A Life on Air

“A Life on Air”

by D. A. D’Amico

The snub triangular jet flipped, banking against intensely bright Venusian clouds before leveling out. Jaundiced rain peppered the forward cameras. Powerful winds wrenched the wings, tilting the craft as the charred titanium sphere came into view.

“This is your last chance, rookie. We’re sliding off the grid.” Ricky Zhao’s low voice and thick accent sounded garbled in Amrisha’s headset, but the little image in her HUD smiled.

“Copy that.” She tapped her training screen, watching the readouts as she swung her jet around.

“Snag the package this time, or I’m gonna have to show you how it’s done.” Ricky’s jet tilted ninety degrees and cut through a patch of cloud the color of beaten gold. Amrisha tensed, but followed in his wake.

She’d trained in these jets back on Earth. She knew the systems, understood the principles, but her training had been a requirement, not a choice. She felt uneasy in the cockpit. She felt as if there’d been a mistake, and somehow, she was stuck with it.

“Third time’s a charm,” she sighed.

“Better be. This is no place to run out of fuel.”

Hezuo Base had drifted beyond their visual range, and the hundred-meter per second wind this high up in the Venusian troposphere would push it past the scope of their fuel supply within minutes. If they dropped into the lower atmosphere, the 90 bars of pressure would kill them long before the 470° Celsius surface temperature.

“I’ve got this.” Amrisha swallowed, biting her lip. She tried to calm herself as she waited for the nav system to give her the go signal.

She’d come to study the long-term effects of plant growth in a non-terrestrial environment, but her role had been shifted while she was still between orbits. It was a consequence of sudden downsizing. They needed a pilot, not a botanist, and she was already on site.

“Line it up. Let the tracking system get a clear lock before slaving to the autocapture…” Ricky’s jet doubled back, arcing over and down into the upper wisps of the mustard-colored haze, leaving the way clear for her.

“And don’t get skittish. I know,” Amrisha said, tapping the small envelope of hybrid bulbs in her flight suit pocket. They were special, a quick-growing variant of amaryllis she’d developed as part of her first post grad project. She’d never created anything before, never realized she could coax beauty into her drab life. They were supposed to be her gift to this world.

Coming to Venus had been a way to prove herself. The New Politics had chosen her as a token, but she’d been determined to demonstrate she wasn’t just a charity case picked by the government to show they hadn’t abandoned the poor of the central districts. She wouldn’t be able to do that now, not as a jet jockey.

The news of funding cuts had derailed her. There’d be no more appointments, and once the current projects were completed, all personnel would be lifted back to Earth, Amrisha included. Manned presence over Venus would end.

“You know,” she said. “All I really wanted to do is grow something.”

Ricky laughed. “You’ll get your chance, don’t worry, but we all have to pitch in any way we’re able.”

“If I’d known, I’d have paid more attention. It feels as if I’m flying through a rushing waterfall.”

She’d completed her mandatory hours in the air, but it had all been too technical. She preferred things more organic, like the floating greenhouse and hanging gardens she’d been promised. Now, all that seemed out of reach.

“Not what you’re used to, huh?” Ricky’s image looked away from the screen.

She wanted to say nothing was like she was used to. Fewer people circled the entire planet of Venus than had jostled and struggled for space in the cramped dormitory she’d been assigned to before lifting off. The feeling of solitude seemed unsettling.

“Tailhook, this is Hezuo Base. Cease retrieval and return to dock. Time to No Turn Back is three-sixty seconds. Mark.” A second face appeared on the bottom right of Amrisha’s visor, crowding her HUD. Darsheel smiled at her. She smiled back, resisting the urge to speak.

“Sorry, kid. Pack it up. It’s time to go home.” Ricky frowned, his helmet dipping as he called up a return vector.

Amrisha felt relieved, but the failure would count against her. It’d been five weeks since she’d arrived. She’d made little progress, and time was running out.

She enlarged the supply package on her HUD. Burns from uncontrolled entry streaked its curved surface, giving the sphere a flattened appearance. It’d been shot from lunar orbit with no propulsion or entry hardware, carrying essential food, medicines, technology, and just enough hydrogen to keep it buoyant fifty kilometers above the planet’s surface. Her supplies were in there. Material for the approved botanical projects, but also her own personal shoots and cuttings. It’d be a shame to leave it behind.

“I can still get it.”

Ricky sighed. “Negative, Tailhook Two. We’ll live without it until the winds swing it back around.”

“One pass…” She burst through the clouds, headed for the titanium sphere. The jet dipped, skimming the thick lower haze before breaking through jagged ochre clouds of dirty sulfuric acid. The sphere bobbed like a toy. Amrisha punched through the opaque mist in pursuit, matching altitude and velocity. Her capture gear dropped. The package fell neatly into her net.

“Okay, showoff.” Ricky chuckled.

“That’s just how it’s done.” She was surprised it’d actually worked, and happy she could return to the station without her tail between her legs.

“I think you’re finally starting to get it. Now let’s-“

Tailhook One’s audio cut out as Ricky vanished into the dark haze.

Amrisha’s HUD blossomed. Red emergency icons burned across every screen. Alarms shook the cockpit. Something big and artificial broke through the clouds. Amrisha grabbed the yoke, pulling up and away, straining as she climbed over a block of long cylinders and tight mesh netting. The package snagged. She screamed, jamming the emergency release, dumping everything as her jet rolled uncontrollably into the thick clouds.

