Gloria Benatar wasn’t one for pomp and ceremony, but the Agency had to keep the funding pipeline open, which meant giving the public and politicians a show to clamor over. So here she was: dressed in a borrowed tuxedo, waiting in the wings to be announced as the leader of the first colonial expedition to Mars; the culmination of a lifetime of work.
Her lieutenant, Jim, arrived. He was late for anything that wasn’t a launch. “He really can go on, am I right?” he whispered. The director had been on stage for more than a half hour, saturating the hall with a speech of immodest confidence peppered with buzzwords and misused jargon. It was the sort of thing that drove the two of them crazy.
Gloria tried to smile in acknowledgement of the classic gripe they shared, but, it came out as a grimace. She hated crowds and public speaking; she was more comfortable on a space shuttle than on a stage.
Jim looked as nervous and uncomfortable as she felt, which surprised her. He was usually the comfortable one in these situations. Gritting her teeth, she concentrated on waiting for the phrase that would signal her entrance. The sooner this was over, the better.
“You know,” Jim started to say. I can’t believe it worked out this way. I’m really sorry–”
But the director’s line that she was waiting for rang out, interrupting him.
“And so, with that, I am very pleased to present to you the Commander of the NATO Colonial Mission to Mars…”
Gloria strode out on stage to join the director, focusing on the mark indicating where she was to stand.
“…Captain Jim Hodgson!”
Shocked murmurs spread throughout the audience. The director turned to Gloria, startled to see her there. He coughed, then laughed nervously.
“Hodgson, where are you? Come on out here!”
Pushed from behind, Jim stumbled onto the staged. A handler glided over to Gloria to lead her away, but she was rooted to the spot, stunned. Finally, the full meaning of what was happening hit her. She turned and fled.
Deep in the protective anonymity of a gray hoodie, Gloria sat at the bar of the Apollo Club, staring at a glass that had contained a whiskey and coke.
“Buy you a drink?” a voice asked. Gloria started and looked up at a face she recognized, but couldn’t place.
“I’m Rudy,” the man said, sticking out his hand. Gloria almost choked. Rudy (he needed no other name) was perhaps the richest, most influential man in America. With so much money hidden offshore, no one could be entirely sure about the former, but the latter was indubitable. He also owned the company that made The Agency’s rockets–though this was the first time she’d ever seen him in person.
“Gloria Benatar,” she replied, shaking Rudy’s proffered hand.
“I know,” he said. “I was looking for you. I shouldn’t be surprised you went to a bar, but this? Terrible choice. This place is a dump. But hey, what about that drink?”
Gloria shrugged. “Alright,” she said. Nodding, Rudy swung around to wave at the bartender and shouted, “Tequila! I don’t care what kind.” When the bartender looked over but didn’t move fast enough, Rudy slammed the bar with his palm. “I said tequila!”
The bartender gave the newcomer a dirty look, which was ignored, but nevertheless poured two shots of the liquid gold. “God I hate dive bars, and they hate me,” Rudy said, rolling his eyes before blinking over a credit transfer. “Leave the bottle, and go away.” The bartender’s mouth dropped, and he nodded and scurried off.
“What’d you do to him?” Gloria asked.
“I just made sure he was well-compensated for the evening.”
Gloria didn’t know what to say to that. In the meantime, Rudy had already knocked back both shots, before refilling the glasses and indicating that she take one.
“So, they passed over you for the choice of command to Mars, and somehow didn’t tell you about it before making the announcement public,” Rudy said. “Wow. And people say I’m socially inept.”
It was hard to hear it like that, but after all the bullshit consolation from people who didn’t truly understand, a blunt assessment felt good, like ripping off the bandaid.
“Yeah. Apparently the memo announcing the new decision was stuck in his assistant’s drafts box. I guess I wasn’t the only one who lost a job that day.” She laughed bitterly, feeling the warm tendrils of alcohol work through her, loosening the pain until it could all come out. Silent, Rudy took another shot.
“You know,” she continued, “Jim tried to refuse the position, but those idiots at the Agency wouldn’t listen to him. He was going to quit in protest, but I would have killed him if he did. It’s not his fault.”
Another shot by Rudy.
“I really thought I’d made it. Commander of the Agency’s Mission to Mars. It was supposed to be me. I did everything for that job. I worked like a dog, never missed a session in the gym, got two PhDs…fuck, I broke up with anyone I ever fell for just to make sure I’d never lose my focus. Not that interplanetary long-distance is a relationship selling point. But it worked, and it was all worth it. I was actually going to lead the first mission to Mars …until I wasn’t. But I guess that’s a lesson there, right? ‘Don’t count your chickens’ or something like that?”
