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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (2 page)

BOOK: Venus
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“Somewhere on the surface of that h
llhole of a world his spacecraft lies, with his remains inside it. In that terrible heat and pressure, the corrosive atmosphere must be slowly destroying the last mortal remains of my boy.”
Somewhere a woman broke into soft sobbing.
“I want to offer an inducement to someone who is bold enough, tough enough, to go to Venus and reach its surface and bring back what’s left of my son to me.”
They all seemed to stand up straighter, their eyes widened. An inducement?
My father hesitated for a dramatic moment, then said in a much stronger voice, “I offer a prize of ten billion international dollars to whoever can reach my dead son’s body and return his remains to me.”
They gasped. For several seconds no one spoke. Then the chamber filled with excited chatter. Ten billion dollars! Reach the surface of Venus! A prize of ten billion dollars to recover Alex Humphries’s body!
I felt just as stunned as any of the others. More, perhaps, because I knew better than most of those costumed freeloaders what an impossible challenge my father had just offered.
Father touched the stud on his chair arm and the babble of the crowd immediately was cut down to a muted buzz again.
“Very nice,” I said to him. “You’ll be named Father of the Year.”
He gazed disdainfully down at me. “You don’t think I mean it?”
“I think you know that no one in his right mind is going
to try to reach the surface of Venus. Alex himself only planned to coast through the cloud decks.”
“So you think I’m a fraud.”
“I think you’re making a public relations gesture, nothing more.”
He shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
I was seething. He was sitting up there and getting all this publicity. “You want to look like a grieving father,” I shouted at him, “making the whole world think you care about Alex, offering a prize that you know no one will claim.”
“Oh, someone will try for it, I’m certain.” He smiled coldly down at me. “Ten billion dollars is a lot of incentive.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“But I am. In fact, I’m going to deposit the whole sum in an escrow account where no one can touch it except the eventual prize winner.”
“The entire ten billion?”
“The whole sum,” he repeated. Then, leaning slightly toward me, he added, “To raise that much cash I’m going to have to cut a few corners here and there.”
“Really? How much have you spent on this party?”
He waved a hand as if that didn’t matter. “One of the corners I’m cutting is your allowance.”
“My stipend?”
“It’s finished, Runt. You’ll be twenty-five years old next month. Your allowance ends on your birthday.”
Just like that, I was penniless.
S
he glows so bright and lovely in the night sky that virtually every culture on Earth has called her after their goddess of beauty and love: Aphrodite, Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Venus.
Sometimes she is the dazzling Evening Star, brighter than anything in the sky except the Sun and Moon. Sometimes she is the beckoning Morning Star, harbinger of the new day. Always she shines like a precious jewel.
As beautiful as Venus appears in our skies, the planet itself is the most hellish place in the solar system. The ground is hot enough to melt aluminum. The air pressure is so high it has crushed spacecraft landers as if they were flimsy cardboard cartons. The sky is perpetually covered from pole to pole with clouds of sulfuric acid. The atmosphere is a choking mixture of carbon dioxide and sulfurous gases.
Venus is the nearest planet to Earth, closer to us than Mars. At its nearest approach, it is slightly less than sixtyfive million kilometers from Earth. It is closer to the Sun
than Earth is; Venus is the second planet outward from the Sun, while Earth is the third. Venus has no moon.
It is almost the same size as Earth, slightly smaller, so that the gravity at its surface is about 85 percent of Earth-normal.
There the similarities end. Venus is hot, with surface temperatures well above 450 degrees Celsius (nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit). It rotates so slowly that its “day” is longer than its “year:” the planet makes an orbit around the Sun in 225 Earth days—a Venusian year, yet it rotates around its axis in 243 Earth days—a Venusian day. And it rotates backward, clockwise as viewed from its north pole, while Earth and the other planets rotate counterclockwise.
Venus’s atmosphere is so thick that atmospheric pressure at ground level is equal to the pressure of an earthly ocean more than a kilometer below the surface. That atmosphere is more than 95 percent carbon dioxide, with less than 4 percent nitrogen and only negligible traces of free oxygen.
