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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (4 page)

BOOK: Venus
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“No liquid water,” Mickey took up, “means no lubrication for the plates. They lock in place and stay locked.”
Nodding, I mumbled, “I see.”
“For five hundred million years,” Greenbaum said, “the heat’s been building up below Venus’s surface. It’s got to go somewhere!”
“Sooner or later,” Mickey took over, “Venus is going to erupt cataclysmically. Volcanoes everywhere. The crust will melt and sink. New crustal material will well up from below.”
“It’s going to be
wonderful!”
Greenbaum actually cackled with glee.
“And this might happen while I’m down on the surface?” I asked, suddenly fearful that they might be right.
“No, no, no,” Mickey said, trying to soothe me. “We’re talking geological time frames here, not human.”
“But you said—”
Greenbaum went from cackling to gloom. “We’d never be lucky enough to have it happen while we’re actually on the scene. The gods aren’t that generous.”
“I wouldn’t call it luck,” I said. “The whole surface suddenly melting and blasting out volcanoes and all that.”
Mickey said, “Don’t worry about it, Van. It won’t happen during the few days you’re below the clouds.”
“Then what are you so worked up about?” I asked.
Abdullah piped up, in his bass register. “Not every scientist agrees with Professor Greenbaum.”
“Most planetary scientists disagree with us,” Mickey admitted.
“Damn fools,” Greenbaum grumbled.
By now I was thoroughly confused. “But if it’s
not
going to go through this cataclysm, then what are you so excited about?”
“Seismic measurements,” Greenbaum said, staring at me again. “That’s what we need.”
Mickey explained, “The whole issue depends on whether Venus has a thick crust or a thin one.”
It was starting to sound like a pizza contest to me, but I kept my mouth shut and kept on listening.
“If the crust is thin, then the upheaval is more likely. If it’s thick, then we’re wrong and the others are right.”
“But can’t you measure the crust with robot sensors?” I asked.
Mickey replied, “We’ve had some measurements over the years, but they’re inconclusive.”
“Then send more probes,” I said. It seemed so obvious!
They both turned to Abdullah. He shook his head. “The agency is not allowed to spend a penny on studies of Venus, or anything else that isn’t directly related to Earth’s environmental problems.”
“But private donors,” I said. “Surely it wouldn’t cost that much to send out a few probes.”
“We’ve been trying to get funding,” Mickey said. “But it’s not easy, especially when most of the specialists in the subject think we’re wrong.”
“That’s why your mission is a godsend,” Greenbaum said, with the fervor of a missionary. “You can carry dozens of seismic sensors to Venus—hundreds! And a scientist to handle them. Plus a lot of other equipment.”
“But my spacecraft won’t have that capacity,” I insisted. Perhaps pleaded is a more accurate term.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Greenbaum said again. “I wish I were thirty years younger.”
“I can’t do it,” I said.
“Please, Van,” said Mickey. “It’s really important.”
I looked from her earnest face to Greenbaum’s to Abdullah’s and back again.
“I’d be the scientist,” Mickey added. “I’d be the one going to Venus with you.”
She looked so intent, so beseeching, as if her entire life depended on going to Venus with me.
What could I tell her?
I took a breath and said, “I’ll talk to my people. Maybe there’s a way for us to carry you along.”
Mickey jumped up and down in her chair like a kid who’d just opened the biggest Christmas present in the history of the world. Greenbaum half-collapsed back in his seat, as if the effort of this meeting had drained all the strength out of him. But he was grinning from ear to ear, a lopsided, gap-toothed jack-o’-lantern grin.
Even Abdullah smiled.
T
omas Rodriguez had been an astronaut; he’d gone to Mars four times before retiring upward to become a consultant to aerospace companies and universities doing planetary explorations.
Yet what he really wanted was to fly again.
He was a solidly built man with an olive complexion and thickly curled hair that he kept clipped very short in almost a military crew cut. He looked morose most of the time, pensive, almost unapproachable. But that was just a mask. He smiled easily, and when he did it lit up his whole face to show the truly gentle man beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, he was not smiling now.
Rodriguez and I were sitting in a small conference room, just the two of us. Between us floated a holographic image of the spacecraft that was being constructed for my flight to Venus. Hanging there in midair above the oval conference table, the ship looked more like an ironclad dirigible than anything else—which it was, almost. Of course we were
using the latest ceramic-metal alloys for her exterior, rather than iron.
With a slight frown creasing his brow, Rodriguez was telling me, “Mr. Humphries, we can’t hang another gondola under the gas envelope without enlarging the envelope by a third or more. Those are the numbers from the computer and there’s no way around them.”
“But we need the extra gondola to accommodate the crew,” I said.
“The friends you want to bring along are not crew, Mr. Humphries,” Rodriguez said. “The working crew can be accommodated in the single gondola, as per our original design.”
