An Incident on Ishtar
By Brian Trent
Her family tried very hard to never use the word “crazy” with her. So therefore, they didn’t say it was crazy that she was applying for a Venusian post as Tier 3 Balloon Specialist.
She tried explaining her reasons to them:
I have valuable skill-sets for the Ishtar colony.
They countered: you don’t do well with people.
Her response: there are only 612 people throughout Ishtar’s nine modular habitats. There are 2.1 million people here in San Antonio.
Venus is hell, Mom interjected, and you’re afraid of heights, Melissa! Do you hear yourself?
Venus is hell below the clouds but I’ll be living above them, sweeping along with the transterminator currents on oxygen-filled aerostat balloons that provide both breathable air and the lifting gases required. Statistically it will be safer. No chance of making another Terrible Mistake.
The smiling masks of her family fell away. Older sister Diane exploded at her. Is that what this is about? Are you out of your mind? You—
Melissa didn’t hear the rest. She marched out of her parent’s house and took the nearest PDT to the local office of ExtraPlanetary Colony Careers.
Why do you want to go to Venus? the interviewer asked her.
I have valuable skill-sets for the Ishtar colony, she replied.
They were quick to agree.
Sailing brightquest from Earth, Melissa’s mind found something enjoyable in linking the words Venus and Venetian.
They sounded similar, and she liked Venice, having often holotoured the floating city with the PEOPLE option switched off so she could enjoy exploring the grid of canals, marble piazzas, twisting backstreets, and bridges without distraction.
It seemed appropriate, too, because she knew that Venus would wear a mask. She imagined it as a scarlet harlequin mask from Carnival, sleek and sly and patterned in checkerboard prints.
She met her fellow Venusian colonists. Masks bolted over unknown layers of limbic tropospheres and emotional thermospheres.
She was assigned E-909, a single-room in Deme Khius with a green door. Each morning she walked the connecting corridor to what they called Starburst Road because it radiated out from Ishtar’s central mainbase into each modular deme. Each evening she walked that same route home. She liked the diamond patterns of the floor tiles.
She worked in the teleoperations office—M-212, cream-colored door—planning the deployment and retrieval of surface excavations. The Venusian “floor” as they called the hostile surface had become something similar to ancient pulp adventure stories: metal monsters now crawled over the world, or drank from its toxic seas, or wormed into its molten flesh to chew at the bones of the planet, extracting valuables for the colony’s manufacturing hub. The robot monsters had neat rotating stomachs, like a cow’s many-chambered belly. Once each chamber was filled to bursting, balloons would deploy and the robots would be lifted into the furious tempest, taking the routes Melissa was in charge of plotting. Each morning, she studied the meteorological reports; Venus’ sky was very much like an ocean, with currents and riptides, lattices of data revealing a shoal of storm cells here, a lonely hurricane there, and the many-necked tornadoes which stretched like flailing tentacles horizontally with the planet’s spin. Melissa would tabulate, calculate, estimate, and execute to avoid these airy pitfalls.
The cafeteria for meals.
Walks along Starburst Road.
She liked the dependable patterns. She even sent an unusually verbose email to her parents and sister:
Hello Mom and Dad and Diane. I am happy here. Hope you are well. Melissa
And then, six months later, with routine established and no mistakes—certainly nothing on the order of the Terrible Mistake she had made on Earth—she went to work one day and made another Terrible Mistake.
And this one involved a Monster.
The assembly hall erupted in fury, all civilized masks discarded to show bared teeth, wild eyes, and complexions the hue of near-strangulation. Like a pair of immense storm cells colliding, feeding off each other’s energies and furious vortexes. The two sides of the debate had been arguing for the better part of an hour now. Melissa entered the room quietly, navigating the currents of rage until she could see the besieged colony governor—Allie Waltari, resident of Room 100A, blue door—standing at the podium.
Melissa took a deep breath.
“Excuse me? May I have permission to turn night into day?”
She knew her small voice would never be heard in this tumult. But somehow her question lanced through a brief dip in the rabble’s volume. Everything seemed to freeze in nightmarish snapshot. Melissa figured she was having one of her moments; when she was scared, her thoughts sometimes collapsed into a kind of slushy ice, halting the passage of time like the universe at absolute zero.
Governor Waltari leaned over the podium, her spiked blonde hair forming a leonine mane around her head. “Doctor Lobo? Did you say something?”
“I did,” Melissa muttered, blushing furiously. “May I have permission to reconfigure the solar array? To turn night into day?”
Several beats of silence.
“The solar array?” the governor repeated.
“Yes,” Melissa said. “Please.”
The crowd murmured, and there was some snickering. Even the governor didn’t seem to know what to say, and as that surreal limbo threatened to stretch on forever, there was suddenly a flash of docking lights. Ishtar’s AI intoned pleasantly, “Deme Amtor is commencing reattachment.”
