The Quiet Invasion — Chapter One
“THIS IS VENERA CONTROL, Shuttle AX-2416. You’re clear for landing. Welcome back.”
Hello, Tori. How are you doing? thought Helen from her seat in the passenger compartment. She liked the fact that the shuttle pilots left the intercom open so she could listen to the familiar voices running through the landing protocols. Overhearing this final flight ritual made her feel that she was really home.
I just wish I was really home with better news.
She bit her lip and settled a little further back in her crash-couch. Helen was the only Venera-bound passenger this run. She’d flown from Earth in the long-distance ship Queen Isabella, which now waited in orbit while the shuttles from Venera ferried down supplies and equipment that had to be imported from Earth.
Helen stared straight ahead over the rows of empty couches. The ceiling and front wall of the shuttle’s passenger cabin were one gigantic view screen. Venus’s opaque, yellowish-gray clouds churned all around the shuttle. Wind stirred the mists constantly but never cleared them away.
She strained her eyes, struggling to see the solid shadow of Venera Base through the shifting fog. Despite everything, Helen still felt as if she carried the bad news with her, that nothing could have changed aboard Venera until she got there and handed the news over.
I’m not there so it’s not real yet. Helen smoothed down the indigo scarf she wore over her stark white hair. Arrogance, arrogance, old woman. This last trip should have finally put you in your place.
She really did feel old. It was strange. Even in the modern era of med trips and gene-level body modification, eighty-three was not young. She had never felt so old inside, though. She’d never felt calcified like this, as if something in her understanding had failed, leaving her standing on the edge of events she was unable to comprehend clearly, let alone affect.
The shuttle’s descent steepened. At last, the cloud veil thinned enough that Helen really could make out the spherical shadow of Venera Base—her dream, her life’s work, her home.
And now, my poor failure.
Even with self-pity and defeat swimming around inside her head, Helen’s heart lifted at the sight of Venera. The base was a gigantic sphere buoyed by Venus’s thick CO2 atmosphere. Distance and cloud cover made the massive girders and cables that attached the tail and stabilizers to the main body of the station look as thin as threads.
Venera rode the perpetual easterly winds that circled the planet’s equator. The shuttle matched Venera’s speed easily, and the navigation chips in the shuttle and the runway handled the rest. The shuttle glided onto the great deck that encircled the very top of Venera’s hull. It taxied straight across the runway and to the open hangar.
The shuttle jerked slightly as it rolled to a stop. A moment of silence enveloped Helen. This was no tourist shuttle. There were no attendants, human or automated, to tell her it was okay to get up now, or to make sure she claimed all her luggage, or to hope she’d enjoyed her flight and would come again soon.
Instead, the hissing, bumping noises of pressurization, corridor docking, and engine power-down surrounded her. Helen stayed where she was. As soon as she stepped out of the shuttle, it all became real. The transition would be over. Her illusions would no longer shield her. Helen found she did not want to abandon that shelter.
Helen started and looked up into the broad, dark face of the shuttle’s senior pilot What was his name?
“Yes?” She pushed herself upright and began fumbling with the multiple buckles that strapped her to the couch. Name, name, name…
“I just wanted to say, I know you’re going to get us through this. Everybody’s with you.”
Pearson! “Thank you, Mr. Pearson,” said Helen. “We’ll find a way.”
“I know we will.” He stepped aside to give her room to stand. Helen did not miss the hand that briefly darted out to help her to her feet and then darted back again, afraid of being offensive. She pretended to ignore the awkward gesture and retrieved her satchel from the bin under her couch.
“Thank you again, Mr. Pearson.” Helen shook the pilot’s hand and met his eyes with a friendly smile. P.R. reflexes all in working order, thank you.
Then, because there was nothing else to do, she walked down the flex-walled docking corridor.
Bennet Godwin and Michael Lum, the other two members of Venera’s governing board, were, of course, waiting for her in the passenger clearing area. One look at their faces told her that the bad news had indeed flown far ahead of her.
Her hand tightened around her satchel strap as she walked up to her colleagues.
“I take it you’ve heard,” she said flatly. “We lost Andalucent Technologies and IBM.” There, it’s official. I said it. The last shards of her comforting illusions fell away.
