Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Pasadena Rule (Part II of IV)

Got bored, so I posted this a day or two early. To read Part I of this novella, click here.


Once Katya was inside the cockpit of Virgil, she managed to send a few still images of the exterior of the ship over the low-bandwidth data channel. Virgil had been turned and tilted by the rockslide, and some of the aerodynamic surfaces showed damage. This was not too serious. But both of the ducted propellers, port and starboard, were blocked by several hundred kilograms of loose rock. If the fans were started, they would not move, or else they would break.

It was maddening. Katya confirmed that the propulsion and power systems were workable – minor failures only, with sufficient backups to cope. Katya dutifully talked these over with the Aphrodite. Yet everyone knew that there was only one problem that mattered: the rocky debris blocking the propellers, just a few meters away from where Katya sat, but as unreachable as the surface of the Sun.

Eight hours after the accident I pretended to take a cat-nap in the wardroom, mostly to prove to my shipmates that I did not need a sleeping pill. There was no chance that I would sleep. I reclined with my eyes closed, listening to the wind moan softly through the rigging outside the gondola. The vibration and slight sway of the dirigible were usually comfortable sensations, but not now. Outside the air was thin and freezing, not much different from the conditions aboard the High Jump, in the stratosphere over the Pacific. But far below, instead of a warm tropical sea, there was a waterless desert of unimaginable heat and pressure. Katya and I had both dreamed of going there. Katya had gained her dream, while I had lost it.

Through the open door I heard a voice from the cockpit. Madeline was talking over the link with someone aboard the Aphrodite. I couldn't hear other half of the conversation.

". . . . bearing up well enough, I think," she was saying. "He's catching some sleep." She waited a while, then said, "What did you expect? God damn it . . . . Yes, we're standing by. Still here. No, nothing like that. Just asleep – I can wake him up any time he's needed. Well, I think he would, don't you? I wouldn't want to be the one to tell him later if . . . . Damn it, Frank, I don't think you can make decisions like that. They're married, for Christ's sake. Certainly, we have to respect her wishes. But do you really think that she . . . . OK, I'll hold." The "Frank" told me that she was talking to Captain Bell, the mission commander, and it did not take a genius to guess the subject of their discussion. A minute or two later, and Madeline said, "Roger that. I'll have him on in five minutes."

I heard Madeline come into the wardroom, so I sat up and rubbed my eyes. "Awake, Jack?" she asked.

"More or less."

"Are you up to talking on the link?"

"Who with?"

"Katya," she said, and I felt my heart accelerate and sink at more or less the same moment. It was not a pleasant sensation. "She's about to go into a sleep period," she went on. "We thought you might want to talk to her before she does. Can you do it?"

I sucked in a couple of deep breaths, but they didn't steady me. "Yeah," I said. "I can manage it, I think."

"Because if you're not sure, it's OK. You can talk to her later. When she wakes up."

What Madeline did not say, because she knew we were both thinking it, was that Katya might not wake up. She knew the Pasadena Rule. Sometimes you're screwed. And when you're screwed, you don't add to the sufferings of other people by spinning it out. Shutting down for a "sleep period" could be a graceful way to sign off for the last time.

"No, no. I'm all right for it."

She looked at me with a skeptical eye. Was I the sort to break down on the radio, to make Katya's ordeal worse? Maddie would have no way of knowing, really. At last she nodded. "OK," she said. "Grab some coffee and come down to the control pod. You're on the air in three minutes."

The others were filing out of the control pod when I came in, leaving only Madeline to stay with me while I talked to Katya. It was a generous gesture, but they spoiled it by avoiding my eyes, as if they were afraid to look at me. I sat at the co-pilot's station next to Madeline, who was speaking into her headset to set up the conversation. I heard her say the word "private" about three times. She looked inquiringly at me and I nodded. I felt calm – way too calm, and cold. At a signal from Madeline, I picked up my own headset and put it on.

I could hear nothing. Finally I said, "Hello?"

Katya said, "Jack? Is that you?" She sounded more tired than I could remember.

"It's me," I said. "How are you?" I could have kicked myself as soon as I'd asked it; the answer was horribly clear to us both. But if I tried to stay away from painful subjects, then there would be nothing to talk about.

"I've been better," she answered, trying to make light of it. "And you?"

"Not bad. Aside from the obvious."

