"You go in there and you get it out." Wilson's jowls wobbled with his own vehemence. "No messing, just get it out and leave."

Tom didn't quite understand the intensity. "We'd hardly want to stay," he said mildly. "All that radiation--"

"You know what I mean," Wilson interrupted. "It's a big job, Interplanetary has a lot riding on this." He stood up, and glanced through the window to the street below. "Bastards are still out there. It's going to be a close thing. . . ."

Tom had no sympathy with the demonstrators, but the politics? Was Interplanetary's target realistic? "We could switch to somewhere in the Kuiper Belt," he began hesitantly, "no one's protecting that. . . ."

Wilson snorted. "You know about time and distance. And what shape would you be in after that long in zero-grav?" He peered at Tom. "Are you sure you're up for this?"

Then, in an apparent change of mood, he stumped heavily around the desk and extended a hand to his captain. "Good man! We're relying on you, you'll be fine. And keep an eye on the youngster." Then he stumped as heavily back and sat down in his chair.

Leaving the room, Tom stepped onto the moving walkway and was sped through the Interplanetary building. It was a relief to have the decision made. But still he had to face the opposition.

Outside the entrance, a handful of demonstrators were waiting in the dirty trampled snow, looking chilled. When they saw Tom they roused themselves, shouting, "Stay off! Stay off!" A bearded man in a bobble hat waved a banner: "Enceladus for the Enceladians!'.

Tom' stomach tightened as he walked up to them, but fortunately the demonstrators were half-hearted. The bobble-hatted man followed him for a few steps, the white steam of his breath billowing behind. "It'll be a lot colder up there," the man said, almost genially. "Best leave it to them."

Tom thanked him and walked on.

The few trees that lined the street were bare, the sky grey and forbidding. Tom was glad to get into the hovercar and fly back to his hotel. Earth was not providing much of a welcome. Yet as he rose over the city's towers and his car settled into the stream of other vehicles, he knew it was better this way. The emotional pull of Earth and its burgeoning life could be too much; sometimes it was hard to get back into the ship and face the emptiness of space. Grey sky, dark buildings, indistinct skyline -- these were easier to leave behind. He shut his eyes as the car speeded up. Water, water -- go in and get it out, that was all that mattered.

#

"I can't understand the fuss," Alex was saying as through the port they watched the blue-and-white curve of the Earth slide beneath them. Tom's fresh-faced co-pilot had also run the demonstrators' gauntlet.

"I mean, there's a thousand kilos a second pumping out of the geysers as it is," Alex went on, "and much of it leaves Enceladus anyway. What is there to protest about?"

Tom smiled wryly to himself. Wilson needn't have worried about the young man's loyalty. Nodding his agreement, he tasked Alex with the routine checks before their freighter launched into its trajectory for a slingshot around Mars. Since the water was for red planet, it was right that Mars should provide some of their momentum, Tom reflected. A second slingshot around Jupiter would get them to the Saturn system. They would land on Enceladus at the equator, and tap the geyser system with a pipe that would take the water up into geostationary orbit to form a giant berg. They'd tip the berg in towards Saturn to build up the momentum that would fling it toward the red planet. There, the berg would be caught, chopped up, and filtered down to the thirsty Mars colonists. Tom immersed himself in the calculations that the navigation module had prepared.

It was good to think through the logistics, good to think about anything that kept out the loneliness of space. 'You have to be pretty screwed up to live in a ship', had been Wilson's greeting when he joined Interplanetary, and Tom knew he fitted the bill -- a failed marriage, no kids, nothing to hold on to. It was just the money, he should focus on that. But even then, came the uncomfortable thought, what was the money for?

Tom looked at his co-pilot, floating contentedly in the zero gravity and listening to his music. Alex was surely too young to consider himself a failure. Indeed, his record was good, he had qualified early. Why had he chosen such a lonely path?

Alex didn't seem troubled by his chosen career. He was full of opinions. As they neared Mars, he said suddenly, "I mean, there was loads of water there -- the ice, even streams on the surface. What did they do with it?"

There had been failed attempts at terraforming, Tom tried to explain. They'd vapourised the ice in the hope of thickening the atmosphere.

"But with no magnetic field?" Alex shook his head. "The solar wind would've stripped it away. What were they thinking?"

