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Authors: Ben Bova

Venus (8 page)

BOOK: Venus
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I
took one last look at my stateroom. When we had boarded
Truax
the single room had seemed rather cramped and decidedly shabby to me. Over the nine weeks of our flight to Venus, though, I’d grown accustomed to having my office and living quarters all contained within the same four walls—or bulkheads, as they’re called aboard ship. At least the smart wall screens had made the compartment seem larger than it actually was. I could program gloriously wide vistas, videos of almost any spot on Earth. I usually settled for the view of the Mediterranean from my hilltop home in Majorca.
Now we were ready to transfer to the much smaller
Hesperos
. At least, the crew was. I dreaded the move. If
Truax
was like a tatty old freighter,
Hesperos
would be more like a cramped, claustrophobic submarine.
To make matters worse, in order to get to the dirigible-like
Hesperos
we were going to have to perform a space walk. I was actually going to have to seal myself into a spacesuit and go outside into that yawning vacuum and
trolley down the cable that linked the two vessels, with nothing between me and instant death but the monomolecular layers of my suit. I could already feel my insides fluttering with near panic.
For about the twelve thousandth time I told myself I should have insisted on a tugboat. Rodriguez had talked me out of it when we’d first started planning the mission. “A pressurized tug, just so we can make the transfer without getting into our suits?” he had jeered at me. “That’s an expense we can do without. It’s a waste of money.”
“It would be much safer, wouldn’t it?” I had persisted.
He looked disgusted. “You want safety? Use the mass and volume we’d need for the tug to carry extra water. That’ll give us an edge in case the recycler breaks down.”
“We have a backup recycler.”
“Water’s more important than a tug that we’ll only use for five minutes during the whole mission. That’s one piece of equipment that we definitely don’t need to carry along.”
So I had let Rodriguez talk me out of the tug. Now I was going to have to perform an EVA, a space walk, something that definitely gave me the shakes.
My jitters got even worse whenever I thought about Lars Fuchs.
Once my father told me that Fuchs actually was racing for the prize money, I spent long hours digging for every byte of information I could glean about him. What I found was hardly encouraging. Fuchs had a reputation for ruthlessness and achievement. According to the media biographies, he was a merciless taskmaster, a driven and hard-driving tyrant who ran roughshod over anyone who stood in his way. Except my father.
The media had barely covered Fuchs’s launch into a high-velocity transit to Venus. He had built his ship in secrecy out in the Belt—adapted an existing vessel, apparently, to his needs. Unlike all the hoopla surrounding my own launch from Tarawa, there was only one brief interview with Fuchs on the nets, grainy and stiff because of the
hourlong delay between the team of questioners on Earth and Fuchs, out there among the asteroids.
I pored over that single interview, studying the face of my adversary on my stateroom wall screen, in part to get my mind off the impending space walk. Fuchs was a thickset man, probably not much taller than I, but with a barrel chest and powerful-looking shoulders beneath his deep blue jacket. His face was broad, jowly, his mouth a downcast slash that seemed always to be sneering. His eyes were small and set so deep in their sockets that I couldn’t make out what color they might be.
He made a grisly imitation of a smile to the interviewers’ opening question and replied, “Yes, I am going to Venus. It seems only fair that I should take this very generous prize money from Martin Humphries—the man who destroyed my business and took my wife from me, more than thirty years ago.”
That brought a barrage of questions from the reporters. I froze the image and delved into the hypertext records.
Fuchs had an impressive background. He had been born poor, but built a sizable fortune for himself out in the Asteroid Belt, as a prospector. Then he started his own asteroidal mining company and became one of the major operators in the Belt, until Humphries Space Systems undercut his prices so severely that Fuchs was forced into bankruptcy. HSS then bought out the company for a fraction of its true worth. My father had personally taken control and fired Fuchs from the firm that the man had founded and developed over two decades.
While Fuchs stayed out in the Asteroid Belt, penniless and furious with helpless rage, his wife left him and married Martin Humphries. She became my father’s fourth and last wife.
I gasped with sudden understanding. She was my mother! The mother I had never known. The mother who had died giving birth to me six years afterward. The mother whose drug addiction had saddled me with chronic anemia from birth. I stared at her image on the screen: young, with
the flaxen hair and pale blue eyes of the icy northlands. She was very beautiful, yet she looked fragile, delicate, like a flower that blooms on a glacier for only a day and then withers.
It took an effort to erase her image and go back to the news file. Fuchs had taken off for Venus in a specially modified ship he had named
Lucifer
. The Latin name for Venus as the morning star was Lucifer. It was also the name used by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah as a synonym for Satan.
Lucifer. And Fuchs. After a high-gee flight, he was already in orbit around Venus, more than a week ahead of me. Sitting there in my stateroom, staring at Fuchs’s sardonic, sneering face on the wall screen, I remembered that the time had come to transfer to
Hesperos
. There was no way to get out of it. I still wished I were home and safe, but now I knew that I had to go through with this mission no matter what the dangers.
But my thoughts went back to my mother. I had never known that she was once Fuchs’s wife. My father hardly ever spoke of her, except to blame me for her death. Alex had told me that it wasn’t my fault, that women didn’t die in childbirth unless there was something terribly wrong. It was Alex who told me about her drug dependency; as far as my father was concerned she was faultless.
“She was the only woman I ever really loved,” he said, many a time. I almost believed him. Then he would add, cold as liquid helium, “And you killed her, Runt.”
A single rap on my door startled me. Before I could respond, Desiree Duchamp slid the door open and gave me a hard stare.
“Are you coming or not?” she demanded.
I drew myself up to my full height—not quite eye to eye with my captain—and forced my voice to be steady and calm as I answered, “Yes. I’m ready.”