All heads turned towards the room’s only window. An enormous rectangle, the viewport looked out on the Venusian horizon. Cloud-tops whipped past like whitewater rapids, creamy and frothy and silken. Navigating those airy currents, another of Ishtar’s modular stations was preparing to dock, lights blinking, docking claws extended like scorpion pincers in the 184 mph gale. Separated from the mainbase in advance of the hypercane, the substation now slid noisily back into place.
Piece by piece, Ishtar Colony was reconstituting itself.
“Reattachment is complete,” the station AI announced merrily.
Someone in the crowd snarled, “It’s isn’t complete! Where is Deme Khius? Governor, why you don’t just admit that it crashed? That your decision resulted in the loss of forty-one people who—”
The governor smacked her steel gavel against the podium. “Doctor Lobo currently has the floor! She was asking for permission to…”
“To reconfigure the solar array,” Melissa said quickly.
“Absolutely, Melissa!” Ishtar’s governor seemed to seize on the peace afforded by this bizarre interruption. “You go right ahead and run whatever experiment you like. As for the rest of this discussion…” the woman rose, gavel in hand, “I understand you’re upset, angry, and frightened. So am I. We just survived the worst storm in human history, and forty-one of our fellow colonists are missing. We are investigating. Let us reconvene tomorrow at 9 a.m.”
The crowd reluctantly trickled out. Melissa tried cutting ahead of them, and her heart fell when the governor called behind her, “Dr. Lobo? Would you mind hanging back for a moment? I’d like to speak with you.”
The Venusian cloud-tops showed no hint of Hypercane Larry’s destructive passing; only the usual surge of atmospheric super-rotation was churning past the window while Ishtar held position forty-eight kilometers above the planetary floor. It was the nightweek, and Earth was the brightest jewel in the Venusian firmament. Ordinarily, the colony swept along with the super-rotation, experiencing day-night cycles of ninety-six hours at a time. But now the colony was fixed in place while they reassembled, thrusters holding them steady against the relentless wind.
Governor Waltari’s leonine hairstyle framed a tired face. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to, Melissa, but your weird little outburst actually helped me.” The woman pursed her lips. “So, I suppose a ‘thank you’ is in order.”
Melissa shrugged and strode to the door.
“Wait,” the governor said, and Melissa sighed. Between the fury of the storm and the near-mutiny of the colonists in its aftermath, the day had been confusing enough without her having to navigate the nuances of social interaction.
Especially when time was running out.
The governor rounded the podium. “Your team was first to identify the hypercane.”
It wasn’t a question, nor was it accurate. Melissa had noticed the storm in its embryonic state, sitting there amid the data of a regular meteorological report. She had reported it to her supervisor. It hadn’t been a team discovery: it had been hers.
“We haven’t really had time to meet, have we?” Waltari extended her hand. “Not formally.”
Melissa took the proffered hand.
“I’m curious, Doctor Lobo. What did you think of my decision to break Ishtar apart?”
“Um, it was the correct decision.”
“You really think so?”
The decision had been one for the history books. Ordinarily, Ishtar’s aerostat facilities swept along with the planet’s transterminator flow, but when Hypecane Larry arose like a mythical leviathan to pursue them, the governor decided to fix them in place, separating and scattering the station into its nine modular demes, to let Larry blow past.
“Your decision to separate the demes increased odds of overall colony survival,” Melissa said, stealing a glance to the door where she wanted to be.
“But Deme Khius is MIA. It…”
“Deme Khius didn’t crash.”
The governor blinked. “But it’s nowhere to be found. The other eight demes are accounted for, but Khius is gone. Gone from visuals. From ladar. From VPS. Eighty-five billion dollars worth of material and forty-one colonists missing in the wake of the storm.” She rubbed her hands, seeming to age in place. “Maybe the others are right. Maybe Khius crashed, and it’s down there on the surface, melting in 900 degree temperatures…”
Heat rushed to Melissa’s face. “It did not crash! Five hundred tons striking the surface would have sent ejecta up like a geyser. We would have seen it!”
“I’m sorry, I just—”
“Shut up!” Melissa was sweating. “Look at this! Just look!”
She was wearing her hologloves from the lab, and she used them now to patch into the station web and conjure an image of the colony into the air between her and the governor. It was a boilerplate image, the mainbase as nexus for a rotating wheel of the nine substations. Though there was some overlap and redundancy, each deme was devoted to a specific necessity of colony life. Some handled teleoperations for surface mining, balloon maintenance and deployment, food production, microbiology research, meteorological analysis, and—in the case of Khius—basaltic materials for manufacturing.
