Authors: Christian Cantrell
he first thing Arik noticed when he opened his eyes was that he couldn't move his head. He was immobilized from the neck up by a complex and bristling steel vice. Although there was a curtain draped over this forehead, he somehow knew that a portion of his skull had been removed and that his brain was exposed. There wasn't any pain — just tingling. There were questions from someone he couldn't see, and the sounds of tiny electronic motors making thousands of minute adjustments. Then more tingling. Eventually the questions ended and the sensation was gone, and when Arik opened his eyes again, he was looking up at Dr. Nguyen.
"Blink if you can hear me," the surgeon said. He waited for the series of twitches, then leaned down toward Arik's face and shined a bright white diode into one of his eyes, then the other. "Good. Welcome back. You've been out for 89 days, believe it or not."
Arik had the sensation of being inside of a heavy inanimate shell rather than his own body. He was entirely paralyzed except for his eyes and the ability to take deliberate, laborious breaths. His head had been recently shaved, and there was a neat hairless incision — precisely cauterized with a laser rather than crudely sutured — above his right ear like an intricate musical note. His immature beard had been allowed to grow in, forming sparse black patches which added an edge to his boyish face.
"Don't try to move or talk. Just relax. Your father is on his way. He'll explain everything."
They were in the Doc Pod. The small hospital and adjacent laboratory were officially the Medicine Department, but the younger generation, anxious to express their individuality and imprint themselves upon the colony's culture, christened it the "Doc Pod." The name stuck.
The room was cubic and cramped, as were most rooms in V1 (the official name of the colony was "Ishtar Terra Station One," but it was almost always referred to by its call sign). The walls of the hospital room were thick conductive polymethyl methacrylate, or "polymeth," all of which produced a soft warm light and were electronically fogged for privacy. The wall above Arik's head was a virtual dashboard indicating every detail of his physiology. He couldn't see it directly, but he could see the colors reacting to his heartbeat and breathing reflected in Dr. Nguyen's almond eyes.
"If we could have gotten you into a hyperbaric chamber, we might have been able to avoid surgery," the doctor told Arik, "but we couldn't get the specifications from Earth to build one, and we didn't feel like we could wait. Every minute of restricted blood flow was increasing the risk of more brain damage."
He rolled himself down to the end of the bed and raked the bottom of Arik's foot with a thin metal implement. Arik did not react and the doctor frowned.
"Anyway, one of us was going to make history," Dr. Nguyen continued. He recorded something on a luminous polymeth tablet. "Either you were going to be the first human to die on Venus, or I was going to perform the first successful off-Earth brain surgery." He chuckled at his observation, then composed himself. "Considering we actually had to build several surgical instruments from scratch, and the fact that we were right
in the middle of a total Earth eclipse which meant I had no medical consultation from the GSA whatsoever, I'd say it went pretty well."
The term "total Earth eclipse" was used to describe a period of time during which communication between Earth and Venus was impossible. When there was a direct line of site between the two planets, communication was easy — it was just a matter of picking the right satellites on either end, aligning transmitters and antennas, and timing the broadcasts. But when Venus was on the opposite side of the solar system, obscured by the violent ball of nuclear fusion and plasma 1.3 million times the size of Earth, sending a radio signal from one planet to the other was like lining up an incredibly complex billiards shot on a table billions of square kilometers wide. You could bank the signal off one of the many communications satellites distributed throughout the solar system, or you could try to bounce the high frequency microwaves off of Mercury's iron-rich surface. You could even direct the broadcast through just the right point in the Sun's gravitational well that it bent back around toward the planet behind like a golf ball catching the rim of the cup on its way past. But sometimes everything was just fractions of a degree out of alignment all at the same time, or signals were being scrambled by solar flares, or satellites were busy with higher priority tasks, and the only thing to do was nothing at all. The only solution was to simply wait for the solar system to realign itself into a simpler and more auspicious configuration.
Total Earth eclipses tended to put people on edge.
"Now technically you did suffer
brain damage, but we expect you to recover almost completely — except for some minor memory loss, perhaps." The doctor teased some fibers out from a cotton ball and brushed them across Arik's eyelashes. Arik squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, the doctor looked satisfied. "Good. Your reflexes are coming back. The paralysis you're experiencing is only temporary. We just did that to keep you calm when you woke up."