When she turned and headed down the passageway I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to conjure up a picture of my brother. I’m doing this for you, Alex, I said to myself.
I’m going to find out why you died—and who’s responsible for your death.
But as I headed down the passageway after Duchamp, the image in my mind was of my mother, so young and lovely and vulnerable.
We had done simulations of the EVA procedure a dozen times, and I had suited up each time. I thought it was silly, like children playing dress-up, but Duchamp had insisted that we pull on the cumbersome suits and boots and helmets and backpacks even though we were only going to play-act in the ship’s virtual reality chamber.
Now the crew was gathered at the main airlock, busily getting into their spacesuits. It looked to me like some athletic team’s locker room, or a changing booth in a beach-side cabana. I paid intense attention to every detail of the procedure, though. This time it would be for real. A mistake here could be fatal. Leggings first, then the thickly lined boots. Slide into the torso and wiggle your arms through the sleeves. Pull the bubble helmet over your head, seal it to the neck ring. Then work the gloves over your fingers. The gloves had a bony exoskeleton on their backs, powered by tiny servomotors that amplified one’s muscle power tenfold. There were also servos built into the suit’s joints: shoulders, elbows, knees.
Duchamp herself hung the life support rig on my back and connected the air hose and power lines. The backpack felt like a ton weighing on my shoulders.
I heard the suit’s air fans whine into life, like distant gnats, and felt cool air flowing softly across my face. The suit was actually roomy inside, although the leggings chafed a little against my thighs.
Marguerite, Rodriguez, and the four other crew members were all fully suited. Even Dr. Waller was frowning slightly with impatience as they waited for me to finish up.
“Sorry I’m so slow,” I muttered.
They nodded from inside their fishbowl helmets. Marguerite even managed a little smile.
“All right,” Duchamp said at last, once she was convinced
my suit was properly sealed. “Radio check.” Her voice was muffled slightly by the helmet.
One by one the crew members called to the EVA controller up on the bridge. I heard each of them in my helmet earphones.
“Mr. Humphries?” the controller called.
“I hear you,” I said.
“Radio check complete. Captain Duchamp, you and your crew are go for transfer.”
With Duchamp directing us, they went through the airlock hatch, starting with Rodriguez. Then the doctor and, one by one, the three technicians. I followed Marguerite. Duchamp grasped my arm as I stepped carefully over the sill of the hatch into the blank metal womb of the airlock.
Once she swung the inner hatch shut I felt as if I were in a bare metal coffin. I started to breathe faster, felt my heart pumping harder. Stop it! I commanded myself. Calm down before you hyperventilate.
But when the outer hatch started to slide open I almost panicked.
There was nothing out there! They expected me to step out into total emptiness. I tried to find some stars in that black infinity, something, anything to reassure me, but through the deep tinting of my helmet I could not see any.
“Hold on.” Rodriguez’s familiar voice calmed me a little. But only a little. Then I saw the former astronaut—now an astronaut once again—slide into view, framed by the outline of the open hatch.
“Gimme your tether,” Rodriguez said, extending a gloved hand toward me. It looked like a robot reaching for me. I couldn’t see his face at all. Even though the bubble helmets gave us fine visibility from inside them, their protective sunshield tinting made them look like mirrors from the outside. All I could see in Rodriguez’s helmet was the blank fishbowl reflection of my own helmet.
“C’mon, Mr. Humphries. Gimme your tether. I’ll attach it to the trolley. Otherwise you’ll swing away.”
I remembered the drill from the simulations we had gone
through. I unclipped the end of my safety tether from its hook at the waist of my suit and handed it mutely to Rodriguez. He disappeared from my view. There was nothing beyond the airlock hatch that I could see, nothing but a gaping, all-encompassing emptiness.
“Step out now, come on,” Rodriguez’s voice coaxed in my earphones. “You’re okay now. Your tether’s connected to the trolley and I’m right here.”
His spacesuited form floated into view again, like a pale white ghost hovering before me. Then I saw the others, a scattering of bodies floating in the void, each connected to the trolley by thin tethers that seemed to be stretched to their limit.
“It’s really fun,” Marguerite’s voice called.
We were not in zero gravity. The two spacecraft were still swinging around their common center of gravity, still connected by the Buckyball cable. But there was nothing out there! Nothing but an emptiness that stretched to the ends of the universe.
Shaking inside, my heart thundering so loudly that I knew they could all hear it over my suit radio, I grasped the edge of the outer hatchway in my gloved hands and, closing my eyes, stepped off into infinity.
My stomach dropped away. I felt bile burning up into my throat. My mind raced. He missed me! Rodriguez missed me and I’m falling away from the ship. I’ll fall to the Sun or go drifting out and away forever and ever.
Then something tugged at me. Hard. My eyes popped open and I saw that my tether was as taut as a steel rod, holding me securely. But the trolley seemed to me miles away. And I couldn’t see any of the others even when I twisted my head to look for them.
“He’s secured,” Rodriguez’s voice said in my earphones.
“Very well,” Duchamp replied. “I’m coming out.”
I was twisting around, literally at the end of my tether, trying to find the rest of us.
Then the massive bulk of Venus slid into my view. The planet was huge! Its tremendous mass curved gracefully, so
bright that it was hard to look at it even through the heavy tinting of my helmet. For a dizzying moment I felt as if its enormous expanse were above me, over my head, and it was going to come down and crush me like a ponderous boulder squashing some insignificant bug.
But only for a moment. The fear passed quickly and I gasped as I stared at the overpowering awesome immensity of the planet. Tears sprang to my eyes, not from its brightness, from its beauty.
I felt someone tugging at my shoulder. “Hey, you okay, boss?” Rodriguez asked.
BOOK: Venus
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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