Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Pasadena Rule (Part IV of IV)

Here is the fourth and final installment of our science fiction novella. Here are links to the previous episodes: Part I, Part II, and Part III.


Now it was time to see about the main problem, the big ducted fans. Both of them were blocked by several wheelbarrow loads of rock fragments that had spilled over the landing zone from the edge of the landslide. The portside job actually looked a little easier than the pictures had suggested, but the starboard propellor, on the uphill side of the lander, was jammed tight. I started portside.

Rocks are rocks, and on Venus they are almost as heavy as they are on Earth. It was a hell of a job to move them without even so much as a crowbar to help. Some of the rocks were awkwardly placed. I fetched a piece of the broken high-gain antenna to try to pry up a fifty kilo monster, but, predictably, it snapped on the first good shove. The good news was that I didn't have to cart the rocks very far. Just heaving them out of the way of the fan was enough. I made slow progress. I was vaguely aware of conversations going on between Katya and people aloft and in orbit, making plans for steps two through twelve while I labored on step one.

"Uh-oh," I said.

"What is it, Jack?" Katya asked.

I had finally uncovered the outer rim of one of the fan blades and found to my horror that it was badly damaged. A rock twenty centimeters across had broken off part of the blade and put visible cracks in the rest of it. If the portside fan were spun up, this blade would shatter and shower the rest of the propellor assembly with high-speed fragments. I briefly reported what I'd found, trying to keep my voice even.

Everyone took the news a lot better than I expected. "Which blade is it?" asked an engineer from the Aphrodite. (I recognized the voice, but could not recall her name.)

"Number two," I said, glancing at the hub to be sure.

"Well, of course we'll have to remove it," Katya said.

"And you'll need to take out number eight as well," the engineer said. "Otherwise the turbine will be unbalanced."

"Oh." It seemed that this contingency had been discussed. "How am I supposed to take the blades off? I don't have any tools."

"Relax, Jack," Katya said. "The airlock is cycling now. You should be able to open the outside door in about two minutes. The EVA toolbox is in there."

I thought about it for a second or two. "Copy that," I said. "Going to six." On the private channel I said, "Katya, the starboard side may be even worse. This is going to cut our lift."

"I know," she said calmly. "We just have make it work somehow."

The airlock held the toolbox and a lot of loose equipment that Katya had dumped to lighten the ship. The whole load didn't amount to two percent of Virgil's gross weight, but every bit would help. I tossed the surplus stuff out the door, grabbed the tools, and headed back to the portside fan.

Moving rocks had been a bad job. Trying to remove an aerofan blade with a collection of miscellaneous hand tools, not all of which were working properly under the conditions, was a nightmare. The variable-pitch widget that held the blade to the hub was pretty well secured – it had to be, to take the revs of the fan at high speed.

On the other hand, I knew the lift system as well as anyone in the solar system. I had helped to design it, and could probably have drawn a fair diagram of the innards of the motor from memory. These blades were designed to be replaced in a maintenance bay on one of the dirigible platforms. The trick was adapting the procedure to "field conditions" including an ambient temperature in the low five hundreds. Metals and ceramics expand with temperature, but they don't all expand the same amount. Things that would have moved easily in a cool maintenance bay were wedged tight down here in the oven.

In the end, we did manage. But it took five times longer than anyone expected.

On to the starboard fan, which was worse. There was more rock to move, and I was getting tired. Nothing that the suit could do to my bloodstream could mask that. Dr. Martinez recommended a rest period, preferably involving some sleep, but he was overruled. Delta was on its way, pulled along with the Venerian jet stream at a kilometer every ten seconds, and it was our only ride. If we missed it, there wouldn't be another chance for forty-eight hours, till the Alpha platform came round again. The engineers were sure that Virgil could not last that long. Carlos Ruzhany, the skipper of Delta, was driving his ship at full throttle against the wind, but that would only add a couple of hours to our timeline.