“They’re not just my friends,” I snapped, feeling testy. “One of them is a top planetary scientist, another is a writer who’ll be doing a book about this expedition …” My voice trailed off. Except for Mickey, the others were indeed nothing more than friends, acquaintances who wanted the thrill of flying to Venus.
Rodriguez shook his head. “We can’t do it, Mr. Humphries. Not at this late date. We’d have to scrap everything that’s been built and start all over again from scratch.”
That would be too expensive, I was certain. Even with a ten-billion-dollar prize in the offing, the banks were already nervous about financing the construction of my ship. International lending officers I had known from childhood wrinkled their brows at me and talked about risks and the inability to get insurance coverage for their exposure. We had to design the ship as frugally as possible; adding what would actually be a separate module for nonessential passengers would be unacceptable to the money people.
The trouble was, I had already invited those people to come along with me. I couldn’t disinvite them now, not without enormous embarrassment. And I had promised Mickey that she could come along, too.
Rodriguez took my silence for assent. “Then we’re agreed?” he asked.
I said nothing, desperately running different schemes
through my mind. Maybe a second ship? A backup. That might work. I could present it to the bankers as a safety precaution. What did Rodriguez call that kind of thing? A redundancy, that’s right. A safety redundancy.
“Okay,” he said, and resumed his painstakingly detailed briefing of every single component and system of the ship. I could feel my eyes glazing over.
I had named my vessel
Hesperos
, after the ancient Greek name for Venus as the beautiful evening star. Alex’s ship had been almost identical in design and he had called his
Phosphoros
, the old Greek name for Venus as the morning star, the light-bringer.
“And here,” Rodriguez was droning on, “is the descent module.”
A little spherical metal object appeared beneath the ship’s single gondola, sort of like a bathysphere. It was attached to the gondola by a line so thin I could barely make it out.
Rodriguez must have seen my brows hike up. “That’s a Buckyball cable. It’ll take kilotons of tensile stress. One of ’em saved my life on Mars, during the second expedition.”
I nodded and he went on and on, in infinite minutiae. Rodriguez was wearing what he jokingly referred to as his “consultant’s suit:” a sky-blue collarless jacket with matching slacks and a crisp open-necked saffron shirt. The color of the shirt reminded me of the clouds on Venus, a little. Me, I dressed for comfort: salmon-pink sport shirt, authentic blue jeans, and tennis shoes.
I knew it bothered Rodriguez that we were going with virtually the identical design as Alex’s ship, which had somehow failed and killed its entire crew. Rodriguez believed in caution; he claimed you didn’t live long enough to be an ex-astronaut unless you knew how to be careful. But by using Alex’s basic design we could save a ton of money; it would have cost a good fraction of the prize money to design a new vessel from scratch.
“That’s the basic design and layout of the bird,” Rodriguez said at long last. “Now I’d like to go over the modifications and improvements we’re going to put in.”
I felt my lips curl slightly. “You mean that some of the modifications won’t be improvements?”
Rodriguez broke into a grin. “Sorry. Sometimes I slip into corporate bafflegab. Every modification will be an improvement, I promise you.”
So I leaned back in my padded swivel chair and tried as hard as I could to pay attention to his earnest, plodding review. It was tedious to the point of paralysis, especially when I could see through the room’s only window the wide Pacific glittering in the afternoon sun. It was so tempting to call an end to this interminable briefing and spend the rest of the day on the man-made lagoon behind the seawall.
This high up in the hills it was hard to realize that once there had been beaches and surfing and homes strung all along the oceanfront. Malibu, Santa Monica, Marina Del Rey—their beaches had all been drowned when the Antarctic icecap started melting down. Even now, on this balmy, sunny afternoon the waves were pounding the new seawall and spraying the road that ran behind it.
While Rodriguez droned on, my thoughts drifted back to that anonymous phone message I’d received in Selene City. Father had murdered Alex? It sounded too terrible to be true, even for him. And yet …
But if my father had anything to do with Alex’s death, why had he cooked up this mission to recover his son’s body? Some form of atonement? Guilt? Clever public relations to throw the suspicion off him and quiet the rumors?
Such thoughts scared me. And depressed me terribly. It was too much for me to deal with. All I really wanted out of life was to live quietly in my home on Majorca, have a few friends drop in from time to time, go visiting when the mood struck me. Not take a risk-filled flight to another world. Not listen to Rodriguez going on and on with his endless details.
I’m doing this for Alex, I told myself. But I knew that was nonsense. Alex was dead and nothing that I or anyone else could do was going to change that.
“Are you all right, Mr. Humphries?”
With an effort, I focused my attention back on Rodriguez. He looked concerned, almost worried.
I ran a hand over my face. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“You seemed far away,” Rodriguez replied. “Are you okay?”
“Um … I’ve got to take my injection,” I said, pushing my chair away from the table and the hologram floating above it.
Rodriguez got to his feet as I did. “Okay, sure. We can finish this later.”