Alarms whistled through the padded compartment. Maggie Hao dropped in through the ceiling hatch, landing with a thump that shook the structure. Four years, and she still hadn’t gotten used to the ship-like roll of the station. “Tell them to let it go. We’ll wait for the next one.”

“It’s not that.” Darsheel Chatterjee enlarged the two jets on his display. A hazy grey band marked the outer limit of their range, and Tailhook One’s icon throbbed in a bloody shade of red. “There’s a problem. Ricky Zhao’s hit something.”

“We’re fifty-two kilometers up. What could he hit?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out.” Darsheel dipped his fingers into the small video feed from the jet’s forward camera, pulling the image onto his lap.

Maggie leaned in. The computer model showed six large cylinders separated in pairs by fat orange baffles, the whole thing hanging horizontally from a teardrop-shaped airbag that covered the structure like a canvas sack.

Darsheel spun it with a finger. “It’s American.”

The feed from Tailhook One’s nose camera showed a billowing mountain of silver traced through with faded diamond plates, solar panels on a lifting bag. Its cabin camera displayed black, not even static, but Ricky’s vitals still registered. He was alive.

“Can’t be. The abandoned American station sends out a location ping. It’s on our charts.”

Darsheel pulled a satellite icon onto his screen and quickly scanned its logs. “Nope. It hasn’t reported in weeks. Either the tracking system’s dead, or the atmosphere’s finally eaten through their antenna.”

“Stream a datapac to NASA.” She moved closer, nervous energy making her jittery. She didn’t need trouble this close to mission’s end. “Let them know their station’s a hazard to traffic.”

“What traffic? It’s just us.” Darsheel snorted.

Maggie gave him a dirty look. He’d become difficult since that new girl had arrived. He didn’t realize Maggie knew he’d started seeing the woman, but nothing on the station got by her.

“Ricky Zhao, report.” Maggie pushed her face close to the camera. There was no response. “Tailhook, what’s going on out there?”

“This is Tailhook Two.” The other pilot’s helmet bobbed as she spoke, her gaze jumping from the camera to her controls. “I have Ricky on visual. He’s caught up in some kind of fiber netting.”

Darsheel tapped Maggie’s shoulder, pointing at the display. He punctuated his anxiety with clipped tugs on his fat moustache with short, thick fingers. He looked more concerned about the girl than Ricky. “Two minutes until NTB.”

Maggie hesitated. Hezuo Base had been operating in the Venusian troposphere for years without incident. Now, in the last months of her command, they were about to have their first catastrophe.

“Ninety seconds…”

“Break her off.” Maggie slammed her fists together. This was going to look bad. She’d have to find a way to put a spin on it, blame the Americans, or blame the unusual environmental factors. Hell, everything on Venus was unusual.

Darsheel leaned in with a sigh of relief. “Amrisha, you need to come back. We’ll figure something out, but you need to return to base.”

“No.”

Maggie slapped the screen and Amrisha’s image enlarged. The woman looked frantic, her eyes large, her gaze jolty and flickering beneath her blocky air mask. “Tailhook, get the hell out of there. That’s an order!”

Darsheel glanced at the compact woman, an eyebrow raised.

“What? We may be scientists, but I’m still in charge.” Maggie glared back at him.

“I didn’t say anything.” Darsheel looked at his screen. “Boss.”

Maggie frowned. She didn’t like it either, but someone had to make the tough calls.

“I can’t just leave!” Amrisha wanted to scream. She pounded the grey plastic console as she pulled on the yoke. Her jet climbed over the abandoned structure, circling as she considered her options.

“You have to go.” Darsheel sounded tense. His tiny image tugged on the wide moustache covering his face.

“I can’t just leave Ricky.”

She brought her jet level with the station. Ricky’s craft hung almost vertically from thick fiber netting, its right wing sheared off, and its cockpit facing up into a semi-rigid curtain of greasy-looking black material. He struggled with the straps holding him to his flight chair, his right arm limp, his mask unclipped and hanging like a shred of dead flesh against his face. He saw her and managed to slide his gloved hand across the cockpit glass in a weak wave.

“I’m coming to get you.” She tapped her own glass. “Hang on.”

Ricky shook his head, pulling his mask back against his face. Static filled Amrisha’s headset. “I think my arm’s broken… my face is bleeding, but… probably superficial… get back to base… an order.”

“I’m not going to leave you!” Amrisha shouted. “Base, I–“

Ricky’s cockpit exploded outward. Fluorescent blue rings inflated across its belly, throwing it into a spin as the wind ripped it away from the station.

“Base, his pod’s ejected!” Amrisha bit her lip. The bitter tang of blood soured her tongue as she watched the escape pod tumble away.

“Tailhook, return to base! Your NTB is now!” Darsheel appeared anxious, his image blurred as his gaze traveled from the camera to the stocky Asian woman beside him. The commander was probably feeding him instructions, orders Amrisha had no intention of obeying.

“He’s in flight, base. Repeat, Tailhook One is in the wind!” If she didn’t retrieve that capsule, he’d be dead within hours. Amrisha could feel her heart pounding through the lightweight flight suit, surprised the hummingbird beat hadn’t set off her bio sensors.

“You’re out of time.”