"That is good," she said. Her voice seemed to relax a bit. I realized that mentioning the obvious, even obliquely, was a relief to her. We would not have to dwell on it, but we would not have to ignore it, either.

"We're, um, following things pretty closely up here."

"Yes, I know. Thank you."

"And we're all very sorry about J. B. He was a good friend."

"Yes. But for him it was over very quickly, I think."

"That's right," I agreed. "We can be thankful for that much, at least."

There was a very long pause, until I wondered whether she had closed the connection. But then she surprised me. "You know, Jack, I seem to remember telling you once that we were lucky to live on a geologically active planet."

I smiled in spite of myself. "As I recall, things went to hell pretty much right after you said that."

"It turned out well, though," she said. "But I tell you what. Now that I am on another geologically active planet, I take it back."

We shared a strained laugh. "I have been lucky to have you, Katya," I said, instantly aghast at the verb tense I'd chosen.

"Jack, it has been so good between us. I remember when I took you home with me, just before we left Earth. It was all so perfect."

We had been married in a restored Orthodox church in Katya's home town in western Siberia, a month before our departure from Earth orbit. "That was a good time," I said. "It makes me happy to think of it now." I didn't sound happy.

There was an awkward moment, and I cast around in my mind for something to keep the conversation going. It seemed to me that each word was a precious thing, but they kept slipping away.

"Jack," Katya said presently. "I am very tired. It has been a hard day. I think I will go to sleep now."


"I'm sorry, but I have to sign off now."

"No, please, wait a moment. I want to ask you a question, and I want you to answer it truthfully."

She seemed to consider. "What is the question?"

"Katya, are you in much pain right now?" I asked, working to keep my voice even.

I heard her let out a deep breath. "Not much, Jack," she replied, matching my tone. "But I am medicated."

"OK," I said. "Listen, I want you to do me a favor. Will you do it?"

"That depends on the favor. I will try."

"Katya, I am not finished talking with you yet. But you're tired – hell, I'm tired too. So I want you to go to sleep. But here's the favor. I want you to call me back when you wake up."


"You understand? Go to sleep, but then wake up and call me back. Will you do that for me?"

"Yes, Jack, I will do that. For you."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Katya. Goodnight then."

"Goodnight, Jack. I love you."

"I love you too. Talk to you in the morning." I took off the headset and slumped back in my chair. I wiped my sweaty palms on the seat fabric. Madeline was frowning at the bright cloudscape beyond the window. She would not look at me. I could tell she disapproved. As far as she was concerned, I had just persuaded my wife to prolong her suffering for another day – and for no better reason than that I was not yet ready to say goodbye. God damn it, I wanted to say to her, I'm not ready to say goodbye. Not now. Not ever. But I stood up and left the control pod.


Later I wandered into the ready room to take care of my high altitude gear. I sat in front of the locker, smoothing and folding the heated suit and squaring away the breathing equipment.

My eyes kept straying to my hotsuit, hanging in the next compartment over. The mirror-finish of its outer layer reflected distorted images of the room, and of me. I didn't look so good. This was my own personal hotsuit, tailored perfectly to me – the life-support couplings on the inside of it exactly matching the fittings implanted in my skin, the suit's brain precisely tuned to my individual metabolic responses. The hotsuit was a marvel of engineering, as expensive as a small spacecraft. Since backup lander pilots were surface-qualified (barely), I had been fitted for one. A hotsuit could keep a human being alive and safe on the surface of Venus for hours on end. Katya's had managed to get her back to the lander after being damaged in the landslide. But it could not take her back out to free the fans and bring her home safely.

That was the worst of it. The lander itself, as far as we could tell, was serviceable. Katya was hurt but could probably fly it. We would pass over the landing site for a rendezvous in a few hours, and the Delta ship would be along a half-day later. We had a lot of things going for us. But the debris blocking the aerofans made it all pointless.

It would be so easy to fix, if only someone were around to move some rocks out of the way. Damn it, a trained chimp could do it, if it were on the scene and had a hotsuit. (Were there hotsuits for chimps, I wondered, in the early days of their development?)

A chimp could do the job – if the chimp were on the scene. I had a hotsuit, but I wasn't on the scene, and there wasn't any way to get there. There was only one landing craft, Virgil, and it lay stranded on the surface. No other piloted spacecraft ever built could stand the heat and pressure of the lower atmosphere of Venus.

That left exactly nothing. I couldn't very well fly down there, or jump, could I?

Could I?

