|The Quiet Invasion|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
"This is Venera Control, Shuttle AX-2416. You're clear for landing. Welcome back."
Hello, Tori. How are you doing? thought Helen from her seat in the passenger compartment. She liked the fact that the shuttle pilots left the intercom open so she could listen to the familiar voices running through the landing protocols. Overhearing this final flight ritual made her feel that she was really home.
I just wish I was really home with better news.
She bit her lip and settled a little further back in her crash-couch. Helen was the only Venera-bound passenger this run. She'd flown from Earth in the long-distance ship Queen Isabella, which now waited in orbit while the shuttles from Venera ferried down supplies and equipment that had to be imported from Earth.
Helen stared straight ahead over the rows of empty couches. The ceiling and front wall of the shuttle's passenger cabin were one gigantic view screen. Venus's opaque, yellowish-gray clouds churned all around the shuttle. Wind stirred the mists constantly but never cleared them away.
She strained her eyes, struggling to see the solid shadow of Venera Base through the shifting fog. Despite everything, Helen still felt as if she carried the bad news with her, that nothing could have changed aboard Venera until she got there and handed the news over.
I'm not there so it's not real yet. Helen smoothed down the indigo scarf she wore over her stark white hair. Arrogance, arrogance, old woman. This last trip should have finally put you in your place.
She really did feel old. It was strange. Even in the modern era of med trips and gene-level body modification, eighty-three was not young. She had never felt so old inside, though. She'd never felt calcified like this, as if something in her understanding had failed, leaving her standing on the edge of events she was unable to comprehend clearly, let alone affect.
The shuttle's descent steepened. At last, the cloud veil thinned enough that Helen really could make out the spherical shadow of Venera Base-her dream, her life's work, her home.
And now, my poor failure.
Even with self-pity and defeat swimming around inside her head, Helen's heart lifted at the sight of Venera. The base was a gigantic sphere buoyed by Venus's thick CO2 atmosphere. Distance and cloud cover made the massive girders and cables that attached the tail and stabilizers to the main body of the station look as thin as threads.
Venera rode the perpetual easterly winds that circled the planet's equator. The shuttle matched Venera's speed easily, and the navigation chips in the shuttle and the runway handled the rest. The shuttle glided onto the great deck that encircled the very top of Venera's hull. It taxied straight across the runway and to the open hangar.
The shuttle jerked slightly as it rolled to a stop. A moment of silence enveloped Helen. This was no tourist shuttle. There were no attendants, human or automated, to tell her it was okay to get up now, or to make sure she claimed all her luggage, or to hope she'd enjoyed her flight and would come again soon.
Instead, the hissing, bumping noises of pressurization, corridor docking, and engine power-down surrounded her. Helen stayed where she was. As soon as she stepped out of the shuttle, it all became real. The transition would be over. Her illusions would no longer shield her. Helen found she did not want to abandon that shelter.
Helen started and looked up into the broad, dark face of the shuttle's senior pilot. What was his name?
"Yes?" She pushed herself upright and began fumbling with the multiple buckles that strapped her to the couch. Name, name, name . . .
"I just wanted to say, I know you're going to get us through this. Everybody's with you."
Pearson! "Thank you, Mr. Pearson," said Helen. "We'll find a way."
"I know we will." He stepped aside to give her room to stand. Helen did not miss the hand that briefly darted out to help her to her feet and then darted back again, afraid of being offensive. She pretended to ignore the awkward gesture and retrieved her satchel from the bin under her couch. "Thank you again, Mr. Pearson." Helen shook the pilot's hand and met his eyes with a friendly smile. P.R. reflexes all in working order, thank you. Then, because there was nothing else to do, she walked down the flex-walled docking corridor.
Bennet Godwin and Michael Lum, the other two members of Venera's governing board, were, of course, waiting for her in the passenger clearing area. One look at their faces told her that the bad news had indeed flown far ahead of her.