The fact that Dr. Nguyen was just now getting around to addressing the paralysis was a true testament to his bedside manner. Although Arik had no memory of what happened to him, he assumed whatever it was had caused severe trauma to his spinal cord. Since the moment he realized he couldn't move, he had been trying to imagine a completely immobile and dependent existence — a life expressed entirely through robotic prostheses and computers. The first quadriplegic on Venus. History was always being made here, for better or for worse.
The door in the wall across from the bed began to glow. All the inside doors in V1 were identical prefabricated units. Because space was limited, swinging doors were shown to be impractical in early designs, and because almost all inner walls were made of transparent conductive polymeth, the pocket sliding door design was also rejected. The proposal the Global Space Agency eventually approved was a louvered concept consisting of six long thin pieces of polymeth standing together vertically. The doors opened almost instantaneously by pivoting the slats 90 degrees, then flinging them on tracks to either side — three to the left and three to the right — where they slapped against each other in a crisp and unmistakable announcement of someone's arrival or departure. Not only were the doors very compact, but they were also airtight in order to help balance the distribution of oxygen throughout V1. And since they were conductive, they could perform handy tricks like glowing as someone approached.
Something changed on the display above the bed, and Arik heard his father's voice. Dr. Nguyen looked up and tapped the wall with one finger. The door snapped open and Arik's father ducked into the room. Arik's young wife entered a moment later, a beat behind, just long enough to let Arik know that she had almost changed her mind.
Darien was older than one would expect the father of such a young man to be, and having been one of the original settlers on Venus, the years of stress and exhaustion showed. There was little resemblance between Arik and his father; Arik's expression, even when fully relaxed, tended to be naturally intense. Conversely, Darien's expression had the perpetually contented and affable look of a proud grandfather. He put his hands behind his back as he approached the bed as if intentionally resisting the urge to reach out and touch his son.
"Can he hear me?" He was looking at Arik, but talking to the doctor.
"Yes. He's reacting normally to stimulus. He just can't move yet."
"Thank God you woke up," Darien said. His normal, easy smile had to be forced, and was incongruous with his worried eyes. He looked at the doctor. "How much does he know?"
"Nothing about the incident."
Darien watched his son while he selected his next words. When he was ready, he leaned forward. "Arik, you had a very serious accident." He spoke slowly and deliberately, a little too loudly. "Your environment suit failed while you were outside. We got you back in, but not before you developed a very prominent embolism in your brain. You're extremely lucky to be alive."
"The technology for this kind of surgery didn't even exist here," Dr. Nguyen reminded Arik.
"But you're going to be fine. Everything went smoothly."
," Dr. Nguyen corrected. "We'll know more in a few days."
Darien looked at the doctor, then back at Arik.
"Your mother really wanted to be here when you woke up," Darien said, but he didn't finish the sentence. He gave his son another sympathetic smile instead, then quickly turned his attention back to the doctor. "Yun, when are we going to know how much he remembers?"
"As soon as he can talk. There's no other way to know."
"When will that will be?"
"It's impossible to say right now. We're no longer restricting his movements, so he should be fully mobile again in a day or two. The question is how much brain damage he suffered. As you know, we had to remove some lesioned tissue, but the brain is an amazingly resilient and adaptable organ. I don't believe he'll have any permanent disabilities, but it might take some time for him to regain his speech and fine motor skills."
Darien tightened his lips and nodded at the doctor's explanation. Cadie appeared beside the bed between the two men, and Darien wrapped his arm around her narrow shoulders.
Cadie was a smallish girl who fit well within the scale of V1. Although her parents were both Japanese, she had curiously prominent western features: round eyes, full lips, freckles — a little elfish. She was smiling both compassionately and nervously as she looked down at her husband, her straight black hair hanging beside her face, the tops of her ears peeking out.
"Arik," Darien said, "there's something you need to know."
Cadie was wearing a dark synthetic long-sleeved dress which, when flattened out, revealed a subtle roundness that was not there the last time Arik saw her. But even to someone who had never seen a pregnant woman before, the shape was unmistakable.