The Hesperus Dilemma
Daniel stared into the blackness.
And the vast blackness stared back; dozens of glinting pinpricks gazing amongst the nothingness with piercing, critical eyes.
He wasn’t proud of his decision, but he had no other choice. He knew the others wouldn’t understand but, in truth, they didn’t need to. He tilted his head back and continued staring ahead. His sharp, blue optical lenses focused in on the barrage of radiation hitting the Hesperus which assured him there really was no other way. But no matter how hard he tried to ignore them, the pinprick eyes maintained their stare. He swallowed hard, turned his head away, and glanced at his blood-stained hands. He sucked in a long drag of oxygen-rich air and unclipped himself from the viewing platform, setting his body instantly afloat. With apparent ease, Daniel then pushed himself off and drifted towards the final airlock. As the circular vent edged nearer, he re-opened his communications channel.
“…Daniel… you’re back online? What happened?”
“Solar interference,” he offered.
“Solar? What… Just tell me what’s going on! Why the hell did you leave us here? The Venusians are going crazy, I don’t know what to tell them for Christ’s sake!”
“Tell them. Tell them it’s for their own safety.” The airlock opened with a hiss and Daniel squeezed through.
“Their safety? What the hell does that mean?”
Denver’s tone worried him. He needed her to stay calm, stay in control, otherwise his plan would never work. “Protocol 13,” he lied for the third time.
A momentary silence. “…I see. Daniel, what you did… is it true?”
“I’m on my way.” Daniel cut the channel and opened a new line with the Hesperus. I need you to open up. I need to go on an EVA.
Thank you for re-establishing communications, Daniel. I was beginning to worry.
Daniel waited, his body floating gently, and wondered whether the ship had worked out his intentions.
Is there a problem?
I hope not, Daniel. Though, your actions do not seem to be consistent with your usual behaviour. I would like to offer you council, if I may.
Just open the hatch.
Have you fully considered the dangers of going on a spacewalk at this time?
He thought about his response. He couldn’t give the ship a reason to suspect his real intentions – although his request was highly irregular given what had just occurred, and the present radiation storm. He pulled himself towards the hatch and gazed out through the small, oval porthole, immediately re-focussing on the lime green waves of radiation – the colour his lenses always defaulted to when the source was unknown. Beyond that, he could perfectly see the dirty orange glow of Venus suspended within a canvas of deep, infinite black. Its thick, sulphuric clouds of amber wrapped securely around the planet like some giant quilt. And then he thought of Kate, and Denver and Celticus, and all the others, and knew that he had to act quickly.
I am wearing my skin. In any case, the eye of the storm is away from the ship. I need to get out there to record its effects. On a secure channel he searched the computer databanks for the override code.
There is no evidence that your skin will support you, Daniel. The present storm is unprecedented. It would be highly irresponsible of me to grant you access. Moreover, there are no experiments scheduled for today. Indeed, considering the current situation, it would appear a highly inappropriate request for you to make. May I ask from whose authority you are asking?
The search was taking longer than he had hoped. Each avenue blocked with an advanced firewall. He only had seconds before the Hesperus would detect him within her system. But Daniel’s advanced mainframe was learning fast. For every block it encountered, thousands of logically formulated multi-character attacks were being initiated – all within a fraction of a nanosecond.
My own authority.
Then you understand that… Wait. Daniel, that is classified information. How did you…
The hatch-wheel turned and the room was instantly depressurized. Daniel felt a powerful, unnatural tug as the air was sucked forcefully out of the spacecraft. His skin’s own CPU immediately adjusted to the sudden drop in temperature; simultaneously re-oxygenating and hydrating the inner layer. Its initial rigidity giving way to more freedom of movement, which enabled him to grip hold of the outer rungs of the craft before he could drift away into the depths of interstellar space. As the skin continued to acclimatise, a drunken dizziness seized his senses – an instant hangover from the abrupt change of environments.
That was both puzzling and unnecessary, Daniel. Over-riding my safety protocols is illegal, not to mention unsafe. May I ask how you were able to do that?
Instead of answering he cut her off. His head was spinning wildly, and it took all his concentration to maintain consciousness and hold on to the rung. Battling against the –250 degree Celsius, the skin took a few moments to warm up. His lungs not needing to respire also took some adjusting to, as his body began absorbing oxygen through the pores of his inner layer.
Daniel managed to pull his body forward, so his boots were level with the hull of the ship. Upon contact with the metallic frame, the boots reacted accordingly and instantly magnetised. Slowly, he dragged his body up so that he was literally standing on the ship. As his old Flight Commander would always tell his eager freshbie recruits, there is no up or down in space so, to all intents and purposes, Daniel now found himself standing upright looking across the vast, grey hull of the Hesperus, a boundless black sky surrounding him.
“…Daniel! For fuck’s sake! Why did you leave me like that? Things are getting shitty down here. People are not happy!”
“Are the Venusians contained?”
“Yes… yes. For now. But listen, everyone’s looking for you – and they want to move into the Biosphere Zone. Said they’ll feel safer there.”
“Biosphere?” There was a hint of concern in Daniel’s voice. “Who said?”
“I’ve not seen him like this – he’s acting crazy!”
“Denver,” Daniel tried to remain calm. “Who?”
“Of course,” he replied almost to himself, “who else?” He looked across to the glowing sphere of the Venusians’ home planet, an audience of stars winking in the distance, and wondered how this would end.
