Deep in the heart of Neptune's hot oceans, it rains diamonds. Unlike on Earth, there is no distinct boundary on that world between air and sea. The atmosphere just gets thicker and denser until it's a slush of superheated ices. In the far depths of the ocean the pressure is so great that carbon atoms are squeezed out of the dissolved methane, crystallize, and fall.
Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting had mining stations in orbit around Neptune. The mining was accomplished by dropping thermonuclear explosives to the appropriate depths of the ocean and blasting great columns of water into the atmosphere. Some of the diamonds thus recovered were larger than a human heart. So there was a lot at stake when a religious dispute arose with the locals, and they sent a promising junior diplomat-metallurgist named Rennie Wong to straighten things out.
Your enterprise is false/sinful/wrong, her skimmer counterpart told Wong. Skimmers were shaped something like kites and something like shallow boat hulls, and the winds they rode were the strongest in the Solar System—up to 1,200 miles per hour near the Great Dark Spot! The core/depths/darkness is where our souls/bodies/selves go when we fall/transcend/die. Because their thinking was so different from that of humans, the translator had to offer multiple interpretations for key concepts.
"I'm not sure I understand." Wong was in an extremely fast flying machine that was, nevertheless, barely able to keep up with the skimmer, though it was flying as slowly as it could. "You believe that when you die, your souls descend to the center of the planet?"
"Then explain it to me," Wong said gently. "I'm here to listen. I'll stay as long as it takes." She was young in those days, idealistic and, as her older self would several centuries later put it, "greener than an Aldebaran's butt."
Hours later, just as Wong felt she finally had a grasp on the situation, the Chief Demolitions Officer radioed down to her, "Heads up, Missy. Fire in the hole."
"Hey! No! Stop!" she cried. "You can't do that."
"Sorry, little lady," the CDO drawled, "but we've got a schedule to make."
"You don't understand—this isn't a religious dispute! The skimmers don't descend into the ocean when they die, they—"
Pillars of lased energy shot up from the ocean depths. One by one the orbital facilities exploded. Still plummeting through the atmosphere, the last nuclear device that would ever be dropped into Neptune ceased to be, before it could destroy yet more of a civilization that, had they known about it, human beings would never have guessed was more technologically advanced than their own.
"—go there when they grow up."
An instant ago, there had been thousands of humans working in or above Neptune. Now, Wong was the sole survivor.
Go away, the skimmer said. Don't come back. Its meaning could not have been clearer.
Rennie Wong lifted the nose of her machine toward high orbit.
The experience left her feeling chastened, strangely exuberant, and permanently convinced that all other people were idiots. It hardened her. From that day onward, before accepting any assignment, she insisted on full plenipotentiary powers.
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.