"I guess they were impatient to make the place like home," was the best Tom could come up with. "But anyway," he went on, "that created a need which Interplanetary can meet."

". . .With another world's water," Alex added.

Tom looked at him sharply.

"We could have taken a comet, from the Kuiper Belt," Alex said.

This was so near to Tom's own thought, it was uncanny. And he found like Wilson, citing time and distance, and also the hazards of the longer flight.

Yet his laboured explanation was hardly needed. The young man, showing no signs of disapproval, continued half to himself, "Still, the Enceladians are hardly going to complain. Bacteria don't say much. . . ."

#

As the signal lag lengthened with their increasing distance from Earth, communication with base became less frequent. Then one day -- they measured time in Earth-days -- Wilson called in. His face, distorted in the viewer, revealed his excitement.

"Listen, boys -- great news! You're not going to believe this. . . ."

Tom tried to look incredulous.

Wilson paused for effect. Then, "We got it! We got the contract for the whole thing!"

The whole of what? Tom wondered. But beside him, Alex had already caught his breath.

"The whole goddamn ocean!" Wilson was practically shouting. "Drain it! Take every damn drop! I told you the job was big -- now it's confirmed. We'll drench those buggers on Mars!"

He paused, and went on in more measured tones, "We're sending two more freighters to help. Ease them in before you leave, we're relying on you boys." And he went into detail about drilling schedules, linkages, the importance of inter-geyser fissures. He invited questions, but the two spacemen were too dazed to ask much. Then he logged off.

"The whole ocean," Alex repeated slowly. "Jesus! That sure beats a comet!"

He looked at Tom. "Is it even legal?"

"They'd have checked the Code," Tom said quietly. "Anyway, enforcement in deep space is more a matter of politics. If they have the right politicians onside. . . ." He recalled Wilson's concern about the demonstrators.

Alex had hardly heard him. "Should have some kind of nature reserve there," he was saying.

Tom turned away and busied himself with preparations for Jupiter. But in the cramped cabin he could not help but hear Alex's muttered, "Poor sodding bacteria. . . ."

#

It seemed that word had got out of Interplanetary's intentions, for the Jupiter slingshot was hardly completed when a rogue signal hacked into their comms. Alex played it back. It was audio only, interspersed with static, and it began with a slightly hysterical woman's voice: "Dear freighters, We are sending you a petition stamped by twenty thousand citizens. Please consider what you are doing to the cosmos. Life on Enceladus is as precious as life on Earth. We must preserve this unique world as God made it, for our children, for our children's children. . . ."

There followed references to the sins of the Mars colonists, then the signal was drowned in static.

"Impressive," was Alex's verdict.

Tom raised an eyebrow.

"I mean, that they got a signal through to us out here. And through our security."

Yes, security. Tom told him to notify base, tell them to get an upgrade.

Alex grinned, and nodded. "Cranks!" he was saying under his breath as he checked the signal's origins.

Time passed. Saturn grew from a blob to a lobed orb that eventually filled the port. They had seen the colourful swirling clouds of Jupiter, but Saturn, with its softly-shaded bands divided by the shadows of the sharply-defined ring system, awed even Alex. Tom, who had seen it close-up before, was grateful for his co-pilot's silence as he manoeuvred the freighter into the tenuous E ring. Even as they overhauled the tiny dot of Enceladus their ship was enveloped in the spume from the water sheets. And then the strange white world with its greenish stripes loomed ahead of them, and they were landing.

The almost clinical whiteness of this moon was a relief to Tom. It was ice, like Earth's, but pure, uncompacted, sterile. The moon was not a place where life belonged -- and indeed such life as there was lay at least twenty kilometres below the surface. It was just a resource. They were there to get the water out, not to think.

Tom suited up, and descended through the airlock, allowing Enceladus's low gravity to bring him gently down to the waiting dust. Their ship stood on a rise a little distance from the nearest geyser. The ice-dust blazed white around him, cut by coal-black shadows as sharp as if they had been sliced in cloth. He had to soften his visor's contrast. Above, the globe of Saturn hung in yellow-white splendour, bisected by the thin line of the inner rings. Tom stopped in momentary wonder.

But they were there to work. And to be quick about it, not least because Saturn's radiation could not be kept out entirely by their protective gear. Already, the drilling rig had assembled itself, and was boring into the ice, sending up clouds of particles. Beyond the rig, visible at the rounded horizon of this small world, sheets of ice-spume were firing. Tom found tiny specks deposited on his visor, like snowflakes. Enceladus was not dead. It had its own dynamics, both above ground and below.

