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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (5 page)

BOOK: Venus
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She jumped to her feet, as if to defend herself from assault. “Hey, don’t blame me.”
“That’s my mother you’re talking about,” I snapped. “If she got hooked on narcotics it was
his
doing.”
“Okay,” Duchamp said placatingly. “Okay.”
I took a deep, deliberate breath. Then, as calmly as I could manage, I told her, “I don’t want you on my mission. Not as captain. Not in any capacity at all.”
She shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “You’ll have to straighten that out with your father.”
“It’s not his decision.”
“Yes it is,” Duchamp countered. “Remember the golden rule—he who has the gold makes the rules.”
I
threw a sort of party of my own, a disastrous affair with just a dozen or so of my close friends. They flew in from all points of the compass obligingly enough, all dressed in the latest “in” fashion: neo-Victorian dinner clothes for the men, the women in low-cut evening gowns rich with artificial feathers and real gems.
Style is an ephemeral thing. I’m told that once, young adults such as myself and my friends dressed in grungy military fatigues and camouflage shirts. A generation later the youthful set was piercing their navels, eyebrows, even their sex organs, and wearing metal studs through their tongues and lips. Their children spent their rebellious years in plastic jackets that imitated samurai armor and tattooed their faces like Maori warriors.
The “in” style for my group was sophistication. We dressed extravagantly in vintage dinner jackets and sequined gowns. We pretended to smoke faux cigarettes of harmless organics. We glittered with jewels and bracelets and earrings of precious metals from asteroids. We spoke in the
elegant tones of cultivated boredom, affecting the witty cynicism of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. Profanities and crude language were far, far beneath us.
Yet even though we dressed so elegantly and spoke so genteelly, my gathering was a fiasco. It was terribly embarrassing to have to tell them that I couldn’t take them with me to Venus. I stammered through the reasons, and was surprised to see looks of relief on some of their faces.
But only on some of them.
“Do you mean to stand there and tell me that you made me fly all the way here from Boston just to tell me you’re reneging on your invitation?” demanded Quenton Cleary. He looked quite splendid in a crimson Hussar’s uniform, with loads of gold braid and a chestful of ribbons and medals. Something of an athlete, Quenton starred on the international volleyball team that he had organized. They had even competed on the Moon against the amateur team that Selene City had put together. And they had almost won, too, despite the totally different conditions there.
“It can’t be done,” I said, feeling miserable. “I even had to tell Professor Cochrane that there will be no room for her on the vessel.”
When I tried to explain it all again, Quenton took the whole tray of crystal champagne flutes from the table and heaved them across my living room. They smashed against the stones of the fireplace into a thousand shards.
That was Quenton: given to physical expression. But he was no fool. No one was standing within five meters of the fireplace when he gave vent to his temper. No one was scratched. He didn’t damage the Vermeer hanging over the fireplace, either.
“Really, Quenton!” said Basil Ustinov.
“Well, I had to fly all the way here from Boston, you know,” Quenton said heatedly.
“And I flew here from St. Petersburg,” Basil riposted. “What of it? I’m just as disappointed as you are, but if Van can’t do anything about it, there’s no reason to get violent over it.”
They had all come from long distances, all except Gwyneth, who was studying in Barcelona at the time. Of course, with Clippership rockets no major transport hub on Earth was more than an hour away from any other hub. It took more time to drive from the airfield at New Palma to my home up here in Majorca’s hills than it did to fly from Boston. I had often considered putting in a landing field for copters or jumpjets, but the thought of battling the townspeople and their dreary little community council kept me from even proposing it.
I could see the town’s point of view, I suppose. It truly was lovely up here in the hills, away from the thundering rockets and screeching helicopters. Not even tourist buses could get through the town’s main street, so this part of the island stayed tranquil and relaxed.
As I sat back in the silky comfort of my favorite couch and gazed through the sweeping windows at the Mediterranean, I realized how much I loved this home of mine. The sea was calm, its long gentle waves touched with the pink of approaching sunset. The hillside marched down to the water in a series of terraces that still held vegetable gardens and vineyards. Hannibal had seen those terraces. This land had been under human cultivation since long before history had begun to be written.
The rising sea level had inundated the beaches, of course, as well as much of the old city of Palma. Even the gentle Mediterranean was swallowing up its seacoasts. Still, Majorca was as close to paradise as I could imagine.
And I was going to leave this all behind to live in a metal cell for months at a time so that I could risk my life and limb trying to be the first person to set foot on the red-hot surface of Venus. I shook my head at the absurdity of the position I had put myself in.
But Quenton was getting pugnacious. “I don’t like having promises broken,” he said petulantly. “Van, you’ve gone back on your word.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” I said.
“I don’t believe you.”
My cheeks burning, I got to my feet. “Are you accusing me of lying to you?”
Quenton glared at me. “You made a promise and now you’ve broken it.”
“Then get out of my house,” I heard myself say. It surprised me, but I realized that I was suddenly quite thoroughly angry.
Francesca Ianetta huffed, “Really, Van!”
“You, too,” I snapped. “All of you!” I swept the room with an outstretched hand and shouted, “You can all get out! Now! Leave me alone!”
For a moment there was nothing but shocked silence. Then Basil pulled his rotund body from the armchair he’d been sitting in. “I suppose I should get back to my work,” he said.
Basil’s idea of work was to smear colors across a display screen. He was a very talented artist, everyone said, but he was extremely lazy. He could afford to be; his patroness was extremely wealthy.
Nodding curtly, I said, “Yes, you should.”
“I shall go back to Rome,” Francesca said grandly. “I have an opera to finish.”
“Good,” I said. “Maybe if you put some real work into it you’d actually finish it.”
“Really!” she said, appalled.
“Go on, all of you,” I repeated, shooing them toward the door. “Go!”
