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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (7 page)

BOOK: Venus
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They say that hell has no fury like a woman scorned. But what about a woman scorned because the man wants her daughter?
Then I wondered how the daughter felt about it. Was Duchamp protecting her daughter against my father’s unwanted lechery? Or was she dragging her away, kicking and screaming?
Either way, it looked to me like a nest of snakes.
 
We left Earth orbit the following day and started on the two-month-long trajectory to Venus. We had to burn more propellant than the minimum-energy trajectory would use, but I figured that cutting the transit time in half was worth the expenditure.
I hardly felt the thrust when we broke orbit. I was standing off in one corner of the bridge doing a media interview while the working crew attended to their jobs. Off to Venus! It was a good news subject. Fine human interest: Van Humphries setting out to recover his dead brother’s remains from the hellhole of the solar system. Later that evening,
when I saw the network’s broadcast, though, they showed more computer simulations of what Venus’s surface might look like than they showed of me.
But my father kept worrying about Fuchs, bombarding me with tension-riddled messages Where was he? What was he up to? It made me worry, too.
No matter. We were on our way to Venus. That was the important thing.
I
knew I was dreaming but somehow it didn’t matter. I was a mere child again, a toddler just learning to walk. There was a grown man looming in front of me, holding his arms out and calling to me.
“Come on, Van. You can do it. Walk to me.”
In my dream, I couldn’t make out his face. His voice sounded kind, friendly, but his face was somehow hidden from me.
“Come on, Van. Take a step. Come on.”
It was enormously difficult. Much easier to hang on to whatever piece of furniture my chubby little fingers were clutching. Or just plop down and crawl on all fours. But his voice beckoned to me, half encouraging, half pleading, and I eventually let go.
I took a teetering step, then another.
“Good boy! Good boy, Van.”
I saw his face. It was my brother Alex. He was only a child himself, nine or ten years old. But he was helping me,
encouraging me. I tried to reach him. Step by labored, dangerous step I tried to get to his welcoming arms.
Instead, my legs buckled and I plopped onto the floor.
“You’re hopeless, Runt. Absolutely hopeless.” Suddenly it was my father towering over me, a disgusted look on his face.
“The ancient Greeks would have left you on a mountaintop to feed the wolves and crows.”
Alex was no longer there. He was dead, I remembered. I sat there on the floor and blubbered like a baby.
I
had met the crew several times before we left Earth, of course. The crew of my ship
Hesperos
, I mean.
Truax
had its own crew—an even dozen of grizzled, experienced men and women—but I had practically nothing to do with them. Captain Duchamp handled that part of the mission. It was my crew, the crew of
Hesperos
, that I cared about.
In addition to Duchamp and Rodriguez there were only four others: three technicians, for communications, life support, and sensor systems, and the physician. The comm and sensor techs were women about my own age, rather nondescript techies who talked in jargon and kept pretty much to themselves. Same for the life support guy, except he was chubby and rather surly—the kind who always gave the impression that the least little technical problem was the end of the world.
They had to be good, though. They had been okayed by both Rodriguez and Duchamp. Naturally, all our systems were actually run by the ship’s mainframe; the human techs were needed for repairs and maintenance work, mostly. For
a while I had thought about using robots instead, but Rodriguez convinced me that the humans were more versatile and handier. And cheaper, too.
The one crew member I dealt with on an almost daily basis was the physician, Dr. Waller. He kept tabs on my anemia and made certain that I was in good general health. He was quite a bit older, about Duchamp’s age, and claimed he had never used any rejuvenation therapy for himself. Yet he looked suspiciously young to me; the only sign of his age was his thinning hair, which he kept pulled back into a short ponytail. He was black—from Jamaica—and for some reason I usually found it hard to judge the age of black people. He always looked solemn, even grave. His eyes always seemed to be bloodshot.
“There’s really not much for you to do around here, is there?” I asked him once, while he was running me through the diagnostic scanner.
His red-rimmed eyes focused on the readouts, Dr. Waller answered, “Be glad of that, Mr. Humphries.”
