Monday, January 30, 2006

The Pasadena Rule (Part I of IV)

I have posted short fiction before, here and here. This time, I offer Part I of a science fiction novella called The Pasadena Rule, which I wrote a while back but was never able to place with a publisher. Parts II through IV will be posted at roughly one-week intervals. Enjoy.

The Pasadena Rule, Part I


"Hell of a long way down," I said.

"Stop worrying, Jack," Dieter said. "I have to make sure that the cable doesn't snag again." He was standing on the rail of Gamma's experiment deck, holding on to the boom of the big winch, leaning out over the white abyss below. The winch motor hummed as the long black cable slowly wound its way back onto the drum, reeling in the instrument probe. In the training program we had done things more dangerous than what Dieter was doing now, but back then we had always worn parachutes. Dieter only had one thin safety line – and of course, a parachute was out of the question. I shook my head and looked away.

Without sun goggles, the panorama would have been too bright to look at. Beneath us and as far as the eye could see in every direction – and the distance to the horizon seemed pretty near infinity – a vast sea of clouds spread out, dazzling white with just a hint of yellow. The sky was a breathtaking blue, made deeper by the goggle lenses. The sun was hidden by the airship's double row of lifting cells over our heads. We were cruising in the jet-stream, engines at slow, so there was not much breeze on the experiment deck, even though our ground speed was over three hundred kilometers per hour.

"It looks good," Dieter announced. "Speed her up." At the winch controls, I carefully raised the cable speed to about two meters per second. At the same time the control computer sent signals down ten kilometers of cable, telling the probe to pitch its fins to increase its lift. The cable itself stretched and flexed to smooth out the changes. Dieter jumped down on the right side of the safety rail. He looked out at the cloudscape, then at me. "Nice sunny day," he said. "But maybe you would rather be down below?" I could see his grin through his faceplate.

"Possibly," I said. "But this will do."

"You're a little jealous of your wife, maybe?"

"Not at all. I'm happy for her."


"No bullshit," I said. I gave the controls another tap and nudged the cable speed up. "Yes, sure, I'd like to be on the surface. Not many people are ever going to walk on Venus, after all. But I'm basically an airship guy, like you. I've never been more than a backup lander pilot. Katya is the one on the prime crew."

"You're pretty cool about it."

"I've had time to think it over." Dieter did not say anything, which I took to be a sign of skepticism. "Look, she deserves to be there. I just wish that the Virgil were docking with us on the way back up. It would be nice to see the smile on her face."

"Oh, they might run late."

"Last I heard they were right on the EVA timeline," I said. "That gives them plenty of margin to rendezvous with Beta." The Beta dirigible, twelve hours ahead of us, was the prime recovery ship for this descent of the lander. Gamma, like the Delta twelve hours behind us, was like me: just a backup, really.

"Jack? What is your status?" It was Madeline Whitten, our skipper, calling from inside the gondola.

"Dieter freed the snag," I said. "The probe should be inboard within the hour."

"Yes, good," said Madeline shortly. "You need to come inside."

"We've just started pulling the probe back in. That's going to take a little while."

"Let Dieter finish the job. Bill is getting his suit on and can help him. But you have to come back inside now."

There was a funny edge in her voice. She was obviously worried about something, but something kept me from asking what it was. "Roger that," I said simply. "I'll come in right away." I let Dieter step up to the control console, and he clapped a gloved hand on my shoulder as he went by. A queer feeling brushed past me and was gone, like the touch of a passing shadow.

The airlock cycle seemed to take forever. I peeled off the outer shell of my pressure suit, the one that protected me from the sulfuric acid of the clouds, then unzipped the heated coveralls. The surface of Venus might be as hot as a flash oven, but this high up it was sixty degrees below zero. I shivered in my long johns until warm oxygen and nitrogen replaced the chilly carbon dioxide of the outside air. When the pressure came up to normal I slipped off my helmet and breathing mask and gathered up my gear in a bundle in my arms.