Practice helped, and I did move the rock a lot more efficiently this time around. The broken pieces from the other fan made dandy crowbars. As we expected, there were bad propellor blades on the starboard fan too. Both blades eleven and three had to come off – but the good news was that we could restore balance by removing only one additional blade, number seven. I cast a worried eye on blade number twelve, which had sustained some superficial scratches. If there were cracks in it that I could not see, it would probably fail catastrophically in flight. If we removed too many blades, we'd never get off the ground. I might exchange it for the undamaged blade from the portside fan, but replacing a blade would take far longer than removing one. I reported number twelve as "good to go."

A warning light in the edge of my helmet display began to flash between yellow and red, so I stopped working for a second to check it out. "Arkasha," I called, "I've got a thermal max warning in my suit."

Dr. Martinez himself came on the line. "Jack, you've been working pretty hard. You passed the four hour mark some time ago."

Four hours was the recommended maximum stay at high temperature in a hotsuit. There was a safety margin built in, but I was coming to the edge of the margin as well. The problem was thermal, as usual. In the middle of this inferno, the hotsuit had no place to dump the waste heat that I generated by working. So it did what Virgil did, storing the waste heat in an ultra-high capacity heat sink in the life support pack. But that small heat sink was limited, and I was approaching its limit. The harder I worked, the worse it would get.

"I could plug the heat exchanger into Virgil's system," I said. "That would help."

"Yes it would," said Dr. Martinez. "But I'll tell you, boy, I don't think you have the time. You need to be nose up in less than thirty minutes."

I looked up at the starboard fan. The first blade was about half done; two more to go after that. Oh crap. "I get the picture," I said. "What can I expect?"

"Uncharted territory. Give me some readings and I'll suggest some adjustments that might help." We spent a minute or two on that, and then I went back to work, unscrewing the bushing on the number three blade like a maniac.

The yellow flashing stopped presently and was replaced by a steady red warning light. The approach of heatstroke at ninety atmospheres was not altogether unpleasant – rather like spending too long in a really hot bath. If it weren't for the frantic pace of my work on the propellor, it might even have been relaxing. I felt sleepy and weak.

The first two starboard blades were off. Now I was working on number seven, the "good" one. It was easier than the others, but I felt myself slowing down even as I watched the seconds tick away. I fumbled with my wrench and tried to recall which way to turn it to loosen the nut.

Katya was watching my work over Virgil's cameras, talking me through it over our private channel. "Almost there, Jack. Just disconnect the pitch actuator cable next."

"Hot," I said, yanking the cable awkwardly out of its socket.

"I know it's hot. Just finish that one and you can come inside. We'll get out of here. Okay?"

That was okay with me. I concentrated on removing the actuator assembly for the number seven blade. That done, I could see underneath, where the blade was actually attached to the hub. Two more screws, hard to get at. I picked up a screwdriver, but it slipped from my fingers. Oh, it had been the wrong driver anyway. I got the right one and went to work.

"Jack, they're telling us we need to be going now." Katya said. "No margin left. How much longer?"

"Not long." Sweat was in my eyes, or else my face plate was fogging, but I knew this job well enough by now that I didn't need to use my eyes. "One screw out," I told Katya. Jesus, I was hot. My body temperature had been elevated for a while, another little yellow warning light in the periphery of my vision. Actually, there was a whole constellation of yellow and red over there in the biomedical corner.

"Got it!" I shouted. The last screw came and the blade slipped out of its socket. I helped it out and pushed it away from the fan. It fell funny in the dense air.

"Head for the airlock," Katya said.

"Just a second." I scraped the last few tools and fragments from the blades and stumbled back around the nose of Virgil to the airlock on the portside. I'd had the good sense to leave the door open.