The thick layers of clouds that perpetually cover Venus from pole to pole reflect some 75 percent of the sunlight that hits the planet and make it very bright and beautiful to look at. The clouds, though, are made of sulfuric acid and other sulfur and chlorine compounds; there is practically no water vapor in them.
There are mountains and volcanoes on Venus, and evidence of plate tectonics that have shifted vast sections of the crust. There must be Venus-quakes, as well.
Imagine trying to walk on the surface of Venus! The very ground is red-hot. The atmosphere is so thick that it warps light like a fisheye lens. The sky is perpetually clouded. Yet there is no real darkness: even during the long Venusian night there is an eerie, sullen glow from the red-hot ground.
Because Venus is moving in its orbit around the Sun while it slowly rotates on its own axis, if you stood on one spot on the surface it would take 117 Earth days from one sunrise to the next—if you could see the sunrise through those thick, all-pervading clouds. And the Sun would rise in the west, set in the east.
Looking up into the grayish-yellow clouds you might see patches of darker areas hurtling across the sky, forming and dissolving against the murky background nearly fifty kilometers overhead, scudding from horizon to horizon in about five hours. Now and then you might see a stroke of lightning flashing down, or hear the threatening rumble of a distant volcano.
No place in the inner solar system is so challenging, so dangerous. By comparison, the Moon is easy and Mars a picnic.
Could life exist on Venus, either high in the clouds (where temperatures are cooler) or deep underground? There is
something
. in Venus’s atmosphere that absorbs ultraviolet light; planetary scientists are not certain what it might be. Could there be bacterial forms that live underground, as there are on Earth and presumably on Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa?
If there are any creatures living on the surface, they must be capable of withstanding heat that melts aluminum and pressures that can crush spacecraft.
Formidable monsters indeed.
I
t should’ve been you, Runt!” he howled.”It should’ve been you who died, not Alex.”
I awoke with a start, springing up to a sitting position in the darkened hotel room, both my fists gripping the bedsheets tightly enough to rip them. I was soaked with cold sweat and trembling from head to foot.
The dream had been too real. Too totally real. I squeezed my eyes shut, sitting there on the bed, and my father’s enraged face burned before me like the wrath of some ancient god.
The party at Hell Crater. His announcement of the Venus prize. His notice that he was cutting me off without an income. It had all been too much for me. By the time I made it back to my hotel in Selene City I was near collapse, the carpeted hotel corridors swimming dizzyingly, my legs weak as tissue paper even in the low lunar gravity. I got to my room, went straight to the lavatory, and fumbled with my hypospray syringe. At last I injected a full dose of the
enzyme medication into my arm, then tottered off to bed and fell almost instantly asleep.
Only to dream. No, it wasn’t actually a dream; it was a reliving of that terrible day when we learned that Alex had been killed. A nightmare. I relived every agonizing moment of it.
When we got the news that there was no possible hope left, Father had blanked his phone screen and turned to me, his face distorted with fury.
“He’s dead,” my father had said, his voice cold and hollow, his gray eyes like ice. “Alex is dead and you’re alive. First you killed your mother and now you’re still alive while Alex is dead.”
I just stood there while he glared at me, grim and bitterly angry. At me. At me.
“It should’ve been you, Runt,” he snarled, his fury mounting, his face going from white to red. “You’re worthless! Nobody would miss you. But no, you’re here, you’re alive and breathing while Alex is dead. It should’ve been you, Runt!” he howled. “It should’ve been you who died, not Alex.”
That was when I moved out of the family home in Connecticut and bought my place on Majorca, as far from Father as I could get. Or so I thought. But he went me one better, of course, and moved to Selene City.
Now I sat in a hotel bed, shaking and cold with midnight sweat, alone, totally alone.
I got up and padded barefoot to the lavatory; tottered, actually, that’s how weak and wretched I felt. The light went on automatically and I fumbled with my hypospray syringe until I finally got a plastic cylinder preloaded with the proper dosage of enzyme clicked into place and pressed it against my bare arm. The faint hiss of the medication squeezing through the microneedles and into my bloodstream always reassured me. But not that night. Nothing could calm me, I thought.
