Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Pasadena Rule (Part III of IV)

Next to last thrilling installment of our science fiction novella. Part I is here. Part II is here.

7.

"Are you OK, Jack?" It was Max. Everyone else was out of the link.

"Uh, sure. Jesus, you should try this," I said, trying to sound light-hearted. Adrenaline and free-fall were playing havoc with my stomach.

"No thanks."

"Tell Bill and Dieter I owe them one."

"I'll tell them. Jack, you are running a bit above the curve. Can you speed up your descent for a while?"

"Copy that. Going head-down."

Max was telling me that I had jumped late. The ground speed of Gamma was fast, so even a minute's delay in jumping might land me kilometers downrange of Virgil. We would try to compensate by going faster through the upper-level winds, to bring me back to Max's precomputed flight path. I windmilled my arms and did my best to orient myself vertically, diving head-first down through the clouds. I could feel the rushing air tug at the puffy suit.

"Head-down. Tracking me?" I asked.

"You're a nice big radar target."

"How am I doing?"

"I'll let you know," Max said.

Now, maybe twenty seconds into the dive, I was already deep within the clouds. I was surrounded by a featureless yellow-grey mist, growing gloomier by the second. My suit was noticeably less ballooned, since the air pressure had more than doubled since I'd jumped. The exterior temperature had risen several degrees. My heart rate and blood pressure indicators were outlined in flashing yellow, but I didn't bother to check the numbers. Everything was normal. Yeah. Sort of.

"Max, how about Katya?"

"Ballistic. Madeline's talking her down on another channel."

"While you talk me down. That's teamwork."

"You're starting to catch up to the curve, Jack. Passing sixty-five now. You doing OK?"

"OK."

Those first five kilometers had passed damn quickly. It was not a very comfortable position, plummeting head-first through the clouds. Logic told me that the surface was over an hour away; but my skydiving instincts were telling me that the hard, rocky ground would come sweeping up at me any moment now. Somewhere in the back of my mind a small voice was insisting that it was high time to pull the chute release -- now, right now, this second. No chute, of course, but that didn't help.

I glanced at my hand and saw that I was still clutching the nylon bag that Dieter had put over my helmet. With an effort, I forced my fingers open and watched the bag flutter away past my feet and vanish into the fog.

"How long do I have to do this toes-up?" I asked.

"A little longer," said Max. "You're doing beautifully."

"OK."

One minute is a pretty long free-fall. My helmet was fogging up as I fell through the clouds. It wasn't water, of course. It occurred to me that the outer layer of the suit was probably not designed for contact with liquid droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid. On the other hand, it was designed to withstand the conditions far below, which were even more corrosive. Still ....

"You're coming up on sixty kilometers," Max said. "Your drop rate is down to eighty meters per second. I'd say you were hitting some real air."

"Affirmative," I answered. My suit was no longer ballooning. The display said that the life-support system was now adjusting the mixture, adding argon to match the outside pressure. I checked the outside sensors. "Temperature is now above freezing."

"I have you near the curve. You can slow down some."

"Thank you." I let myself pivot around and went into a normal skydiver's position, face down, arms out, knees bent. It felt good to stop hanging upside-down. My stomach began to complain less urgently. The rush of the air told me I was still dropping, but otherwise I seemed to hang suspended in a dim void.



It took me less than two minutes to fall the first ten kilometers. The next ten took me almost four minutes. The diffuse light around me drained away as I penetrated deeper and deeper into the clouds. The yellowish color of the cloud-tops faded to a gloomy gray. The wind that rushed past me was discernibly slower, but the denser air pushed up on me with a force as great as before. My life-support system was adjusting my breathing mixture, pumping in argon and fluorocarbons to keep my chest inflated without raising the partial pressure of oxygen. Outside my suit, my sensors told me that it was already hot -- the zone of human comfort had passed by in seconds.

Max kept up a stream of conversation to keep my mind occupied. There was little for me to do. A few experiments proved that I could control my rate of fall enough to keep me "on the curve". We postponed tests of lateral maneuvering until I had descended further, to levels where the horizontal winds were nearly zero. I read Max some data from my life-support monitors.