Even as I reached the door, Katya had started the big blades turning. The current from the propwash – you could not really call it a wind in air this thick – sprayed gravel on me. I heaved myself into the airlock and pulled the door inward. My hands remembered how to work the latch mechanism. The whine of the motors got louder and changed pitch, and I felt Virgil move. It tilted to one side, and I fell against a locker. "Sorry!" Katya shouted. A shudder, a rattle of small rocks sliding off the outer skin, and suddenly we heaved up into the air. We circled a moment, but then the nose pitched upward and the prop sound changed again, and we began to climb. It was all I could do to plug my suit into the ship's systems before I passed out.


Unlike Katya, I had not disabled my biomedical data line, so the others had a pretty good picture of my condition. The heat exchanger of Virgil brought my suit environment to normal in a few minutes, and my body temperature came down rapidly after that. Dr. Martinez suggested letting me sleep while I could. Katya left the ship on autopilot long enough to drag herself to the airlock window and make sure that I was not about to roll over and foul my lines. After that they just let me lie there for almost the whole ascent.

As I learned later, it was an exciting couple of hours. Katya had to fire the explosive bolts to jettison the landing gear, as I'd figured. The fans did work, though she could not use full thrust on the portside fan without flipping over. She somehow managed to open up the secondary jets several kilometers below the nominal altitude, which gave Virgil a badly needed extra boost. Parts of the electrical system died, and there were other failures as well. But I spent the trip snoring on the airlock floor.

The 1812 Overture, horns and cannons blazing, poured into my ears. It would not have been so bad, except that the cannons were aimed more or less at my head. I had been down so deep, though, that it took me a long time to swim to the surface. "What the hell?" I finally managed to get out.

The music cut off and, somewhat surprisingly, Madeline Whitten's voice came on. She was too loud. "Wake up, Jack. You're about to make rendezvous."

"No need to shout, Maddie." I sat up, tried to stand up, rediscovered my injured ankle, and slumped against a bulkhead. There was a lot of vibration. I took in a bleary view of the airlock. "Where are you?"

"Back on Aphrodite – our shuttle docked about an hour ago. Arkady's talking Katya in. You're still in the clouds, but you'll catch up with Delta in a few minutes."

"Can I go on inside? No, wait, I see the indicator. I'm still at three thousand millibars."

"You won't get down to one atmosphere in time. Just stay there in the airlock. Unplug the suit from the panel and find yourself a comfortable spot."

I began to unlock my umbilical. "What's the big rush? Let's cruise around till I can take the co-pilot's chair."

"You've chased Delta almost to the terminator. We need daylight for the docking."

"Aren't there docking lights on Delta?"

"You aren't heading for the docking cradle," Maddie explained. "Here's the situation, Jack. Your maximum thrust on the fans is way down, so you can't hover at your present altitude. The docking cradle is no good."

I disconnected the suit from the airlock panel and folded a seat down from the wall. There seemed to be an awful lot of warning lights on the indicator board in the airlock. It looked like one of the nastier simulation problems from training. "So what's the plan?" I asked, as nonchalantly as I could. "Do they snag us with a tether?"

"Nothing to snag safely. Katya is putting Virgil down on top."

"On top?" There was nothing on top of Delta except ten big hydrogen cells and some rigging. "Let me talk to Katya." I started to chin over to our private channel.

"Jack, she's real damn busy this minute."

"At least let me listen in on the channel, Maddie."

"I'll see what I can do. Meanwhile, there's some cargo webbing in the lower sample locker in the airlock. Try to improvise a crash restraint. Do you copy? We expect the landing to be pretty rough. Call me when you're ready."

What the hell were they planning? "Roger," I said.

I pressed my helmet to the airlock door and tried peering into the cockpit through the small window, but it was not placed to give me a view of the piloting stations. After a minute I gave it up and got to work. The webbing was right where Maddie had said. Some support rings on the walls would do as hard points to attach it. I chose the rear-facing seat and began to fold the webbing into a broad band that would go around my midsection. As I wrestled with it, I started to hear the audio from the pilot-to-control channel. I assumed that the first voice was from someone aboard Delta.

Delta: We're tracking you near the cloud tops. Turn on your lights and let us see you.