I stood up suddenly. "I'll be damned," I said aloud. I stared at my hotsuit, trying to think it through rationally. My pulse pounded in my ears, and I forced myself to take some long breaths and settle down. Hold on, I said to myself, leaning against a locker. It would not do to have a heart attack right this minute.

"Dieter! Wake up!"

He came awake quickly and sat up, confused. I had closed the door behind me, and there was barely room in his cubicle to kneel by the bunk. "What's wrong? What's happened?"

"I need you to tell me whether I am crazy."

"OK, you're crazy." He rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand.

"No, listen to me. I think I know how we can save Katya!"

"Oh, Jack." Dieter shook his head with a pained expression. "Jack, give it a rest. Take something and get some sleep. You look like crap."

"Pay attention, damn it. I have a hotsuit up here. You and I could get it ready in a couple of hours. If I went down and cleared the fans on Virgil, then Katya would be able to fly it. Right?"

"Maybe she could, if you did that. But aren't you forgetting a little something? You aren't down there. You're seventy kilometers up."

"So I jump."

Dieter opened his eyes a fraction wider. "A parachute jump? That is crazy. You would have to make a chute – the fabric, the lines, all that crap. You'd need to be able to deploy it without fouling everything. And it would have to hold up in the lower atmosphere. We don't have anything that would work. I'm sure we don't. For God's sake, Jack, we're talking five hundred degrees."

I nodded. "A chute is impractical, you're right. But I don't need one."

"You don't need one? We're seventy kilometers --"

"What is the terminal velocity of a falling human body?"

"I don't know. Forty, fifty meters per second. Depends on your orientation."

"On Earth," I said. Suddenly Dieter's eyes were open very wide indeed. He'd seen it. "On Earth," I repeated, softly. "But what about on Venus?"

His mouth hung open and his eyes were distant for a quarter of a minute. "Mein Gott," he said at last. "That might work. You crazy bastard. That just might work."

"It's a question of air density," I told Madeline in the wardroom. Everyone was there – Max at the door so that he could keep one eye on the control pod, but the rest crowded around the table. "If you double the density, you slow the terminal velocity by a factor of root two. The air density at the surface is more than fifty times the sea-level density on Earth. So the terminal velocity will be seven or eight times slower."

"The lower gravity helps, too, a few percent," Dieter said.

"That's right," I said. "And there is another few percent from buoyancy, in air that dense. With a bit of luck, I might be falling only four or five meters per second when I hit."

Madeline blinked. "About like jumping off a house," she said. "You can break a leg doing that. Then what would you do?"

"You hit almost that fast with a regular parachute, and I've done a good number of parachute jumps. I can manage it."

"Four or five meters per second, for seventy kilometers? How long would it take to fall the whole distance?"

I hadn't thought of that. "Most of the way I'll be going through thinner air, so I'll be falling faster. Twenty minutes, maybe?"

"More," Dieter said positively. "Bound to be more."

"If you don't know it exactly, you're in trouble," Madeline said. "Our ground speed is three hundred and fifty kilometers per hour. Make a five-minute mistake in your drop time, and you'll wind up thirty kilometers downrange, in mountainous terrain. Even if you land OK, your suit will go bad before you can walk to Virgil."

"No it won't," Bill said. "His forward airspeed will be nearly zero all the way. Once he gets below the jet stream – which won't take very long – he will fall almost straight down. We could probably predict his landing point pretty closely."

Max put in, "And we can track him by radar, so that he knows which direction to walk after touchdown."

"I should be able to control my fall," I said. "Vertical speed for sure, and maybe some lateral control. I might be able to land right on top of Virgil."

Madeline looked straight at me. "OK, Jack. If you can get the suit ready in time, and if we can figure your flight path, and if you survive all the way down, and if you aren't injured by the impact, and if you're close enough to walk to Virgil, and if you can clear the aerofans, and if the ship can take off, and if it holds together – and if you can manage all of this in time to make rendezvous with Delta – then you might have a chance. Give me your best engineering assessment, Jack. On the first try, with no simulations or test runs. What are the chances of success? Less than fifty-fifty?"

"Maybe," I admitted.

"So. If you don't go, we lose one person for certain. By your own admission, if you do go, we have a better than even chance of losing two people. Does that seem like a good bet?"

"Hell, yes!"

She shook her head. "You're too close to the problem. Katya is your wife – Jesus, no wonder you're ready to try anything. But we have to use our heads."

