Saturday, November 3, 2012

Chapter 3

“I think you owe me the rest of that story,” Joanna said, handing a pouch of coffee to Eric, who had stopped by to chat about the data that had come back from his atmospheric probes. Joanna only understood a little of it, but listened patiently. She’d taken three of the little blue pills that morning, and felt a little distanced from everything around her. She made a mental note to ask the station doctor to adjust the dosage instead of trying to do it herself, and tried to focus.

“Which story?” Eric asked, somewhat confused.

“The whole ‘I was a teenage conspiracy theorist’ story.”

Eric laughed, and the tips of his ears turned pink.  “Ah. Yes. That one. Where did I leave off?”

“I don’t think you ever really got started.”

He sighed, and took a deep draught of coffee. “Alright. When I was younger, I read every space-related conspiracy theory I could find. Ancient astronauts, ruins on other planets, everything. And that stuff sucks you in, one claim at a time. It sounds just plausible enough that you don’t question it too much; after you’ve granted a few of their claims, the others get wilder and wilder, but they sound like they flow logically from the things you’ve already accepted. Especially when you’re a kid. Anyway, by the time I hit college, I knew all the arguments and had even started doing some research of my own. I didn’t really believe the people who said the Sorenson expedition was sent to cover up ancient ruins in Cydonia; that stretched even my highly-flexible credulity. But I was convinced that there was evidence for ancient civilizations around the solar system. I wrote papers about the civilization that must have been annihilated when a mysterious planet was destroyed, forming the asteroid belt.”

Joanna inhaled a sip of coffee, and was lost in a fit of coughing.

“Yes, I know, it’s ludicrous. But it didn’t seem that way at the time. I thought I was a crusader for truth, finding hidden facts in the darkness of corporate greed and governmental need for control.” He smiled ruefully. “Not that those things don’t exist, they just weren’t the cause of my problems. Anyway, I was convinced that any alien ruins would be found on Venus. We can hardly see under that atmosphere, and it’s nearly impossible for us to land anything there, especially if we want it to last longer than a few minutes. A perfect hiding spot, and near enough to Earth to get back and forth fairly easily a few times per year. I had reasons why all of the odd things about Venus, like the backwards rotation, the runaway greenhouse effect, and so forth, were actually proofs that an ancient alien civilization had lived there. Of course, once I got out here, on my first study, it all fell apart. There was nothing here but clouds, rocks, and a planet that had been dead for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer.”

He fell silent for a few moments, sipping at his coffee. Then, he looked toward the door, and whispered, “You know, I miss it sometimes.”

“Miss it? Why?”

“Because I thought I knew where I was in the world, that I knew what was really going on behind everything, and knew the truth. Now? Now I’m just muddling through like everyone. I miss the certainty.”

Joanna mumbled something in response. How is anyone ever that certain, she wondered. I’ve never been certain of anything in my life. Except during the accident, I was certain I was going to die. But even that ended up not being certain at all.

Eric drained the last of his coffee and stuffed the empty pouch into a nearby recycling unit. “Thanks for the coffee! I need to go work on crunching this data so I can get the next test ready.” He turned to go, but paused, and looked over his shoulder. “You won’t tell anyone, right? I mean, it’s not that I buy into any of these ideas anymore, but it’d be better if no-one knew that I’d ever believed them.”

“Of course.”

As Eric left, Joanna pulled up the med station info on her computer. It was late, but perhaps she could make an appointment for the following day. There was one open slot remaining, early in the morning; she reserved it, and unbuckled herself from the chair. I hate the paperwork, she thought as she stretched. This would be a perfect job if all forms filled themselves out.

She locked the equipment room door behind her ; during open hours, anyone with the public code could open the door, but while she was out, only someone with a high-clearance code could get inside. There had been talk of hiring a second person to handle the night shift, but since all equipment requests had to be approved and scheduled in advance, there hadn’t been need. Still, Joanna thought, it would nice to feel like I’m not on call at all hours.

Joanna made her way down the corridor leading to the outer section of the station. It took some getting used to; as the corridor moved away from the central hub of the spinning station, gravity increased, and it became a deep well. The trick, Joanna had learned, was in holding on to the handholds before you felt like you needed them. A fall would start slowly enough that you could right yourself without injury, but it was best not to fall.

She felt the familiar twist in her stomach as the hallway, without changing in appearance, suddenly began to feel very distinctly downwards. Instead of drifting laterally, she was beginning to sink. Most of the temporary station residents chose to sleep in zero-gravity quarters, since the health impact would be low. For station residents, staying anywhere from six to twelve months, sleeping in Mars-gravity quarters was mandatory.

