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

 Chapter 12 - BABY IN THE CRADLE


The sun hung huge in the brilliant green sky. A steady, syrupy wind patiently sandblasted the smooth, pebbled plain with the dust it carried.

Two tall figures explored the virgin land. Although not in each other's sight, they kept in touch by radio.

"I'm nearly up to my scanner ports in oxyzeps over here, Captain," griped Musselman into his powersuit's VR interface. "When I walk through them, they float up in front of me like slimy balloons."

"Then you might was well come back and join me, Mike. If the zeps are that thick, you won't find any working cones underneath them anyway. Be careful...those things are slippery enough to be a hazard."

"You've got that right. I'm losing traction already."

"Can you put your suit into tractor mode?"

"Can't do it, Captain. If I go down on all fours, these things will be up over my head. I'll just have to tough it... shiiiiii." 

Mike's VR image disappeared along with the rest of his data stream. 

Instinctively, Mallory headed for Mike's last recorded position. "I'm on my way over. Are you okay, Musselman?"

Mike didn't answer, and there was no signal from his transmitter.

Richard summoned Tala and the Ares as he rushed toward the spot where contact broke off. He hurried over a rise, straight into a valley filled with oxyzeps. If Mike had fallen, he'd be tough to find in the brilliant mass of yellow balloons.

Mallory switched his VR to infrared and slowly circled Musselman's last transmission point. Memories of his own recent powersuit mishap made him extremely careful. Richard's map showed him to be at exactly the center of the search area when his powersuit's right foot touched something solid. He saw a faint contrasting heat image through a layer of oxyzeps and leaned into the slimy mass. It was Mike's powersuit.

Mallory pushed the inert oxyzeps away for a better view. He switched his display to visible light. The view tightened his stomach and tensed every muscle.

Musselman had fallen square onto a five foot tall terraforming cone. Its peak had ripped a huge gouge through the suit's entry hatch. He could see one of Mike's limp arms as it dangled through the ruptured air seal.

The Ares promptly appeared overhead. Tala's image cut through on the net. "I'm here, Mallory. What's the problem?"

"Musselman's down and his powersuit's been ruptured. He's been breathing the local air for several minutes. We've got to get him inside the ship right now. Cycle the airlock and get the air coolers at maximum."

The airlock cycle was already underway. Tala  maneuvered into a hovering position a few feet over Mallory's head.

Richard carefully checked Mike's damaged powersuit. Although the cone had impaled the suit, it missed Musselman by nearly a foot. The suit's cooling system was near overload as it worked to keep the inrush of air at a comfortable temperature. It was an impossible task with an ambient temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mallory carefully separated the cone from the powersuit as he ordered Tala into position. "Bring the ship's hatch down next to me, about four feet off the ground. I want the outer airlock open."

"I'm on it, Mallory. How's Mike?"

"I can't tell. He doesn't seem to be in convulsions, which is what I'd expect from CO2 poisoning. I don't think he's dead though...he's sweating too much."

The floor of the open cargo hatch was just above the joint where Richard's feet rested in the powersuit. "Easy does it, Tala. Okay, hold it right there."

Mallory easily lifted Mike and his damaged suit into the cargo bay of the Ares. He also ripped the offending terraforming cone loose from the ground and tossed it in, followed by several small oxyzeps. Then he made room for his own powersuit and hopped into the runabout.

"Close her up and get us back to base, Tala." He wanted to free Mike from the remains of his powersuit but didn't want to risk causing a crippling spinal injury.

"Should I bring the pressure back down to one atmosphere, Mallory?"

"Not yet, Tala. Give me a complete report on the air we've got in here right now."

She responded in a few seconds. "Would you believe this? It's 32.9 percent oxygen, 63 percent nitrogen, four percent water vapor, point zero three percent carbon dioxide and less than one tenth percent of everything else, mostly argon. Unfortunately, the air temperature is 65 Celsius."

"Run it again."

It didn't take long for confirmation. "Same results, Mallory, it's for real. For health reasons, I'm asking you not to smoke back there."

"Since when are you worried about my health?"

"I'm not...I'm worried about my health. A spark in that much oxygen could blow the back end out of this ship. It's a long walk back to San Francisco."

"Thanks Tala, I love you too." 

Although it seemed unnecessary in this case, Richard followed standard procedure. He reached into his suit's accessory pack and pulled out an oxygen tank. Attaching a short hose to it, he cracked the bottle slightly. The free end was snaked through the wrecked seal in Musselman's suit. Then he turned on his suit's external audio to listen for sounds of life.

The big man started to move as he woozily muttered, "Holy Mother of God, who killed me?"

