|The Quiet Invasion|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Movement outside the office cleared the door's view panel. Grace Meyer stood in front of the door with her arms folded and her impatience plain on her heavily lined face. Helen suppressed a groan. What she wanted to do was open the intercom and say, "We're having a meeting, Grace. Not now." But she held back. Grace had proven herself willing to make trouble lately, and Venera did not need more trouble.
"We'll finish in a minute, gentlemen," she said instead. "Door. Open. Hello, Grace," she said, not bothering to put on a smile, as Grace would know it was false. "What can I do for you?"
Dr. Grace Meyer was a short woman with a milk-and-roses complexion. Her lab coat was no longer crisp, and her tunic and trousers were as rumpled as if she'd slept in them. She wore a green kerchief tied over her short hair, which was the same strawberry blond as when she'd moved to Venera fifteen years ago. Grace was a long-lifer. She was actually twice Helen's age, even though she looked only half that old.
Grace nodded to Ben and Michael and then turned all her attention to Helen. "I heard about U Washington."
Helen sighed. "The only thing that travels faster than bad news is bad news about you personally." Ben and Michael did not smile. Ben looked grim. Michael looked like he was trying to calculate the probable outcome of this scenario so he could ready his responses.
"What about U Washington?" asked Helen.
Grace glanced at Ben and Michael. In that glance, Helen read that Grace would like to ask them to leave but couldn't quite work out how. And I'll be damned if I'll help you, Helen thought.
"Helen," Grace started again, "there are still sources of money out there. If we shift emphasis just a little-"
Here it comes. "To the possibility of life on Venus?"
Grace leaned across the desk. "You saw my new grant from Biotech 24. That's good money, Helen. The absorbers-"
"Are a complex set of benzene rings with some strange sulfuric hangers-on under heat and pressure."
Grace was a chemist who had come to Venera to help look for the ultraviolet absorber in the Venusian clouds. The clouds were mostly transparent to ultraviolet, but there were bands and patches that absorbed all but the very lowest end of the UV wavelengths. For years, no one had been able to work out what was happening. Grace and her team had isolated a large, complex carbon, oxygen, sulfur molecule that interacted with the sulfuric acid in the clouds and the UV from the Sun, so it was constantly breaking apart, re-forming and re-creating more of itself. Which was fine; it had won her awards and acclaim, and brought Venera a lot of good publicity.
The problem was, Grace was trying to get the compound, which she called "the absorber" for simplicity's sake, classified as life.
Helen got slowly to her feet. She was not tall, but she had a few centimeters on Grace and didn't mind using them. Especially now. She did not need this. "Your absorbers are not life. No funding university or independent research lab we've had on board for the last ten years has said it could be qualified as life, or even proto-life."
Grace held her ground. "But there's-"
"There's one little company that's got more of an existence in-stream than out in reality. It's willing to gamble on your idea this is some kind of alien autocatalytic RNA." Grace subsided just a little, but Helen wasn't ready to. The past months had been too much on top of the past year, all the past years. All the fighting, all the frustration, all the time wasted, wasted on stupid, petty money-grubbing and useless personal projects. "I've read your papers, Grace. I've read them all, and you know what? I wish I'd tried harder to get you to leave it alone. You've directly contributed to the image of this base as a useless piece of dreamware. You have cost us, Grace. You personally have cost all of us!"
The intercom chimed again. "What is it?" demanded Helen icily. She needed to take the call. She needed to stop yelling at Grace. She was falling out of control, and she could not afford that. Grace could still make trouble-publicize internal dissension, that kind of thing. There was plenty she could do. Plenty she would do. Helen needed to stop.
"Ummm . . . Dr. Failia?" The screen flickered to life to show a slender young man with clear, sandy-brown skin and thick black hair. Behind him, a floor-to-ceiling view screen displayed the ragged gray cliff, possibly the edge of one of the continent-sized plateaus that broke the Venusian crust. "Yes, Derek?" Helen tried to smooth the impatience out of her voice. Derek Cusmanos headed the survey department. Actually, Derek and his fleet of drones were the survey department. He always did his job well. He had done nothing to deserve her anger.
"I . . . I'm getting some pictures in from one of the drones near Beta Regio that you need to see, Dr. Failia."
Helen's fingers twitched as she tried not to clench her hands into fists. "This is not a good time, Derek. Shoot me up a file and I'll go over it-" "No, Dr. Failia." Strain tightened Derek's voice. "You really need to see this right now."
Curiosity and concern surfaced together in Helen's mind. She glanced back at Ben and Michael, who both returned blank stares. A glance at Grace produced a shrug and a pair of spread hands.
"All right, Derek," said Helen. "Show me."
Without another word, Derek pushed his chair back so they had a clear view of his wall screen. Helen heard him give soft orders to his desk to display the current uplink.
The screen's view changed. The gigantic plateau wall receded into the distance. In its place stood a smaller, rounded canyon wall, the kind that typically bordered the ancient lava channels. On the canyon's cracked floor, Helen saw something sticking up out of the ground. Derek gave another order. The view zoomed in.
The new, tighter view showed a perfectly circular shaft protruding from the Venusian ground.
"Oh my God," whispered Michael. Helen just got out of her chair and walked slowly forward until her nose almost touched the intercom screen.
It was not anything that should have been there, but there it was. It was circular. It had a cap on it. Its gray sides glinted dully in Venus's ashen light, and it sank straight into the bedrock.
"This is live," said Derek from his post off-screen. "I'm getting this in right now from SD-25."
"You've done a diagnostic?" cut in Ben. He supervised Derek's "department." "The drone is functioning on spec?"