“I’m new here, but even I know there’s at least five minutes of reserves!” She screamed as she swung around.

Ferocious winds pulled her laterally past the station. Ricky’s pod was a tiny dot beneath her. She dived. The tethered capture drone slid with a squealing shudder from its housing and played along its carbon composite cable. Sensors in the drone targeted the pod, and stabilizers struggled to sync with the capsule’s erratic motion.

“Capture gear deployed.”

The pod was still sinking. She had to snag it before it got out of range. Its helium-filled baffles would keep it buoyant, but if she lost Ricky now, there’d be no time for a second attempt.

Amrisha slammed the yoke forward, diving into the thick upper wisps of the separation layer. Ricky’s pod rocked as it struck turbulence, still sinking. Something was wrong. It should’ve leveled out.

“Ricky, I’m trying to save you, but you’ve got to help me. Do you copy?” Amrisha’s breath seemed to hiss, garbling her words as she fought to keep a lock on the pod long enough to tag the capture nets.

“No time. Get out of here…” The pod bucked. A gust caught it and slung it sideways.

Amrisha slammed her stick forward. Her jet rolled, narrowly missing a head-on collision. Her stomach lurched. Her HUD squealed, blazing icons flaring across her vision as she broke through the opaque lower haze.

“Two-twenty sec–“

“Don’t do that!” Her voice sounded shrill as she cut Darsheel off. “I don’t need to know the countdown. It won’t help anything.”

“Tailhook–“

“Not now, base!”

She closed quickly on Ricky’s pod. It had stabilized, bobbing like a faceted gem in the turbulence. Oily acid rain pelted the canopy, obscuring its contents, and making Amrisha wonder if it were already too late. She could feel the stress along her arms and down her spine. For a simple training exercise, it’d been one hell of a ride.

“Deploying gear.” She dropped the drone. It played out over the cable with ease, but the net was gone. She’d forgotten she’d dumped it against the American station.

“Ricky, I’m so sorry…” She whispered, her mouthpiece hot with her panting breath. Nausea made her want to vomit. She couldn’t save him. She couldn’t do anything except watch his pod sink slowly into the burning atmosphere.

“My fault…” His voice faded as the pod dropped like a stone into the thick haze.

She followed, feeling useless, feeling as if it were all her fault. The pod sank quickly, looking like a toy as its frame glowed like live coals in the dim light.

“Base!”

It happened all at once. The capsule broke apart. Fragments assaulted her cockpit. She cried as she dove through, still following the dead shell as it tumbled.

Then her engines bucked, starboard stalling. She pulled up. The craft pitched. It throbbed, shaking her so hard she thought her teeth might fall out, but inside she felt nothing. Her mind had emptied. Her thoughts had vanished with the escape pod, and with the loss of Ricky Zhao.

“It’s gone.” Darsheel stared at the spot where the escape pod’s icon had been as if he could make it reappear by sheer will. “This is horrible.”

“I suppose recovery is out of the question.” Maggie Hao leaned against a cabinet of cartridge servers that extended the full height of the module, arms crossed, a sour look on her wide face.

“Someone just died!” Darsheel didn’t try to hide his revulsion.

Maggie had been cold through the whole ordeal, but now she seemed like a monster. She’d never been the friendliest woman, always quoting rules, bringing the CNSA into everything, but something had changed with the announcement they’d be pulling out. It was like something broke inside her.

“You’re the one looking for a way to convince command to keep this project going,” she sneered. “See where this gets you.”

“The two aren’t related.”

“Don’t be naive,” she barked.

He swallowed. They’d lost more than a pilot today. Bad news would just exacerbate command’s willingness to pull the plug on the whole thing, and then Ricky’s death would be meaningless.

“Don’t notify command just yet,” she said as she turned to grab a rung on the ladder behind her. “I’ll be writing up a formal statement, but until then…”

Shock had left Amrisha dulled. She made her way back to the American station as questions and accusations flooded her comm. It didn’t seem to matter. She’d failed, and Ricky had died because of it.

Coming to Venus had been her chance to prove herself, but how could she possibly do that now? She cried as her mind replayed images of the pod falling below the cloud deck, and the silent shock as it broke apart.

“You’ll be stranded.” Darsheel’s voice sounded flat, as if he’d already given up any hope of getting her back.

“I know.” She’d miss their date tonight. She’d already missed the No Turn Back by a good margin, surrendering all hope of reaching Hezuo Base. Although the Venusian winds whipped around the planet in a matter of hours, it’d be weeks until Hezuo was able to retrieve her. “It’s not like I have a choice.”

She backed off, letting the station slide past above her. Black carbon logs dropped from a circular mesh screen at the end of the structure, falling into the lower atmospheric haze like dung. Impressively, the station still operated, automatic systems still chugging away years after its abandonment.

A docking rig hung like a series of barrel hoops opposite the carbon sink, intended for an orbital escape craft, but compatible enough to provide a link. She ground her teeth and nudged the aircraft forward.

“Wind speed differential’s increasing.” Darsheel watched Amrisha’s trace slide beyond local radar. He pulled the closest satellite icon into his lap, opening a larger radar window. “At your current altitude, it’ll be about eleven weeks before we swing around again.”

“Suggestions?” Amrisha’s voice trembled.

He enlarged her image, placing it above the icon for the American station. “Stay safe. Try to keep alive and come back to me.”

