Won could hear the thunder of the descending rockets as she took the turning to the Kim Il Sung Spaceport, the noise coming as a vibration that she felt through her hands on the wheel and the pedals under her feet. The forward view screen didn’t show the glow from the exhaust yet, just the eternal ochre murk, which seemed even darker today than usual.
Won let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. She wasn’t too late, then. The arrangements had taken up a lot of time, and she’d been delayed further by the bottleneck of traffic from what was euphemistically called Highway Number One, and the clock in the car said she was twenty minutes after the rocket should have landed. But she wasn’t too late. The rocket was late, too.
There was nothing new about that. The rockets were almost always late, due to the weather conditions, and the crew searching for the easiest path through the sulphuric acid clouds.
She could see the Spaceport now, the low dome of the main building, the others clustered around it like chickens huddling around their mother. The only lights were around the huge statue of the Eternal President, shining up from around his feet, illuminating him as he waved upwards at the sky. Won had heard that the rockets oriented themselves for landing by using the statue of the Eternal President as a reference point, and the thought always made her giggle inwardly. Fancy a statue of yourself, made of the most indestructible alloy in the history of the human race, put up at enormous cost and one of the tallest structures on the planet, being turned into a signpost.
The outer airlock gate of the Spaceport’s main entrance slid open as the sensors registered her vehicle and its identification code. She drove down the ramp and waited for the airlock to finish cycling the air and getting rid of the excess heat, a process which took several minutes. The airlock was decorated with murals of heroic workers and soldiers, green fields, blue skies, and white-tipped mountains in the distance.
Won had never seen a green field, a blue sky, or a white-tipped mountain. She’d never known anything other than ochre murk, heat that would incinerate flesh in an instant, and poisonous air so thick that one needed to wear a motorised suit of refrigerated armour if one intended to go outside.
Won was one of the few people who regularly went outside. It was part of her job.
As the inner airlock opened and she drove into the parking place, the green light on her dashboard blinked. The car was letting her know it was safe to get out as she was. Still, she checked the parameters before opening the door. Electronics had been known to malfunction, and there was always a first time for airlock doors to fail, too.
She just caught the last of the noise of the rocket as she came out of the parking area. A uniformed security guard – a human, not one of the robots which were increasingly taking over that kind of duty – eyed her doubtfully.
She showed her pass and identity papers. “I’m here for a passenger from the ship that’s just landed.”
The guard looked, if possible, even more doubtful. “But it’s a cargo freighter. There are no passenger liners today.”
“I know.” Won glanced at the clock on the wall pointedly. The smiling face of the Brilliant Marshal smiled benevolently down from behind the blinking numbers. “There are a few passengers, though, and I’m meeting one of them. You can call the port manager’s office and check.”
Heaven alone knew how much time that might take, she thought, watching the guard’s brow furrow in unaccustomed thought. He was like a machine, programmed to work only one way. No wonder the robots were taking over his job; there was no difference between them.
“I suppose you’re right,” the guard decided, and handed the papers back. “It’s landed in Dock Five. To the right, and third turn to the left.”
“I know where it is.” Won favoured him with a plastic smile and walked away. The spaceport’s hall was pleasantly cool, and pale green light sprinkled down from high above, shining through a series of spinning mirrors so that the faint shadows constantly fractured and shifted. It was fascinating to first time visitors, but Won was long since inured to the effect.
The ship would still be in the long and complicated process of docking, so she stopped at one of the shops, run by a woman she knew. “Hi.”
“Byong-Uk!” the woman, Ri, grinned. “You’re the first good thing I’ve seen here today.”
“That bad, is it?” Won waved at the empty hall. “Nobody buying stuff?”
“Who’s there to buy? No passenger ships means no passengers, and no passengers means nobody buying anything. That’s why I brought a novel to work. Have you eaten?”
“Yes,” Won lied. She hadn’t, since breakfast, but the shop’s food looked like wax and plastic in the hall’s shifting light. “Thanks, anyway. How’s the family?”
“Fine. The younger kid just started school. Shouldn’t you be getting married by now?”
“Ah...you know me. Not the marrying kind. I’d make any man miserable, and nobody deserves that. Is your husband still working there in the immigration section?”
“Yes. Are you meeting someone? Do you need any problems smoothed out?”
“I shouldn’t think so. I’m picking up a guest, but this is an impeccably official one.” Won’s mouth struggled to shape the unfamiliar syllables. “Professor Usha...Bhattacharya.”
“Yes, she’s from Delhi University. Apparently she asked for me as guide, personally.”
“Really?” Ri grinned. “You’re getting famous.”
“Famous? No, it just worries me that anyone would want me in person. Puts more of a responsibility on me, you know? If something happens, it’ll be my fault.”
“You worry too much.” Ri cocked her head as an announcement sounded, tinny over the public address system. They’d managed to set up this station, she’d said to Won once, but they hadn’t managed to make a loudspeaker that one could understand without trouble. “I think they’re done docking now. You’d better get going.”
“You’re probably right.”
Professor Usha Bhattacharya was half a head taller than Won and thin to the point of emaciation. When she grinned, her skin stretched over her bones like dark leather over a skull.
She was friendly enough though. “Won Byong-Uk? You’re much younger than I thought, and much prettier, too. Your photos don’t do you justice.”
Won smiled politely, and switched her thoughts from Korean to English. She always found it easier to speak English when she thought in the language. “Ma’am. Welcome to Venus.”
“It isn’t like what I thought it would be.” Bhattacharya peered at the image on the screen as Won drove the vehicle out on to Highway Number One. “I’ve seen the photographs and the videos, of course, but they don’t really show it as it is. I didn’t, for example, know that everything shimmers.”
