line
Hurst emerged from the shadow of the inn’s porch, into the open sunshine of Traw City.
Rhea feasts the eye with colour, despite receiving only one-hundredth the sunlight available to Earth. The glow, dubbed the “neon nacre”, which pervades the biota of the Saturn system, gets right into the paint which is used to coat the architectural exteriors on those worlds, so that although rooms may be dim, the street culture shines.
The resulting splendour of Traw City’s curved avenues was, for Hurst, a welcome contrast to the gloom of the inn. And though he was accustomed to the public beauty he saw, the Earthman appreciated it anew; he lingered with slow steps as he threaded the streets towards the space-boat hangar, for it seemed possible that he might never again see the famous glowing blue domes of Rhea.
Not lived in, lived on - the Rhean domes were packed with power plants, to emit light and heat through their surfaces, around which the citizens lived and moved on their exposed, outdoor housing-platforms encircling the blue hemispheres.
So when you stroll through Traw City, you see just about everybody in plain view; and when you come across the bizarre sight of Rheans doing something oddly familiar like beating their carpets – then, the mix of alien shapes with humdrum action can sear you with nostalgia for Earth.
Hurst smiled sadly; he knew himself well enough. If some twist of Fate were to return him to Earth, he would inevitably feel bittersweet longing for the other worlds. Spacers were like that.
But why these reflections, right now?
He recalled a line from literature: “You see, Watson, but you do not observe.”
He, by contrast with Dr Watson, was observing as well as seeing; more acutely than was his wont. And perhaps this was not surprising, in view of what had happened to him.
Every step he took, he was now aware of the slight “electrostatic” stickiness which forced him to make that much extra effort to lift his boot from the pavement – an extra effort which almost compensated for the tiny gravity of Rhea.
His flitting thoughts had perhaps alighted upon a clue, a hint concerning his present mission.
He clutched at it – gotcha! But no – the idea had gone! He’d been overconfident just then! But the idea was not gone for good, surely? Be patient, Seth Hurst.
Naturally, he wanted to work it all out himself, before the sealed orders in his brain were opened according to the Saturnian’s timetable. His human vanity impelled him to try. But even if he failed the first time, he might get another chance. For it would come in bite-size stages, or so he hoped. Not all in one go, please, Fate! He wasn’t keen on another wholesale mental shakeup, not even if it solved the whole mystery of the mission in one fell swoop; the price, he reckoned, would be too high.
Start again, thought Hurst. Think back to that observation about the boot, the stickiness of the stride.
It was easiest to allow the reminder he needed to rise at him out of the very ground he was treading.
Like all Saturn’s moons – except Titan which was large enough for more normal options – Rhea depended for its life upon retaining an atmosphere by means other than the gravity of mass. Its bio-field must have grown from tiny beginnings, depending all the way upon complexity as an actual force: the “pull” of a life-system so varied that it brought laws into play which could never be discovered outside its unique zone… The complexity of the most colourful coral reef on Earth was as nothing compared to the variety found on Rhea, where almost every organism was its own subspecies. Only the highest forms, the intelligent forms, were stabilized to any marked extent; and even then, races varied outrageously – some had two sexes, some three, some a larger number… and some (like Ghilidb’s) were sexless and instead had grall, which meant that individuals could only digest their food with the help of someone of the opposite grall… The capabilities of individuals varied just as drastically, some being as keen-sighted as eagles, others as keen-nosed as dogs, and others telepathic. As for the lower forms, the “ordinary” animals, they presented such apparent chaos as to drive a Terran biologist insane. Yet it was this “chaos” that generated the force that kept Rhea alive. The complexity-force, the gravitation of variety, somehow fenced the air-molecules into the bio-field, and, closer to ground, pulled at Hurst’s boot-soles as if he were shod with magnets on a metal path.
This made all the difference to the way he moved; it allowed him a grounded stride instead of the extravagant soaring hops he would otherwise have made; it gave him, in short, a proper world to live on. Admittedly the visual effect, especially when one looked at a crowd, was eerily reminiscent of the motion of seaweed wafting in a current, rather than of “proper” gravity, for solid bodies were “weighted” only within an inch or two of the satellite’s surface… Hurst’s brow furrowed as he sought furiously to guess where all these thoughts were leading.
If only he could guess it in good time, before the Saturnian agenda opened its Page One in his mind…
Failure! Here he was approaching his space-boat hangar, and he had not yet deduced the substance of his mission.
Ah, but perhaps he had managed to target the area where the mystery lay. It ought to be something to do with evolution, with the history of life on Iapetus.
Something the Saturnians were scared of.
The Saturnians scared??
And at that moment the page began to open…
Hurst scrambled up the ladder into his tiny space-boat, ironically named Jumbo, and sat himself at the controls, sweating. The first briefing or instruction sheet in his mind now told him what he was commissioned to look for at Iapetus – and it was so fantastic that he almost managed to class it as delirium.
He could not evade the truth: insistently, like a sheaf of photographic evidence presented in court, the Saturnian knowledge displayed itself pictorially, incontrovertibly, in front of his mind’s eye.
Hurst could not, would not believe it at first. Part of him protested so strongly that there came an adjustment, and the thought receded. His mission must not be aborted by panic. If he had been given too much information, some of it must be taken back, he wasn’t ready, wouldn’t be ready until he reached his destination… Oh brother, he was in for it. He pulled the lever that sent the command to open the hangar roof and then even before the “clear” signal came on he pressed the take-off switch. Jumbo soared into the Rhean sky.
Within a quarter of a minute his ship was surrounded by the black of space.