Tom went up to inspect the rig. The bulk of their payload, it had been designed for duty on the former Martian ice reserves. Now it would draw more water for its designated planet from the dark ocean below. Against the glare, the thing crouched like a gigantic mosquito sinking its proboscis into the body of the moon . . . .

Tom caught himself. That was the devil with space -- in the loneliness you ended up anthropomorphising everything. The rig was just a rig. Yet it was intelligent. He himself didn't know its instructions in detail -- how its crawlers would deal with things like the differential hardness of the rock, or Wilson's fissures. But the rig would take care of itself. They had the power of override in case of emergency, but it was never expected to be used.

And that was just as well. That made it Interplanetary's decision to take the water, not his. He was just a cog in the machine. Or an observer of cogs. Just an observer, without responsibility.

#

Soon the rig had tapped the main nearby geyser channels and assembled its tower to take up the water. Then the pumping began. It turned out that natural pressure provided much of the energy needed to raise the water the required height. There, the tower released the water into the vacuum, where it instantly froze to form their berg, floating in geostationary orbit. Tom winched himself up the tower to where the glistening ice had already formed a massive irregular ball. Taking care not to float off, he anchored himself there, standing astride this bizarre missile which they would soon launch between worlds.

As the water flowed, Alex monitored the bacterial count. The bacteria had commercial value, and part of their brief was to retain some gallons of water as liquid in the hope of finding unique items of which cultures could later be grown.

The young man warmed to the unaccustomed role of biologist. He had smuggled a small microscope in his kit, and often called Tom over to look at a strange-shaped specimen. On Earth, Alex said, Enceladian bacterial cultures were baked into foodstuffs, and even taken live as a probiotic. "Imagine, people taking this stuff to help them shit!"

Tom smiled. Such people were of a kind with the people who had hacked into their comms. And they would continue to get their bacterial supplements; there were enough cultures already in production on Earth to ease the intestinal flow of any number of cranks.

It was easier to frame it that way -- cranks interrupting guys like him who were just trying to do their job.

#

Then something happened that made framing it like that a little harder.

Tom was out monitoring the rig, when he got a call from Alex: "You'd better come in and see this!"

On entering the ship Tom found his colleague hunched over the monitor. "Look, just look!" Alex said excitedly, his eyes fixed on the screen.

Tom looked. The display showed a section of a feeder pipe a few kilometers below ground. The pipe bent sharply, presumably to get around some hardness in the rock, and within it there was a kind of blip.

"An obstruction?" Tom said slowly.

"It's moving, for Christ's sake!" Alex could barely contain himself.

The blip indeed wavered, but the resolution was too low to make anything out.

They sent a crawler down the pipe to take a look. The crawler's camera showed a glistening black mass that writhed as they watched. A tendril reached out to the camera lens, then sharply withdrew.

"Man, it's alive!"Alex exclaimed.

"Could be just the turbulence," Tom said, trying not for the first time to calm his co-pilot.

"It's breathing, can't you see!" Alex jabbed a finger at the screen -- and indeed the glistening surface seemed to pulsate.

"We could take a sample. . . ."

"Fuck your sample!" Alex faced him, his youthful features twisted viciously. "We have got to get this up in one piece. Think of getting it to Earth!"

Tom was thinking not of Earth but of right here and now -- whether he could physically control his assistant if things got out of hand. He had a tranquiliser. . . . But you couldn't keep someone under sedation for months. No, he needed his co-pilot. Without someone to talk to he could hardly stay sane on the return trip.

"OK, OK," he said, trying to calm the young man down. "What do you want to do?"

"Stop the flow, get the crawler to prod it, try to turn it round," Alex said. "The pipe isn't narrower, just bent. It should fit."

#

It did. In a few hours they'd got the thing out of the pipe and into Alex's tank.

"It looks like nothing on Earth," Alex said proudly. "I'm calling it, Blackie."

The creature was indeed a grayish black, its body two feet long, of rubbery texture, and it had long tentacles. To Tom it looked like a black eyeless squid. He was vaguely disappointed that it was not more different from Earth's creatures. But then, how many body plans were there?