Even though his face was somber, he constantly hummed to himself, so low I could barely hear it, a tuneless background buzzing. His voice had a sort of singing lilt to it. If I kept my eyes closed I could imagine him smiling happily instead of the dour somber face he actually wore.
“You can put your shirt on,” he said as the scanner yoke lifted up and slid back into its niche in the infirmary bulkhead.
“Will I live, Doctor?” I kidded.
He nodded briefly, but said, “Your triglyceride count is rising. Too many sweets. Must I put a block on the dispensing machines?”
I laughed. “I’m the owner of this vessel, remember? I could remove any block that you code into the galley’s computer.”
“Then we shall have to rely on your good sense. You need more exercise and less fatty foods.”
I nodded. “Right.”
“Otherwise you are in excellent condition.”
As I sealed the Velcro front of my shirt I asked, “With everyone in good health and no accidents to deal with, how do you fill in your time?”
His normally solemn expression brightened a little. “I am writing my Ph.D. thesis. I took this position so that I would have the time to write it. And no distractions! No interruptions. No excuses to put it off.”
“What’s the subject of your thesis?”
“The underlying similarities among the organisms of Mars, the Jovian moons, and Earth.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe we’ll find some organisms on Venus to broaden your scope.”
Dr. Waller actually smiled, a bright flashing smile full of white teeth. “I hardly think so, Mr. Humphries. I chose this mission specifically because I do not expect any new data to come up and cause me added complications.”
 
During the first week of our flight I met Marguerite Duchamp exactly twice. The first time was shortly after we broke Earth orbit.
Once we were safely through the keyhole and on the proper trajectory toward Venus, Captain Duchamp left Rodriguez in charge of the bridge and asked me to come with her to the captain’s cabin, as she called it. It was a compartment off the bridge, only a few paces along the passageway from my own quarters.
“I want you to meet the expedition’s biologist,” she said over her shoulder as she slid open the compartment door.
“Your daughter,” I said as I entered the cubicle.
It was quite a small compartment, barely room enough for a bunk and a foldout table. She was at the bunk, taking clothes out of a travel bag that lay open atop it. She did not turn around when she heard the door open.
“Marguerite, I want you to meet the owner of this vessel.”
She turned, looking slightly surprised. I suppose I looked surprised, too. Stunned, actually. Marguerite was a duplicate of her mother. Younger, of course, not so taut or intimidating,
yet so physically alike that I thought she must be a clone. The same tall, slim figure. The same sculptured cheekbones and strong jaw. The same jet-black eyes and raven hair.
Yet where her mother was demanding and dominating, the daughter seemed troubled, uncertain of herself. The mother wore her shoulder-length hair severely pulled back; the daughter’s flowed softly, and was considerably longer.
“This is Mr. Van Humphries,” Duchamp said. Then, to me, “My daughter, Marguerite.”
“Martin’s son,” she murmured, taking a step toward me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her mother bristle.
I extended my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Duchamp.”
She touched my hand briefly. Her fingers felt warm, pulsing.
“Marguerite has a doctorate in biology from Oxford,” Duchamp said, flatly, as if it were a challenge, not a trace of parental pride in her voice.
Then she added, “I thought you two should meet.”
“I’m happy to make your acquaintance,” I said to Marguerite. Glancing at her mother, I added, “although I’m afraid there won’t be much for you to do on this mission.”
She did not smile back. Very seriously, she said, “Perhaps I can help with some of the other scientific observations, then.” Her voice was low, soft, resigned.
The cabin seemed cold enough to start a glacier.
“We’ll find something useful for you to do, don’t worry,” Captain Duchamp said.
“Yes, Mother. I’m sure you will.”
I decided it was time to get out of there. The bitterness between mother and daughter was thick enough to cut with a chain saw.
 
Dr. Waller said I should exercise, so I started jogging through the warren of passageways and cargo bays of
Truax.