Bill was standing in the ready room in his pressure suit, looking as if he'd been roused from a sleep period. He made a nod in my direction, nothing more, before disappearing into the airlock. What is wrong with him? I wondered. I sat down on the bench and began to stow the high altitude gear in my locker next to the bulkier, silvery surface suit.

Madeline appeared at the door of the ready room. "Just stuff that out of the way," she said. "You can sort it out later."

I shoved the rest inside and shut the locker door. "What's up?" I asked. "Problems with the props?" Gamma's engines were my specialty.

Madeline turned and led me into the control pod. Scattered sunshine streamed in the wide windows, making the cabin seem gloomy by comparison. Max was sitting at the copilot's station in his sleepers, sipping a mug of something hot. Everybody on board is awake, I realized. They all know something I don't. "What has happened?" I asked, suddenly afraid to hear the answer.

Madeline hesitated. When she spoke, her voice was flat. "Something has happened on the surface. There's been an accident."

There's been an accident. It was like stepping into free fall. I felt sick. Some detached part of my mind said: This is exactly what you've always imagined death would be like, a dizzy slide into confusion before the darkness. Except that you've always imagined that it would be your own death, not hers.

Madeline grabbed my arm and steered me into a chair before I fell down. Far away, I heard myself saying, "What about Katya?"

Her answer came with a terrible slowness. "We don't know many details yet. There was a quake on the mountain and then a rockslide at the landing site. The lifesystem on Virgil is still intact, but there was some damage to the ship. The landing team was outside in hotsuits when it happened. Contact was lost."

"How far from the ship? When it happened?" My own voice sounded disjoint, peculiar. Was it my voice?

"Several hundred meters, I gather," Madeline said. "There just wasn't time to do anything, Jack. It happened without any warning at all."

Max said, "Aphrodite has taken the telemetry feed from Virgil off the relay satellite." Orbiting overhead, the Aphrodite was our mission control.

"Get it back," Madeline snapped.

I wasn't listening. I had my elbows on my knees and my head down. Something was wrong with my breathing.

"My God, Jack, I'm so sorry," Madeline said. I just nodded, unable to answer. Max was barking something into his mike, but I couldn't concentrate on the words. I stared at the deck plates between my shoes. An accident. On the surface. An accident in a place where, even in the best of times, it took a hundred technical miracles to keep you alive at all.

So Katya was . . . dead? But they hadn't said it, not quite. Everyone believed that she was dead, but they hadn't put it into words. I knew too much about the landing mission and the surface conditions to entertain any hope. In the place inside me where hope would have been, I just had this nagging question: If she's dead, why don't they say so?

It was impossible to think about it. My inner voice chattered to fill up the void. Yes, it said, this is definitely the shock phase. Sense of unreality, sense of detachment. Unbelief. What comes next: Anger? Denial? Human reflexes are so constant. Just look at Max over there, squinting at the computer display and cupping his earphone with his hand. You can't improve the resolution of a display by squinting, you can't help the reception in a headset by cupping your hand over it, but you do those things anyway.

Shut up, I told myself as firmly as I could.

"Take this," Madeline said. A small pink capsule rested in the palm of her hand. "This will help."

I shook my head. "No."

"I think you should. You have to be able to function. We'll need you."

"I won't take it," I said, through gritted teeth. "Put it away."

"Jack, come on." she said. "There's no point."

I looked up and met her eyes. "Please, Maddie. I can't. I have to be wide awake and all here. No shortcuts, no soft landings. She would do as much for me."

After a moment she nodded. "OK," she said, closing the pill into her fist. "If that's the way it has to be."

"That's the way." I knew that Katya would approve. She believed in facing life, the good and the bad, with clear eyes and no chemical comfort. But she would never find out, would she? She would never know that I was drinking this hour in without covering up the terrible bitter taste of it. And it struck me that there were going to be a lot more things like that, a lot of things that Katya would never know.

"Stand by," Max said. His voice made my head snap up. He was halfway out of his seat, crouched very still over the panel, his hands gripping arms of the chair. "Telemetry from Virgil," he said. "The outer airlock hatch is being opened. Go ahead, Aphrodite."