"Thanks, Jack," he said. "There are some folks up on Aphrodite who want to keep a close eye on things."

"I appreciate that." I could use all the help I could get.

"Captain Bell sends his complements, and says to tell you that the beer is on him when you come back."

"Copy that. I could use one now."

"Can you speed up slightly?"

I pulled my arms in slightly. "How's that?"

"Let me see the doppler .... Fine. That'll do nicely."

I switched on my suit's navigational display, and a grid superimposed itself on my grey surroundings. The luminous coordinates were somehow reassuring. I turned myself around until I was facing eastward. Invisible, somewhere above and in front of me, Gamma was drawing away as it rode the jet stream above the clouds.

"Coming up on one thousand millibars," Max said.

In less than six minutes I had fallen twenty kilometers, from blinding sunshine into grey obscurity, and my eyes had not really had time to adjust. But now I could make out a darker gloom below, a mottled shadow that grew swiftly as I plunged deeper. The mists beside me seemed to thin out.

"I may be near the base of the cloud deck," I reported. Almost before the words were out of my mouth, a vast gulf opened up under me, and I dropped into it. I caught a glimpse of great filaments of mist trailing down from the clouds like the tentacles of a ghostly jellyfish. The scene flashed upward in a couple of seconds. I dove through a last island of fog and then emerged into the endless emptiness beneath.

"Hoo," I said a little breathlessly. "I am definitely below the clouds. Repeat, I am falling in clear air."

"Right on time," said Max. "How's the view?"

"Can't see a damn thing. Just darkness below me."

"Copy that. Keep looking."



After leaving the clouds I fell ever more slowly through the empty air, dropping between a lighter obscurity above and a darker one beneath. I surveyed the suit's displays. The air pressure was increasing at five millibars per second – one standard atmosphere every three minutes – and my suit was adjusting beautifully. The rush of the wind past me had become a familiar thing, a constant background to my other sensations. The flow was quieter now but more forceful, and it felt almost like a tremendous hand restraining my fall. It occurred to me that I had be the first person in history to skydive through air this dense. On Earth, I would have hit the surface long ago.

I yawned.

That was slightly alarming. Yawning might be an early sign of carbon dioxide build-up, which might signal a suit malfunction. But the carbon dioxide levels in my suit and in my bloodstream looked nominal, and were unchanged in the last few minutes. I frowned and instructed the suit computer to do a rapid diagnostic of the sensors. Everything was working normally.

Of course, I hadn't slept in thirty-six hours, and I was coming down off a huge adrenaline high. The dim blankness of my surroundings and the whooshing of the air amounted to sensory deprivation. No wonder I was sleepy.

"How are you doing, Jack?"

"A bit groggy, but otherwise OK."

"Want to take a nap?"

I blinked. "You're kidding."

"It's an option in the flight plan, believe it or not. Dr. Martinez worked it out. He says that you could take as much as a thirty minute nap, if you need to. We'll wake you up." Dr. Martinez was the chief medical officer on the Aphrodite and one of the designers of the hotsuit. I had not realized it, but of course he had been helping to work the problem, checking up on my condition, designing solutions, planning contingencies. I had almost imagined myself pitting my own wits and strength against the universe, but that was all nonsense. Real life didn't work that way.

I could not help but smile. With my crewmates behind me, the long odds I faced looked a lot shorter.

Still, the middle of a skydive did not seem like the perfect occasion for a sleep period. "Thanks anyway," I said. "And thank Dr. Martinez, and everybody who worked on this. I just don't think I could make myself go to sleep right now."

"You're the pilot," he said.

The air pressure was approaching three times that of Earth's sea level, and the temperature outside my suit was as high as a medium-hot oven; and both were rising swiftly as I fell. No, I said to myself. This is not the time to doze off.


8.