Virgil: Lights, da. (Katya sounded very, very tired. She wasn't wasting syllables.)

Delta: When you come up, we'll be almost straight north of you, about ten o'clock from your present heading. Let us know when you spot us.

I wished there were a window on the outer airlock door, or a video display, or something to let me watch what was happening. I felt the vibrations from the engines – low and smooth from the jets, high-pitched and much too rough from the props. Virgil was bouncing around enough that I had a hard time securing my impromptu seatbelt. I finally managed to clip onto a pair of rings on each side. It wasn't as tight as I'd like, but it would do. "This is Jack. I'm all set," I said into my helmet mike. I did not hear any acknowledgment.

Delta: We see you, Virgil.

Virgil: Clearing the cloud tops. Yes, I see you also.

Delta: Start your S-turn. Make your approach from the west, with the sun behind you. We'll give you the steadiest target we can. Aim for the center lifting cell.

Aphrodite: Aphrodite here. Maddie says that Jack is awake and fully secured. He sends his love and says good luck.

Virgil: OK. Starting the turn.

Virgil tilted and began a slow turn to port. There was something strange about the way it moved – sluggish, even though I could hear the fans turning near maximum. That would be the reduced thrust; but it also might be Katya's condition. She was a competent pilot, but now she was exhausted and badly injured, struggling to fly a damaged ship. The situation was not ideal in several respects.

I was trying to visualize what was going on. Aim for the center lifting cell? That sounded like a very bad idea. They were, after all, the lifting cells, the things that were holding Delta up. If we smacked into them, probably ripping a few open, we'd spill a million cubic meters of warm hydrogen. What in God's name did they have in mind? I told myself that this wasn't my problem. Now it was their turn to rescue me.

Delta: Your target is the number six cell – center cell on our port side. Go as slow as you can, but control is more important than speed. Come straight out of the sun, so you can put your shadow on the center and follow it in."

Virgil: Cell number six, dead center. Yes, I have it.

Delta: Hit the middle cells, five and six, so that we can maintain trim.

Virgil: OK.

Delta: After you're in, just hang on and we'll have someone with you right away.

Aphrodite: Arkasha here. Our people want to make sure that the fire-safety procedures are complete. We don't need an explosion.

Fire safety? That didn't make much sense either. True, the dirigibles were full of hydrogen – but there couldn't be any Hindenberg-style explosion on Venus. With no free oxygen in the atmosphere, no fire was possible. Then I figured it out. We were bringing the oxygen.

Virgil: I'm back in my helmet, and I've taken the oxygen out of the cabin air. Almost all of the O-two in the lander tanks is vented. The heat sink is stable at five-fifty degrees.

Aphrodite: Copy and thanks.

I checked my suit instruments, and realized that the airlock was filled with nothing but argon and fluorocarbon, pressure still at two and a half atmospheres and falling. Just in case I was tempted to take off my helmet.

We were going to try to use the lifting cells as crash balloons? Nineteen objections to that idea popped into my head. The impact might kill us. Virgil might just snap through all of the rigging cables and come out the other side, plunging out of control into the clouds beneath. It was not impossible that a bad crash-landing could destabilize Delta and roll it over, spilling everything and everybody into the abyss. Even if everything worked, Delta, deprived of the lift from the cells we ripped, would start losing altitude very quickly. I felt Virgil level out and fly straight.

Delta: Make your starboard turn when you're ready.

Virgil: I'll run another kilometer to get some room.

Delta: Twelve minutes of sun left. Do you want to try a practice pass?

Virgil: No.

Delta: Copy that. We're ready for you.

The turn to the right was much tighter than the first turn had been, and it felt like we lost some altitude in it. The jets throttled up to help us regain the height, but we were laboring. In my mind's eye, Delta was broadside to us, nose to the north, the port side illuminated by the orange rays of the sunset. Our shadow would be a small dark smudge on the side of Delta's spherical lifting cells.

