by Sandra Woodruff and Jennifer Diane Reitz
© 2008 Sandra Woodruff and Jennifer Diane Reitz

 Chapter 10 - ROLLER COASTER


The sleek runabout gaily dove through the high clouds of Venus. Clouds which were no longer guarded by the sulfuric acid mist that had destroyed man's first robot probes. In fact, the clouds themselves were nothing like the light, creamy sulfur layer that for eons had veiled the mysteries of earth's errant twin.

What Richard saw from the pilot's seat was real water vapor, just like back home. He didn't like it. 

"I admit I've never been here, but it doesn't look right."

Tala momentarily stopped sightseeing. "What doesn't look right? All we can see is clouds!"

"Yeah, that's what's not right. All of the VR I've seen from this altitude has a view of the ground. These clouds are too thick." 

"No problem. With these instruments, I can find Maxwell Base with my eyes closed."

"You'll probably have to, but that's not what I'm concerned about. I think there's something wrong with the mechanics of the atmosphere. This problem may be bigger than we thought," he sighed. "It looks like we've got a big job ahead of us, Tala."

"Maxwell Base is locked in on the instrument panel. Eyes closed for a landing. Hit the 'No Smoking' light, Mallory, we're going in."

The usual scramble ensued in the passenger section when the touchdown warning horn burped. Those without a window view had to scamper back to their seats to get buckled in.

Only two members of the team had landed on Venus before. One was Marvin Gordon, the overly cheerful Atmospherics specialist. The other was Dr. Marilyn Beveridge, an ancient Nanobotanist.

A low frequency thrumming filled everybody and everything on the shuttle. The artificial gravity had reversed phase for the landing.

"We're a few feet from the airlock, Mallory," Tala noted. "You can dock on visual."

Richard goosed the joystick, maybe a nudge-and-a-half, then killed the juice. "What a team! Let's attach the data fiber and check the interior stats."

Tala cajoled the navigation term and walked through the VR environmental node for Maxwell Base. "It looks like the telemetry was right. The station needs work before we move in. Too hot, too much pressure, too much carbon dioxide. It's much worse in there than it is outside."

"Any idea what caused it?"

Tala flipped through the data for a moment. "It's built on a thermal vent to improve the efficiency of the power plant. Maybe there's a carbon dioxide source associated with the vent. It could be concentrating in there."

Richard briefly mulled the theory. "It's possible that heat from the crust gets into the station, but can't radiate out to the surface."

"If so, that means the heat exchanger in the power plant's offline."

"That makes sense. I'm not really surprised either. If every installation on Venus is in this condition, it's no wonder the place is reverting to nature."

Richard peeled the pilot's sensor skin and arranged it on his chair.

"If you need volunteers to go in there, Captain, count me out. I've got a couple of new games on my term that I want to get into."

Mallory looked at her kindly. "Tala, I'm not looking for volunteers on this mission. There are only three people onboard who even have any business in there right now."

Her stance eased a bit and she started to speak.

Mallory cut her off as he pointed aft at the passenger bay. "Go find Mike Musselman and get both of you suited up. We'll meet at the airlock in ten minutes."

Tala saluted, using fewer fingers than custom would dictate. "Aye, aye, Commandant. Your slaves will be at the ready, eager to die at your merest whim."

"Give me a break. You know I can't access these systems without you." His voice softened just a little as he continued, "Besides, with my new access level, I can get you any new moviegame you want before it goes commercial."

"I know," she answered foxily, "Where do you think my new games came from?"

A stormy look found its way onto his face.

"Anyway, no time for talk, Mallory. I've got to defy the laws of physics and fit Musselman into a powersuit."

"Use a prybar if you have to, but make sure he's secure. These suits are a little different from the asteroid mining units he's used to. We can't afford any mishaps." He lightened up and continued playfully, "'Specially on the first day."