Ben Godwin was a square-built, florid man. Every emotion registered on his face as a change of color, from snow white to cherry red. Right now though, he just looked gray. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Michael, standing beside him, glanced briefly at the floor and then up at Helen’s eyes. He was a much younger, much leaner, much calmer than with clear gold skin. He wore his black hair long and pulled back into a ponytail. The gold ID badge on his white tunic proclaimed him the chief of Venera’s security. “They took the University of Washington with them.”
He spoke softly, but the words crashed hard against Helen. “What? When?”
“About an hour ago.” Ben ran his hand over his bristly scalp. “We tried to get them to wait to talk to you, but they weren’t—”
Anger hardened Helen’s face. “Well, they’ll have to talk to me anyway.” She brushed past the two men. “We can’t afford to lose their funding too.”
Helen did not look back to see if they were following her. She just strode straight ahead into the broad, curving corridor that connected the docking area to the rest of Venera. She ignored the nearest elevator bundle and started down the stairs instead. She was not waiting around anymore. She’d been waiting on people for months on Earth. Waiting for them to tell her they had no more money, no more time to wait for results, no more interest in a planet that would never be amenable to human colonization or exploitation.
Helen kept her office on the farm levels near the center of Venera’s sphere. Full spectrum lights shone down on vast soil beds growing high-yield cereals and brightly colored vegetables. Ducks and geese waded freely through troughed rice paddies that also nurtured several species of fish. The chickens, however, were penned in separate yards around the perimeter. The chickens did not get along with the more peaceable fowls. Quartz windows ringed the entire level, showing the great gray clouds. Every now and then, a pure gold flash of sheet lightning lit the world.
The farms had been meant to give Venera some measure of independence. Acquiring good, fresh food was vital to the maintenance of a permanent colony, and from the beginning, Helen had meant Venera to be a permanent colony.
Old dreams died hard. Venera might have actually had real self-sufficiency, except for the restrictions the U.N. placed on manufacturing and shipping licenses.
Old fears died hard too.
Helen’s office was an administrative cubicle on an island in the middle of one of the rice paddies. She knew people called it “the Throne Room” and didn’t really care. She loved Venus, but she missed Earth’s blues and greens. Setting up her workspace in the farms had been the perfect compromise.
Helen kept a spartan office. It was furnished with a work desk, three visitor’s chairs, and an all-purpose view screen that currently showed a star field. Her one luxury, besides her view, was a couple of shelves of potted plants—basil, oregano, lavender, and so on. Their sweet, spicy scents were the air’s only perfume.
Helen dropped herself into the chair behind the desk and tossed her satchel onto the floor. It was only then that she became aware that Michael and Ben had in fact followed her.
“Who’d you talk to?” Her touch woke the desk and lit its command board. She shuffled through the icons to bring up her list of contact codes.
“Patricia Iannone,” said Ben, sitting in one of the visitor’s chairs. “She sounded like she was just following orders.”
“We’ll see.” Helen activated Pat’s contact and checked the time delay. Four minutes today. Not great for purposes of persuasive conversation, but doable. Helen opened the com system and lifted her face to the view screen. “Hello, Pat. I’ve just gotten back to Venera, and they’re telling me that U Washington is pulling our funding. What’s the matter? You can’t tell me the volcanology department has not been getting its money’s worth out of us. If it’s a matter of being more vocal about your sponsorship or about allowing your people some more directed research time, I know we can work out the details. You just have to let me know what you and your people need.” She touched the Send key, and the com system took over, shooting the message down after the contact code, waiting for a connection, and a reply.
Helen swiveled her chair to face Ben and Michael. “All right, tell me what’s been happening since we talked last.”
So Ben told her about some of the new personnel assignments and promotions and how the volcano, Hathor Montes, was showing signs of entering an active cycle. Michael talked about a rash of petty thefts, an increase in demands on the data lines caused apparently by the volcanology group gearing up for Hathor’s active cycle, and a couple of in-stream clip-out personas trying to get themselves inserted onto Venera’s payroll.
“Now that would be all we’d need,” muttered Helen. “Handing out extra money for a couple of computer ghosts.”
As she spoke, the desk chimed. All of them turned their attention back to the view screen. Helen’s stomach tightened. The star field cleared away to show a fashionably slim, young-looking woman with beige skin and a cloud of dark-blond hair, worn unbound under a pink scarf.
