Venus Rising, page 1
Copyright © 2013, 1989 by Flora Speer
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For my father,
Ralph Phillip de Groodt
Who worked on the early space program,
Who believed in space travel.
Narisa thought she was awake, but she could not open her eyes. Slowly she became aware that she was lying on a lumpy couch. Her head ached, and her eyelids seemed to be glued together. She could feel the hot sun on her face.
She knew where she was; she was at home in the garden of her parents’ house, and in a moment or two her mother would come to scold her for lying in the sun so long, and tease her about tanning her skin into fine Denebian leather. Narisa could sense her approaching, and waited with laughter in her heart for the gentle, loving words she expected to hear.
Her mother’s shadow passed between Narisa and the sun, moved away, then came back again, but she did not speak to her daughter. With great effort, Narisa lifted heavy eyelids, searching for her mother’s beloved face.
“This isn’t Belta!” The dream gone, she reared upward suddenly, only to be pulled firmly down again. Without thinking, she released the safety harness so she could sit. That automatic motion brought her to complete wakefulness, to the memory of where she really was - in the Empty Sector, where it was said dreams could be so real they led humans to madness. This, the computer on the rescue pod had told her, was the only planet within many parsecs that had a breathable, although thin, atmosphere. She’d had no choice about where to land, for the pod had almost run out of air. A thin atmosphere was better than none at all, she had reasoned, but it made landing difficult.
There hadn’t been enough air friction to slow the pod properly, so it had crashed and bounced several times before the entry door had broken open and the little ship suddenly stopped moving. An instant later Narisa had lost consciousness.
She was lying in the open pod, face upward toward a brilliant orange sun, and the shadow that had passed over her was not her long-dead mother, but a large bird. It soared through a deep blue sky, turned gracefully and flew back above the pod. Narisa squinted against the bright light, trying to follow the bird’s path.
The creature was blue, almost the same shade as the sky, so it was difficult to make out the details of its body. The blinding sun didn’t help, either. Narisa’s eyes began to water. She braced herself on one hand in an effort to shift her position so the sun wouldn’t glare in her eyes as badly, and she could get a better look at the bird.
It wasn’t a lumpy couch she had been lying on, it was a man. In her confusion she had forgotten about Commander Tarik. He lay perfectly still, his eyes closed, his pale, sharp-featured face serene. Was he dead? Was that huge bird a scavenger, come to make a dinner of Tarik, and possibly of Narisa, too? Frantically, she felt for a heartbeat, a pulse, a sign he was breathing.
It was there, she discovered when she flung herself down on him and pressed her ear to his chest. His heart was beating slowly and steadily; and he was taking shallow, steady breaths. She resisted the impulse to stay there, stretched out on top of him with her head on his chest, and weep from relief and fear. She was surprised at herself, and a little ashamed. Narisa never wept; tears were a sign of weakness.
She had not wept when her parents and sister had been killed by Cetans ten years ago. Nor had she cried when Cetan pirates had attacked the Reliance and their first blast at the space ship had killed everyone on board except herself and First Officer Tarik.
They had been together in the Navigator’s Area, which had extra shielding. As usual, Tarik had been trying to find some excuse to criticize her work. He was standing when the blast came. Surprised, without any time to catch the guard rail and hang on, he was thrown around the Area and apparently injured. Narisa had been strapped into her navigator’s seat and so had suffered only a few bruises.
She did not like Tarik, but she knew what her duty was. Somehow she had rescued him from the wrecked, drifting ship, had dragged his unconscious body through the corridors and wedged him into the only rescue pod left functioning. She had ejected the pod from the Reliance shortly before its automatic self-destruction system had exploded the ship into atoms.
Then she had brought them here, to an uncharted planet in the Empty Sector, where Service personnel definitely should not be, but where the Cetans would probably not follow them. The Cetans would assume a small pod that had gone into the Empty Sector would never get out of it.
Now she was solely responsible for the safety of the unconscious Tarik, and for herself. She scrambled to her feet, disregarding her shaking knees. After all, two people had spent long hours cramped into a one-person pod, breathing from a limited air supply. No wonder she felt weak and a bit dizzy. The feeling would pass. She could tell the gravity on this planet was a little less than she was accustomed to. That should help her to recover. She took a deep breath. The air was hot and very dry.
She looked around, turning slowly to scan the entire horizon. There wasn’t much to obstruct her view. The pod had landed in flat, desert-like terrain marked by occasional formations of gray rock. Some were spectacularly high. A few straggly gray-green plants grew on some nearby rocks. The surface of the land as far as she could see was covered with tan and gray pebbles and gravel.
“Not very hospitable,” she said softly, glancing upward. The bird had disappeared, leaving the sky empty. Not even a cloud marred the perfect bowl of blue so dark it was almost purple at the zenith.
“That’s because of the thin atmosphere,” she said into the silence. There were no artificial structures at all, no signs of life save that one departed bird and the few plants. There was just the burning sun and desolate isolation.
“Is there intelligent life here?” Narisa continued to speak her thoughts aloud to counter the silent emptiness. “Will we be able to contact the Capital? Will we ever get off this planet?”
Not in the pod, certainly. It was made for escape from a ship in space and had the capacity to dock with another ship or to land on a planet’s surface, but it could not take off again. If she and Tarik were to leave, they would have to find another ship.
A moan brought her back to the pod, where Tarik still lay entangled in the safety harness. Kneeling on the stony ground, she removed it. As she did so, he caught her right hand and held it to his lips. His eyes were still closed.
“Suria,” he whispered, his mouth warm against her fingers. “Suria, my sweet.”