Won set the autopilot. “Is this your first time outside Earth, Ma’am?”
“I’ve been on the Moon, and I was offered a position on Mars, but...” The tall thin woman shrugged. “I was always happier at home, anyway. But here I am, right?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Won noted without comment the distant glowing lights of the work camp far to the right, where the new satellite town was being blasted out of the bedrock. There was no reason to point it out to Earth visitors, who would undoubtedly fail to understand why, though most of the work was done by robots, human prisoners were at work down in the tunnels as well. “How long do you intend to stay, Ma’am? I haven’t been informed about the duration of your visa.”
“Well, that depends.” Bhattacharya’s long thin fingers drummed on the arm of her seat. Won found the motion fascinating, like the movements of a scorpion’s legs. “I’m here on research, you know, not as a tourist.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’ve been told that. But I haven’t been told what you’re researching.”
“The ruins found along the Baltis Vallis,” Bhattacharya answered at once. “I am an archaeologist, so naturally that’s what I’m researching.”
“Ma’am...” Won tried to find the words. “I’m afraid that there’s no proof that they ever were ruins of any kind. The consensus, as I’m sure you know, is that they were just shaped by erosion and temperature.”
“Yes, well, I’m here to make my own mind up about that.” Professor Bhattacharya grinned again. “And as you know, I asked for you, specifically, as my guide. Do you know why?”
Won felt her heart sink. “Because I’ve been to Baltis...”
“Yes, because you’re one of the few guides familiar with that part of the planet. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll do very well. Is that the city up ahead?”
“Yes, that is Chikhalsi Geumseong. It means Capital City of the Star of Gold. It’s almost all underground, of course. The structures above ground are mostly for heat management.”
“Yes. That must be a problem. I remember Venus is called the Star of Gold in your language.” They were close enough now that the great heat dissipating fins could be seen glowing in the ochre murk. “Do you ever have breakdowns?”
Won wondered briefly if she was permitted to answer this question, and decided it wouldn’t do any harm. After all, nobody could deny what the conditions on the planet were like. “Frequently, but each system has multiple backups. It’s the corrosion that does the damage.”
“Um, yes.” The next question was a surprise. “Do you have a family? Your biography doesn’t say.”
“My parents live in Yeubeong, down in the southern hemisphere.” Won took over from the autopilot and steered down the ramp of the nearest airlock. “I have my own rooms here, in a dormitory.”
“Do you miss them?”
Won thought about the possible responses, and went for the honest one. “Not much. My parents can be difficult.”
“All parents can.” Bhattacharya glanced at Won. “You’ve never been off Venus, have you? You were born here.”
“That’s right, Ma’am.” Won was uneasy, with all these personal questions, but she had to keep the woman happy. “We’re on Kim Il Sung Avenue now.”
It was just a broad flat tunnel carved arrow-straight through the rock, the rock surface overhead deliberately left unfinished except where it was set with the broad flat panels of the lighting system. Policewomen in stubby towers at regular intervals watched the traffic and the sensors. Won turned into a side tunnel opposite to one of the towers. “This is the way to your hotel, Ma’am.” The University had offered the visitor accommodation, but Won had been informed she’d chosen to have arrangements made at a hotel. “A hotel” meant, of “the hotel,” because there was only one approved for off-planet visitors. “You did wish to stay in a hotel, not at the University?”
“That’s right. I’d rather not be bogged down too much by interaction with fellow academics. Their opinions might...influence my thinking, and I don’t want that.”
Won thought about the Party representative whose only purpose was to influence everyone’s thinking, and found herself smiling. “I understand, Ma’am.”
“Good, so we understand each other. How soon can we arrange a trip to the Baltis Vallis?”
Won was surprised. “It depends on your schedule, Ma’am. Your research programmes and meetings...”
“I have no other important research programmes and meetings. Those I have will wait. How soon can we do it?”
The Heavenly Gold Star Hotel hugged two-thirds of a circular cavern with glass-smooth walls, carved out by the first explorers, long ago. There was a statue of Kim Jong Il in the middle of the cavern, but only a small one, used as the centrepoint of a roundabout. Won turned past it and eased the vehicle to a stop beside the hotel’s main door while considering the answer.
“Tomorrow morning standard time, nine hundred. Will that be all right, Ma’am?”
“Excellent. What will I need to bring?”
“Just whatever equipment you’ll need for your research. It’s my job to provide the rest.”
“That’s great, dear. You’re being very helpful.”
“It’s just my duty, Ma’am.” Won smiled tightly, but her mind was already whirling, thinking of arrangements and requests for permission. There were eighteen hours left, and she’d need every minute of that. She’d get no sleep tonight.
Well, it wouldn’t be for the first time, she thought, and led the Professor into the hotel, to help her check in.
They’d been crawling over the eroded plain for so long that even Professor Bhattacharya had grown weary of looking out at the landscape.
The crawler was big. It was bigger than they’d needed or Won had actually wanted, being actually a ten seater meant for a larger expedition; but it was the best she’d been able to get her hands on at short notice. It was slower than the smaller models, and had a shorter range because of the drain on the batteries. On the other side, it was roomy and they could move around enough not to get on each other’s nerves.
The Professor didn’t seem to mind being confined in what amounted to a large metal box on caterpillar tracks. After she’d grown tired of looking at the view screens, she’d unfolded a computer from a tube scroll, one of the latest and most expensive models, and worked on it for a while. Then, all of a sudden, she’d raised her head.
“Do you ever wonder if we’re jealous?”
