Yet the question remained: Do I have the determination, the strength, the single-minded drive to make this mad scheme a success?

Finally freed of the suit with all its paraphernalia and boots and undergarments, Yamagata stood in his sweat-soaked sky-blue coveralls, which bore on its breast the white flying crane symbol of his family and his corporation. He dismissed his subordinates with a curt word of thanks. They bowed and hissed respectfully as Yamagata turned and started up the corridor that led to his private compartment and a hot shower.

Yamagata was a sturdily built man, slightly over 175 centimeters tall, who appeared to be no more than fifty-some years old, thanks to rejuvenation therapies. In his youth he had been as slim as a samurai’s blade, but the years of good living in his first life had softened him, rounded his body and his face. The cancer ate away much of that, and his years in the lamasery had kept him gaunt, but once he left the Himalayas to begin his third life he soon reverted to his tastes in food and drink. Now he was slightly paunchy, his sodden, stained coveralls already beginning to strain at the middle. His face was round, also, but creased with laugh lines. In his first life Yamagata had laughed a lot, although during those years of remorse and penance he had spent with the lamas in their stone fortress high in the Himalayas there was precious little laughter.

Freshly showered and dressed in a crisply clean open-necked shirt and fashionable dark trousers, Yamagata made his way to the ship’s bridge. He thought about dropping in on his two guests, but he would see them later at dinner, he knew. As soon as he stepped through the open hatch into the bridge the Japanese crew, including the captain, snapped to respectful attention.

Waving a hand to show they should return to their duties, Yamagata asked the captain, “Are we ready to send the landing craft to the planet?”

The captain tried to keep his face expressionless, but it was clear to Yamagata that he did not like the idea.

“It is not necessary for you to go down to the surface, sir,” he said, almost in a whisper. “We have all the necessary facilities here on the ship—”

“I understand that,” said Yamagata, smiling to show that he was not offended by the captain’s reluctance. “Still, I wish to see the surface installation for myself. It’s near the north pole, I understand.”

“Yes, sir. Borealis Planitia.”

“Near the crater Goethe,” said Yamagata.

The captain dipped his chin to acknowledge Yamagata’s understanding of the geography. But he murmured, “It is very rugged down there, sir.”

“So I have been told. But personal comfort is not everything, you know. My son, Nobuhiko, enjoys skiing. I cannot for the life of me understand why he would risk his life and limbs for the joy of sliding clown a snowy mountain in all that cold and wet, but still he loves it.”

The captain bowed his head. But then he added one final warning: “Er… They call it ‘Dante’s Inferno’ down there. Sir.”

DATA BANK

The closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is a small, rocky, barren, dense, airless, heat-scorched world.

For centuries astronomers believed that Mercury’s rotation was “locked,” so that one side of the planet always faced the Sun while the other side always looked away. They reasoned that the sunward side of Mercury must be the hottest planetary surface in the solar system, while the side facing away from the Sun must be frozen down almost to absolute zero.

But this is not so. Mercury turns slowly on its axis, taking 58.6 Earth days to make one revolution. Its year—the time it takes to complete one orbit around the Sun—is 87.97 Earth days.

This leads to a strange situation. Mercury’s rotation rate of nearly fifty-nine Earth days is precisely two-thirds of the planet’s year. A person standing on the surface of the planet would see the huge Sun move from east to west across the dark airless sky, but it would slow down noticeably, then reverse its course and head back east for a while before resuming its westerly motion. At some locations on Mercury, the Sun rises briefly, then dips down below the horizon before finally rising again for the rest of the Mercurian day. After sunset the Sun peeks back up above the horizon before setting for the length of the night.

Counting the Mercurian day from the time the Sun appears directly overhead (local noon) to the next time it reaches that point, it measures one hundred seventy-six Earth days. From the standpoint of noon-to-noon, then, the Mercurian day is twice as long as its year!

The Sun looms large in Mercury’s sky. It appears twice as big as we see it from Earth when Mercury is at the farthest point from the Sun in its lopsided orbit and three times larger at the closest point. And it is hot. Daytime temperatures soar to more than 400° Celsius, four times higher than the boiling point of water, hot enough to melt zinc. At night the temperature drops to –135° C because there is no atmosphere to retain the day’s heat; it radiates away into space.

