Isaac Asimov

Lucky Starr And The Oceanf Of Venus

To Margaret Lesser and all the girls in the department



Foreword

This book was first published in 1954, and the description of the surface of Venus was in accordance with astronomic beliefs of the period.

Since 1954, however, astronomical knowledge of the inner Solar system has advanced enormously because of the use of radar beams and rockets.

In the late 1950s, the quantity of radio waves received from Venus made it seem that the surface of Venus might be much hotter than had been thought. On August 27, 1962, a rocket probe called "Mariner II" was launched in the direction of Venus. It skimmed by within 21,000 miles of Venus on December 14, 1962. Measuring the radio waves emitted by the planet, it turned out that the surface temperature everywhere was indeed considerably higher than the boiling point of water.

This meant that far from having a worldwide ocean, as described in this book, Venus had no ocean at all. All of Venus's water is in the form of water vapor in its clouds, and the surface is exceedingly hot and is bone-dry. The atmosphere of Venus is, moreover, denser than had been thought and is almost entirely carbon dioxide.

Nor had it been known, in 1954, how long it took Venus to rotate on its axis. In 1964, radar beams bounced off Venus's surface showed that it was turning once in every 243 days (eighteen days longer than its year) and in the "wrong" direction as compared with other planets.

I hope that the readers enjoy this story anyway, but I would not wish them to be misguided into accepting as fact some of the material which was "accurate" in 1954 but which is now outdated.


Isaac Asimov

November, 1970


1. Through The Clouds Of Venus

Lucky starr and john bigman jones kicked themselves up from the gravity-free Space Station No. 2 and drifted toward the planetary coaster that waited for them with its air lock open. Their movements had the grace of long practice under non-gravity conditions, despite the fact that their bodies seemed thick and grotesque in the space suits they wore.

Bigman arched his back as he moved upward and craned his head to stare once again at Venus. His voice sounded loudly in Lucky's ear through the suit'sf radio. "Space! Look at that rock, will you?" Every inch of Big-man's five-foot-two was tense with the thrill of the sight.

Bigman had been born and bred on Mars and had never in his life been so close to Venus. He was used to ruddy planets and rocky asteroids. He had even visited green and blue Earth. But here, now, was something that was pure gray and white.

Venus filled over half the sky. It was only two thousand miles away from the space station they were on. Another space station was on the opposite side of the planet. These two stations, acting as receiving depots for Venus-bound spaceships, streaked about the planet in a three-hour period of revolution, following one another's tracks like little puppies forever chasing their tails.

Yet from those space stations, close though they were to Venus, nothing could be seen of the planet's surface. No continents showed, no oceans, no deserts or mountains, no green valleys. Whiteness, only brilliant whiteness, interspersed with shifting lines of gray.

The whiteness was the turbulent cloud layer that hovered eternally over all of Venus, and the gray lines marked the boundaries where cloud masses met and clashed. Vapor moved downward at those boundaries, and below those gray lines, on Venus's invisible surface, it rained.

Lucky Starr said, "No use looking at Venus, Bigman. You'll be seeing plenty of it, close up, for a while. It's the sun you ought to be saying good-by to."

Bigman snorted. To his Mars-accustomed eyes, even Earth's sun seemed swollen and overbright. The sun, as seen from Venus's orbit, was a bloated monster. It was two and a quarter times as bright as Earth's sun, four times as bright as the familiar sun on Bigman's Mars. Personally, he was glad that Venus's clouds would hide its sun. He was glad that the space station always arranged its vanes in such a way as to block off the sunlight.

Lucky Starr said, "Well, you crazy Martian, are you getting in?"

Bigman had brought himself to a halt at the lip of the open lock by the casual pressure of one hand. He was still looking at Venus. The visible half was in the full glare of the sun, but at the eastern side the night shadow was creeping in, moving quickly as the space station raced on in its orbit.

Lucky, still moving upward, caught the lip of the lock in his turn and brought his other space-suited hand flat against Bigman's seat. Under the gravity-free conditions, Bigman's little body went tumbling slowly inward, while Lucky's figure bobbed outward.

Lucky's arm muscle contracted, and he floated up and inward with an easy, flowing motion. Lucky had no cause for a light heart at the moment, but he was forced into a smile when he found Bigman spread-eagled in mid-air, with the tip of one gauntleted finger against the inner lock holding him steady. The outer lock closed as Lucky passed through.