He glanced at Maggie. The older woman frowned, her lips compressed as if she were trying to hold back irritation. When she spoke, the anger in her tone sounded at odds with her calm, professional assessment. “ISRO’s been notified. They’ll get in touch with NASA, and we’ll have a better understanding of this whole mess soon.”

“Understood.” Amrisha glanced off screen. “I’m docked. It’s not the best seal, but at least I don’t have pressure differences to worry about.”

“Just the lethal sulfuric acid rain. Stay dry.” Darsheel’s fingers shook as he slid her image into a private folder.

He had so much more to say. He wanted to tell her he missed her already, and that if he could, he’d change places with her. Her plan to bring a greenhouse to the station might have been the trigger he needed to convince the media back home to take notice. The presence of new life, growing things with all their scents and colors, would have boosted morale and made Hezuo more like a home. He needed her. They all needed her, and he wanted to tell her as much.

Instead, he just stared into the camera.

Amrisha forced a weak smile. “Understood.”

Darsheel looked at Maggie. “She’s worried.”

“She should be.” Maggie turned sharply away from the consol. “If she’d obeyed orders, she’d be safe in the station by now.”

“She couldn’t just leave Ricky Zhao behind.” He wanted to say nobody with half a conscience could have, but the look in the commander’s eyes told him maybe there was someone that callous.

“It wasn’t her call to make.” Maggie didn’t look up, fiddling with the tablet in her hands instead. Darsheel was at a loss. She’d become impossible.

She glanced at him, her features tight, her eyes like dark mirrors. “The American station is junk. I’m surprised it hasn’t already fallen out of the sky.

“Eleven weeks. That’s all she needs.”

“I don’t give her eleven days.” Maggie pulled herself into the crew compartment, and Darsheel turned back to his screen. He tugged at his moustache, hardly able to breathe.

He didn’t even want to think it, but eleven weeks alone in the sky of Venus seemed as hopeless as it could get. “Do what you need to, Tailhook, but stay safe and keep us advised.”

Amrisha entered the abandoned station, her mind numb, her body moving just to give her something to do.

Bright LEDs snapped on. Glossy white-rubber suits swayed like ghosts on hooks beside shining steel lockers, and an oval hatch with a circular window on the opposite wall led deeper into the structure. Amrisha pushed through, barely noticing her surroundings. She passed crew’s quarters, overly large suites with private doors, and then a long room filled with cubicles containing the equipment of several scientific disciplines. She picked up speed, panting and out of breath. An urgency had replaced her shock. Rage thrummed through her like an itch, and it grew as she stormed though the empty cylinders, moving faster and faster. She needed to do something. She needed closure.

“Base, I’m heading for the package,” she growled. “And I’m going to kick it right off this hell of a world.”

She switched her HUD to voice only. Walls lined with cartridge servers came to life as she rushed by, their activity lights blinking blue. In the cylinder beyond, the carbon sink device sat like a huge mechanical spider, legs outspread, squatting over a gold-plated circular grate as it leached oxygen from the toxic atmosphere.

“Repeat, Tailhook?” Darsheel’s voice sounded as confused as Amrisha felt. “Tail–Amrisha, you need to keep calm. You have nothing but time on your hands, so think before you act. Don’t do anything that might jeopardize the integrity of the station. Don’t do anything to get yourself killed.”

“I need to do something, Darsheel–anything,” she said. The urge to move was like an ache. Momentum was the only thing keeping her on her feet, and if she stopped long enough to think, she’d start screaming.

“I know you might not want to hear it, but it’s going to be okay.” Darsheel’s voice seemed weaker, as if he were already fading from her consciousness. It seemed like a million years since she’d seen him, and, selfishly, she wished he were stranded here on the station with her.

An airlock in the floor led down to a huge lower cargo bay, its walls sheathed in pleated black plastic that rippled as if it were breathing. A trio of orange spheres hung limp on chains attached to thick metal cylinders over an iris in the center. Beyond that, another airlock led to the core, an empty pocket protected from the rains by the outer sheath.

“It’s huge,” she whispered, looking up. It was like standing under a giant closed umbrella.

Struts curved down along the walls to attach to the main cylinders, creating a hexagonal inner courtyard that could easily have held Hezuo Station. Irregularly shaped balloons jostled in the billowing fabric high overhead, fluctuating like bubbles of greasy liquid, shifting with the pressure of the winds outside.

What an enormous waste of resources to leave this place sitting in the Venusian troposphere like some discarded toy. The Americans were insane to have just abandoned it, but then, wasn’t that exactly what her own people were about to do?

She shivered, suddenly feeling cold and alone. She’d never been entirely by herself before, certainly not at home in the teeming slums, but not in the shining training facility either, or the transfer shuttle, or even on Hezuo Station. The feeling of vulnerability made her throat constrict, and she continued to talk just to hear a voice.

“I have a visual on the package.” She stared at the titanium sphere. “It’s sticking out of the far wall, sitting like a boulder on top of a partially crushed cylinder.”

The sphere had severely creased the top of the unit, bending the struts to either side out of position. Fabric rippled around it like steam as the volatile Venusian atmosphere fought to tear its way inside. It appeared so much larger than it had in the false overlay images on her cockpit screens.

“It looks as big as a house.”