Mallory quickly switched his powersuit's speaker on. "Mike, your suit was damaged when you were out for a walk. Do you remember what happened?"

"Yeah, sort of. I slipped on a pile of zeps and fell over on something. I heard my suit rip, then I whacked my head. I must've been knocked cold."

"Your suit lost its atmosphere. A terraforming cone punctured your suit. You're the first person to breath the local atmosphere and live to talk about it."

"But what about the CO2?"

"That's what we're going to check. Tala, what's the status on the air outside the ship?"

"It's identical to the first reading. Tolerable carbon dioxide and plenty of oxygen."

"Alright, take us up to five hundred meters and run it again. Do it slowly; I still don't know if Mike has any injuries besides a whack on the head. How are you doing, Musselman?"

"It's hotter than payday at a Ceres whorehouse in here, Captain."

"Just be glad your suit's refrigeration still works. The ship's thermals should cool the air in here fairly fast. Are you hurt?"

"I've been checking myself out. I can wiggle everything that's supposed to wiggle, and nothing's bleeding. I think I got off easy. My ears are ringing, though, and my head feels like the morning after a wake where I was the guest of honor."

"A rupture that big in your suit must have let triple your normal air pressure inside almost instantly. You're lucky your eardrums didn't rupture."

Tala cut in. "Mallory, we're at 500 meters. The air here is normal for Venus. 28 percent oxygen, five percent carbon dioxide, four percent water vapor, one percent sulfur compounds, less than one percent argon, and 66 percent nitrogen. Pressure is three point two atmospheres."

"Alright, Tala, drop back down to the pickup site and take another sample, then get us back to Maxwell. In the meantime, reduce pressure in this compartment slowly. Check the net for the Navy's recommended deep sea dive decompression rate and use it."

"Understood, Mallory."

Richard adjusted his suit's controls and started to raise his air pressure at an uncomfortable, but not painful rate. "I'll join you out there as soon as it's safe, Mike. I want to help you out of that suit and check you over with the medical scanner."

Mike silently forced the middle section of his suit open and crawled out. The heat forced him right back in. "I'm hot and sweatin' like a fat girl, but I'm alright, Captain. How do you think the pressure will affect me in the long run? A friend of mine on the asteroid belt got overpressurized in a cave-in. He seemed okay when we dug him out, but he couldn't move the next day. He was in a powerchair for two years, then he just gave up and died."

"Relax, Mike. Technically, what you've been through is similar to an ocean dive on earth. Although an ocean dive is a lot cooler."

"But what about the CO2? One time I saw an overdose make a man start breathin' so hard that he panted his guts out. By all rights, I should be dead right now. What gives, Captain?"

"I'm not sure, Mike, but I've got a hunch those oxyzeps aren't as dead as they're supposed to be. I want Marvin take a look at his creations. That means we need to preserve the specimens in their natural atmosphere."

Neither man noticed the condensation that formed on the walls of the runabout's cargo hold. The ship did though, and quickly made adjustments.

Mike grunted from exertion as he moved. "Let me help you with that, Captain."

"Thanks, Mike, but my powersuit's in better shape than yours at the moment. Just sit tight and I'll take care of it."

Richard found a huge, metalized pressure bag and easily sealed it over the cone. The oxyzeps however, were harder to corral. He had to squish them into a corner with his powersuit and bag them as they tried to ooze free.

"Damn! If I didn't know better, I'd swear these things were trying to escape." It was like trying to grab goldfish bare-handed, but Mallory finally managed to seal the little blobs into pressure pouches.

"How's it going over there, Captain?"

"I think I've got the last one, Mike. These oxyzeps are pretty slippery customers."

"Uh, yeah. I've noticed."

"Oh...I guess you have."

"Good news, boys," blared Tala's voice through the PA. "The Navy guide says you don't need to take any special precautions. Mike was at three atmospheres for under ten minutes, so he can come back to normal pressure at his convenience. I'm slowly depressurizing the cargo bay. Mike, let me know if your ears start to bother you."

"I'll just keep poppin' em, Tala."

"Good man. You're at 2.7 atmospheres and dropping."

"Thanks, Tala," noted Richard. "Now get us back to base as fast as you can without crashing."

"Ten-four, Mallory. Our ETA is twelve minutes."

Tala made it in ten. She liked to leave a margin of error...she believed it enhanced her a reputation as a hot-shot pilot.

"Your air pressure is one point zero, Mallory. We're docked with the base's airlock."

In a few minutes, two kinds of terraforming plants were under study by their creators in the environmental chamber at Maxwell Base .

Meanwhile, Mike Musselman was under study by Muneta Zah, the mission's medical doctor. "You seem to be in excellent condition, Mike. Except for some dehydration, your exposure to the planet's atmosphere hasn't affected you in any detectable way. Do you feel anything unusual?"