If you fall and fall and never hit the ground, pretty soon you don't feel like you're falling at all. I flew, dreamlike, through a dim emptiness, buoyed upward on a fountain of thick rising air. I could zoom this way and that by shifting my body and diverting its flow. Only the steadily decreasing altitude figures on my suit display told me that I was still descending.

As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I began to see the dark shapes of the surface below. It was difficult to get my bearings. Refraction effects made the surface seem to curve upward, as if I were hanging above an enormous bowl-shaped depression. From above, the topography was hard to figure out. Overhead, the sun might be low in the western sky, but down below everything was lit by a uniform glow from the clouds. There were no shadows; the shapes of light and dark that I could see were probably patches of different colored minerals, fresh lava flows versus old ones, and so on. I was not expert enough in the geology of the Maat Mons region to make any sense of them.

"Jack," Max said. "You have a call."

"Who from?"

"Your wife."

"Oh." I looked down below me, but of course I far too high to see the lander. I wished I could see Katya. "How is she?"

"Madeline has settled her down a bit."

That was good, anyway. "Put her on," I said.

"Hello, Jack," Katya said, her tone neutral. Her voice was a little hoarse. I wondered whether she had spent the last thirty minutes yelling at Maddie Whitten.

With my wife, the direct approach is always best. "Hi, Katya. Are you still angry with me?"

"I'm furious," she said. It was not a joke. "But what good does that do? Now we have to try and make your plan work, whatever I think of it. You give me no choice."

I breathed a sigh of relief. Katya had a rational mind, but she was also stubborn. It was never a complete certainty in a given situation which quality would win out. "I'm sorry," I said. "There wasn't time to persuade you."

"I understand." And I knew that she did, too, even though she still objected. "But this is past now. What needs to be done?"

I glanced at my instrument displays. "I'm twenty-five kilometers above you, falling at twelve meters per second. I'm slowing down as the air gets thick. Max, what is my estimated landing time?"

"17.35," Max said.

"An hour from now. I want to land as close to Virgil as I can. Max can guide me by radar, but a landing beacon would be helpful. Are your docking lights working?"

"Let me check. It seems so."

"Can you turn them on? Maybe I can see you."

"I'm switching them on now."

I watched carefully, but there was no bright spark visible in the gloomy landscape below. "I don't see you yet," I said. "Try blinking them."

"Flashing the lights."

There was still nothing to see. But it was a long way down, and maybe I wasn't looking in exactly the right place. "No luck," I reported. "But that's OK. We'll try again when I'm closer. Am I still on track, Max?"

"You're on the curve."

"I'm switching off the docking lights," Katya said. "Jack, how fast will you hit the ground?"

"About like a regular parachute jump, I think," I said. "I should be able to manage it without a problem."

"Then what?"

"I'll need to clear the fans. I should have several hours to do the job. You need to have Virgil warmed up and ready to launch for a rendezvous with Delta."

"I will go over the systems again." Katya paused, and added, "I have not really had a take-off in mind until now."

I wondered whether she was smiling. "OK. Start your checklist," I told her.

"You just get down in one piece."



The hotsuit was designed to adjust the human body to changes in pressure at rates up to one atmosphere per minute. Even in a suit, the lander airlock cycle lasted a couple of hours. On the other hand, I did not have that much control on my rate of fall. I reached the thousand-millibar-per-minute mark at around twenty kilometers altitude, and after that I was pushing the suit systems further and further beyond their specs. Dr. Martinez had OK'd the flight plan, though, so I decided not to worry about it. Outside, it was three hundred degrees Celsius with a pressure like the deep ocean. I was already feeling the strange effects of too-rapid pressure change. I felt a little dizzy, and my vision was slightly blurred. There were dull aches in my joints and in my head. My breathing seemed wrong, as if I were breathing out less than I breathed in – and given the rate at which the air density increased, that must have been exactly what was happening.

By now the oxygen in my breathing mix was only one percent, and falling – just a trace component in a gas that was ninety-nine percent argon and fluorocarbon. In theory I could do without any breathing oxygen at all, for the hotsuit's gas exchanger would add oxygen directly to my blood if the level dropped below normal. In theory. I did not intend to abandon use of my lungs anytime soon.

