Chapter Three - Mercedes


The dark atmosphere of night side Venus slid by silently beneath the scoop ship. The namach Mercedes slid an arm through the gravigel surrounding her and adjusted the ship's descent vector to be a little steeper than the computer recommended. The ship's speed would be greater on entry, but still well within the margin of safety.

Mercedes, who's given name was Karen Eriksson, was one of twenty-seven scoop ship pilots that 'mined' the atmosphere of Venus. Each ship was designed to dive deep into the carbon-rich atmosphere and 'scoop up' carbon-dioxide. Static filters in the ship's intake filtered out most of the sulfur compounds.

'Watch Tower' she thought, picturing Jerry's perfect face. Nanomachines in her mind opened a communications channel to an orbiting space station floating in space above her. 'Mercedes in Whale Six. Starting my run now.'

'G'luck,' a man's voice said in her head a few moments later. 'Don't take any chances okay Merc? Keep the belly-side down Whale Six.'

'Working on it, Watch Tower. Don't forget you still owe me a full body massage. I'll see you sunny-side in thirty minutes to collect.' With Jerry's pleased laughter thundering in her head, she left the communications channel open as she plunged into darkness.

The ship slid into the upper tendrils of the planet's atmosphere and heat began to build on its lead surfaces. High temperature super conductors transferred much of the initial heat to fins atop the ship to be radiated into space. "Seven five kilometers, speed four five two zero meters per second," the computer said.

Atmospheric pressure outside the ship was just barely registering on the instruments, but it lurched roughly to the left as a wind gust greater than one hundred meters per second slammed into it. The gravigel around her, responding to sensors on the hull, fed pressure and temperature data directly to the nanomachines in her skin. She could 'see' the clouds billowing around her with a combination of heat and radar sensors combined in a computer generated display. She could 'feel' the air tightening around her as it grew heavier with sulfuric acid by the second. It battled against her like a sentient thing.

Moving in the gel, Mercedes adjusted the ship's trim, keeping the nose up and the outer edges level by positioning her body in the gel. It felt very much like sky diving through the oxygen-rich atmosphere of her native world and she reveled in the rush of gravigel around her, the pounding of her heart, and the metallic taste of adrenalin in her mouth.

The Company had tried countless computer-piloted ships, but none could make the kinds of intuitive and instant reactions a live pilot could. The upper atmosphere of Venus was a churning mix of nitrogen and sulfuric acid where gusting winds sometimes slammed into descending ships at over two hundred meters per second. Sulfuric acid rained from the upper reaches of the atmosphere without ever reached the surface below. The surface temperature of the planet of love was over four hundred fifty degrees Celsius. The sulfuric rain evaporated thirty kilometers above the stony ground.

Below this acid rain from hell, the air was thick with carbon dioxide. Sunlight filtering through the sulfur clouds in the upper atmosphere was converted to heat upon reaching the barren rock at the surface of Venus and radiated back toward space, but like a greenhouse in summer this heat was reflected back down toward the planet by the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was this trapped heat that kept surface temperatures at over four hundred fifty degrees Celsius.

The air was thick also. Every square inch of the planet's surface had six hundred kilograms of atmosphere sitting over it; ninety times the weight pressing on the rocks on the surface of the Earth. It was this hot blanket of carbon dioxide that she sought.

"Five zero kilometers, speed one zero three six meters per second," the computer said.

The leading surfaces of Whale Six glowed white-hot now and she was traveling one hundred meters per second too fast. Mercedes shifted in the gravigel and the ship's nose came up half a meter. A two second burst from the engines slammed her forward in the gravigel as she slowed the ship. She could feel the nano-circuitry coming apart inside her as the G-forces mounted then subsided.

In the space station above, Jerry watched her glowing trail spearing across the night side darkness of the planet below. Telemetry told him that she had entered too fast again. "Damn, why won't she listen?"