He looked disdainfully at the clear plastic cup in his hand. "The worst effect I've noticed is you making me drink all this green stuff."

"But Mike, this is the same beverage professional athletes drink to keep their electrolytes balanced. It's an excellent treatment for what you went through."

"Doctor, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather have lots of cold beer."

A smile came to Muneta's gentle brown features. "I will make a deal with you, Mike. If you will drink only light beer, you can drink as much as you wish to have. I do not recommend any high alcohol content beverages since they would only dehydrate you further."

Mike stood up. "You're a pal, Doc. I'm willing to make the sacrifice in the name of medicine."

"I am no friend of alcohol, but I know better than to prescribe a regimen that a patient cannot or will not follow. I would like to examine you again at the end of the day."

Musselman agreed, then eagerly headed for the kitchen to have his prescription filled.

While the atmospherics and nano teams studied their new pets, Doctor Breuner made an excited report to Mallory. "I just spotted the first comets, Captain. They're right on schedule. We can put the first batch into orbital insertion paths in about four hours."

A bit of excitement sneaked into Richard's voice. "How soon will they enter the atmosphere?"

"About ten hours for the first, twenty hours for the last. All in all, we'll have one hundred comets per hour for ten hours. We could bring in a lot more if you say the word."

"Thanks, Alison. Let's stick with the original plan for now. Be sure to keep me informed...I'm really excited by this part of the project...if it succeeds."

"Oh, it'll succeed alright, Richard. It might destroy our entire terraforming project in the process, but we'll have lots of water."

A faint smile slipped onto Richard's face. "Apparently you and I have a somewhat different take on the meaning of success, Alison. Anyway, keep me on top of things. The ice comet project interests me as much on a personal level as an official one. It's just such a cool idea."

Meanwhile, in an environmental lab at the outer edge of the station, Marvin intently studied his bright yellow, blimp-like creations. "I never thought I'd see one of these things again. They're supposed to be dead."

His attitude made Tala impatient. "I don't understand how you can be so calm about this. You created a living species that's dying all over this planet. Doesn't it bother you?"

"I got over it a long time ago. These aren't sentient creatures or even anthropups." He paused momentarily as he gestured toward Chet. "They're just big hybrids of nanites and cabbages that eat sulfur and CO2. They have to die to make room for other TF tools. It may not be nice, but it's vital."

"I understand that on an intellectual level, but these are your creations. It's not like you built a bicycle or a book shelf...they're alive. You must feel some kind of emotion. After all, you spent a lot of time designing the originals didn't you?"

"It was my life for three years before I got here, two more after I arrived. I eventually got so sick of oxyzeps that I wanted them all to die a hideous death."

"So you don't have any feelings at all for the specimens in this tank?"

"Possibly a little," he relented. "But still, they're just plants...plants designed to die when their job is finished."

"Apparently they don't believe their job is finished yet."

"I can't understand why they're still alive. They're designed to become inactive at five atmospheres. Between three and four atmospheres, their cells should explode and release pure water. The dehydrated skin melts into the ground and helps to prepare the soil for organic life. I tested them myself, and that's exactly what happens. Yet, here they are, still alive at three atmospheres. It's improbable at best."

"But apparently not impossible."

"Apparently not, but it's a big problem, Tala. By staying alive, they've covered most of the flatlands. They interfere with the TF cones that are supposed to be preparing the soil for agriculture."

"But if your oxyzeps eliminate sulfur and CO2 from the air, why do we need the cones?"

"The cones are the next step in the process. They clean up the air, but they also trap nitrogen and trace nutrients. They capture carbon from CO2 and incorporate it into their shell under the outer coating. They also combine atmospheric gases into organic compounds that plants will need when we start to cultivate the soil. In the process, the cones have underground supply systems that break the rocks into sand. That creates places for organic plants to take root.

Oxyzeps can't do any of that...the appropriate chemical processes never take place in their cells. Besides, they don't have root systems. They were only designed for the earliest stage of terraforming."

"They did save Mike's life though."

"So it would seem. Let's get busy and dissect one of those things. We've got too many unanswered questions."

The lab door slid open and smashed against the end of its track. Marilyn Beveridge was in rampage mode. "Doctor Gordon, your creations are destroying this entire mission and I demand you do something about it now."

"Excuse me?"

"Those air biscuits of yours are interfering with terraforming cones on a planetary scale. I want it stopped."

"Listen, Marilyn, if oxyzeps attack your TF cones, it's certainly not part of their design. You were here when we tested them. You know that the current conditions on Venus should have killed and deflated them by now."

