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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Another visit to the carnival

Storyblogging Carnival XXXVIII is now in business. I'm participating this time with Part I of The Pasadena Rule, the science fiction novella appearing here. But there are lots of other stories in the Carnival as well, ranging from short pieces to new installments of novels-in-progress. I haven't explored the latest offerings yet, but I have enjoyed many of the stories from past Carnivals. So drop on by SC-XXXVIII yourself and browse the various entries. (Acts? Exhibits? Specimens?) Many thanks to Sheya Joie of Tales by Sheya for hosting things this time around.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Anecdotal obsolescence

We all, I suppose, have our little inventories of "set-piece" stories, the anecdotes that we trot out from time to time when the conversation and the company call for us to be amusing or interesting or witty. (I mean here the true stories, or at least the ones we tell as true. Mere jokes do not count.) These tales we tell are worn smooth by being told and retold; indeed, we often say them in almost the same words on each occasion. We tell these stories because we like them -- because they are good stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end; or because they are funny; or because we have found a way of telling them that pleases us. The truth is that an ordinary life with its complex threads only seldom produces a neat little package of a story, with a plot or a point suitable for general audiences. So we hang on to our classics, and look for opportunities to perform them.

Our friends and our loved ones must hear them many times over the years. (How kind to us our friends are! How much they tolerate in us for friendship's sake!) But surely they grow no wearier of our re-runs than we do ourselves. When I find myself putting in tape #137 and spinning up the old "Teaching-nuclear-fission-to-premeds" story, something down inside me shudders. Why? I am not altogether sure. It is a brief story, completely true and rather funny in that Reader's Digest "Do you have an amusing anecdote?" sort of way. It is even, now and then, germane to the actual line of the discussion into which I insert it. I think that my qualm comes from a feeling that I have, for a few moments, changed the nature of the conversation. I have seized the role of raconteur, and I am determined to practice that role upon an audience that, though possibly willing, has not exactly volunteered for the honor.

Or maybe the thing is even simpler. Maybe I just hate the feeling of becoming, for a minute or two, a kind of performing automaton. A friend, a fellow teacher, once told me that he had to change up the syllabus of his courses every time he taught them -- new arrangement, new readings, new themes every single time. Otherwise, he would find himself repeating exactly the same words in class, even the same jokes, year after year -- a thought that filled him with inexpressible horror.

But I am unwilling to give up my story. Indeed, when the subject of teaching physics to premedical students comes up, and my prospective audience has not already heard the story (or I have forgotten for the moment that they have), I find it almost impossible to resist launching into the nuclear fission anecdote. And I've been telling that same story, almost the same words, for more than a dozen years.

Don't worry, though. I'm not going to tell it here.

It is probably harmless enough to have such a repertoire, as long as it isn't inflicted too often or too implacably upon one's acquaintances. Still, I am looking for ways to freshen up the act a bit. One way would be to have plenty of new adventures all the time, so that you would have lots of interesting new material to work with. But daily life, as I mentioned, seldom gives you a tale that is neat in the telling, or that would make sense as a story to someone else. The really important things that happen in our lives are often impossible to make into anecdotes. "I saw the sunlight streaming from behind a cloud over some ruins in Sicily, and I thought about Zeus, and for the first time I really understood what the Greek myths must have been like for the Greeks." Such a moment may be of supreme intellectual and imaginative significance. It might make a poem. But it is not an anecdote, and it cannot be tossed into a casual conversation. People would just stare at you.

It occurs to me that the hard thing is to prune the catalog, to get rid of old stories that have become worn out over the years. How is this done, exactly? If it is not possible to forget these tales, how do you retire them? How do you remove the urge to launch into them whenever the opportunity arises?

So here's my idea. You can do this by writing them down and publishing them. And the easiest way to do that is via a blog. This blog, for instance.

The theory is simple. First, when you write a story down you give it a definitive form, fixed it in place, which takes it outside of your head and gives it an independent existence. So the memory on which the story is based might stop scratching at the door like a cat who wants to be let out. Second, one thing that discourages you from bringing out a story is the thought that your audience may have heard it before. It is better to pass up the tale rather than become a bore. But if you publish a story, you can never be quite certain that someone has not already heard that one. I bet that James Thurber, after he wrote his stuff, stopped telling all his friends and neighbors the one about the night the bed fell on his father.