With a diameter of only 4,879 kilometers, Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system except for distant—most Pluto. Jupiter and Saturn have moons that are larger than Mercury. The planet is slightly more than one-third larger than Earth’s own Moon.

Yet Mercury is a dense planet, with a large iron core and a relatively thin overlay of silicon-based rock. This may be because the planet formed so close to the Sun that most of the silicate material in the region was too hot to condense and solidify; it remained gaseous and was blown away on the solar wind, leaving little material for the planet to build on except iron and other metals.

Another possibility, though, is that most of Mercury’s rocky crust was blasted away into space by the impact of a mammoth asteroid early in the solar system’s history. Mercury’s battered, airless surface looks much like the Moon’s, testimony to the pitiless barrage of asteroids and larger planetesimals that hurtled through the solar system more than three billion years ago. Caloris Basin is a huge bull’s-eye of circular mountain ridges some 1,300 kilometers in diameter. This gigantic impact crater is the center of fault lines that run for hundreds of kilometers across the planet’s rocky surface.

An asteroid roughly one hundred kilometers wide smashed into Mercury nearly four billion years ago, gouging out Caloris Basin and perhaps blasting away most of the planet’s rocky crust.

Despite the blazing heat from the nearby Sun, water ice exists at Mercury’s polar regions. Ice from comets that crashed into the planet has been cached in deep craters near the poles, where sunlight never reaches. Just as on the Moon, ice is an invaluable resource for humans and their machines.

DANTE’S INFERNO

Yamagata rode the small shuttle down to the planet’s airless surface in his shirtsleeves, strapped into an ergonomically cushioned chair directly behind the pilot and copilot. Both the humans were redundancies: the shuttle could have flown perfectly well on its internal computer guidance, but Himawari’s captain had insisted that not merely one but two humans should accompany their illustrious employer.

The shuttle itself was little more than an eggshell of ceramic-coated metal with a propulsion rocket and steering jets attached, together with three spindly landing legs. Yamagata hardly felt any acceleration forces at all. Separation from Himawari was gentle, and landing in Mercury’s light gravity was easy.

As soon as the landing struts touched down and the propulsion system automatically cut off, the pilot turned in his chair and said to Yamagata, “Gravity here is only one-third of Earth’s, sir.”

The copilot, a handsome European woman with pouty lips, added, “About the same as Mars.” The Japanese pilot glared at her.

Yamagata smiled good-naturedly at them both. “I have never been to Mars. My son once thought of moving me to the Moon, but I was dead then.”

Both pilots gaped at him as he unstrapped his safety harness and stood up, his head a bare centimeter from the cabin’s metal overhead. Their warning about the Mercurian gravity was strictly pro forma, of course. Yamagata had instructed Himawari’s captain to spin the fusion torch vessel at one-third normal gravity once it reached Mercury after its four-day flight from Earth. He felt quite comfortable at one-third g. Leaning between the two pilots’ chairs, Yamagata peered out the cockpit window. Even through the window’s tinting, it looked glaring and hot out there. Pitiless. Sun-baked. The stony surface of Mercury was bleak, barren, pockmarked with craters and cracked with meandering gullies. He saw the long shadow of their shuttle craft stretched out across the bare, rocky ground before them like an elongated oval.

“The Sun is behind us, then,” Yamagata muttered.

“Yes, sir,” said the pilot. “It will set in four hours.”

The copilot, who still had not learned that she was supposed to be subordinate to the pilot, added, “Then it will rise again for seventy-three minutes before setting for the night.”

Yamagata saw the clear displeasure on the pilot’s face. The man said nothing to his copilot, though. Instead, he pointed toward a rounded hillock of stony rubble.

“There’s the base,” he informed Yamagata. “Dante’s Inferno.”

Yamagata said, “They are sending out the access tube.”

A jointed tube was inching toward them across the uneven ground on metal wheels, reminding Yamagata of a caterpillar groping its way along the stalk of a plant on its many feet. He felt the shuttle rock slightly as the face of the tube thumped against the craft’s airlock.

The pilot watched the display on his panel, lights flicking on and off, a string of alphanumerics scrolling across the screen. He touched a corner of the screen with one finger and a visual image came up, with more numbers and a trio of green blinking lights.

