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Kent was going to be the first person to die on Venus. He knew it with iron certainty the moment the railing gave way and he slipped into the acidic mist. The only question was whether he would be baked or crushed.
Moments earlier he had been inspecting the floating habitat's walkway, looking for acid damage to repair. He'd let his mind wander for just a moment, replaying the morning's argument with the old man. He'd leaned against the railing and it had broken free, sending him tumbling backward into the void.
He let out a startled yelp. The habitat vanished into the yellow mist and was gone. For a timeless moment he hung in the formless void, feeling like he was sinking through murky water. Not much different from a deep-sea dive.
"Where'd you go, Kent?" Marina's voice, tinny in his earpiece, rose an octave. "Kent?"
"I fell overboard." Saying it made it suddenly real. I'm falling! Panic washed away rational thought.
Fear brought bile to his throat, choking him. Kept him from screaming.
"How the hell should I know." He sucked down a few deep breaths. "Corrosion, I guess. Flexiglass coating must have cracked at a seam on the rail."
"How did it get—"
"Is that really important right now?"
"Right." Pause. "I'd better get the commander on the line."
"He needs to know, Kent."
He blew out a breath, fogging his faceplate. "Fine." He squinted into the haze, trying to see something, anything. Wind tugged at his arms and legs, but not even a whisper penetrated the flexiglass insulation of his suit. "Just … just let me tell him."
"Anything you want." Click.
Silence closed in, sending a shiver of terror down his spine. On dives, he'd had the sounds of drawing breath, of exhaled bubbles, of life. Here, his suit efficiently muted life-support sounds. Even the sound of the wind, whipping past him at almost a hundred miles per hour by now, couldn't penetrate his suit to remind him that he was still alive. Temporarily.
"Patching you through to the commander."
He choked down emotion. "Okay."
"Damn it, Kenny, this better be important." The voice alone was enough to set Kent on edge, reminding him of years of painful words. "I've got a crisis with one of the drones to—"
"Railing gave way. I'm … I'm going to …"
"God damn it, Kenny. Do you have any idea what this will do to your mother?"
But not my father. "I guess I'm a screw-up right to the end."
"That's not what I meant." A long, exasperated sigh rattled in his earpiece. "I'll see if I can get her on the radio before, uh, you know."
"You kidding? What's the radio transit time to Earth? Three minutes? There and back. Plus time for mission control to actually find her. How long do you think this is going to take?"
How long do I have?
"Atmosphere's pretty thick down there. This ain't Earth." There was a long pause. "Give me a minute. Maybe buoyancy …" Click.
Fifty kilometers to the ground. How long did he have? Crunching the numbers kept his mind off the inevitable. Assuming the same terminal velocity as Earth, a hundred twenty miles per hour, converting to SI, that gave him, oh, say fifteen minutes.
But with lower gravity and thicker atmosphere …
At this altitude, terminal velocity was probably close to Earth's. But the air was going to get dense pretty damn fast as he approached the surface. Terminal velocity depended on the square root of air density, so call it one eighth of Earth's. Shave a little more off for the gravity difference. Say somewhere between ten and fifteen miles per hour. Hell, he could survive impact at that speed!
But speed wasn't the problem, was it?
Ninety atmospheres pressure. Hot enough to melt metal. Already he could feel the pressure on his chest with each breath. He'd never make it to the surface. That was a shame. He wouldn't even have that distinction in the history books. Just the first of many clumsy schleps to burn up on the way down.
He pictured a trail of losers plummeting, lemming-like, after him. He laughed.
"Kent?" It was Marina's voice.
"I'm here." He giggled. "Where else would I be?"
Concern darkened her voice. "What has you so giddy?"
"Just trying to figure out how long I have."
"Density changes the whole way down, complicating the math. I can't do the dee vee dee tee in my head. Heh. I guess the old man was right about me." He giggled again.
She huffed. "Well, I don't think any of this is funny."
He laughed deep and hard, his chest aching to draw in the compressed air with each guffaw. The hurt in her voice registered belatedly. "Don't worry, I'm not crazy. It's probably just nitrogen narcosis."
"Something we divers get when going too deep with a nitrox mix. That's what I'm breathing, right?"
"Nitrogen and oxygen? Yeah."
"How deep am I?"
"Stop joking around, Kent. This isn't some fun little reef dive."
He shook his head, forced himself to focus. This wasn't the first time he'd fought his way through nitrogen narcosis. "Right. Pressure must be getting high. Five or six atmospheres. Another couple of atmospheres and oxygen toxicity will be a problem."
