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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (6 page)

BOOK: Venus
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“Including scientific exploration.”
Nodding, I remembered, “He started showing me where he’d been on Mars. I did virtual reality trips with him. It was fascinating! A different world. So much to see, so much to discover.”
Gwyneth sat there beside me in the dark and let me babble on.
At last I said, “It’s not the money! It’s not. I’m going to Venus to find my brother. I’m going for Alex.”
She kissed me lightly on the cheek and whispered, “Of course you are, Van.”
Was it really true? Were either one of us speaking the truth? I wanted it to be true. With a pang of guilt, I recognized that I
it to be true.
Then she said, “About the flat in Barcelona.”
“What about it?” I asked.
She hesitated a long moment. “Well, it’s only … you see, if you don’t come back from your expedition, I have no legal right to remain there. Your father will boot me out, won’t he? Or his lawyers will.”
No, I thought. Father wouldn’t evict you. He’d take one
good look at those promising eyes and lithe figure and take you for himself.
But I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I said, “I’m having a will drawn up. The apartment will be my bequest to you. Will that be sufficient?”
She kissed me again, this time on the lips.
We never spoke about love, or gratitude either, but we understood each other perfectly well.
odriguez was almost pleading with me. “Look, Mr. Humphries, you’ve got to make a decision. Who the shit’s going to be in command of this mission?”
It startled me to hear him use even a minor profanity. He’s really upset about this, I realized. The expression on his face showed how distressed he felt. He looked almost desperate.
We were in my office at the launch complex on Tarawa. A Clippership was being serviced out on its pad, scheduled to lift us into orbit in an hour. Rodriguez sat across the desk from me, tension in every line of his body.
My desk chair was supposed to be stress-free. The very latest design. Soft pseudoleather padding. Adjustable headrest. Fully reclinable. Heat and massage units built in. But stress isn’t merely physical, and I was feeling the muscles and tendons of my neck and shoulders tightening up like torture racks.
Rodriguez was already in his light tan flight coveralls,
ready to go. But he demanded my decision before we lifted off.
“It’s her or me,” he said, with real bitterness in his voice. “One of us is named captain and the other goes home. Which one will it be?”
I’d been putting off the decision for months, avoiding both Rodriguez and Duchamp as much as possible. I had the perfect excuse: I was cramming as much planetary astronomy into my brain as I could. Mickey had decided that if she couldn’t come along to Venus, then I would have to be her surrogate. I would handle the seismic probes and other sensors that we would carry aboard
while she directed my work from California.
All through those months of preparation Desiree Duchamp had been acting as if there were no possible doubt that she was captain of
. She lorded it over the other crew members and treated Rodriguez as if he were her assistant. Rodriguez was entirely right. I couldn’t put off this decision any longer.
Before I could say a word, though, the door from the corridor swung open and Duchamp stepped in, uninvited. She wore the same dun-colored flight coveralls as Rodriguez, but on her they looked crisper, sharper, almost like a military uniform.
“You’re both here. Good,” she said.
Rodriguez shot to his feet. “It’s just as well you’re here, Dee. We’ve got to—”
Duchamp pointed a long, manicured finger at him like a pistol. “Tommy, I don’t mind you speaking informally to me in front of the owner, but don’t you
call me Dee or anything else except Captain Duchamp in front of the crew.”
“Who says you’re the captain?” Rodriguez snapped.
“The man who’s paying for this expedition, that’s who.”
“I take my orders from Mr. Humphries, here.”
A thin smile curved her lips. “I take my orders from Mr. Humphries,
.” She gestured toward the ceiling. My father was still living at Selene City.
They both turned toward me. I got slowly to my feet, wondering which way to go. Decide! I railed at myself. Make a decision and stick to it.
“If you’ll look at your incoming mail,” Duchamp said coldly, “you’ll see that he will get the banks to cut off all funding for this expedition if I’m not the captain. You’ll have to go home and lose the prize money.”
“My ass he will!” Rodriguez growled. Turning back to me, close enough almost to touch noses, he said earnestly, “Let your father threaten all he wants. Once we’re in orbit he can’t touch us. Go on to Venus, carry out the mission and you won’t need his frigging money. When we get back home you’ll be a hero, a celebrity! Without your old man.”