Heat conduction was no longer sufficient to keep the ship from being damaged by the heat. This now required a new approach and static electricity was the key. As the surfaces of her ship warmed, tiny circuits below the super-conducting metal turned excess heat into electricity. This electricity fed toward a spear of metal thrusting far out from the ship. Coronal charge gathered rivulets of molten sulfur from the thickening atmosphere. The sulfur flowed back along the white-hot tip to coat the belly of the ship. There it burned away to be replaced by more in a cycle that kept her ship from burning up as it plunged through the sulfur clouds of Venus. There were hundreds of pointy teeth along the forward edges of Whale Six.

"Four zero kilometers, speed three five eight meters per second," the computer said. Right on time, the ship dropped like a stone.

As her ship blazed through the atmosphere burning off molten sulfur, a pressure wave moved in front of it. The ship literally pushed a curved wall of hot sulfuric acid in front of it as it fell. The ship's teeth actually reached into this wall, counting on its density to provide enough sulfur to keep the ship' forward surfaces covered. At some point, however, this wall collapsed as lower speed and air density combined to destroy it. When that happened, for a brief instant, a violent vortex ripped along the length of the ship taking most of the air with it. The ship shuddered violently and shook off the sulfur that still remained from the fiery passage through the atmosphere. Suddenly finding nothing to support it, the ship dropped heavily into the atmosphere. Whale Six was flying then, not just dropping through the atmosphere. Buoyed by the dense atmosphere and her reduced inner pressure, the ship floated forward.

Mercedes was linked to the ship through the circuitry in the gravigel, which also protected her from the tremendous G-forces the ship had just experienced. A normal human could have piloted the ship down without the gravigel, though his or her muscles would have been very sore in the following days. Without the gravigel, a namach would have died.

Mercedes brought up a three dimensional display of the ship and rotated it quickly looking for any damage. Outside, Whale Six broke through the sulfuric cloud cover and flashed across the terminator into dayside Venus. Huge shafts of sunlight, sparkling with dust and sulfur rain played across the ship as it settled toward the ground below.

'Watch Tower, flea dip complete. Whale Six is clean and descending.' There was some minor structural damage to the upper heat radiating fins of the ship, but nothing that the mechanics back at Ziller Station could not fix. What worried her, however, was a glowing red outline surrounding engine three. 'Tell Brady his patch didn't hold. Engine three is out again.'

'Got it, Six. Rescue three is on stattion, just in case.'

She hated that. Scrambling a rescue squad was normal procedure when she told them about a problem, but their pay came out of her share of the ship's load, not to mention the repairs on the upper fins. Inwardly cursing Brady and his half-assed repairs, she brought her attention back to the task at hand.

"Two five kilometers, speed one two seven meters per second."

Whale Six was now floating in a sea of high-pressure carbon dioxide. Mercedes increased her descent by opening the vast maw at the front of the ship just a little. Sensors inside that mouth sampled the purity of the air and found it much too high in sulfur compounds. She fed it into her auxiliary tanks to increase the pressure inside the ship. It descended deeper into the thick soup of the planet's atmosphere. A tickler, a computer message designed to break through whatever she was focusing on, got her attention. The outside temperature was over four hundred degrees!

'Watch Tower! Furnace at,' she called up a reading of her altitude, 'two three point oh seven kilometers.' She slammed the maw of the ship open and sucked in the planet's atmosphere as fast as she could. Within just a few seconds, she was diving rapidly toward the ground.

Venus trapped heat in a layer of carbon dioxide. That layer raced around the planet sixty times faster than it rotated. Churning and roiling, it was a thick soup of carbon compounds combined with a thin mix of nitrogen and sulfur compounds. This churning atmosphere usually kept most of the planet at a constant, though extremely hot, temperature. Just like on Earth, however, there were hurricanes on Venus. These stretched up through the dense atmosphere to play in clouds that floated forty kilometers above the surface. Lasting only a few hours, they pulled heat from the surface and poured it into the sulfur clouds above forcing temperatures to climb to over a thousand degrees Celsius. The first scoop ship to find one of these storms was still lying in broken pieces somewhere on the rocky ground below Mercedes.

"Descent vector has exceeded safety margin but two seven three point five percent," the computer intoned. "One eight kilometers, speed three five eight meters per second."