Melissa’s hands moved swiftly, inputting the planet’s average weather conditions. She grabbed the holo of Ishtar, like an odd morsel poised between her gloved fingertips, and then hurled it into the floor. The deme impacted like a meteor; a plume climbed towards the assembly hall ceiling, bending along with the digitized super-rotation like an incandescent tree being slowly ripped up by the roots.
“Storm or no storm,” Melissa said, her color returning to normal, her angry expression reverting to its default blankness, “VPS satellites would have detected that.”
The governor was silent, starring at the balloon technician a long while. “You’re right, of course. But that still begs the question: Where is it? I’m starting to think that…”
Melissa didn’t stay to continue the conversation. She had secured permission to run her experiment.
And time was running out. She had made a Terrible Mistake and time was running out to fix it.
The door slid apart and she hurried along the drafty corridor to the merciful quiet and comfort of her laboratory.
They’re playing it cool right now, but the IPC is shitting bricks and my blueworld contact says the chiefs of staff have been behind closed doors for seven hours now. The Sargon has mysteriously left lunar orbit. Might even be in the neighborhood if they sent it when the storm first showed up.
So yes, things are about to get real.
Venus is the key to everything. Deme Khius represented thirty percent of raw material production for the brightworlds. The IPC will send an entire fleet to help search for it, and when they fail they’ll convert the rest of Ishtar into a replacement hub. They can’t afford to drag their feet. Every projection shows the next ten years belongs to the Asteroid Federation, that we will eclipse total brightworld production of precious metals and helium-3 and every other goddam thing to become the economic powerhouse in Sol System. The AF is on the doorstep of independence, they just lack the stones. (I know, I’m funny.)
The window for opportunity is here.
Ok, gotta go. I’ll be in touch once we have better intel on the fleet.
Do you know what people used to say when ending a conversation? Peace.
Still wearing her hologloves, Melissa stirred her mug and watched the black liquid flush to caramel brown. It hadn’t taken long to set up the array’s reconfiguration. She opened as many viewscreens as the panel would allow; they were crammed together like soap bubbles competing for every inch of available space. She sipped her coffee, measuring the stale cream and the underlying bitterness of imported Arabica.
A new screen suddenly hatched and swelled, pushing the others out of the way like an immense blister. Melissa was suddenly staring into the face of Security Chief Tristan Macomber.
“Doctor Lobo?” he began. Handsome, with a puff of beard on the tip of his chin, he smiled awkwardly and said, “Can I ask what you’re doing?”
Melissa lowered her coffee. “I have permission.”
“Uh-huh.” The screen was brightening, and the security chief squinted in the white light flooding his office; the orbital array angling its panels to channel sunlight into Ishtar’s general vicinity. He glanced dubiously towards his window.
“Sorry,” Melissa said. “I only need the solar array for an hour or so.”
“That’s fine, but next time, Doctor Lobo, can you remember to alert me first? I just like to know we’re not being cooked alive in the middle of the nightweek.”
He was probably making a joke.
Melissa hoisted a smile onto her face. “I promise I am not cooking you alive.”
“Glad to hear it, doctor.” He hesitated. “Are you okay?”
She swallowed a bitterness that wasn’t coming from the coffee. “I made a Terrible Mistake. I need to fix it.”
Macomber’s forehead creased. She realized that her hands were shaking, and she hid them behind her back.
“Anything I can do to help?”
Time is running out. Time is running out. Time is running out.
“No, thank you.”
Time is running out. Time is running out.
She disconnected the call, blotting her sweaty hands dry on her pants. The security screen fell back into the panel like a flower closing up for the night. The other screens expanded in its absence.
Someone whistled behind her, and Melissa turned to see Umerah Javed—
—Teleoperations Specialist, lives in Room 818, green door—
—leaning casually in the doorway, grinning at her. “Someone has a boyfriend!”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Melissa insisted.
The woman shrugged. “Last I heard he’s single, and last I saw he’s cute.” A leggy, striking woman with black curls dangling around a coffee-colored face of unusual loveliness, Umerah was part of the teleoperations team. The “bee team,” as they were referred to, since they were in charge of bringing recovered materials from the Venusian surface via balloons like large orange bees bearing pollen to the hive.
Umerah sat down beside her, propping her booted feet on the panel. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I were placing bets on who might shout down our lofty governor, it would never have been you.”
The woman laughed, showing bright teeth and twinkling eyes. “Sorry, I was eavesdropping. You’re not the first person to yell at the Allie-Cat… just the first one to have succeeded in getting her to back down.”
Umerah raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
Melissa blushed, took a quick sip of her coffee to cover her embarrassment. “Sorry.” She adjusted another knob on the board, refining the array’s configuration. Silence gathered in the teleoperations room.