“Hello, Helen,” she said soberly. “I was expecting this. Listen, there are no complaints about the publicity, the facilities access, about anything. The problems are application, opportunity, and resource distribution. The comptrollers have decided our people are going to have to be content with St. Helens and Pelee for a while. The industrial research spillover is contracting, and there is just not enough to go around right now.” Her expression flickered from annoyed to apologetic. “There’s no more after this. Anything you send is going to my machine. I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do.”
The stars faded back into view. For a moment, Helen met Ben’s gaze, but she looked quickly away. She didn’t want to see what he was thinking. We could have done this, he was thinking, if you’d been willing to do it small. If you hadn’t insisted from the beginning on a full-scale base where people could live and raise their children and make a lifetime commitment to the study of this world.
She pressed her fingertips against her forehead. That was what he was thinking. That Venus was, at most, four weeks away from Earth. It wouldn’t have mattered if people had to come and go. Venera could have been made small and simple and then expanded if things worked out. But, oh, no. Helen Failia had her vision, and Helen Failia had to push it through. Helen had to make sure there were children like Michael who could lose their homes if the funding ever collapsed.
“There is a way out of this,” said Michael. “There has to be.”
“What?” Helen’s hand jerked away from her face. “Michael, I’m open to suggestions. I’ve just spent four months scavenging the whole of Mother Earth for additional funding. It’s not there.”
“Well.” Michael rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and then brought them back down to meet Helen’s gaze. “Have you tried a com burst out to Yan Su on the Colonial Affairs Committee? There might be some U.N. money we can dredge up.”
Ben snorted. “Oh, come on, Michael. The U.N. pay to keep a colony running? Their business is keeping colonies scraping and begging.” As a younger man, Helen knew, Ben had been strongly sympathetic with the Bradbury Separatist movement on Mars—the same movement that had blossomed into the Bradbury Rebellion and, for five short, violent years, Bradbury Free Territory. Because of that, he still took a very dim view of the United Nations and their off-Earth colonial policies.
She had to admit he was partly right. Since the Bradbury Rebellion, the C.A.C.’s sole function had been to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Hence, the licensing restrictions. No colony could manufacture space shuttles or long-distance ships. No colony could manufacture communications satellites, although they were graciously allowed to repair the ones they had. There was a whole host of other hardware and spare parts that either never got licensed or were taxed to the Sun and back again.
Most of the time that didn’t bother Helen. She dealt with the C.A.C. through her friend Yan Su, and so far Su had been willing to help whenever she could. Now, though, they were coming head-to-head with the old, frightened public policies.
“You think they want to deal with ten thousand refugees?” countered Michael calmly. “It’s got to be cheaper to let us stay where we’re at than to pay for processing ten thousand new resident-citizen files.”
Helen nodded absently. She found, to her shame, she was not ready to admit that that avenue had been shut off almost a year ago. Maybe she could try again. Now is not the time for pride, she reminded herself firmly. You’ve begged everybody else. Why not the government?
“Yan Su helped put us up here,” said Michael, more to Ben than to Helen. “Maybe she can help keep us up here.” Ben’s only response was to turn a little pinker and look sour.
As little as she liked to admit it, Michael was right. It was time for last resorts. Without their three major funding sources, they were not going to be able to meet their payroll. They could buy some time by laying off the nonpermanent residents and sending them back to Mother Earth, but then they wouldn’t be able to complete their research projects and they’d lose yet more money.
Helen looked at the time delay again. Venus and Earth were moving out of conjunction. If she put this off, the time delay was only going to get worse, and she didn’t want to have to conduct this conversation through the mail. “Why don’t you—”
Movement outside the office cleared the door’s view panel. Grace Meyer stood in front of the door with her arms folded and her impatience plain on her heavily lined face. Helen suppressed a groan. What she wanted to do was open the intercom and say, “We’re having a meeting, Grace. Not now.” But she held back. Grace had proven herself willing to make trouble lately, and Venera did not need more trouble.
“We’ll finish in a minute, gentlemen,” she said instead. “Door. Open. Hello, Grace,” she said, not bothering to put on a smile, as Grace would know it was false. “What can I do for you?”
