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Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Tor, 2000
Series: The Grand Tour: Book 17
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Exploration
Hard SF
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(20 reads / 9 ratings)


The surface of Venus is the most hellish place in the solar system. The ground is hot enough to melt aluminum. The air pressure is so high it has crushed spacecraft landers as though they were tin cans. The sky is perpetually covered with clouds of sulfuric acid. The atmosphere is a choking mixture of carbon dioxide and poisonous gases.

This is where Van Humphries must go. Or die trying.

His older brother perished in the first attempt to land a man on Venus, years before, and his father had always hated Van for surviving when his brother died. Now his father is offering a ten billion dollar prize to the first person to land on Venus and return his oldest son's remains.

To everyone's surprise, Van takes up the offer. But what Van Humphries will find on Venus will change everything--our understanding of Venus, of global warming on Earth, and his knowledge of who he is.



I was late and I knew it. The trouble is, you can't run on the moon.

The shuttle from the Nueva Venezuela space station had been delayed, some minor problem with the baggage being transferred from Earthside, so now I was hurrying along the underground corridor from the landing pad, all alone. The party had started more than an hour ago.

They had warned me not to try to run, even with the weighted boots that I had rented at the landing port. But like a fool I tried to anyway and sort of hip-hopped crazily and bumped into the corridor wall, scraping my nose rather painfully. After that I shuffled along in the manner that the tourist-guide video had shown. It felt stupid, but bouncing off the walls was worse.

Not that I really wanted to go to my father's inane party or be on the Moon at all. None of this was my idea.

Two big human-form robots guarded the door at the end of the corridor. And I mean big, two meters tall and almost as wide across the torso. The gleaming metal door was sealed shut, of course. You couldn't crash my father's party; he'd never stand for that.

"Your name, please," said the robot on my left. Its voice was deep and rough, my father's idea of what a bouncer should sound like, I suppose.

"Van Humphries," I said, as slowly and clearly as I could enunciate.

The robot hesitated only a fraction of a second before saying, "Voice print identification is verified. You may enter, Mr. Van Humphries."

Both robots pivoted around and the door slid open. The noise hit me like a power hammer: thumping atonal music blasting away against wildly over-amped screeching from some androgynous singer wailing the latest pop hit.

The chamber was huge, immense, and jammed wall-to-wall with partygoers, hundreds of men and women, a thou-sand or more, I guessed, drinking, shouting, smoking, their faces contorted with grimaces of forced raucous laughter. The noise was like a solid wall pounding against me; I had to physically force myself to step past the robots and into the mammoth chamber.

Everyone was in party attire: brazenly bright colors with plenty of spangles and glitter and electronic blinkies. And lots of bare flesh showing, of course. I felt like a missionary in my chocolate-brown velour pullover and tan micromesh slacks.

A long electronic window swept the length of the cavern's side wall, alternately proclaiming "happy one hundredth birthday!" and showing clips from pornographic videos.

I might have known Father would pick a bordello as the site for his party. Hell Crater, named after the Jesuit astronomer Maximilian J. Hell. The gaming and porn industries had turned the area into the Moon's sin capital, a complete cornucopia of illicit pleasures dug below the dusty floor of the crater, some six hundred klicks south of Selene City. Poor old Father Hell must be spinning in his crypt.

"Hi there, stranger!" said a brassy, buxom redhead in an emerald-green costume so skimpy it must have been spray-painted onto her. She waggled a vial of some grayish-looking powder in my general direction, exhorting, "Join the fun!"

Fun. The place looked like Dante's Inferno. There was nowhere to sit except for a few couches along the walls, and they were already filled with writhing tangles of naked bodies. Everyone else was on their feet, packed in shoulder to shoulder, dancing or swaying and surging like the waves of some multihued, gabbling, aimless human sea.

High up near the smoothed rock ceiling a pair of acrobats in sequined harlequin costumes were walking a tightrope strung across the chamber. A set of spotlights made then-costumes gutter. On Earth, performing that high up would have been dangerous; here on the Moon they could still break their necks if they fell—or more likely break the necks of die people they fell upon. The place was so tightly packed it would've been impossible for them to hit the floor.

"C'mon," the redhead urged again, pawing at the sleeve of my pullover. She giggled and said, "Don't be so twangy!"

"Where is Martin Humphries?" I had to shout to be heard over the din of the party.

She blinked her emerald-tinted eyes. "Hump? The birthday boy?" Turning uncertainly toward the crowd and waving her hand vaguely, she yelled back, "The old humper's around here someplace. It's his party, y'know."

"The old humper is my father," I told her, enjoying the sudden look of astonishment on her face as I brushed past her.

It was a real struggle to work my way through the crowd. Strangers, all of them. I didn't know anyone there, I was certain of that. None of my friends would be caught dead at a scene like this. As I pushed and elbowed my way through the jam-packed chamber, I wondered if my father knew any of these people. He probably rented them for the occasion. The redhead certainly looked the type.

He knows I can't take crowds, and yet he forced me to come here. Typical of my loving father. I tried to shut out the noise, the reek of perfume and tobacco and drugs, and the slimy sweat of too many bodies pressed too close together. It was making me weak in the knees, twisting my stomach into knots.

I can't deal with this kind of thing. It's too much. I felt as if I would collapse if there weren't so many bodies crowded around me. I was starting to get dizzy, my vision blurring.

I had to stop in the midst of the mob and squeeze my eyes shut. It was a struggle to breathe. I had taken my regular enzyme shot just before the transfer rocket had landed, yet I felt as if I needed another one, and quickly.

I opened my eyes and surveyed the jostling, noisy, sweaty throng again, searching for the nearest exit. And then I saw him. Through the tangle of weaving, gesticulating partygoers I spotted my father, sitting up on a dais at the far end of the cavern like some ancient Roman emperor surveying an orgy. He was even clad in a flowing robe of crimson, with two beautifully supple young women at his sandalled feet.

My father. One hundred years old this day. Martin Humphries didn't look any more than forty; his hair was still dark, his face firm and almost unlined. But his eyes—his eyes were hard, knowing; they glittered with corrupt pleasure at the scene being played out before him. He had used every rejuvenation therapy he could get his hands on, even illegal ones such as nanomachines. He wanted to stay young and vigorous forever. I thought he probably would. He always got what he wanted. But one look into his eyes and it was easy to believe that he was a hundred years old.

He saw me shouldering through the strident, surging crowd and for a moment those cold gray eyes of his locked onto mine. Then he turned away from me with an impatient frown clouding his handsome, artificially youthful face.

You insisted that I come to this carnival, I said to him silently. So, like it or not, here I am.

He paid no attention to me as I toiled to reach him. I was gasping now, my lungs burning. I needed a shot of my medication but I had left it back at my hotel suite. When at last I reached the foot of his dais I slumped against the softly pliable fabric draped over the platform, struggling to catch my breath. Then I realized that the strident din of the party had dropped to a buzzing, muted whisper.

"Sound dampers," my father said, glancing down at me with his old disdainful smirk. "Don't look so stupid."

There were no steps up the platform and I felt too weak and giddy to try to haul myself up beside him.

He made a shooing motion and the two young women jumped nimbly from the platform, eagerly joining the crowd.

Copyright © 2000 by Ben Bova


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