"Jeez. Anything you can do?"
"Cut down the oh-two percentage, but it's only a stopgap. For really deep dives, we'd use heliox."
"Helium? Where are you going to get that?"
"You have some party balloons you're not using?"
"Damn it, Kent."
"That gives me an idea, though. Can you put the old man on?"
"Sure thing." Click.
There was a brief pause, then the grating voice. "Yeah?"
"Can you divert one of the electrolysis drones to me?"
"It's no use, Kenny. I've been over the math a dozen ways. They're too light, don't have nearly enough thrust to lift you."
"I know that. I want the gases."
"Why? You should have enough oxygen—"
"Damn it, dad, just do it." He mentally kicked himself for acknowledging their relationship. Must be the nitrogen talking. "I want hydrogen."
"Sending one down. Has nearly a full load."
"My diving experience just might pay off after all." He giggled at himself for gloating at a time like this. "And you told me I was wasting my life."
"Diving put you where you are now."
"Diving? No, that was dear old dad, the astronaut. Had to measure up, right?"
"The only reason you made the cut was your diving experience. Otherwise you would have washed out."
Kent snorted. "Wouldn't be the first time, right?"
The commander let out a long sigh that hissed in Kent's ear. "What's the hydrogen for?"
"Yup. For deep dives, we add helium to the gas mix to help with the pressure and to prevent nitrogen narcosis. I don't have any helium, but it got me thinking. For really deep dives, they sometimes use a hydrogen mixture."
"But it's so flammable!"
"The mix has to be hypoxic because of the pressure, so the risk is minimal." Of course, he'd be eyeballing the mix ratio on the fly. And then there was the risk of hydrogen narcosis, which was more like a bad acid trip compared to nitrogen's alcohol-like buzz. He didn't mention any of that.
"You have everything you need to handle all the connections?"
His heart thumped hard and he reflexively reached for his belt. His hand touched his tool pack and he exhaled in relief. "I got this."
"Good. Marina, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"Keep your eye on the radar data and give Kenny an ETA on the probe's arrival. I'm going to work on the temperature problem. The probe must have some kind of insula—" He clicked off in mid-sentence.
After a brief pause, Marina said, "The probe should be there in a few moments. Also, you're getting close to the lower edge of the cloud deck. You'll have a spectacular view soon."
He bit back a sarcastic reply. She was only trying to keep his mind off things. It was his own damn fault he was in this situation. "I'll let you know when I see something."
Did he feel hotter than before, or was it just his imagination? The commander's mention of temperature deflated him. Even if the hydrox mix worked and he survived the pressure, the oven-hot temperature would get him. It was hopeless.
His suit was made of layers of flexiglass with sheets of electroactive polymer between. The polymer stiffened with electric current, providing protection and strength enhancement, but it also functioned as an effective insulator. How effective? If he was where Marina had said, it must already be over two hundred degrees Celsius. And the commander had said he was working on it. Slow terminal velocity, hydrox mix for the pressure, insulation—could he actually survive this? He gasped at the thought, a painful, labored influx of heavy air.
Best not think about it, just focus on the things he could control. Right now, that was the gas mix. As soon as that damned drone arrived, anyway. He peered into the sulfuric acid haze, now noticeably thinner than it had been. There, in the distance, was a glint of sunlight. He tracked it until he could resolve its outline against the yellow mist. Its hull was mostly aerogel, visible as a slight darkening of the haze, with four thermoplastic rotors reflecting diffuse sunlight.
"I see the drone," he said. "It's coming in a bit low."
"You're falling at around thirty miles per hour right now," Marina said. "With the thick air, we're having trouble keeping the drone descending fast enough. You're going to have to grab onto it as it approaches. You may not get a second chance."
"No pressure, eh?" He laughed, and his chest hurt with the effort.
He kept his eyes on the drone as it moved, not an easy task against the shifting sulfuric acid haze. He focused on the rotors and the swirling mist around them. The drone grew as it approached, now almost directly below him. He fell toward it tantalizingly slowly.
Swirling misty air kicked him in the face and sent him into a tumble. He struggled to reorient himself before the drone passed him by.
"What's wrong?" Marina's voice was tense with worry.
"I'm getting some pretty bad turbulence."
"I'll shut down the drone's rotors."
"But won't that—" He stopped himself. No, the drone wouldn't drop like a stone. In the thick air, the challenge was to keep it from rising.