Tala left the cockpit as if she was its captain. When she popped through the hatch into the passenger section, a dozen eyes searched her for non-verbal clues.

She coolly ended their suspense. "It was a perfect landing, right on the money. But the base isn't ready for habitation yet. We suspected as much from the data we already had, so not to worry. Captain Mallory, Mike Musselman, and I are head in there right now get the place shipshape."

She surveyed the faces and happily noted almost no surprise or fear. "Everybody relax for a couple hours. Catch a nap or try some moviegames. I just put a couple of new ones into my public file on the shipnet. Help yourselves."

A few curious souls spoke to their terms as she turned to her new ward. "Musselman, your moment of glory has arrived. Come on back with me. We've gotta figure out how to get you into a powersuit."

A somewhat bear-shaped man with Slavic and Scandinavian roots pushed his blond bangs from his eyes and rose. "Just butter my butt and give me a push, Miss Wolfe. Works every time."

"I'll include that if I ever shoot a vid on motivation," she chuckled.

The runabout's artificial gravity was off. Both people noted a slight weight loss. Neither commented as they walked to the back of the ship.

As an asteroid miner, Musselman was at home with any gravity that grabbed onto him. On the other hand, Tala wasn't about to admit that she'd had more than enough gravity changes in the past few days to satisfy her curiousity.

When they reached the sealed storage room, she whispered, "Open sez me," to its control panel.

"Enter, O Fair One," replied the door as it slid away into the wall.

"Nice trick, Miss Wolfe," marveled Musselman.

"You know how this gear gets. I figure that if I keep it entertained, it'll be my friend when I need it."

The big man nodded knowingly. "That's how I handle my mining equipment. Seems to make it work better, and it's harder for some thief to swipe stuff if it don't want to leave.

Tala decided that the big guy might have more gigs of ram than she'd given him credit for. She peered into the dark hold, but could only see the emergency lights. "Let there be lights," she snapped.

The revelation wasn't pretty.

"Uh oh!," understated Mike.

"Bloody hell!," understated Tala. "I can't believe it. I supervised the stowage myself. Where did the rest of this crap come from? There isn't enough room in here to change your mind."

She stretched and opened Chet's cupboard. His kennel case was still safely stashed.

"No problem, Miss Wolfe. I can rearrange this in no time with my powersuit," Musselman offered.

"Yes, problem. The powersuits, which were in front when I sealed the hatch, are now halfway to the back. There must be two tons of junk in front of them."

"It's alright," Mike reassured her. "Give me a few minutes. I'll move this stuff out of the way and get the powersuits out."

"Yeah, but some of it's really heavy."

A grin broke across the big face. "Just 'cause I run a powersuit don't mean I'm not in shape." He reached in and grabbed a large stack of crates and moved them into the hallway.

Mallory appeared as Mike blazed a trail through the hold. "What's going on here, Tala? I thought you personally supervised cargo stowage." 

"I did, and I sealed it myself. But it looks like somebody else unsealed it. We have about two tons of bonus cargo. Someone must have sneaked it on during that bogus delay at takeoff."

Richard looked troubled. "But who can unseal a cargo hold and add crates without the captain's permission."

A crackly voice answered his question from the hallway. "I can. The extra cargo is genetic material that is vital to the success of our mission." It was Marilyn Beveridge, the nanobotanist.

"Excuse me, Ms. Beveridge, but I thought you'd already sent everything through in advance," Mallory carefully explained. "We would have been happy to arrange for extra cargo space, had you'd requisitioned it."

Call me Doctor Beveridge, Mr. Mallory, if you please. I am a scientist of some standing. I am not one of the criminals you have recruited to join your merry pirate crew. I believe I am entitled to some consideration."

Richard the captain made a mental shift. He became Richard the diplomat before he opened his mouth. "My dear Doctor Beveridge, I understand your special status. We're lucky to have you along for this important mission."

"Yes, you most certainly are! The President General himself requested that I join you."