"Maddie," I said desperately. "You can't make a calculation like that. This isn't some academic exercise in risk assessment. Yes, we are talking about Katya. She is your friend too, for God's sake! If I try this, then there is a chance, a reasonable chance, that we can fix Virgil and come back home safe. There is no chance at all if I don't." She pressed her lips together and said nothing. I kept on. "Suppose we don't try this. Then Katya dies. But I will know – all of us will know – that there was something that we might have tried, something that might have saved her, and we didn't do it. I don't know about you, Maddie, but I couldn't live with that."

Madeline fixed her gaze on the table and shook her head. I realized, with surprise, that there were tears in her eyes. "Damn you, Jack," she said quietly. No one spoke for a long moment, and then she sighed. She said, "This is not going to be easy."

Everyone began to talk at once. "Wait a second!" she shouted. "We can't do this alone. I'm calling Frank in an hour. We need to have a lot of answers for him by then. Max, Bill, you work out the flight plan, or the fall plan, or whatever the hell it is. Jack and Dieter start warming up the suit. We need to know if it will do the job."

"It will."

"Find out for sure. I'll look over all the data we have on Virgil's situation, to make sure the thing really is possible if you do get there. Hold on. This is still only an option, fellas. If we hit a snag that we can't work out, we'll have to scrap it. Is that clear? Now get moving."

Dieter and I spread the hotsuit over half the ready room, giving it as thorough a check-out as we could manage. Dieter used a magnifier to go over every square centimeter of the suit's shiny exterior, checking for damage or flaws in the thermal insulation. I had the outer cover off the life-support pack and several lines connected to it, replenishing the liquid gas reservoirs and recharging the energy cells. I would have preferred to do a full diagnostic test sequence, but our maintenance shop did not have the equipment. I relied instead on the suit's own internal sensors. With the helmet on my head I could use the computer display in the faceplate. Data on the life-support system flowed before my eyes.

The earphones in the helmet came to life. Max said, "We have a flight profile for you, Jack."

"Let me hear it."

"This is still rough. Bill is working on a better aerodynamic model, but I think these figures will be good to within ten percent or so. You're in free fall for only a few seconds after you jump. By J plus thirty seconds, you're essentially at terminal velocity, and you stay that way clear down to the surface. We figure that you can control that speed by as much as fifty percent, which might help you fine-tune your trajectory.

"It's a hell of a long trip, Jack. In fact, it is going to take a good hour and a half to go the whole way. You fall quite fast at first. Your speed tops out at around Mach 0.6, but then you slow down a lot further down. Most of your time will be drifting down that last twenty klicks."

"That's good. That means I won't hit too fast."

"Close to what you figured. Also, there might be ways to slow that down at the last second. It might help to flap your arms, for instance."

I could not quite tell whether he was kidding. "How far downrange will I go?"

"Only a few kilometers. The high winds are only up at altitude, where you won't be spending much time. The lower wind speeds are almost nil – a few centimeters per second. And if you can steer, you might be able to compensate."

I thanked him and took the helmet off. We had perhaps four hours before we flew over Virgil's position. I tried to think of things we were forgetting. "Dieter," I said suddenly. "Remind me to take a nasal decongestant before I suit up. I'll need the strongest one we can find."

"OK," he said, squinting at the reflection of his eye in the mirrored surface of the suit. "Why? Have a cold?"

"No, but we don't have the special stuff that the lander teams use before they go outside. We'll have to make do with whatever we have in the medicine cabinet up here."

"But what is it for?"

"By the time I get close to the ground, the air pressure around me is going to be changing pretty fast. I don't want to pop something because my sinuses get plugged." He looked horrified as he understood. "I'll probably be fine. But in any case," I added in a lower voice, "don't tell Madeline that we aren't using the right drugs. She'd just worry about it."

"Yeah. Right."

"The hotsuit is ready to go," I said to Madeline. "I need to start getting into it soon, though, because that will take a while."

She nodded and looked at Max. "We make it eighty-six minutes to the surface, depending on body attitude. Head-first, it could be considerably less. He will hit the ground at around five meters per second. The visibility should be good, so he can prepare for impact."

"Tape your ankles and wrists," Madeline said. "That could save you a sprain."

"Good idea," I said. Dieter made a note. "What about Virgil?"