Won had been keeping a careful eye on the temperature gauges, always the most important thing on a Venus surface crawler, and was startled at the question. “Ma’am? Who are you asking about?”
“We, you know, all the other countries in the world.” Professor Bhattacharya sipped water from a bulb connected to a hose. The bulb delivered only a predetermined amount of water per sip, so that nobody – driven to psychological thirst from awareness of the intense heat outside – could drink the water supply away in a few hours. It had been known to happen. “Do you here, on Venus, ever wonder if we’re jealous of you?”
Won blinked at the thought. “No, ma’am. Why should we be?”
“I mean, you have a right to wonder. It would be natural for us to be.” The older woman rolled up her computer and pushed it back into its tube. “Everyone had imagined Venus could never be colonised, at least not unless and until it was terraformed in the far future. It was simply, they said, too hot and too corrosive, and not worth having. So they concentrated on squabbling over the Moon and Mars and even Mercury – you know the Chinese have claimed the planet as their sovereign territory – and then, and then, your country just went ahead and took over Venus. So it would only be natural if you wondered if we were jealous.”
“How would it matter, Ma’am? Nobody else has plans to invade Venus, right?”
“No, and they don’t really think it’s worth it in any case.” Bhattacharya watched as a low ridge grew on the forward screen. “But we know better, don’t we?”
“It’s not really worth anything to anyone except us, Ma’am. And to us it’s just home.” Won put her hand on the controls in case the crawler needed assistance to climb the ridge, but the autopilot managed, albeit with groans from the engine. “Why do you ask?”
“It was just a thought.” Professor Bhattacharya seemed mildly disappointed that the terrain beyond the ridge was just more of the ochre plain. “Your country pulled off an amazing feat, you know. Just managing to reach this planet in total secrecy was amazing enough, but the engineering that allowed it to take Venus over...well, you know as well as I do what a great achievement that was.”
“Yes, thank you, Ma’am. I am a descendant of one of the members of the first expedition, as you may be aware.”
“I know. Your biography mentions it.” Won felt the Indian woman’s intensely curious gaze. “So, what is it like?”
“Living here, all the time, behind closed airlocks and temperature shields. Knowing you’ll die if you’re exposed to the environment even for a millisecond. Hell, even on Mars...even on the Moon...conditions are much less hostile than this.” She gestured at the ceiling. “Neither of them has sulphuric acid rain falling continuously, but evaporating before it hits the surface because it’s so damned hot. How do you feel about it?”
Won shrugged, keeping her eyes on the temperature readings. One of the radiators on the crawler’s roof seemed hotter than it should be, and she adjusted its position with a touch of her finger on the screen. “How should I feel about it? It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“Yes, but when you go outside, you’re in a suit that makes even a spacesuit, let alone a Martian pressure suit, feel like...like nudity. Don’t you ever imagine what it might be like to run barefoot along a beach under a cloudless sky, the sun in your face and the wind in your hair, next to a bright blue sea?”
Won swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, Ma’am. These questions might be appropriate to my great grandfather from the first expedition. They’re meaningless to me.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Bhattacharya began to unroll her computer, and then paused. “You know, even back on Earth, I heard good things about you.”
“You did, Ma’am? Who said anything about me?”
“People. People you guided, and others too. I won’t take names, but you can believe me that you were exactly what I was looking for – the perfect guide. That’s one of the three reasons I asked for you.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, but I’m nothing special.” Won remembered that the second reason would be that she was familiar with the surface. What was the third? “Anyone else trained in surface travel could have done the job equally well.”
“Is that so?”The professor smiled her death’s head smile. “We’ll see.” She sucked at the bulb again. “Just that light makes me thirsty,” she said.
Won smiled politely and suddenly felt very thirsty herself, indeed.
“The light does do things like that, Ma’am,” she said.
“We’re almost there now,” Won announced.
“Where?” Bhattacharya peered at the screen. “I can’t see the Balitis Vallis.”
“The Vallis is further on, Ma’am, beyond that line of low ridges there. It’s very broad and shallow at this point, so you wouldn’t be able to see much of it even if we got right to the edge.”
“Pity. The largest channel in the Solar System, isn’t it? I wanted to see it for myself.”
“We can follow it further north until it deepens, Ma’am. Even then, the light and atmospheric conditions mean you won’t be able to make out much. Still, it is more impressive there. But this is the location you’re interested in.”
Bhattacharya drew her breath in sharply. “Are the ruins here?”
“The ruins, as you call them, are scattered on this side of the Baltis Vallis. I’m afraid that you’ll probably be disappointed. They’re badly eroded and you can’t really tell what shape they ever were supposed to be, even if they were ruins in the first place.”
“I’ve seen the pictures. What do you know about them?”
“I, Ma’am? You mean, what I know personally? Not much more than the average person. Park Kyung-Lim found them first, on the first ground exploration of the Baltis Vallis, soon after the first landing. At that time they didn’t have suits – even their ground exploration vehicles were very limited compared to this crawler – so he couldn’t examine them closely. He didn’t call them ruins, though. He just said they looked as though they might have been ruins once.”
“I know what he said. And I’ve seen the photographs he took. They looked very suggestive, don’t you think?”
“Afterwards, when exploration parties on the ground went to look, they didn’t find anything so clear,” Won pointed out.
“Maybe they weren’t looking in the right place, or maybe they didn’t want to find ruins. After all, if ruins were acknowledged to exist on Venus, it would pose a fairly colossal problem for scientists, don’t you think? Venus, which everyone agrees never had life and which has been a poisonous furnace for thousands of millions of years...has ruins? How could anyone, from astronomers to biologists, explain that?”