I was born with a rare form of pernicious anemia, a birth defect caused by my mother’s drug addiction. It could be
fatal if not controlled by injections of a cocktail of enzymes that included vitamin B12 and a growth hormone that prompted my body to create new red blood cells. Without that medication I would weaken and eventually die. With it I could lead a perfectly normal life—except for the need to take the injections at least twice a day.
If anyone ever tells you that nanomachines could cure any medical condition, if only they weren’t outlawed on Earth, don’t believe him. The best labs at Selene City—the capital of nanotechnology research—haven’t been able to program a nanobug that can build millions of red blood cells every few hours.
I went back to the bed with its tangled sweaty sheets and waited for the medication to take effect. With nothing better to do, I called out for the video news. The wall screen immediately glowed to life and showed a scene of terrible devastation: another raging hurricane had swung all the way across the Atlantic and was pounding the British Isles. Even the Thames Barrage—the high-tech dam across the river—had been overrun and large sections of London were underwater, including Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
I leaned back against my pillows and watched, hollow-eyed, as thousands of Londoners poured into the streets in the lashing cold rain to escape the rising floodwaters. “The worst cataclysm to hit London since the Blitz of World War II, more than a century ago,” the news announcer intoned in a crack-of-doom voice.
“Next channel!” I called. Death and destruction were not what I wanted to see. But most of the channels were showing London’s agony, live and in full color. I could have watched it all in three dimensions if I’d called up the hologram channel. There were flotillas of boats chugging down the Strand and Fleet Street, rescuing men, women, children—even pets. Workers were struggling to protect Buckingham Palace from the encroaching waters.
Finally I found a channel that was not showing the flood. It was a panel discussion by self-proclaimed experts on the
global warming that was causing such storms and flooding. One of them wore the green armband of the International Green Party, another I recognized as a friend of my father’s—a sharp-tongued corporate lawyer who clearly loathed the Greens. The rest were scientists of various stripe, no two of them agreeing on anything.
I watched, glassy-eyed, hoping their quiet, mannered deliberation would lull me to sleep. As they spoke, the screen displayed animated maps that showed how the icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica were melting and how much sea levels were expected to rise. Half the American Midwest was in danger of being turned into a huge inland sea. The Gulf Stream was going to break up, they said, freezing Britain and Europe into an extension of Siberia.
Just the perfect lullaby to soothe me to sleep. I was about to turn the wall screen off altogether when the yellow message light began blinking. Who would be calling me at this time of night? I wondered.
“Answer,” I called out.
The entire wall screen turned a milky grayish white. For a moment I thought there had been some malfunction of the video.
Then a synthesized computer voice spoke to me: “Mr. Humphries, please excuse my not showing my face. It would be too dangerous for you to see me.”
“Dangerous?” I asked. “For whom?”
The voice ignored my question, and I realized this was a prerecorded message. “We know you have heard the rumor that your brother’s ship was sabotaged. We believe your father was responsible for his death. Your brother was murdered, sir, and your father is his murderer.”
The screen went dead. I sat there in the darkened hotel bedroom, stunned, shocked, gaping wide-eyed at the faintly glowing wall screen. My father had Alex murdered? My father was responsible for his death? It was a terrible, awful accusation, made by someone too cowardly even to show his or her face.
And I believed it. That’s what staggered me the most.
I believed it
.
I believed it because I remembered the night before Alex left for his ill-fated expedition to Venus. The night he revealed to me why he was really going.
Alex had told everyone that he was going to Venus to study the planet’s runaway greenhouse. Which was true enough. But he had a hidden agenda as well. He told me about it that night before he left. There was a political motive behind his scientific mission. I remember Alex sitting in the cozy, quiet library of the Connecticut house, where we lived with Father, and whispering his plans to me.
Earth was just starting to feel the effects of greenhouse warming, Alex told me. Glaciers and polar caps melting. Sea levels rising. Global climate changing.
The International Green Party claimed that drastic steps must be taken before the whole American Midwest is turned back into the inland sea it once was and the permafrost in Canada melts, releasing megatons of frozen methane into the atmosphere and driving the greenhouse effect even further.
“You’re one of them?” I whispered in the dark to him. “A Green?”
He chuckled in the shadows. “You’d be too, Little Brother, if you paid any attention to the real world.”
I remember shaking my head and muttering, “Father would kill you if he knew.”
“He knows,” Alex said.