"The main problem there is the possibility of damage that we don't know about, that won't show up until the fans are cleared and we start them up. The bearings might be cracked. Something might be bent. But that ship is as rugged as hell, all systems overdesigned by about two hundred percent. It might work. It might." She shook her head.


"So we call the Captain. But I doubt if he’ll like it."

Captain Bell had been awakened in the middle of a sleep cycle. "OK, I'm here, Maddie," he said. "What is so urgent that it can't wait a couple of hours?"

"We have an idea about the situation," she said. "It requires rather prompt action."

"Go on."

So she went on, describing the entire plan in cold, technical detail. It took her three minutes to say it all, and Captain Bell did not say a word for the whole three minutes. The rest of us, listening in, held our breaths.

"Commander Whitten," he said when she'd finished. "What in hell have you been drinking? That is the most insane idea I've ever heard. Of course I can't approve it!"

"We think that the plan is feasible, Frank. We've done the analysis. Ask your own engineering people on the Aphrodite to check our data."

"This is pretty damn far beyond the parameters of the mission."

"So is the situation," Madeline shot back.

"And just what chance do you think this has of working?"

"We estimate a seventy-five percent chance of success," Madeline said evenly. I looked at her with surprise. This was the first I'd heard of odds that good.

"That is a load of crap," Captain Bell said. "Maddie, we are all very upset about what's happened to Katya, and I'm sure that Jack is worse off than any of the rest of us. But that's no reason for him to throw his life away on some damn-fool stunt."

"If this emergency is not a good enough reason to try something crazy, I don't know what would be."

"Damn it, I can't approve something like this. I'd have to consult with Command."

"It's a ten-minute round-trip for communication with Earth. The back-and-forth will take hours. We do not have all day here, Frank. We'll be over Katya's position shortly after 16.00, and it's almost 12.30 now. You're the man on the spot. You have to make a decision."

"Then you know what my decision is. I will not endanger another member of the crew. That's final. I'm sorry."

Something inside me collapsed. Bill and Dieter shook their heads. But Max was watching Maddie closely. I looked too, and I saw that she still had a card to play.

"Frank," she said quietly, after a pause. "I don't quite know how to put this. But when all is said and done -- I don't see what you can do to stop us."

I could have kissed her!

"What I want to know," she went on, "is where you stand. We have some decisions to make down here, too, and I want to know whether or not you're going to back us up."

Across the table, I saw Dieter's mouth hanging open. "God damn," muttered Bill. We waited for Captain Bell's reply.

"You're not serious."

"You know me. Do I sound serious?"

"Maddie," Captain Bell said conversationally, after about a ten-second silence, "I'm getting a bit rusty on the mission rules. Do you remember the definition of mutiny?"

"Haven't given it much thought," she replied. "Didn't think it would ever come up."

"Yeah," he said. We waited while he digested this. "This will not look good," he said, almost to himself. "Not with Katya's husband making the jump. That makes it seem like an act of desperation. Why does the jumper have to be Jack Ross?"

"Because Jack Ross is the only one with a suit," said Madeline. "It's him or nobody. Otherwise I'd do it myself."

"I suppose that's right," he said, sighing. "But there is one thing that you haven't mentioned."

"What's that?"

"Has anyone talked to Katya lately?"

"Not as far as I know," Madeline replied. "Not since Jack spoke with her a few hours ago. She's getting some sleep."

"Sleep, yes." I could tell from his tone of voice that the captain had his doubts. "In any case, I cannot approve taking action to rescue Katya until we hear from her again."

Madeline was nodding. "Yes, that makes sense."

"I want your promise, Maddie. No go till we make contact with Katya."

"You have my word, Frank. Nobody jumps till she's on the air. I swear."

"In that case," the captain said, "I will tentatively go along with your plan. Send us your data so that we can check it, and start getting ready. We will try to raise Katya on the comm link."

"Call Carlos on Delta," she added. "He needs to be brought up to speed."

"You just pay attention to your part of this," Captain Bell replied. "And so help me, Maddie, if you let that son of a bitch take a dive before we hear from Virgil, I will take you all back to Earth in irons. Do you copy?"

"Understood," Madeline answered. "I will keep him here if I have to sit on him. Gamma out." She cut the link and pulled off her headset, rocking back in her seat and running her fingers through her hair.

"Thanks, Maddie," I said.

She looked sharply at me. "Jack, do you realize how this will probably end up?"

"I have to take that chance."

"Then shut up. If you thank me again, I am going to break your nose."