The magnitude of what’d happened overwhelmed her. Ricky was dead. She would die too, stranded here, alone, millions of miles away from family and friends with no way to prove it even mattered.

The anger bled out of her, leaving nothing in its wake. Her legs buckled. She collapsed in a heap, drawing her knees up until they touched the visor of her helmet, her protective suit squelching loudly as she rocked herself back and forth. She cried.

“Amrisha…”

She ignored him, wallowing in self-pity, savoring her tears.

“Amrisha, you’re running out of air. You need to focus.”

“I wanted to go to Mars.” Amrisha’s visor fogged, the sour scent of her own breath washing back on her. Yes, she was running low on air. “But they told me Venus was the next big thing, the closest environment to Earth anywhere in the solar system as long as you stayed fifty kilometers above the surface. They promised me a future, but they lied.”

“Stay with me, Amrisha,” Darsheel said.

She laughed, the sound jarring and high pitched. “I was so proud, so happy I was getting out, I almost didn’t care if it were on my own merit.”

She remembered the train to the launch facility, dirty, so overcrowded people were hanging from the doorways, their clothes billowing in hot breezes that smelled of oil and sweat. She’d worn her uniform. It was blue, pressed to show every sharp crease. Some pervert had tried to grope her, and she’d nearly broken his arm, more offended that he’d assaulted an astronaut than frightened for her safety.

“You need to get up,” Darsheel said. His voice held an urgency that made her lips tremble.

“They told me someday there’d be floating cities that would relieve the congestion on Earth, give new hope to a world crushing itself to extinction. They’d promised I’d be able to use the specialty I’d worked so very hard to attain to turn the morning star into an Eden.”

She sounded a bit pathetic, even to herself, but it didn’t matter. What could she have accomplished anyway?

The small bulbs in her pocket shifted, reminding her she’d once cared very much. How had that changed?

“Amrisha, can you tell me if you see anything that looks like an air cylinder?” Darsheel’s tone was insistent.

“What’s the point?”

“The point is… you survive,” Darsheel said. “You aren’t a quitter. You’re a fighter–” His voice cut out suddenly.

She raised an eyebrow but didn’t move. It was so quiet she could hear the beating of her own heart. “Darsheel?”

No reply. “Hezuo Base? Anyone…”

Silence.

“Not funny.” Still, nothing–no voices, no static, no contact. She glanced up. The package loomed over her, a massive reminder of her failure.

She remembered the faces of the government men when they’d pulled her from the dirty streets of Kolkata, a feral child, stealing what she could, and begging for the rest. They’d cleaned her up, dressed her in a uniform, and sent her to a school filled with others like her. They’d promised her the stars, but she would have to fight for it. First, just for the right to stay. Dozens had been exiled back to the slums in that first year. Then, for the privilege of learning. She’d found she had a talent and a passion, and she struggled for a chance to pursue that dream; in the academy, and from there, the air force, and then the ISRO. Through it all, she never gave up.

Why was she giving up now?

She sighed, dragging herself to her feet. “If I’m going to die, it’s not going to be because of self-pity.”

She’d seen tanks back in the airlock. Stations, whether floating over Venus, sitting on the surface of mars, or tucked deep into the craters of Luna, all had some kind of an air factory. Suffocation wouldn’t be a problem.

“She’s lost our signal.” Darsheel chewed on his lip, too nervous to even touch his moustache. He pulled the icon for the American station onto his lap, unfolding it to reveal an image of Amrisha’s jet. “She’s there. She’s still sending, but we’re not getting through.”

“Of course, she’s there. Where could she go?” Maggie pushed him aside, tapping the image, tossing it back and forth as if by shaking it she could dislodge whatever had cut them off.

“Tailhook Two, respond.” She growled at the image. “Tailhook, are you reading?”

Amrisha’s voice came through, patchy, but clear enough for them to hear her speaking.

“Is she talking to the package?” Maggie asked.

“She’s just trying to feel less alone,” Darsheel replied. “How would you feel if it’d been you stranded thousands of miles from the nearest people?”

“Relieved.” Maggie collapsed the image, leaving Darsheel to wonder what she’d meant.

“What do we do now?” He asked.

“Keep listening.”

“Who brings water balloons to another world?” She shook her head, smiling as she inspected a trio of three-meter-wide orange spheres.

The balloons hung on chains attached to thick bucket-like devices with sturdy, blued-metal teeth. The Americans had dropped them on tethers. Their baskets were designed to strike the ground with enough force to scoop up rocks and slag, while the hellish surface temperatures flashed the water in the balloons into steam, raising the devices back into the troposphere. They’d been intended as part of a sustainable ecosystem that, like many of the American’s grand dreams, had never happened.

She’d managed to pry open one of the buckets, spilling chunks of deep, black rock onto the deck. It was useless in itself, but the station’s greenhouse contained a stash of liquid nano-clay and mineral supplements. It was everything she needed to turn blasted stone to soil.

It had been difficult to walk through the empty hydroponics bays, and past withered and desiccated attempts at growth, but she’d needed to see it. It gave her something to strive for, taking the edge off her isolation. She tapped the package of bulbs in her pocket, her thoughts already slipping into temperature and acidity gradients.

“Good news,” Amrisha said as she sat in front of the titanium sphere, feeling less numb now that some time had passed. “One of the main cylinders is devoted solely to air production. I can spend years here without the fear of suffocation.”