Beveridge became thoughtful for a moment. "This is true. The problem is a design error and not intentional sabotage."

Marvin interrupted. "Design error, my buttocks, Marilyn. You know as well as I do that these things were checked as stringently as conditions at the time allowed."

Beveridge continued. "As the captain pointed out,  professional protocol calls for each of us to show respect toward the work of fellow scientists, no matter how poorly it might be carried out. In that spirit, I politely ask that you find a way to keep your oxyzeps from destroying the work that thousands of people have diligently labored to accomplish on this planet."

Marvin gritted his teeth and held out a burdensome olive branch. "Tala and I are about to take an oxyzep apart to find out why it's still alive. We'd both appreciate it if you could stay and offer your input," he lied.

"That will not be possible. I have valuable work in progress. If you need assistance, ask someone who has less important tasks than myself." She turned and slammed the sliding door shut on her way out.

"Charming woman," Tala noted. "I wish we had more romballs to toss in front of her."

"She's always been that way. Age doesn't seem to have mellowed her either. Talking to her is a real chore. Given a choice, I'd rather give an enema to a baboon."

"It seems to me you just did both."

"Let's get back at it. We've got to find out why these zeps are still alive. I want to scan the cell samples Mike and Richard brought back. I'd like you to take the DNA apart with your nanites and compare it to the original code."

An unusual look of concern came to Tala's face. "You don't suspect mutations do you?"

He looked at her gravely. "It seems possible, under the circumstances."

The scientist in Tala was incredulous. "But how? The safeguards against nanite mutations are so tough that they're a bigtime burden."

"Yes they are, and rightly so. Bob help us if a nanovirus got loose into the world. Nanites could conceivably start evolving on their own."

"Exactly, and since they wouldn't have ethical restrictions or laws, they could change their own genetic code at will. Wild nanites could adapt at will, even to the point of replacing unnecessary biological life forms. We'd be almost powerless to stop them."

An unpleasant realization suddenly changed Tala's tone. "And since this project was under government control and not on earth, they removed the restrictions didn't they!"

Marvin became very uneasy. "Well, yeah, they did. But it wasn't my idea. Computer projections showed several alternatives for the first phase of terraforming Venus. In every case, anti-mutation restrictions increased the length of the project by two to thirty times. Even though I fought it, a political decision was made. We were ordered to ignore all safety and environmental restrictions that might delay the project."

"Then let's get to work then, before these things decide to take steps to keep humans off their new planet."

"That's not funny, Tala."

With the science teams busy on their own projects, Richard had a short break with no demands on his time. He spoke to his terminal. "Stacy, please get Commodore ready for a ride. Oh, and prepare the simulator for my little friend too."

Chet wagged his stubby tail in excitement. He had no idea what Mallory was up to, but Stacy had just given him meat, so he was ready for action.

The terminal inquired, "What's the venue this time, my caballero? Mountain stream? Blazing desert?"

"Nope, something new. I want to see the terrain we visited today. Call it up from the net."

"A man and man's best friend on a scenic visit to the face of Venus, eh? I like your sense of adventure and romance, my Senator."

"Thanks, Stace, but it's not all pleasure. I want to take another look at this planet without a powersuit in my way."

"What about Chet?"

"Who knows, maybe he'll find something of interest to us. Besides, it'll keep him from getting bored until Tala's done in the lab."

The seat resumed the shape of a saddle and Commodore rezzed in beneath it. Chet was startled to find himself in a new place. He didn't understand how a VR chamber worked, but he liked the new places he got to visit. He ran along beside Commodore on an unseen treadmill.

The reddish-brown plain stretched forever. It looked like Nebraska with all living things removed. The sky over the plains was blue-green and completely overcast.

Without water to lubricate the slippage of her tectonic plates, Venus had never developed the vast mountain ranges that covered the earth. Either that or the hellish atmosphere had scoured the mountains away after the water of a more temperate Venus had boiled away into space tens of millions of years earlier..

Although a few massive mountains dotted her surface, they were solitary volcanoes. Most of her surface was a plain with low ridges. From space, most of the land looked like a frozen pond with small, regular waves. The seven mile rise of Maxwell Montes was a singular exception.

Although fairly smooth, the land was hardly featureless. Small hills and low rises broke up the flatness. Richard guided Commodore's hooves to the nearest rise, the one where Mike had run afoul of the oxyzeps.

As man, mount and mutt reached the top, they were nearly blinded by a brilliant yellow mass on the other side. Thousands of oxyzeps filled the hollow.

Richard pressed on down the hill. 

As the balloons loomed larger, Chet turned and ran out of the projection chamber. Perhaps they weren't a threat to a man on horseback, but Chet wasn't about to wade into them at doggie level. He scratched on the door and Stacy let him out into the hallway.