I could see more detail in the terrain below. The surface on the slopes of Maat Mons was fractured and pitted, marked with swaths of smoother gray lava flows. I glimpsed streaks of brown and orange and even blue. There were great downhill slides of loose material. It was a strange, dreamlike landscape, and the distortions of the refracting air only made it queerer. I was sinking ever more slowly toward the bottom of an alien sea.



Fourteen kilometers. "Let's try the docking lights again, Katya," Max suggested. He sounded a little worried. Gamma, carried by the jet stream, was now hundreds of kilometers away, and Max's radar fixes were becoming less and less useful for navigation. I had tried to guide myself by landmarks on the surface, without much success – my view of the landscape was just too confusing. Not only did I have to land within walking distance of Virgil, but I also had to know which way to walk when I got there. I needed a target beacon.

Katya acknowledged. "I begin now, blinking every two seconds."

"Keep it up for a bit, Katya," I said. I peered straight down and tried to spot the beacon. Where was it? The docking lights were bright and should be visible at this distance in the clear air beneath the clouds. Yet all I could see was the warped mountainside, rough and mottled, with no telltale beacon to steer toward.

"Any luck?"

I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. My headache had grown worse, and now there was a sharp stab every time I moved my head suddenly. My left leg was aching. The dizziness was bad enough that I was worried about nausea. On the timeline I was just over halfway down, and things should get worse as I descended. Though I hadn't mentioned my symptoms to the folks upstairs, I was beginning to wonder whether I could last all the way to the surface. But that was a stupid thought. I couldn't exactly turn back, could I?

"Jack, are you still with us?"

I forced my eyes back into focus and said, "Still scanning."

"I'm still blinking," Katya said.

I was looking for a slope with a flat area big enough to set down the lander, right next to a landslide. A recent landslide, I thought, might be distinguishable by color. So if I looked for a landslide that was lighter or darker, and checked along its edge ....

"I see you," I said. "There you are. On, off, on, off, on off. You're about kilometer and a half to the, um, north of me. I can see the track of the slide. I'm going to angle over closer as I approach."

"Copy that, Jack," Max said.

"Do you need the beacon?" Katya asked. "I'm about to wear out the switch."

"No, that's fine for now," I said. "Show it to me again in a few kilometers, and then again when I get really close."

"Yes, OK." The little flashing star winked out. I squinted, but could not see Virgil itself at the spot.

"Nice to see you, Katya," I said. "It helps somehow."

"Yes, it does," she admitted. "I wish you had a light also, so that I could see you."

"Be there soon."



The last ten kilometers took thirty minutes. The landscape expanded with an agonizing slowness. I stopped keeping track of how many hundreds of degrees and how many thousands of millibars. I was suspended in time and space, as the altitude display slowly unwound toward zero.

I hurt. I had toggled a dose of a pain med from the suit, but it wasn't working worth a damn. The pain in my head and in my limbs seemed to be interfering with my vision, too, for I found it increasingly difficult to get a clear view of the terrain below me. When Katya gave me another blink at around eight kilometers, I saw that I had edged closer, but not far enough. I concentrated on flying, on angling my body so that my trajectory bent over in her direction. Control was a problem, and I yawed around quite a bit. Every time I had to move or adjust my position, another hot nail got hammered in somewhere. It went on and on and on.

There was a three-way conference going on between Katya, Max, and Carlos Ruzhany, the skipper of the Delta airship. They were discussing the recovery operation, assuming that I survived and could clear the fans. I could not really follow the conversation. Damn, I was hurting. I knew that there were things I needed to be thinking about, but I was too slow-witted to figure out what they were. My brain is gelling in the pressure, I thought. For some reason, that phrase rolled round and round in my head. My brain is gelling. My brain is gelling.