Alex made to put a finger into the tank to touch his pet, but Tom pulled him back. "You don't know how they eat, may be poison. . . ."

They closed the tank. But Tom could still smell the water and the thing in the water. There was ammonia, and some element of decay, like a beach after high tide.

"We can't have this with us for three months," he said. "It'll stink us out."

"We're going to try, right?" Alex's jaw set, and it crossed Tom's mind that the young man was calculating how he would come out in a test of wills.

The moment passed. Alex tried another tack. "We're supposed to take the water anyway. So what's the difference having something in the water?"

Tom shrugged. It occurred to him that the thing would probably die, and then they could sterilise the corpse. "We'll try," he said.

#

Was that all they should try?

This thought nagged Tom. There was no doubt that draining a world of its water was against the Code -- not to mention that the water harboured unique complex life. But it was really about enforcement, as he had explained to Alex. And here, they were not free agents. Interplanetary had sent them, paid them, instructed them; they were Interplanetary's tools, not supposed to think for themselves.

Or were they? What if he shut down the rig, disabled it? But then the other two freighters would repair it, or set up their own. What if he stopped them? But there was nothing to do that with, and anyway he couldn't do it.

Could he talk to them, the incoming crews -- try to persuade them to leave the water in place? Or take some water and leave the rest? But they were his colleagues, he couldn't face them; anyway, they wouldn't listen to him.

And he didn't even know Alex. He was fiercely protective of Blackie, but would he jeopardise his bonus, and perhaps his career, or -- if Interplanetary left them stranded out here -- maybe even his life? Tom wanted to be more decisive. But space made you dependent on others. You were always a team, you had to go with the group.

He looked again into the tank. Blackie lay there, suspended in the water, its tentacles waving gently, seemingly content.

In the end, Tom decided to talk to Alex.

#

Before Tom could talk, he had to deal with their berg.

The ice ball had reached the specified limit, and it was time to launch it in towards Saturn. One of pilots was supposed to stay with the freighter on Enceladus to supervise the continued pumping while the other towed the berg with the frigate. But Tom wanted Alex to accompany him on the trip.

Decoupling the berg from the tower was tricky; they risked pitching the thing back to the surface. But Tom managed it, and after nudging the berg they followed it as it fell with increasing velocity into the slingshot around Saturn. On parting from the berg, Tom asked Alex how he felt about draining the homeland of his beloved pet.

"It's wrong," Alex shrugged, "but what can we do?"

"You don't think there's anything we can do?"

Alex looked at him, the smooth innocent face of youth. "We could draw it to their attention," he said at last. "See what they say."

Tom thought that pretty nave. But he prepared a report and dictated it into the viewer that they'd found complex life, and recommended that the company take a break to consider appropriate actions. Alex provided supporting images, and before Tom could stop him dipped the camera by hand into the tank to capture footage of Blackie.

Alex sent the report, and they waited for the reply. As expected, there was none. Wilson would ignore the report, even have it deleted. There was nothing more they could do.

#

The first berg on its way, the two men returned to Enceladus for another round of work. Then two days later came a signal from Interplanetary. Wilson's face appeared, round and jovial.

"I want to congratulate you boys," he exclaimed. "Tremendous work, a historic find!" He acknowledged their report, and said what a distinction it was, "in our best traditions," . . .for the company to have found life,

Tom listened open-mouthed. This was Wilson?

". . .Time to call you boys home, your job's done," Wilson was saying. "They'll be sending a scientific crew to analyse the site. Can't have a pair of drillers poking round and disturbing the local life!" He laughed. "Get yourselves home as soon as you can."

Tom gaped at the screen. At last he said, "What about the water?"

"Don't worry about that!" Wilson said. "There's always the Kuiper Belt." And with that he signed off.

"Get yourselves home?" Tom repeated.

"You heard the man," Alex said. "Let's get." And he swooshed a finger around in the tank. "Hear that, Blackie, you're going on a trip!"

Puzzled at the decision, Tom's main feeling was one of relief -- relief that the burden of responsibility had been lifted, that he could just go with the flow. Larger forces were at work.

Or were they? He turned to his co-pilot. "You sent the message just to Interplanetary, right?"

"Sure." The face was as smooth and innocent as ever. But the irrepressible spirit of youth momentarily got the better of Alex, and he added, "Hope they upgraded their security in time."

--End--

CONTENTS

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Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.