"I think you scared him, Richard. He's only a dog, you know. He's never seen oxyzeps."

"I didn't mean to. He's probably smarter than I am, 'cause I want to get in for a closer view."

"I'm not sure just how close you can get, my adventurer. The VR system only projects these images, it doesn't create them."

"I don't want to touch the slimy things, I just want to look around."

"Okay, that's different. I'll have them get out of your way whenever you're within 50 centimeters. That's about the limit of this system."

"That sounds fine, Stacy. While you're at it, I want you to recreate the air exactly as we found it out there."

The AI sounded horrified. "Richard, have you lost your once brilliant mind?"

"It'll be alright, Stace. Seal this chamber and adjust the environment until it's just like the conditions Musselman found when his suit ruptured. Take your time, I don't need sore eardrums and a headache."

"I'll do it under protest, but I'm going to monitor your vitals closely. With all the time I've invested in you, I don't want to have to break in another human."

Richard smiled. "Agreed, now make the environment in here as close to the samples as you possibly can."

"Including the temperature, my kamikaze?"

Richard gulped. "Yes, I'm afraid so...including the temperature. But I'm going to cheat a little. Toss me a cooling vest, will you?"

A gaily patterned vest dropped into his lap.

"Thanks, Stace." As he put it on, the air started to change.

While Commodore picked his way through the hollow, Richard noticed that the ground wasn't visible in most places. "What's wrong with the projector, Stacy?"

"Nothing, Richard. There's just not much data about the ground in this area. The oxyzeps obscured it most of the time and it wasn't scanned. I could create a mosaic from the data that was stored if you wish."

Richard popped his uncomfortable ears as he thought about the options. "Go ahead and create it then. I really need to get the feeling of being on the surface, even if it's not entirely accurate. It'll help me think."

"How can you think at 150 degrees Fahrenheit? With the relative humidity at 95 percent, the Heat Factor is completely off the scale."

"Pray tell, what's the Heat Factor, my good AI?"

"It's the opposite of the Wind Chill Factor, dear human. In hot climates, the humidity makes it feel warmer than the actual temperature. The human body cannot cool itself efficiently because perspiration won't evaporate into saturated air."

"I've experienced the effect, but I never knew they had a name for it."

"There's also a curve. At 50 percent relative humidity, 100 degrees feels like 150 degrees. The danger level is five miniutes in a Heat Factor of 105 degrees. The curve was all done in Fahrenheit, before Nafta went metric back in 2030."

Richard did a quick conversion from 65 degrees Celsius. "So what does the chart say for 150 degrees at 95 percent relative humidity?"

"It says, 'Baste with a butter garlic sauce and serve immediately.'" 

"Message received. What can you rig up to go along with the cooling vest?"

"There's a breathing mask that attaches to the cooling unit. It keeps your lungs cool, which really helps the heat exchange. Let me get you one...we'll both breathe a lot easier."

"Sounds good, Stacy."

A small mask dropped into his lap. It was just big enough to cover his nose and mouth. An elastic band was attached to hold it in place. A hose attached to a nozzle on the vest.

Richard easily slipped it into place over his sweaty chin. "How do I look?"

"Smarter than you did a minute ago. The air temperature is now 50 celsius...122 for you oldtimers. Relative humidity is 95 percent with an air pressure of two atmospheres. Thank you for flying Armageddon Airlines."

Commodore loped along the oxyzep-filled trail. Fortunately, he was immune to the local weather conditions, unlike his passenger.

Every sweat gland on his body took up the call to arms. His clothes glistened. Despite the oppressive moisture, his throat ached with dryness. "Stacy, get me a big glass of that green stuff of Muneta's...and plenty of ice."

A mechanical hand soon appeared just below eye level. It held a cold, sweaty mug. "Here is your refreshment, my explorer. The atmosphere is now identical to the original air sample Tala took for you at the site of Mr. Musselman's accident."

Sweat poured into his eyes from his saturated scalp. "Take me to the spot where it happened. And while you're at it, bring me a headband."

An absorbent ring of elastic dropped onto his head. Richard pulled it into place. It helped, but only took a moment to become completely drenched.

He ripped it off and tossed it aside. "Stacy, keep dropping cool towels on me. I've gotta be able to see this place."

He did the best survey he could under the circumstances, but it was obvious that the heat and humidity were too much, even for a man with a year's supply of towels and a cooling vest.

His resolve finally melted. "Stacy, cool this place off pronto. I can't stand it anymore."

"I'm sorry, but I can't, my hero."

"You've got to," he gasped.

"Please be a brave and patient explorer. I'll cool it off as fast as I can."