When Max checked up on me, I was still able to answer coherently, though once or twice he had me repeat something when my speech was slurred. The pressure was rising at two atmospheres per minute. Several of my helmet indicators had turned yellow, but I couldn't tell which ones. What the hell, I thought. Can't fix it now. As long as nothing goes red I'm OK, right?

I could see Virgil itself now, a little silver bug on the reddish mountainside, shining dully under the overcast sky. Too bad it wasn't sunny. I was growing impatient with my slow descent, and I wondered whether I should try to speed things up by swimming downwards. No, that was no good; my muscles were too shaky for effort, and my joints hurt like a son of a bitch. If I went swimming now, I'd get a cramp and drown. I felt like I was drowning in this sluggish air anyway. I shook my head to clear it, and a white-hot spike drove through it just above the back of my neck.

I might have blacked out for a moment. All at once I was falling head-down, something that took me a minute to realize and another minute of flailing around to fix. Max was speaking in my ear, but it was impossible to understand him. "Speak up, Max" I tried to say. Katya said something, too, but she didn't make any more sense than Max had. They seemed to be shouting, so I ignored them. I must have been in the last kilometer. I could see my motion, saw Virgil (lights flashing) get closer and closer, slowly drifting to one side of me. With the tilt of the slope, it was hard to work out exactly which direction was down, but whatever it was, that was the way I was heading. I knew I should pick a safe place to land. I squinted and tried to forget the chisel in my brain, just behind my eyes. A safe place to set down would be flat and smooth and free of loose rock. A big "X" to mark my touchdown point would also be nice. But it all looked the same from here. There was one more thing I ought to remember, something that might be related to all the shouting that Max was doing, and I racked my gelled brains to recall it. It was some maneuver we had discussed, a way to slow down a little right at the end and still land on my feet. There were drag coefficients and air speeds swirling in my mind. I could not for the life of me work it out. I kept my eyes on the approaching rocks. They were coming slowly. There was plenty of time. Well, actually, they were coming up faster than I had thought. In fact, they were really pretty quick. Five meters per second! Whoa! I suddenly realized that I was still in a horizontal position, face downward, which seemed like a bad way to meet the ground. I windmilled my arms around to get my feet under me, over-corrected, then flailed them the other way. I hit hard, and all the pains in my body shot down to my left ankle. There was an instant of agonizing clarity, and then I lost consciousness.


9.

"Talk to me, Jack!"

It has been conclusively established from my suit data record that I was unconscious for no more than two minutes. You couldn't prove that by me. When Katya's urgent voice dragged me back to awareness, it might have been two hours or two weeks later. At first I did not even know where I was. (Remembering that datum a few seconds later did not exactly cheer me up.)

"You bastard, you stinking bastard, you will not do this to me! Do you hear me? Jack, acknowledge this transmission!" The radio reception was fuzzy and had echoes.

"Katya," came another static-distorted voice. "Katya, please –"

"Shut up, Max. Jack, I will not take this. Do you understand? Answer me, Jack!" Katya's voice was hard and angry and more than a little hysterical.

I groaned and tried to move.

The communications channel got very quiet all of a sudden. Katya said softly, "Jack? Is that you?"

"Yeah," I croaked. "Still with you. Stand by."

I moved again and groaned again. I felt like I had been kicked to a bloody pulp by six bad-tempered rhinos, then run over by a train. Actually, weirdly, in some ways I felt better than I had before touchdown. My system had done some catching up with the pressure, and I was no longer dizzy. Come to think of it, there had only been three rhinos in the kicking squad, and the train had only run over my left ankle.

"We are standing by," Katya said.

I opened my eyes and frowned, trying to focus. I was sprawled on some flat, broken stones that lay on the mountainside. The eagle had definitely landed, and I was on terra firma, or whatever you called it. I knew that Virgil was someplace nearby, over that way perhaps, but the landing had been confusing and I wasn't sure. No matter. That would sort itself out soon enough.

I tried to read my suit status display. "Jack here," I said. "I'm on the surface. Sorry about the blackout; I had a rough landing. My suit seems to OK."

"Thank God," Katya said.