Tala eased past the pair and out of the cargo bay. Her melodramatic retching sounds echoed down the corridor.

Richard ignored the radio drama in the hallway as he continued. "What you must also understand, Doctor, is that the corporation has issued a strict export ban on nanobiological materials. Everyone in this team could face civil charges if word got out that we'd smuggled two tons of biomass to Venus."

"You have no reason for concern, Mr. Mallory. Everything in the additional containers has received a special export waiver from the highest levels of the corporation."

"I appreciate your assurances, Dr. Beveridge, but in the future, I'd like to be included in the loop. It's a silly thing called protocol. I'm sure you're familiar with how many datafiles must be created to keep the system happy."

"And I am sure that you believe you are doing your best to make this mission a success, Richard. Rest assured that I know precisely what I am doing."

"Undoubtedly, Doctor. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a team waiting for me. They've been sufficiently inconvenienced."

As Richard turned toward the powersuits, she interrupted again. "Before you depart, please have your man restack my crates. Their contents are very valuable."

Mallory froze. He gathered his thoughts before he replied. "Dr. Beveridge, that man is about to join me on an extremely urgent mission. I suggest that if you want your contraband moved, you do it yourself. There are some powersuits right behind your cargo, and I'm sure one would fit you nicely."

As the pruney doctor sputtered, Mallory continued with a condescending threat in his voice. "Now kindly clear this space. Three powersuits are about to come through here and it would be unfortunate if you were repeatedly crushed underfoot."

Beveridge wanted to leave in a snit, but chose to storm out in a huff instead.

"Oh, Tala, my dear," Mallory shouted playfully. "I know you're out there smirking. Kindly get yourself back here and into a suit."

He turned to the big blonde man next to him. "Impressive show of strength, Mike. I've met a lot of powersuit pilots who could barely lift their controls."

Musselman blushed. "Thanks, Captain Mallory, I always keep my controls maxed for negative feedback. That way, whenever I'm haulin' something, I can feel its mass. It's like one of those exercise gadgets you see ads for on the net. Mine's cheaper 'cause it's built into the powersuit."

Tala slipped past the blustery Dr. Beveridge and back into the cargo hold. She teased the captain. "Hey, Mallory, looks like you've got a hot one on the line. I think she's really sweet on you."

Richard cringed. "It amazes me what rejuvenation can do for a fossil. Did you know she's a throwback from the Twentieth Century?"

Musselman was mute, but Tala's disbelief was not. "Wait a minute. They didn't have rejuvenation back then. Her DNA would be so broken that she'd fall apart if she sneezed."

"Apparently not. Now I'm not saying they can make her young again. But she was one of the first to pay for a true DNA scan. She was smart enough to realize how important it would eventually be. Her earliest DNA record is the youngest they can make her. Rejuve stops aging but can't reverse it."

"It suits her," Tala snarled. "It's criminal that zombies like that can get rejuve, while people like us have to get old and die just because we can't afford it."

"Well then, my dear, let's finish this project. If we succeed, you'll have the money to rejuvenate until your limbs rot off...or more likely, until somebody strangles you."

"When I get back to earth, I swear I'm gonna break into her DNA scan and switch it with a lab chimp's data." 

Musselman was restless. "How about a little fun in our new powersuits in the meantime? I've worked enough spec jobs to know you only count your Ameros after the taxman already took his share."

Richard understood the big man's impatience. The suits were the latest design, and this model wasn't even on the market yet. The Ishtar Terra mission was of top economic importance, so it rated the best gear.

Tala agreed. "Alright Mike, I've got the butter. Slide your butt over here and let's get suited up."

Musselman grinned as he hit the HATCH OPEN control.

Richard didn't understand the butter reference, but giggled expectantly. He felt good to start the work he'd come to Venus to accomplish.

Musselman easily slipped into his powersuit, even without a rare dairy-based lubricant. 