“Perhaps,” Won acknowledged. “But, Ma’am, isn’t science always self-questioning, looking for new facts and adjusting itself to...”
“Science, yes. Scientists, no.” Bhattacharya snorted. “Once you’ve had a taste of faculty politics at any university, you’ll find out scientists are twice as opinionated and petty as your usual office bureaucrat.”
“If you say so, Ma’am,” Won replied politely. “It’s your field, after all, not mine.”
“Uh-huh. Your impressions and opinions are as important as anyone else’s. More important, in fact, since you actually have visited them yourself, unlike well over ninety-nine percent of the so-called experts. What did you think of them?”
“What did I...” Won frowned, thinking. “Well, the first time I came out here, I was still a trainee, and working hard simply to make sure I didn’t make any stupid mistake. I didn’t even get a proper look at the place. The second time, well, I wasn’t actually going to them. I was accompanying a team setting up instruments in the Baltis...”
“Meteorological observation instruments, Ma’am. The channel has its own weather system, with the low winds blowing north to south along it.”
“Oh yes. And then?”
“So it was only the third time I was out here that I really saw them.” She shrugged. “At the time they didn’t seem to be all that special to me, to tell the truth. I suppose I was simply not knowledgeable enough to be impressed. And after that...” she fell silent.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I think my impressions will simply not be of much use to you.”
Bhattacharya didn’t seem perturbed. “Well, there’s always this time. Try and remember what you think when we get there. Let’s see how my impressions match up with yours.”
Won reached for the controls. “We’ll have to stop soon and use the robot cameras.”
“Can we go out to them?”
“Do you really want to, Ma’am? We’ve got robot cameras and radars that can give you better views from here, without the risks of an extra-vehicular...”
“No!” Bhattacharya snapped. “I need to see for myself.”
Won nodded and took over from the autopilot, slowing the crawler down and coasting to a stop. “Very well, Ma’am. I’ll prepare the suits. Do you have any idea how to use them?”
“No, but I’ve used a spacesuit on the Moon, and...”
“Ma’am,” Won interrupted, “we aren’t on Luna here, and the outfits we’ll be using – they aren’t like spacesuits at all. Come along, I’ll show you.”
The “suits” were motorised cylinders twice as tall as a big man, with remote-controlled arms and a tripod of legs that ended in three-pronged claws that could cut into the surface if necessary, or spread themselves out to spread the weight. The cylinders were studded with short tubes ending in hooded lenses, and atop each of the two of them was something resembling a folded silvery concertina. Won explained that when outside the crawler, these would open and spread out into a fan shape, radiating heat.
“If they fail,” she continued, pointing to a box resembling a backpack attached to one side of the cylinder, “there’s this emergency auxiliary unit, but it can only work for half an hour or so. It’s basically so that you can get back to the crawler as quickly as possible.”
“Half an hour? What if you’re too far away to...”
“No. One of the rules of surface work on Venus is that you’re never more than half an hour from an airlock and safety. Not even the...” Won decided not to say that not even work camp prisoners were exempt from this rule. “Not even the most expert,” she amended, “ever allow themselves to break this rule. It would be suicidal.”
“I see.” Bhattacharya walked slowly around one of the two cylinders. “Do the cooling systems ever fail?”
“Sometimes.” Won felt her throat clutch suddenly, and swallowed hard. “Not often, fortunately, but it happens.”
Bhattacharya glanced at her and back at the cylinder. “So,” she said casually, “just how does one get into one of these things?”
Won sat in the suspension harness of her suit, her hands and feet on the control surfaces that manipulated the thing’s limbs. It was like walking while sitting on a spring-loaded stool partly suspended from the ceiling, and took getting used to. Even Won, who’d logged hundreds of hours in suits, always took time to get used to one. Even though each movement of the suit was controlled by motors at every joint, it was slow and sluggish. The atmosphere was so thick that it was like walking along the bottom of an ocean. In fact, that was exactly what they were walking along: the bottom of an ocean of carbon dioxide.
“Remember that even a breeze here is a pressure wave,” she’d reminded Bhattacharya. “I checked the weather, and we won’t have storms, or we would never have even come out here. But a strong wind can knock you over.”
“I’ll remember,” Bhattacharya had said, her face twitching slightly in an inadvertent display of distaste.
“And the temperature,” Won had continued. “There are warning lights, but keep an eye on the temperature readouts at all times.”
Around her head, the interior wall of the suit was a wraparound wall of superimposed video images, arranged so that the view from one camera merged with that of the next, as though the top of the tank was nothing more substantial than a sheet of glass. If she had wanted to, she could switch to various enhanced views, or radar vision, but for now she preferred to stay in the normal vision spectrum. It was all Professor Bhattacharya would be using; Won had stressed that she was not to use any of the more complex features of the suit so as not to make a mistake. And so Won had decided to match the other woman’s experience as closely as possible, relying on her greater experience and training to spot problems before they occurred.
Ahead and to her left, the suit housing Professor Bhattacharya was outlined shining silver against the ochre light, the radiator atop unfurled into a crest as high as the suit itself again. If the cameras hadn’t been filtered, the suit would have been almost too bright to look upon with the heat it was radiating, and its outline distorted with the shimmering of superheated air; but the suit’s computers corrected that to make it bearable to her eyes. She studied Bhattacharya critically. The older woman lurched along, in the typical clumsy movement of beginners. However, the professor was already visibly improving, and was far more stable than when she’d taken her first few tentative steps around the crawler. Won wondered if she’d had some simulator training on suits somewhere.
“Professor,” she said into the radio. “Are you doing all right?”
“Yes, I’m all right. This is...quite fun.”