The old factory ship’s major cargo hold, which once
carried huge tonnages of asteroidal ores, was like a vast cave made of metal. Our expedition’s crated supplies hardly filled one corner of it. The outgoing crew had worked hard to clean up the holds for us; they had even opened the bays to the vacuum of space for several days on end. Still the metal bulkheads were dingy with dust. I could feel it crunching on the soles of my running shoes. When I ran a hand along a bulkhead the metal felt gritty; my fingers came away stained with dust.
It made me grin, though. I was touching the dust of other worlds. Instead of sitting at home and staring at virtual reality simulations I was actually out here, touching other worlds, planetoids that had floated in the silent emptiness of space for billions of years, since the time when the solar system had been created.
Then I discovered the bay that held the old smelter, silent and unused now. Yet I could sense the heat of the big nuclear-powered ovens as they melted down the ores in the first step of the refining process. Pulverized chunks of asteroidal rock were ruthlessly liquefied here, all their minor elements driven out to be collected by the mass separators, purified into the metals and minerals that were building the human race’s expanding civilization.
For the first time I got an inkling of what my father’s corporations actually did. They were converting ancient leftovers from the creation of the solar system into habitats and factories and spacecraft for the men and women who were living and working in space, on the Moon and Mars, in the armored modules floating on the ice of Jupiter’s major moons.
From the catwalk high above the smelter I drank in the heat that seemed to still hang in the air like a living presence. I could hear in my mind the growling roar of the rock crushers, the shuddering rumble of the conveyor belts that carried the pulverized ore into the white-hot fury of the smelter. When I closed my eyes I could see the glowing streams of man-made lava flowing into the separators in the next huge bay.
All silent now, except for the soft echo of my running shoes padding against the metal grillwork of the catwalk. All stilled, unused, because I had decided in a reckless, angry moment to take up my father’s challenge.
As he knew I would! That understanding came to me as I jogged along the catwalk, hit me so hard I stopped and gripped the handrail, feeling almost dizzy. He maneuvered me into this! He knew I’d take up his challenge. Or did he merely hope that I would? Either way, I rose to his bait and snapped at it.
Why did he do it? Why did he set all that up, the party, the announcement, the prize? Just to get me off my butt and send me to Venus? To get me out of his way? To kill me, the same way Alex was killed?
Why?
I
was walking along the passageway toward my stateroom, cooling down from my run, sweaty and smelly in my running suit, when I saw Marguerite Duchamp coming up the passageway from the other direction.
I had seen her exactly once since her mother performed that awkward, anger-edged introduction on the day we left Earth orbit. Marguerite had kept pretty much to her quarters and—to tell the truth—I kept pretty much to mine, except for my daily exercise runs. Come to think of it, she might have been poking around the big old ship or working on the bridge as much as her mother and I wouldn’t have known it.
I couldn’t get over how much she resembled her mother, like a younger twin or clone. The same dark hair and eyes, the same slim supple figure. She was slightly taller than me, but then almost everybody was slightly taller than me. Father called me Runt because I am small, there’s no getting away from that fact.
She was wearing standard dun-colored coveralls, with
flat-heeled shipboard slippers. No matter how much she looked like her mother, though, Marguerite was obviously younger, fresher, without her mother’s brittle armor of haughtiness, more—approachable.
I saw that she had sewn a bright green armband on the left sleeve of her coveralls. And as she approached me, I noticed that her thick dark hair was tied back with a green ribbon that matched the armband.
“You’re one of them?” I blurted.
Her onyx eyes flashed at me. “Them?” she asked.
“The Greens.”
She seemed to visibly relax. “Of course,” she answered casually. “Isn’t everybody?”
“I’m not.” I reversed my course and fell into step beside her.
“Why aren’t you?” she asked, apparently not noticing that I was sweaty and smelly and must have looked a mess.
Her question puzzled me for a moment. “I guess I’ve never paid that much attention to politics.”
Marguerite shrugged. “With your money, I suppose you don’t have to.”
“My father’s very involved,” I said. It came out sounding defensive.
“I’m sure he is,” she said scornfully. “But he’s not a Green, is he?”
“No,” I admitted with a little laugh. “Definitely not a Green.”
She was headed for the galley, and I went along with her, smelly running suit and all.
“How well do you know my father?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that I was being just about as tactless as a class-A boor.