You may, if you wish, consider this note as a warning. Over the next weeks and months, I may use this space to "archive" some of my anecdotes, to put them into permanent and honorable retirement. They are good stories, and for the most part they are also true. But they are also old, and it makes me feel old to tell them. Enjoy them or skip them as you wish. For that is the best advantage of my brilliant plan -- how easily you my friends may simply avoid them, without the least hint of discourtesy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


My favorite museum in the Washington DC area is . . . well, okay, that would be the National Air and Space Museum. And my second favorite would have to be the National Gallery of Art. But aside from those two, my favorite Washington museum is actually located some distance away from the city, out the Balto-Wash Parkway. I am talking, of course, about the National Cryptologic Museum.

I visited there a few years ago when I gave a talk at the University of Maryland. The museum building was once the Colony 7 Motel, located at the freeway interchange just beside the National Security Agency's headquarters at Fort Meade. As I heard the story, the NSA found that several motel rooms were more or less permanently occupied by folks from the Soviet Embassy. They therefore bought the motel and closed it down. But then what could they do with the building? So they made a museum out of it. (This story may not be exactly true, of course, but it is too good not to tell.)

The museum is not particularly large, but despite its size it has some of the most remarkable exhibits I have ever seen. There are collections of Renaissance texts on cryptography, Civil War signal flags and code wheels, early model telephone scramblers (the size of whole desks) and so on. The most wonderful display when I was there was the Enigma machine.

Everyone has heard of Enigma, I suppose. It was the electromechanical cipher system used by Nazi Germany, hideously complex, supposedly undecipherable. Only it wasn't, quite. Thanks to early work by the Poles, the mathematical genius of the British (led by Alan Turing himself) and American technological wizardry, the Allies broke Enigma. In so doing, they built the foundations of modern information theory and computer science.

They also, just possibly, won the War. The Enigma breakthrough, code-named "Ultra", was extremely secret and was not generally revealed until almost thirty years after the War ended. So the conventional accounts of the War, like Churchill's own multivolume history, necessarily left out one enormous element. Consider the Battle of the Atlantic, which depended on finding U-boats before they could destroy supply convoys heading for Britain. A complete account of that could not be given without the crucial fact that in February, 1942, the German Navy upgraded to new, more sophisticated Enigma machines, thereby "blacking out" the Allies from their communications for most of that year. This happened at a period when the Germans were sinking nearly a million tons of shipping a month.

There is some dispute about the impact of Enigma/Ultra on the outcome of the War. Richard Overy's splendid study Why the Allies Won, for example, mentions it only in passing. But there can be no denying that the ability to read the enemy's radio traffic -- to look over the shoulder of the German generals and admirals -- was a dramatic advantage. And cracking the Enigma system was not the only achievement of Allied cryptanalysis during the War, and not the only signals intelligence coup that arguably changed the course of history. There was also the elegant unlocking of the German Lorenz teleprinter system and the remarkable solution of the Japanese Purple code. There was the U.S. Navy's "Magic" group, which broke the Japanese naval ciphers. There are exhibits about all these at the National Cryptologic Museum, but of course Enigma is the name to conjure with, the one that stands for all.

My own field of science is quantum information, which makes me a peculiar hybrid of information theorist and quantum physicist. One set of my intellectual forebears spent the War in shabby temporary buildings in Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, penetrating the secrets of the enemy. The other set toiled in equally ramshackle laboratories in Chicago and Los Alamos and Oak Ridge and Hanford, penetrating the secrets of the nucleus. So for me, to touch a real Enigma machine at the National Cryptologic Museum -- to set its rotors and actually use it to encrypt my own name -- was like messing with the controls of Fermi's reactor under the squash court at Stagg Field.

And then there was Venona.

Venona started in 1943 as an attempt to read encrypted cables between Moscow and various Soviet diplomatic missions, which had been intercepted and copied since 1939. It took a long time for the Americans to begin to break into the traffic. Even when they did, they were only able to read a small fraction of the messages, years after they were sent. But the messages were astounding. Many of the cables were in fact KGB and GRU communications dealing with Soviet agents in the United States and elsewhere. The agents were discussed by code name, so that many of them remain unidentified today. But it was often possible to use circumstantial detail to identify the referents of the code names.

At about the same time, several Soviet agents defected and told their stories to the FBI. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley were American former Communists who had done secret work for Soviet intelligence. Igor Gouzenko was a cipher clerk for the GRU at the Soviet embassy in Canada. The information they provided supported and filled out the data gleaned from the decrypted cable traffic. Piece by piece, a fragmentary picture was built up of Soviet clandestine activities in the West. That picture was, by necessity, only known to a few.