The suit's term spoke up as Mike eagerly started its self test sequence. "All systems within normal parameters." 

The big asteroid miner looked through the menu and noted several new features that his old suit lacked. He was ready to put it through its paces on a real assignment.

Richard's suit systems were all go as well. His blood raced excitedly at the prospect of helping to tame Ishtar, the wild goddess.

Tala was less enthusiastic. She'd figured out a way to get Chet into the suit with her, but decided not to endanger him. She left him asleep in his kennel case, even though she really wanted to let him out to play.

The thought of danger gave her an excited tingle. "All systems go here. I'm sealed and ready for action, Captain."

"Let's do it, team," barked Mallory. He silently nursed a growing fear that he'd chosen too many individualists for the crew. As he headed for the airlock, he realized time would referee his selections. 

The runabout's outer door opened into a mammoth cavern. Much was hidden by darkness. Only the airlock's emergency lights were powered.

Musselman was out first, but his viewport revealed little. He powered up his virtual viewscreen and switched its visual range to infrared. The size of the station's interior jolted him.

"Why's the place so huge, Captain? I heard it was a science station."

"Economy, Mike. The nanites needed crust borne ores for a lot of the startup equipment. It just made sense to have them create a big cavern here. There's easy access to geothermal energy and it's a great shelter from solar radiation. Also, it's big enough to hold plenty of air. That's just in case the atmospherics plant goes offline."

"The atmospherics plant did go offline," Tala pointed out. "So did most of the sensors. Where do we start?"

"Let's check out the power converters. No matter what still works, the place is useless until they're running. The plan says we'll find them along the back wall on the opposite side of the cave. Everybody switch to infrared and follow me. There's a station schematic on net if you want it. I've got it on my heads up display."

"Check, sir."

"Right behind you, Captain."

Mike and Tala both had the schematic on their displays before Richard's suggestion came over the radio. Neither felt the need to impress the captain with their cleverness.

The trio of suited giants noted that everything seemed to be in good order as they strolled across the base. 

Tala hoped the repairs would be fairly simple. She wondered what it would be like to have such a huge space for just fourteen people. Few people on earth had such luxury.

As they reached the back wall, Richard interrupted her daydream with assignments. 

"Tala, hook into the base net and monitor it. Find out what works and what doesn't. Musselman, you've got power converter experience. I want you to run the local diagnostics on this system. I'll take a look at the heat exchange tubes to see if there's any medium inside."

"Roger, Mallory."

"10-4, Captain."

Mallory quickly found the access tunnels, but his powersuit was too tall for the human-sized corridors. He lowered his suit's hands to the floor ahead of him and knelt. A word was spoken to the interface and tank treads popped into place. He looked like a giant metallic lobster as he tractioned forward along the tunnel floor.

In this configuration, he could move at nearly fifteen miles per hour where space permitted. He had to slow for the tight spots where the giant tubes snaked around each other. Occasional glances at the map in his heads up display showed Tala and Mike in position.

Richard switched to Musselman's audio datastream. "Find out anything yet, Mike?"

"Yes, sir. It looks like a normal shutdown. They might have lost efficiency somehow, but nothing that would force 'em to shut it down all the way.

"Do you think you can fire it back up again?"

"Let me give it a good once over, sir. From what I see, we can bring power back up any time we want."

"Alright, thanks Mike. Let me know when you're done. Over and out." 

Even as he spoke, Richard spotted at least part of the reason the energy converter hadn't been at full capacity. An oily pool filled the access hole under the tunnel he'd just entered.

He shot a scan and asked Stacy for details. 

"It's a polymer heat exchange medium, Richard. It matches the molecular fingerprint in the master plan."

"Thanks, Stacy. Can you tell if it's dangerous?"

"Just a second while I check, but I didn't know my warrior feared danger."

"My dear Stacy, whether it's fear or respect, danger and I have a longstanding relationship. I'd just as soon stay alive, all things considered."