She cast me a sidelong glance as we walked along the passageway. “I only met him once. With my mother.”
“Only once?”
“That was enough. More than enough.”
The way she said it made me wonder what had happened.
Father can be quite suave and winning when he wants to be. He can also be demanding and vicious. From the ferocity of her mother’s reaction, Father must have hit on Marguerite very blatantly.
Although it had been refurbished along with the rest of the ship,
Truax
’s galley looked scuffed and hard-used. No amount of spit and polish could make the dispensers’ dulled, worn metal surfaces gleam like new again. Marguerite helped herself to a tall mug of fruit juice. No one was sitting at the tables, so I poured a chilled mug of the same for myself and went over to sit beside her. She didn’t seem to mind the company. And what if she does, I told myself. I’m the owner of this vessel. This is
my
ship. I’ll sit where I damned well want to. But I was glad she didn’t get up and move away.
“So, what do people call you? Marjorie?”
“Marguerite,” she said stiffly.
“Marguerite? Nothing else?”
“That’s the name my mother gave me.”
I suppose she realized she was being curt, almost rude. Softening a little, she said, “I can’t abide being called Marjorie or Margie. And Maggie …” She shuddered with distaste.
I had to laugh. “All right. Marguerite, then. I’m Van.”
We talked, mainly about politics. No further mention of my father. Marguerite was an ardent, dedicated Green, devoted to the ideals of stopping the Earth’s warming by drastically changing society. Solar energy instead of fossil or nuclear fuels. Taxation to redistribute wealth and shrink the gap between rich and poor. Stronger international controls on trade and information commerce.
I tried to make her see that nuclear power would help to wean the world off fossil fuels much better than solar energy possibly could.
“Especially with helium-three for fusion generators,” I told her, with growing enthusiasm. “We could triple the world’s installed electrical power capacity and cut greenhouse emissions by seventy percent or more.”
She frowned slightly. “Your father has a monopoly on helium-three, doesn’t he?”
“His corporation owns a large chunk of the helium-mining operations on the Moon. I wouldn’t say he has a monopoly. Besides—”
“And he controls the lunar raw materials that are needed to build solar power satellites, doesn’t he?”
“He doesn’t
control
them. There’s also Masterson Corporation. And Astro Manufacturing.”
Marguerite shook her head. “Mr. Humphries, your father is one of our most implacable enemies.”
“Yes, I know. And my name is Van.”
She nodded and we continued talking. I forgot about my enzyme shot, forgot about Marguerite’s hard-driving mother and Rodriguez and the rest of the crew. I even forgot about Gwyneth, living in my apartment in Barcelona. I was enjoying talking with Marguerite. As we chatted on I commented on how strikingly she resembled her mother.
“Why not?” she asked, very seriously. “I’m a duplicate.”
“A clone?”
With a brief dip of her chin, Marguerite said, “Mother’s always said she’s never met a man she’d trust to father a child with her. So she cloned herself and had the embryo implanted in herself. Eight and a half months later I was born.”
I shouldn’t have felt as staggered as I did. Duplicates were nothing new; people had been cloning themselves here and there for years. The procedure was outlawed in many nations and moralists railed against the supposed inhumanity of it. But here was a perfectly lovely, lively young woman who happened to be a clone of her mother.
“When did all that happen?” I asked.
Her eyes widened for a flash of a second and I felt suddenly embarrassed.
But Marguerite just laughed. “I haven’t needed any rejuvenation treatments yet.”
“I mean … I suppose I was really wondering about your mother’s age. My father’s past a hundred, and …”
I cursed myself for a fool even while my mouth blabbered on. I could easily look up their ages in the mission’s dossiers.
Marguerite let it pass and our conversation drifted on, relaxed and friendly. Until we began to talk about the mission.
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” Marguerite asked, “that no human expedition was sent to Venus until your brother went?”
“The unmanned probes scoped out the planet pretty well. There’s been no need for human missions.”
“Really?” Her brows hiked up. “I thought you were a planetary scientist. Aren’t you curious about this planet?”