I stopped breathing while Max listened to his contact. "Just one person entering the lock," he said at last. "They should be plugging the hotsuit systems into the ship. We'll know in a second."

A second. A long second, followed by another, and another.

Eventually, I would have to start breathing again.

"It's Katya!" Max shouted. "The hotsuit is hers. She's alive! She's back inside the ship!"

"Oh thank God," I whispered. I leaned back in my chair and sucked in the air and clapped my hands on the top of my head as if holding it on. Relief poured through me. I let my breath out in a whistle and took in another. I grinned like an idiot. Katya was back in the ship! Alive! Safe! The universe rolled over and turned back right-side-up again.

But when I looked over at Madeline and saw the expression on her face, reality kicked me in the stomach. Better to be dead now, quick and clean, Maddie was thinking. Better that than to be alive in Hell with a broken ship, beyond any hope of a rescue.

I felt my moron grin turn to stone.


I had met Katya during the run-up to the mission, back on Earth. Our acquaintance at first was alphabetical: Jack Ross, airship engineer, meet Ekaterina Rudenko, the pretty geologist in the next seat over. I had just spent six months in Earth orbit, flying engineering test prototypes at the ends of long tethers, learning to deorbit and deploy the hydrogen dirigibles that we needed for the exploration of Venus. The major problems with the airship systems were ironed out, and we'd finished the program by establishing the High Jump, our training platform, thirty kilometers above the tropics. I was still getting my "ground legs" and preparing to move to another job.

Katya had also just returned to Earth, but from much further away. She was a volcanologist who had spent most of four years on Mars, hopping all over Olympus Mons and Tharsis in one of those little peroxide rocket jumpers, trying to piece together the queer geological history of the planet. The Russians had summoned her home to be part of their contingent for the Venus mission, to extend her volcanic expertise to yet another world.

We liked each other from the first, even though – or maybe because – we were such opposites. She was a scientist who learned engineering to get along in space; I was an engineer who had boned up on planetology to qualify for the Venus mission. She was slim and dark-haired; I was square-built and red-headed. We were both on the descent planning group, where we spent long hours together marrying the abilities of the landing flier with the goals of the landings. I enjoyed Katya's company, admired her competence, appreciated her sharp Russian irony. But that was as far as it went until later, when we were training in Hawaii.

We spent two weeks offshore in an deep habitat under the Pacific, learning to use the high-pressure breathing gear. Our special life-support systems linked directly into our bloodstreams, through surgically implanted fittings in our skins. The good news was that the system made us almost immune to the problems of changing pressures. The bad news was that it made our lives miserable while we used it. The apparatus itself was uncomfortable and awkward. Even worse was the stress on the half-dozen members of the dive team, crammed into a tiny living space without privacy, helping one another cope with the equipment and its unpleasant side-effects. A fortnight at the habitat was about all that a group could take and still be on speaking terms by the end of it.

When our training rotation was over, we boarded the submarine taxi for the ascent to the surface. Our life-support units scrubbed the dissolved gases from our tissues, decompressing us in just a couple of hours. When the top hatch opened, the sunlight and sea air came pouring in, and we climbed out into the most beautiful morning I have ever seen. The docs on the support ship fussed over us for a while, then pronounced us fit. A hydrofoil whisked us over to Hilo and put us ashore for a couple of days' R&R.

Katya found me on the quay as we collected our gear. "What are your plans?"

I shrugged. "A bath maybe, and then a long walk on a beach. Nothing definite."

"I am driving inshore for some sight-seeing. Does that interest you?"

I did not really care what I did – almost anything outdoors sounded good right then. So I agreed to tag along with Katya for the day, not quite realizing what she had in mind. We rented a car and headed for the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea was a vast caldera several kilometers across, dug out of the southeast side of Mauna Loa, and within its walls was the strangest and most menacing landscape I'd ever seen on Earth. It was a wilderness of jumbled lava flows and steaming vents, like a Doré engraving of the Inferno. The ground underfoot was solidified lava, sometimes smooth and almost polished, sometimes extremely rough and jagged. I took great care on the rough areas, because a fall on the sharp rocks would mean nasty cuts, even through the fabric of my clothing. But Katya, whose legs were bare below her hiking shorts, strode along sure-footed. Every so often she had to stop and wait for me to catch up.