Won grimaced. “Please be careful and remember exactly what I told you. Above all, Ma’am, don’t hurry. We’ve plenty of battery life left, and we can always go back to the crawler for a recharge.”
“Yes, I get it.” Bhattacharya picked her way through a cluster of flattened blackish-red rocks partially buried in the ground. Won watched to make certain she wouldn’t accidentally step on the smooth surfaces and slip, but she remembered what she’d been told. “How much further are the nearest ruins?”
Won consulted her suit’s coordinates, though she didn’t really need to. “A hundred and fifty metres to the north-east, Ma’am. To your left.” Giving the blackish-red rocks a wide berth, she followed the other suit towards Park’s discovery.
At first sight they really did look like tumbled walls and the remnants of staircases. But they would have been walls of buildings made for giants, and the stairs were so steep and narrow that the feet that might have trod them could never have belonged to anything remotely human. And that crumbled, vaguely cylindrical mass of stone...could it once have been a tower, or a pillar supporting some titanic, long-gone roof? Or, as seemed more likely the closer one got, it was all just the product of lava flows and erosion.
Professor Bhattacharya seemed to have no such thoughts, though. Her exclamations of delight sounded in Won’s earphones as she walked her suit past what seemed to be a wall and to the possible pillar. The young woman had the feeling that, if the Indian professor could have, she’d be down on her hands and knees, crawling along the ground and peering at the rocks through a magnifying glass.
“Look at this!” she exclaimed. “I’m sure this is artificial!”
Won shrugged mentally. It was pointless to say anything either in agreement or otherwise. “Ma’am, you need to be careful. Sometimes there are bubbles in the rock left over from the lava flows, and the stone shell on top could collapse from the weight of the suit.”
“Oh, fiddlesticks. These are probably older than the lava flows, and they’d have been buried.” Bhattacharya’s suit extended an arm, the rotary cutter extending from the tool cluster at the end, already revolving. “I’ll need to take samples to study.”
“Ma’am...” Won began.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got permission. You can radio and check.”
“I’m certain you have,” Won said. The official conclusion was that the “ruins” were merely suggestively eroded stones, so that they had no real value and weren’t protected. “I meant to say, please don’t cut out pieces bigger than the suit’s external storage bins can handle.”
“Yes, I know.” The cutter disc bit into a slab of stone, chips rising into the soup-thick air. “I won’t take any more than I need.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Suddenly Won felt immensely weary. Everything seemed unreal to her, as though she was watching from very far away, from a bolt hole at the very back of her head. The ochre land, the gleaming cylinder of Bhattacharya’s suit, the interior of her own, were all very far away. She took a deep breath and held it, squeezing her eyes shut, fighting down sudden waves of memory. It had been like this, everything very far away, as she’d lain, trapped in her suit, when...
She became aware that someone was calling her by name. “Byong-Uk?” Professor Bhattacharya’s voice sounded in her earphones, insistently. “Are you all right? Is anything wrong with your radio?”
Won found that she was shaking. She forced herself to relax. “No, Ma’am,” she lied. “Everything is all right. I was just checking my suit’s parameters. Are you done?”
“At this site, yes. Where is the next?”
“A little further north. We’ll have to use the crawler to get there.”
“That’s good,” Bhattacharya said. “I don’t know about you, but I need a break from this suit. And I need to study these samples.”
“Fine, Ma’am,” Won said, trying to unclench her fingers and toes so that she could use the controls. “That’s quite fine.”
Several hours passed before Bhattacharya spoke again.
Won was navigating the crawler around a fissure in the plain. It wasn’t a particularly deep fissure, but was just too wide for the crawler to cross directly, and she had turned the vehicle to follow it until she could find a safe crossing place. She’d welcomed the diversion; it had distracted her from her thoughts.
She was peering at the screen, her hand on the control wheel, when Bhattacharya’s voice startled her. “There was a third reason I chose you to be my guide.”
Won glanced over her shoulder to where Bhattacharya was crouched over her precious samples, working on her unrolled computer. “Ma’am?”
“You heard what I said, Byong-Uk. There was a third reason I asked for you, in person. In fact, this third reason was so important that if I hadn’t got you I’d have postponed my trip until you were available.”
Won’s heart began thudding in her chest so hard that she could feel it. With difficulty, she kept her voice level. “What’s that, Ma’am?”
“This is a pretty closed off society you have on Venus,” the Indian woman said, “one that’s led to your being called a Hermit Planet. I don’t blame you for that – quite the reverse, in fact – but you do realise that things get through sometimes? Rumours, for instance?”
“What rumours, Ma’am?”
“Well...” Professor Bhattacharya looked back to her computer with elaborate unconcern. “I heard about a young woman who was lost – who was in fact given up for dead – but returned from the desert, well after she should have run out of power to run her suit, alive and with a strange tale to tell. I heard that this tale caused such tremors in the government, so many possible repercussions, that this young woman was ordered to forget that any such thing had happened, and that the entire episode was erased from the official record. Have you ever heard this rumour?”
Won’s mouth seemed to freeze, unable to answer. The sound of her heart grew louder and louder, until it filled the universe, and once again she felt herself shrink to a dot of consciousness at the very back of her skull, peering out through her eyes as though through long, long tunnels at a scene very far away. And the scene at the end of those tunnels wasn’t the familiar control panel of the crawler; it was the edge of the broken rock overhead, and, beyond that, the swirling ochre clouds of the sulphurous sky.