Another shot by Rudy.
“They said that Jim performed better on the stress tests than I had. That they couldn’t trust that I’d hold up under pressure. I mean, I dunno, maybe it’s fucking true. When it all happened, I just stood there like a stupid cow, before running.”
Another shot by Rudy.
“Shit,” she said, fighting back tears. “Shit. You can’t understand what it’s like, to come so close and fail like this. My whole life…all I wanted was Mars. Can you imagine how incredible it would be? Humanity, life…we’re always trying to spread and go somewhere new, and I could have been the one, the first to colonize another planet. I just…”
“Alright, I’m done listening,” Rudy interrupted, slamming down his shot glass. “First off, I understand what failure is, but I’m not sure you do. Secondly, you didn’t ace a stress test? That’s why they passed over one of the most qualified astronauts in history? That’s bullshit. No one should ever let a shrink tell them what they can’t do. Finally, who said you can’t count your damn chickens? You can still be the first person to colonize another planet.”
Gloria snorted. “Oh yeah, and how am I gonna do that?”
Rudy tossed the empty tequila bottle over his shoulder, burped, and swaying a little, said, “Follow me.” He led her outside, and pointed upwards. “There. You can go there.”
Even with all the light pollution in D.C., Gloria could easily see what he was pointing at. After the moon, it was the brightest object in the night sky.
“You’re kidding, right?” said Gloria.
Rudy puffed himself up. “I know I have a reputation for being eccentric, but trust me, I do not waste my time on practical jokes,” he replied. “Look, you know the reasons as well as I do why Venus is the better option. Mars is far. Venus is close. Mars has gravity so weak, we don’t have a clue what staying there could do to people. Venus’ mass is almost equal to Earth’s. Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere thick enough to blow a farmhouse to Oz, much less shield humans from radiation. Venus does. Mars gets hardly any solar power, while Venus…”
“Yeah, but you can land on Mars,” Gloria interrupted. “That atmosphere that Venus has? The pressure is strong enough to crush a nuclear submarine, and the temperatures…!”
“Which is why we won’t land,” Rudy harrumphed. “But the great thing is, we don’t need to. At 50 kilometers above the surface, it’s all peaches and cream, relatively speaking; the closest conditions to earth that we’ll find anywhere else in the solar system. Even better, we’ve had the tech for a floating city since blimps and firefighting suits were invented.”
“NASA had mission concepts like this years ago and ditched them,” Gloria said dismissively. “There’s nothing new in this. Why would you want to spend billions of dollars to resuscitate an outdated plan?”
“Stop thinking like an engineer. You’re right about the little point, but wrong about the big point. There isn’t anything new in the how. What’s new is the why,” Rudy said with an impish grin. “Now we have an economic incentive. Everyone wants to plant a flag in the ground, but this isn’t the middle ages. A piece of cloth on a stick doesn’t get you shit. All Mars has is some oxidized iron. But the atmosphere of Venus has carbon, and carbon means graphene, and graphene means money.”
Not for the first time, Gloria wondered what the hell she was doing. The half-drunken decision to agree to Rudy’s hare-brained scheme felt so far away; over 25 million miles at this point, in fact. Swept away by the billionaire’s energy and determination, there had been no room for second thoughts. Besides, after being dumped by the Agency, what choice did she have? She signed on to command the first of what she soon discovered were many planned missions to Venus. Whisked to a secret location, Rudy’s people ran her through a whirlwind of diagnostics, planning and simulations. The contrast between public and private enterprise was startling. Before she knew it, she was strapped into a seat on a state of the art rocket, in charge of a crew of two oddballs: Dor, a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot and Karthik, a techie software engineer, both annoyingly obsessed with archaic American cultural references.
The ship itself was designed by SpaceApe, the subsidiary of Rudy’s holding company which built the very ships commissioned by the Agency. He may not believe there was any future on Mars, but he was happy to take the Agency’s money in the meantime. Furthermore, it was this very contract that let Rudy hide out in the open with his plans to go to Venus; not that he need have bothered with the secrecy. No one else wanted any piece of Venus. If he had had investors, they would have strangled him before letting him take such a financial risk. What Rudy saw though, was the potential reward of the greatest treasure in the solar system.