Dr. Grace Meyer was a short woman with a milk-and-roses complexion. Her lab coat was no longer crisp, and her tunic and trousers were as rumpled as if she’d slept in them. She wore a green kerchief tied over her short hair, which was the same strawberry blond as when she’d moved to Venera fifteen years ago. Grace was a long-lifer. She was actually twice Helen’s age, even though she looked only half that old.
Grace nodded to Ben and Michael and then turned all her attention to Helen. “I heard about U Washington.”
Helen sighed. “The only thing that travels faster than bad news is bad news about you personally.” Ben and Michael did not smile. Ben looked grim. Michael looked like he was trying to calculate the probable outcome of this scenario so he could ready his responses.
“What about U Washington?” asked Helen.
Grace glanced at Ben and Michael. In that glance, Helen read that Grace would like to ask them to leave but couldn’t quite work out how. And I’ll be damned if I’ll help you, Helen thought.
“Helen,” Grace started again, “there are still sources of money out there. If we shift emphasis just a little—”
Here it comes. “To the possibility of life on Venus?”
Grace leaned across the desk “You saw my new grant from Biotech 24. That’s good money, Helen. The absorbers—”
“Are a complex set of benzene rings with some strange sulfuric hangers-on under heat and pressure.”
Grace was a chemist who had come to Venera to help look for the ultraviolet absorber in the Venusian clouds. The clouds were mostly transparent to ultraviolet, but there were bands and patches that absorbed all but the very lowest end of the UV wavelengths. For years, no one had been able to work out what was happening. Grace and her team had isolated a large, complex carbon, oxygen, sulfur molecule that interacted with the sulfuric acid in the clouds and the UV from the Sun, so it was constantly breaking apart, re-forming and re-creating more of itself. Which was fine; it had won her awards and acclaim, and brought Venera a lot of good publicity.
The problem was, Grace was trying to get the compound, which she called “the absorber” for simplicity’s sake, classified as life.
Helen got slowly to her feet. She was not tall, but she had a few centimeters on Grace and didn’t mind using them. Especially now. She did not need this. “Your absorbers are not life. No funding university or independent research lab we’ve had on board for the last ten years has said it could be qualified as life, or even proto-life.”
Grace held her ground. “But there’s—”
“There’s one little company that’s got more of an existence in-stream than out in reality. It’s willing to gamble on your idea this is some kind of alien autocatalytic RNA.” Grace subsided just a little, but Helen wasn’t ready to. The past months had been too much on top of the past year, all the past years. All the fighting, all the frustration, all the time wasted, wasted on stupid, petty money-grubbing and useless personal projects. “I’ve read your papers, Grace. I’ve read them all, and you know what? I wish I’d tried harder to get you to leave it alone. You’ve directly contributed to the image of this base as a useless piece of dreamware. You have cost us, Grace. You personally have cost all of us!”
The intercom chimed again. “What is it?” demanded Helen icily. She needed to take the call. She needed to stop yelling at Grace. She was falling out of control, and she could not afford that. Grace could still make trouble—publicize internal dissension, that kind of thing. There was plenty she could do. Plenty she would do. Helen needed to stop.
“Ummm…Dr. Failia?” The screen flickered to life to show a slender young than with clear, sandy-brown skin and thick black hair. Behind him, a floor-to-ceiling view screen displayed the ragged gray cliff, possibly the edge of one of the continent-sized plateaus that broke the Venusian crust.
“Yes, Derek?” Helen tried to smooth the impatience out of her voice. Derek Cusmanos headed the survey department. Actually, Derek and his fleet of drones were the survey department. He always did his job well. He had done nothing to deserve her anger.
“I…I’m getting some pictures in from one of the drones near Beta Regio that you need to see, Dr. Failia.”
Helen’s fingers twitched as she tried not to clench her hands into fists. “This is not a good time, Derek. Shoot me up a file and I’ll go over it—”
“No, Dr. Failia.” Strain tightened Derek’s voice. “You really need to see this right now.”
Curiosity and concern surfaced together in Helen’s mind. She glanced back at Ben and Michael, who both returned blank stares. A glance at Grace produced a shrug and a pair of spread hands.
“All right, Derek,” said Helen. “Show me.”
Without another word, Derek pushed his chair back so they had a clear view of his wall screen. Helen heard him give soft orders to his desk to display the current uplink.