She’d been careless. Even then, she’d been aware that she was taking risks. But the prospect of being alone for the first time on the surface, unsupervised and able to do as she pleased, had filled her mind with an intoxicating sense of freedom. There was only the crawler behind her, the nearest base was far away, the other members of her group were setting up a drilling platform to look for they alone knew what, and she could do what she wanted.
There had been the melted masses some people called ruins nearby. They hadn’t been very clearly visible from near the crawler, and she’d wandered over for a closer look. One, in particular, had interested her immensely; a narrow, roughly conical spike pointing upwards at the clouds, like a crooked finger. On another planet it wouldn’t have been remarkable; but on Venus, where the air itself pressed down with the weight of a sea and almost five times as hot as boiling water, it should by all rights have eroded away long ago.
The tip of the rock spike had been hard to see in the dull ochre light, but she thought that she could make out a mark that looked almost as though it could be a hieroglyphic. Tilting her cameras back and magnifying the view hadn’t made it much clearer because of foreshortening, so she had begun backing away for a longer view. That had been, as she’d found out a moment later, a mistake.
Many aeons ago, molten lava had roared over this land, almost as fluid as water. It had pooled in hollows and carved out ways for itself, and sucked at the bases of cliffs and boulders, seeking hungrily to undermine them and bear them away. Then, as its ardour cooled, it had grown sluggish and congealed; but, like an old man still trying to deny the toll of the years, it had crept on, until it could go no more. And in its slow progress it had made caps and lids over clefts and fissures in the ground which in its hotter, younger times it would have filled to the brim and crushed out of existence.
As the years had passed into decades and centuries, the soup-thick air had worn away the stone cap, scraping away the lava sheet little by little until only an eggshell-thin skin of rock remained, ready to collapse under the slightest weight. And Won’s suit, as she backed away from the spire, was very much more than the slightest weight.
Won could still remember how it had happened. Each time she closed her eyes she could see it again, as though in slow motion. Suddenly, the suit had tilted over backwards so sharply that her helmet had cracked against the rim of the pilot’s chamber. The cameras, trying to focus on the rock spire, had jerked upwards dizzyingly, staring up into the ochre sky. Before she could try to recover balance, the surface beneath her had given way completely, and she’d felt herself falling. Dust and stone fragments had come down with her, burying her in a cloud of her own. Over the noise of the crashing stone and her own screaming, she could hear the noise of ripping metal.
When the cloud had cleared, she had been lying on her back, looking up. On both sides the rock had risen like walls, until they ended in a jagged hole through which she could see the clouds.
She’d known instantly that she was in bad trouble. The ripping noise that she’d heard could have been only one thing –the heat radiator crest had torn away, and she could even see part of it, gleaming dully, leaning against the side of the rock. That meant she had only half an hour to get out of here and back to the crawler – and even if she’d been on the surface, she’d have been hard pressed to make the vehicle in half an hour. She’d wandered a fair way.
Trying to lever herself up, she’d realised something else. Whether the crawler was half an hour or half a minute from the hole above was immaterial; she couldn’t even get up. The suit was buried under so much rock debris that she couldn’t move the limbs. It was amazing that all her cameras hadn’t been covered up as well.
Struggling to control her fear, she’d tried to call for help on the radio; and it had been no surprise at all to her when all she’d heard was her own voice, muffled through her helmet. The fall had smashed up so much – why not some part of the radio as well?
And then she’d realised that she was going to die. She’d lie there on her back, helpless to move, as the power in the suit gave out. Long before the air, breathed in and out over and over, became too laden with carbon dioxide to breathe, she would feel the temperature begin to rise. At first, she imagined, it would be slow, almost imperceptible, as the coolant system kept ticking over. But then, as it finally stopped working, the temperature would begin to rise sharply, from room temperature to that of a broiling summer day on Earth, and then further, to the point where one couldn’t bear it rising anymore. But still it would go up, and up, further still. And then it would cook her alive, inside her own skin.
At that realisation she’d almost lost her mind for a minute or two. Wriggling frantically inside the narrow confines of the pilot’s chamber, she’d tried to reach the door, thinking hazily to open it and get out, to try and reach the crawler on her own. Dimly, she’d been aware that even if she did manage to get the door open, she’d burn to a crisp instantly in the furnace outside, long before the carbon dioxide sea simultaneously crushed her lungs and suffocated her, long before the sulphuric acid in the air began eating her skin and flesh away. But even that would be a better death by far than feeling herself cook inside her skin.
It was a hopeless effort. Even with the emergency manual override, the door, jammed against the rock, had been impossible to shift.
It is a sad thing to know one is going to die, far away from any help, lost and frightened and alone. Won hadn’t even been able to cry; finding the door immovable, she’d lain back in her harness helplessly and stared up at the clouds. By an ironic coincidence, she’d been able to see the tip of the rock spire poking above the rim of the hole, and from her position had got a fairly good look at the marking that had caused the whole trouble. And, inevitably, she’d been able to finally see that it was just an oddly shaped stain.
She’d begun to fancy that she could feel the first rise of temperature. It was surely too soon – she couldn’t have been down here for ten minutes yet, let alone half an hour – and the gauge didn’t show a whit above twenty degrees Celsius. But she found herself watching it obsessively, waiting for the inevitable rise of the green line on the black screen, its slow and deadly change to amber and towards red.
At least she wouldn’t see it reach the deepest red. Long before then, she’d be a corpse, her blood boiling away inside her veins.
Maybe by now the drilling party would have finished their work and returned to the crawler. Undoubtedly, they’d be calling to her on the radio, anxiously looking for her with the crawler’s robot cameras as well as their own suits. But their radio calls would go unanswered, the cameras would show nothing, and she could be anywhere within a half-hour’s travel radius. They’d be frantic, but they wouldn’t find her except by the purest accident. And even if they did, it would be too late.
