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Leviathans of Jupiter

by Ben Bova

But ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

—CHARLES DARWIN

To Barbara and Peter Brusco, with love.

THE BOUNDLESS SEA

It is an endless ocean, more than ten times wider than the entire planet Earth. Beneath the swirling clouds that cover Jupiter from pole to pole, that ocean has never seen sunlight, nor has it ever felt the rough confining contours of land. Its waves have never crashed against a craggy shore, never thundered upon a sloping beach, for there is no land anywhere across Jupiter’s enormous girth: not even an island or a reef. The ocean’s billows sweep across the face of the deeps without hindrance, eternally.

Heated from below by the planet’s seething core, swirled into frenzy by Jupiter’s hyperkinetic spin rate, ferocious currents race through this endless sea, liquid jet streams howling madly, long powerful wave trains surging uninterrupted all the way around the world, circling the globe over and over again. Gigantic storms rack the ocean, too, typhoons bigger than whole planets, hurricanes that have roared their fury for century after century.

Jupiter is the largest of all the solar system’s planets, more than ten times bigger and three hundred times as massive as Earth. Jupiter is so immense it could swallow all the other planets easily. Its Great Red Spot, a storm that has raged for centuries, is itself wider than Earth. And the Spot is merely one feature visible among the innumerable vortexes and streams of Jupiter’s frenetically racing cloud tops.

Yet Jupiter is composed mainly of the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, more like a star than a planet. All that size and mass, yet Jupiter spins on its axis in less than ten hours, so fast that the planet is clearly not spherical. Its poles are noticeably flattened. Jupiter looks like a big, colorfully striped beach ball that’s squashed down as if some gigantic invisible child were sitting upon it.

Spinning that fast, Jupiter’s deep, cloud-topped atmosphere is swirled into bands and ribbons of multihued clouds: pale yellow, saffron orange, white, tawny yellow-brown, dark brown, bluish, pink and red. Titanic winds push the clouds across the face of Jupiter at hundreds of kilometers per hour. What lies beneath them? For a century planetary astronomers had cautiously sent probes into the Jovian atmosphere. They barely penetrated the cloud tops before being crushed by overwhelming pressure.

But the inquisitive scientists from Earth persisted and gradually learned that some fifty thousand kilometers beneath those clouds—nearly four times Earth’s diameter—lies that boundless ocean, an ocean almost eleven times wider than Earth and some five thousand kilometers deep. Heavily laced with ammonia and sulfur compounds, highly acidic, it is still an ocean of water. Everywhere in the solar system, where there is liquid water, life exists.

They also found that organic compounds form naturally in the clouds and precipitate down into the sea: particles constantly wafting into the restless ocean, like manna falling from heaven.

Eventually the scientists found that life exists in Jupiter’s boundless ocean, as well. Enormous creatures, as big as cities, cruise through those raging currents as easily as a lad poling a raft along a quiet stream on Earth, feeding themselves on the organics constantly drifting down from above. Lords of their world, these creatures exist where humans and their most inventive technology can barely penetrate.

The humans called them leviathans. And they wondered: Could these beasts be intelligent?

I

FUSION TORCH SHIP AUSTRALIA

To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. —Alfred, Lord Tennyson Ulysses

CERES ORBIT:

CHRYSALIS II HABITAT

Big George Ambrose was far from happy.

“I still don’t see why they need a fookin’ microbiologist,” he grumbled. “Bloody beasts on Jupiter are big as mountains, aren’t they?”

His daughter Deirdre nodded in agreement. The two of them were waiting in Chrysalis II’s departure lounge for the torch ship from the Earth/Moon system to dock at the habitat. No one else was in the departure lounge; no one else from the habitat was heading for Jupiter.

They did not look much like father and daughter. George was a huge bushy mountain of a man, with a tangled mop of brick red hair and a thick unruly beard to match, both bearing the first telltale streaks of silver. Deirdre was almost as tall as he, but seemed dwarfed next to him. She was strikingly beautiful, though, with wide innocent almond eyes that had a slight oriental cast to them and high cheekbones, thanks to her mother. She had her father’s strong jaw and auburn hair that glowed like molten copper as it streamed down past her shoulders. She was wearing a simple pullover blouse and comfortable slacks, but they couldn’t hide the supple curves of her ample figure.

“You’ll miss my retirement party,” George growled.

“I’m sorry about that,” Deirdre said. “But they promised me a full scholarship to the Sorbonne if I’d put in a year at the research station in Jupiter orbit. A full scholarship, Daddy!”

“On Earth.”

“Yes! On Earth!”

George shook his shaggy head. “Earth’s a dangerous place. Too many people. All sorts of diseases and maniacs runnin’ around.”

“Daddy, it’s Earth!” Deirdre exclaimed. “It’s civilization. It’s culture. I don’t want to spend my whole life cooped up in this habitat. I know you love it, but I want to see the real world!”

George muttered something too low for his daughter to catch.

George Ambrose had been director of the rock rats’ habitat orbiting the asteroid Ceres for the past quarter century. He had helped build the original Chrysalis for the miners and prospectors who combed the Asteroid Belt in search of the metals and minerals that fed the human race’s expansion through the

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