Virgil jinked to the right, then right again. I grabbed onto the cargo webbing and gave it a final tug to check it. "Thirty seconds. Here we go," somebody said. I could feel Virgil stumble and sway as Katya tweaked up our approach vector. Only a few hundred meters left. I held my breath. Suddenly, the roar of the jets cut off, and the whine of the fans jumped an octave, until it was way too high. The fans pivoted on their mountings. Virgil slowed and began to drop. There was a half-second of tearing and whipping noises from the cell fabric and rigging cables that we snapped; and then we jerked right, spun around, smashed to a stop. I was twisted, yanked and flung backward. I felt my helmet strike the bulkhead with an impact that broke it open. Several somethings ripped through the walls of the airlock, and the air rushed out with a whoomp. The lights went out. My suit deflated.

There was a sharp pain in my ears and I felt my chest heaving for breath. I'm screwed, I thought. I've busted my helmet. I'm a fish out of water. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the world to fade away.

Seconds went by and the world hadn't faded yet. I reached my hand back to my helmet to see whether there had been some mistake. No mistake. The blow had split the helmet wide right over the top of my head. I could stick my fingers in the crack and scratch my scalp. I opened my eyes. All my helmet displays had gone dark, but I could tell from the feeling in my ears and the painful heaving of my chest and diaphragm that I'd lost my pressure. Blood pounded in my ears. My eyes were stinging and kept blurring over. But somehow I was still alive.

So what the hell, I unlatched my helmet and took it off. I squirmed out of the webbing and got to my feet as best I could, given my damn ankle and the tilt of the deck. I still wasn't dead. There were several jagged holes in the outer wall of the airlock, from fragments of the disintegrating fan blades I guessed. I could stick my fingers through those holes, too, and look through them at the last orange embers of daylight outside. I was breathing Venus air.

Well, who needs breathing, anyway? At the moment I did not, not with the hotsuit gas exchanger doing its best to keep my blood oxygen at the right level. For a time – but maybe not for long – the suit would keep me going, with or without breathable air. My reflexive gasps were distracting, though, so I took a deep breath and just held it.

There was no opening the outer door, but I was more interested in the inner one anyway. It had been half sprung off of its hinges, so it only took a couple of heaves to force it open. I pulled myself inside the main compartment. This had also been perforated and vented to the outside atmosphere. Up front, the windows were covered by the folds of a lifting cell envelope. I saw Katya, strapped into the pilot's seat, slumped motionless against the maneuvering controls.

I scrambled forward. Her inner suit was still holding pressure. She was bruised and unresponsive, and a trickle of blood ran down from her nose, but from the outside it looked possible that she was still alive.

No one had told me exactly what was planned at this point, and my suit communicator had died. It was clear that we needed to get out of there. I found the locker where Katya had stored her life-support pack and, dragging it across the cabin, transferred her umbilical from the dead ship to the live pack. The indicator lights came on green. Now which way was that exit?

I heard a noise on the top of Virgil's hull. Of course. The docking hatch up there was our escape route. Someone banged on the outside of the hatch, so I made a fist and banged back. The manual latch turned from the outside, retracted, and the hatch lifted up.

I stared into the mustached face of Carlos Ruzhany. He smiled behind his faceplate. Then, when he got a good look at me, his jaw dropped.

I shouted, "My suit is keeping me alive. Come down and give me a hand with Katya. Watch out for her leg – burned pretty bad." And I held my breath again.

Carlos stared at me for a few more seconds before he swallowed and nodded. He said something into his helmet mike, then swung down feet-first into the cabin. Danny Kyemba, my opposite number on Delta, goggled at me through the hatchway. Together Carlos and I extricated Katya from the pilot's seat while Danny slipped a line down through the hatch. We sent Katya out first, then her life-support pack. Carlos himself went up, telling me by signs that he was going to help get Katya's pack onto her shoulders. That left me standing in the empty cockpit for about minute. I heard creaking sounds outside and felt the dirigible move beneath my feet. There were more footsteps and scuffling sounds on the roof. At last a couple of hands came down and lifted me out.