"Then, you'd be smart to avoid that goop. It's a thermally superconductive polymer. It'll equalize the heat of your body with its own. Its temperature is currently 140 degrees Celsius. You'd start to boil pretty rapidly."

"Sounds delightful. Remind me not to use it as a body oil."

"There's more, my bronzed god. If inhaled in an oxygen-bearing environment, it can put tumors on your tumors in ten years or less. If you don't touch it or breathe the fumes, you'll live longer."

"I can't believe these clowns would build a sealed environment around something this dangerous. But then, it fits with the rest of the sloppy work on this project."

"Your tax dollars at work, my senator."

"Work, hell. My tax dollars on a drunken binge is more like it."

"Fortunately, the base is well equipped with sensors. Any sign of the heat exchange medium in the air and the alarms go off."

"So how come the alarms don't show it right now?"

"Hmmm. There's not enough info, Richard. The sensors may be out. Based on what we have online, I'd say that the lack of oxygen in here keeps the exchange medium dormant. The carcinogen is organic. It won't form without oxygen."

"What about all this carbon dioxide?"

"Apparently it's not reactive enough. The oxygen must be in a free state."

"So if I hear you correctly, we should handle this right now. Clean it up before we make the air breathable again."

"Based on everything I can find in the database, you're right. Unless you want to live here fulltime in powersuits."

"How much of that stuff is loose down here?"

"Shoot some more scans for me and I'll try to figure it out."

Within ten minutes, Richard had pointed sensors at everything in sight. He'd probed more hidden places than a proctologist. His impatience oozed to the surface.

"C'mon Stace, you must have enough data by now."

"Forbearance, my captain. The shipnet's not the fastest system known to mankind. There's a lot of data to extrapolate. I assume you don't want to crawl the whole length of these tunnels to measure it all manually."

"OK, point taken. It's just that I thought you computers could figure this stuff out as fast as I can ask it."

"Faster than you can ask, my human. But you've been spoiled by the net back on earth. There's a lot less processing power on the runabout."

"Am I through being your legs and arms yet?"

"Sorry, Richard, not quite. I need a sonic scan from inside the goop itself."

"Can't we just hit it with sound from here?"

"That's cheating. Besides, the surface wave would obscure what's really going on underneath."

"So what's supposedly going on underneath? I thought it was inert in this atmosphere."

"It is. But I need to know the exact shape of the bottom of that pool. Plus, I want to be sure there's no oxygen being leeched out of the rocks in the floor. It's probably not a problem, but I want you and your friends to be safe."

"OK, let me see if I can lower a sensor into it from up here." 

Mallory leaned over the edge of the narrow access hole. He slid his powersuit's left arm out over the opening. A sensor slowly unreeled itself down into the thick black pool of goop.

"Perfect, Richard. That's the last bit of data I needed. It's not very deep down there after all." 

"So let's hear the report, already."

"All right. Based on the pressure in these pipes, the temperature of the fluid, the amount of goop we found on the floor, and the capacity of the system, I'd say this is it."

"What do you mean it?"

"This is the only leak. To be precise, this is where the leak originally was. It appears to have sealed itself, although more slowly than it's designed to."

"Is there enough fluid pressure to turn the system back on safely?"

Stacy thought about the question for a moment. "Yes, it's safe. But for maximum efficiency, you'll need to replace the missing fluid."

"Will that be a big problem?"

"Not at all. There's a backup reservoir overhead, and the data infers that it's full. There's no way to be sure until the sensors come back up, though. I see no reason to delay the restart procedure. Just don't pump oxygen in here until you've disposed of the goop."

"Exactly how much of that stuff's down there?"

"We have five-thousand-fifteen point-two-seven liters in the tunnel."

"Can it be pumped out?"

"Yes it can, but what will you do with it afterward? It's too contaminated to put back into the system. I know you well enough to know you won't take it up some dark alley and dump it."