Melissa enjoyed silence. Growing up, she often thought of her sister Diane as a noisy miniature tornado. Always talking, humming, whistling, laughing, or crying. It was a habit that had not ebbed through adulthood.
Umerah, however, probably subscribed to the Diane theory of human interaction. Barely two minutes had passed when the woman suddenly leaned forward, so close that Melissa could smell the delicate splash of perfume on her neck-line.
“Listen,” the woman whispered, “This is none of my business, but maybe you should take the next shuttle out of here, Mel.”
“We’re in a dangerous spot right now.”
Melissa frowned. “Hypercane Larry is on the other side of the planet, and as long as we resume our drift in the next few hours, it will pose no direct threat to us.”
Umerah stared at her. “That’s not what I was referring to. Do you really not know what’s going on?”
Melissa said nothing.
Her visitor hesitated, as if considering how to make a delicate point that. Then she poured herself a cup of coffee.
No sugar. No cream.
“So…” Umerah said at last, apparently deciding not to press on with her previous line of discussion. “What are you doing, anyway?
“Reconfiguring the solar array.”
“Isn’t that outside your area?”
“A little,” Melissa conceded. “But solar radiation can affect balloon navigations.”
The array itself had begun life as a very different project. The IPC Colonization Board had deployed immense shields to block the sun and plunge Venus into perpetual darkness. The idea had been to reduce the hellish temperatures, allowing for planetary remediation and—eventually—surface settlements. The deployment arrays were positioned around the brightworld to gauge the idea’s viability, but the plan was quickly trashed when it was pointed out that in terms of cost, time, safety, and productivity, aerostat colonization was the only option that made any sense. “Sky estate” was the way to go.
The deployment arrays, however, were still in place, and these were hastily converted to solar arrays. Thanks to the transterminator flow, Ishtar’s night was four days long; access to the orbital arrays was allowed to drive sunlight to where the various colonies needed it. Mostly, for gardening purposes.
“Did you have lunch yet, Melissa?”
“I will have lemon chicken, saffron-rice, and pudding at 1:15 p.m.”
“I see.” A pause. “Can I ask you something? How can you be so sure that Deme Khius didn’t crash? It’s not showing up on ladar or satellite.”
Melissa darkened. “Deme Khius did not crash.”
“But everyone else is convinced it—”
“It did not crash!”
Umerah held up her hands in parley and started to say something, when suddenly one of the panel screens expanded and began flashing.
The display was set to detect and report on any significant thermal changes in the surrounding atmosphere.
Ordinarily, there was nothing to detect above the typical background range.
Now, however, a shape was appearing on the thermal view. A glowing blob that quickly assumed a distinct silhouette. A shape, in the clouds some nine thousand meters to the west of Ishtar, and about a thousand meters below it.
Umerah peered at the monitor. “What the hell is that?”
Melissa was already heading towards the door. But she had been asked a question, and she knew it was rude not to answer.
“That,” she said, “Is Deme Khius.”
She went into the hallway, while her visitor exclaimed in disbelief, “What?!”
The presiding authority of Ishtar stood with her retinue before a giant, glowing real-time hologram of the thermal imaging feed. The woman’s heliophiliac haircut framed a face battle-scarred with anxiety, exhaustion, and now, a splash of hope.
The holo showcased a crescent-shaped blur, like a smudge on an X-ray plate. Deep within soupy, sulfuric acid clouds to the southwest.
Governor Waltari strode through the hologram, the light washing across her spiked hair like a supernova. “How did you do this, Doctor Lobo?”
Impatiently—thinking of parsley—Melissa said, “I turned the solar array into a gigantic, high-powered searchlight. A heat-light, to be more accurate. Then I used it to make a sweep of the clouds. The demes have metallic hulls, so when metal heats up…” She pointed to the blurred shape in the hologram.
The governor didn’t seem to know what to say. “What made you even think of taking this approach?” She turned to Security Chief Tristan Macomber. “Your thoughts?”
Macomber frowned and he struck his hand into the scintillating light. “We don’t know for sure this is Deme Khius, governor.”
Melissa said, “There’s nothing else it could be. We’re looking at something large and metal and suspended in the atmosphere. Which means its balloon is still functioning. It’s Deme Khius.”
“Then why the hell isn’t it showing up on ladar?” the chief demanded. To make his point, he switched the hologram to an oval-shaped grayspace. Ladar signals pinged out from Ishtar in steady waves. Tiny blips flared, indicating the position of weather balloons and com-buoys. But Deme Khius—if that’s what Melissa had indeed found—was absent.
The governor nodded. “A good question. Melissa?”
Melissa was silent. She glanced to the window, envisioning the substation lurking within the darker, fast-flowing clouds beneath them. “I don’t know,” she muttered.
The security chief continued: “And why haven’t they responded to our hails? We’ve been broadcasting for two hours, asking them to report in!”
