by Derek Künsken
March 1st, 2255 c.e.,
45km above the surface of Venus:
“We might still be able to patch it,” Pascal’s father said in French over the radio.
Distant lightning squawked in the radio band. Drops of sulfuric acid fell on the face plate of his helmet. Yellow mist surrounded them. Few storms began this deep under the clouds, but a big storm could punch all the way down here.
“I give us five minutes,” Pascal said, “maybe ten.”
“Give me one minute!”
A shiver of fear began in Pascal’s stomach. They were cutting it close, despite his estimates.
Pascal stood on the head of one of the big cloud-living Venusian plants, what they called a trawler. A bulbous head about five meters wide and shaped like a garlic clove contained all the buoyancy of the plant. Beneath it hung a long tail of carbon fiber, ending forty meters below in a woody weight. The trawlers bobbed through the clouds of Venus and even the hot haze beneath, attracting lightning or collecting static charge with their long carbon cables.
George-Étienne and his children had a dozen trawlers, gathered in a wide herd by adjustable sails they mounted on the heads. They’d grafted additional equipment onto each one, turning each one into a minuscule factory. This one carried tanks and hydrolytic equipment to crack the water out of sulfuric acid. It shouldn’t have sunk this deep, but its woody pumps were failing. Even though Pascal could walk across its whole top in five stretched steps, it was an island, invaluable to surviving in the clouds. And it would soon vanish.
“Minute!” Pascal said.
“Câlisse!” George-Étienne swore.
“Let’s salvage what we can,” Pascal said.
The haze was inscrutable. Sunlight glowed spongy orange here, with line of sight faltering after a thousand meters. A storm could be right beside them, and they’d never see it. Lightning squawked in the radio band again, and shortly, they heard the rumble.
“Tabarnak!” George-Étienne said. “D’accord. Let’s do it. Pass me a rope.”
Pascal didn’t feel any better than his father about this. They sold oxygen, water, and the heavy metals they collected from the volcanic ash in the lower cloud decks, but they wouldn’t have money to buy another trawler, and wild trawlers were hard to domesticate. The loss of this one would just make them that much poorer.
Pascal anchored the middle of the rope around the mast at the top of the trawler and lowered one end to George-Étienne as he began tying the other end to an inflatable bag. The lower end of the rope soon tugged tight, squashing some of the straggly black weeds that colonized the outside of trawlers.
Pascal pulled up the rope, lifting a steel tank, slick with a water-repellent, high-pH slime to protect it from the sulfuric acid rain. A flexible pipe came out of his pouch. He fitted one end to the tank and the other to the bag, to start inflating it with oxygen. While this went on, he began taking down the sail and untying all the ropes before turning back to pull up three more tanks and a woody container they’d woven themselves out of the walls and resins of old trawlers. They wouldn’t ever have the time to turn the remains of this trawler into anything useful.
Or would they?
“Pa,” Pascal said. “You think we got maybe six minutes?”
The radio squawking of lightning became more persistent.
“What do you think about cutting off the cable?”
“We’d never cut it in time,” George-Étienne said, “or hold its weight.”
“I have two extra float bags,” Pascal said. “I’ve got a saw. Let me try.”
In his father’s silence, static burst three more times. Lightning crackled somewhere ahead, at their altitude. His father did the math too. The time to the storm, versus the time needed to cut through the tough carbon fiber cabling, versus the loss this trawler represented.
His father grunted, his helmet appearing over the edge of the trawler, slick with sulfuric acid. He climbed up, and Pascal gave him a hand. Many acid burns over the years had browned and blackened Pa’s survival suit, and patches held it together in dozens of places.
“Give me the tools,” George-Étienne said. “I’ll do it. If the storm looks close, you run for the habitat.”
“I’m stronger, Pa,” Pascal said, “and faster. Trust me. You fill the float bags and salvage everything else.”
His father hefted the dark float bags.
“Be careful,” George-Étienne said. “And when I say we run, we run.”
“Oui, Pa,” Pascal said, giving his father one end of a new rope.
Pascal scrambled down the side of the trawler, slipping on the slime and mushy plants, until he hung from the edge. He had to catch the next footholds by swinging his feet, gripping tight, and inching his way down. Brown hanging grasses, dripping with sulfuric acid, colonized the underside of the trawler. He had to find the ropes among them. At the base of the head, he wrapped his legs around the long cable and shimmied down about a meter.
He locked his legs and pulled free his saw. He had to be careful with anything sharp. Even a pinprick in his suit could let in a drop of acid. Venus had never been interested in colonistes and took every opportunity to shake them from her skirts. Pascal sawed into the sides of the carbon cabling, making notches around which he tied the rope he’d brought down with him. It was still slack.
“You can fill the float bags, Pa,” he said.
by Catherine Wells
The docking facilities had not received an interstellar ship in over two hundred years, so Sara was only one of many residents of Respite staring at the man who emerged. As if he were a god, Sara thought, glancing around at the faces of her neighbors. But this man looked more like a post-Expansion rendering of a nature spirit: tall and lithe with fair skin and straight brown hair pulled back in a tail. Something too elegant and ethereal for a lineport like Respite.