####

Jerome looked up from his instruments and stared into his monitor at Iceman, the leader of the four-man rescue team. "Whale Six entered the vortex at just over ten kilometers. Her speed was greater than four hundred meters per second, which means she has a chance. With luck, she punched through the thing in just a few minutes."

"How long ago was that?" Iceman asked.

Jerome glanced at the clock at the bottom of the monitor. "A little over four minutes ago."

"When do we jump?"

"Not for at least an hour. I dropped a probe as soon as Whale Six told me about the furnace, but it won't reach it for another six minutes. You know I can't let you jump into that without knowing it's gone."

"But Jerry, it's Merc," Iceman said softly.

"I know," was all Jerome could think of to say.

####

It was the pain that made her struggle up from the darkness. The computer was listing off the things that had gone wrong with the ship as she used her arms to push herself up off the floor. Off the floor! Where was the gravigel?

'Lights,' she thought and the computer responded by bathing the gel chamber with soft, pale-blue light designed to make her relax. 'I don't want to relax yet,' she thought and commanded the ship to make the lighting yellow. It dutifully obeyed and then went back to listing what was wrong.

"The starboard bilateral instrument cluster is not functioning. The starboard hydraulic system is non-functional due to a lack of hydraulic pressure in the return line. The starboard..."

'Shut up,' she thought. She would have screamed it except her nanomachines had sealed her mouth and nose. As a result, it had also cut off her breathing system when she entered the gravigel. 'Where is the gravigel?' she asked the computer.

"There is positive pressure in the pilot cabin. The gravigel has been retracted until cabin integrity can be restored. Estimated repair time is two point zero two minutes.'

Mercedes brought up a maintenance display of her nano-circuitry. Over thirty percent of it had failed. She would only be working at half capacity in two minutes.

'Status of stasis pods,' she thought to the computer.

"Both pods are fully functional. Access doors are jammed, however. Estimated repair time is three point four three minutes."

'Just great,' she thought to herself. 'Is anything working on this tub?'

"Compressors are fully functional and will have completed filling tank number five in one point two six minutes. Tanks one through four are currently full. Filling of the final tank will commence as soon as tank five is filled. It will take..."

'Enough!' She wanted to scream; to kick something. Better yet, she wanted to kick Brady. If she hadn't been worrying about that failed engine, she might have noticed that vortex soon enough to avoid it. Now she was stuck... Where was she?

'Location,' she demanded.

"The ship is stationary one point zero three kilometers above the surface of the planet, four point two one kilometers north-northeast of Sif Mons."

'Sif Mons,' she thought. Not a bad place to crash, though she hadn't technically crashed yet. Someone had once called Sif Mons the Iowa of Venus it was so flat. 'Easy for them to spot the wreckage...' She slammed her fist into her leg and felt the satisfying crunch of nanotubes shattering as they smashed into one another.

'Stop thinking like that! You're not dead yet. Not by a long shot,' she yelled inwardly at herself. 'Communications?'

"Communications will be restored in eight point two four minutes. Warning, structural failure in medical bay." The medical bay was where her spare nano-factories were. Damn! If those were lost it would cost her a month's pay to get new ones.

'Condition of sealed workstations inside the medical bay,' she demanded.

"Workstations one and three have been compromised. Workstation two is intact, though it has sustained considerable heat damage."

'Just great,' she grumbled to herself. Station two was where her factories were. If the four inside of her failed, she would have less than an hour to get to The Company doctors for replacements. Emergency replacements were not cheap.

'Exit to medical bay.'

"Not recommended, that area has been..." the computer started.

'I know,' she growled. 'Exit to medical bay.'

A section of the wall on her left dilated. Super heated air poured into the cabin. She winced as the hot gas found the cracks in the nanotubes on her hand and leg, but relaxed as her systems compensated and reduced the feeling in those parts of her body while rushing sealing tubes into place.

Her body was quickly becoming overloaded, however. Her nanomachines could convert some of the heat surrounding her to electricity. It stored as much as it could in tiny storage cells placed strategically about her body. Working overtime, her systems would use these for power.

