|The Quiet Invasion|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Coming down several kilometers from the whatever-it-was had seemed prudent. They did not want to land accidentally on something important.
As Beta Regio grew larger, the plain under the scarab's treads became rougher. Small, knife-backed ridges, blood red with escaping heat and blurred by the thick atmosphere, rose out of the plain. The closer they came to Beta Regio, the higher the ridges rose, until they became ragged walls. At last, Scarab Fourteen drove down a glowing corridor, following the path carved by a river of ancient lava.
A million similar paths spread out around the various Venusian highlands. Kevin drove the scarab gently over the rocks and swells, guided by the global positioning readout and the signals from his brother's drones.
The lava trail dead-ended at a sharp, smooth cliff that shone a livid orange. Some coal-bright sand rolled lazily along the brilliant ground, brushing against the hatchway set into the living rock.
"Venera Base," said Kevin in the general direction of the radio grill. "This is Scarab fourteen." It was somehow comforting to see he was staring, as was Adrian. As are we all. "We have the . . . target in sight. Are you getting our picture?"
"We're getting it, Boss." Helen almost didn't recognize Charlotte Murray's voice, with its undertone of uncertainty, as if she were torn between fear and awe.
Helen understood the feeling. Her own eyes ached from staring at the brightly shining artifact. It was a perfectly circular shaft, about two meters across, that protruded half a meter out of the rugged surface. It glowed red hot, like its surroundings. Its lid had a series of, what?-handles? locks?-spaced evenly on all the sides she could see.
She glanced at Ben and saw his thoughts shining plainly on his face. It had to be a hatchway. It couldn't be anything else. Someone had built it there. That was the only explanation.
She knew he was not about to say any of that out loud, however. It wouldn't do. It was bad science and poor leadership, neither of which Ben would tolerate.
"Well"-she straightened up-"who's coming out to take a look?"
"Dr. Failia, you're not-" began Kevin. Helen silenced him with a glance. He was probably right. It probably was not a good idea for an eighty-something who was behind on her med trips to don a heavy hardsuit and go outside on Venus for a bit of a ramble.
But I'll be damned if I'm staying behind to watch this through the window. "Right behind you, Helen," said Ben. Michael didn't say anything. He just headed down the narrow central corridor toward the changing area at the back of the scarab.
Helen rolled her eyes and followed, with Ben and Adrian filing after her. As copilot, Adrian's primary job was monitoring, or baby-sitting, any extravehicular activities. The EVA staging area took up most of the scarab's wide back end. Still, there somehow never seemed to be quite enough room for even three people to get into the bulky hardsuits.
The hardsuits themselves consisted of two layers. The soft, cloth-lined inner suit went directly over a person's clothes. This layer carried the coolants circulating in microtubules drawn from tanks which were pulled from the freezer and strapped, along with the O2 packs, over the shoulders. Then the pressure shell was assembled. Based on the hardsuits used in very deep industrial sea diving, it kept the user's personal pressure at a comfortable one atmosphere. It was also heavy as all get-out. Despite the internally powered skeletons, every time she put one on, Helen felt like a clunky monster from outer space.
But it was all necessary. The best simulations they had suggested that a person exposed to Venus's surface temperature and pressure would flash-burn a split second before any remaining chemical residue was squashed flat. Finally, Helen locked down her helmet. The edges of the faceplate lit up with the various monitor readouts and the control icons. Helen had never liked the icons. They were line-of-sight controlled and she found them clumsy to use. Adrian looped the standard tool belt around her waist and stood back.
"Check one, check one, Dr. Failia." Adrian's voice came through her helmet's intercom. Following routine, Helen waved her hand in front of her suit's chest camera. "Reading you, Scarab Fourteen," she said. The monitors in each hardsuit were slaved to the scarab for earliest possible detection of mechanical trouble.
"And we have you, Dr. Failia," replied Adrian, glancing at the wall monitors. "Check two, check two, Dr. Godwin." The routine was repeated with Ben and Michael. Helen leaned against the wall and tried not to think too much about what waited outside. The picture had burned itself into her mind. It was an artificial structure, no question there. She couldn't wait until the rest of the solar system saw it. Good God, they'd say, there was somebody else out here or there had been. Her Venus, her beautiful, misunderstood twin to Earth, housed or had housed intelligent life. . . . Steady Helen. Remember, you still don't know anything.
The checks on Ben and Michael's suits came up green, and Adrian let them all move into the airlock. He swung the hatch shut behind them. The suits maintained pressure for their inhabitants, but the airlock had to equalize the pressure inside and outside before the hatch would open. That meant pumping the room up to a full ninety atmospheres worth of pressure.
As the pump started chugging, Ben turned toward Helen. "Well, it's either aliens or the biggest practical joke in human history."
"If we open it up and a bunch of those springy worms fly out, we'll know, right?" said Michael, carefully bending his knees to sit on a bench he couldn't quite see.
"Would they fly out, under pressure?" asked Helen. "Or would they just sort of pop and bounce?"
"That's one for Ned and the atmospherics people." Michael's hands moved restlessly, tapping against his thighs to some internal rhythm.
There seemed to be nothing else to say. Each of them lapsed into silence, thinking their own thoughts, making their own calculations or dreaming of their own futures. It took about fifteen minutes to pressurize the airlock. Right now, it felt like hours.