The Venona project was only made public about ten years ago, after the end of the Cold War. Nowadays, you can read the decrypted and translated Venona messages online. But for decades it was among the darkest secrets in the secret world. And so the conventional narratives about the Cold War that people told each other for years were inevitably incomplete.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was a bad fellow -- nothing but a demagogue by the end (and probably in the beginning as well), ignorant of and utterly indifferent to the truth -- a man who carelessly inflicted great harm on the body politic. He is justly infamous. But I think that the greatest harm he did may have been to make the idea of Communist spies ridiculous in the eyes of enlightened Americans. This was bad because the Communist spies really did exist. We know this from Venona.

Consider the notorious Rosenberg case. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested, accused of stealing atomic bomb secrets, and tried for espionage. In 1953 they were executed. For decades afterward, it was an article of faith among the enlightened Left that the Rosenbergs were innocent. Only we now know that this was not the case. Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent code-named LIBERAL, mentioned many times in the Venona messages, who was part of a ring that passed atomic secrets on to Moscow. (While Ethel is not herself mentioned in the decrypted messages as a spy, it seems overwhelmingly likely that she knew of her husband's activities.) U.S. counter-espionage officials knew this for a fact well before the Rosenbergs were arrested.

But this secret certainty could not affect the conventional narrative -- i.e., that the Rosenbergs were railroaded simply because they were Jews who espoused progressive politics. And this narrative, though exploded by the Venona revelations, still exerts influence today, still colors the conventional thinking among cultural elites about the meaning of the Cold War and the history of the 1950's. (Don't believe me? Check this out.)

Or take the case of Alger Hiss. (Was ever a man more unfortunately named?) Hiss was a noted diplomat, a member of the U.S. delegation to Yalta, a key figure in the founding of the U.N. and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was pure Establishment, of the best and most liberal sort, the sort that had made the New Deal and guided the War. He attended the best schools (Johns Hopkins, Harvard Law) and moved in the best circles. Then, in 1948, he was accused by Whittaker Chambers of having been a Communist spy. Sensational hearings and trials followed, in which Hiss unsuccessfully sued Chambers for libel and then was convicted himself of perjury.

Hiss, too, was widely regarded to be a guiltless victim of anti-Communist hysteria. California congressman Richard Nixon, the prime mover against Hiss in the Congressional hearings, was villified by the liberal intelligensia. (This, perhaps, was one source of Nixon's well-known distrust of intellectuals.) Chambers's own memoir of the case, Witness, was dismissed as a pack of lies. Hiss always stoutly proclaimed his own innocence; and in return, in some circles, he became something of an icon of the horrible "McCarthy era".

He was also a genuine Communist spy, who appears under the codename ALES in the Venona messages. Chambers and Nixon turn out to have been right after all.

We therefore know that accepted accounts of historical events are not necessarily correct, because some things remain concealed even years after the fact. The accounts can be incomplete, like the histories of the Second World War before the Enigma/Ultra story came out. Or they can be just wrong, like the widespread belief in the innocence of Hiss and the Rosenbergs. When those historical narratives get mixed up in political or ideological debate, they can persist even when later evidence should make them untenable. The Left in this country -- growing a bit gray these days but still influential in cultural and academic circles -- has long defined itself by its opposition to "McCarthyism". To say now that the anti-Communists may have known a thing or two, would be to attack the very legitimacy of the Left. Such a reassessment will be strongly resisted or (more likely) simply ignored.

(As an aside, I believe that the self-image of the elite Left in the United States involves three historical factors from the 1950s and 1960s. The Left opposed the anti-Communist "witch hunts", supported the civil rights movement, and opposed the war in Vietnam. All three of these elements have proved to be remarkably durable. For instance, the grim consequences of American withdrawl from Southeast Asia had little or no effect on the Left's self-image.)

All of which raises disturbing questions. Given that the revelation of secret information can alter our view of history, what secrets remain concealed even now? Which of our accepted stories will someday be known to be incomplete, or just plain wrong? What heroes are really villains, and vice versa? Which myths have become so entangled with political identities that they will still persist, even if later proven false?

These are disturbing questions because, once you depart from the officially accepted standard stories about things, you enter a country without borders. The nearer parts of that country can be intriguing and thought-provoking, but the territories farther out are inhabited only by lunatics. Beware. This way madness lies.