“Of course I am. I’ll be running a series of seismic probes for Professor Greenbaum, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“He has a theory about the planet’s surface overturning,” I explained. “He thinks the surface will get so hot it’ll begin to melt.”
“Fascinating,” Marguerite murmured.
I waved a hand in the air. “It’s not a very attractive planet.”
“Attractive?” she snapped. “Are we talking about exploring a world or starting a resort hotel?”
“I mean, it’s a hellhole. Hot enough to melt aluminum and all that.”
“But that’s just what makes it so interesting! A planet almost the same size and mass as Earth and yet with a totally different global environment. A runaway greenhouse effect. Where Earth’s atmosphere cycles carbon dioxide, Venus cycles sulfur compounds. It’s fascinating.”
“It’s a desert world,” I said. “Utterly lifeless. There’s nothing for a biologist to study.”
“Are you certain it’s dead?”
“No water,” I pointed out. “Unbreathable atmosphere. It’s hot and dead and dangerous.”
“On the surface, I grant you. But what about up in the clouds? The temperatures are cooler there. And there’s
something
in those clouds that absorbs ultraviolet energy, much the way chlorophyllic plants absorb infrared.”
“None of the probes ever found living organisms or even organic material. Nothing could live in temperatures more than twice as hot as boiling water.”
“Absence of proof,” she said loftily, “is not proof of absence.”
“Venus is dead,” I insisted.
“Is it? What about all that sulfur in the atmosphere? Sulfur’s an important component in the Jovian biochemistry, isn’t it?” she demanded.
“Well, perhaps so …”
“And sulfur metabolism was present in Earth’s earliest organisms. It’s present today, in the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans.”
“Nonsense!” I spluttered. Why is it that when you don’t have any facts on your side you tend to talk louder and solidify your position into concrete?
Quite seriously, Marguerite asked, “Why do you suppose that there were more than a dozen missions to Venus before the year 2020, but since then, hardly any?”
I hadn’t the foggiest notion, but I said, “The earlier probes told us what we needed to know. Oh, I admit there’re lots of unknowns remaining, but the planet’s so terribly uninviting that no one even thought about sending out a human team.”
“Until your brother went.”
“Yes,” I said, my insides suddenly clenching. “Alex went.”
“We have permanent research stations on Mars and the Jupiter system,” she went on, relentless, “and mining operations in the Asteroid Belt. Yet nothing for Venus. Not even an orbiting observatory.”
“The scientific community lost interest in Venus,” I said. “It happens. With so much else to study—”
“The scientific community lost
funding
for Venus,” Marguerite said firmly. “Funding that comes mainly from wealthy patrons of universities, such as your father.”
“He paid for my brother’s expedition,” I said.
“No, he didn’t. Your brother paid for his expedition out of his own funds.”
I blinked with surprise. I hadn’t known that. I had just assumed …
“And your brother died on Venus.”
“Yes,” I said, my guts churning. “That’s right.”
“Do you think the rumors are true: that your brother’s craft was sabotaged?”
“I don’t know.” I felt perspiration beading on my brow and my upper lip. I was annoyed, irritated at the turn our conversation had taken.
“They say your father didn’t want his mission to succeed. They say your brother and he had a terrible argument about it.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I wasn’t there.”
“Didn’t your brother tell you about it?”
“Obviously not!” I snapped. I realized that, except for that last night in Connecticut, Alex had told me very little about his plans, his hopes, his fears. He’d been almost a stranger to me. My own brother. We might just as well have been born into two different families.
Silence stretched between us uncomfortably.
Then it was broken by the comm screen on the galley’s bulkhead. It glowed orange and the communications computer’s voice said, “Incoming message for Mr. Humphries.”
“Display,” I called out, glad for the interruption.
Until I saw that it was my father’s face on the screen, larger than life. He was scowling with displeasure.
“I’ve just found out where Fuchs is,” he said without preamble. “He’s registered his ship and planned trajectory with the IAA, at last. He’s heading for Venus, all right. The sonofabitch is on a high-gee burn that will put him in orbit around Venus days before you get there.”
BOOK: Venus
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