The whole trek increasingly seemed like a bad idea. For one thing, the park rangers had temporarily barred all of the ordinary tourists from driving down into the caldera. The eminent Dr. Rudenko, of course, had used connections to get us in. The folks at the volcano observatory loaned us impact helmets, radios and other gear, and we hitched a ride with a field team down the road into Kilauea itself. The parking area at the bottom was empty except for three or four vehicles used by the geologists. We parked next to them and continued on foot. The people who had driven us down hiked off toward the east; Katya had other ideas for the two of us. She headed toward the edge of Halemaumau, the kilometer-wide crater-within-the-crater, the active heart of the volcano.

Except today it didn't seem very active.

"Take a look at that, Jack," Katya was saying, pointing.

I took a look at that. From where we stood, Halemaumau was a deep funnel leading down into the bowels of Mauna Loa, its bottom hidden by steam and the curve of the slope. The pit was evil-looking and utterly lifeless. "Lovely."

"There is usually a lava lake there," she said. "Sometimes it is a hundred meters across, sometimes much larger. But now the lava level has gone down quite far."

"Good," I said. "Sounds safer."

"But not as pretty. Kilauea produces plenty of lava but very little explosive activity. It is usually pretty safe." She paused for effect. "Of course, volcanoes can surprise you. The most famous violent eruption here in the last two centuries was preceded by a very quiet period. The lava level in Halemaumau had dropped considerably. Then, suddenly, ka-boom!"

"Oh." Oh damn, I meant to say.

"You begin to see. That is why they are keeping visitors away from the caldera. Whenever a volcano does something unexpected, it becomes dangerous."

"Then what are we doing here?"

"Satisfying our thirst for experience," Katya said, with a breathtaking sort of gaiety. Then, seeing that I was not as happy as she with the prospect of being blown to smithereens, she added, "Relax. You will see that I am right. Volcanoes are the most magnificent things in Nature. Active ones are best of all. This is where the crust of the planet is made, Jack." She added, in a philosophical tone, "We are fortunate to live on such a geologically active planet."

That was the very moment, I swear, when the first earthquake hit us.

And that is how we happened to be in the bottom of Kilauea at the start of the worst eruption in a hundred years. To tell the truth, I do not clearly remember everything that happened. A shrill emergency signal screamed on the radios, a sequence of very strong shocks knocked us on our backsides, and we made a frantic scramble to the vehicles. Teams were converging on the parking lot from every direction. We had almost made it when the first explosion came. From a dozen places but from Halemaumau most of all, huge blasts of fire and smoke billowed high into the air. We stared around us in awe; but our appreciation was diminished by the urgent business of getting the hell out of there. The survey teams jumped into the vehicles and powered them up.

About that time, it started raining rocks.

"Bombs" of all sizes came hurtling down from the sky and smacked the ground around us. The driver of our jeep torqued the wheels and zoomed up along the access road. But one of the rocks hit the road just ahead of us, too near to avoid. We skidded, crashed, rolled, went flying in every direction. I remember lying on the ground, holding my chest, thinking, Now this is a hell of a thing. The others turned around came back for us, God bless them, picked us up and threw us into the remaining jeeps. The motors whined and we were on our way once more.

At the observatory, under cover, Katya and I sat in a corner and waited for the ranger medic to finish with the more serious injuries. Out of a small slit of a window next to us, we could see enormous fire-fountains spurting up into the air, and great clouds of smoke and ash roiling upwards. It was terrifying and magnificent. I would not have minded looking at it from an even more distant vantage point.

Katya said quietly, "Christ, that was stupid."

"Was it?" I asked. "I thought you volcano people did this sort of crap all the time."

"Not really. Maybe once, in Kamchatka, when I was a student. But I was much more of an idiot today." She shook her head. "I have been working on Mars too long, Jack. The big volcanoes there have been dead for half a billion years. I have lost my respect."