Instead of drifting peacefully, Joanna was now dropping slowly from handhold to handhold, her weight increasing with each meter. As the end of the corridor neared, she grimaced as the weight of her body hung from her arms. She dropped from the last handhold to the floor of the corridor that ran around the rim of the station and turned left to go to her quarters.

When she got back to her quarters, she locked the door behind her, and let out a long breath. Despite being alone most of any given day, she never really felt like she could relax until she was in her own quarters for the night.

She stripped down to the shorts and tank top she wore under her jumpsuit, and shivered as the cold recycled air hit her bare skin. With a quick tug, her bun came down, letting her hair flow across her shoulders. Joanna braided it swiftly and turned on the heater for her room. It wouldn’t be enough to make the room feel toasty—nothing in deep space ever felt completely warm—but it would at least stop the goosebumps that prickled on her arms. She pulled on a simple robe, and looked around the quarters.

In the years since she’d started focusing on stable jobs, Joanna had begun to collect a few choice items that could be taken to nearly any deep-space station; it wasn’t exactly what her mother would have called a real home, but it was close. Most of her book collection was on her computer, but a few well-worn volumes rested on a shelf, along with a handful of curios from some of the more interesting places she’d visited. A small snowglobe model of Andronivi City on Vesta, a carved ferrous figurine from a small asteroid mining colony, nothing so large it couldn’t be easily packed away for her next move. She had an apartment on Mars, of course, but rarely lived there for more than a few weeks at a time between jobs; this arrangement of belongings, in any space, was home now.

Joanna grabbed her computer and pulled up the book she was reading. She sat on the bed somewhat awkwardly; it took time to readjust to gravity at the end of a day. She read until her eyes began to close, then turned out the light and slept.

She could see the gap just ahead. She’d seen worse breaches, but this was bad enough. She moved forward carefully, keeping an eye on the jagged edges of metal surrounding the breach. The hole was big enough to fit two people through with ease.

She clamped her toolbox to the wall with a magnet and opened it. As she drew out the sander, she felt a tremor go through the interior wall. She turned her head to look, but only caught a blur as the wall exploded outward. Her forehead hit the glass of her helmet, and she saw stars.

Floating in the black, she saw a million white-hot points of light, rushing at her from all directions. A streak of blood on the inside of her helmet turned a few of them red. She gasped for air, saw the crack in the helmet, and felt cold all over. She twisted around, saw the station behind her, the brightly-lit hull breach pouring atmosphere out into nothingness. Saw a rip in the arm of her suit and felt the cold fill the suit.

Then, a sharp tug at her back, and she was moving toward the station again, though facing back out into nothing. Her lungs ached, and her fingers felt like brittle sticks. She felt herself be pulled back through the breach, felt the sharp edges clutching at her suit…

Joanna woke, gasping for air, holding back a scream. The dream, again. It had been months since the last time; being so near the open airlock, even behind a door, must have triggered it. She sat for a long time in the dark, breathing and flexing her hands. She tried the breathing exercises her first psychiatrist had recommended, and felt her heart rate slow.

She bent forward and rested her head on her knees. The first time the dream had come, it had been months after the accident; she’d been terrified, unable to sleep for fear of finding herself back in that corridor.

Joanna tapped her computer and checked the time. 2:18am, standard station time. A good four hours before her usual waking time. She groaned and pulled herself out of bed, wrapping her robe around her to ward off the chill of the air. She knew from long experience that it would be worthless to try to go back to sleep, and resigned herself to a very long day.

The thought of coffee drew her out of her quarters. After slipping into a clean jumpsuit and pulling on her boots, Joanna made her way out of her quarters and up the corridor that lead to the interior sections of the station. As she moved upward, the gravity lessened and she found herself drifting easily forward. She debated going to her own office for coffee, but the thought of another plastic-tasting brew was less than appealing at such an early hour. She turned down the corridor and headed for the cafeteria.

As she passed the door to the archival room, Joanna saw a light in the window. She hesitated, telling herself that it would be a much better idea just to keep moving, but found herself unable to keep from looking in.

There was something inherently strange in seeing a middle-aged man in slacks and a sweater vest floating between stacks of computer drives; Joanna thought it would have been less strange if he’d worn the jumpsuit that the majority of the residents wore. As it was, he looked like some odd magical character out of an old children’s book.