The Aphrodite signaled Virgil, but there was no answer. The telemetry link was good, and it told us that the landing ship was still intact. Katya was simply not answering the phone.

"She's getting some rest," I said. "She turned down the comm link alarm. And she may be doped up with something to help her sleep."

"She may have taken more than that," Madeline said.

I shook my head. "No way. You heard her. She promised to talk to me later."

"I know what she said. Jack, Katya is a good scout. She would do what she thought was right." And what Madeline believed, clearly, was that Katya had most likely signed off permanently, promise or no promise. It was the Pasadena Rule again. Part of the reason you sign off is to keep other people from making fools of themselves.

Not Katya, I wanted to say. That wasn't her way. She never shaded the truth, never lied to save my feelings or anyone else's. The truth about things was her passion. "You'll see," I said confidently.

"Maybe," Madeline said. "Now go put on that damn suit."


You don't put on your hotsuit; you mate with it. This is a more descriptive term than you might think. An ordinary spacesuit is an intimate affair, but a hotsuit invades your personal space in ways that you've never imagined. The mating process can take half a day.

The worst part is not the thermal protection, but the hyperbaric life-support system. To cope with the ninety-atmosphere pressure on the ground, and to allow pressurization and depressurization in hours instead of days or weeks, the suit systems link up directly with your body's systems. Gases must be exchanged with your bodily fluids, and the dodges dreamed up to accomplish this are various and uncomfortable. The bloodstream is directly linked to the suit's system at a dozen points over the body. The arrangements for the GI tract, the inner ear, the spinal fluid, and so forth I will not describe.

Taking a hotsuit off -- demating with it -- is even worse. Katya once suggested that the correct technical phrase should be surgical removal.

Dieter and I worked quickly, skipping whatever we thought we could on the checklist. Mating with a suit could take two people half a day, but we were trying to do it in about two hours. The inner layer of the hotsuit was the life-support interface, which enveloped my entire body except for hands and head. After this came a sturdy protective layer, with the silvery thermal insulation garment on the outside over everything. Since there would be no pressure difference between inside and outside, the suit lacked the constant-volume joints you found on vacuum-rated spacesuits.

This brought up an interesting question, which didn't occur to us until I was partway into the inner layer of the suit. The pressure at seventy kilometers altitude was around 25 millibars – one-fortieth of normal atmospheric pressure. Even at the lowest setting, breathing pure oxygen, the inside suit pressure would be four times this value. But the hotsuit was not designed for any overpressure at all. Would the fabric rupture when I stepped outside?

Max did a quick search of the hotsuit technical database and found that it had indeed been tested down to zero pressure without damage. The only problem would be a decrease in mobility, because the suit tended to balloon out. I figured that I could cope with that until the pressures matched at lower altitude.

I was mated with the inner suit up to my waist, and Dieter was attaching the next set of life-support connections on my lower back. I stood with my arms on top of my head, trying to follow his progress on a video monitor that we'd rigged up. Max walked in from the control pod, stopped still, and stared at what Dieter was doing.

"How do you take it off?" he asked. Max had worked on the dirigible side of things from the first, and had little acquaintance with the hotsuits.

"Ever skinned a live animal?" I asked.

Max shook his head, then held up a printout with some graphs. "The Aphrodite team agrees with our arithmetic. You'll jump at 16.10." Both of us involuntarily glanced at the clock. An hour and a half to go. "Here is the flight path. That's the best model RMS tube around the optimal trajectory. But don't worry; just watch your suit's coordinate display and we'll talk you down."

"All right." I hesitated. "Any word from the surface?"

Max shook his head. He hung around to watch us attach the next fitting. A little blood squirted out as the connection was made, so Dieter paused to mop it up.

"That looks like it hurts," Max said.

"We use a local anaesthetic," I said. "It will itch like hell later on." I watched on the monitor as Dieter twisted the valve to make sure it was on securely. He drew out any residual air bubbles with a syringe through a side fitting. This one finished, he moved to the next. Max, looking a little queasy, left the ready room a minute later.

After we finished connecting the life-support system, the second layer went on quickly, and then the mirror-like outer suit. Dieter locked my helmet down and sealed me up. While I ran through the next steps in the checklist, he and Bill began to don their heated pressure suits. It was hard to concentrate on the job at hand. Each of us was checking the clock about twice per minute.

Madeline walked in at 15.45. "Any word?" I asked her.