Duchamp countered, “Do you think for one instant that the crew will undertake the risks of this mission knowing that their pay has been cut off?” She laughed harshly. “You’ll never get off the ground!”
I felt nausea welling up in me. I was confused, torn in a dozen different directions. I clasped my hands to my head and shouted at them, “Why can’t you two work something out between yourselves? Why do you have to put me in the middle of this?”
“Because you’re the owner,” Duchamp said.
At the same time Rodriguez said, “You’re the head of the expedition.”
“Whether you like it or not,” Duchamp went on, “you’re in charge here. It’s your responsibility. You’re the one who has to make the decision.”
That’s not true, I thought. My father’s still in charge. He’s making the real decisions. I’m just his puppet, dancing at the ends of his strings. He’s forcing me to decide the way he wants me to.
“Well,” Rodriguez demanded. “What’s it going to be?”
I let my hands drop to my sides. My stomach was churning. My knees felt rubbery.
“She’s right,” I heard myself say. Totally miserable, I admitted, “If my father cuts off the money the crew won’t even get aboard the Clippership out there.”
Rodriguez began, “But I could—”
“No, no.” I cut him off. I felt like sobbing, but I held myself together as best I could. “She’s got to be captain. I can’t risk destroying this mission. My hands are tied.”
Duchamp allowed herself a smug smile. “Thank you,” she said, then headed for the door. As she reached for the knob she turned halfway and said, “By the way, there’s been a crew change. Nunnaly is out. I’ve put a biologist in her place.”
She opened the door and left my office. I just stood there, relieved that the decision had finally been made, worried about how Rodriguez would react, and stunned about Duchamp adding a biologist in place of our astronomer. A biologist? What for? Nothing could possibly be living on Venus.
Rodriguez snapped me back to reality. “Okay, that’s that.”
His fists were clenched at his sides. He looked as if he wanted to hit somebody. Maybe me.
“Don’t quit,” I said. “Please take the second-in-command position. Please.”
He was fuming, that was clear to see.
“I’ll double your pay,” I said.
He was staring grimly at the closed door, I realized.
“I’ll add a bonus out of my own money. Please don’t quit on me. I need you.”
Slowly Rodriguez turned back toward me. “The bitch knows I couldn’t turn down the chance to go to Venus. She knows I’ll go no matter what rank you give me. She was counting on that.”
“Then you’ll go?” I asked, almost breathless. “As second-in-command?”
“I’ll go,” he said bitterly. “Even with
as captain. I can’t turn my back on this. It’s going to be an experience money can’t buy.”
I sank back gratefully into my stress-free chair. “Thanks, Tom,” I said. “Thanks.”
He grinned mirthlessly. “But I’ll still take that doubled
pay, boss. And the bonus. I’ll swallow her crap and be your second-in-command. But I want the money you promised.”
I nodded, feeling weak, and he left the office.
An experience money can’t buy. That’s what Rodriguez had said. But he’ll take the money just the same. Why not? Money is the universal lubricant. You need money to buy everything you want, every single thing. And as long as my father’s money is paying for this expedition, I thought, he’ll be making all the real decisions.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t find any information about what Lars Fuchs was up to. Not even my father could. The man seemed to have disappeared entirely.
“He’s up to something,” my father warned, time and again, in his messages to me.
I asked Father’s image on my screen, “But what can he do if he’s all the way out there in the Belt?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s left the Belt and is heading for Venus,” my father replied sourly. “His fellow rock rats are covering up for him, keeping silent no matter how much pressure my people put on them.”
“But he’d have to register his ship with the International Astronautical Authority, wouldn’t he?” I asked.
Father nodded. “Sooner or later he’ll have to … or be declared an outlaw vessel. I’m not giving my prize money to an outlaw.”
We lifted off in the Clippership with no problems. In ten minutes we were on orbit, approaching rendezvous. I started to feel queasy in zero-gravity; my stomach went hollow and I felt as if I were falling even when I could see that I was safely strapped into my seat. If I moved my head I got dizzy and nauseous, so I just sat there quietly, tying to keep myself from upchucking, while the Clippership went through its docking maneuvers.
