Friday, October 14, 2011

Heavy Water

Heavy Water

Blazing Loch, Ganymede
Axial Alexeinov reviewed the crude three-dimensional image of the lake bed, scratching at his stubble. The first colonists had come to Ganymede in ships powered by nuclear drives; short-lived vessels incandescent with radiation, abandoned in a water-ice rich fissure twelve klicks magnetic north of Enki Catena. The residual heat and radioisotopes had melted the ice, which froze over again, trapping liquid water beneath the surface. That was the beginning of the Blazing Loch.

Ax scowled. The radiation played hell with most sensors, forcing them to rely on primitive side-scan sonar devices. The resolution was terrible.

Over the decades, the liquid water absorbed the neutrons spat out by the exposed cores, transforming a percentage of the elemental hydrogen into deuterium. Heavy water had numerous industrial uses, from neutrino sensors to tritium production, and there was always a need for it on Ganymede. Sensing an opportunity, Axial and his partners had pooled their resources to from Liberty Mining, Limited and secure a temporary claim to harvest the heavy water. A few weeks freezing their asses off in a temporary habitat on the shore of the lake were worth it for the tens of thousands of credits they would receive when LibMin, Ltd. sold their load in the city of Liberty.

The airlock zipped; Ax did not look up as Henq cycled through, stomping in hir magnetic boots. Axial was a flat; his aggressively normal human phenotype augmented by neural implants and the aggressive psychosurgery he had endured in some nameless hypercorp lab, probably already succumbing to some slow cancer or genetic disease. Henq was a neuter splicer; genetweaked to eliminate innate weaknesses, a product of unnatural biological engineering. Hir parents were members of a Martian splinter that believed sex, while a fundamental biological imperative, wasted too much time and bioenergy.

The other partners were Gwynn and Gills. Gwynn was an infomorph, and the partnership’s legal counsel, currently somewhere in cisjovian orbit, keeping on top of the financial and legal details. Gilles was a biorg, the brain of an uplifted dolphin piloting the submersible morph at the bottom of the loch.

Henq nodded to Axial, and then whipped his hand around. A rough sphere of damp ice caught Axial in the eyes, knocking him off his folding stool.

“Deuterium snowball,” the Martian explained.

“Fuck your mother, genefreak.” Ax said, spitting out the mildly radioactive snow. “What percentage?”

“Half a percent by mass.” ze replied. “Tailings from the seafood’s claim.”

The Octonautical Ceres-Titan Mining Corporation was a trio of uplifted octopi telepaths that had been ejected from the methane seas of Jupiter’s largest moon for their failure to abide by conservationist regulations. Ganymede has no such restrictions, and they had transported their operation there wholesale, securing an illegal claim on the other side of the loch from Hyoden, Ganymede’s other major city, just a couple weeks ago. The doubled activity of harvesting operations had upset the circulation of the lake, and was causing difficulty for everyone.

“Get on the satlink with Gwynn and see if our motion for preliminary injunction has come through.” the flat said “I’ll check on Gilles.”

Gilles sang in the dark waters at the bottom of the loch, navigating by sound and taste, hir eight-legged mechacrab morph picking its way across the reef of discarded engines, the nanocarbon pumping hose trailing away above hir. The loch was a simple exoscape: heavy water, with its extra mass, tended to settle to the bottom of the loch with the shattered and radioactive cores. However, there was a simple convection circuit in operation, driven by nuclear heat, and tides from the other Jovian moons. The weight and warmth of the water on Gilles’ exoframe felt warm and comforting to hir, but the viscosity and weird acoustics of the deuterium-rich liquid were throwing off hir instincts. Still, ze was an old salt and managed to adapt.

Claws scrabbling for holds, the biorg skittererd along the wall of the fissure, trying not to disturb the wildlife. Slimy slicks of radiobacteria clinging to the cores formed an artificial reef at the bottom of the loch. Transgenic cockroaches adapted into artificial crustaceans shuffled along the loch’s bottom, feeding on the radiobacteria and each other. The roaches were an abandoned xenocological effort by Liberty’s local university students, an exercise in second-stage terraforming transgenetics, but were naturalized creatures of the planetoid and still protected by the city-state’s laws. Gilles tried not to step on too many.

The loch ran roughly east to west, oriented with regard to Ganymede’s magnetic north. The bed of the loch sloped, with the majority of the ionizing radiation sources in the deeper eastern end. The cephalopods had brought in a Titanian hydrocarbon pumping station and a hundred meters of pipe; drilled straight through the crust and snaked the pipe down until they hit loch bottom at the west end of the loch, then began pumping all the waters back up to the surface.

