Isoke Ngozi clambered down an old lava flow, the clawed pads of his pressure-suit armor the only thing holding him from crashing down the torturous slope. He had been alone on the mountain for hours.
The faded yellow-gray of the night sky of Venus, unbroken cloud cover tinted orange by the dull glow of the ground, only emphasized that isolation. No one knew exactly where he was. Few knew he was out here at all.
The bulk of the improvised equipment rack he wore warred with his climbing reflexes, but he needed the survival gear, especially the spare pressure tanks. His friends, trapped in their tank-like crawler high on the slopes of this sporadically active volcano, were depending on him to find a support camp at the base of the mountain and start a rescue operation. Whether they could hold out longer than he was in doubt.
Two of his oxygen tanks and one containing hydrogen fuel had been emptied and discarded. The numbers should have been equal. He shared the oxygen with the fuel cell that powered the hydraulics, instrumentation and the cooling system that provided his only active defense against the heat under pressure surrounding him. Only the fuel cell used hydrogen, although in double the quantity of oxygen. His own body was consuming the additional oxygen through the effort of his descent. He was attempting to maintain the greatest pace he could without overexerting himself and wasting that oxygen. Using manual steering with the walker program would cut back on his own consumption, but the robot-control software would not be able to negotiate the broken terrain quickly enough to be of any use.
If he selected fully autonomous navigation, and it ran into a dead end, the computer would begin to trace one edge of traversable territory in an attempt to regain the original course setting. If the way was passable, and Isoke had no assurance of that, the method would work, eventually. Unfortunately, the suit instruments had no ability to detect a navigable route at any great distance or beyond visual obstructions, just as the navigation program lacked the imagination to take shortcuts over unmapped territory.
The only known course, the route of their ascent along a ridge of the mountain, had been cut off by the first eruption, a pair of lateral outbreaks bracketing their position. The meandering alternative the navigator would choose would take far too long. Not only would he be finished but the others as well.
The lava formation spread into a fan over a relatively level area and abruptly gave out. Isoke began a lope on the loose gravel left exposed while trying to keep from slipping. He noticed with alarm that the uncertain footing was causing him to use far more oxygen than he could allow. Reluctantly he slowed to a walk.
The navigator program could handle this stretch. He fed in the course, requested maximum reasonable speed and settled back in his harness. The robot began to run, covering three meters with each low, leaping stride through the dense air. Isoke could see no obstacles ahead, either through his viewport or on his radar display. He checked all his instruments and, though his instincts rebelled, closed his viewport shields against both possible mishaps and the temptation to watch the bounding landscape and wearily succumbed to troubled sleep.
An alarm snapped him into panicky alertness. The window visors flipped open automatically before his vision cleared. He was charging headlong down a crazily tilted wall of bare rock that dropped away sharply to his left. He almost terminated the navigation directive before he realized that the alarm had not been caused by the hair-raising descent. In order to avoid the cliff edge, the robot had been forced to change course.
Isoke silenced the alarm. Almost afraid to watch, he forced himself to endure the plunge. The slope steepened until a second signal sounded. The walker program had finally agreed with his nervous system and was starting to slow the suit down.
Not long afterward, a third warning heralded a sharp change in course. Unable to look for holds, the software was directing the robot along the best path it could handle, in this case, almost back the way he had come.
Isoke canceled the order to the navigator. The machine slowed to a halt. Using the manual controls, he began to climb sideways on the nearly featureless rock in search of a ledge. There was one, a hundred meters below. He angled his way down, picking his footholds with extreme care. The artificial feet seemed suddenly much too large and far away. The rack assembly holding the spare tanks made him feel as if he were strapped into a bookcase. The rough stone left scratches in the protective coating on the arms and legs of his suit but it didn’t matter. By the time the corrosives in the atmosphere could eat through that armor, he and his friends would all have been dead for days, at the least. And if he slipped.... He could spare neither the time nor the effort nor the attention from his careful descent to care. He scrambled painstakingly on. He had just reached the ledge and was trying to catch his breath when there was a rumble on the mountainside far above him.
Isoke had never heard an avalanche before, but he was certain of its identity. He felt equally certain of its path. He was like a beetle pinned to a display card. There was no place to hide on the ledge.
What about below? The ledge formed the top of an overhanging cliff. Kneeling awkwardly beneath his supply rack, Isoke spotted a small crack just below the edge and fired a piton bolt into it. The rumble became a roar. He hooked his belt winch to the padeye and tugged at it. The radar unit clamored for attention. He looked up to see the sky above his hatch viewport transform into a rapidly descending ceiling of broken rock.
Desperately he hurled himself headfirst over the edge of the precipice. The anchor hookup immediately flipped him upright. The spare pressure tanks strained momentarily against the equipment netting, but the improvised restraint held. As Isoke’s hatch rim clanged against the cliff, he remembered to release the safety-cable brake.
A cataract of debris thundered past him as the winch spun out. He dropped like a frightened spider between the two deadly walls, one solid, bleak and unyielding, the other a churning mass of fragments ranging from fine particles carried along by the backwash of the fall to boulders the size of jeeps. He was enveloped in a cloud of swirling dust.
Small rocks began to batter his armor. Isoke realized that the avalanche was spreading by internal turbulence as it fell. He tapped the center of the winch control graphic to halt his descent before he reached a region where larger pieces could strike him.
Before the winch brake could bring him to a full stop, a heavy blow glanced off his shoulder and spun him around. Like a pendulum, he swung dizzily away from the rockfall and as inexorably returned.