The screen’s view changed. The gigantic plateau wall receded into the distance. In its place stood a smaller, rounded canyon wall, the kind that typically bordered the ancient lava channels. On the canyon’s cracked floor, Helen saw something sticking up out of the ground. Derek gave another order. The view zoomed in.
The new, tighter view showed a perfectly circular shaft protruding from the Venusian ground.
“Oh my God,” whispered Michael. Helen just got out of her chair and walked slowly forward until her nose almost touched the intercom screen.
It was not anything that should have been there, but there it was. It was circular. It had a cap on it. Its gray sides glinted dully in Venus’s ashen light, and it sank straight into the bedrock.
“This is live,” said Derek from his post off-screen. “I’m getting this in right now from SD-25.”
“You’ve done a diagnostic?” cut in Ben. He supervised Derek’s “department.” “The drone is functioning on spec?”
“On spec and in the green,” said Derek “I…I didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I sent SD-24 down after it. This is what I’m getting from SD-24.” He gave another order and the view shifted again. Now they looked down from above, as if the camera drone perched on the canyon wall, which it probably did.
The capped shaft sat there, smooth and circular and utterly impossible. Even Venus, which had produced stone formations seen nowhere else in the solar system, had not created those smooth lines, that flattened lid.
“Well,” said Ben. “I don’t remember putting that there.”
“Derek,” said Helen quietly, “I want you to keep both drones on-site. I want that thing recorded from every possible angle. I want it measured and I want its dimensions and position to the millimeter. We’ll get a scarab down there to look at it.”
“Yes, Dr. Failia.” Derek sounded relieved that someone else was making the decisions.
“Well done, young man,” she added.
“Thank you, Dr. Failia.”
The intercom cut out and Helen turned slowly around. “Do I have to say it?” she asked dryly.
“You mean that if that’s what it looks like—” began Ben.
“We have evidence of life on Venus?” Grace folded her arms. Her green eyes gleamed brightly. “Oh, please, Helen. I’d love to hear you say it, just once.”
A muscle in Helen’s temple spasmed. “Now is not the time to be petty, Grace.”
Grace smiled. “Oh no, not petty, Helen. But you’ll have to allow me a little smugness. I’ve been shouting in the wilderness for years now. If this bears out—”
“If this bears out.” Ben emphasized the first word heavily. “Venus has thrown up some landscapes that make the old face on Mars look passé.’ He pushed himself to his feet. “Kevin is on shift. I’ll have him outfit us a scarab ay-sap.” Kevin Cusmanos was Derek’s older brother. He was also chief engineer and pilot for the surface-to-air explorer units known as scarabs, which transported people to and from the Venusian surface. “I assume you’re coming down to see what’s what?” Ben looked pointedly at Helen.
“Of course,” she answered. “And Michael’s coming with us.” She looked to him for approval and he nodded. His face held a kind of stunned wonder as the implications filtered through him. Helen knew exactly how he felt. If this was played out, it meant so many things. It meant human beings were not alone in the universe. It meant there was not only intelligent life out there somewhere but it had also left its traces on Venus.
It meant money for Venera.
Grace opened her mouth, but Helen held up her hand. “Not this run, Grace. Next one, if it turns out to be more than rocks and heat distortion.” Keep up the patter, Helen. You do not know what’s really down there. You only know what it looks like.
Somewhat to Helen’s surprise, Grace just nodded and stepped aside for Ben as he hurried out the door. Helen did not, however, miss the purely triumphant smile that spread across her face.
Can’t blame her, I suppose. “If that’s what it looks like,” she repeated out loud.
“If that’s what it looks like, all our old problems are over with, and we’ll have a set of brand-new ones,” said Michael. “But ohmygod…”
Helen touched his arm. “I quite agree. Go grab your gear, Michael, and tell Jolynn and the boys you won’t be home for supper.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He snapped a mock salute and hurried out the door.
Grace and Helen faced each other for a long moment. “Well,” said Grace brightly, “I think I’ll go reorganize my files. I think there’s going to be some new work coming in.” She left, and the door slid shut behind her.
Finally alone, Helen reached up and untied her scarf. Her long white hair fell down around her shoulders. She combed her fingers through it, feeling how each strand separated and fell, brushing her cheeks and shoulders. It felt coarser than she remembered it feeling when she was a young woman. Coarser and yet more fragile, like its owner.