"There's a severe dark alley shortage up here. You're right, though. I won't be the one to start Venus down the same road that's killing the earth. Do you have an alternative?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. If you can get Tala and her nanites in here, we'll have it whipped by tomorrow. No toxic waste, no aftertaste."

"Stacy, you're a genius. Remind me to buy you a new romdrive for Exmas."

"Why? You still owe me the one you promised last Exmas."

"Details, details. For an AI interface, you're pretty fussy."

"Well, Doctor Frankenstein, whose fault might that be?"

"Okay, forget the new romdrive. Remind me to reprogram you instead. A personality that's a little more forgiving, perhaps."

"If you insist, my monster." There was a subtly evil but hurt tone to her voice.

"Musselman to Captain Mallory. Are you there, sir?"

Richard looked to his heads up display and saw the big man's light features. "Mike, what's up?"

"I've double checked the system and she's ready to run. The five kiloliter spill your demon found is the only trouble I can find.

"Stacy will be hurt to be called a demon. You shouldn't annoy a lady like that."

"Oh, sorry sir. And my apologies to you Stacy. Didn't mean to offend. I didn't know you had a personality."

"I'll get over it, Mike. The captain sometimes takes me for granted. He has the all the manners of a tomcat."

"Not in front of the troops, Stacy."

"Oh, poop on your military discipline. Let's see the charming side of you. The one that gets elected by kissing hands and shaking babies."

"Alright, already! Stacy, this is Mike Musselman. Mike's a top notch astrominer, pilot and troubletech. Mike, this is Stacy, my personal AI and nanoaide."

The image of a young, slender Asian woman filled Mike's display. Her riveting dark eyes looked gently into his. "I am pleased to officially meet you, Mike."

"Hello, Miss Stacy. I'm glad to meet you, too."

"If we're all old chums now, I'd appreciate it if Mr. Musselman could be allowed to finish his report."


"Let's hear it, Musselman."

"Yes, sir. The power plant's ready for startup on your orders. It should get us about 50 percent of capacity within twelve hours. If we replace the lost medium, I expect about 75 to 80 percent within twenty four hours."

"That's good news. I'm just about done down here. Prepare for startup, but don't activate until I give the word, understood?"

"Got it, Captain. Standing by for your command."

"Mallory out." 

He switched datastreams. "Hello Tala?"

Her face replaced Musselman's in Richard's display as soon as she spoke. "Right here, Mallory. Looks like we got lucky today."

"Then tell me about your luck as part of the equipment report."

"All major systems are on standby, ready to go online whenever we power them up."

"Does anything need to be done before we turn things back on?"

"We'll have a lot of moderate and minor failures throughout the place. Fortunately, nothing's seriously broken. Most of the self-repair functions should take care of things after the power comes back on."

"Can I assume that we'll be 100 percent operational then?"

"Negative. The junk they put in this place wasn't even 100 percent functional when it was new. Everything in here will work, after a fashion. If this base was the one kilometer dash, we'd cross the finish line. However, we might be limping and tied for last place."

"Tala, sometimes your analogies escape me. If I read you right, can we turn things on and not blow the place back to where it came from?"

"That's correct. We'll have to dedicate a lot more of our resources to base maintenance than we'd expected. In the long run, the place will make a satisfactory operations center. I've posted a complete status checklist for all systems on the net. You can get any details you need through your suit's interface."

"Excellent work, Tala. Stacy says that you and your nanites can clean up the mess that I'm dangling over with a few hours work. I want you to confer with her. Please get back to me and let me know what you've worked out."

"Right away."

"And don't plan to start up the oxygenators until we've dealt with our little spill down here."

"Check. I'm already on it, and I'll get back to you shortly. Tala out." 

Her face disappeared from his display before he could dismiss her.

"Bloody lack of discipline. Beveridge is right, it is a pirate crew. Don't know how merry it is though."

"Are you speaking to me, my Captain, or is your air mix too rich again?"