Bigman said, "Listen, you wombug, someday I'm walking out on you and you can get yourself another…"

Air hissed into the small room, and the inner lock opened. Two men floated rapidly through, dodging Big-man's dangling feet. The one in the lead, a stocky fellow with dark hair and a surprisingly large mustache, said, "Is there any trouble, gentlemen?"

The second man, taller, thinner, and with lighter hair but a mustache just as large, said, "Can we help you?"

Bigman said loftily, "You can help us by giving us room and letting us get our suits off." He had flicked himself to the floor and was removing his suit as he spoke. Lucky had already shucked his.

The men went through the inner lock. It, too, closed behind them. The space suits, their outer surface cold with the cold of space, were frosting over as moisture from the warm air of the coaster congealed upon them. Bigman tossed them out of the coaster's warm, moist air on to the tiled racks, where the ice might melt.

The dark-haired man said, "Let's see, now. You two are William Williams and John Jones. Right?"

Lucky said, "I'm Williams." Using that alias under ordinary conditions was second nature to Lucky by now. It was customary for Council of Science members to shun publicity at all times. It was particularly advisable now with the situation on Venus as confused and uncertain as it was.

Lucky went on, "Our papers are in order, I believe, and our luggage is aboard."

"Everything's all right," the dark-haired one said, "I'm George Reval, pilot, and this is Tor Johnson, my co-pilot. We'll be taking off in a few minutes. If there's anything you want, let us know."

The two passengers were shown to their small cabin, and Lucky sighed inwardly. He was never thoroughly comfortable in space except on his own speed cruiser, the Shooting Starr, now at rest in the space station's hangar.

Tor Johnson said in a deep voice, "Let me warn you, by the way, that once we get out of the space station's orbit, we won't be in free fall any more. Gravity will start picking up. If you get space-sick…"

Bigman yelled, "Space-sick! You in-planet goop, I could take gravity changes when I was a baby that you couldn't take right now." He flicked his finger against the wall, turned a slow somersault, touched the wall again, and ended with his feet just a half-inch above the floor. "Try that someday when you feel real manly."

"Say," said the co-pilot, grinning, "you squeeze a lot of brash into half a pint, don't you?"

Bigman flushed instantly. "Half a pint! Why, you

soup-straining cobber…" he screamed, but Lucky's

hand was on his shoulder and he swallowed the rest of the sentence. "See you on Venus," the little Martian muttered darkly.

Tor was still grinning. He followed his chief into the control room toward the head of the ship.

Bigman, his anger gone at once, said to Lucky curiously, "Say, how about those mustaches? Never saw any so big."

Lucky said, "It's just a Venusian custom, Bigman. I think practically everybody grows them on Venus."

"That so?" Bigman fingered his lip, stroking its bareness. "Wonder how I'd look in one."

"With one that big?" smiled Lucky. "It would drown your whole face."

He dodged the punch Bigman threw at him just as the floor trembled lightly beneath their feet and the Venus Marvel lifted off the space station. The coaster turned its nose into the contracting spiral trajectory that would carry it "down" to Venus.

Lucky Starr felt the beginnings of a long-overdue relaxation flooding him as the coaster picked up speed. His brown eyes were thoughtful, and his keen, fine-featured face was in repose. He was tall and looked slim, but beneath that deceptive slimness were whipcord muscles.

Life had already given much to Lucky of both good and evil. He had lost Ms parents while still a child, lost them in a pirate attack near the very Venus he was now approaching. He had been brought up by his father's dearest friends, Hector Conway, now chief of the Council of Science, and Augustus Henree, section director of the same organization.

Lucky had been educated and trained with but one thought in mind: Someday he was to enter that very Council of Science, whose powers and functions made it the most important and yet least-known body in the galaxy.

It was only a year ago, upon his graduation from the academy, that he had entered into full membership and become dedicated to the advancement of man and the destruction of the enemies of civilization. He was the youngest member of the Council and probably would remain so for years.

Yet already he had won his first battles. On the deserts of Mars and among the dimlit rocks of the asteroid belt, he had met and triumphed over wrongdoing.

But the war against crime and evil is not a short-term conflict, and now it was Venus that was the setting for trouble, a trouble that was particularly disturbing since its details were misty.

Chief of the Council Hector Conway had pinched his lip and said, "I'm not sure whether it's a Sirian conspiracy against the Solar Confederation, or just petty racketeering. Our local men there tend to view it seriously."