Joanna was about to move on when Carson looked up and spotted her through the glass. With a smile, he waved her inside; she groaned inside, regretting the impulse to stop and look in. Too late now. She punched the public-access code into the keypad and opened the door.

“You’re up awfully late, Joanna,” Carson said as she entered. “Or is it early?”

“I could say the same about you. I didn’t think the archives were open at this hour.”

“Technically, they’re not. But no-one ever comes by, so I don’t bother locking the door. And I’m here because here is more interesting than my quarters.”

“Don’t you ever sleep?”

He shrugged. “Not much. Five or six hours at a stretch. I’ve been told that when I was young, I decided that sleep was very boring, and decided not to engage in more of it than was strictly necessary.” He paused and looked up from his computer. “You look as if you’ve had a rough night. I can make tea, if you’d like.”

A voice in the back of Joanna’s head told her that she knew better than to accept, but she ignored it. “Tea would be wonderful. Caffeinated, if you have it.”

He fiddled with a machine that looked almost identical to her own coffee infuser, and in a few moments, handed her a teardrop-shaped cylinder full of amber liquid.

“Ah, a real cup,” she smiled.

“What passes for one here, anyway,” he said, using a small tube to add tea to another cup. “Most people think the pouches are more convenient, but I can’t stand the plastic taste they add.”

“How much of your space allowance did these take up?” Joanna sipped the tea carefully; the shape of the cup allowed the liquid to be wicked up the narrow edge of the cylinder while the surface tension kept it from sloshing.

“Too much, probably, but we all have our own priorities.” A silent moment passed, in which Joanna forced herself not to notice how nice his shirt looked.

“Having trouble sleeping, then?” Carson asked, draining the last of his tea, and putting the cup inside a mesh bag on the wall to keep it from floating around the room.

Joanna nodded. “Bad dreams. An old one, nothing I can’t deal with. But I know I won’t sleep again tonight, so I was headed to the cafeteria to get something hot. Thanks for the tea, again. It’s a lot better than a premix.”

“Much better. This dream, you say you’ve had it often. Would it help to retell it, or would that only make things worse?”

“Oh, neither. I’ve been over it with a psychiatrist, and it doesn’t scare me anymore. Just crops up from time to time, and pumps enough adrenaline into my system that I can’t go back to sleep.” She hesitated, then took a deep breath.

“I was twenty-six, and I’d signed aboard the Clytemnestra. She was a deep-space research ship, and I had gotten a job on board as a mechanic and engineer. A chance meteoroid struck the outside of the ship and gouged the hull. I was part of the crew sent to do repairs. There was a weak seam on the interior wall of the corridor, which no-one knew about. Just as I got near the breach, that weak seam ruptured. It blasted me through the breach, and into space. We always followed safety procedures, so I was wearing my tether. The rest of the crew was able to haul me back inside, but my suit had been damaged. When I woke up in the infirmary later, the doctors told me I had suffered damage from the cold and lack of oxygen. It all healed, eventually, but it took months of physical therapy to get back to normal. By the end of it, I’d decided I was getting too old to be putting myself in those kinds of situations anymore, and started looking for jobs with a distinct lack of access to the vacuum.” She wrapped her hands around the rapidly cooling cup, trying to soak up the last of the warmth. “In these dreams, I’m back in that hallway, walking toward that breach. Every time, I know what’s going to happen, but I can’t stop it, and I’m blown through that hole again.”

“That’s terrible,” Caron said softly.

Joanna shrugged. “It happens. I was very lucky. No lasting physical damage, except this.” She touched the scar above her eye. “Most people who spend time in the vacuum aren’t so lucky. I’ve worked through it with a psychiatrist, I’m not scared of space. I just get the dreams once in a while.” Suddenly self-conscious, she handed him her empty cup. “I’m sorry, I’ve been blabbing on. I should let you head to your quarters.”

“It’s no problem. I rarely get visitors in here, and it’s nice to have a little company. I don’t mind listening.”

“Thanks for the tea.” Joanna slipped out of the door, and let out a deep breath. That visit had been a mistake. She checked the time. 2:53am. Four hours til her appointment. The time couldn’t pass quickly enough.

“I can up your dose a little bit,” Dr. Harris said as she adjusted Joanna’s prescription in her computer. “But I’d advise against it. This only suppresses the physiological causes of your feelings, but it won’t negate them. You’re going to have to work through them on your own.”

“Oh, I know,” Joanna said. “But this should help me focus while I do it.”

Dr. Harris nodded, then clipped her computer to her belt and turned to face Joanna. “Ms. Regent, from one woman to another, maybe you should just consider telling this person how you feel. Clear the air.”