She’d been watching the gauge so intently that at first she didn’t notice the noise. Even if she’d noticed it, she mightn’t have thought about it twice, imagining it was just the collapsed stone and dirt around the suit, settling. But it wasn’t.
When the grinding scraping sounded along the side of the suit, her head snapped up, an involuntary cry coming from her mouth. The noise had come, not from above, but from below and to the side. Something under the suit was grinding and scraping at it. Even as she listened, holding her breath, it had come again.
Something dark had appeared on the edge of one of the cameras that was still working. At first it had moved slowly, a black line at the edge of the screen, expanding to a band and then a curved blot that moved slowly over the viewing surface. It had paused, seeming to hesitate, and then covered the screen completely. Then the suit had jerked suddenly, even as the scraping noise began again.
Slowly, like a falling tree in reverse, the suit had begun to straighten. The rock above and around it had heaved up like water in a swimming pool around the shoulders of a swimmer, and fallen away. It had straightened in lurches at first, as though whatever was pushing at it had to rest to draw breath between efforts. Then, as most of the rock had fallen away and she’d been able to lever with some of the power of the suit’s limbs, it had moved more smoothly. And then she was upright, and something below her had been pushing her up the wall of rock, towards the surface.
Some things. From the peripheral view of the few cameras she’d still had functioning, she caught a glimpse of movement on all sides of the suit. Whatever it was that was pushing her up, there were many of them, and they were working as a team.
She’d only caught a brief glimpse of them, just before she’d managed to use the suit’s arms to drag herself the last bit of the way to the surface. Then she was on top, and the temperature was now quite definitely rising, and she still was far away from the crawler and safety. But at least she’d finally had a chance.
She hadn’t lost that chance, though it’d been a near thing. If the drillers hadn’t been out looking for her, and if one of them hadn’t spotted her and they hadn’t managed to get to her in time, it would’ve been too late. Even then, it had been weeks before her body had repaired itself from the ordeal.
Her mind? She’d long since realised that it never would. And this woman had just scraped away the thin scab she’d grown, and the wound was there, as red and raw as though it had been made yesterday.
“Did you ever hear this rumour, Byong-Uk?” Professor Bhattacharya repeated.
Won felt her mouth twitch, her tongue moving. “I...don’t know what you’re talking about, Ma’am.”
“Of course you do, and let’s not play games.” Bhattacharya’s voice was hard as one of the rock samples on the table. “You had an accident, which you shouldn’t have been able to survive – which you literally had no way to survive – but you did. And whatever it was that helped you to survive, it was something that scared the hell out of your authorities – to the extent that they erased the whole episode from the record. To all intents and purposes, it might as well never have happened. What do you think that might mean?”
Won said nothing.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Bhattacharya went on. “What I think is that you were helped by something alive here on Venus. If it’s alive and it helped you, it’s obviously intelligent, and that means that it has prior claim to Venus. And that means that you – your station, your cities, and by extension the whole human race – are interlopers here. That’s what it means. No wonder your superiors made every effort to ensure it didn’t happen. It’s a wonder they didn’t send you to a camp as well...or maybe the tales we hear down on Earth about those are exaggerations and fabrications. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Won dug into herself and found the ability to speak again. “What do you want, Ma’am?”
“What do you think? I want these aliens...sorry, I forgot, we’re the aliens here.” Bhattacharya tapped one of the rock samples for emphasis. “I want these...Venusians? Venerians? These creatures. I want to see them, find out about them. That’s what I want to do.”
Won stopped the crawler. She needed all her concentration for this. “Ma’am...I can’t do anything to help you. If I did – ”
“Yes, I know. You’d be in the camp I mentioned...or dead. But I’m not threatening you. I’m making you an offer.”
“You’ve never been to Earth, but you could easily go there. This isn’t the Moon or Mars – the gravity is almost the same as Earth’s. Unlike someone who’s a born Lunarian or Martian, you’d have no problem adjusting. I could arrange to take you back very easily, as a publicist for Venus. The only thing is, you wouldn’t be coming back. Once you’re on Earth, I’d arrange for you to find a job and a new identity, and you’d disappear. Or, if you want, you could work with me. Nobody would dare touch you then.
“Think about it. You’re estranged from your parents, and they won’t miss you. You’re young, beautiful, intelligent, and you deserve a much better life than conducting people around this poisonous, overheated ball of rock. Heaven’s sake, young woman, you’ve never even seen a clear sky, or the sun!”
“A clear sky?” Won replied wryly. “Outside the cities, I’ve never seen the colour blue. It doesn’t exist on Venus in nature.”
“There you are, then,” Bhattacharya said briskly. “So we’re agreed? Good, now take me to the Venusians.” Her voice hardened again. “One way or the other, I’m going to get to them, you know.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” Won said. “There’s one little problem.”
“Problem?” Bhattacharya’s brow wrinkled. “What problem?”
“After I got back, as you surmised, I reported to the authorities, and they weren’t pleased. Only, they didn’t just order me to keep my mouth shut, as you thought.”
“Oh.” Bhattacharya’s face went momentarily blank as she digested this. “What did they do?”
“What do you think? The next day they went out with troops and bombed the entire area. They blew up the Venusians’ burrows, and destroyed every single one of them.” She drew a long breath. “There may be others...there are, I’m sure, others...but I have no idea where to find them.”
“Hmmm...but you know where they were. And you could find the place again.”
“To what purpose, Ma’am?”
“The corpses, of course. If I could find even one, or part of one, that would be proof. I am not giving up without proof.”