“Magnetic particulate in the atmosphere might be interfering with communication and ladar,” Melissa suggested, not really believing it. “We won’t know until I get aboard.”
Governor Waltari blinked. “Until you get aboard? Melissa, I’m sending Tristan and his team to visually confirm your findings.”
“I found the station,” Melissa insisted, rocked by a new wave of panic.
“And we thank you for that. But this is a job for Tristan’s team. They—”
Thinking fast, Melissa said, “The balloon stabilization has been compromised. That’s the only explanation for why it’s sitting so low in the clouds.”
Tristan’s frown turned darker. “You just told us that the balloon was working properly.”
“I didn’t want to panic anyone.”
“You didn’t want to panic anyone?”
The security chief gaped at her. “What? Timothy what?”
Melissa stammered, fighting to collect her thoughts. “If the storm tore the balloon, lifting gas leakage is the only thing that can account for a descent of this magnitude.”
Macomber was unmoved. “The spiders will take care of it,” he said with a shrug.
Time is running out, time is running out, time is running out.
“True,” Melissa stalled, daring to meet his gaze. “Unless the spiders were already working on the breach at the height of the storm, at which time Hypercane Larry might have flung them out into the sky. If I’m correct, then that station will continue descending until it really does crash.”
Governor Waltari paled. “We can’t have that. Melissa will accompany you.”
“Governor…” Tristan protested.
“We need all the help we can get.”
“The IPC is sending a fleet to take control of Ishtar!”
“What fleet?” Melissa asked, shocked. She looked from one frightened face to another.
“To ‘aid our recovery,’” Waltari went on, her voice stretched thinly over abject dread. “Do all of you understand the position we’re in? If they get here and we’re still missing their biggest manufacturing hub, Ishtar gets militarized. I’m talking garrisons. Reappropriations of all facilities and resources. The end of our sovereignty as long as the AF is deemed a threat.”
Tristan looked to the floor. “So basically, forever.”
Melissa waited for them to say more, but they didn’t.
“I don’t understand,” she managed. “I found Deme Khius. Let’s get it back.”
The room settled into a pained silence. Even the holo reverted to the newsfeed that had been playing when Melissa arrived to report her findings; a ticker at the bottom of the holo showed news from Earth, but the news was all about Venus: VENUS IN THE HOT SEAT—COLONISTS STILL MISSING.
Waltari’s pallor flushed scarlet as she read the ticker. “And we need to know who the hell leaked this news! I had the entire colony on com-blackout!”
“Except for Khius,” Melissa pointed out.
The governor stared at her. “Except for Khius, right. Go with the security team. Get that deme back.”
Just calm the fuck down.
Yes, they located the station. Someone turned the solar array into a kind of searchlight and the damn thing popped up on sensors. How? Because despite the darksleeve aura, the station is still made of fucking metal, that’s how.
Bottom line: They know Khius is out there now.
No, don’t move it. As long as they still think it’s an accident they’ll play it by the book. Besides, they’re keeping the solar array trained on it now. If it starts zipping around in the clouds, I think that’ll look suspicious, don’t you?
I don’t know who’s responsible for finding it, and it doesn’t actually matter. Keeping Khius off the grid was a temporary bid, just to draw the IPC into orbit. And the farscan shows that the IPCS Sargon is en route with three additional battleships. A target far juicier than we hoped.
Just remind the darkfleet that when they strike, they go in hard and fast.
And if possible, try not to hit Ishtar. We’re going to have a problem with debris raining down, anyway. Really don’t need antimatter batteries detonating in this atmosphere.
Every colonist owned a biosuit, issued upon immigration to the station. Melissa’s had hung like a starchy effigy in her closet. She had never worn it, and as she slid into its cream-colored sleeves she felt a distinct throb of pang. She checked the O2 tanks six times, before finally stepping into the corridor leading to the shuttlebay and airlock—
—and running straight into Tech Specialist Umerah Javed.
The woman had been in the midst of knocking, and she recoiled from the violence of the door opening. “Doctor Lobo? I was just…” She trailed off, looked her up and down. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“I’m going to Deme Khius.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Let the security team handle it.”
“I have to be there.”
“Why do you care?” Melissa demanded, brushing past the woman and marching down the corridor to the shuttlebay. Umerah sprinted to keep pace with her. She looked hurt. “I thought we were becoming friends.”
“No one wants to be friends with me. Want to know what everyone calls me behind my back? Robo-Lobo. The girl with no emotions.”
“I’ve never heard anyone call you that.”
Melissa swallowed hard, embarrassed and awkward and uncertain. “You wouldn’t understand. The day you arrived on Ishtar, I was working in the shuttle bay. A balloon had gotten caught in a tether and needed repairs fast, so I was overseeing the project on the spot. I saw you march down the gangplank. People looked at you and smiled. They liked you on sight because of your looks and smile and confidence. In a week, you were the most popular person here.”