So, Gilles was forced to drop below the level of the cephalopods’ pipe, taking her into the deepest, least accessible waters on the east end, where both the radiation and pressure were strongest. Axial had the idea of mapping the bottom to locate any deep wells where rich yields might settle, and ze followed a track along the northern wall of the eastern end to one such well, taking samples from the thin calciferous ooze left by dead roaches with one articulated probe-claw, tasting the deuterium content.

The acrid pseudo-taste of tritiated water caught Gilles’ attention. Ze followed it to the well, taking samples, focusing hir sonar scans. The well was a small crater or bowl surrounding a piece of dense metallic debris, absent of loch life, filled with nearly pure heavy water—really heavy water, nearly ten percent tritium oxide by volume—but with no apparent source of ionizing radiation. The biorg sang in frustration at the conflicting data hir sensors were feeding hir. Gilles circled the well, angry but cautious, rechecking her results, running diagnostics.

Gilles was about to venture into the well for a closer look when Axial called.

: Ceres Protocol : Mare Lachrymarum : popped up on Axial’s entoptic display, activating his dormant neuroprogramming, sending the flat into selective memory mode. For the duration of this conversation, Axial’s memories would bypass his biological memory, stored instead on his less vulnerable cortical stack. Normally there was no need for such security considerations, but the presence of psi-gamma capable competitors put the partners on edge.

“Go ahead Gilles, I read you.” Ax sent.

“Anomaly. Tritiated water in well 26. Possible item of interest.”

Files popped open on Axial’s entoptic display, the latest scans and test results. Ax started to incorporate them into the earlier 3D map, then stopped. Henq’s brain wasn’t secure. He needed to a keep a lid on this until he was sure what was going on.

“Exposed core?”

“Negatory. Ionizing radiation is minimal. Going in for a closer look.”

“Careful Tuna Can; that morph wasn’t cheap and tritiated water is corrosive.”

Gilles sent back a microsoundfile of an electronic raspberry. Axial focused on the telemetry from the crab-morph’s probe arms.

The display reconstruction showed a half-buried object. Striated metal, grown or sculpted like the shell of an oyster, a rough torus thirty centimeters in diameter, varying between one and six centimeters thick, with a single three centimeter hole set slightly off-center. Basically, a flattened donut. Platinum-nickel alloys, probably spun out in near-zero gravity. Estimated mass was pushing 500 kilograms.

“Are we looking at retrieval?” the neo-dolphin sent.

“Maybe. Have to ask Gwynn about salvage rights first.”

“I can move this thing, but I can’t swim with it.”

“Affirmative. We’ll work it on our end. Meanwhile, continue harvesting the heavy water. Sign me out.”

: Ceres Protocol : Mare Tenebrum :

Axial registered the words and checked the timestamp in the lower left of his visual field. Six thousand seconds.

“Henq?” he said aloud. “I just had a brainlock conversation with Gilles. Ceres Protocol. Are you online with Gwynn yet?”


“Okay. Patch me in, and then take yourself off-channel.”

“Mind if I take a biological imperative?”

“You know where the restroom is.”

Ax turned away as Henq unzipped hirself and attached the vacuum hoses. Gwynn’s icon popped up in his visual screen.

“?” the infomorph sent.

“Talk to my fork.” Axial replied. “Ceres Protocol.”

Ax connected the application straight to his cortical stack and allowed his other ego to talk directly to the infomorph. While Gwynn chatted with his backup, Ax attempted to meditate, allowing his body and mind to relax. Whatever he had been talking about with Gilles, it had left him tense.

Gwynn pinged him.

“We’re moving to phase three.” ze said.

“We don’t have a full load yet.”

“It was your fork’s idea. Patch me to Gilles. Inform Henq.”

Axial patched Gwynn through to Gilles. It didn’t make sense to pull out so soon, but his fork had more information than he did. Privately Ax hoped he know what he was doing.

Loch bottom, Gilles received hir instructions from Gwynn. The artifact was the new priority. Ze brought the nano-carbon hose down, sucking up the heavy water, trying not to stir up to much dust. It would take about fifteen minutes at current suction to empty the well. The neo-dolphin considered the mechanical challenge of how to get the artifact back up to the surface, pulling up calculator programs and the morph’s technical manual.

The mechacrab morph could just about handle a five hundred kilo dead lift, provided it didn’t have to actually carry it anywhere. The nanocarbon tubules the hose was constructed from could handle much more than that under normal Ganymede gravity, but there was the added weight and pressure of the water to consider. Gilles ran the calculations, taking her time, singing softly to herself.

The jellybots ping suddenly appeared on her sonar, singing their alien, discordant songs. Ze recognized the model. Highly maneuverable bots normally used in the methane seas on Titan; they took in liquid from their environments, pressurized it, and could release it either to propel themselves, or with higher velocity and the addition of an abrasive, mine through the coral-like xenolife. They could even cut through the armored hide of Gilles morph, eventually.