Dieter and Bill exchanged a look. I said, "She's still down there, Maddie."

"Possibly. But I meant what I told Frank. If we don't hear from Katya by jump-time, you don't make the jump. Do you read me, fellas?" She glared at the other two, who nodded.

"We need to go out and get ready," I said.

She studied me. "OK," she said. "I want a safety line on you until the moment I give you clearance to take it off. Got it?"

"I hear you."

"Not good enough. I want your promise." Maddie fixed me with a basilisk stare. "No ambiguity here, Jack. If we have to call this off and I tell you to come back inside, then you sure as hell had better do it. Understand?"

"And if Katya wakes up and calls us an hour from now?"


"OK, OK," I said. "We'll do it your way." In a polished metal panel across the room I could see myself: a mirror man, bouncing back distorted reflections of everything from my silvered skin, only my head visible through the transparent helmet. My face was haggard and grim-looking. I remembered what Maddie had said to Captain Bell just a couple of hours before. I don't see what you can do to stop me.

Maddie read my mind. "Frank had to go along with this because he's up in orbit. He can't do anything about it. But I'm right here, and I'm sending Dieter and Bill out with you to make damn well sure we'll do it my way."

As expected, the suit ballooned as we cycled the airlock, but the outer skin seemed to hold up fine. To be on the safe side Bill ran the cycle manually at about a quarter the usual speed. It took a real effort to keep my arms at my side, and I was damned awkward as I struggled through the outer hatch. The internal pressure of the suit tried to straighten everything out. It was probably comical to watch, but nobody was laughing. I had to jump within fifteen minutes or not at all, and no one had heard from Katya.

As soon as I stepped out on the experiment deck, I realized that I'd forgotten something: sun goggles. The full sun hammered me in the face. I squeezed my eyes shut. In a few more hours Gamma, following the upper atmosphere on its circulation around the planet, would cross over into night. The experiment deck was located on the aft end of the gondola and was no longer in shade. The evening sun hung in the western sky.

(Or perhaps I should call it the morning sun. Since Venus rotated from east to west, down on the surface it was just a few days past dawn.)

Dieter grabbed my arm to steady me. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes," I answered, experimentally cracking an eyelid and squinting out. Even then the sunlight was too much. "Forgot my goggles."

"Oh, hell."

"It's OK," I said. "I won't want them on the underside of the clouds, and I can't take them off inside the helmet."

Maddie cut into the circuit. "Are you protected from UV in that thing?"

"The suit reflects everything this side of X-rays," I said. "Still, this is damn bright. Dieter, can you put something over my head?"

"Sure. Hang on." A moment later, Dieter came up with a nylon cover from an air-sampling module. "This ought to be about right," he said, slipping it over my helmet.

The cool darkness felt good. I opened my eyes. The sunspots in my eyes slowly faded till I could read the helmet display. "Everything OK," I said. I held my arms out. (They wanted to stick out anyway.) "You'll have to lead me, though."

Dieter and Bill guided me close to the edge of the experiment deck and attached a safety line around my waist. They backed me up until my backside was against the rail.

Max's voice came in my ears. "Should we have Jack climb to the outside of rail? That would make it easier to jump."

"No," Madeline said instantly. "He stays on this side of the rail until I give the go-ahead."

"I may need to go quick," I said.

"Stay on this side. Understood, everybody?"

"Affirmative," Dieter and Bill answered at once. I could feel their hands lightly but firmly gripping my upper arms.

The chronometer display in my helmet flicked over from 15.59 to 16.00. I toggled the suit communicator to monitor the orbit-to-ground channel.

Arkady Rudin was the capcom once again. "– is Aphrodite calling Virgil. Please come in. Katya, if you can hear me, please respond at once. This is Arkasha. We need a report on your status right away." And so on, repeated over and over. I listened for a couple of minutes.

"Seven minutes to drop," Max announced.

"Not much time," Bill said under his breath.

"Maddie," I began. "What if –"

"Jack, you know the rules."

"Katya doesn't know the rules. How could she?"

I could almost hear her shake her head. "Not another word, Jack, or I'll order you to abort now. You can't jump unless we know there is someone down there for you to rescue."

I bit my lip. Arkasha's voice kept on, patient, pleading. The blackness under my hood seemed to press in on me from all around. That awful, sick feeling, the one that had grown so familiar lately, rushed back. This wasn't going to happen. The last, desperate hope had been a cheat. Suddenly it occurred to me that, standing here at the edge of the abyss with a hood over my head and two men gripping my arms, I must look like a man about to be hanged.