He wanted to use his mission to Venus to show the world firsthand what a runaway greenhouse can do to a planet: turn it into a dead ball of rock mantled in poisonous gases, without a drop of water or a blade of grass. It would be a powerful icon, a picture branded into the consciousness of the world’s voters: This is what Earth will become unless we stop the greenhouse warming.
Powerful political forces opposed the Greens. Men such as my father had no intention of letting the IGP gain control
of the international organizations that regulated environmental protection measures. The Greens wanted to triple taxes on multinational corporations, ban all fossil-fuel burning, force the evacuation of major cities, redistribute the world’s wealth among the needy.
Alex’s expedition to Venus, then, was actually a mission to help the Greens, to give them a powerful image to use against the entrenched political power of the Establishment, against our own father.
“Father would kill you if he knew,” I had said.
And Alex had replied grimly, “He knows.”
My fear of Father’s reaction was merely a metaphor, kids’ talk. Now I wondered if Alex had understood it that way.
 
I could no more sleep than I could lift Gibraltar. I prowled through my suite in the long shuffling strides that the Moon’s low gravity demands, by turns angry, frightened, desperate.
Like all the lunar communities, Selene City is underground, dug into the ringwall mountains of the giant crater Alphonsus. So there is no dawn creeping through your windows, no sunrise to announce when a new day begins. The lights out in the corridors and public spaces turn up to a daytime level, bang, that’s it. In my suite the lights turned on automatically as I paced, the switches activated by my body heat.
After several hours I finally realized what I would do. What I had to do. I ordered the phone computer to contact my father.
It took several minutes. No doubt his disgusting party was still going on in high gear. At last, though, his face appeared on the wall screen in my sitting room.
Father looked tired, but relaxed, smiling lazily at me. I realized he was in bed, leaning back on glistening silk-covered pillows. He was not alone, either. I heard muffled giggles from beneath his bedcovers.
“You’re up early,” he said pleasantly enough.
“So are you,” I replied.
He huffed. “Don’t look so disapproving, Runt. I offered these ladies to you, remember? It would be a shame to waste such talent.”
“I’m going to take your prize money,” I said.
That popped his eyes open. “What?”
“I’ll go to Venus. I’ll find Alex’s body.”
“You?” He laughed.
“He was my brother!” I said. “I loved him.”
“I had to twist your arm to get you come up here to the Moon, and now you think you’re going to Venus?” He seemed enormously amused by the idea.
“You don’t think I could do it?”
“I
know
you can’t do it, Runt. You won’t even try, despite your brave talk.”
“I’ll show you!” I snapped. “I’ll take your damned prize money!”
Smirking, he answered, “Of course you will. And elephants can fly.”
“You’re forcing me into it,” I insisted. “That ten-billion prize is a powerful incentive to a man whose income shuts off next month.”
His smirk faded and he turned thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose it would be, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m going,” I said firmly.
“And you assume that you’ll win my prize money, eh?”
“Or die trying.”
“You don’t think you’ll be the only one trying to grab my ten billion, do you?”
“Who else in his right mind would even think of going?”
With a sneer, Father answered, “Oh, I know someone who’ll try. He’ll try damned hard.”
“Who?”
“Lars Fuchs. That bastard’s out somewhere in the Belt right now, but as soon as the word reaches him, he’ll head for Venus without blinking an eye.”
“Fuchs?” I had heard my father speak of Lars Fuchs
often, and always with hatred. He was an asteroid miner, from what little I knew of him. Once he had owned his own corporation and had been a competitor of my father’s, but now he was nothing more than an independent miner scratching out a living in the Asteroid Belt, a “rock rat,” in my father’s genteel phrasing.
“Fuchs. You’ll have to wrestle my prize money away from him, Runt. I don’t think you’re man enough to do it.”
I should have realized at that precise moment that he was manipulating me, he was
forcing
me to jump through his hoops. But to be perfectly honest, all I saw was a life of destitution unless I could take that prize money.
Well, that wasn’t quite all that I was thinking about. I still saw Alex’s handsome, determined face from that last night he had spent on Earth.
“Father would kill you if he knew,” I had said.
“He knows,” Alex had replied.
BOOK: Venus
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