In our post-X-Files era, when the wackiest conspiracy theories have diffused into mainstream culture, we all understand the idea of hidden history. The ostensible history of the last century, we are told, has been just a facade, behind which a secret story has unfolded. Shadowy groups -- be they Jews, Freemasons, Opus Dei, the Priory of Sion, CIA, KGB, Majestic-12, the Trilateral Commission, or what have you -- plot and vie for power over the decades and the centuries. We only see the faint, visible traces of a gigantic subterranean struggle.

Some of these ideas are pernicious and lead to murder and worse. (How many have died because of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion?) But viewed purely as imaginative games, they can sometimes be great fun. (Think National Treasure -- which, no kidding, my daughter recently watched in history class.) And most of us know that it is mostly nonsense. (In my view, nobody can take The DaVinci Code seriously who has first read Foucault's Pendulum.) Yet the notion of a hidden history, of secret causes behind public events, is far from nonsense. Enigma and Venona teach us this much. It is probable that there are other secrets, unknown to us, that are even today shaping the world we see.

I am a person with a definite taste for this sort of modern mythology, at least in some of its flavors. It has long been a hobby of mine. I happily read about the Knights Templar, the Roswell flying saucer crash, and the latest cryptozoological developments. This predilection of mine does call for a bit of caution, though. These are very dodgy epistemological neighborhoods, and when you visit such places it is a good idea to keep a firm grip on your mental balance. Yet you cannot honestly do this simply by asserting that "Such things are all tommyrot." History does tell us that such theories mostly are tommyrot. But history also tells us that important real parts of history may be concealed from view.

Where exactly is the edge of paranoia? Here is my own working rule: Doubt is not paranoia, but some kinds of belief are. It is not paranoia to believe that your picture of the world is likely incomplete. It is not paranoia to believe that some of the visible history of the world may be driven by hidden forces and secret events. In short, it is not crazy to suspect that some conspiracies may exist. It is crazy to be convinced that the Bilderbergers are tapping your IPod.

We have certainly been living, as the (apocryphal) Chinese proverb has it, in interesting times. Over the past few years, there have been any number of strange and terrifying incidents. The obvious example is the attacks of September 11, 2001. But 9/11 was embedded in a wider web of events, some of them still without a really satisfactory explanation. I have lost track of the number of news stories, initially pregnant with significance, that have led nowhere. Of course, first news reports are often not accurate, so that later on you find out the real shape of things. But what about those stories whose true shape is never made clear at all?

Many of these loose ends have involved Iraq. At the risk of venturing into conspiracy land, let me mention six questions that either have never been answered, or whose accepted answers are not as solid as I would like:

Who is Ramzi Yousef? Yousef, you'll recall, was the key man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, who managed to skip the country and evade capture for several years afterward, participating in several other terrorist plots, until he was finally nabbed in 1995 in Pakistan. He's now in the SuperMax slammer in Colorado, along with the Unabomber and Terry Nichols. But the biography we have been given of Ramzi Yousef may be nothing more than a "legend". There seems to be some reason to suspect that he was actually an Iraqi intelligence agent.

Did Nichols and McVeigh have foreign terror connections? Terry Nichols, one of the two men convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, spent a great deal of time in the Philippines in the time leading up to the attack. There are coincidences in place and time between these visits (for the ostensible purpose of obtaining a young Philippine bride) and the activities of Ramzi Yousef and other members of terrorists groups there. A number of people (including Tim McVeigh's court-appointed attorney) have become convinced that the Oklahoma City plot had foreign connections. Why did this not come up in the trials? U.S. investigators and prosecutors were intent on creating an airtight and uncomplicated case against McVeigh and Nichols. In other words, the investigation was pursued as a criminal case (where the important thing is to secure convictions of the bad guys) rather than an intelligence operation (where the important thing is to make all the connections and assess the threat).

Did Mohammed Atta meet with an Iraqi spy in Czechoslovakia? Czech intelligence officials claim that the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks met more than once with an Iraqi intelligence official who operated under diplomatic cover in Prague. U.S. intelligence officials said that they were not convinced this ever happened. If Atta did have such a meeting, why does the U.S. government dismiss the story? (Surely a bona fide link between 9/11 and Iraq would be a political philosopher's stone for the Bush administration!) If Atta did not have such a meeting, why do the Czechs stick to the story to this day?