It seemed like hours, but as soon as we were docked a
feeling of weight returned and I started to feel all right again.
My ship
was designed specifically for the Venus mission; she was too small and cramped for the long flight from Earth. To ferry
out to Venus we leased an old factory ship from the Asteroid Belt, named
, and refitted her for the task. The two vessels were connected by a Buckyball cable and rotated around their common center of gravity so there was the equivalent of a regular Earthly gravity aboard.
We didn’t do that just for comfort. The gravity on Venus is only a few percent less than Earth, and if we had coasted out to Venus in zero-gee, our muscles and bones would have been deconditioned during the two-month flight. This way, with artificial gravity induced by spinning, we’d be ready for diving into Venus’s clouds as soon as we parked in orbit around the planet.
Once we were cleared to unbuckle, I went straight from the Clippership to my stateroom aboard
. It had been the captain’s quarters when
had plied the ore route between the Asteroid Belt and the Earth/Moon system. I saw that it was adequately furnished, although a bit shabby. Still, the foldout bed felt comfortable enough and the wall screens all worked. There was enough room to avoid the feeling of being cooped up. No windows, but the wall screens could be programmed to show any view I had in my video library.
I checked the closets and the lav. All my clothing and personal toiletries were in place. Good. The medicine cabinet was fully stocked with my enzyme supply, and three syringes were laid neatly in the drawer beside the sink. Fine.
Still, the stateroom had the faint odor of strangeness about it. The lingering residue of someone else’s presence. I never got to feel completely at ease there. Certainly the built-in desk and other furnishings weren’t in a style I would have picked.
That couldn’t be helped now. I gave myself an injection
and then went to the desk. There was business to be attended to. Duchamp was the captain, very well. But how dare she kick our astronomer off the mission and substitute someone I hadn’t even met? A biologist, no less.
I asked the intercom system to locate her. In a few seconds her lean, sharp-featured face appeared on my screen.
“I need to speak with you, Captain,” I said, laying just a hint of stress on the last word.
“We’re in the midst of a systems check,” she said, her expression flinty. “I’ll be free in one hour and …” Her eyes flicked away for a moment “ … eleven minutes.”
“In my quarters, then,” I commanded.
She nodded and the screen went blank.
I waited in my stateroom. I could have gone out to the bridge, it was hardly ten paces down the passageway. But I decided it would be better to make her come to me. Establish the authority. She’d been named captain, she’d won that battle. But I’m the owner, I told myself, and she’s not going to run roughshod over me.
I hoped.
One hour and twelve minutes later she knocked once on my door, opened it, and entered my stateroom. Her coveralls still looked crisp and fresh. If the systems checkout had strained her in any way it certainly didn’t show in her appearance.
I stayed seated at my desk. With a gesture I invited her to sit in the nearest chair. She sat and crossed her legs, but for the first time since I’d met her she looked tense. Good, I thought.
“About this new crew member,” I began. “It’s not your place to make personnel substitutions.”
“I’m aware of that,” she said.
“Then what do you mean by displacing our astronomer with a biologist, of all things? You can’t—”
“The fact that she’s a biologist was not uppermost in my decision,” she said sharply, cutting me off.
“What?” I must have blinked several times. “What do you mean?”
“Her name is Marguerite Duchamp. She’s my daughter.”
“Your daughter!”
“My daughter.”
“That’s rank nepotism! We don’t need a biologist. I don’t want a biologist! You can’t bring your daughter on this mission!”
Duchamp merely raised an eyebrow and said, “My daughter comes with me.”
“It’s impossible,” I said, as firmly as I could manage.
“Look,” Duchamp replied, with ill-concealed impatience, “your father wants me out of his way, okay. But I’m not going to leave my daughter on the same planet with that humper. Not with him! Understood?”
I gaped at her. Beneath that icily cool surface she was burning with rage. And I understood why. My father had dumped her because he’d become more interested in her daughter. And she was furious about it.
BOOK: Venus
8.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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