Lucky said, "Have you sent any of our trouble shooters?" He was not long back from the asteroids, and he was listening to this with concern.

Conway said, "Yes: Evans."

"Lou Evans?" asked Lucky, his dark eyes lighting with pleasure. "He was one of my roommates at the academy. He's good."

"Is he? The Venus office of the Council has requested his removal and investigation on the charge of corruption!"

"What?" Lucky was on his feet, horrified. "Uncle Hector, that's impossible."

"Want to go out there and look into it yourself?"

"Do I! Great stars and little asteroids! Bigman and I will take off just as soon as we get the Shooting Starr flight-ready."

And now Lucky watched out the porthole thoughtfully, on the last leg of his flight. The night shadow had crept over Venus, and for an hour there was only blackness to be seen. All the stars were hidden by Venus's huge bulk.

Then they were out in the sunlight again, but now the viewport was only gray. They were too close to see the planet as a whole. They were even too close to see the clouds. They were actually inside the cloudy layer.

Bigman, having just finished a large chicken-salad sandwich, wiped his lips and said, "Space, I'd hate to have to pilot a ship through all this muck."

The coaster's wings had snapped out into extended position to take advantage of the atmosphere, and there was a definite difference in the quality of the ship's motion as a result. The buffeting of the winds could be felt and the plunging and lifting of the drafts that sink and rise.

Ships that navigate space are not suitable for the treachery of thick atmosphere. It is for that reason that planets like Earth and Venus, with deep layers of air enshrouding them, require space stations. To those space stations come the ships of deep space. From the stations planetary coasters with retractable wings ride the tricky ak currents to the planet's surface.

Bigman, who could pilot a ship from Pluto to Mercury blindfolded, would have been lost at the first thickening wisp of an atmosphere. Even Lucky, who in his intensive training at the academy had piloted coasters, would not have cared to take on the job in the blanketing clouds that surrounded them now.

"Until the first explorers landed on Venus," Lucky said, "all mankind ever saw of the planet was the outer surface of these clouds. They had weird notions about the planet then."

Bigman didn't reply. He was looking into the cello-plex container to make sure there wasn't another chicken-salad sandwich hiding there.

Lucky went on. "They couldn't tell how fast Venus was rotating or whether it was rotating at all. They weren't even sure about the composition of Venus's atmosphere. They knew it had carbon dioxide, but until the late 1900s astronomers thought Venus had no water. When ships began to land, mankind found that wasn't so."

He broke off. Despite himself, Lucky's mind returned once again to the coded spacegram he had received in mid-flight, with Earth ten million miles behind. It was from Lou Evans, his old roommate, to. whom he had subethered that he was on his way.

The reply was short, blunt, and clear. It was, "Stay away!"

Just that! It was unlike Evans. To Lucky, a message like that meant trouble, big trouble, so he did not "stay away." Instead, he moved the micropile energy output up a notch and increased acceleration to the gasping point.

Bigman was saying, "Gives you a funny feeling, Lucky, when you think that once, long ago, people were all cooped up on Earth. Couldn't get off it no matter what they did. Didn't know anything about Mars or the moon or anywhere. It gives me the shivers."

It was just at that point that they pierced the cloud barrier, and even Lucky's gloomy thoughts vanished at the sight that met their eyes.

It was sudden. One moment they were surrounded by what seemed an eternal milkiness; the next, there was only transparent air about them. Everything below was bathed in a clear, pearly light. Above was the gray undersurface of the clouds.

Bigman said, "Hey, Lucky, look!"

Venus stretched out below them for miles in every direction, and it was a solid carpet of blue-green vegetation. There were no dips or rises in the surface. It was absolutely level, as though it had been planed down by a giant atomic siicer.

Nor was there anything to be seen that would have been normal in an Earthly scene. No roads or houses, no towns or streams. Just blue-green, unvarying, as far as could be seen.

Lucky said, "Carbon dioxide does it. It's the part of the air plants feed on. On Earth there's only three hun-dredths of one per cent in the air, but here almost ten per cent of the air is carbon dioxide."

Bigman, who had lived for years on the farms of Mars, knew about carbon dioxide. He said, "What makes it so light with all the clouds?"

Lucky smiled. "You're forgetting, Bigman. The sun is over twice as bright here as on earth." Then as he looked out the port again, his smile thinned and vanished.