He was still trying to drag the winch slide bar to an ascent setting in the wildly spinning suit when a pair of concussions shook him, the first bouncing him high in his harness as the cable sprang back, the next slamming the corner of his forehead against the radar unit.
Inge’s coma had lasted beyond reasonable expectation for spontaneous recovery. Johann nodded. They had been through all this before. This time, the nod was one of agreement. Or acquiescence.
Ed opened a second line into the IV drip.
"If anything goes wrong, whatsoever, I’ll have to go in. If I do, I’ll have to ask you to step out, Johann. Inge would be fully sedated by that point. You won’t be. There are reasons doctors don’t operate on family members. Some things, you should not have to remember.
"Now we find out how much good those exercises did. Johann. Stay with her, near her head. Talk to her. Encourage her to breathe.” Johann needed no further urging. For a few minutes, activity subsided while the other three tried to ignore half of a very private conversation.
“We wish at this time to bring a complaint against some of the Venture employees for stalking some of our employees.”
Here it comes, George thought.
“Could you be more specific?” the Venture lawyer asked.
“What do you mean?” counsel parried.
“I mean,” Henry feigned strained patience, “which of your employees were stalked by which of our employees? How do you know this? What is the basis for your claim? Innuendo hardly justifies litigation.” That last jab had its desired effect.
“Our project executive, present here, was followed to a meeting with a company employee by two men in an old jeep.” He recited the license plate number.
The Venture lawyer turned to the executive in the witness box.
“Could you read the license plate from your conference room?”
“It wasn’t on company property. We were having a dinner meeting.”
“Nice tax deduction, those expensive restaurants.” The executive actually reddened slightly at the implication.
“It wasn’t even a restaurant. It was a sports bar.”
“And you could read the license plate from there?”
“Of course not. I spotted the jeep in the parking lot after the meeting.”
“Was that when you saw who was in the jeep?”
“No one was in the jeep, then. When they left–“
“After coming out of the sports bar?”
“Objection! Leading the witness.”
“Withdrawn. Where did the men come from?”
“The sports bar,” reluctantly.
“Did they try to follow you?”
“Not at that time, but–”
“Did you ever see them try to follow you?”
“Well, no, but they were there. The jeep looked familiar. I didn’t want them to see me in case they were following me, so when the jeep left, I had it followed.” The warning look from counsel came too late.
“So you were stalking them. Did your henchmen, in the process of stalking, discover the identities of our alleged employees?” Another warning look was ignored.
“No, but we have our suspicions.” Gotcha! Save that one for later.
“This is not one of those mystery board games. By the time you get to court, you can’t just suspect; you have to accuse. Do you have actionable grounds for positive identification? Or is this just a fishing expedition?”
The well-dressed executive shifted in his seat but said nothing. The license plate had, in fact, revealed that the jeep was owned by a laundry service, of all things. There must be a connection, of course, but time had not allowed.
The Venture lawyer pretended to let the matter drop.
"Serendipity, can you hear us?”
Twenty seconds for the transmission to reach them, another twenty for the return trip. Add to that the time it took for someone to have picked up in between and say something. The new laser link had not been tried at this range.
“This is Serendipity. We read you loud and clear. Our trajectory is right on course. No real temperature rise, yet. The outer decks are nearly clear of carbon dioxide reaction mass. We’re rigging extra sun shades while we can.”
“Sounds good, Serendipity. We’ll check back with you in twenty-four hours. Call us before then if you need anything.”
That last remark would not be heard for another twenty seconds. The com-tech in Dome One hoped her afterthought would have some psychological value. For the ship preparing to drop past the sun, nothing physical could be done.
No one was around. They were all at a meeting, she had heard. That would give her time. She slipped into the lab, opened the refrigerator, then the sample case. From an insulated carry bag, she pulled the pilfered vials and replaced them in their rack, conveniently hidden beneath the top layer. Quickly, yet without hurrying, she replaced the top rack, closed the case and the refrigerator and slipped back into the corridor. No one noticed her return to her quarters, just as no one would notice that each vial was missing a few drops of microbe-bearing medium.
If anyone thought to search–and why would they?–they would find nothing. Her experiments had already been deployed. They only had to wait.
The door to the improvised brig closed and locked. Finally, he was away from the ridiculous accusations–he was in here the whole time. They had never actually accused him; their faces had said it all. The ‘intervention’ was almost worse. The problem has been fixed. They knew all along he didn’t do it, although he would have liked to.
That was it. The patient could have easily faked the incident at no risk to himself just to get him to let his guard down. Of course. That would explain how someone could get “endangered” in a hospital bed in a ship’s infirmary. Well, if they could fake that, he could simulate letting his guard down.
“Trying to catch up.” The well-dressed executive rarely let his anger show. This was one of those exceptions. “After we leave their remains in the dust, perhaps some of them will begin to understand. We don’t have to catch up. We have different goals, so we were never behind.
“They want to trade casserole dishes for shell knives. Like it was a yard sale. When we own the whole planet, we can sell off their trinkets for mad money. Museums can compete with private collectors. When we can afford our own ships, we can trade real estate leases for high tech. Earth will have no jurisdiction and no vested interest, and, as long as we present no threat, no motive to bother us. We will relieve them of their huddled masses, the poor, smart and willing. Earth will provide us with the means to do so. Also the smart and willing who aren’t so poor. They may have to contribute to their passage. I doubt if Earth will. Oh, we’ll also take the rich and willing. They don’t have to be smart.
“After a while, we won’t need their money. You realize how much of the Earth’s surface can’t be used because of salt water? Well, we won’t have that problem.
“Venture is always talking about spinoffs. Here’s a big one. They sow, we reap.”