Shocked, astonished at my outburst of poor manners, they left my house. Still hot with anger, I watched them from the window of my entertainment room, a procession of flamboyantly bright-colored automobiles, their electric engines making hardly a hum on the winding brick road that went down the hillside switchbacks and connected with the motorway.
“There they go.”
I turned from the window. Gwyneth was standing next to me. She hadn’t left, and I was glad of it.
The word that always popped into my mind whenever I
thought of Gwyneth was
alluring
. She had a way of looking at me, a sidelong glance through those long lashes of hers, that told me she wanted me as much as I wanted her. In earlier years she would have been called a courtesan, a kept woman, or worse. To me, she was a companion, a friend who shared her body and her mind with me. Gwyneth was serious, quiet, as steady as you’d want a companion to be. She had a wicked sense of humor, which she rarely let anyone see. She was slim, tiny, almost elfin, with long auburn hair that billowed beautifully in the breeze when we sailed together. Her face was to die for, with chiseled high cheekbones, luscious full lips, and almond-shaped eyes that were a golden, tawny brown.
“You’re not angry with me, too, are you?” she asked, with a coy smile.
I felt my anger dissolve. “How could I be?”
She gave me an odd, quizzical look. “The way you told them off … you’re starting to let the others know how strong you really are.”
Surprised, I asked, “Strong? Me?”
“Real strength,” Gwyneth said, her eyes studying my face. “Not the silly tantrums Quenton throws. You have real steel, Van, deep inside you.”
“You think so?”
“I’ve known it since I first met you. But you keep it hidden, even from yourself.” Then she added, in a murmur, “Èspecially from yourself.”
Suddenly I felt uncomfortable. I turned away from her and looked out at the cars disappearing down the hillside road.
“You’d think they’d double up,” Gwyneth said, coming closer to stand beside me. “Not one of them offered to ride with any of the others.”
I hadn’t thought about that until she mentioned it. They could have driven together if they’d wanted to; the automated cars could find their way back to the airport rental lot just as well unoccupied.
We walked together back into the broad expanse of the
living room. The robot cleaners had already swept up the shattered glassware.
“I suppose I’ll never see them again,” I said.
She smiled coolly. “They’ll forget about your temper tantrum … as long as you have money.”
“Don’t be cruel,” I said. I didn’t like to think that they tolerated me only because I helped them in their chosen fields. It was true, of course, that I was a major backer for Francesca’s unfinished opera, and—come to think of it—Quenton had asked me for a loan to keep his team going. That had been more than a year ago; not a word from him about paying it back.
What would they do when they realized I was broke? I hadn’t found the courage to tell them that my income had been cut off. I was living on loans reluctantly advanced by banks against the ten billion prize dollars. Even though many of those bank officers were longtime friends of mine or the family’s, they grew more nervous with each passing month. As if it were their own money they were playing with! I hadn’t told any of the bankers about Lars Fuchs and apparently they were not as well informed about Fuchs as my father was.
Gwyneth and I walked wordlessly out onto the terrace to watch the last moments of the sunset. The sky turned flame red, flecked with purple clouds. The sea glittered crimson. From this high up the gentle waves lapping against once-dry terraces sounded like a distant sigh.
Gwyneth looked lovely in her graceful floor-length gown of gold lamé. She leaned her head against my shoulder. I slipped an arm around her waist.
“I depend on your money, too,” she said, almost whispering. “Don’t you forget that.”
Two years ago, when I had first met Gwyneth, she had been a ballet student in London. Then she decided to major in art history at the Sorbonne. Now she was studying architecture in Barcelona. I was letting her use my apartment there. In the two years I had known her, we had never used the word love. Not even in bed.
“That’s not important,” I said.
“It is to me.”
I didn’t want to know what she meant. I enjoyed her company; in a way, I suppose, I needed her. Needed her common sense, her emotional support, her quiet strength.
She pulled away from me once the sun had dipped below the horizon. I gestured toward the French doors and we went back inside.
“You realize,” Gwyneth said, as we sat together on the couch beneath my one and only Turner, “that most of them are glad they’re not going with you.”
With a nod I replied, “Yes, I thought I saw relief on their faces. Not Quenton’s, though.”
She smiled. “Quenton’s simply better at disguising his real feelings.”
“But he was so eager to go.”
“At first,” she said. “Over the past few weeks, though, his ardor cooled considerably. Didn’t you notice?”
“No. Why do you suppose … ?”
Gwyneth lifted her slim shoulders slightly in a miniature shrug. “I have the feeling that the closer you got to actually taking off on your expedition, the more Quenton—and the others, too—realized that they were frightened.”
“Frightened?”
“Of course.”
“Were you frightened, too?”
“Of course,” she repeated.
I sank back onto the cushions and thought about that for a moment. “Yet they all agreed to go. You, too.”
“It sounded exciting at first. Going to Venus and all that. But it
is
dangerous, isn’t it?”
I nodded. And before I realized what I was saying, I admitted, “I’m frightened, too.”
“Ahh,” she said.
“I don’t want to go through with it. I really don’t.”
“Then why do it?”
“I need that prize money.”
Gwyneth sighed. “It always comes down to the money, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve made an idiot of myself.”
“Not if you go through with it,” she said. “When you return you’ll be financially independent of your father for the rest of your life. That’s worth something, don’t you think?”
“I could get killed.”
She gave me an odd look. “Yes, there is that.”
We sat there in silence for some time as the shadows of twilight deepened and the room grew dark.
At last I said, “You know, it was Alex who turned me on to science. To planetary astronomy and all that.”
“Really?”
I could barely make out her face in the shadows. “Yes. He was ten years older than I. As far back as I can remember, whatever he did, I wanted to do.”
BOOK: Venus
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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