She laughed, but there was no humor behind it.

Breathing had been an immediate concern, but now that she’d decided she wanted to live, water and food would be her next priorities. There might still be provisions on the station, since they seemed to have left everything else as if they’d be returning soon, but she didn’t want to be too optimistic.

A screeching wail ripped through the compartment.

“What now?”

She jumped, heart pounding as she circled the core, nervously searching for the source of the alarm.

“Wait here.” She glanced at the sphere, and then started jogging in the direction of the noise.

She’d have to stop talking to the package. She didn’t want Hezuo Station thinking she’d gone crazy, although with months of isolation ahead of her, she might have trouble convincing herself before long.

An airlock led into a long compartment lined with wide couches and terminal wells. Several of the terminals still had clear plastic liners over them, as if they hadn’t even been unpackaged. Red LEDs strobed along the roof of the segment, throwing deep shadows across the chairs, giving them the appearance of shrouded bodies, and causing the hairs on Amrisha’s neck to stand on end. She took a deep breath before skittering quickly down the aisle and up a ladder into the next area.

The upper compartment looked similar to the operations room on Hezuo, cartridge servers blinking away, a trio of terminals clustered in the center like conductor’s podiums. Amrisha dropped into the center chair. A virtual keyboard appeared, highlighted keys offering hints as to her next moves. She managed to silence the alarm with little trouble. The Americans deserved that much credit. They’d made their control routines simple and bolstered their entire system with help panels. They’d either trained their people poorly, or lacked confidence in the abilities of their astronauts.

“Or,” she admitted, thinking of more than a few of her colleagues. “They don’t need to show off all the time.”

A visual of the station appeared. The automated systems hadn’t registered a problem when the sphere struck the cylinder, or they’d have been going off when she’d arrived. They’d only posted an alert because the repair drones couldn’t fix the hole while the obstruction was in the way.

“There’s nothing I can do about that,” she said aloud. “The drones will just have to live with the frustration.”

A series of coordinates began scrolling in the air to the right of the simulation, measurements of wind speed, barometric pressure, direction, and altitude. She skimmed the numbers until she realized what they meant. It made her catch her breath.

The station was falling.

“It comes down to a matter of ballast.” Amrisha sat in front of the titanium sphere, a plastic tote filled with foil-covered cubes beside her, gloved arms awkwardly around her knees. She’d spent the better part of her first day trying to make sense of her situation. The American station was sinking, and she didn’t have long.

Alarms sounded. The floor beneath her shook. The tote slid away. She grabbed it, hugging it close as the ripples passed.

“It seems I’ve added considerable strain to an already precarious system.” The jet was irreplaceable, the package nearly as precious, but she’d have to find something to dump if she wanted to correct her fall.

She probably had a week before the station dipped through the thick separation layer, below the cloud deck, and beyond hope. Her options were limited. She’d have to make some tough choices, and soon, but she didn’t know where to start. The urge to give up dragged at her, made her languid and dull. She didn’t feel she could do this on her own.

“I’ve got MREs for about another two weeks.” Amrisha pulled one of the foil-wrapped packages from the plastic tote, inspected its ingredients, and returned it with a grimace. Macaroni and cheese. She’d never acquired a liking for American comfort food. “But it won’t matter by then, will it?”

She started to cry.

“We have a new development,” Darsheel said from his chair at the far end of the crowded mess hall turned conference room. “Extraction’s been moved up.”  

Commotion erupted among the seven others, nearly the entire crew of Hezuo Base, as they all started talking at once.

“Quiet down!”

“Where’d you hear this?” Chet Jing said, his accent thick and choppy as he jostled for space along the narrow plastic table.

“Everything in this station goes through me,” Darsheel said.

“So, we’re done?” Alyssa Jintao looked pale, thin, and a little shaky. Darsheel wondered if she were keeping up with her motion sickness tablets. “Is there anything we can do to change their minds?”

Leslie Yeoh nodded. “Do we have a say in this?”

He took a deep breath, tapping his stylus against his large yellow teeth, dragging it down across the brush of his moustache as he spoke. “You know how it is. Our respective agencies have a budget. The money comes from committees, and they feed off public opinion. People don’t care about science. They want entertainment, flash, excitement, and to be honest, it’s been dull around here lately.”

“I take offense at that.” Chet Jing stood, his usual dour expression stamped firmly on his face. “I’m making great strides on-“

“Yes,” Darsheel interrupted. “You’re all doing good work. That’s not the problem. We just need something the public will understand, something visual, something the news can put into sound bites and video feeds.”

“How can we possibly sway the outcome of this decision?”

“We need to go over everything,” Darsheel said. “Look for something in your research, anything that might cause some interest. Let’s give them a reason not to shut us down.”

“I’m opening you up,” she said softly to the sphere, as if afraid to hurt the object’s feelings. She needed food. She needed the precious supplies locked behind the sphere’s scarred and blackened surface, but most of all, she needed lift. Dumping the cargo was her only option. It’d mean taking resources away from Hezuo, but she had no choice.

“If you’re listening, I’m sorry.”

The station jerked, tossing her off balance. A keening shriek broke her concentration. She swore. The station was approaching the boundary layer. Soon, the pressure would be overwhelming, and then nothing would matter.