But that was only a fraction of the heat that assailed her systems in the hot atmosphere of Venus. Extruding tiny nanotubes, her body dissipated more electricity into the air in a process similar to that used by Whale Six to keep itself cool. Combined with her storage systems, this should give her about ten minutes. She would then start overheating. Combined with the gravity that was rapidly tearing apart her nano-support system, the effects would cascade and she would simply burn up. From listening to two others who had undergone the process, she knew it would not be pleasant.

Trying not to run because running would build up heat too quickly in her systems, she stormed out of the control cabin and into the medical bay. It was small, barely two meters on a side, but it contained a huge array of body sensors and replacement parts. There were two fist-sized rents in the rear wall. Apparently the outer plating of the ship had pulled away there and taken a section of the lab wall with it. Brady was going to fix those for free!

The two failed workstations had contained biological replacements for some of her more vital organs. These were gone now, but could be replaced easily enough. Growing new organs had been one of the earliest uses of nanomachines.

Inside the second workstation, a small circulating system kept the contents at a constant thirty-seven degrees - body temperature. Over one hundred bacteria floated in a nutrient-rich bath. Making up one complete nanomachine factory, they built all of the elaborate systems that were currently keeping her alive. It was the DNA of the bacteria that actually grew the parts that were then assembled into the machines that built carbon nanotubes to cover her skin, repair machines to rebuild damaged body cells, communication machines that interfaced her directed thoughts to external systems such as the computer and Jerry on the station.

'Jerry!' She wanted to scream. How could she have forgotten about Jerry? To hell with Jerry, she screamed back at herself. Get the factory and get back into the pilot's cabin! For once, she listened to more prudent self and plunged her hand into an access panel on the side of the workstation.

Keyed to her body systems, the workstation quickly interfaced with her nano-circuitry and found that she was rapidly killing herself in the heat. It refused her initial command to transfer the bacteria to her body; informing her that to do so, in its opinion, would be an unwarranted risk to the expensive contents it was protecting. Overriding its caution, she had the storage tanks pump the factory inside her. Better to have it in there than dead.

Pulling her hand free, she turned to find the door to the pilot's cabin had closed. 'Exit,' she commanded, but nothing happened. Then she remembered the computer had said that communications were down.

'I thought namachs were supposed to be smart,' she proclaimed. 'When do I get my smart mechs?' Of course, she got no answer.

####

"Vortex collapsing," the station computer calmly announced.

Turning to the monitor linking him to the rescue team, Jerry tried to keep his voice calm but failed miserably.

"You are cleared for departure, Rescue One. Make one planetary circuit to bleed speed, then atmospheric entry is authorized."

"We'll bring her back," Iceman answered, "whatever her condition."

"Whatever her condition," Jerry whispered as the station shuddered under the launch of the two rescue ships.

####

There are some moments of your life when you truly believe that the idea of humans being a thinking animal is a myth. Mercedes was having one of those moments. Locked in a two-meter square room, she stared at where the exit should have been and slowly went through every curse she had ever heard or read. She had reached the letter H when it occurred to her that this was getting her nowhere. She had maybe two more minutes before her systems started to fail. Seconds after that she would begin to scream as her overloaded systems, trying to keep her alive, repaired cells only to have them fail again in the heat. Her death would drag out for long, agonizing minutes.

'Think Karen. If there was ever a time when you needed to come up with something, it was now.'

She did a quick visual inventory of the room, but aside from the workstations there was only a box of spare bacteria nutrient and two empty cabinets where she sometimes stored bars of body nutrients. Along the rear wall of the room, twin pipes carried compressed carbon dioxide from the ship's maw to storage tanks at the center of the ship. Sensors dotted the rest of the walls. Sensors she knew would normally feed her bodily functions to the ship's computer had the communications system been functional. But how did the computer know the workstations had failed?

She rushed to the second workstation and plunged her hand back inside. Her nanomachines were considerably slower in interfacing this time and she wondered if the damage to her systems was occurring faster than she originally thought. Then she found that this workstation was in the process of failing. She could only access a few of its processes and those were quickly becoming a jumble of distorted numbers and symbols as the quantum processors at the heart of the workstation failed in the heat building in the room.