Who was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks? A few weeks after 9/11, letters were sent to media organizations and congressional offices containing very effectively weaponized anthrax spores. Though the attacks were small in scale, they were the most sophisticated biological terrorist attacks ever conducted. Several people got sick, and some died. A massive investigation ensued. Many people speculated at the time that Iraq might be behind the letters, since the Iraqis were known to be experimenting with anthrax as a weapon before the mid-1990s. After a while, though, the anthrax story sort of disappeared. The attacks stopped. No one was arrested. The attacks remain, at least in the public view, a mystery.

Who was being trained at Salman Pak? One of the creepiest places in Saddam's Iraq was the apparent terrorist training facility at Salman Pak. It included, among other things, an entire parked airliner, evidently for use in practicing operations on planes. The camp evidently trained some hundreds or thousands of people over the years. Salman Pak was unarguably real -- you could see it in the satellite images -- but as far as I know, nobody has given a trustworthy account of just what was going on there.

What really happened to Iraq's WMDs? Saddam Hussein certainly acted like he was concealing weapons of mass destruction before March, 2003. He seemed to be willing to risk his regime to hide . . . what? The widespread conclusion that Saddam still possessed WMDs was made more plausible by Saddam's previous extraordinary efforts to acquire and conceal them. The Americans and British clearly expected to face such weapons in the war and find stocks of them afterward. But instead . . . almost nothing. (True, the ISG did conclude that Saddam had never abandoned his interest in WMDs and had worked to maintain core capabilities in secret. But almost no actual weapons have come to light.)

Here is the accepted wisdom about these six questions, as near as I can judge. Ramzi Yousef was an Islamist terrorist born in Pakistan and raised in Kuwait, probably with family ties to al Qaeda's Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He had nothing to do with Iraq. Nichols and McVeigh had no foreign contacts or assistance, so Oklahoma City is unconnected to everything else. The story of Atta meeting the Iraqi spy in Prague is spurious, mere bad data. The anthrax attacks were the work of a lone resourceful weirdo, probably an American, but of course nobody knows for sure. Salman Pak was . . . well, there were lots of odd things in Iraq. Saddam was a bad guy, so who knows? But the UN inspections and Bill Clinton's 1998 bombing campaign had shut down the Iraqi WMD programs for good. So by 2003, either Saddam was bluffing on a massive scale and trying to make his neighbors think he was armed with WMDs even when he wasn't, or else the pre-war intelligence reports of Iraqi WMDs were just flat wrong and likely distorted by American political goals. Or perhaps both.

Here are the central points of the conventional story: Saddam never attacked the United States. There were no connections between Saddam and al Qaeda. And there were no WMDs in Iraq.

In 1939, Winston Churchill famously described Stalin's Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." In an open society, it is really hard to keep a big secret for a long time. (The cryptographical victories of the mid-20th Century, secret for so many years, are a striking exception to this. There were serious leaks, even so.) In a totalitarian dictatorship, almost everything of importance is a secret, forever. As Churchill noted, that makes the behavior of such a regime extremely difficult to understand from the outside. This was true for Josef Stalin; and it was also true for Stalin's great admirer, Saddam Hussein.

But after the dictators are gone, we sometimes have the opportunity to turn the enigma inside-out, to see the evidence and read the archives and understand what happened. The archives, especially, can be crucial, because totalitarian states have a passion for record-keeping. We were able to do put Nazi Germany under the microscope after 1945 and do the same, to a far lesser extent, with Soviet Russia after 1989. I expected that this would happen with Saddam's Iraq, that once Baghdad fell we would begin to unwrap the riddles of his regime. But have we?

No -- or at least not in public. There are some formidable difficulties, of course. The main one seems to be language. The fighting in Iraq and the larger War on Terror continue, so there is an accute shortage of Arabic speakers to wade through the millions of pages of seized documents that could illuminate the workings of Saddam's regime. There may also be political reasons not to expose things too much, too soon. To take a wholly hypothetical example, suppose Russia assisted Iraq in its WMD programs after 1991, in violation of about a zillion treaties and UN resolutions. In 2006, we very much want Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran's nuclear program and in fighting various Islamist groups in Asia. So we may not be all that anxious just now to advertise the extent of Russia's aid to Saddam.

I'm amazed, though, by the lack of apparent curiosity on the part of journalists. They have for the most part accepted the conventional story about Iraq and run with it. The conventional story -- Saddam contained, no link with al Qaeda, no WMDs -- is the basis for interpreting all of the events associated with the Iraq War. It is also a defining doctrine of the anti-war Left. But is that story really as well established as most people seem to believe?