The air stopped battering him and he oriented himself face down. He scanned for the drone. There it was, rising toward him. Fast.
He braced himself for the impact. The aerogel hull hit like a pillow thrown by a god. It forced the air from his lungs and smacked his forehead against his faceplate. He gasped to refill his lungs against the crushing pressure of the air around him.
Almost too late, he felt the drone slipping away beneath him. He reflexively reached out and grasped the edges. It was nearly as long as he was and a bit wider, and he found himself clinging spread eagle to its dorsal surface.
"Got it," he wheezed. Sweat stung his eyes. Was it the exertion or was his flexiglass insulation finally failing him?
"I have you on radar," Marina said. "You're still dropping, but slower. Fifteen miles per hour, give or take."
"I'm going to try to cut through the hull—" While he spoke, the mist parted around him, leaving him in open, clear air. His voice caught in his throat. The surface of Venus sprawled below him, stark and rugged. He was falling.
"Is something wrong?"
He froze for a long moment, staring over the edge of the drone. It could have been a rocky, mountainous desert on Earth. Except for the crushing pressure and oven temperature.
"I'm okay." He gasped a few ragged breaths. "I just came through the bottom of the cloud deck."
Marina started to reply, but the commander's voice cut in. "Sightseeing's over. Get back to work."
Kent's cheeks burned. "Don't give me that soldier shit. I'm done taking orders. Sir."
"Don't put that on me. I didn't push you into SEAL training."
"I just wanted to dive."
"A SEAL needs more than that."
"So you told me. That's why I washed out."
"If you had listened to me—"
"Go to hell."
Panting from the heat, pressure, and fury, Kent reached for his tool pouch. He moved cautiously, careful not to disturb his precarious balance atop the drone. His fingers closed around the handle of his utility knife. His impact had cracked the hull's solar film and dented the aerogel. He peeled away pieces of film and sliced into the surface of the drone. The aerogel was surprisingly tough, almost rubbery.
"Don't cut through the inner aerogel layer," Marina said.
"I thought the whole thing was aerogel."
"The hull is an x-aerogel," she said, "designed for strength. The inner aerogel layer is more fragile but a much better insulator. Keeps the gas canisters from heating up. The commander thinks you might be able to use it. If you can—"
"He's trying his best, Kent. He really does care about you."
"You should see him up here, practically tearing the station apart. Maybe he doesn't know how to show it, but …"
He cut more carefully, working the knife into the spongy hull, and peeled the outer layer open. The blade thumped against something solid. He reached into the opening and felt around. It was a motor, probably the one that ran the rotors. He pulled it out, trailing wires coated with aerogel and acid-resistant flexiglass. Beneath the nest of wiring, he saw the gas storage tanks.
The drone's purpose was to take in sulfuric acid droplets from the clouds, decompose the acid to water and sulfur oxides, then electrolyze the water to hydrogen and oxygen. The gas storage canisters ran half the length of the drone's hull. A transparent pale blue layer covered them. Through his flexiglass glove, it felt like Styrofoam, rigid but pliable if he worked at it.
He split the drone's hull further, trying to clear room to work. The seam unexpectedly split wide open and the drone began to shudder violently. He clung to the surface, nearly dropping his knife. The ground below rotated slowly; aerodynamic instability must have put him into a flat spin.
Terror blanked his mind. If he fell off—
But what would it matter? He was already falling. The outer hull and rotor assembly wasn't doing him much good anyway, and it stood in the way of his precious breathing gas and insulation. The hydrogen especially was quickly becoming a necessity; he labored to draw each breath and it was getting harder and harder to focus through the nitrogen narcosis.
He felt his way around the insulation, cutting through any supports that held the aerogel fast to the hull. His knuckles burned where they brushed against the flexiglass gloves. He traced his hand forward along the insulation until he found the feed coming from the hydrolysis tank. He closed the valve and worked by feel until he had the whole assembly disconnected. It should now be free. If he tugged …
Nothing. His head swam with the exertion of breathing. He forced a deep breath and tugged again. The assembly shifted, sending a wave of instability through the hull. The whole drone vibrated menacingly, threatening to buck Kent from its back. He braced his feet against the remnants of the hull, grasped the canister assembly tightly, and tugged with all his strength. Searing heat burned his palms and soles.
He screamed with agony and exertion. He vaguely heard concerned voices in his ear. Suddenly, the hull shifted under his feet and the drone shuddered violently. He found himself tumbling, buffeted by turbulent wind. One more herculean tug sent the fractured hull tumbling up toward the cloud deck.