Let this work out, she prayed silently. I don’t care if I have to spend the next fifty years apologizing to Grace Meyer. This could save us all. Please, let it work out right.
Less than five hours later, Helen, too on edge to remember she ought to be tired and hungry, unstrapped herself from a second crash-couch. This one was in the little dormitory aboard Scarab Fourteen. The scarab itself crawled across the Venusian surface, following the signal output of Derek Cusmanos’s two drones.
Because it was Kevin Cusmanos’s policy to always have two of Venera’s twenty scarabs ready to go in case of emergency, heading to the surface had been a matter of grabbing overnight bags and calling on Adrian Makepeace, the duty pilot for the afternoon shift. Kevin said he’d take the board down himself, but he wanted Adrian’s experience in the copilot’s seat.
Scarab Fourteen was a clone of all the other scarabs owned and operated by Venera Base—a wedge-shaped, mobile laboratory that could both fly and roll. They were designed to take a team of up to seven researchers plus two crew members to almost any spot on the Venusian surface that wasn’t covered in lava. Built wide and low to the ground, they were practical but not comfortable. Adrian, Helen noticed, seemed to be developing a permanent stoop and a tendency to walk sideways from all the time he spent in them.
Designing for the heat and pressure of the Venusian surface had proved incredibly difficult. That was one of the reasons Venera floated through the clouds. The surface was an oven. Up in the clouds, the temperature was close to the freezing point of water. Down here, they had to carry layers of insulation and heavy-duty coolant tanks that had to be recharged and refrozen after each trip.
Helen picked her way between the crash-couches, rocking slightly with the motion of the treads until she emerged into the main corridor. Ben and Michael had gone ahead of her and already crowded behind Kevin’s and Adrian’s chairs in the command area. They all stared through the main window that wrapped around the scarab’s nose.
The scarab ground its careful way across the nightside of Venus. Outside, the cracked surface of Ruskalia Planitia glowed with the heat it radiated, creating a quilt of deep reds, bright oranges, and clear, clean yellow. Overhead, the light reflected off the clouds, lending them the color and texture of molten gold being stirred by some invisible hand.
Kevin, a cautious, quiet man, who was almost twice as broad in the shoulders as his younger brother, kept his gaze flickering between the map displays and the window which showed them Beta Regio, a ragged wall of living fire wavering in the distance.
Coming down several kilometers from the whatever-it-was had seemed prudent. They did not want to land accidentally on something important.
As Beta Regio grew larger, the plain under the scarab’s treads became rougher. Small, knife-backed ridges, blood red with escaping heat and blurred by the thick atmosphere, rose out of the plain. The closer they came to Beta Regio, the higher the ridges rose, until they became ragged walls. At last, Scarab Fourteen drove down a glowing corridor, following the path carved by a river of ancient lava.
A million similar paths spread out around the various Venusian highlands. Kevin drove the scarab gently over the rocks and swells, guided by the global positioning readout and the signals from his brother’s drones.
The lava trail dead-ended at a sharp, smooth cliff that shone a livid orange. Some coal-bright sand rolled lazily along the brilliant ground, brushing against the hatchway set into the living rock.
“Venera Base,” said Kevin in the general direction of the radio grill. “This is Scarab Fourteen.” It was somehow comforting to see he was staring, as was Adrian. As are we all. “We have the…target in sight. Are you getting our picture?”
“We’re getting it, Boss.” Helen almost didn’t recognize Charlotte Murray’s voice, with its undertone of uncertainty, as if she were torn between fear and awe.
Helen understood the feeling. Her own eyes ached from staring at the brightly shining artifact. It was a perfectly circular shaft, about two meters across, that protruded half a meter out of the rugged surface. It glowed red hot, like its surroundings. Its lid had a series of, what?—handles? locks?—spaced evenly on all the sides she could see.
She glanced at Ben and saw his thoughts shining plainly on his face. It had to be a hatchway. It couldn’t be anything else. Someone had built it there. That was the only explanation.
She knew he was not about to say any of that out loud, however. It wouldn’t do. It was bad science and poor leadership, neither of which Ben would tolerate.
“Well”—she straightened up—“who’s coming out to take a look?”
“Dr. Failia, you’re not—” began Kevin. Helen silenced him with a glance. He was probably right. It probably was not a good idea for an eighty-something who was behind on her med trips to don a heavy hardsuit and go outside on Venus for a bit of a ramble.