Amrisha projected an overlay of the sphere’s schematics onto her HUD, her hands shaking as she thought of the seething hell below, and how quickly she’d die once the station fell below the pressure threshold. Circular access panels appeared, stenciled in white over the object. The forward-facing panel angled downward a few degrees. She selected it, and then input the command to unseal the package.

Sparks kicked out of a dot near the top. A glowing stripe traced its way in a wide loop as the embedded weld worm etched its way through the outer shell from the inside, burning itself out just as it completed its circle. The sphere shook. For a moment, Amrisha thought it hadn’t burned all the way around, but then a five-meter plate split away and tumbled to the floor.

The station vibrated like a struck gong, interlocking panels undulating in waves outward from the curved dish. Amrisha fell. She landed on her left arm, wrenching her elbow.

“Not the way I’d hoped that’d go,” she said, clenching her teeth against the pain before standing. She didn’t have the luxury to be hurt right now. That could wait.

The station shuddered, lurching as the fierce winds of the upper boundary layer tossed it around like a toy. Amrisha held tight to the cable, pushing forward. She’d secured a few crates. Starvation shouldn’t be a problem, but she still had a long way to go before she’d emptied the sphere. What to jettison would come next. She knew a few of those totes held supplies for the botanical laboratory she’d planned on setting up, but she couldn’t judge the value of what else might be in the sphere. If she ever made it back to Hezuo, she’d have to contend with a very pissed off group of scientists.

“Please, stay above the boundary just a little while longer.” She twisted her head inside her helmet to wick away a bead of sweat. Her voice sounded odd, as if she were already forgetting how to speak, and she wondered again why she continued to try so hard.

“Because you’re a fighter. You know it, your friends on Hezuo know it, and the planet of Venus had better learn it.” She laughed, feeling silly.

The floor dropped away suddenly. Alarms screamed. The stiff fabric overhead billowed, and the station tilted. Amrisha slid. The container she’d been carrying flew from her hands, and she fell.

An intense gust sheared through the fabric above the package. It turned, rotating slowly with a sound like screaming. Amrisha screamed with it as the material around the sphere puckered, drawing the object closer before it surged outward, and then popped free. Jagged tendrils of oily cloth slapped wildly through the empty gap.

Amrisha scrambled to her feet. Her breath came in gasps, her heartbeat frantic. She seized the cable. The wind changed, ripping at her with hurricane force. She held on, struggling, as the furious squall pulled her to the edge of the gash.

Acid rain slapped her against a strut, knocking the air out of her. A gust smacked her back. She tried to stand, but another blast hammered her against the floor, tossing her like a doll deep into the center of the core.

A spider’s web of cracks frosted her helmet. Her HUD shorted out, leaving her blind. She screamed.

Alarms sounded. Xu Kun’s face flashed onto the screen at Maggie’s desk, concern etching deep lines around her lips.

“Something’s happened,” she said. “We lost Amrisha.”

Maggie’s fist tightened, crushing the report she’d been reading. She felt as if the air had suddenly left the room. “What do you mean?”

Darsheel had already dived into the chair beside her, pulling the terminal well onto his lap. His breath came out in short puffs like he’d been sprinting as he called up the satellite feed and dropped out a copy of the American station.

“We lost audio.” He exhaled loudly, looking up. “But we’re still getting a ping from Tailhook Two.”

“The package is gone as well,” Xu Kun said.

“Gone?” Maggie swallowed. That couldn’t be good. She was the one ultimately responsible for that cargo.

“Telemetry shows it falling away.”

“So, we lost the package?” It’d look like crap on her report, especially when they finally pulled that girl’s body out. Mistakes had been piling up, and it would all come down hard on her in the end. “Call me when she screws something else up. Otherwise, I don’t want to be disturbed.”

She stood, tossed the readout on the floor, and climbed up into the empty mess hall. She needed a drink. Maybe she could find Ajay’s stash of homemade vodka.

Maggie turned the corner and stopped with a jerk. Darsheel stood in front of the casement to the next chamber, anger filling his lean features.

“You following me?” She took a step back. She really didn’t need anything else today.

“What’s happened to you?” He asked. His words came out in clipped barks as if he were having trouble keeping them in order. She’d never seen him like this.

“I’ll go around the other way.” She turned, heart racing. A twinge behind her eyes signaled the beginning of a headache.

Darsheel grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her back. “Wait!”

She leaned in. His grip loosened. She grabbed his fingers, twisting until he let go. He tried to pull free. She shoved his hand up behind his back, slamming him into the casement.

“If you ever put your hands on me again, I’ll tear your arm off!”

She pushed him away. Her knees felt weak, and her fingers tingled. She could hardly breathe with the rage humming through her veins. It’d been building for a long time now, all the stress and disappointment, all the indignation. 

“You don’t even care about Amrisha.” Darsheel massaged his hurt arm, panting. He was afraid to look at her. “Some worthless equipment means more to you.”

“This has nothing to do with the package, you idiot!”

“Then what do you care about?”

“Look at me!” She screamed, fighting back tears. She wouldn’t let this man see her cry. She’d never given that privilege to anyone. “I’m almost sixty years old. Do you know how many that is in astronaut years, in a field where youth and physical ability outweigh experience, and there’s always someone younger waiting for their chance to push you aside and undermine your relevance?”