Max came on and added, "That's great, Jack! We thought we'd lost you there." I could hear some happy noises behind him on the flight deck of Gamma.

"I'm glad to report otherwise," I said. There was a burst of static, and I added, "Say again, Max?"

"What's your condition?"

"I've hurt my left foot. I'll get up and try it out."

"Negative on getting up, Jack," Max said. "Dr. Martinez says to stay put for a few minutes and let your suit systems catch up."

"OK," I said. I wasn't too eager to stand up, anyway. "Listen, Max, you and Katya are coming in rather broken up. Let me check my suit communicator."

There was another distorted message: "... kilometers ... this circuit. We suggest ... relay through Virgil. Over."

Of course. I was still routing my suit communications through Gamma, which was now hundreds of kilometers to the east. The local terrain was probably bouncing things around a bit. "Confirm that, I will switch over to relay through the lander."

Katya came on. "Jack, switch your .... one toggle six, repeat, one toggle."

"Copy that. Switching my comm to one toggle six." When I'd reset the helmet control, the static in my headphones died away and Katya's voice came loud and clear.

"Check communications. Do you hear me, Jack?"

"I read you fine on mode one. I'm toggling to alternate." I bumped the switch with my chin. "Mode six is the private surface channel, right?"

"Just you and me, on vox," she said. "Mode one gets relayed on up to the satellite."

"Good idea."

"How are you? We were worried."

"I'm beat up, but I'll live," I said. "The landing knocked me out."

"Your landing almost killed me."

"Sorry about that. I'll do it better next time."

"Arkasha is beeping us. Back over to mode one."

"OK. Love you." I chinned the toggle.



With the touchdown, we were handed over from Max (my "flight controller") to Aphrodite, where Arkady Rudin was doing the sky-to-ground comms. Arkasha came on the line with a cheerful voice. "Jack! This is Arkasha. Very well done. I was betting on you."

"Did you win much?"

"Not a dime. No one would bet against you."

I'm not sure I believed that. "You should have asked me," I said. "I might have taken your bet, just to cover the bases."

For the next few minutes, Arkasha had me relay various readings on my suit status, my biomeds, and the environmental conditions. My suit was in great shape, my biomeds could have been better, and outside the conditions were extremely nasty. In short, everything was as good as could be expected. While we went through this I sat myself up and got my bearings with the suit's navigational display. The lander was two hundred meters away, above me and around the curve of the mountainside. From seventy kilometers up, that counted as a bullseye.

My suit was feeding me pain-killer, and it was finally doing its job. Only my ankle continued throbbing. A blurry head and a slight muscle tremor were ordinary fatigue, so I instructed the suit to add a dose of a stimulant to my system. I might pay the price later, but the stim would keep me going for now.

I tested my left ankle before getting up. It was sprained but not broken, or at any rate not seriously. The suit was doing something to keep the swelling down. With a little caution, I could probably hobble around on it. That was good enough. I had some ground to cover to get to Virgil, and I didn't care to do the whole distance on hands and knees. My head swam when I finally managed to get to my feet.

"OK to go, Jack?" Katya asked.

"OK enough," I grunted. "It may take me a while to reach you."

It did take me a while. The slope had once been covered by a broad sheet of smooth lava, which had broken up into pieces about the size of a lunch tray. The footing was treacherous, and the pain shooting up my left leg forced me to stop every couple of minutes and stand on the other foot. As Katya directed, I slowly worked my way up the slope and over toward where Virgil lay, out of my sight. The air had the odd thick feeling of really high pressures. My diaphragm had to work harder to draw breath in and push it out again. I waved my arms as I walked, paddling the air to help keep my balance. Even more than before, I felt as if I were moving along the ocean floor.

The landscape, red and gray rocks heaped on a desolate mountain, was as lifeless as the Moon. In fact, the Moon was less forbidding, with the Earth and the Sun and the stars above you for companionship. Here was only a featureless ceiling, immensely far away. Distant parts of the vista seemed tilted upwards by refraction.