"Are we done here, Stacy? I'm tired of dangling over this access hole."

"All set."

Richard started to pull the sensor back up from the access hole. As it started to reel back into the suit's arm, it stuck momentarily on the pit's rough edge. The suit sensed the problem, but couldn't disengage fast enough.

The heavy suit slipped over the edge, arms first. The eleven-foot-tall unit plunged into the narrow access hole.

If he'd fallen straight in, unhindered, Mallory's neck or back might have snapped. Fortunately, the wide suit dragged against the tight edges as it ground downward. The arms absorbed most of the impact at the bottom of the pit.

 The powersuit was stuck in a snug hole about fifteen feet deep. It appeared to be stuck in the middle of performing a handstand. Dark sludge covered the the suit's arms up past the elbows. The bottoms of two artificial feet barely peered up over the pit's top edge.

Richard was dazed by the drop, but still conscious. His meticulous use of safety restraints had again saved his life.

"Richard, I've just scanned you and the suit. You're both still in one piece, but I find a small puncture in the suit's right arm near the sensor line. I've increased internal pressure to keep the heat exchange medium out."

"Hunnh? What's goin' on. Did we crash?"

"Your power suit slipped into the access hole, my hero."

"Axis hole? Did we land yet? My ears just popped."

"Richard, we're on Venus. We're checking out the power plant's heat exchangers, remember?"

"Venus? Then we didn't crash?"

"Richard, you've got to get a handle on yourself. We're out of contact with the net right now. The radio antenna's too far down in the hole to contact anything. But I'm sure Tala and Mike saw you disappear from their displays when you fell. Just hang on."

"Stacy? Ohhh Bob, I'm dizzy. It's hard to think."

"You probably got a good bump on the head when we hit bottom. Just take it easy and you'll be fine."

"It's worse than that. The blood's drained to my brain. I can't concentrate."

"Then don't concentrate, my warrior, just relax."

"Damage report?"

Stacy rephrased it. "You and the suit are still in one piece. There's a small puncture in the right arm of the suit. I've increased internal pressure to keep the heat exchange medium from seeping in."

"More nitrogen?"

"Negative, more helium. I don't want to give you the bends."

"Well, that explains why I sound like a chipmunk. I thought I was going space happy."

"Space happy? What's that?  You worry me."

"No, no, don't worry. Just give me a second to clear my brain. Uhh, how long can I hold out here before the goop seeps into the suit?"

"Ten minutes, tops."

"But it took longer than that to get here."

"I know, my brave hero. But at the current rate, the outside pressure will exceed the inside pressure in ten minutes. When it does, the goop will start to push through the hole in the suit's arm."

"Then we need a backup plan."

"I'm ready to hear and implement all suggestions."

"Is there any way to isolate the arm from the rest of the suit?"

"Not unless you can wiggle your arm back into the body cavity."

Richard struggled vainly. "No chance. It's not designed that way. If the goop just gets on my arm, will it only affect the arm?"

"Sorry, Captain. The liquid will heat your body as fast as your circulatory system can pump blood to your arm. Eventually, your arm will cook, followed by the rest of your body." 

"How about if I give you full control of the guidance system. Could you wiggle the powersuit back up the hole?"

"I'll try."

The suit squirmed and shook. No matter how Stacy twisted the mechanics, there was no position where the treads could bite anything solid.

"No go, Captain, sorry. This hole is just too narrow and too steep. I'm afraid we're stuck here until somebody can pull us out."

"Hmmm. Do you think you can stabilize this suit enough so that I could pull its punctured arm up out of the goo?"

"Sorry, but the sensors show you'd lose your balance that way. The suit would slip all the way down, and probably couldn't be pulled out intact. The risk is too high."

"Alright, I'll trust your judgement. Mine's kinda fuzzy right now."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm not used to being upside down this long. I hope I don't pass out before we try something else. I don't wanna cook in my own juices."