He seemed to shrink as she yelled, pity replacing the anger in his eyes. “Maggie, I didn’t know-“

“Of course, you didn’t know.” She moved away, jittery, and unable to contain her nervous energy. “I spent two decades orbiting Earth on the big habitat, Brihaspati over Hall. I helped make it not just my home, but a true city in the sky. I gave everything to that project, and I was brilliant.”

Darsheel moved closer. She raised a hand in warning. “I asked for assignment on the Vesta project after that. The CSNA denied me because of the timeline. I’d be past retirement before it returned. I requested Enceladus, Europa, and even the belt, but they told me I was too old. Every time.”

She sighed, remembering the look on the administrator’s chubby face when he broke the news to her. She’d almost punched him. Instead, she’d swallowed her anger and in her most pleasant voice asked what post she would be allowed.

“They gave me Venus,” she said. “It was supposed to be long term, but the Americans had already started pulling out. I could see the end coming even then.”

“I’m sorry…”

She laughed. “I’m sure you are, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ll never get another assignment after this.”

The American station appeared flattened, no longer a folded umbrella, but more of a fat mushroom cap. It had gained altitude, and Darsheel was sure that was Amrisha’s doing.

He watched his HUD, fingers nervously clutching at his pressure suit as the shuttle docked and Chet Jing secured the hatch. Maggie was first through, then their doctor, Leslie Yeoh, Xu Kun, Chet, and himself. Maggie’d been reluctant to include him in the rescue, but he couldn’t sit by. He’d waited too long already.

“If she’s alive, she’ll be in one of the pressurized compartments.” Maggie glanced at him. She’d become less aggressive since their fight, almost as if she’d given up and resigned herself to the fate she’d imagined for herself.

“It’s all pressurized,” Xu Kun said from the terminal well she’d dropped behind. “All of it, even the core. Amrisha was smart enough to remember breathable air is a lifting gas on this world.”

Darsheel watched her flip through several layers of data, juggling schematics, searching through camera feeds.

“There!” She enlarged an image of a flight suit lying still against a bulkhead, helmet facing away. Darsheel froze. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, the air suddenly too thick to breathe.

“Where? Where is that?”

Xu Kun dropped a layout map over the feed. “Lower bay, just outside of the core.”

Darsheel’s heart pounded as he raced through the station, reckless and out of control. She had to be alive. Amrisha was a fighter. He knew what it took to make it out of the slums, and he knew what she was capable of. It couldn’t end like this.

He dived down the ladder into the lower bay. Shreds of thick orange material littered his path. His boots crunched on loose black debris that almost looked like dirt, causing him to stumble as he reached the airlock to the core.

She was there, lying in a heap like discarded rubbish. He bent down, vision blurry through the tears, and reached out.

He pulled back his hand as if burned.

“It’s empty!”

Amrisha’s helmet tumbled away, the cracked visor making a rasping sound as it struck the floor.   

“I don’t believe it.” Maggie called from the airlock leading into the core, helmet under her right arm. She stood beside Leslie Yeoh. The other woman’s mouth hung open like a cartoon character, eyes wide with amazement.

“Darsheel, we’ve found her,” She said breathlessly, almost unwilling to believe her eyes.

Leslie nodded. “And I think we’ve also found that flashy, people-friendly gimmick you think might save the project.”

They staggered into the core. Maggie dropped her helmet, tugging at the collar of her suit. It seemed impossible, but a riot of color filled the chamber. Marigolds in shades of peach, red, yellow, and orange bloomed beside sunflowers, Bok Choy, Beets, and Okra. The shoots of small snap bean bushes, arranged in rows, lined the dark, black gravel beside the five-meter bowl of the titanium sphere’s discarded cover. Amrisha sat beside the bowl wearing the mesh inner lining of her flight suit, her hand dipping languidly into water that trembled with the motion of the station.

The girl appeared dazed, as if she thought they might be an illusion. Then Darsheel rushed in. The two embraced, and Maggie glanced away.

“How?” She asked, still trying to process her surroundings. This was so wild it might actually be the answer to keeping the project going. All they’d really needed was a reason, something to sway public opinion, get the people behind them. A slice of Eden floating high above Hell certainly fit.

Maggie bent down, brushing her fingers against newly budding lilac, and smiled. It was the first time she dared allow herself the luxury of hope.

Amrisha moved away from Darsheel, but kept her hands entwined with his. Both grinned so widely Maggie almost smiled with them.

“Everything was here already,” Amrisha said. “The steamers the Americans used to collect samples from the surface contained cubic meters of rock, and all the water I wanted. It was just a matter of combining that raw material with my cuttings. A little botanical alchemy, some patience, and I accomplished what I came to Venus to do.”

Amrisha spread her arms, her fingers brushing the candy-striped red flowers of the hybrid amaryllis she’d carried all the way from Earth. “I told you I was going to grow something. I think this qualifies.”

______________

D. A. D’Amico  has had nearly eighty works published in the last ten years in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, MYTHIC, and Shock Totem… among others. He’s a winner of L. Ron Hubbard’s prestigious Writers of the Future award, volume XXVII, as well as the 2017 Write Well award. Collections of his work, links to anthologies and magazines he’s been in can be found on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/D-A-DAmico. His website is: http://www.dadamico.com. Facebook: authordadamico, and on painfully rare occasions twitter: @dadamico.

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