"Four minutes," Max said evenly.

And then, a miracle!

"Virgil here," said a weary voice. "What could possibly be so urgent, Arkasha?"

"What is your situation, Katya?"

"Unchanged," she said.

"Max, cut us in," I said. He had worked out a direct link to Virgil, which was almost directly below us.

"You got it."

I saw the indicator blink green. "Katya! This is Jack. Just sit tight. We're going to attempt a rescue."

"What? Are you mad, Jack? What the hell is going on up there?"

"We're overhead in Gamma. I have my hotsuit on. In about three minutes, I'm going to jump over the side. I'll fall, but by the time I reach the ground the air will have slowed me down enough to make a safe landing. I will clear out the fans on Virgil, Katya, and then you can fly us both back up to rendezvous with Delta."

"No, no, no," she said. "Is someone else on the circuit? Has my husband completely lost his mind?"

Madeline broke in. "This is Maddie. He's giving it to you straight, Katya. That's the plan. It's the only option we have."

"How can you let him do this?"

"Katya," I answered for her, "she's right. It's the only option."

"It's no option at all. What kind of chance do you think you have?"

I wanted to say, "Pretty good," but the words stuck in my throat. She wouldn't stand for a false optimism. "It's a long shot," I said finally. "But we might pull it off."

"My God," she said, and her voice was more desperate than I had ever heard it. "You can't do this. You mustn't do this."

"Two minutes," said Max.

"Katya, we've gone over everything as best as we can, and it looks worth a try. Do you think I want to sit up here and wait for you to die?"

"So instead you're going to make sure that I die a widow. This is so intelligent."

"God damn it, wife, I'm trying to rescue you."

She fought to control her voice. "I know. I do understand. It isn't easy to give up, Jack." She sighed. "But you cannot throw your own life away."

"It's my life."

"While I'm still here, it's half mine, remember?"

"And while you're there, yours is half mine."

"One minute to go," said Max.

"Jack," said Katya, her voice suddenly angry. "This has got to be the most selfish thing you've ever done."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Suicide is selfish. If you die trying this, Jack, I will be the one who has to face the consequences. Not you. Do you think that losing you now will make it easier when it's time for me to pull the plug? If you're still alive up there, Jack, then at least I leave behind me something of myself. Now you're taking that away from me. Damn you, you self-centered fat-head, you bastard, say goodbye and let me die in peace!"

I couldn't answer for a moment. "Selfishness cuts both ways," I said. "If I don't jump, then I have to face the consequences of that, and for a hell of a lot longer. So sit still and get rescued."

"You are an insensitive pig. I forbid it. I will not cooperate. Do you hear that? I will not help you kill yourself."

"Drop window opening," Max said. "We're moving fast, so it's a short one. Jack, you have to go now."

"Jack, you asshole!" Katya sounded almost hysterical. "Do you understand me? I refuse to go along with this!"

"Well, Jack?" Maddie said, her voice coming to me over a private link.

There was silence, and after a second I realized that they were all waiting for me. "We can argue about this later, Katya," I said, as firmly as I could. "I have something to do right now."

I ignored the burst of profanity, English and Russian mixed. Clumsily, I tried to turn around to climb over the rail, but to my surprise I heard Maddie say, "Dieter, Bill – get him." All of a sudden my two companions grabbed me by the arms and legs. I struggled against them until I realized what they were doing. I heard the snap of the safety line release. "Godspeed, Jack," Bill said, and Dieter added, "Good luck." Then my friends picked me up bodily and heaved me overboard.

I was so startled that it was a moment before I could yank the nylon hood from my helmet. I rolled over and, just for a moment in the bright glare, caught a last glimpse of the double row of gigantic hydrogen lifting cells, the web of rigging cables, the gondola, the blunt arrowhead of the docked orbit shuttle – and at the edge of the rear deck, two small figures peering down at me, swiftly drawing away now, until they were lost to sight. A yellow-white mist rushed up past me, and the bright daylight began to diminish. All I could think was, My God, I really did it.

Update: Part III is here. Part IV is here.


Blogger Lyn said...

Still compelling. The plan's a bit outrageous, but that's what we're supposed to think - everyone in the story thinks so too. I'm intrigued by Katya's response. Looking forward to 3 & 4. lgp

11:11 PM  

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