“That…is never going to happen. It’s unprofessional, and the last thing I want is to be stuck on a station for months with someone I’ve made a fool of myself to.” She smiled, and made her way back out to the main corridor, making a mental note to pick up her new prescription as soon as possible.

As she neared the equipment room, she saw several groups of people in the corridor, hunched over computers. There was a tension in the air that sent a chill down her spine.

Montse looked up from one group, and waved her over. “Have you seen the news?”

Joanna shook her head. “No, I had a doctor’s appointment. What’s happening?” She bent over the computer, trying to make sense of the video feed.

On the screen, a white plume of smoke stretched from the ground to the sky; it was indistinct near the edges, and Joanna knew the launch must have been at least twenty minutes past. A crowd milled around, obscuring the base of the cloud, and a reporter struggled to keep on his mark in the midst of the crush.

“If you are just joining us now,” he shouted, trying to drown out the noise around him, “the Hermes-class supply shuttle, Titan, has been overtaken by protestors following its launch here a few minutes ago. Those in control of the shuttle claim to be from the protest organization KERR, Keep Earth Resource Rich. The KERR officials we’ve been able to contact deny that they are behind this, and we will have a statement from them shortly. The Titan launched without incident, but all communications went silent forty seconds after they achieved orbit. One message, proclaiming KERR’s responsibility for the attack, came through, but mission control has been unable to receive any further information. At this time, we do not know what the protestors plans are for the shuttle. They have not yet deviated from the original flight path, and the ship appears to be preparing to leave orbit on its supply run to the Haephestus, orbiting Venus.”

Joanna tapped the screen, and the video disappeared. “Turn it off.”

As someone in the group began to protest, she held up a hand. “We don’t know anything right now. It’ll take them hours to find out what’s going on, and that’s if they work quickly. Even if they are still headed for us, that’s a three week journey at maximum burn. Right now, all we’re going to get is speculation and panic. Keep it off, wait for the real news to trickle through.”

The station public announcement system whispered to life, and everyone turned to look at the nearest speaker.

“Station-wide bulletin: the supply shuttle Titan has been attacked and may be under the control of a rogue group of uncertain origin. At this time, we do not anticipate any interruption to our supply schedule. Please keep calm and do not spread rumors that may lead to panic. We will keep you informed of verified information as we receive it. Thank you.”

As the speakers faded into silence, the people in the corridor glanced at each other, and Joanna saw fear in every glance. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chapter 2

As Joanna had predicted, Montse Cordero, the young robotics specialist on crew, stopped by an hour later. Montse was twenty-two, a recent graduate of an Earth-based university, which was rare on an orbital station. Joanna and most of the crew had been born on Mars, and had a higher tolerance for zero-gravity environments. But the agency had no qualms in picking talent over experience, and there was no question that Montse was one of the best robotics specialist Joanna had worked with. She was short, which was always an advantage in cramped station spaces, and had medium length brown hair. Dark brown eyes looked out from behind glasses, and she had an open smile. She’d arrived on the station a month before.

“Nothing looks off in any of your equipment,” Joanna said, pulling over the large robotic probe that would deliver Eric’s sensors to the upper atmosphere of Venus. “But I thought you’d probably want to check it for yourself.”

Montse plugged a small cord into a jack on the robot, and looked at the data streaming to her computer screen. “I like to run some quick  tests each time. Better to lose a robot than a life, but I’d rather avoid losing the bot, too.”

As Montse entered commands into the computer, the bot twitched, servos whirring, and several complex metal parts moved. Joanna wasn’t familiar enough with the design to be sure what actions the bot was performing, but the motions were smooth with no hesitation, which was always a good sign. Montse seemed satisfied, and signed off on the release check-up. “Everything looks good. Do you want to come watch the drop later?”

“I don’t know if I’ll have time, but I’ll try. I haven’t seen this bot in action yet.” Joanna made notes in her system and marked the equipment as checked-out. “That should do it. So, how are you adjusting to life on the Haephestus?”

“I’m doing alright,” the young woman replied. “I did some zero-g work in college, of course, but nothing more than a week or two. Sometimes I just want to feel the ground under my feet. And sleeping in Mars gravity is weird; I keep feeling like I’m going to fall off my bed. But I love living where something’s always happening, and being able to look out of the window right into space.”

Joanna smiled, remember her first deep-space job on a supply run around the Asteroid Belt. She’d felt the same way, often spending hours just staring out of the window at the unmoving star field.