"What's wrong with immediately?"

"It'll rain in here."

"Excuse me?"

"Richard, you asked for 95 percent humidity. The air is nearly saturated. If we suddenly cool this room, the moisture will condense. That means water in all of the equipment, all over the walls and ceiling, in your bedding and everywhere else. Not to mention my nanotronics. I'm not programmed to self-destruct just because you give me an erroneous order."

Richard was frantic with the heat. "Then open the door and let me out of here right now."

"Sorry, but I can't do that either. We're only down to two point five atmospheres. You'd pop your silly eardrums and Bob knows what else. Stay calm. I'm normalizing the atmosphere in here as quickly as I can. It'll take about two minutes to have it back to normal."

Terror filled Mallory's eyes. The heat had pushed all reason out of his mind. He jumped out of the projector and tried to open the hall door. Stacy kept it sealed.

"Stop it, Richard, you're scaring me again. Drink your drink and calm down. I won't have you hurting yourself."

He knew he'd panicked. Now, he forced himself to become calm, if only for his AI's sake. Pure will power pressed the cool mug to his lips. He gulped down the green liquid, then sucked some ice. Attention riveted to the coolness, he regained his composure.

He walked unevenly around the projector to the rear of his quarters. "Thanks, Stacy," he rasped. "Start a cool shower for me, I need it."

Richard angrily fought his way out of his sweat-drenched clothing. He staggered exhausted to the shower's coolness.

"The room environment is normal again, Richard. I hope what you learned from all of this makes it worthwhile."

"I hope so too, Stace."

The base's water processors were built for a crew ten times larger than the current complement. Richard dawdled in the coolness as he refreshed his sweaty body.

Toweling himself dry , he grabbed another long, cool drink. The shower's moist air beaded on the outside of the cool glass. That's when the missing data flashed into his conscious mind.

"Stacy, I think I've got the answer...or at least part of it. What happens when air with a high humidity content is cooled suddenly?"

"It condenses, Richard," the AI answered with measured patience.

"And it doesn't matter whether it happens indoors or outdoors, does it."

"You're being a bit vague, my meteorologist, but ultimately, no, it doesn't matter. When it happens outdoors, it becomes clouds, rain, fog or dew...depending on local conditions."

"Let's assume it's already clouds, clouds like we have on Venus. How do we get these thick clouds to give up their moisture as rain?"

"Richard, you're asking me questions that are beyond my storage capacity. If you like, I can consult Marvin's database and do an analysis for you."

"Maybe in awhile, Stace. Right now, let's just talk about how it happens on earth. It always seems to cool off when it rains, why?

"Actually, it rains when it cools off, city boy." As she spoke, 3D graphics of a weather system appeared on the projector. "When a mass of moist air meets a mass of cooler air, the moist air has to give up part of its moisture. Since cool air can't hold as much water as warm air, the water condenses around dust and impurities in the air. More moisture gathers around it and it becomes heavier than the air."

"And it falls."

"Of course it does, dear. If the air is near the freezing point, it falls as snow. Should it be warmer, it rains instead." The virtual sky filled with delicate snowflakes.

"Here's the jackpot question, then, Stacy. Why doesn't it rain on Venus."

"Give me a minute to access the atmospherics data and I'll tell you." As Stacy gathered information, a beautiful double rainbow formed above Mallory's head. "There are no weather patterns on Venus, my scientist."

"Excuse me?"

"No weather patterns means no weather, Richard. It seems simple to me."

"But why are there no weather patterns, Oh Digital Companion, Mine?"

"Venus has no oceans, silly. Not even a mud puddle. Oceans store huge amounts of heat. They affect the air that passes over them, creating weather patterns."

"But what about the middle of continents? They don't have oceans, but they still have weather."

"Granted, Richard, but even there, the weather is driven by the oceans. To some extent, polar convection also plays a part. Warm air from the tropics is pushed toward the poles, helping to even out the surface temperature."

"And that happens on Venus too, doesn't it?"

"Only mildly, my apprentice shaman. Compared to earth, the air here is quite thick and homogenous in temperature. It would take a lot of energy to drive a wind, but the energy doesn't exist anymore."

"What do you mean, anymore?"

"The sulfur cycle that drove the climate on Venus for millions of years was destroyed by terraforming. The evolving atmosphere here is in stasis. There's really not much of anything that could be described as weather. It's cloudy, hot and humid all the time...slightly darker after sunset."

"You still haven't answered my original question, Stacy."

"Which one, my impatient scholar?"

"What would it take to make it rain on Venus."

"I don't know. The network lacks sufficient data to allow me to make a reliable guess."

"I suspect Marvin has a lot more in his head than the network does."

