By David Kernot

Gossamer thin strands of grapheme-coated titanium were all that separated Mike from death. They connected his zeppelin, the MV Endeavour, to its gas-filled membrane and kept him afloat in the thick sulphuric clouds. Mike tilted the ship, so it angled deep into the lowest depths of the Murks of Venus.

Across his bow, Jim from the Tardigrade was doing the same. A cylinder-like airship not too dissimilar from his own, its balloon wires were also taut against the impossible downward angle. Mike examined his competitor’s angle of descent and cursed. He took a deep breath, tightened his grip on the helm until his knuckles whitened. Dare he tilt his ship even further? In the end, he did and cursed again when Tardigrade followed suit. 

The radio burst into life. “Five, four, three, two, one, go.” He throttled his engines and felt the tug of the thin strands of titanium against the inflated balloon above him.

Mike held his breath. Launching deep into The Murks could be hit and miss and nobody wanted to tear the delicate strands holding their only lifeline, preventing them from spiralling indefinitely into the Venusian surface.

The radio crackled again. “God speed, Endeavour. God speed, Tardigrade.”

Mike exhaled. The altimeter measured a slow but increasing declination. He grinned, counted down from ten, and glanced across to the Tardigrade. He cursed. Although a distance apart, both ships were neck and neck.

Why did he have such a desire to prove himself? Was it ego? Fame? Or purely about terraforming Venus? Probably a little of everything. Yes, he wanted to be a famous explorer like his grandfather, Abe. Yes, like the Tardigrade was known for releasing water monkeys into the depths of the Murks, Mike had a reputation for releasing the mycelium from his onboard mushroom farm. Call him eccentric. He didn’t mind. Maybe there was a bit of ego there, too. 

He would always navigate the ship close to the equator so he could cross the edge of Venus’s largest continental plate, Aphrodite Terra. He’d sail among the toxic sulphuric acid clouds until he found the roasting volcanic thermal vent currents and release the mycelium into it, hoping it mixed in the primordial soup that harboured the basic building blocks of life. The Venusian Goldilocks zone. 

Mike found the thermal vent plume and sailed on its edge. Perspiration formed across his forehead. He checked his pressure gauge. While higher than he’d like, he could go a little further, but the ship was warming down at this level. 

The Tardigrade sailed slightly below him, and Mike cursed. Jim was going to beat him. He held the line for longer and counted down from ten. With each passing second, the temperature inside grew. At the count of five, the temperature was uncomfortable, and the atmosphere so thick outside, the Tardigrade was barely visible.

Four, three… At two the Tardigrade changed her trajectory, and flattened her incline. The MV Endeavour shot passed her, deeper into The Murks, and Mike cheered. He had won.

The radio crackled into life. “Way to go, Endeavour. I’ll see you topside, Mike,” said Jim.

Mike reached for the radio, but something drove him on. The MV Endeavour was a military vessel. She had been built as a warship, and Mike needed to see how deeper she could go.

He slowed his descent, and feathered the controls so that the ship sat off to the side of the thermal vent plume, at a position where the air temperature was slightly cooler and the external pressure less.

He chased the heat plume deeper into The Murks, uncertain how much further his vessel could withstand. According to his depth gauge, he was the first human to have gone this far into the depths of Venus. He checked the pressure gauge and considered going down even further, but decided against it. This was his limit.

He pulled up Endeavour, positioned her for the return topside journey, but the titanium cables caught on something. They snapped. He cursed loudly and watched the balloon shoot up into the distance, while he sped down faster into the crushing maws of Venus.

He frowned. What had she snagged on? Quickly, he replayed the external video feed while he still could. 

He frowned again, and it deepened. What was he looking at? It seemed to be a replica of an early Spanish sailing ship, but instead of a central mast and sails, the cylindrical hull had huge spreading mushrooms instead, and the gills moved back and forth like a fish.

Mike grinned. He couldn’t believe it. Could he have something to do with that, after all? Or had life spawned with the help of Jim Banks’ Tardigrades? Had it simply been microbes brought from Earth on the trees? Or that the poisonous clouds above the giant continental plate, Aphrodite Terra, contained the basic building blocks for life? It didn’t matter now.

Content, he sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and slowly counted down from one hundred as he went. He had no regrets, except one, and that was he would take this knowledge of life on Venus to his grave.

Fortunately, he passed out before he reached zero, which is when the massive Venusian pressure would crush the MV Endeavour, and him with it, to death.

***

EPILOGUE

Before Jim Banks had arrived topside, he had reported Mike’s death and losing the MV Endeavour. From the deck of the Tardigrade, Jim had watched Endeavour’s balloon pass him, and sadly knew the worst of it. Jim and Mike had been great friends and rivals, after all.

Topside, where the traditional colonists bounced above The Murks in their High-Altitude Venus Operational Crafts, the HAVOCs, they still pulled the ancient Earth trees of the early colonists behind them to increase the oxygen levels.

Jim organised a funeral for Mike. Out of respect for the person who had travelled the deepest into The Murks of Venus. Jim offered to sponsor a new seedling to be delivered from Earth, so that it could be towed behind Mike’s grandfather’s sycamore tree. 

Everyone topside thought it was a wonderful gesture, but it never came to pass because Mike returned in a changed MV Endeavour. The outside hull of the ship had been coated in a thick layer of buoyant mycelium, and now she looked like an ancient Spanish galleon but with mushroom sails.

rocket crux 2 75

About the Author

David KernotDavid Kernot lives in the Mid North of South Australia and has over seventy story credits in anthologies in Australia, the US, Canada, and the UK.

This story grew from experiencing the era of the lunar space race and just-add-water-sea-monkeys. And while there are very few people in the world with two biological mothers, I wondered once the practice of human genetic-engineering becomes second nature, and we move on to looking at harnessing features from other species to sustain or enhance life, at what point do we create homo-sapien II.

For more information see <http://www.davidkernot.com>.

aus25grn

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