Umerah’s smile faded. “Where I come from, it’s important to strike alliances and ingratiate yourself with the locals.”
“So it’s tactical?”
The woman hesitated.
“Even so,” Melissa continued, “If you lose a friend, you have a thousand more. I only have one friend in the universe and I made a Terrible Mistake on Earth and I made another Terrible Mistake and it’s my fault, and I promised her nothing bad would ever happen to her! I promised her!”
“I don’t under—”
“I… I…. I…” Melissa swallowed hard, feeling the violent start of panic like thunder in her head. “I…”
Like that day in the street. The traffic flying past. Melissa frozen in place, unable to do anything.
Robo Lobo is on the fritz!
The day of the Terrible Mistake, she had stood like a statue, like a malfunctioning automaton, watching the cars scream past just as she was screaming in her head, telling herself to cross the street. The panic had frozen her in place.
Tech Specialist Javed touched her face. “Um… parsley?”
Melissa’s wildly flailing thoughts locked onto the image of emerald leaves and paler stalks. “There’s none left,” she muttered.
Her legs broke through the paralyzing web, and a moment later she was running so quickly that the overhead lights seemed to strobe past.
Shuttle Bay I-10. Red doors.
Lights were already flashing around the airlock. The last of Macomber’s security team was stepping aboard the Bombay-model shuttle when Melissa entered, and she broke into a flat-out dash across the hangar, puffing in her suit so that her visor temporary fogged. When she finally settled into her seat, she was wheezing.
There were six members of the security team already seated, gazing at her curiously. Chief Macomber was in the pilot seat; his hands moved across the instrument panel, the klaxons rang out around them, and Melissa felt the vibration of the docking rings releasing. The hangar doors swung open beneath them.
Since Ishtar was still acting as buffer, the cloud-tops beyond the glasstic windows were a stunning sight: Venusian winds bent visibly around the massive station, insulating a pocket of calm like a force-field in the midst of an alien maelstrom.
The shuttle dropped from the hangar.
Melissa felt her stomach lurch into her throat.
Their fall was arrested a moment later, when the shuttle thrusters kicked on and Macomber rotated the craft, turning its nose towards the dark clouds where the missing deme lurked. Melissa felt a new ripple of panic snake through her, but she thought again of parsley. The paralysis alighted on her briefly, like cold fingertips tickling her arms and legs, and then was gone.
The shuttle eased forward and dipped below Ishtar’s protection.
The winds struck like a hurtling train. Melissa shut her eyes and thought of doors. Red doors and green doors and blue doors and cream doors. The shuttle thrusters creaked as they fought to keep the craft steady.
When she opened her eyes again, the cabin door was sliding open and Tristan tapped the one of his fellow officers to replace him at the helm. The man hopped up, leaving his seat open for the chief.
But Macomber didn’t take the seat. To Melissa’s surprise and consternation, he walked to the shuttle’s main door—the same sky-blue as the shuttle itself—and drew it aside.
Wind screamed across the gap like a banshee.
“That’s dangerous,” Melissa said, finding her voice. “Chief, you shouldn’t do that!”
He turned from the view of clouds and storms, of light and dark and wind and steam. Behind his faceplate, he glared at her.
“I didn’t want this, goddam it!” he snapped. “You’re a goddam balloon technician. You had no business at all joining a security run!”
Melissa stared blankly. “I don’t…”
Her eyes flicked to the others. Half the men regarded her coolly. Half didn’t meet her eyes at all.
Her gaze returned to the chief, and she gasped when she realized he had drawn his service pistol, its muzzle aimed in her direction.
“Get up,” Tristan ordered.
“You’re going to kill me?” she asked, unable to make sense of what was happening. Was it a joke? Was this flirting?
“You’re in the middle of a war zone, you stupid bitch.” His face flushed to a scarlet pallor. “We’re luring the Sargon and other battleships to Venus. There’s a darkfleet waiting to spring on them. All of us here—” He indicated his compatriots—“will be ‘lost’ during this mission to disincline the governor from sending further teams. In fact, you sort of inspired the way we’re going to cover our tracks; once we’re aboard Khius, we’re sending this shuttle on a nose-dive to the surface, sending up a nice… what did you call it? Ejecta plume, right? Everyone will think we’re dead.”
Melissa stammered, trying to parse what he was saying. “Why doesn’t the station show up on ladar…”
“Our Asteroid Federation friends smuggled a darksleeve for the deme. When Hypercane Larry hit, it was the perfect opportunity to set everything in motion.” He looked sidelong at her. “You know, others figured we could just take you aboard Khius with us. But my argument is that you are a completely unpredictable risk.”