"For Nature. If you are careless, volcanoes are not forgiving."

I looked at the fire-fountain through the window. "Are we far enough away?"

She eyed the eruption. "I think so. This observatory has been here for a long time."

We inspected each other's injuries as we waited. We were pretty banged up. Katya's right ankle looked bad, probably broken, and she also had a number of cuts and gashes on her legs. I had bruises everywhere. My hands were a mess, and I'd probably broken one or two ribs in the back when we'd crashed the jeep. It hurt to breathe deeply. My hard-hat had an impressive crack that almost split it in two.

At length she said, "You know what will happen when we go back."

I had been thinking about the same thing. "The docs are going to go nuts. They'll put us on the injured list – two or three weeks, if my ribs are broken and your ankle is as bad as it looks."

"The final crew selection is in twelve days."

I nodded grimly. "Too many people, too few places on the crew. The committee will be looking for ways to shorten the roster. If we aren't on the ready list when they meet . . . ."

"Oh damn," said Katya, leaning into me on the bench. "Jack, I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry."

There wasn't much to say. Katya and I leaned back against the wall for a time. We weren't going to Venus. But I could not just accept that, and my mind kept running in circles. If we had gotten banged up a month ago, or a month from now, it might be a different matter. Our injuries were not that severe. We could be fully operational in a week, though the project's medical people would add their usual massive safety margin. Our problem, therefore, was simply one of timing.

"You know," I said, "there is an alternative."

Katya looked at me blankly. "What are you talking about?"

Instead of answering, I asked, "Do you have any leave time coming to you?"

"A couple of weeks, I think."

"About the same for me. What if you and I took about ten days' leave?"

Her eyes grew wide. "You mean right now? Don't even go back, just call in and – "

"– and tell them that we're taking ten days' leave here in Hawaii. We have the time coming, and all that we will miss will be a few boring meetings on the mainland. No sweat. Meanwhile, we find someplace where nobody will drop in on us. We hide out. We eat, sleep, put your ankle on ice, and just heal up. In ten days we can be functioning pretty normally, so we go back and report in before the crew selection. And we stay on the ready list the whole time."

Katya nodded thoughtfully. "What happens when they find out?"

"We won't tell them. And after the crew is selected, it won't matter."

She smiled a wicked smile. "Jack," she said, with feeling, "that is a beautiful idea!" Her eyes glinted with amusement. "Naturally you realize what people will think. Everyone will assume that we are lovers, that we are shacked up together somewhere. And we will be shacked up together, of course."

"Oh," I said. "We don't have to, uh, go to the same place. I was assuming that –"

"Americans," Katya said, sighing. "You are definitely inferior to Russians in conspiracy. You lack historical experience. Trust me, the plan is perfect."

Our eyes met. I returned her smile.

The ranger doctor took us together into the small dispensary at the observatory. We explained the situation to her. Finally the doc said, "I will have to file a medical report eventually. The two of you need complete histories on file if you go on your mission. But your injuries are not serious, and there is no reason why that has to be done immediately. Would three or four months be long enough?"

She dismissed our thanks with a shrug. In fact, she was far more interested in the skin-embedded fittings for our high-pressure respiration gear, something she had never seen. We chatted about life-support technology while the doc wrapped our injuries, sealed our cuts, and stimulated bone repair for Katya's ankle and my ribs. Eight days, she estimated, and we'd be presentable. She dug up some antibiotics and pain-killers, and loaned Katya a crutch. We thanked her again and quietly slipped out of the observatory.

The rest of the arrangements were made from the car. We called the duty officer at the training center, who recorded our change of plan with a shrug and an off-hand "OK". Next we punched up a tourist agency to find a place to stay. We settled on a small bungalow a couple of kilometers from the water, on a hill with a mediocre view of Kailua Bay – not a high-class resort property, but just right for the purpose. Could arrangements be made to stock the kitchen before we arrived? Yes, for an added fee. We fed our account codes into the phone.

Last of all, we called a florist and sent a dozen roses to the doctor.

