It's weird but more or less harmless, beyond aurorae at lower latitudes than normal and the weakened magnetic field potentially allowing solar radiation to fry electronics and bring about the collapse of modern civilization. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of ecological disaster resulting from our wiggling magnetic poles, and a theory that polar reversal causes mass extinctions doesn't have much evidence going for it.
But Heller knows that if the poles ever drift over water, the Earth will be flooded. Because... well, no explanation is ever given. Our puny Earth science assumes that the temperature in the Arctic and Antarctic is determined by how much solar energy they (don't) receive due to the angle the sun's rays hit our most tilted latitudes. Heller, on the other hand, knows that the ice caps are only kept frozen because an intangible magnetic field happens to be erupting from under a landmass.
I guess the magnetic field... magnets are kinda like electricity? So the magnetic electricity is carrying away all the heat that would otherwise melt the ice caps, so that it dissipates harmlessly in the atmosphere? Or maybe it's not temperature but tidal forces, so that magnetism - not the moon - is responsible for how water behaves, and if the poles continue to drift over water, the seas will be driven inland. That sounds a bit more plausible?
Fun fact: the (magnetic) North Pole is currently swimming in the Arctic Ocean, and has been moving over islands and water since 1900. But Heller's not worried about that, it's the South Pole being over water that's going to kill us all. Even though it's already over water since around 1980.
All this to say, he needs to go to Saturn.
Gris is nervous about the whole excursion, because that other assassin ship will surely spot their Space Turbulence and set an ambush when they return. Wait a minute, you say, aren't the assassin ships supposed to keep the tug from leaving the planet? And how can they do that if they can't even catch the tug thanks to those astoundingly fast Will-be Was engines? Shut up, says the author.
The Apparatus agent nearly suggests that Heller run all the way home to Voltar, before remembering that doing so would end in him trying to explain the jaw-dropping magnitude of Gris' failure to Lombar Hisst. Then he freaks out when Heller steps out of the "flight deck" to go aft, leaving the tug to fly through the Asteroid Belt with no obvious pilot - not that he actually sees an asteroid at any point, nor does the tug have to swerve to avoid an incoming lump of space rock. Then Gris freaks out some more.
Then I saw the time-sight dial slowly turn by itself. It spooked me. Was this tug really some sort of ghost? I couldn't figure out where its voice came from and Heller had even stopped using a microphone to speak to it.
Oh, more than ever, I made up my mind, I had to get off this thing.
Gris has, once again, forgotten that the tug has been robotized.
"Some time later" the tug arrives at Saturn, or Blito-P6, where Gris marvels at the planet's rings: "The outer two were very bright and the one nearest us seemed thinner." Go look at some pictures of Saturn's rings and see if you can figure out what he's talking about.
Heller returns to the cockpit, and Corky warns him that the gravity here is very strong (so all those itty-bitty ice particles can safely orbit it but not the spaceship?) and that a volcano on one of the nearby moons is erupting. Presumably Hubbard means cryovolcano, and the moon is Enceladus, but of course nobody mentions its name, and not even Gris pays any attention to it, much less describes what it looks like. Instead Gris marvels at the pretty colors of Saturn itself - the shades of "yellowish," the "pastel green" of its equator (?), the patches of "reddish brown" - and then worries that Heller will try to land on it. Heller informs him that Saturn is a gas giant.
Then Heller brings the tug to orbit right next to Saturn's outermost rings and tells Corky to turn on the traction beam, max power! For just over five hours the tug gathers a few billion tons of near-pure ice from Saturn's rings, ponderously pulling "that huge mass free of Saturn's gravity and into space." Because the rings aren't in space already? And Saturn's fearsome 1.07 g gravity is that strong?
Whatever, Heller sets the tug on a course to Earth with a glittering comet trailing behind it. Just a little something to "tap the poles straight."
Whatever else was wrong and whatever else I had to solve, one fact was clear as terror to me. The assassin ship couldn't possibly miss us. And it was lying in wait.
Tune in next time for the punchline.
Back to Chapter Six