But finally the gauges all blinked green. Ben worked the levers on the outer hatch and swung it open.
"Good luck, Team Fourteen," came Adrian's voice.
One by one the governing board stepped out onto the glowing Venusian surface. Helen had never been so aware of being watched-monitored by her suit, overseen by Adrian and all Scarab Fourteen's cameras, followed by her colleagues, tracked by Derek's drones, which sat dormant on their own little treads, a short distance from the target object.
She took refuge in chatter. She activated the general intercom icon. "Failia to Scarab Fourteen," she said. "Are you receiving?"
"Receiving loud and clear, Dr. Failia," answered Adrian. "Our readings say all suits green and go."
"All green and go out here," she returned. "Except Dr. Godwin forgot the marshmallows."
"That was on your to-do list, Helen," shot back Ben. Helen smiled. That had been an early experiment. The marshmallow exposed to the Venusian atmosphere had not roasted, however. It had scrunched up and vaporized. The egg they'd attempted to fry on the rock had exploded.
The memory spread a smile across Helen's face and made it easier to concentrate on the way in front of her. The cracks in the crust could be wide enough to catch a toe in, sending a person tumbling down in a most undignified fashion and wasting time while they were helped back to their feet-if their suit held up to the fall. If it didn't, there'd be nothing left to help up.
Helen dismissed that thought but held her pace in check with difficulty. She did not want to waste any more time. She wanted to sprint on ahead, but she had to settle for a slow march.
Still, they got steadily closer to the target. The closer they got, the more obvious it became that the object had to be artificial. It was indeed perfectly circular. The smooth sides rose about a half meter out of the rock. A series of smaller spheres protruded from it. For a moment, the three of them all lined up in front of the thing, examining it in reverent silence.
"Okay." The word came out of Michael like a sigh. "What's the procedure? Measure it first?"
"Measure it first," said Helen.
Slowly, Helen, Michael, and Ben circled the target in a strange, clumsy dance, recording everything yet again and measuring all of it. Yes, the drones had technically done all of this, but that was the machine record. This was the human record, and they needed it to help prove that this object was not just the result of some computer graphics and hocus-pocus. The shaft was exactly forty-four centimeters in height and one and a half meters in diameter. A second, apparently separate section rested on or was attached to the top. That section was also one and a half meters in diameter but was only ten centimeters thick. Small, spherical protrusions, each appearing to be ten centimeters across, were attached to the sides of the upper section (like somebody'd stuck a half-dozen oranges there, Ben noted), equally spaced at sixty-degree intervals and attached by some undetermined means. A small circle, eight point three centimeters in diameter, had been inscribed three point six-four centimeters from the outer edge of the top section.
"Well, you're the expert, Ben," said Helen. "Is it or is it not naturally occurring?"
Ben's helmet turned toward her. "You're kidding, right, Helen?"
"No, I'm not." Helen remained immobile. "I want this all for the record." "Okay, then." There came a brief shuffling noise that might have been Ben shrugging inside his suit. "In my opinion, based on the observations of the previous robotic investigation and my own two eyes, this is not a naturally occurring formation."
"To my knowledge, no one on Venera Base has ever authorized construction of such an object," added Helen.
"Are you going to open it, Helen, or can I go ahead?" Michael asked mildly. Helen bit her lip. Part of her wanted to call down a whole team to swarm over the thing, analyzing every molecule before they did anything else. She told herself that was the good scientist part of herself. The truth was somewhat less flattering.
I'm afraid: of what we're doing, of what might, or might not, happen next. "If you want to try, Michael, be my guest." Helen stepped back, hoping no one realized she was giving in to the private fear that bubbled, unwelcome, out of the back of her mind.
Michael walked around the hatch. He ran his fingers over the small circle set flush against the lid. He walked around the shaft again. Finally, he grasped two of the protrusions and leaned to the right.
The hatch slid slowly, unsteadily, sideways. A huge white cloud rushed out. Michael lurched backward.
"Steam?" said Ben incredulously. "There was water in there?" There was no water on the surface of Venus. Some particles in the clouds, but other than that, nothing.
"No analysis on that," came back Adrian. "Sorry." "Not your fault," murmured Helen.
The cloud evaporated, and they all bent over the dark shaft. A tunnel sank straight into the bedrock. Their helmet lights shone on the bottom about four, maybe five, meters down. The first ten centimeters or so of rock around the mouth glowed brightly, but after that, it darkened to a shiny black, shot through with charcoal-gray veins. Thick staples had been shoved into the rock just below the glow-line, making what appeared to be the widely spaced rungs of a ladder.
Five sets of eyes stared. Three cameras recorded the ladder. One recorded the doctors as they waited. Nothing happened. Well, nothing new happened. Helen straightened up and looked at her colleagues. Ben and Michael returned her gaze. She saw the awe tinged with ashamed fear in their eyes and felt a little better.
"All right, gentlemen," she said. "Let's go meet the neighbors." One careful step at a time, she climbed down into the shaft.
What none of them saw, not with their cameras, not with their own eyes, was how one of the outcroppings on the side of Beta Regio crawled a little closer to the hatchway, as if to get a better look.
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