I sensed even then, I think, that our deception would soon become something else, that by the end of our ten days together we would be lovers in fact as well as reputation. Katya claimed afterwards that she had known from the first – and that it took considerable patience on her part to get me to lower my guard and let it happen.

Maybe her version is correct. I was nervous, and strangely shy. I say "strangely" because we had just spent weeks on the dive team together in the deep habitat. Privacy down there had been nonexistent. How could you be bashful after that? But I remember, on that soft night above Kailua when Katya and I first came together, how astonishing it was that she, whom I thought I knew so well, could be so full of mystery and surprise.


Dieter and Bill were back inside, the probe reeled in and stowed in its cradle. There was a pretense of a meal. Max and Madeline were taking turns at the communicator panel, coaxing information in dribbles from the Aphrodite. Eventually, the satellite feed was restored and we could monitor everything ourselves.

Virgil was damaged, no one knew how badly. The high-gain antenna had been hurt, so all communications were routing through the low-bandwidth omnidirectional system. This was good enough for telemetry and voice – or would be, when the on-board computer figured out that it should switch the voice circuit over – but the omni channel was too narrow for video. The environment inside the crew space remained nominal. This last was the best news, since even a small breach of the lifesystem would quickly make the ship uninhabitable.

The lander airlock was proceeding through its long depressurization. There was one occupant, wearing Katya's suit, who had linked the suit to the umbilicus inside the airlock and initiated the cycle. The link with the suit was strange, though. She was hooked up to the oxygen system, the electrical power, and the heat exchanger, but the data link with the suit's biomed system appeared to be disconnected. The chief theories were that the suit connector had been damaged, or else Katya had simply forgotten to plug it in properly. Knowing Katya, I could imagine other reasons.

Of the second suit, the one worn by Jules Bertillame, there was no sign.

Everyone expected some sort of verbal communication almost immediately, but it was twenty-five minutes before anything came. Max put it on the speaker at once.
Virgil: Aphrodite, this is Virgil. Please acknowledge.
It was her voice, businesslike enough, but a little shaky. Bill gave a hoot of relief until Madeline's sharp look shut him up.
Aphrodite: This is Aphrodite. (The voice from orbit was Arkady Rudin, one of the other lander pilots.) Katya, this is Arkasha speaking. We're glad to hear from you.

Virgil: Yes. I am also glad. (Deep breath.) The situation here is very bad.

Aphrodite: What is your situation?

Virgil: There was a ground tremor, followed by substantial slides of material down the slope. This area is not as stable as we thought. The slide included about one-third of the LZ. The lander was at the edge of this and sustained damage.

Aphrodite: Where is J. B.?

Virgil: Jules is dead.

Aphrodite: Can you confirm, Virgil? Jules is dead?

Virgil: I am sure of this. I saw it happen. He was in the path of the slide, and it swept him away. I found a piece of his suit cladding. I think the rest of him was buried.

Aphrodite: Understood.
We all understood. If the thermal integrity of J. B.'s suit had been damaged, he would be dead in minutes, even if the landslide had not crushed him.
Aphrodite: Virgil, Aphrodite. What is your personal condition?

Virgil: I was out of the main path of the slide, in the shelter of an outcropping. My suit was damaged, but I was able to make it back.

Aphrodite: What is your physical condition? We aren't getting your biomed telemetry.

Virgil: I've disconnected the system.

Aphrodite: Say again, Virgil?

Virgil: Don't make me say everything twice, Arkasha. I said I've disconnected the biomedical readouts. I am sorry. But don't worry about me. I am OK. I can function.
Madeline's eyebrows went up. "Does that mean what I think it means?"

I nodded. "She's hurt, maybe badly, but she doesn't want us to know the details. So she's pulled the data line."

"Why would she do that?" Dieter asked, bewildered.

Because she doesn't think it matters, I answered silently.
Aphrodite: Understood, Virgil. How do you read the condition of your craft?

Virgil: I can't tell everything from here. I'm still in the lock, pumping down. The inner cabin environment reads normal on the panel, so ECS and thermal shielding are holding. I've lost the high-bandwidth DCU, so I've switched over to the omni. The computers seem to have cycled through a soft crash. I can't find out about main power or propulsion from here.