But I’ll be damned if I’m staying behind to watch this through the window.
“Right behind you, Helen,” said Ben. Michael didn’t say anything. He just headed down the narrow central corridor toward the changing area at the back of the scarab.
Helen rolled her eyes and followed, with Ben and Adrian filing after her. As copilot, Adrian’s primary job was monitoring, or baby-sitting, any extravehicular activities. The EVA staging area took up most of the scarab’s wide back end. Still, there somehow never seemed to be quite enough room for even three people to get into the bulky hardsuits.
The hardsuits themselves consisted of two layers. The soft, cloth-lined inner suit went directly over a person’s clothes. This layer carried the coolants circulating in microtubules drawn from tanks which were pulled from the freezer and strapped, along with the O2 packs, over the shoulders.
Then the pressure shell was assembled. Based on the hard-suits used in very deep industrial sea diving, it kept the user’s personal pressure at a comfortable one atmosphere. It was also heavy as all get-out. Despite the internally powered skeletons, every time she put one on, Helen felt like a clunky monster from outer space.
But it was all necessary. The best simulations they had suggested that a person exposed to Venus’s surface temperature and pressure would flash-burn a split second before any remaining chemical residue was squashed flat.
Finally, Helen locked down her helmet. The edges of the faceplate lit up with the various monitor readouts and the control icons. Helen had never liked the icons. They were line-of-sight controlled and she found them clumsy to use. Adrian looped the standard tool belt around her waist and stood back.
“Check one, check one, Dr. Failia.” Adrian’s voice came through her helmet’s intercom. Following routine, Helen waved her hand in front of her suit’s chest camera. “Reading you, Scarab Fourteen,” she said. The monitors in each hard-suit were slaved to the scarab for earliest possible detection of mechanical trouble.
“And we have you, Dr. Failia,” replied Adrian, glancing at the wall monitors. “Check two, check two, Dr. Godwin.” The routine was repeated with Ben and Michael. Helen leaned against the wall and tried not to think too much about what waited outside. The picture had burned itself into her mind. It was an artificial structure, no question there. She couldn’t wait until the rest of the solar system saw it. Good God, they’d say, there was somebody else out here or there had been. Her Venus, her beautiful, misunderstood twin to Earth, housed or had housed intelligent life….
Steady Helen. Remember, you still don’t know anything.
The checks on Ben’s and Michael’s suits came up green, and Adrian let them all move into the airlock. He swung the hatch shut behind them. The suits maintained pressure for their inhabitants, but the airlock had to equalize the pressure inside and outside before the hatch would open. That meant pumping the room up to a full ninety atmospheres worth of pressure.
As the pump started chugging, Ben turned toward Helen. “Well, it’s either aliens or the biggest practical joke in human history.”
“If we open it up and a bunch of those springy worms fly out, we’ll know, right?” said Michael, carefully bending his knees to sit on a bench he couldn’t quite see.
“Would they fly out, under pressure?” asked Helen. “Or would they just sort of pop and bounce?”
“That’s one for Ned and the atmospherics people.” Michael’s hands moved restlessly, tapping against his thighs to some internal rhythm.
There seemed to be nothing else to say. Each of them lapsed into silence, thinking their own thoughts, making their own calculations or dreaming of their own futures. It took about fifteen minutes to pressurize the airlock. Right now, it felt like hours.
But finally the gauges all blinked green. Ben worked the levers on the outer hatch and swung it open.
“Good luck, Team Fourteen,” came Adrian’s voice.
One by one the governing board stepped out onto the glowing Venusian surface. Helen had never been so aware of being watched—monitored by her suit, overseen by Adrian and all Scarab Fourteen’s cameras, followed by her colleagues, tracked by Derek’s drones, which sat dormant on their own little treads, a short distance from the target object.
She took refuge in chatter. She activated the general intercom icon.
“Failia to Scarab Fourteen,” she said. “Are you receiving?”
“Receiving loud and clear, Dr. Failia,” answered Adrian. “Our readings say all suits green and go.”
“All green and go out here,” she returned. “Except Dr. Godwin forgot the marshmallows.”
“That was on your to-do list, Helen,” shot back Ben. Helen smiled. That had been an early experiment. The marshmallow exposed to the Venusian atmosphere had not roasted, however. It had scrunched up and vaporized. The egg they’d attempted to fry on the rock had exploded.