“Glad to hear you’re settling in,” she said. “I’ll try to stop by the dock later to watch the drop.”

The rest of the morning was full of mundane tasks, equipment checks, and the constant stream of paperwork that every job required. She had just finished filling out a checklist for equipment that had been returned when the sound of the door opening made her look up.

Though the hormone suppressants had been working for hours, seeing that tall frame step through the door still made Joanna’s heart skip a beat, and she swore under her breath. “Hello Carson, what can I help you with today?”

Archivist Carson Reich would have fit in any library in the pre-digital age, except for the tablet computer that was constantly clipped to his belt. He notoriously disliked the standard jumpsuit that most of the crew wore for ease and comfort, preferring to wear a simple button-down shirt and pants. In spite of a larger-than-average figure, he moved through the cramped station corridors with a certain grace.

He smiled and raised a hand in greeting. “I wanted to check and make sure everything is set to send copies of data to my files for this afternoon’s drop. I’ve had some trouble with data getting corrupted lately, and I want to make sure I get everything on record.”

Joanna moved away from the desk to get a diagnostics computer. “Sure, but isn’t every thing recorded on Montse and Eric’s equipment anyway?”

“It is, but I hate relying on only one source. Better to have the backup if something goes wrong.” He unclipped his computer and unlocked the screen, handing it to Joanna to hook up to the diagnostics computer. She plugged it in and began running the program.

“That’s reasonable,” she commented, desperately trying to find something to say that wasn’t restating the obvious. “I was thinking of watching the drop this afternoon; Montse seems really excited about it.”

“I’d be excited, too, if I was twenty-two and had a big deep-space job dropping robots into the atmosphere of that hellhole of a planet.”

“And at… not twenty-two?”

“At forty, I am glad I have a job that does not require me to ever look at the upper atmosphere of any planet.” The machine beeped, and Carson peered over her shoulder at his computer’s screen.

“Everything looks fine,” Joanna said, trying to hold her breathing steady. “All the connections to the main system are solid, and you’re receiving a strong signal from the atmospheric equipment. You should get all of the data without any problem.” She unplugged the computer jack, and handed the device back.

“Excellent.” He clipped the computer back to his belt and checked to make sure that it was secure. “Maybe I’ll watch the drop myself. It’s not often I see the day-to-day operations here, except as raw data to store in the archives.” He smiled and pushed off against the floor, sailing neatly through the open doorway. As soon as he vanished, Joanna buckled herself into the chair at her desk and rubbed her temples.

To distract herself, she pulled up the news feed on her computer and began to scan through it. Nothing much new on Mars. Spirit City dome was under maintenance, but that wasn’t unusual. It seemed they were always repairing some part of the dome, making travel difficult in certain sections of the city. A new dome was going up in the southern hemisphere, and the development was being protested by some group. Someone always took offense to any development or improvement. Joanna sighed, and tabbed over to Earth news.

She rarely checked Earth news; Mars was home, and often, had the more interesting news. Earth news always seemed to be full of protests, fighting over resources, and celebrity scandals. But on a station financed by and supplied from Earth, it was a good idea to have a basic idea of what was happening.

Sure enough, the news feed was dominated by coverage of a new protest that had erupted in the past week. One of the videos was an on-site interview with a protestor. The young man’s eyes blazed with purpose as he shouted into the reporter’s microphone to be heard above the din. “All these off-world colonies take too many of our resources, we need to stop spreading ourselves through space! We’ll just wreck those other worlds the way we destroyed this one! Keep people away from other planets, keep our resources here!”


Joanna looked up to see Eric floating towards her. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you come in.”

He shrugged. “Just stopped by on my way to drop the probes. Earth news?”

“Yeah. Same-old, same-old.”

“Mars has been self-sustaining for nearly fifty years now, when do you think they’ll ever catch on? Hell, Mars sends the supplies for most of the asteroid colonies now, Earth only supplies a few deep space missions that are close by.” He grimaced. “Not that I should be talking; I believed some incredibly dumb stuff when I was that old. I never went to any kind of protest, but I certainly made a fool of myself all over the internet.”

Joanna laughed. “Don’t we all?”

“Not that badly. You see, I was…well, I called myself an ‘independent researcher’ but a more accurate term would be ‘conspiracy theorist.’ I was absolutely convinced that there was evidence for ancient alien civilizations spread throughout our solar system. Artifacts on Earth, funny marks on other planets, the whole shebang.” He looked sheepish.

“I thought the ‘pyramids of Mars’ groups died out after the Sorenson expedition to Cydonia?”