Clinging to the aerogel-clad canisters, Kent stabilized his spin. He fought to inhale, barely managing to stay conscious. The voices in his ear pulled him back from the darkness.
"… don't know, he just started screaming." Marina's voice was thick with emotion.
"Oh, God! Kent! Oh my God." Was that the commander?
"I'm." He panted. "Okay."
"Thank God," Marina said. "What happened?"
"Working," he managed to croak.
He found the opening in the aerogel where the intake pipe had been attached. As carefully as he could, he tugged at the hole, trying to expand it. The aerogel cracked and pieces crumbled away. Damn. He used his knife as a chisel, cutting a slit big enough for him to fit through. He slipped one foot between the insulation and the gas canisters, then the other foot. Squeezing and pushing, compressing the Styrofoam-like aerogel where needed, he pulled himself down into the insulated sack.
He found the hydrogen tank and worked the fitting free. With a start, it occurred to him that the fitting might not be the same size as his air intake. His heart thumped hard in his chest until he verified that the threading fit perfectly. He sealed it and opened the valve. Warm gas hissed into his helmet. Warm, but not scalding.
He turned the valve on his air tank, constricting the flow of nitrogen and oxygen. He would have to constrict the oxygen further as he fell, bringing the partial pressure down as total pressure rose. By the end, he'd be down to less than two percent oxygen.
The end. What qualified as the end now?
When the pressure crushed his lungs? In controlled experiments, divers had survived over seventy atmospheres with hydrox. Theoretically, higher pressures were survivable. Theoretically.
When he burned alive? But the aerogel might, just might, be a good enough insulator. Could he make it all the way to the surface? Alive?
He had no idea how long he fell with that thought swirling in his head. Gradually, the hydrox cleared the nitrogen narcosis from his mind. Breathing was still hard, but not the struggle it had been.
"Marina?" he said.
"I'm feeling pretty good."
"That's good to hear."
"How long have I been falling?"
"It's been about forty-five minutes," she said. "You're still fifteen kilometers above the surface. Pressure should be around thirty atmospheres, temperature well over three hundred Celsius. It's getting hard to track you because superrotation of the upper atmosphere is carrying us away."
He hadn't thought about that. "Damn."
"The commander is working on a plan to pick you up from the surface."
"He's getting a rover in place beneath you right now. Still trying to jury-rig a human-rated craft to get all the way down."
"Is that even possible?"
"He'll move heaven and hell to make it happen."
Did he dare hope? He hadn't had time to consider anything beyond the immediate problems of breathing gas and insulation. But now he had time to think past the moment. What if he lived a few minutes longer? A luxury!
Could he actually make it to the surface?
His heart thumped hard in his chest, sending hope coursing through his veins. He looked down on the barren basalt wasteland below and for the first time saw beauty in the stark landscape. Flattened mountains rippled over black rock plains, undisturbed by anything but wind for a billion years. And—was that snow on the mountain peaks?
"Marina? Am I hallucinating?"
"What do you think you see?"
"Ah. That's actually a layer of heavy metal sulfides."
"So you're saying I should have left my skis back home?"
"Hah. Skiing in a tropical wonderland like that? Try lead sulfide surfing instead."
He started to reply, but—it took him a moment to realize what had happened. He'd been falling spread eagle except for his left hand, which he kept on the gas valve so he could tweak the mixture as needed. The aerogel sack surrounding him and the canisters had been rippling lazily in the wind, then suddenly it wasn't.
At first he thought it had somehow ripped free, and for a brief horrifying moment he braced for the searing heat that would incinerate him. But no, he would already be dead if that were the case.
He reached out to feel for the film, but found that his arm was plastered to his side. He could move it slowly, with effort, as though pushing through syrup.
"I think Venus is shrink-wrapping me in aerogel," he said.
Marina's voice lost all hints of playfulness. "Are you in danger?"
"I don't think so. No more than the obvious, that is." He wiggled, testing the limits of his motion. "I guess this means the pressure is ramping up. I better nudge my oh-two feed down a few percent."
"Normally aerogel would shatter rather than flow like that," Marina said. "You must have passed some temperature-pressure threshold in its phase diagram. I hope it doesn't lose its insulating ability."
Maybe it was the talk of pressure, but Kent noticed that his breathing was again becoming labored. Was he reaching the pressure limit of his hydrox mix already? He coughed, a wet, labored expulsion of air. Fluid in his lungs.