Her hand tightened around her satchel strap as she walked up to her colleagues. "I take it you've heard," she said flatly. "We lost Andalucent Technologies and IBM." There, it's official. I said it. The last shards of her comforting illusions fell away.
Ben Godwin was a square-built, florid man. Every emotion registered on his face as a change of color, from snow white to cherry red. Right now though, he just looked gray. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Michael, standing beside him, glanced briefly at the floor and then up at Helen's eyes. He was a much younger, much leaner, much calmer man with clear gold skin. He wore his black hair long and pulled back into a ponytail. The gold ID badge on his white tunic proclaimed him the chief of Venera's security. "They took the University of Washington with them."
He spoke softly, but the words crashed hard against Helen. "What? When?" "About an hour ago." Ben ran his hand over his bristly scalp. "We tried to get them to wait to talk to you, but they weren't-"
Anger hardened Helen's face. "Well, they'll have to talk to me anyway." She brushed past the two men. "We can't afford to lose their funding too." Helen did not look back to see if they were following her. She just strode straight ahead into the broad, curving corridor that connected the docking area to the rest of Venera. She ignored the nearest elevator bundle and started down the stairs instead. She was not waiting around anymore. She'd been waiting on people for months on Earth. Waiting for them to tell her they had no more money, no more time to wait for results, no more interest in a planet that would never be amenable to human colonization or exploitation.
Helen kept her office on the farm levels near the center of Venera's sphere. Full spectrum lights shone down on vast soil beds growing high-yield cereals and brightly colored vegetables. Ducks and geese waded freely through troughed rice paddies that also nurtured several species of fish. The chickens, however, were penned in separate yards around the perimeter. The chickens did not get along with the more peaceable fowls. Quartz windows ringed the entire level, showing the great gray clouds. Every now and then, a pure gold flash of sheet lightning lit the world. The farms had been meant to give Venera some measure of independence. Acquiring good, fresh food was vital to the maintenance of a permanent colony, and from the beginning, Helen had meant Venera to be a permanent colony.
Old dreams died hard. Venera might have actually had real self-sufficiency, except for the restrictions the U.N. placed on manufacturing and shipping licenses.
Old fears died hard too.
Helen's office was an administrative cubicle on an island in the middle of one of the rice paddies. She knew people called it "the Throne Room" and didn't really care. She loved Venus, but she missed Earth's blues and greens. Setting up her workspace in the farms had been the perfect compromise.
Helen kept a spartan office. It was furnished with a work desk, three visitor's chairs, and an all-purpose view screen that currently showed a star field. Her one luxury, besides her view, was a couple of shelves of potted plants-basil, oregano, lavender, and so on. Their sweet, spicy scents were the air's only perfume.
Helen dropped herself into the chair behind the desk and tossed her satchel onto the floor. It was only then that she became aware that Michael and Ben had in fact followed her.
"Who'd you talk to?" Her touch woke the desk and lit its command board. She shuffled through the icons to bring up her list of contact codes.
"Patricia Iannone," said Ben, sitting in one of the visitor's chairs. "She sounded like she was just following orders."
"We'll see." Helen activated Pat's contact and checked the time delay. Four minutes today. Not great for purposes of persuasive conversation, but doable. Helen opened the com system and lifted her face to the view screen. "Hello, Pat. I've just gotten back to Venera, and they're telling me that U Washington is pulling our funding. What's the matter? You can't tell me the volcanology department has not been getting its money's worth out of us. If it's a matter of being more vocal about your sponsorship or about allowing your people some more directed research time, I know we can work out the details. You just have to let me know what you and your people need." She touched the Send key, and the com system took over, shooting the message down after the contact code, waiting for a connection, and a reply.
Helen swiveled her chair to face Ben and Michael. "All right, tell me what's been happening since we talked last."
So Ben told her about some of the new personnel assignments and promotions and how the volcano, Hathor Montes, was showing signs of entering an active cycle. Michael talked about a rash of petty thefts, an increase in demands on the data lines caused apparently by the volcanology group gearing up for Hathor's active cycle, and a couple of in-stream clip-out personas trying to get themselves inserted onto Venera's payroll.