“Access tube mated with airlock,” he announced, reverting to the clipped jargon of his profession. To the copilot he commanded, “Check it and confirm integrity.”

She got up from her chair wordlessly and brushed past Yamagata to head back to the airlock. He appreciated the brief touch of her soft body, the hint of flowery perfume. What would she do if I asked her to remain here at the base with me? Yamagata wondered. A European. And very independent in her manner. But I have a dinner appointment with my two guests, he reminded himself. Still, the thought lingered.

After a few silent moments, the pilot rose from his chair and walked a courteous three steps behind Yamagata to the airlock’s inner hatch. The copilot stepped through from the opposite direction, a slight smile curving her generous lips.

“Integrity confirmed,” she said, almost carelessly. “The tube is airtight and the cooling system is operational.”

Yamagata saw that the outer airlock hatch was open, as well, and the access tube stretched beyond it.

He politely thanked the two pilots and headed down the tube. Despite her insouciance, at least the copilot had the sense to bow properly. The tube was big enough for him to stand without stooping. The flooring felt slightly springy underfoot. It curved gently to the left; within a few paces he could no longer see the two pilots standing at the shuttle’s hatch.

Then he saw the hatch to the base, which was closed. Someone had scrawled a graffito in blood-red above the curved top of the hatch: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Yamagata grunted at that. As he reached out his hand to tap the electronic panel that controlled the hatch, it swung open without his aid.

A lean, pale-skinned man with dark hair that curled over his ears stood on the other side of the hatch, wearing not the coveralls Yamagata expected, but a loose-fitting white shirt with flowing long sleeves that were fastened tightly at his wrists and a pair of dark baggy trousers stuffed into gleamingly polished calf-length boots. A wide leather belt cinched his narrow, flat middle.

He smiled politely and extended his hand to Yamagata. “Welcome to Goethe base, Mr. Yamagata. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have you here. I am Dante Alexios.”

Yamagata accepted his hand. His grip was firm, his smile gracious. Yet there was something wrong with his face. The two sides of it seemed slightly mismatched, almost as if two separate halves had been grafted together by an incompetent surgeon. Even his smile was slightly lopsided; it made him appear almost mocking, rather than friendly.

And his eyes. Dante Alexios’s dark brown eyes burned with some deep inner fury, Yamagata saw.

Dante’s Inferno indeed, he thought.

SUNPOWER FOUNDATION

Alexios showed Yamagata through the cramped, steamy base. It was small, built for efficiency, not human comfort. Little more than an oversized bubble of honeycomb metal covered with rubble from Mercury’s surface to protect it from the heat and radiation, its inside was partitioned into cubicles and larger spaces. Goethe base was staffed with a mere two dozen engineers and technicians, yet it seemed as if hundreds of men and women had been packed into its crowded confines.

“We thought about establishing the base in orbit around the planet,” Alexios explained as they walked down a row of humming consoles. Yamagata felt sweaty, almost disgusted at the closeness of all these strangers, their foreignness, their body odors. Most of them were Europeans or Americans, he saw; a few were obviously African or perhaps African-American. None of them paid the slightest attention to him. They were all bent over their consoles, intent on their tasks.

“My original plan was for the base to be in orbit,” Yamagata said.

Alexios smiled diplomatically. “Economics. The great tyrant that dictates our every move.”

Remembering the lessons in tolerance the lamas had pressed upon him, Yamagata was trying to keep the revulsion from showing on his face. He smelled stale food and something that reminded him of burned-out electrical insulation.

Continuing as if none of this bothered him in the slightest, Alexios explained, “We ran the numbers a half dozen times. If we’d kept the base in orbit we’d have to bring supplies to it constantly. Raised the costs too high. Here on the surface we have access to local water ice and plenty of silicon, metals, almost all the resources we need, including oxygen that we bake out of the rocks. Plenty of solar energy, of course.

So I decided to plant the base here, on the ground.”

“You decided?” Yamagata snapped.

“I’m an independent contractor, Mr. Yamagata. These people are my employees, not yours.”

“Ah yes,” Yamagata said, recovering his composure. “Of course.”

“Naturally, I want to do the best job possible for you. That includes keeping the project’s costs as low as I can.”

“As I recall it, you were the lowest bidder of all the engineering firms that we considered, by a considerable margin.”