Aphrodite: Can you take off?

Virgil: Nyet. Both of the aerofans are partly buried in loose rock from the slide. Even if I have the power, I cannot start them. Either the fans won't move or the blades will shatter.
I heard someone whisper, "Sweet Jesus." I had been expecting bad news, but that did not make it any easier to take. The two steerable ducted fans, Virgil's propulsion system in the dense lower atmosphere of Venus, were wedged tight under however many kilograms of rock. Without the propellers, Virgil could not even leave the ground, much less reach a rendezvous seventy kilometers up.

Katya was trapped. Her lifesystem was intact for now, but it would not last forever. The only question was when, and how, she would die. I knew the lander inside and out, so I could make a pretty good guess. Unless there was more damage than we knew, her electrical power could last for weeks. Virgil was too small for a full recycling setup, so oxygen supply and carbon dioxide removal would fail earlier than that, even with only one occupant. And despite almost perfect shielding, the ferocious heat and pressure would eventually have their way, squeezing the hull until its seams parted and then crushing, and roasting, its contents.

But long before that, I knew, Katya would be dead from her own waste heat. The foil-thin thermal insulation layer that covered both Virgil and the hotsuits was as efficient at keeping waste heat inside as it was in shielding against the outside conditions. Waste heat from machinery and crew was drained by a heat pump and stored in a special heat sink built into the airframe of the craft. The cabin stayed cool, but the heat sink grew hotter by the hour. As it did, the heat pump required more and more of the ship's power to keep up, adding its own increasing contribution to the waste heat budget. It was an exponential process. While the ship operated, the heat sink's absolute temperature would double every twenty-four hours. In a week, it would in theory be as hot as a star – but sooner than that, its own insulation would burn through and the ship would become a holocaust. If you shut down the heat pump, the heat build-up in the cabin would be no less deadly. By sudden fire or by slow suffocation, death would be inexorable.

But Katya, I suspected, would not die that way, either.

There is an unwritten, almost unspoken code among those who travel in space, a code about catastrophe and how to face it. The code does not have a name, but if it did, it might be called the Pasadena Rule.

The Pasadena disaster occurred in the "good old days" of liquid-fueled chemical rocket motors, finicky things with high thrust and low specific impulse, so that a spacecraft had to operate pretty close to its fuel margin. The Pasadena was a shuttle that made the rounds between low Earth orbit and the lunar surface, two or three days each way. It was returning to Earth, sliding down the geopotential gradient with a complement of light cargo and four human beings, two crew and two passengers. About twenty hours out, the Pasadena started a fifteen-second engine burn designed to trim up its approach for the aerobraking maneuver; but something went badly wrong and the engine did not shut down on time. It was a triple failure: a control system glitch, a stuck relay, a jammed manual cut-off switch. The engine fired for one hundred and seventy-one seconds, until the fuel tanks were empty.

It did not take the crew long to discover their predicament. No matter what they did, they would miss the Earth's atmosphere entirely, swinging in a hyperbolic arc past the planet and out into deep space. No ship on Earth, in orbit, or on the Moon could possibly catch them and rendezvous for a rescue.

First part of the Pasadena Rule: Sometimes you're screwed. Period.

Those aboard the ship were as good as dead. Still, it might take them a long time actually to die. The Pasadena had power from an auxiliary array of photovoltaics, and it could scrub CO2 and recycle water as long as there was power. In its cargo was a tank of liquid oxygen extracted from lunar rock that could support the crew for years. The only constraint was food, and the ship's food supply, if rationed, might last as much a sixty days. Two months to starvation – and in all that time, they would remain in full communication with Earth.

For two solid weeks, the Pasadena was at the top of every news package. The biographies of the crew and passengers. The shocking accident. The grim arithmetic that made rescue impossible. Interviews with the doomed men. Excerpts from supposedly private conversations with the ground. Rumors of a bidding war for the viddie rights.