24 hours earlier
Ambassador Vesper was a stout, stocky man, barely over 5 feet tall – an ‘evolutionary’ side-effect of Venus’s colossal atmospheric pressure, which was 92 times greater than Earth’s. A 12th generation Venusian with a privileged ancestry, Vesper, middle aged and morbidly obese, prided himself on his rank, his stature. A major player in the Tri-Planetary Union, he lorded himself between the planets, enjoying the fine wine of his hosts and listening to his own distinct, authoritative voice.
“Domaine de la Romanee. One of life’s true pleasures.” A solar-darkened hand, flaked and swollen around the wrist, clutched the bottle and began pouring. “Here, please.”
Daniel extended a powerful, bruised arm and accepted the gesture; his lean 6 foot frame aching from the earlier exertions.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me.” Leaning his back against the vast carbon-based drinks cabinet, Ambassador Vesper let out a lavish grunt and positioned himself to face his guest. He took a generous sip from his own crystal glass and waved an approving hand theatrically above his head. “Mmm, my God. Heaven,” he said in a low rumbling of a voice.
Daniel stood there; dishevelled dark hair adding to an already awkward stance.
“It’s a vintage. 2175. Trust me. From the Burgundy region of Pan-Europa, of our very own Earth,” he guffawed.
Daniel obliged and offered the ruby substance to his lips.
“Do you know what makes it so special? Mmm?” Vesper eased himself into a rather large armchair no more than three feet away from his beloved cabinet. “The oak casks, built from the Domaine’s own oak forests.”
In spite of himself, Daniel took another, slightly larger sip.
“But, of course, we know why that’s so special don’t we?” The ambassador presented a gleaming row of fabricated teeth within his smile.
“Oak no longer exists.” Daniel spoke smoothly with a monotone quality; his sharp, blue eyes never wavering from his host’s watchful gaze.
“Yes!” Vesper cried as if Daniel was his star pupil and he was his form master, “Correct!” His skull glistened beneath some last few vestiges of grey. “Once this bottle of pure exquisiteness disappears, it will never come back. Wonderful isn’t it.”
“Well, yes. When something becomes rare, very rare, like this very lovely wine,” he said taking a number of hearty glugs, “then it becomes coveted, expensive. Valuable. With value comes power. Leverage. Responsibility.” He scanned Daniel studiously with deeply furrowed, beady eyes, fixing them on his guest’s inflamed left cheek. “I’m sorry about earlier. My men lack a certain… subtlety. Please, sit down.” He gestured Daniel to a second, smaller armchair next to where he was beached.
Daniel paused, wondering dark thoughts. Then sat where he had been asked to sit.
“You are the Head Scientific Officer on this ship, is that true?” Ambassador Vesper’s voice had mellowed. He had developed a disturbing ‘friend-of-the-people’ tone.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Judging by your peers, you are quite an exceptional Head Scientific Officer.”
“Extraordinary, I’d go as far as to say.” His beads flitted menacingly. “I’ve had a little look at your records, Daniel. All of it exceptional stuff. Truly exemplary.” He prodded a manicured stump towards his i-wall and a list of Daniel’s achievements appeared instantly on screen. “A PhD in Bio-Computers from the Athenian Academy, no less. Well done, you.” A mock smile flashed fleetingly. “Expedition this, invention that… first mission to explore the habitation prospects of both Phobos and Deimos, mmm, wonderful… acclaim for pioneering work on human – computer fusion theory… distinction, honours, distinction, distinction…” His voice tapered off.
Daniel waited. Vesper coughed indulgently.
“So… Bio-computers, eh?” He poured another generous amount of Domaine into his glass; spit residue sparkling elegantly around its rim. Daniel’s glass remained half full and unattended. “Like the Hesperus.” Vesper’s eyes again met Daniel’s.
Daniel couldn’t help twitching the briefest of sneers. He was becoming bored of this charade.
“I’ve heard, Daniel, that you know more than just a little bit about human-AI fusion. I’d say you could even be referred to as a god when it comes to this field… which got me wondering…” For the first time Vesper’s smile looked genuine. “Why would such a universal expert; someone who could live a life of royalty on his home planet – hell, who has the CV to practically run for President of Earth – why would this man trade two years of his life running a two-way trade mission to Venus?”
It was only a matter of time, but Daniel didn’t want to blink first.
“I’ve heard you can do some pretty amazing things with that unique tech of yours,” the Ambassador said, tapping his own temple.
He hesitated. Now he understood. Vesper’s arrogance had given him all the information he needed. Events could now move in to the second phase. “You are referring to my mainframe.”
“Yes, Daniel, I’m referring to your mainframe.”
The ‘friend-of-the-people’ had suddenly turned rather more sinister.
It took Daniel less than a second to sense two of Vesper’s men moving in, and a further 1.67 seconds to calculate the myriad of possible courses of action available to him at this juncture. It was all the time he needed.
A mechanical whirr, followed by a succession of low thuds exploded into life behind him. A deluge of blood, infused with fine segments of bone and brain tissue, rained violently and spectacularly against the back of Daniel’s hardened skin, forcing him forward a step.
“Arrgghhhh! My God! Somebody! Please!!!” A deep, crimson stain ran through Vesper’s shirt; his crystal glass hanging limply in his hand.
Blocking the Ambassador’s cries from his mind, Daniel re-calculated the possibilities open to him and issued his second orders to the Hesperus. It made no difference, he thought, as he turned and stepped over his assailants’ headless corpses. Whichever way this was to be played, the end was always the same.
Daniel would have to die.