The memory spread a smile across Helen’s face and made it easier to concentrate on the way in front of her. The cracks in the crust could be wide enough to catch a toe in, sending a person tumbling down in a most undignified fashion and wasting time while they were helped back to their feet—if their suit held up to the fall. If it didn’t, there’d be nothing left to help up.
Helen dismissed that thought but held her pace in check with difficulty. She did not want to waste any more time. She wanted to sprint on ahead, but she had to settle for a slow march.
Still, they got steadily closer to the target. The closer they got, the more obvious it became that the object had to be artificial. It was indeed perfectly circular. The smooth sides rose about a half meter out of the rock. A series of smaller spheres protruded from it. For a moment, the three of them all lined up in front of the thing, examining it in reverent silence.
“Okay.” The word came out of Michael like a sigh. “What’s the procedure? Measure it first?”
“Measure it first,” said Helen.
Slowly, Helen, Michael, and Ben circled the target in a strange, clumsy dance, recording everything yet again and measuring all of it. Yes, the drones had technically done all of this, but that was the machine record. This was the human record, and they needed it to help prove that this object was not just the result of some computer graphics and hocus-pocus.
The shaft was exactly forty-four centimeters in height and one and a half meters in diameter. A second, apparently separate section rested on or was attached to the top. That section was also one and a half meters in diameter but was only ten centimeters thick. Small, spherical protrusions, each appearing to be ten centimeters across, were attached to the sides of the upper section (like somebody’d stuck a half-dozen oranges there, Ben noted), equally spaced at sixty-degree intervals and attached by some undetermined means. A small circle, eight point three centimeters in diameter, had been inscribed three point six-four centimeters from the outer edge of the top section.
“Well, you’re the expert, Ben,” said Helen. “Is it or is it not naturally occurring?”
Ben’s helmet turned toward her. “You’re kidding, right, Helen?”
“No, I’m not.” Helen remained immobile. “I want this all for the record.”
“Okay, then.” There came a brief shuffling noise that might have been Ben shrugging inside his suit. “In my opinion, based on the observations of the previous robotic investigation and my own two eyes, this is not a naturally occurring formation.”
“To my knowledge, no one on Venera Base has ever authorized construction of such an object,” added Helen.
“Are you going to open it, Helen, or can I go ahead?” Michael asked mildly.
Helen bit her lip. Part of her wanted to call down a whole team to swarm over the thing, analyzing every molecule before they did anything else. She told herself that was the good scientist part of herself. The truth was somewhat less flattering.
I’m afraid: of what we’re doing, of what might, or might not, happen next.
“If you want to try, Michael, be my guest.” Helen stepped back, hoping no one realized she was giving in to the private fear that bubbled, unwelcome, out of the back of her mind.
Michael walked around the hatch. He ran his fingers over the small circle set flush against the lid. He walked around the shaft again. Finally, he grasped two of the protrusions and leaned to the right.
The hatch slid slowly, unsteadily, sideways. A huge white cloud rushed out. Michael lurched backward.
“Steam?” said Ben incredulously. “There was water in there?” There was no water on the surface of Venus. Some particles in the clouds, but other than that, nothing.
“No analysis on that,” came back Adrian. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” murmured Helen.
The cloud evaporated, and they all bent over the dark shaft. A tunnel sank straight into the bedrock. Their helmet lights shone on the bottom about four, maybe five, meters down. The first ten centimeters or so of rock around the mouth glowed brightly, but after that, it darkened to a shiny black, shot through with charcoal-gray veins. Thick staples had been shoved into the rock just below the glow-line, making what appeared to be the widely spaced rungs of a ladder.
Five sets of eyes stared. Three cameras recorded the ladder. One recorded the doctors as they waited. Nothing happened. Well, nothing new happened.
Helen straightened up and looked at her colleagues. Ben and Michael returned her gaze. She saw the awe tinged with ashamed fear in their eyes and felt a little better.
“All right, gentlemen,” she said. “Let’s go meet the neighbors.”
One careful step at a time, she climbed down into the shaft.
What none of them saw, not with their cameras, not with their own eyes, was how one of the outcroppings on the side of Beta Regio crawled a little closer to the hatchway, as if to get a better look.