And there I was, bare-faced on Venus. The sun was setting, and the wind was chilly. Virgil had shredded both of the center lifting cells, port and starboard, and the torn fabric lay flapping around us. The cells forward and aft of us appeared undamaged. We had been caught in a net of cables that the Delta crew had jury-rigged for us. I took a look downward, between the struts of Delta's central spine. The clouds down there were awfully close and they were getting closer awfully fast. It occurred to me that a sulfuric acid fog would not be kind to my complexion.

The other two bent over Katya, slipping a safety harness onto her. Carlos suddenly looked up at me and shouted something; from his gestures, I could tell that he was telling me to brace myself. I grabbed a cable that lay draped across Virgil's silvery roof. There were two flat cracks, like the sounds explosive charges make, and the whole dirigible shuddered fore to aft. I saw something up ahead swing down and then fall away. Delta began to lift its nose. Then there was another pair of bangs, one on top of the other, and something came loose and fell behind us. The dirigible's descent to the clouds slowed almost to a stop. Danny shouted something to me that included the word "gondola". They had dropped the front and rear sections as ballast, leaving only the center section, where the orbit shuttle was docked. That might give us the minutes we needed.

Carlos leaned his helmet close to me. "Time to go!" he said. I nodded that I understood. He and Danny took up Katya between them and scooted down the side of Virgil. I followed more slowly. We were on the bent wreckage of an access walkway, tricky footing, but I gripped the safety line and limped after the others. Some kind of cable slide was rigged at the starboard side. We put Danny and Katya into the first harness and watched them slide, faster than looked quite safe, out and down and back under our feet and out of our view.

"We're next!" Carlos yelled. We slipped into the other harness, which was little more than a couple of loops around the main cable. I had a last look around at all the damage we'd caused.

Ready to go, Carlos signed. I stood for a second at the edge, gazing down at the mist, ruddy and shadowed in the last scraps of daylight. My stomach went queasy. "Oh boy," I said.

"Scared of falling?" Carlos asked, his teeth showing beneath the mustache. We stepped off together.

They strapped me into the seat next to Katya, who was still unconscious. Unconscious, not dead. They'd pulled off her helmet and her gloves, so I reached out and touched her hand. It was warm. Her fingers twitched and seemed to curl around mine, but she gave no other sign. Then the acceleration warning sounded, and we dropped from Delta, banking left as we fell. The main engine kicked in. The shuttle rocketed ahead, outward and upward, faster and higher, till Venus had no more hold on us.

Much later, I told Katya about the Pasadena Rule.

She listened to me and said, "There is no such rule. That's a stupid rule."

"Nobody talks about it, but it's there. Don't tell me you weren't thinking about it, when you were down on the surface."

She looked away for a second. She was still cocooned in burn dressings, floating free in her berth in Aphrodite's infirmary. "I was in a bad way," she said quietly. "But I was still making up my mind. I hope I would have been strong enough to face what was coming. God does not approve of suicide, Jack."

"I don't know what God has to do with it."

"Now you are being obtuse," she said. "Anyway, if there were a rule like that, then why did you come after me?"

Now it was my turn to look away. I did it because it was the best option. I did it because I had to, because there was nothing else to do. I did it because, once you think of an idea like that, you have to go through with it or you can't live with yourself. I did it because I love you and I couldn't let you die.

She smiled. These days she couldn't go more than five minutes without smiling. "I tell you what is wrong with your special space-disaster rule, Jack." She reached out a bandaged hand and laid it on my chest. "One little thing. You."

I kissed her. There is only one rule that matters, in Earth or heaven.


Blogger Rob said...


The story is Analog-ish. That's a compliment!

Rob of UnSpace

9:27 AM  
Blogger Lyn said...

Had to finish it. Like I said in response to part 1, compelling. Good job, nice conclusion. Thanks for writing/posting it. lgp

7:51 PM  

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