Eric shook his head. “Rationality is not a big part of these ideas. They insisted that the evidence had been there once, and the Sorenson expedition actually went to destroy the evidence, not uncover it. They shifted their focus to Venus. It’s much harder to disprove things here, because it’s so damn hard to see the surface.” He checked the time. “And I will have to finish that story another time, because I have an appointment with the atmosphere in a half-hour.” He waved as he sailed out the door.

Joanna’s eyes flicked back to the frozen video on her computer. It was hard to picture mild-mannered Eric as a young firebrand, determined to believe whatever he wanted, even in the teeth of the evidence. It was hard to picture. She debated finishing the video, but decided that she’d heard enough and scrolled past it to the accompanying text.

“New organization KERR, Keep Earth Resource-Rich, claims that they have a wide-ranging protest planned. KERR officials state that they are a peaceful organization, and that all protests will be violence-free, but police in protest areas have been put on alert.”

Twenty-five minutes later, Joanna sailed down the corridor outside the equipment room; there were no more schedule equipment pick-ups for the day, but she’d left a message on the locked door with information on how to contact her. The corridor was quiet, since most workers were at their posts and shift change was hours away. Other sections of the station, those with paid travelers, might be more lively, but those customers never came to the main corridors. Joanna was glad she didn’t work in a section of the Haephestus where she would have to interact with the “tourists.” Of course, most of the paid travelers were visiting scientists, doing temporary work aboard the station, not real tourists, but Joanna didn’t see much difference. Visiting somewhere was different from living and working there.

 The docking and launching area was at the very center of the station; Joanna had visited several times to supervise equipment in use, but tried to avoid it when possible. As she neared the airlock, she unconsciously traced the scar over her eye.

She checked the airlock schedule to see which one would be used for the drop, and made her way to the correct airlock. Montse and Eric were already inside, with the probe hooked up to a series of cables dangling from the ceiling. Montse waved excitedly, and Joanna smiled and waved back. The young woman made a final adjustment and exited the lock, followed by Eric. “You’re just in time, we just finished hooking Spark up for the drop.”

“Spark?” Joanna raised an eyebrow.

Montse blushed, and nodded. “Just my nickname for it. Scientific Parachute And Recovery Kinetics, technically. But, Spark, like from an anvil, because Haephestus was a blacksmith…” Her voice trailed off as she finished the convoluted explanation.

“It’s a good name,” Joanna said, moving to the thick window in the airlock door. “Are you ready for the drop?”

“All systems go for the probes,” Eric said, tapping his computer. “Signal strong, winds are within normal range.”

“Spark’s a go,” Montse replied.

“On your mark then.”

Montse reached out and punched a command into the airlock keypad. With a whoosh, the air was sucked out and the small room turned into a vacuum. Another code, and the doors in the floor slid open. Through the window, Joanna could see the upper atmosphere of Venus roiling brightly beneath them. It looked almost soft and fluffy, but it covered one of the most hostile environments in the solar system, more hazardous to the human body than deep space itself. Joanna shivered and turned to look at the robot as it released itself from the cables that restrained it.

In the zero gravity environment, the robot seemed to hover in the airlock; Montse tapped a command into her computer and a small series of jets fired on the bot, sinking it slowly through the doors and out into the space between the station and the planet.

Joanna grabbed her own computer and pulled a view from one of the station’s public external cameras. She could see the bot silhouetted against the bright atmosphere, sinking slowly. The jets fired occasionally, increasing its speed.

Montse concentrated on controlling the robot. “I swear, this planet is so weird. The winds are insane.”

“If there’s a hell, Venus is it,” Eric agreed. “Just be glad I’m not asking you to land anything on the surface yet.”

“I have a surface landing next week, actually. Got a set of three rovers to go down. It’s a tricky mission. Don’t remind me.”

Joanna let the chatter fade into the background as she watched the camera. The robot was just a dot now. The jets had been stripping it of the lateral speed that it had while aboard the station, and slowing it so that it wouldn’t get crushed by entering the thick atmosphere of Venus. Finally, it was lost to the view of the Haephestus’ camera, and she looked at Montse’s screen. The video feed was from a small camera onboard the robot. It was hard to tell much from the images, but she could see the view slowly grow murkier as the robot dropped through the atmosphere.

“Ok, we’re at the top of the drop range now,” Montse said, turning to Eric. “Releasing the first probe…now. Second probe…now. Third probe…now.” With each count, she tapped the screen, and the robot’s camera jolted with the ejection of the probe capsules.