The commander's voice broke in. "Are you okay?"
"Try to hold on. Help is—"
"This is your fault," Kent said. "I came to this hellhole for you."
"I never asked you."
All the rage and fear and regret and resentment burst from him in a sudden acidic barrage. "I was never good enough. I tried so hard to prove myself, but it was never enough for you."
"That's not true."
"Don't lie to me. Not now. I saw how you looked down on me. How could I measure up to a hero? My whole life was about you, not me."
"Even this rescue is about you. Another medal on your chest, one more thing to hold over me." He realized he was screaming, although his voice came out as little more than a loud rasp. His anger drained away, leaving despair. He sobbed. "Never good enough."
There was a long silence. Finally, the commander whispered, "I only wanted the best for you."
Kent cried for a long time, warm tears streaming down hot cheeks behind his faceplate, his sobs punctuated by fits of moist coughs. The ground slowly, inexorably rose up to meet him. He let himself get lost in the rugged beauty of the barren rock. The heavy metal snowcapped mountains off to his right wavered with the heat or pressure or both. Swirls of color ran along ridgelines, moving as though alive.
What the hell?
He tilted his head back and looked at the sulfuric acid clouds, banded with bold reds and blues and greens. The wind itself swirled in pastel patterns.
Oh, hell. Hydrogen narcosis. He slowly rotated his right hand in front of his eyes and saw that his movements were jerky and uncoordinated. So it was going to be the pressure, then.
He reached up to wipe the sticky tears from his face and was surprised by how sluggish his arm felt. Like he was pushing through thick syrup. Oh, right, the aerogel. There was a faceplate in the way anyway. Impaired mental function.
A giant was squeezing his chest, making his heart fight for every beat and his lungs ache with every breath. A spasm of coughing racked his body, and he gasped to refill his lungs. Red sputum speckled his faceplate.
The visible evidence of lung damage drove the point into his swimming mind. There was no going back. Even if they came for him, there was no way to decompress safely. A peaceful calm came with the realization, as though the pressure was suddenly lifted. Or maybe it was the hydrogen narcosis.
"I didn't mean what I said."
His throat constricted. Saying it made it real. "I'm not going to make it."
"Don't give up. I have volunteers ready to attempt—"
"No. It's already too late."
There was a long pause. "I'm sorry." He choked on the words. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault. You did all you could."
"No. For all of it, I mean. I wasn't the best father; I know that. I was always so hard on you, so critical."
"You weren't so bad. Besides, I did everything I could to piss you off."
"Just like I did in my day. Like father, like son."
"What? You and pap?"
"Oh, you wouldn't believe." His laugh was hoarse. "There was this one time, I must have been no more than eighteen, and your pap told me I couldn't—ah, damn it, I should have told you these stories when there was time."
"It's okay. I like just knowing the stories happened." He choked back tears, straining to draw the heavy air into his damaged lungs, and coughed more blood onto his faceplate.
"Are you okay?"
"I love you, dad."
"I love you too, son. I'll… "
For the longest time, his earpiece was silent except for the hiss of static and Marina's sobs.
"I want to make it to the surface," Kent finally said. "I want that much. To make you proud."
"You already have."
His vision blurred and he nearly lost himself in the swirling colors. "Tell me one of your stories," he said.
"Okay," his father said, his voice husky. "There was this one time, I snuck out to go party with some friends. Remember Uncle Al?"
"The big guy?"
"Yeah, him. Well, I ended up losing my phone, and lost track of time. And Al never checked his. You know how your grandmother worries—"
Kent smiled. "She's a lot like mom."
"Perhaps. Anyway, she couldn't get hold of me, figured I'd wrecked my car or something. Made the old man call all the hospitals, even the morgues. Man, was he pissed."
Kent laughed. "I can't see pap getting pissed."
"Oh, you thought I was bad? You should have had him for a father."
"I'm getting close to impact. Looks like I'm going to make it."
"I'm proud of you, son."
"Thanks for not making the call to mom."
"You were right; it'll be easier on her if she hears about it afterwards."
"Tell her I love her."
This close, the ground rose frighteningly fast. He bent his knees and braced as best he could. Impact sent a shock of pain through his legs and up his spine, but he managed to stay on his feet. Searing heat caressed his soles.
He looked out on the devastated landscape, a sight no human had ever beheld, and said the first words from the surface of Venus. "For you, dad."