"This is possible, my rainmaker, but I am not able to access the data in Marvin's head. That is a task you are more qualified to handle than is your humble AI servant."

"I don't want a humble AI servant, I want you, Stacy."

"Remind me to kill the power to your iron lung some night, my unworthy master."

"Remind me to slip a mummified cow's eyeball into your ox port, my dear. It looks like I need to spend some quality time with Doctor Gordon."

Richard slipped out of his quarters before Stacy had time to exact revenge for his calumnies. He found Marvin alone in the environmental lab.

"Hi, Captain. I was about to give you a shout. I think you need to know this."

"What's up, Marv?"

"Tala and I have taken a couple of these things apart. They're not the same as the oxyzeps we left here when this project started."

"Not the same...what do you mean? Old ones die, new ones are born, right?"

"Yeah, that's the idea, but the next generation is supposed to be identical to its parent...and its grand parent...and so on. But these aren't. They've mutated."

"But they can't mutate...what about the safeguards."

"Captain, Tala and I already had this discussion. The zeps have mutated and they show every sign of continued mutation. Somehow, they seem determined to stay alive through the atmospheric changes."

"How will this impact the project?"

Marvin scratched his curly black hair as he pondered for a moment. "Our biggest problem is the way they keep sunlight from the terraforming cones. Dr. Beveridge will have her own take on it, but it's a safe bet that these guys are the reason there's still so much carbon dioxide in the air."

"I've seen them at work. They cover the ground so densely in some areas that sunlight can't filter through."

"That's what makes them a problem, Captain. They're choking the TF cones. The cones can't convert the CO2 to oxygen compounds and solid carbon without solar energy."

Richard started to pace the lab's brown stone floor. "So what can we do about this plague of oxyzeps?"

"Create an anti-plague. Tala's working on a virus to infect the oxyzeps with something that will return their genes to the original pattern."

The lab's door slid open with a crash as Marilyn Beveridge made her customary entrance. "Captain Mallory, I demand that you stop this man's creations before they destroy our entire undertaking." Her accusing finger shook in Marvin's direction.

Richard gathered his patience. "Doctor Beveridge, I was just being briefed by Doctor Gordon. He and Tala may have found a way to eliminate the oxyzeps."

"I certainly hope you are correct. There is no way we can possibly introduce the first generation of artificial biomass to this planet until we are rid of the yellow menace created by this man."

"Nobody wants to start building the biomass of this planet more than I, Doctor. I have complete faith that we are near a solution. Thank you for sharing your concerns. Now good day."

"But I haven't...."

"Good day, Doctor Beveridge. Doctor Gordon and I have more pressing concerns than humoring your bad temper. You obviously know where the exit is."

She turned smartly and left, careful to slam the sliding door shut on her way out.

"Thanks, Captain," Marvin chirped.

"My pleasure, Marvin. If you've got a few moments, I want to pick your brain on yet another atmospheric problem."

"Sure. I'm pretty much on hold here until Tala gets back with the nanogenetics report."

"That's excellent. What I want to know is this; what would it take to make it rain on Venus."

Marvin surprised him with the quickness of his answer. "That's easy...massive cooling. Every bit of data we've gathered in the past two days shows that the lower atmosphere is completely saturated with water vapor."

"That's what I gathered from the readings we took when Mike had his accident. Where did all of the water come from? I'd always thought Venus was moisture deficient."

"Oh, it is. There's not enough water here to create a decent sea, let alone an ocean. Most of the water was released when the oxyzeps broke down the atmosphere's sulfuric acid."

Mallory was puzzled. "I thought there was only a small percentage of sulfuric acid in the atmosphere."

"That's true, but it was a small percentage of an atmosphere that was ninety times thicker that earth's. It was a large amount of water, but not a large percentage of the original mix."

"What changed it?" 

"Terraforming has bonded the other atmospheric elements into solids on the surface. The concentration of water has increased until it's now well over four percent of the atmosphere. There isn't any new water, there's just a lot less of most other gases."

"So what would it take to cool the atmosphere enough to make it rain?"

"A good old-fashioned cold front would do it. Unfortunately, we don't have any oceans to create that kind of weather pattern."

"Enough with the weather patterns. My AI got me off on the same tack. Could we do it by vaporizing ice?"

"The water comets! What an amazingly obscure concept. I'd need to know how much ice would be available over what amount of time. I'm sure that enough mass in a short enough time would do the job. That's assuming atmospheric friction heat doesn't offset the effect."

"Alison can give you any data you need about the ice comets and their orbital mechanics. I know you're already busy, but we really need you on this too. Those comets start arriving in a little over three hours."