It is not hard to construct an alternative narrative. Here is one. Ramzi Yousef was trained and supported by the Iraqis as part of an unconventional attack on the US in the wake of the Gulf War. The 1993 WTC attack was therefore an Iraqi attack on U.S. soil. The Oklahoma City bombing, on the other hand, was not -- although Nichols may have gained some technical expertise from contacts with Islamists in the Philippines. The story of the Atta visit to Prague is indeed spurious, a case either of mistaken identity or of an unreliable informant. Saddam played no role in 9/11 The anthrax for the 2001 letter attacks did come from the Iraqi biological weapons program, although the actual agents in the U.S. may not even have known that they were working for Saddam (as Yousef's accomplices did not). Salman Pak was part of the larger Iraqi plan for unconventional operations against the coalition that had defeated them in 1991 and imposed such harsh sanctions. We are to this day fighting Iraqis trained there. Stocks of WMDs, certainly chemical and possibly biological, did exist in Iraq until early 2003. Some of these were moved to Syria in the months leading up to the invasion; others were hidden within Iraq, in places that have yet to be discovered. Saddam did not use WMDs in the Iraq war because (a) he was counting on external political pressures to constrain the Americans and the British, and (b) events during the invasion moved too fast for him to change plan. Finally, a fair amount of this is known to the U.S. government. Indeed, Saddam's continuing unconventional warfare was a major impetus for American and British action against him.

True? I have no idea. It seems about as plausible to me as the conventional story. Spin the tumblers and create your own version of hidden history.

I anticipate objections. For some, I must appear to have "drunk the kool-aid" utterly and lost my reason. I am evidently so anxious to defend the Bush administration that I am willing to spin fantasies about terrorist plots and secret undiscovered caches of WMDs. (Actually, if there really are WMDs still hidden somewhere in Iraq, or if we did let them slip away into Syria, I do not see how this fact would be much to the credit of the present administration. But I digress.)

To which I respond, that isn't my point at all. The "alternative narrative" above is not my theory about what happened. The standard story about Iraq, in fact, may be pretty near the truth. I am even willing to stipulate that it is the most likely story. But we must also consider three things.

First, the conventional story is not problem-free. We do not yet know how some pieces of data fit into it. The story looks shaky on a few points. Why should we not be very curious about the loose joints and the rough edges?

Second, because our country is still in the midst of a wider war, we can be pretty sure that the general public has not been told all of the important facts about events and how they fit together. Countries at war keep secrets. (Even if you pooh-pooh the idea of a genuine "War on Terror", there are lots of people in the Bush administration who take it pretty literally, and are acting accordingly. That suffices for my point.) We must accept that information not yet in our possession may change our picture considerably.

Third, we should be wary of the circumstance that the conventional Iraq narrative is woven so firmly into our political and ideological debates. This distorts our ability to complicate the story as we learn more. Let me be concrete. There is good evidence for long-standing links between Iraq and al Qaeda, although these links may never have included cooperation on actual terrorist operations. But in the rhetoric of the present day, this complicated truth disappears behind the simple slogan that "Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda". Why? Because that slogan is a stouter stick with which to beat up George W. Bush.

The opponents of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq find themselves in a situation like the one that, maybe, the FBI and the US Attorney faced when prosecuting Nichols and McVeigh. There are lots of strange leads, odd circumstances, suggestive details. On the other hand, the defendent is, as they believe, a wicked man. The thing to do is to try to present the simplest possible case to the jury, because complications may lead them to doubts, and then the wicked man might not be convicted. Since any complicating evidence discovered must eventually become part of the trial, it is best not to dig into the side-issues in the first place. Keep it simple. Don't turn over any unnecessary stones. Only a naive person thinks that the point of a trial, or of a political debate, is to arrive at the whole truth.

A final thought-experiment. It is possible that within the next few months we will learn a great deal more about, say, the disposition of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Suppose we learn that six tons of VX nerve agent was moved with Syrian help to the Bekaa Valley in late 2002, where it remains in the custody of Hezbollah. Suppose also that a couple of dozen enhanced-range Scud missiles with warheads designed for biological weapons are found buried in concealed bunkers within Iraq. Would that information really change the conventional narrative? Or, like the innocence of Julius Rosenberg, is that story too firmly entrenched to be altered by mere evidence?

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.


"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?"


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."


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.


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.


"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.