The Octonauts claim, issued by a rival Ganymede city-state, was a point of contention between the two groups. Axial had brokered a temporary agreement where both sides would stay within their half of the lake until the matter was formally resolved. Of course, by the time legal authorities in Liberty and Hyoden got their acts together, one or both groups would have taken their fill and left the claim.

Now, however, the Octonauts were coming dangerously close to violating the truce.

Gilles raised hir antennae and began broadcasting a query to the jellybots, and was rewarded with a crackling, looped commercial message playing in Deutsch and Korean. The jellybots swam up and away, back toward the western end of the loch.

After their pings finally disappeared, Gilles turned back. The bulk of the tritiated water had gone up the hose, leaving the object temporarily clear. The mechacrab crawled forward into the well.

With two arms, the other six firmly planted, ze gave an experimental lift. The object stuck. Gilles let go, rearranged hir stance, and tried again with four arms. This time the object lifted free of the loch floor. Gilles held the torus with two arms, and used the other two to tie the carbon nanotube hose around it. Gwynn had suggested avoiding threading the tube through the central hole, even though that seemed the simplest solution. Ze was forced to pull down as much slack as possible and create a pentagonal frame secured with a series of hitch knots.

When done, the crab let go and the object floated securely in its nanocarbon web, suspended in the water by the end of the hose. Gilles signaled to Herq and Axial that ze was ready to ascend.

Henq was monitoring Gilles’ ascent toward the loch crust. Ax, Gwynn and the Octonauts representatives had been talking for the last ten minutes. It was a suspicious time for the cephalopods to cause a fuss. The uplifts likely thought everything they were doing was suspicious as well.
            After the heavy water was pumped up to the surface, Henq and Ax would run it through the separator to screen out the light water, heavy-oxygen water, and semiheavy water. The remaining deuterium-rich liquid was left in an open channel exposed to Ganymede normal temperatures and froze. Then it was just a matter of cutting the heavy water ice into blocks and loading it into their transport. Henq enjoyed the labor. Ganymede gravity was less than half that of hir native Mars, lower even than Luna. It made lifting and hauling easy.

No doubt the seafood had been keeping an eye on them and seen Henq outside in hir exposure suit, picking up trash and debris. Ze, like most children of colonists, had been raised to believe in proper waste management from an early age. Only the most decadent and wasteful would pollute a natural xenoscape rather than take it with them. Henq’s promised genemate waited for hir on Mars. Someday ze would return so they could combine their genetic material. Ze wanted hir geneline to have a solar system worth inheriting.

Henq was surreptitiously battening hatches and stowing tools and other small portables when the seafood arrived in their exoskeletons. Ax had moved to intercept them, and Henq kept his distance. Henq was a greater risk than Axial. Hir analytical facility and engineering bent led hir to intuit and reason out more than ze should about the situation. Ze knew from the sound of the gear system that Gilles was bringing something massive up on the nano-carbon hose with hir.

Fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty. Axial and Gwynn were still negotiating with the Octonauts. Henq could do no more to break down the site until Gilles had arrived. Even then ze doubted Ax wanted hir to bring the neo-dolphin up through the ice until the mollusks had departed. Henq donned hir exposure suit again and zipped herself out of the airlock again, on the excuse that ze needed to retrieve some tools.

Ze proceeded to the pump assembly. Once there ze popped out a fake panel and withdrew an ancient bullpup AK-47. Most of it had been cold forged by hir grandparents from Martian iron, but the foam metal folding stock and Reactive Armor Piercing ammunition ze had purchased quietly on Callisto. Henq had made the vacuum modifications hirself, and added a molded plastic frame to give the illusion it was actually a power tool of some kind. The weapon was quite serviceable, even in Ganymede’s thin atmosphere. Henq popped the panel back into place, stuck the submachine gun under her arm, and grabbed her toolbox. Ze hoped ze wouldn’t have to use it.

The jellybots were waiting. The ice crust on top of the loch acted as an insulator trapping the heat that radiated up from below. A thin thermocline of cooler water hugged the ice, mostly free of heavy water. The heat differential buffered sound, confused the sonar Gilles navigated by. Wiry tentacles wrapped around the mechacrab’s limbs, bringing the jets on the jellybots’ undersides to bear on hir armored back.
            Gilles sang about the terrible things ze would stick in the holes.