Eric was focused on his own screen, tapping commands. “All three probes are clear of Spark, signals still strong. Activating parachutes…1…2…3… All chutes are deployed, systems nominal. Descent rate is nice and slow. Receiving data.”

“Anything interesting?” Joanna asked.

“Can’t really tell, it’s just numbers for now. When I get back to my workstation, I can sort it all out and put it into context, and find out.”

Joanna pushed aside a thought of the same data flowing into Carson’s archives, and focused on the screen. “How long before the probes drop past your target area?”

“About fifteen minutes. They’ve got big parachutes, and the atmo’s getting denser, so it’ll take a little while.”

Eric fell silent, watching his screen; Montse punched commands into her computer, summoning the robot back. “I have to stay here until our next orbit, so I can retrieve Spark,” she said. “But you guys don’t have to stay. It’s going to be another hour and a half.”

Eric didn’t move, but Joanna nodded. “I need to get back to the equipment room. Thanks for inviting me, Montse, let me know when you’re ready to check Spark back in.”

She turned and pulled herself back down the corridor towards the equipment room, but paused. There had been no calls in the hour she was gone, and no check-ins scheduled until Montse brought Spark back in a few hours. Another half-hour of the equipment room would make no difference. She ducked into a smaller corridor and made her way to another part of the station.
It was the only part of the “luxury” section of the ship she didn’t avoid. All station crew were permitted access to these areas as part of their pay, but Joanna rarely took advantage of the privilege. Zero-gravity swimming and gymnastics didn’t interest her, but this section of the station had the media rooms.

Joanna found one of the smallest rooms and locked the door behind her. A computer near the door displayed a touchscreen menu, and she flipped through it quickly, looking for something that suited her mood. As she made her selection, the lights in the room dimmer, and she let herself float freely.

The hidden speakers in the walls whispered to life, and for a moment, Joanna was suspended in an active silence; then the music swelled around her, surrounding her floating form. The choir on the recording belted out, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!” She felt the tenseness leave her back and shoulders, and stretched out in the darkness as if trying to touch the music.

“Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle, Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!”

For the first time all day, Joanna relaxed.

Chapter 1

The square of golden light moved slowly across the floor as the station rotated along its vertical axis. Joanna floated a meter above the floor, arm hooked through a handhold on the wall, eyeing the corridor. If you paused long enough, she knew, you could see the light move as the station turned. She liked to watch the movement of the station at least once a day; the inexorable motion was reassuring.

As she watched, a yellow arc cut through the blackness outside the window, gradually increasing in size. The edges were indistinct, almost fuzzy. Swirls of faint colors streaked through the atmosphere. Venus was just over four hundred kilometers away, but it looked close enough to reach out and touch. Though the windows appeared clear, Joanna knew that they had been specially treated to block out a great deal of the planet’s light, and the radiation that came with it.

She shook off the hypnosis of the slow movement of the station, and made her way down the corridor, pushing off walls with her feet and occasionally grabbing a handhold to adjust her velocity.

Joanna Regent was thirty-seven, older than average for a position on a research station, and today, she felt every one of those years. As she made her way to the compartment she called her office, she wondered how long she would be content at this job. Head of the equipment locker, she oversaw the usage of all scientific and engineering equipment that wasn’t physically connected to the station at all times. It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, but the pay was good, it was safer than most jobs aboard the station, and you couldn’t argue with that view.

As she neared the equipment locker, she passed several people headed out to the rim of the station where the sleeping compartments were. Night shift. She knew a few people who worked the night shift, but hadn’t seen any of them yet that day. Not that that was unusual. In a station this size, you could go for a week without seeing someone who was on a different shift.

Joanna slowed to a halt in front of a large metal door marked “Equipment Room: access limited.” She punched a code into a keypad set into the wall beside the door, and turned the handle. It creaked loudly in the mostly-silent corridor, and she made a mental note to ask maintenance to fix it. Again.

The room was cold and dark; Joanna punched a button near the door, and the lights flickered on. She could hear the faint rumble of the heating system, and smiled. “Good morning, Joanna. Welcome to another lovely day above Venus.”

She did a check of the equipment; even a cursory check took over an hour, due to the sheer number of items in the room, which was little more than a storage compartment with electricity and heating. She checked each piece of equipment off her list, and pulled up the list of equipment that had been requested for the day. There were the usual scientific instruments and tools used in the daily operations of the station, but one request stood out. Joanna made a note.

After ensuring that the equipment was ready to be checked out, she floated over to the center of the room. A small desk had been bolted to the floor, and Joanna strapped herself into the chair. She wouldn’t have minded floating free during the day, but if a desk had been provided, she had no problem with using it.