"On spec and in the green," said Derek. "I . . . I didn't believe what I was seeing, so I sent SD-24 down after it. This is what I'm getting from SD-24." He gave another order and the view shifted again. Now they looked down from above, as if the camera drone perched on the canyon wall, which it probably did.
The capped shaft sat there, smooth and circular and utterly impossible. Even Venus, which had produced stone formations seen nowhere else in the solar system, had not created those smooth lines, that flattened lid. "Well," said Ben. "I don't remember putting that there."
"Derek," said Helen quietly, "I want you to keep both drones on-site. I want that thing recorded from every possible angle. I want it measured and I want its dimensions and position to the millimeter. We'll get a scarab down there to look at it."
"Yes, Dr. Failia." Derek sounded relieved that someone else was making the decisions.
"Well done, young man," she added.
"Thank you, Dr. Failia."
The intercom cut out and Helen turned slowly around. "Do I have to say it?" she asked dryly.
"You mean that if that's what it looks like-" began Ben.
"We have evidence of life on Venus?" Grace folded her arms. Her green eyes gleamed brightly. "Oh, please, Helen. I'd love to hear you say it, just once."
A muscle in Helen's temple spasmed. "Now is not the time to be petty, Grace." Grace smiled. "Oh no, not petty, Helen. But you'll have to allow me a little smugness. I've been shouting in the wilderness for years now. If this bears out-"
"If this bears out." Ben emphasized the first word heavily. "Venus has thrown up some landscapes that make the old face on Mars look passé." He pushed himself to his feet. "Kevin is on shift. I'll have him outfit us a scarab ay-sap." Kevin Cusmanos was Derek's older brother. He was also chief engineer and pilot for the surface-to-air explorer units known as scarabs, which transported people to and from the Venusian surface. "I assume you're coming down to see what's what?" Ben looked pointedly at Helen.
"Of course," she answered. "And Michael's coming with us." She looked to him for approval and he nodded. His face held a kind of stunned wonder as the implications filtered through him. Helen knew exactly how he felt. If this was played out, it meant so many things. It meant human beings were not alone in the universe. It meant there was not only intelligent life out there somewhere but it had also left its traces on Venus.
It meant money for Venera.
Grace opened her mouth, but Helen held up her hand. "Not this run, Grace. Next one, if it turns out to be more than rocks and heat distortion." Keep up the patter, Helen. You do not know what's really down there. You only know what it looks like.
Somewhat to Helen's surprise, Grace just nodded and stepped aside for Ben as he hurried out the door. Helen did not, however, miss the purely triumphant smile that spread across her face.
Can't blame her, I suppose. "If that's what it looks like," she repeated out loud.
"If that's what it looks like, all our old problems are over with, and we'll have a set of brand-new ones," said Michael. "But ohmygod . . ." Helen touched his arm. "I quite agree. Go grab your gear, Michael, and tell Jolynn and the boys you won't be home for supper."
"Yes, ma'am." He snapped a mock salute and hurried out the door.
Grace and Helen faced each other for a long moment. "Well," said Grace brightly, "I think I'll go reorganize my files. I think there's going to be some new work coming in." She left, and the door slid shut behind her. Finally alone, Helen reached up and untied her scarf. Her long white hair fell down around her shoulders. She combed her fingers through it, feeling how each strand separated and fell, brushing her cheeks and shoulders. It felt coarser than she remembered it feeling when she was a young woman. Coarser and yet more fragile, like its owner.
Let this work out, she prayed silently. I don't care if I have to spend the next fifty years apologizing to Grace Meyer. This could save us all. Please, let it work out right.
Less than five hours later, Helen, too on edge to remember she ought to be tired and hungry, unstrapped herself from a second crash-couch. This one was in the little dormitory aboard Scarab Fourteen. The scarab itself crawled across the Venusian surface, following the signal output of Derek Cusmanos's two drones.
Because it was Kevin Cusmanos's policy to always have two of Venera's twenty scarabs ready to go in case of emergency, heading to the surface had been a matter of grabbing overnight bags and calling on Adrian Makepeace, the duty pilot for the afternoon shift. Kevin said he'd take the board down himself, but he wanted Adrian's experience in the copilot's seat.
Scarab Fourteen was a clone of all the other scarabs owned and operated by Venera Base-a wedge-shaped, mobile laboratory that could both fly and roll. They were designed to take a team of up to seven researchers plus two crew members to almost any spot on the Venusian surface that wasn't covered in lava. Built wide and low to the ground, they were practical but not comfortable. Adrian, Helen noticed, seemed to be developing a permanent stoop and a tendency to walk sideways from all the time he spent in them. Designing for the heat and pressure of the Venusian surface had proved incredibly difficult. That was one of the reasons Venera floated through the clouds. The surface was an oven. Up in the clouds, the temperature was close to the freezing point of water. Down here, they had to carry layers of insulation and heavy-duty coolant tanks that had to be recharged and refrozen after each trip.
Helen picked her way between the crash-couches, rocking slightly with the motion of the treads until she emerged into the main corridor. Ben and Michael had gone ahead of her and already crowded behind Kevin's and Adrian's chairs in the command area. They all stared through the main window that wrapped around the scarab's nose.
The scarab ground its careful way across the nightside of Venus. Outside, the cracked surface of Ruskalia Planitia glowed with the heat it radiated, creating a quilt of deep reds, bright oranges, and clear, clean yellow. Overhead, the light reflected off the clouds, lending them the color and texture of molten gold being stirred by some invisible hand.
Kevin, a cautious, quiet man, who was almost twice as broad in the shoulders as his younger brother, kept his gaze flickering between the map displays and the window which showed them Beta Regio, a ragged wall of living fire wavering in the distance.
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