"Let me check with Tala on the oxyzep virus, then I'm on it."

"Thanks, Marvin. I appreciate what you're doing. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you."

Marvin's expression became cheery. "Captain, there is one big favor you could do for me when things have settled down a bit."

Richard steeled himself. He'd faced down tough bargainers in the senate for years. "What do you need, Marvin?"

"I'd really like a chance to log a few hours in the command seat of the Ares...any milk run would be fine."

Mallory sighed loudly. "Marvin, if you can pull our fat out of the fire, I'll make you the official pilot of the Ares."

"But won't Tala mind?"

"I doubt it. If she does, we'll work something out for both of you."

"For the boss, you're a pal, Captain."

"Your prices are too low, Marvin. Remind me to introduce you to a man I know at the Heinlein ring."

"You mean Dirk Cosgrove?"

"Cosgrove? Umm, probably."

"Yeah, he got me a few things for this trip that don't officially exist."

Both men laughed. Dirk had been the pipeline between the corp and the real world for most of the project's new crew.

"Keep me informed on anything really big, Marv. Otherwise, you've got complete authority to do whatever's necessary to get the job done."

"Can I eject Marilyn Beveridge through the airlock?"

Richard walked to the lab door and slid it aside. He looked at Marvin and grinned. "That's one pleasure I'm saving for myself. I've got to get some sleep now. My brain hurts."

He'd been snoozing for an hour when Stacy's voice broke into his dreams. "You're a very popular man, my captain. I'm afraid it's time to rise and face the world again."

Richard went through his messages as he woke himself up. Marvin and Tala were with Alison Breuner in her lab. All were eager to speak with him. He went directly to them from his quarters.

Tala noticed him first and took the initiative. "Glad you could join the party, Mallory. Things are about to start up."

"How's the virus coming?"

"I've got it brewing in the nanite lab. We tested it on the TF cone samples and it works perfectly. We should have enough to seed the whole planet in about two days. I'm done for now, so I came up here to watch the fun."

Alison looked up from her VR projector. "Hi, Captain. The computer is checking Marvin's predictions right now. It looks like we'll be able to bring in all of the comets safely. Heat from re-entry friction will be more than offset by the energy required to vaporize the ice."

Marvin stepped forward. "We're gonna have one hell of a rainstorm on this planet. Even old Noah would be impressed. I predict that between the native moisture and the comets, there's going to be enough water on Venus to create several huge lakes...maybe even a small sea or two."

Richard was stunned. "You're kidding me. Are we talking earthlike levels of water?"

"No, nothing like that, Captain," Alison offered. We'll still have less than one percent of the water that the earth has. With irrigation, there will be more than enough for agriculture and a large human population. What's more, there's still lots of ice orbiting Jupiter and Uranus that we could bring here later."

Mallory could feel his pulse speed up. Water is the key to civilization. He could easily visualize human colonies on Venus. Colonies becoming self-sufficient as technology reshaped the surface and destiny of the entire planet. "When does the party start?"

Marvin noted, "The first one comes down in about three hours. We're going to bombard the polar regions and the night side and compare results."

"What made you choose those places, Marvin?" 

"We want the coolest atmosphere available. When the ice vaporizes, huge amounts of energy will be sucked from the surrounding air. We want to take every advantage of local conditions to enhance the effect."

Richard noticed a furry creature rubbing against his legs. "Hi ya, Chet." He leaned over and picked the dog up. "I hope you forgive me for scaring you today. I didn't mean to, you know."

Chet was in a forgiving mood. He felt ignored by the gaggle of busy scientists. A couple of licks to the nose showed that the bond between them was as strong as ever.

Mallory cradled the anthropup in one arm as Tala made a suggestion.

"Captain, Alison says the comets have glowing tails, just like the real ones. I was wondering if some of us could go out in the ship and take a look at them as they enter the atmosphere. It's purely scientific, you understand."

Richard chuckled. "Sure, I understand. I think it's a great idea. After all, we need as much data as we can get about the first batch of comets."

Marvin spoke up, "But Captain, we can get all of that data from the satellites."

"Maybe so, but I want some really good VR footage of this event. It's the best public relations gimmick that's likely to come along until the first settlers land in a couple years. I'm sure President General Swanson will want to personally show these pictures to the senate. As for me, I want to be there to see it realface."

He turned back to Tala. "Let's open this to anybody who wants to go. Can we be ready to leave in one hour?"

"Consider it done, Mallory. By the way, thanks." She smiled as she gathered Chet into her arms.

An hour later, the entire population of Venus was aboard the Ares. Everyone that is, except Marilyn Beveridge. The doctor had "more important things to do than to waste precious time and resources on a sightseeing trip."

She was not missed.