She opened one of the drawers and pulled out a small mirror. She checked her appearance: passable. Joanna had flyaway red hair that she kept pulled back in a practical bun, an oval face that showed the usual pallor of someone who worked in space stations and rarely saw the sun without several sheets of radiation-proof glass in between. She’d long ago given up trying to hide the slowly-growing wrinkles around her eyes, and had never minded the odd silver hair that decided to show up amongst the red. She brushed her fingers against the old scar above her right eyebrow. After the accident, she’d tried to cover it up, but over the years, she’d stopped bothering. It was part of her face now.

She set the mirror back in the drawer, hearing the clang as the magnetic strip on the back of the mirror held it to the metal. Enough of that, she thought. Time to get to work. She unhooked a piece of equipment from its place and began to work.

Joanna was still working on the sensor when the door opened and a young man pulled himself into the room.

“Good morning, Eric. Doing some atmospheric studies today?” She secured the part she was repairing with an elastic strap before leaving the desk.

He nodded. “This whole week, actually. The blue absorbers are increasing, and it looks like they’ll keep it up for awhile. I want to get a probe down there to catch the storm.”

“That explains the balloon system. Those are tricky; I assume you’re familiar with how to use them?”

Eric laughed. “Use them? I helped develop this particular version. I’ll be fine.”

“Excellent. I’ve sent you the checklist to go over before I release the equipment; as soon as that’s done, you can be on your way.”

She went back to work on the malfunctioning sensor while Eric checked the equipment. As soon as he approved the state of the tools, her computer beeped to let her know that the document had been approved.

“Alright, everything is good to go. Want a bag of coffee before you head out?” Joanna nodded toward a small cupboard on the wall; several empty drink pouches hung from a hook.

“I’d hate to be any trouble.”

“No trouble at all, I was about to get one myself.” Joanna unbuckled herself from the chair and pushed off against the desk. Taking two pouches, she hooked them into a small box that sat against the wall. At the flick of a switch, a light blinked, and the machine began to hum. A few minutes later, the pouches filled with coffee, and steamed in the cold recycled air. Joanna unhooked both and made her way back to the desk, handing one of the pouches to Eric. “Hard for me to start the day without it, so I always have plenty on hand.”

He took a sip from his coffee and smiled. “I never bothered to get coffee onto my import list. Too many other things I need, and there’s just not enough space. Might have to change that, though; this is the best thing I’ve tasted since I came aboard.”

“That’s, what, 2 months now? I know you started not too long after me,” Joanna commented. “This is your first zero-g stretch, I think.”

“That much is obvious. I don’t think I’ve gone a day without crashing into a wall or ceiling. Half the time, I’m not even sure of the difference between the two anymore.” Eric wrapped his hands around the bag. “I can’t get used to the cold. I’ve been on polar cap expeditions on Mars, but I eventually got warm, especially when I was hiking and moving around. But no matter how much I work here, it just feels colder.”

“It’s the sun,” Joanna said. “Or the lack of it. Since everything is so well-protected against the radiation coming from Venus, very little sunlight gets through. Makes it feel colder than it normally would. You should spend some time in one of the sun rooms, it’ll help.”

Eric nodded, and capped the drink pouch before clipping it to his belt. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the coffee, I’ve got to run. I need to get this stuff ready to go in the next three hours.”

As he closed the door behind him, silence settled back over the equipment room, save for the beeps of a few machines. Joanna let herself float toward the ceiling, and stretched. If Eric Alpert was doing an atmosphere drop today, then Montse would be by soon to check her own robotics. And Carson would want to make sure all the data was being copied into his archives.

She ran a hand over her forehead. The forty-year-old archivist always unsettled her. It was nothing about his behavior; he was pleasant, intelligent, and she enjoyed chatting with him when she encountered him in the course of her job. No, the discomfort came from the feelings she had recently noticed after an ordinary conversation. Joanna never lived in one place on-world long enough to develop a relationship there, and she was sure she didn’t want to have a relationship with a coworker when they were both on board a station with no way out for a few months if everything went badly. It was unprofessional, and she had no time for that. She couldn’t do much about the emotions themselves, but she could cut off the physical causes.

Joanna checked her watch, and took a small pillbox out of her belt. She palmed two small blue pills and swallowed them dry. That would take care of the hormones for another twelve hours. Enough to get through the day.

She hooked the harness on the chair with one foot, pulled herself down toward the desk, and got back to work.