"Now that would be all we'd need," muttered Helen. "Handing out extra money for a couple of computer ghosts."
As she spoke, the desk chimed. All of them turned their attention back to the view screen. Helen's stomach tightened. The star field cleared away to show a fashionably slim, young-looking woman with beige skin and a cloud of dark-blond hair, worn unbound under a pink scarf.
"Hello, Helen," she said soberly. "I was expecting this. Listen, there are no complaints about the publicity, the facilities access, about anything. The problems are application, opportunity, and resource distribution. The comptrollers have decided our people are going to have to be content with St. Helens and Pelée for a while. The industrial research spillover is contracting, and there is just not enough to go around right now." Her expression flickered from annoyed to apologetic. "There's no more after this. Anything you send is going to my machine. I'm sorry, but there is nothing I can do."
The stars faded back into view. For a moment, Helen met Ben's gaze, but she looked quickly away. She didn't want to see what he was thinking. We could have done this, he was thinking, if you'd been willing to do it small. If you hadn't insisted from the beginning on a full-scale base where people could live and raise their children and make a lifetime commitment to the study of this world.
She pressed her fingertips against her forehead. That was what he was thinking. That Venus was, at most, four weeks away from Earth. It wouldn't have mattered if people had to come and go. Venera could have been made small and simple and then expanded if things worked out. But, oh, no. Helen Failia had her vision, and Helen Failia had to push it through. Helen had to make sure there were children like Michael who could lose their homes if the funding ever collapsed.
"There is a way out of this," said Michael. "There has to be." "What?" Helen's hand jerked away from her face. "Michael, I'm open to suggestions. I've just spent four months scavenging the whole of Mother Earth for additional funding. It's not there."
"Well." Michael rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and then brought them back down to meet Helen's gaze. "Have you tried a com burst out to Yan Su on the Colonial Affairs Committee? There might be some U.N. money we can dredge up."
Ben snorted. "Oh, come on, Michael. The U.N. pay to keep a colony running? Their business is keeping colonies scraping and begging." As a younger man, Helen knew, Ben had been strongly sympathetic with the Bradbury Separatist movement on Mars-the same movement that hadblossomed into the Bradbury Rebellion and, for five short, violent years, Bradbury Free Territory. Because of that, he still took a very dim view of the United Nations and their off-Earth colonial policies.
She had to admit he was partly right. Since the Bradbury Rebellion, the C.A.C.'s sole function had been to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Hence, the licensing restrictions. No colony could manufacture space shuttles or long-distance ships. No colony could manufacture communications satellites, although they were graciously allowed to repair the ones they had. There was a whole host of other hardware and spare parts that either never got licensed or were taxed to the Sun and back again.
Most of the time that didn't bother Helen. She dealt with the C.A.C. through her friend Yan Su, and so far Su had been willing to help whenever she could. Now, though, they were coming head-to-head with the old, frightened public policies.
"You think they want to deal with ten thousand refugees?" countered Michael calmly. "It's got to be cheaper to let us stay where we're at than to pay for processing ten thousand new resident-citizen files."
Helen nodded absently. She found, to her shame, she was not ready to admit that that avenue had been shut off almost a year ago. Maybe she could try again. Now is not the time for pride, she reminded herself firmly. You've begged everybody else. Why not the government?
"Yan Su helped put us up here," said Michael, more to Ben than to Helen. "Maybe she can help keep us up here." Ben's only response was to turn a little pinker and look sour.
As little as she liked to admit it, Michael was right. It was time for last resorts. Without their three major funding sources, they were not going to be able to meet their payroll. They could buy some time by laying off the nonpermanent residents and sending them back to Mother Earth, but then they wouldn't be able to complete their research projects and they'd lose yet more money.
Helen looked at the time delay again. Venus and Earth were moving out of conjunction. If she put this off, the time delay was only going to get worse, and she didn't want to have to conduct this conversation through the mail. "Why don't you-"
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