Graphene, 200 times stronger than steel, a better conductor than copper, and literally lighter than a feather, was the miracle material that modern society was built on. Beyond being omnipresent in the superskyscrapers of modern cities and every new vehicle produced on earth, it was found in solar panels, supercapacitors, and even the newest wave of antibiotics. The only problem was finding enough carbon to manufacture it. The discovery of processes to reduce carbon dioxide to graphene had solved global warming almost overnight, but the short glut had only fueled the market’s appetite. Competitors scrounged among the rocks for calcite and dolomite, but it was a slow, brutal process. Instead, Rudy turned his attention to the stars, or, well, Venus.
With an atmosphere composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, CO2 reduction would be more effective by orders of magnitude. Of course, there was also the added benefit of eventually creating atmospheric conditions suitable for human habitation on the surface of the planet.
“There’s gold in them thar clouds!” Dor exclaimed as they approached Venus, close enough for a naked eye visual. Gloria gave him a level stare. “What?” he protested. “Oh, come on. I’ve been waiting months to be able to use that line. Do you know how hard it is to hold back so much brilliance for so long?”
“It must be a real challenge,” Gloria deadpanned. In truth, it probably was for Dor.
“I deserve a medal,” Dor beamed.
“Surely you can’t be serious,” Karthik said with a guileless expression.
“I am serious…” Dor began. Gloria winced, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “–and don’t call me Shirley!” Karthik chortled, and the two high fived. After six months together in close quarters, both in training and en route, the three of them knew each other all too well.
“Alright you two, it’s time to get up top,” Gloria broke in. “We’re E-minus two hours, and I’m going to need that time to recover from all this idiocy.”
“It’s time for the big one.” Dor nodded.
“You up for this one, Maverick?” Karthik asked, turning to Gloria.
A slow smile broke across her face. “Just a walk in the park, Kazansky.” The other two stared at her, mouths open in shock, before hooting in appreciation. If there had been any gravity, they would’ve been falling all over each other. Instead, feet firmly on the floor, Gloria gave them both a push towards the cockpit. “Now, let’s MOVE.”
So far, so good. The basic concept was fairly straightforward, and everything to this point was well within human expertise regarding space travel. Launching a rocket, sitting in zero-g for a few months while riding solar sails; these were problems they’d already solved. What had never before been attempted was dropping an object from space into the atmosphere and then have it float. There wasn’t even a word for it in English. Everyone associated with the mission simply referred to it as “the arrival event.” Needless to say, this was the tricky part.
It also wasn’t just any old ship they were taking in. Attached to their command module was a dirigible with huge inflatable gas bags, intended to support a floating station that would unfold like a origami upon arrival. Their cramped quarters would become an expansive space, with enough room and resources to support a colony indefinitely, all powered by solar panels to taking advantage of the sun’s 40% stronger rays above Venus.
“Within orbital range, commander,” Dor said, all business. “Clear to detach from solar sails.”
“Do it,” Gloria ordered.
“Yes ma’am.” A jolt followed as the command and dirigible module separated from the sails that had powered their trip and would be waiting to take them back. “Detachment successful,” Dor reported.
“Alright, lieutenant, take us in.”
Gloria gritted her teeth under the agony of the Gs of reentry, but her euphoria steeled her. This was it! For the first time, a human was at another planet, and she was the commanding officer. It was her dream come true, it was–
It was wrong. Something was wrong.
“Lieutenant, you’re bringing us in too low, too fast,” she said.
“I’m following the course set by the computer, commander,” Dor said.
“I know, but it’s wrong. I think we miscalculated the local pressure systems. We need to pull up.”
“The computer would have compensated for that,” Dor insisted. “If we pull up we could miss our arrival zone by hundreds of kilometers.”
“Lieutenant,” Gloria repeated. “Bring us up now.”
“Karthik,” Dor said, ignoring her. “On my word, deploy the parachutes.”
Gloria stared at Dor in alarm. “Lieutenant, we’re going too fast for that! It could be catastrophic.”
“With all due respect ma’am, I think the computer knows better than any of us what–”
“Lieutenant Harari, I am ordering you to pull up,” Gloria said, desperation tinging her voice.
“Ma’am, please. You’re an amazing astronaut, but I’m the atmospheric pilot here. Karthik, deploy the parachutes.”
The engineer sheepishly looked at Gloria, before looking away. He reached for his controls.
“NO!” she cried, but it was too late.
Suddenly, there were a series of bangs. They started to whip around violently. Gloria’s heads-up display flashed a notification that two of the three parachutes had broken free. Their gradual descent was turning into a nosedive.
And so it goes, she thought. Once again, success snatched away from her in her moment of triumph. She would go down in flames literally this time. All she could do was resign herself to her fate.