Keeping two legs holding the rocky side of the fissure, the neodolphin scraped her claws against each other. Dull pincers sheered through fragile tentacles, sending a jellybot sprawling, the other let go and jetted out of the way. The mechacrab’s legs braced against the walls of the loch, estimated speed and direction. Ze twisted and leapt. The morph corkscrewed through the water towards the fleeing jellybot. Hir legs dug into the underside of the ice crust and gripped.

Perspective shifted. Gilles now saw hirself on a plane of rough ice, the depths of the Blazing Loch the sky ze might fall into. The jellybot kept to the cooler waters of the thermocline. Gilles raced after it, legs clacking, kicking up chunks of ice that fell away from hir.

The morph and ‘bot chased each other around the loch, from west to east and back again. It reminded Gilles of the tower games ze played, when ze was in space. The jellybot wished to return get to the hole in the ice LibMin, Ltd. had cut, where the object dangled. The neo-dolphin kept between the ‘bot and its goal. The ‘bot had an advantage in vertical movement, could drop below the thermocline and disappear from view. But its jets could not match the horizontal speed of the mechacrab morph. So Gilles played a defensive game as the jellybot tried to feint and outmaneuver hir, keeping close to her home base.

Ten minutes later, there was movement on the surface ice. Tiny projectiles burst through the crust from topside, and the jellybot went to investigate. Gilles kept hir distance. Another line punched through the ice, and Gilles saw a web of cracks develop in the center of the loch. A boom rippled out in the water. The ice bulged.

Gilles watched as a huge section of the ice crust broke and collapsed. Two masses fell into the heavy waters. Sonar useless in the confusion, Gilles switched to optical cameras. The larger mass sinking swiftly downwards was an Octonaut exoskeleton. The other was a smaller transhuman.

The neo-dolphin surged forward across the breaking ice. Henq struggled to swim in the freezing water. Gilles came as near to hir as ze dared. The ice crust had already started to freeze over, but it wouldn’t take the weight of her morph. Anchoring hirself carefully, Gilles snagged the splicer by the strap of hir assault rifle. Ze dragged Henq nearer to her, then punched a hole in the ice and shoved the genefreak through.

“This is most unprofitable.” Jung Yi said. The lead Octonaut representative’s voice was filled with artificial indignation.

Axial kept his pokerface. “You are in violation of both our agreement and the local laws of the Ganymede city-states. I’m sorry about your employee, but we have the right to defend our company property.”

“Margin forecasts for operation designate unfavorable market conditions. Competition not desirable.”

“Well, then you should have checked to see if there were any rival claims before starting your operation.”

“If I may gentle intellects,” Gwynn interjected. “There may be a solution to this dilemma. Would the Octonautical Ceres-Titan Mining Corporation be interested in purchasing the heavy water reclamation claim to Blazing Loch, Ganymede?”

Axial kept his mouth shut. He had his suspicions of what Gwynn was up to. The psi-gamma cephalopod uplift was probably already trying to tease it out of his brain. Through the clear plate of its exoskeleton, Ax could see Jung Yi rub his tentacles together.


“One thousand credits, payable immediately to a Liberty Mining, Ltd. account, and a waiver for the loss and damage you’ve suffered during the…hostile negotiations of the last hour or so. In exchange, we’ll do a transfer of title to the claim and leave immediately with our current load. We also won’t notify the authorities.”

The uplift considered.

“Must consult parent corporation on Ceres.”

“No, you don’t.” Axial said. “If you’re in charge of this operation, then you have the authority to make the deal.”

“Site Manager, yes. You do not know the Project Manager. Very old school. Eaten many subordinates.”

“Wouldn’t you like to report to your Project Manger that you had secured all rights to the site?” Gwynn said. “As it is, you have to deal with the loss of an employee and a valuable exosuit.”

“Yes.” Jung Yi said bitterly. “Company property. Will come out of my share.”

“I’ll tell you what.” Ax said. “Let’s sweeten the pot. A three-dimensional sonar map of the loch bottom. I’ve marked the wells with the highest percentage of heavy water. If you snake your pipe there, you can increase your yield and lower your time on-site.”

“Let me see the map.”

Axial took a fragment of the map and magnified it, transferring the image to the uplift. Jung Yi rubbed his tentacles some more.

“Accept Titanian kroner? Good currency, very liquid.”

“If you’ll accept the Liberty exchange rate, yes.” Gwynn replied.

Jung Yi snaked a tentacle out of the exoskeleton.

“Shake on it?”

Axial carefully took the tentacle in his left hand.

Three hours later, Liberty Mining, Ltd. was packed up and moving. Axial drove. Henq and Gilles rode with the heavy water ice blocks, keeping an eye on the object. Gwynn was already trying to line up a buyer. The alien device was probably worth more than the kilotons of ice they were bringing to the spaceport.

All in all, thought the flat, not a bad piece of business.


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