"Cooling systems becoming ineffectual," a tiny voice inside her head said. Her nano-systems had reached the first warning stage. She had maybe a minute before they started shutting down some of her less vital systems in the hope of keeping at least part of her alive. She knew they would keep her brain alive all the way to a very miserable end.

'Cooling systems,' she thought to herself. 'How do I keep cool? I've got maybe three minutes until communications is restored, but I'll be dead in less than two.' She stared wildly around the room, her eyes continually passing over that lone box of nutrients in the corner.

'Nutrients,' she thought. 'Liquid nutrients... Evaporation!'

She ran to the box and ripped open the top. Four cans remained, but how to open them? The rents in the wall would do just nicely.

Grabbing a flap on the box, she dragged it to the first of the ragged rents in the rear wall. Lucky for her they had not punctured the compressed carbon dioxide lines. She was going to need all of this stuff she could get if she was going to break even on this trip.

Lifting a can, she pressed it against a jagged bit of metal until the can was punctured. Doing the same on the opposite side, she poured the rapidly evaporating liquid over her skin. Nothing happened! The liquid evaporated faster than it took to go from can to skin.

'Well, that was productive,' her negative self chided.

'Shut up,' she told herself. 'I'm trying to save your whining ass.'

She stuffed cans into the rents to cut down on the amount of heat pouring in through the holes, but knew it was like sticking a finger into a leak at the bottom of the Hoover dam. It might make the water stream out in a thinner stream, but it would still stream out.

Okay, the cans of nutrient would not work to cool her, but how about the workstations. They had ten times as much of the nutrient liquid.

Pulling off a rear access panel, she found the hose leading into the body-temperature tank of liquid in workstation two. Pulling as hard as she could, she tore it loose from the tank and was rewarded with a shower of sizzling liquid. The faltering pump in the unit still had enough life in it to empty the tank. She sprayed it over as much of her body as she could, keeping the hose as close to her as possible.

"Partial cooling restored," the tiny voice in her head said. But how much time had she bought?

Not wanting to find out the hard way, she went to the other workstations and wrested off their access panels. Unfortunately, these had failed completely. Only a tiny amount of liquid spilled out onto her skin from each of the hoses in these units.

"Cooling system failure eminent," the tiny voice said. She only had seconds now.

Panic gripped at her mind and she froze for a moment; not thinking, just feeling. Her heart pounded despite the efforts of her nano-circuitry to keep it calm. Her skin felt nasty with the caked nutrients drying and flaking away. She missed Jerry and his calm voice. Would he blame himself for her death?

'You aren't dead yet, missy, so get off your ass and do something! That door is going to open soon. All you have to do is cool down for a minute, maybe two.'

She struggled up from behind workstation three. She stumbled as she came around the unit and realized her systems were on the verge of collapse. They were starting to shut down her legs and arms. If that happened, she was certainly doomed.

'What's left?' she asked herself. Her head turned to look at the twin pipes extending along the rear wall - compressed gas. Her mind practically screamed at her. 'What happens when compressed gas sprays into a lower pressure area?'

Stumbling back to the wall, she used the cans to break loose a section of one of the rents. She was clear-headed, though her vision was beginning to fade. She could not feel her feet or hands. She grabbed the broken bit of metal and, with a back and forward motion, tore it from the wall. Then with both hands, she slammed it into the lower pipe.

The ragged bit of metal blew out of her hands, taking several fingers and a large portion of one palm with it. Her nano-systems shut down her control of her legs and arms as a large spray of gas covered her body. It was cold! She collapsed before her systems could correct themselves, but a moment later was rewarded by pain returning to her hands. She reveled in it.

"Full cooling restored," the nano-circuitry informed her as she struggled up.

Three minutes later, she commanded the computer to open the door to the control cabin. It closed behind her and she heard the hiss of gas being pumped from the room. It took almost two minutes, but eventually a near vacuum was returned to the control room.

'Launch system status,' she thought to the computer as the gravigel once more returned to the room.

"Hydrogen tanks are intact. Engine three is inoperative. Engines one, two, and four are fully functional."