“Take me aboard Khius!” she pleaded. “That’s all I want! That’s the whole reason I even looked for the deme! Please, just let me go to my room and—”
“Why did you look for it?” Tristan snarled. “You don’t fucking talk to anyone! You don’t seem to give two shits about the politics around here! So none of us expected that you—of all people—would swiftly undo a year-long plan in just minutes! Why? What the hell gives?”
Melissa felt tears spring to her eyes. “Athena. She’s in the room by herself. The food must be gone by now and she must be so scared.”
His jaw dropped. “Are you crazy? You interfered in this because of a stupid—”
She didn’t know what impelled her next move. The impulse erupted, in sheer defiance of the threat of his pistol. Maybe it was that he called her crazy. Or that he might hurt Athena, now that he knew she was still on Khius.
She threw herself at the security chief, grabbing for his weapon.
Tristan easily sidestepped her novice attack. A moment later, he had her arms twisted behind her back, the weapon pointed at her faceplate. He was strong. Melissa could barely budge as he marched her to the open door.
“Goodbye, Doctor Lobo.”
“Cloudfoot!” she screamed. “Cloudfoot!”
And then she was shoved out into the dark Venusian sky.
Diane stood in the doorway of her bedroom, fighting back tears as she watched Melissa pack.
“I’m sorry I called you crazy,” her sister said.
“You didn’t call me crazy. You said I was out of my mind.”
“But Mel, just listen okay? You can’t move to another planet because your pet rabbit almost got hit by a car! That doesn’t make sense!”
“There are no cars on Venus.”
Diane growled and paced in a circle. “Listen, you left the back door open, and Athena got out. But she’s okay! You got her back!”
Melissa’s hands trembled as she zipped up the luggage compartments. She hadn’t gotten Athena back from the concrete island in the middle of the busy street. She had been too scared – too frozen in place. She had been afraid to thread the blur of steel traffic. Afraid that even if she could get her feet to move, little Athena might run at her and be squished, or might run away and be squished.
So no, Melissa had just stood on the sidewalk like a statue. Like a malfunctioning robot. Robo-Lobo! Robo-Lobo on the fritz!
It had been Diane who marched out into traffic to rescue Athena. Diane, who could have been hit by a car doing that. Diane who brought the scared little bunny back because Diane was normal and perfect and beautiful and apparently courageous too.
I’m useless, Melissa thought, zipping up a final suitcase. I’m the girl who builds weather-drones. Who aces every school test. But who is not cut out for this world.
Her sister let out a strangled sob. “Please don’t leave us, Mel.”
“I have valuable skill-sets for the Ishtar colony.”
“Venus is hell.”
“I’ll be living in the clouds.” Melissa met her sister’s gaze in a rare moment of eye contact. “It’ll be okay.”
Her sister managed a small, sad smile despite the tears. “I’m going to call you Melissa Cloudfoot from now on.”
Melissa screamed as she plunged into black clouds, knowing that her suit was not designed for the 900-degree heat that awaited her. Already, smoke was curling from her biosuit sleeves and chestplate and the molding of her visor. Bubbles blistered up from her gloves.
The “cloudfoot” command leapt from Melissa’s biosuit comlink, bounced off the orbital satellite array, and activated the shoal of weather balloons below Ishtar station. She was plummeting through an especially green cloud when she slammed into a rising balloon, like a trapeze artist caught by an airy cushion. The rubbery surface rippled out around her.
Melissa lay still, her heart pounding in her chest.
When she found her voice, she whispered, “Uplink request, Lobo, Melissa.”
In her left eye, a frost-blue icon appeared. She selected it with a blink, and abruptly had control of the weather balloon’s nav computer.
She set coordinates to where Deme Khius lurked, and the balloon whisked her off in that direction.
The lower clouds offered zero visibility. Melissa was fumbling with her wrist-light when the weather balloon impacted something vast and pliable. The collision stunned the craft, and she pitched forward, striking the rubbery, springy resistance of an aerostat support balloon.
The aerostat balloon, as seen by the mint glow of her wrist-light, was a staggering sight. Thick, rubbery, and pale like the bladder of some Venusian monster from old sci-fi tales. Melissa pressed her gloved hands against it, while the weather balloon beneath her continued thumping and fighting to hold steady in the buffeting winds.
How will you get inside? You forgot to bring a knife, idiot.
Her biosuit was now smoking from every seam. Not long before it ruptured.
She fought to stay ahead of her swelling panic. Couldn’t afford to freeze now.
Aerostat balloons weren’t something she could pry apart with her hands… but there might be another option.
“Access drill-bay,” she said. The weather balloon contained replacement parts for malfunctioning surface drillbots. The contraption vibrated beneath her as a compartment slid open. Melissa blindly reached in, the smoke from her suit curling around as if she was on fire.