In Sara’s arms, six-year-old Drina tightened her grip and leaned in close, frizzy brown hair tickling Sara’s nose. “Nana, who’s that?” she asked, her voice soft and dry as the whisper of water through pipes.
Sara pushed her own graying hair back and put her mouth to the child’s ear. “A space traveler.” They stood in a cluster of forty or fifty people, here to see who had ventured back to this forgotten outpost for the first time in over two hundred fifty years.
The stranger descended the loading ramp and looked around at the inhabitants of the last viable spacehab in the Sartre Cluster line. They drew back a bit, and a shy smile wafted across his mouth. “Hello,” he said softly in the expectant silence. “I’m Rafe Cortez.” Then he expanded his gaze to take in the transparent walls and fiberforce struts of the docking ring. “I built this place.”
A gasp rippled through the gathering, and Sara felt her own breath catch. The habitat’s builder? Someone nearby voiced her objection. “But Respite is nearly a thousand years old!”
“I know.” Rafe Cortez shrugged his shoulders slightly. “So am I.”
The man looked no more than forty. A god, indeed, Sara thought, although she knew even before this string of spacehabs was built, humankind had learned how to manipulate genes to eliminate aging. But none of the technicians and researchers who populated the lineports this far out could afford such a costly procedure, so practitioners of gene manipulation had never brought their science to Respite.
Jordan DeLuca pushed forward, asserting his position as president of Respite’s governing council. “How large is your ship?” he demanded. “How many people can it hold?” Respite’s communications equipment had failed decades ago, roughly two centuries after war between the Mhordot Coalition and the Tse-Ko Cartel had shut down interstellar traffic to the Sartre lineports. No one on Respite had known Rafe was coming until his ship eased itself into Dock 14. Now they had only one concern. “How many of us can you take away from here?”
Rafe blinked, startled either by the question or its tone, but he rallied quickly. “Uh . . . there are twelve berths, I think. I didn’t count, there was only me—” His eyes moved from face to face, as though mesmerized by rare specimens. “My colleagues insisted all the spacehabs would have failed more than a century ago, while the war was still raging. But I told them Respite would not. I built it. And you . . .” His soft voice trailed off as he ran a hand along a wall, pausing as his fingers reached a sealed crack, shifting his eyes to the crude patches on the ventilator overhead. “You have managed to keep it in repair. They wouldn’t believe that, either: that you would be able to sustain the technology.”
Unexpectedly, Drina caught his eye, and he turned to stare, a foolish smile on his face. “A child,” he breathed, edging closer, causing Sara to shift Drina in her arms, away from the stranger. “Oh, yes, a child . . .”
“What?” she jested nervously. “Don’t you have children where you come from?”
“No.” Rafe turned his eyes from Drina to Sara. “Not in long-gev communities. Our economy cannot support an endless increase of people. When our aging process is turned off, the procreative function is shut down, as well. It’s . . . necessary.”
A chill slithered over Sara’s shoulders like the tentacle of some sea creature.
Jordan DeLuca jumped into the silence. “We’ll have to have a lottery,” he said. “To decide who goes on the first ship. You’ll send others back, of course, for the rest of us, won’t you, Mr. Cortez?”
Rafe was still watching Drina, who watched him right back. “We . . . I . . . I’m sure someone can be persuaded to return. A rescue mission. The Mhordot resolved their differences with the Tse-Ko some time ago.”
“Well, then. Twelve of us this trip, the others later.”
Rafe tore his eyes from Drina to look at Jordan. “Eleven.” He smiled sheepishly. “One berth is mine.”
“Of course, eleven.” Jordan’s color deepened. “We’ll choose eleven.”
“How long will it take?” Sara asked. “The trip back?”
“To a reach the next habitation? About eight weeks. But only seven to communications range.” His gaze returned to Drina. “The relays between here and there have been out since the war.” He mimicked Drina as she rubbed her nose.
“Seven weeks, plus eight for a ship to get back . . .” Relief sighed through Sara. “We can last that long, I’m sure.”
Rafe stopped short, eyed her warily, then glanced at the expectant crowd. “Uh . . . fifteen weeks for those aboard a ship. For those here . . . eighteen years. The time dilation—” He shrugged helplessly. “Technology can mitigate the effect, but not eliminate it.”
For a moment Sara’s knees threatened not to hold her. “Eighteen years . . .”
Jordan, too, had paled. “I don’t know if we can last that long. Our biofarms are failing, and we’re not sure why. The air exchange, or maybe it’s the radiation shielding in the solar plating . . . an imbalance in the nutrient base . . . We’re all on short rations. If we can get food production back to normal—”
“Then we’ll be all right for another two years,” Sara said tonelessly. “Until the pumps fail.”
Rafe blinked. “The pumps in the fluid recycler?” She nodded, and his eyes went back to the child in her arms. “Then I’ll look at the pumps first.”