'Commence one-minute emergency count down.' She brought up several displays and checked to ensure nothing was going wrong. She could not afford a mistake now.

'Watch Tower,' she thought when she was satisfied that everything was proceeding properly.

"Merc!" Jerry was practically yelling. "You okay? What happened?" He stopped, seemingly to take control of his raging emotions. "Strike that. Tell me later. Telemetry has you under a kilometer from the surface. You trying to become a snail again Merc?"

That was so unexpected that Mercedes actually laughed. 'Almost escargot, Watch Tower. Lighting this candle in thirty-four seconds. Tell Brady he's coming with my on my next run. After he gets out of the infirmary, that is. See you in ten.'

Fuel for the Whale fleet was composed of two components. The first was hydrogen. Eleven collection stations on Mercury grabbed as much of the solar wind as they could, turning high-speed protons and electrons into electricity and hydrogen. The electricity was used by the solar research stations on the planet and by mining operations. The hydrogen was shipped all over the solar system to fuel the various ships that plied the space-ways of man's growing space presence.

The second component was oxygen. The carbon dioxide from Venus was brought to huge factories leading and trailing Venus's orbit. These factories used bacteria and sunlight to split the carbon away from the carbon dioxide, releasing huge quantities of oxygen in the process. The carbon was turned into carbon nanotubes and shipped to a growing number of projects being conducted on and around the planets of the solar system. Currently, earth used eighty percent of all nanotubes made; most of that going into the massive space tether project that had been ongoing for more than a decade. The oxygen was used with the hydrogen from Mercury to power ships up and out of gravity wells.

"Launch in five, four, three..."

Mercedes felt the gravigel stiffen around her. With more than seventy percent of her nano-systems down or damaged, she was barely conscious as the ship blasted up and out of the dense atmosphere of Venus.

####

Jerry watched on his monitor as the two rescue ships converged on the still accelerating Whale Six. Mercedes should have cut her engine thirty seconds ago. She had not answered any of his calls, though his instruments showed the communications circuits on her ship as fully functional. Merc's biosensors were not so good. Most of her vital systems were failing.

Iceman's ship, Saving Grace, was the first to connect up with Whale Six's systems. It matched her speed and acceleration then settled close enough to its surface to pass a tether across. The tether merged with the nano-circuitry of the outer hull and commanded the ship's computer to shut down its engines. It dutifully obeyed.

In Whale Six's medical bay, a box of nutrients containing two cans floated up and bumped into a can jammed into a rent in the wall creating a tiny puncture. For a moment nothing happened, then the super heated liquid in the can blasted out of the puncture, widening it as the can accelerated away from the ship.

Saving Grace and Whale Six, at Iceman's command, fired there maneuvering rockets to turn the ships toward Collection Station Three, the closest of The Company's carbon processes plants. Behind them, Deliverance, the other rescue ship moved toward the opposite side of Whale Six. It bumped a tiny can there that was rapidly accelerating back toward Venus.

The can slammed against the hull of the ship and broke completely open; spilling the last of its contents in a smear on the surface of the ship. Small bits from nano-circuitry and metal of the hull of Whale Six had come away with the can. They two spread out in a smear on the surface of the ship.

####

It took the medics three weeks to bring Mercedes back to full duty. She had chaffed at the inactivity, but relished the time off. Jerry took the opportunity to request some of his leave and the two of them spent hours just talking as they watched ships arriving and leaving the working station.

"Why do we do this?" Mercedes asked him once as a large fuel-supply ship was docking.

"Why did the first sailors sail away from the sight of land?" He answered by way of a question. "Why did Columbus sail into territory everyone knew was filled with monsters? Why did Einstein question the accepted theories of his day? Why was the first atom split and then, much later, fused?"

She shook her head, not able to answer those questions either.

"Because humans are the dumbest thing to come along since tofu," he said laughing.

She laughed and then noticed a large number of people pulling themselves rapidly toward the dock. 'News,' she thought at the station computer. Five stories in, she found out why. Deliverance, one of the ships that had rescued her, had crashed during a training exercise. Both crewmembers had died when the static collection system on the hull of the ship had mysteriously failed.