NO! I WILL NOT LET THEM MAKE ME FAIL!
“Computer, bar the lieutenant and engineer’s commands!” Gloria barked. “Transfer all control to me. I’ll do the damn flying.”
Gloria didn’t wait for a reply, but took the controls in hand. She quickly released the other parachute, and drawing upon every fiber of training, experience, and intuition, fought to bring the bucking ship back up. She screamed her frustration with fate, the laws of aerodynamics, society, her crew, every other damn thing which had tried to keep her down, including herself.
And then, as if nothing unusual had happened, the ship leveled out. They began climbing, soaring through the upper levels of the atmosphere, but they were still going at breakneck speed.
“Computer! On my command, deploy the bags!” Gloria ordered.
“We’re too hot!” Dor cried. “They’ll rip off.”
“Shut up!” Gloria shouted. “We’ve got no parachutes, nothing to slow us down other than friction. If we don’t get those bags open, it won’t matter whether they’re attached or not.”
Dor began silently mouthing what she could only assume was a prayer. Steering them through the clouds of acid rain, she kept an eye on their ever decreasing velocity. Too fast, and they’d lose the bags. Too slow, and they’d lose their lift waiting for the bags to inflate. The computer was working on calculating what the right moment would be, but there were too many variables that were unknown. Unbidden, Alec Guiness’ voice rang through her head. “Use the Force, Luke. Let go.”
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Gloria waited. She opened her eyes, hit the command, and deployed the airbags.
The ship heaved, and slowed. For a gut-wrenching moment, she felt them lose lift and begin to dive again. In horror, she watched the number on the altimeter count down, faster and faster. Red lights flashed throughout the cockpit. They were approaching depths that would crush them. If Gloria had known any Hebrew, she might have joined Dor in his now frantic prayers.
Finally the countdown slowed to a stop, before gradually rising again, and stabilizing. The flashing red and yellow lights one by one turned green. They had made it. Regular thumps announced the unfolding of the station.
Gloria sat in her chair, sweat streaming down her face. The silence was broken by Dor’s cheer.
“Wooo! Fuck yeah!”
“What…what happened…?” Karthik mumbled in a daze.
“We did it!” Dor said. “We’re on Venus!”
Gloria stood up and climbed out of the cockpit.
Sitting in one of the station’s new rooms that she had claimed for herself, she looked at the queued video message from Rudy. The ship would have sent updates on their situation, with full flight logs, so he must have already been aware of their brush with utter disaster. She tapped on the message.
“Wow,” Rudy began. “That was almost pretty bad, huh? Glad I got you on board. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled that out of the fire. I already told the idiots at the Agency about what you did. Hah! Failed a stress test. Stupid shrinks. Anyways, well done, keep me posted of course. The next crew is on its way to relieve you. I’ll see you in a few months when you get back.”
She considered a reply, but none was really necessary. The automatic reports generated by the computer would be enough. As she sat in contemplation, another message arrived. Unlike the video message by Rudy, it was a simple text, from the director of the Agency. “We made a mistake, commander Benatar. Upon your return, you will be named head of the next mission to Mars.”
Gloria stood up, turned off the screen, and left the room.
The station was a humdrum of automated business. Robots zipped around, 3D printing parts, assembling components, kick-starting agriculture, and most importantly for the economic viability of the mission, reducing CO2 to graphene. Dor and Karthik were somewhere in the hubbub, taking care of the tasks that the station wasn’t equipped to handle.
Wearing what amounted to a modified firefighter suit, Gloria stood at the threshold of the station’s airlock, contemplating the swirling clouds beneath them. She put on her helmet, switched on her oxygen supply, and opened the first lock. After the chamber vented, the second lock opened, and she stepped outside: the first human beyond Earth to not need a spacesuit.
She looked over the edge of a guardrail a nearby robot had just installed, down into the depths, and tried to imagine what the surface might look like once the CO2 was fully scrubbed from the atmosphere.
Weeks turned into months, and the small crew lost themselves in their work. Superficially little had changed, but Dor and Karthik never again second-guessed any of her orders. The two of them often talked of what they would do once they got back home, but these remarks were always met by silence from Gloria.
Finally the day was upon them (or at least, the Earth day–the Venusian day lasted nearly four months): the next mission, filled with their replacements, would arrive.
In her room, Gloria looked at the two messages from the very first moments of her arrival, and for the first time, began to compose a reply, which would serve equally well in response to both.
“Thank you, but I’m fine right where I am. I think Governor Gloria Benatar of Venus has a nice ring to it, don’t you?”