And she wouldn’t give up, Won realised. This was a woman driven by obsession. “I’ll take you there, Ma’am, and perhaps we might find something. But the Venusians...”
“They’re rock-based, Ma’am. They couldn’t be carbon and water creatures, like us, and survive at such temperatures.”
“Obviously they couldn’t. They have to be silicon-based. And so?”
“So, they’re just basically living, moving rocks. If you find any parts, they’ll be rocks. Rocks which were once living, maybe, but still....rocks.”
“You can learn a lot from rocks.” Bhattacharya tapped the samples on the table. “Find the corpses for me, and you won’t regret it.”
The threat had never been so unspokenly clear. Won nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Also, you know what?” Bhattacharya said casually. “I don’t think I’ll be getting into the suit again. If even you could have an accident, it seems to be a little...unsafe. I think I’ll stay in here and watch you on the cameras while you look for the bodies.”
Won met her eyes. Messages flashed unspoken through the air. Finally, the younger woman nodded.
“Yes, Ma’am,” she said.
The thunder of the departing ship seemed still to be echoing in Won’s ears as she drove the small crawler out towards the Baltis Vallis. Right now, at this moment, Professor Bhattacharya would be in her cabin, probably already planning to write the research papers that would make her famous, and dreaming of all the secrets that would be revealed from the oddly shaped rock fragments that lay in the hermetically sealed boxes in the ship’s hold.
Those papers would never be written, because those boxes would never be found. Won had passed the message to Ri’s husband, who worked in immigration, and he’d had the material impounded at the last moment. Professor Bhattacharya still had her samples from the “ruins”; she’d have to remain satisfied with them.
Won had been fortunate. The army’s recent series of exercises, which had caused so much controversy in Chikhalsi Geumseong, had ended only a few weeks ago, but long enough that the shattered test area had been left empty and abandoned. Poking around in the broken ground, she had soon found enough oddly shaped and coloured rock fragments to satisfy Bhattacharya. They wouldn’t stand up to any geologist’s scrutiny, Won had been sure – but then, she had no intention of ever allowing them to be seen by a geologist. And so it had turned out.
“All I’m asking in return,” she’d said to Bhattacharya, whose eyes had been glittering avidly at the sight of the stones, “is that you keep my name out of it. Say that you found them while searching the ruins, and only afterwards, when examining them on Earth, realised that they were the body parts of living creatures. That’s all I’m asking, Ma’am.”
She’d taken all the leave due her, and called in a couple of favours to requisition a crawler for her own, personal use. She hadn’t had a holiday in a long while. She was now taking it, in the way that mattered to her.
Ahead, she saw the crooked stone spire, poking like a finger out of the ground. Once again, she wondered what kind of geological freak had created it. Not that it was much of a mystery, by Venus’ standards; even after all this time, her damned home planet – a hot poisoned ball though it might be – was nothing but a world of mysteries.
Climbing slowly into the suit, she wondered what it might have been like, to have gone to Earth, to have walked along a beach by a breaking sea, under a blue sky or a full moon. She tried to imagine the feel of rain on her skin, grass on her feet, a wind in her hair that was not filled with poison and death. She thought about it and shook her head; it was an enticing prospect, but there were things she couldn’t give up for all that.
The hard ground, transmitted through the legs of her crawler, felt good, small stones crunching under the three-pronged claws. She ignored the crooked rock spire, and the hole into which she’d fallen, and which had already half-filled with blown dust. She knew what she was looking for, and in only a short while she found it.
“I’ve come back,” she said casually. “I know you probably can’t hear me, and if you did you couldn’t possibly understand, but I came back to say thanks. And I came to tell you that I’ll always do everything I can to protect you.”
There was no answer, but she felt as though there were eyes, or something like eyes, looking at her, and ears that might be listening. “I know this is your planet,” she said slowly. “I know we’re...guests, I might say, or even parasites. But there’s enough of this world for us two species to share it, don’t you think? Our government has decided to hide the fact that you exist, but it won’t harm you. Even the military exercises that were held some time ago were cut short so none of your colonies would be damaged. And you...and you, I know, won’t harm us.”
Something stirred, slow movement displacing soil, and she smiled. “So you do understand me in some way,” she said. “I wonder what you think of us, sopping wet morsels of water and carbon, so alien to this world of yours that we must hide ourselves in moving refrigerators simply so we can survive? And, compared to you, we must have such astonishingly short lives. How old are you – a hundred thousand years each? Ten million? Do you talk to each other about us? I wish I could know the answers – but then the knowledge might leak out, so it’s maybe better not to know.
“Out there...” She pointed up with one of her suit’s limbs at the clouds. “Out there is a world filled with creatures like me. They have other planets they could explore, make their own, and use as they see fit, but they aren’t satisfied. Even though they hate this world, they intend to scrape and gouge at it until they force it to give up all its secrets. But those secrets belong to you, and it’s not right that anyone should have them.”
Something heaved in the ground, packed soil and small stones falling away. Won smiled, watching. “I wonder what it was that made you save me,” she said. “Was it just out of curiosity, or did you feel compassion for me, this fragile little animal cowering in the cold, terrified of the world which you find so natural to you? Was it the same impulse that leads me to rescue a spider when I find it trapped in my kitchen sink – or did you do it in the hope it would lead to something more?”
One by one they were rising out of the ground now, their smooth, stony, blackish-red surfaces gleaming faintly in her suit’s lights, balanced on thick projections like stumpy legs. The nearest reached out with a tip to gently poke her suit’s leg, like someone patting a child reassuringly, or a dog.
“Come to me,” Won said, and from all around, they came.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017