“Right,” I said, and headed for the door.
I didn’t really need the injection right at that moment. I even could have taken it there in the conference room; it’s no big deal, just press the microneedle head of the syringe against your skin and squeeze the activator button. But I told everyone that I had to do it in my private quarters. It was a convenient fiction, a way of getting out of worrisome or boring situations, such as this dreary briefing.
So I went to the suite of rooms I was using as my private quarters in the building up atop the Malibu hills. Once it had been a research laboratory, but when the sea started rising the local government wanted to condemn the building, for fear the hills would erode so badly that it would go sliding into the ocean. Humphries Space Systems bought the complex for a pittance, then got the condemnation procedure legally stopped—with a generous application of money to the appropriate officials.
Now the former laboratory was owned by my father’s corporation. More than half its space was rented to other corporations and the harried engineers and administrators of the Greater Los Angeles Seawall Project, who were working against time and the tides to keep the rising Pacific Ocean from inundating more of the city.
My quarters were on the top floor of the central wing, small but decently furnished. As I opened the door I saw that my phone screen was blinking MESSAGE WAITING in bright yellow letters.
“Play my messages,” I called out, heading for the bathroom and my syringe.
The mirror above the sink flickered briefly and then my father’s stern face appeared. “I warned you about Lars Fuchs, remember? Well, my people have found out that he’s cobbling together some kind of ship out in the Belt. He’ll try for my prize money, all right, just as I thought.”
The idea that I’d have competition for the prize didn’t bother me very much. Not at that moment. From the way Father described it, Fuchs wouldn’t be much of a threat. Or so I thought.
Then Father delivered his bombshell. “By the way, I’ve picked a captain for your expedition. She’ll be arriving at your quarters there in Malibu in an hour or so. Her name is Desiree Duchamp.”
Father’s image winked out and I was staring at my own slack-jawed reflection. “But Rodriguez is going to be my captain,” I said weakly.
The door buzzer sounded.
Laying the syringe on the countertop, I went out into the sitting room and called, “Enter.”
The door unlocked itself and swung open. Standing there was a tall, slim, dark-haired woman of indeterminate age, wearing a skintight jumpsuit of glittery black faux leather. Her eyes were large and luminous. She might have been beautiful if she would have smiled, but the expression on her face was hard, bitter, almost angry.
“Come in,” I said, then added. “Ms. Duchamp.”

Captain
Duchamp, thanks to you.”
She marched into the room on long-legged strides. With the outfit she was wearing I expected her calf-length boots to have spike heels, but instead her heels were sensibly low. Otherwise she looked like a video portrayal of a dominating sex symbol. All she needs is a whip, I thought.
“Thanks to me?” I echoed. “This is my father’s idea, not mine.”
“You’re the one going to Venus,” she said, her voice low.
It would have been sultry if she weren’t so obviously displeased.
“I have a captain already signed up,” I said. “Tomas Rodriguez. He’s been—”
“I know Tommy,” Duchamp interrupted. “He’ll be my Number One.”
“He’s my captain,” I said, very firmly. “We’ve already signed a contract.”
Duchamp went to the long couch on the other side of the room and sat down as if she owned the place. For a long moment I just stood by the door, staring at her.
“Close the door,” she said frowning.
I called out, “Shut.” The door swung and its lock clicked.
“Look, Mr. Humphries,” Duchamp said more reasonably, clasping her hands together. “I don’t like this any more than you do. But Hump has decided he wants me to captain your spacecraft and we’re both stuck with that decision.”
Her fingers were long and the nails colored fire-engine red. I walked over toward the couch and sat on the armchair facing it.
“Why did he pick you?” I asked.
She frowned again. “To get rid of me, why else?”
“Rid of you?”
“This is his idea of a kiss-off. He’s tired of me; he’s got a couple of new tarts to chase.”
“You were his mistress?”
She actually laughed. “Christ, I haven’t heard that term since I was reading novels under the blankets after lights-out at boot camp.”
I shook my head. I was starting to feel giddy, a sure symptom, so I got to my feet. “Excuse me,” I said, heading for the bathroom.
It took less than a minute to administer my shot, but when I returned to the sitting room she was at the desk by the window and the wallscreen displayed her biographical résumé. She was a qualified astronaut, sure enough, a veteran of eleven flights to the Asteroid Belt and three to the
Jupiter system. On four expeditions she had been mission commander.
“How long have you known my father?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the screen instead of her.
“I met him about a year ago. We were bedmates for three months. Something of a record for Hump.”
“He was married to my mother for six years,” I said, still studying the data on the screen.
“Yeah, but he was sleeping with a lot of other kids. She was out of it half the time with her habit—”
I whirled on her, furious. “You don’t know anything about it! You might think you know, he might have told you a lot, but it’s all lies. Lies! Vicious, self-serving lies!”
BOOK: Venus
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