She found what she was seeking. A diamond-headed spade, large enough that she needed two hands to jab it into the support balloon and puncture the material. In minutes, she was squeezing through a breach, warm air gushing around her as she wormed her way inside.
It was pitch dark within. Her wrist-lights glinted off spiderbots that went scuttling past her, their spinnerets already concocting the threading and patches needed to repair the damage. They clustered around the hole and set to work.
Melissa ran, bouncing, falling, bouncing again, like a child in an inflatable castle. Her wrist-lights splashed on industrial rivets and maintenance hatches running beneath Deme Khius.
She worked her way to Hatch K5. Melissa cranked the hatch wheel, and a moment later she was climbing up into the substation. She hastily shed her biosuit and abandoned it, steaming and dissolving, in a maintenance closet.
It was only a short walk to the comm array from there.
She didn’t understand half of what she was transmitting. She only repeated what Macomber had told her—about the darksleeve fleet, about the planned timing of battleship arrivals, about how Khius had been rendered a stealth station. And while she didn’t know precisely where the IPCS Sargon was, she figured that a wideband transmission would find its way to the battleship’s attention.
Tristan, you disappoint me.
I told you to leave Doctor Lobo alone. I said take her prisoner if you had to. I’m not certain how you interpreted that order as “I’m going to throw her out of the fucking shuttle.” She’s not the problem. Your stubborn insistence on doing things your way is the problem.
So look around you, now. You’re in the detention cell of the IPCS Sargon. Deme Khius has been captured and returned to Ishtar. Our darkfleet is high-tailing it out of orbit because the game is up, the element of surprise is gone.
Yeah, I bet you have a headache. Long day, and the IPC has you scheduled for a full mind-scan to ferret out your co-conspirators. I’ve seen the scans at work. It’s ugly business, my friend. They’ll pull my name, and the names of the others, right out of your head synapse-by-synapse.
No, I’m not going to pursue vengeance against the good doctor. She had everything stacked against her and yet she still outmaneuvered us. I respect that. Where I’m from, you don’t punish that kind of resourcefulness. You step back and admire it.
Headache getting worse? No, it’s not stress, Tristan. There’s a nanobot in your head, about to blend your gray matter into a useless soup. Not as elegant as a cyanide capsule, but honestly, I wouldn’t trust you to swallow it anyway.
“You’re sure everything is okay?”
Melissa sat on her sofa, facing the holoterminal’s projection of her sister’s face. It was optimal com-time between Venus and Earth, with messages pinging back-and-forth at just three minutes each way.
“Everything is okay,” she replied.
In fact, things were better than okay. The six-minute communication delay worked fine for Melissa; instead of the flurry of rapid-fire dialogue from her sister, things were slowed to a gentle, manageable pace. She sighed, petting the little rabbit sitting in her lap.
If Athena had been scared during her terrible ordeal of loneliness, she wasn’t showing it now. The rabbit sat very still, eyes half-closed in contentment as Melissa talked soothingly.
“You must have been so scared with your food dish empty and your water bottle dry. You must have thought I abandoned you.” She kissed the rabbit’s furry head. “I would never abandon you.”
When six minutes had passed, the holoterminal ignited with Diane’s newest diatribe on how Earth media was reporting some kind of conflict around Venus and how much the Lobos missed their offworld daughter and how Melissa might consider saying more than a handful of words given the transit time and cost of these communications.
Melissa continued to stroke her bunny’s ears, and when Diane signed off, she sat there a while longer, letting the afternoon stretch into a tranquil quiet.
At 6:15, she made dinner.
By Valerie Valdes
And that’s our story.
Brian has this to say about the story: “An Incident on Ishtar” is a story very near and dear to my heart, as it was written in the immediate aftermath of the death of a beloved pet. Knowing how upset I was, a friend of mine said, “Bri, you’re a writer. Write her into a story.” In addition to this, “An Incident on Ishtar” is set in the same universe as my novel REDSPACE RISING, which features the character of Umerah Javed in a prominent role (and which makes sly reference to the events of this story at one point).
When I first read this story, I spent the entire time wondering what Big Mistake the character could possibly have made that would send her to space. The reveal shook me! I was so relieved the bunny was okay in the end. And the humans, too, of course. But mostly the bunny.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Richard Adams, who said, “You know how you let yourself think that everything will be all right if you can only get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Brian Trent’s speculative fiction appears in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Great Jones Street, Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), COSMOS, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, and numerous year’s best anthologies. The author of the historical fantasy series RAHOTEP, he is also a 2015 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award finalist and Writers of the Future winner. Trent lives in New England, where he works as a novelist, screenwriter, and poet.
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta, GA, and she enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.