"Don't think about that. Do you have an idea?"

"What if you sealed the suit tightly around my arm?"

"You'd lose circulation in the arm. You'd almost certainly lose your arm. The rest of you might survive."

"But how about if you keep the air pressure in the arm just above the outside pressure. Couldn't you slowly reduce the pressure in the rest of the suit and pump air into its arm?"

"Yes, technically it might work. It would also allow me to pump the excess nitrogen and helium into the suit's arm without affecting your breathing air. We would gain a few minutes before the pressure drop made you unconscious."

"Then let's try it."

"Get ready, it will feel like there's a blood pressure cuff on your upper arm. I'll monitor circulation and do my best to keep your arm alive."

Richard felt the suit gently squeeze around his arm. His ears popped again as the pressure in the rest of the suit slowly dropped.

"It seems to be working, my hero. How does your arm feel?"

"Fine, fine. It tingles a little. How long do you think, for them to get here?"

"If they started this way when you went off their monitors, they could be here any minute."

"Good, good. I'm sleepy...dizzy...head hurts."

"You've been upside down for about fifteen minutes. Just hang on. When Tala gets here, I've worked out a program for her nanites. Is she up to speed with the nanomolecular kit yet?"

"I guess so. She never tells me much." His voice started to trail off. 

"Richard! Listen up!"

Mallory was almost unconscious when the suit lurched and shook him awake. 

"Stacy, are they here? Was that them?"

"Not yet, Richard, but soon. That was just me trying to keep you awake. I don't think it's good for you to pass out right now."

"Not good. Bad Richie. Makes Tala's nanites mad." He let out an childish giggle.

"Let me tell you what the nanites will do with the goo on the floor. Richard, are you listening?"

"Yeah. What will nites do with goo?"

"Turn it into peanut butter."

"Shake me again."

The suit shook gently, from side to side.

"Thanks, Stace. Now I gotta sleep. Head's pounding."

The suit shook again.

"Let me sleep, Stace."

The voice in his ear seemed ever more far away.

An instant later, he started to rise back out of the hole.

Tala and Mike each had a good grip on an ankle. Richard dangled from their grip like a fresh-caught tuna. 

Most of the dark goo had dripped from the arm of the suit by the time he'd been hauled to the top. Tala sucked the remainder off with a toxic waste attachment.

As soon as the puncture was decontaminated, Mike deftly patched the damaged arm. The seal was solid before Mallory's atmosphere was dangerously depleted.

Tala seemed concerned. "Are you gonna make it, Mallory?"

The captain nodded. The monitor showed his face to be a hideous beet color, but he seemed alert. "Make us lots of peanut butter, Tala. I'm tired of this goo. Mike, turn the power plant on."

"Better get him back to the ship, Mike. I think he needs a doctor."

"Right away, Miss Wolfe." 

Mike put Mallory's suit under remote control and tractored them both back to the shuttle. Once underway, he restarted the base's powerplant. Lights popped on along the tunnel walls.

"Richard's alright, Tala. I told him what I've got in mind for the escaped heat exchange medium. Now he's gone and spoiled the surprise."

"Excuse me, Stacy, but I thought he said peanut butter."

"Why not? It's not toxic, it's easy to handle, and your molecular nanites can produce it from this stuff in half a day."

"Uh huh, right. So, creamy style or chunky?"

"Creamy, I'm afraid. We don't have time to round up the basics for the chunks. Admittedly, it won't be as good as the real thing. But I'd put it up against the stuff they hand out in the free food kitchens back home."

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Of course! Everything we need for the process is in the rocks and air in this place, so let's get at it. I've already downloaded the molecular blueprints your nanites will need. You give them the word, and we're off to the races."

Tala sighed and opened the storage port in her powersuit. Out came the new nanomolecular construction kit. 

"Come on out babies. Your very first job is to help me make sandwiches. I just hope you know a good recipe for jelly."