The rocks were worth looking at. Much of the surface material around was a smooth, dark lava rock with a very fine texture, not quite like anything I'd seen. "Hey, Katya," I said, when I'd paused to give my ankle a rest. "You were right. These rocks are interesting. Did you get some samples?"

"I must have left them outside," she said.

"Perhaps I should collect a few."

"Jack, if you are interested in rocks, we have more than we need right here.."

"Right." For a moment, I'd almost forgotten why I was there. I hobbled a few more meters up the hill.

I came to a short stretch of steeper slope that angled up to my right, and I awkwardly scrambled up it – taking care of the shiny outer layer of my hotsuit, the one that was keeping the outside inferno pleasantly outside. At the top I came to the flat area of the landing zone. There was the long chaotic track of the landslide, demolishing the far side of the LZ. And there, at the edge of the slide, less than a hundred meters away, was the silvery shape of Virgil.

I climbed onto the edge and waved my arms. "I'm here. I see Virgil." Even better, I could see into the cockpit, where a small figure was waving back at me. I grinned and limped toward her.

Arkady was relaying the congratulations of practically everybody, but I wasn't listening. My eye was running over Virgil, taking in the situation. The images Katya had sent up had shown the main details, but this was the first time anyone aside from her had gotten a look at the overall picture. It was amazing that the lander had survived. Twenty meters further over and it would have been smashed; forty meters, and the wreckage would have been dragged down the mountain.

I came to the nose of Virgil. The cockpit windows were a meter above my head, but I managed to get my good foot on the knee of the front landing skid and hoist myself up.

"Zdravstvuytye," I said.

"Hello," Katya said. She looked drawn and haggard, but she was right there and she was smiling at me. Whatever happens next, I told myself, this is worth it. She raised up six fingers. I nodded and toggled to the private comm channel.

"You don't look so good," she said.

"I had a rough trip. How are you?"

She shrugged and waved an hand to indicate her own body. She was sitting in the pilot's seat. I could see that she had shed her outer thermal garment but was still wearing both inner layers of the hotsuit, her life-support umbilical plugged into Virgil's own system. Over her right leg and much of the right side of her body, the second layer of her suit was blackened and discolored. Heat damage, I realized; the damage to her insulation must have been on her right leg. My eyes widened. "How bad is it?"

"Bad enough. I don't walk even as well as you do. I had to crawl most of the way. The suit computer kept telling me to lie down and wait for help."

What would that be like, to drag yourself along with your right leg roasting, the heat of it – and maybe the smell of it – filling your suit? I could not imagine. Without the hotsuit systems to maintain her, she would have gone into shock and died. Even with them, she would not last forever down here. "Well, help has arrived."

"I know. Thank you." She kissed her fingers and pressed them to the window. I put my own glove on the outside of the window, our fingers about four centimeters apart. That was as close as we could get..

The call light flashed on channel one. "Back to work," I said. I hit the toggle with my chin.



For the next few minutes, I made a verbal report to the engineers up on the Aphrodite. The aerodynamic surfaces were battered but intact. The landing skids were bent, but those could be dropped away once we took off. I saw why the directional antenna wasn't working: a rock the size of a cantaloupe has sheared it clean off. The secondary propulsion jets, used at high altitude, were closed up, but there was no visible damage to the vents. I could only hope that they'd deploy when the time came.

Beside the airlock outer door I spotted something shiny on the ground. I stooped over and picked it up. It was a ragged strip of a silvery material, about five centimeters by twenty. I rubbed it between my fingers.

"Jack?" Arkasha said after a moment. "Are you still there? Have you found something?"

I realized that this was a piece of Jules Bertillame's hotsuit, the fragment that Katya had found after the landslide. Poor J. B. "It's nothing," I said, dropping the strip on the ground. "Continuing down the port side...."


Update: Part IV is now here.

99 Comments:

Blogger Lyn said...

Alright, finally read part 3. Good job keeping the storys going - good balance between the long free-fall down and just getting there to continue the story. I like your writing style. lgp

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