At first the four men held up well, but after a week their morale began to break down. The pilot retreated to his five-cubic-meter cabin and refused to use the communication link, even to talk to his family. The co-pilot launched into rambling accounts of paranoid fantasies, possibly fueled by drugs from the ship's pharmacy stores. One passenger, a radio astronomer returning from Farside, sent endless self-pitying messages to his wives and children back in Teheran. Only the second passenger, an engineer named Macallister, seemed to keep his cool. "I guess we know what's coming," he said in his soft Texas drawl, as the Earth dwindled behind them. "Meanwhile, we're taking this thing one day at a time."

On the fifteenth day after the Pasadena's fly-by of Earth, after ninety minutes of weeping and breast-beating from the Iranian astronomer followed by two hours of psychotic ravings from the co-pilot, Macallister appeared on the link. "This has gone on long enough," he said. "We're all real grateful for what you down there have done for us, but it's high time we went off the air. I'm about to disable the comm link. God bless you all. Pasadena out." There was a shout in the background, and then the transmission ended abruptly. The Pasadena was never heard from again.

Ten years later, a microprobe made a fly-by of the Pasadena as it pursued its orbit around the Sun. A blurry infrared image showed the ship, all systems except the radar transponder shut down, the airlock door open wide.

From the fire-storm in the newsies after Macallister pulled the plug, you might have supposed that he had murdered the other three for their rations and tossed them naked out into space. But real space-faring people knew better. To them, Macallister was a hero. They told each other, "It wasn't doing anybody any good, the way it was going. He did the right thing."

And that became the second part of the Pasadena Rule: When you're screwed, you do your job and then you sign off. After that, if you like, you can find your own way out, take a pill or slice your wrists or vent your cabin. Whatever seems easy, and quick.

Arkady Rudin was back on the line, talking with Katya about the obstructed lifting fans on Virgil. I'd missed the first part of the conversation.
Aphrodite: . . . . wants to know if you can go back outside and clear the fans manually.

Virgil: Nyet, Aphrodite. I saw the problems with the fans and tried to unblock them, but I couldn't stay outside long enough. My suit suffered some damage in the avalanche. Parts of the cladding are . . . compromised. I had to get into the airlock.

Aphrodite: Could you make another EVA later on?

Virgil: My suit is damaged.

Aphrodite: Can you make repairs to the suit and continue clearing the fans?

Virgil: (Pause.) No.

Aphrodite: (Captain Bell's voice.) Please detail your suit damage, Virgil. We have some people up here who may be able to suggest some temporary repairs.

Virgil: It isn't just the suit. I also am damaged. I cannot make another EVA.

Aphrodite: (Long pause, then Rudin's voice again.) Understood, Virgil. Stand by.

Time passed. The airlock in Virgil lowered the pressure toward the one-atmosphere level. It seemed like a slow process, but in truth it was amazingly fast. A century ago, decompression from ninety atmospheres would have taken days, not hours, or else bubbles would form in the bloodstream. They called this "the bends"; it was excruciating and sometimes fatal. But the life support system in Katya's backpack was linked directly into her bloodstream, so that blood gases were continuously removed by a the gas exchange unit. Other blood chemistry was also monitored and controlled. The suit helped the wearer combat thirst, fatigue, and shock. If needed, a pain killer could be added to the stream. I wondered what dosage Katya was using.

Virgil: Is Jack listening?

Aphrodite: I'm sure he is. We are passing our signal down to platform Gamma in real time. Would you like to talk with him?

Virgil: No, not now. There will be time enough for that.

Aphrodite: We can set up a link right away. Just say the word.

Virgil: Um. That's OK. Just tell him that I'm sorry about all of this. I'll talk to him later.

Aphrodite: All right.


Update: Part II can now be read here. Part III is here. Part IV is here.


Blogger Rob said...

I found part 2 of your story through the Storyblogging Carnival and found my way back to part one.

You have no idea how relieved I am to find that parts 3 and 4 are available.

Good story so far.

Rob of UnSpace

8:53 AM  
Blogger Lyn said...

Ditto what Rob said. Compelling story. Good use of voice, flashback, writing style. I'm looking forward to 2, 3, and 4. lgp

1:26 PM  

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