“Commander Tarik!” Narisa’s spine stiffened. How dare he not know her from Suria? Suria was his lover, who had been navigator of the Reliance before Narisa was assigned to that post. Unreasoning anger filled her. “Let me go—sir!’`
Her hand was free. Narisa stood, watching him and nursing her resentment. Then she began to realize Tarik was having the same trouble getting his eyes open that she had had. Perhaps he, too, was deep in some beautiful dream. She regarded him a little more sympathetically. After a while his lids rose, and he stared up at her with eyes as purple-blue and impenetrable as the mysterious sky above them. It took a moment or two more for recognition to fill those eyes and his usual coolly assessing expression to return.
“Help me to stand,” he ordered.
“I think you should lie still until you have adjusted to this atmosphere.”
“Lieutenant.” It was a command, no doubt about that, and his right hand was raised in an imperious gesture. Narisa braced her feet, put out her right hand to his and pulled. Once upright, he stepped out of the pod. Still holding his right hand and supporting that arm, Narisa put her left arm across his shoulders to help him steady himself.
“Where have you brought us?” he demanded. Before she could answer, he collapsed onto his knees, nearly dragging her down with him.
“I told you to lie still,” she cried, watching him gasp for breath. His face was tight with pain, but he crawled back to the pod and sat leaning against its side.
“I believe,” he said, measuring his words and his breath carefully, “that I have a broken rib. Possibly several. Where are the medical supplies?”
“They should be inside. I’ll check.” Leaning over the entrance, Narisa reached in to search the various compartments. “This is all I can find. There are no medical supplies.” She held up three packages.
“Why,” Tarik demanded, “were the two of us in one pod?”
“It was the only one that was usable.”
“Where was the rest of the crew?”
“Everyone else was dead.” She made her voice flat and clipped so he wouldn’t know how deeply that had affected her.
He stared at her, his eyes wide, and she wondered what he was thinking, if he felt the horror of those last moments on the Reliance the way she did. Of course he didn’t. He had been unconscious.
“What’s in there?” He indicated the packages Narisa was holding.
“A small tool kit, compressed food and water,” she told him, reading the labels. “Enough for one person for five days.” ,
“Or two people for two and a half days.”
“Not in the desert. We need more water.”
“The last thing I remember,” Tarik said, gently massaging his sore ribs, “I was in the Navigator’s Area. How did I get to the pod?”
Narisa told him, adding, “When the Reliance exploded, all the instruments in the pod malfunctioned. By the time I got control again, we were in the Empty Sector. I don’t understand how that happened.” As soon as the last sentence was out, she wished she hadn’t said it. He would use it against her. She knew he would.
“We were still close to the Reliance when she blew?”
When Narisa nodded, he looked thoughtful. Her tension eased a little. He might come to the same conclusion she had, that the horrendous explosion had something to do with where they were. She hoped he would also decide that it didn’t matter how they had reached this planet; the important thing was how they were going to leave it.
“The Empty Sector,” he said softly.
“We shouldn’t be here, Commander Tarik.”
“We shouldn’t be alive, but we are. It’s not your fault, lieutenant. Assuming, of course, that the instruments really did malfunction and you didn’t go off course through inexperience or incompetence.”
“How do you suppose. . .” Narisa responded heatedly, then stopped. Trying hard to keep her temper under control, she began again, speaking more calmly. “How could I possibly have navigated so far away from where we should have been? It would take an amazing degree of incompetence and a very long time to achieve that.”
“Just so. Have you any idea how long I was unconscious?”
Indignation at his suggestion that she had failed to navigate the pod properly, anger against the Cetans and sorrow for dead shipmates, concern for their own predicament - all the emotions she had been so rigidly repressing now burst in a wave of furious rage aimed at her immediate superior. Insubordination or not, she could hold it in no longer.
“You arrogant, cold-blooded, hard-hearted-. You have resented me since the day I came aboard. I am an expert, accredited, fully licensed navigator. The Service never would have assigned me to the Reliance if I weren’t. I’m just as good a navigator as your beloved Suria. I’m sure you would rather she were here with you now. I’m sorry she’s not. I wish I were back on Belta, or at the Capital, or in the next galaxy. Anywhere but here with you.” Narisa tossed the packages she was holding into his lap and started walking away from him.
“Lieutenant.” Years of training made her stop at his peremptory tone, but she kept her back toward him. When he spoke again, his voice was softer. “I haven’t thanked you for saving my life.”
“It was nothing.” She was so angry she could not hear properly, and of course the thin air played tricks with sound. Commander Tarik could not possibly know how to laugh, though the noise she thought he made was suspiciously like one.
“Nothing to you, perhaps,” he said, “but I do value my life. I also value loyalty. I know you dislike me. Thank you for what you did.” He paused, and she heard a sound halfway between a chuckle and a groan. “Will you help me again? I need medical aid, and I can’t do it myself.”
“What is it you want?” Narisa turned to face him, and met his purple-blue eyes fixed full upon her. His face was serious, but his eyes were filled with a soft light.
“We need to find shelter,” Tarik said. “Also water and more food than we have here. To do that, we will have to walk, and I know I won’t be able to move very far. It hurts every time I take a deep breath.”
“I don’t know what to do.” Narisa spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “I’ve had only the basic medical training for emergencies, and we don’t have any supplies.”
“Long ago,” Tarik said, “injured people were bound tightly until their injuries healed.”
“Do you mean,” Narisa interrupted, unbelieving, “that a broken bone will heal itself without sonic instrument treatment? That can’t be true. And even if it were, how do you know about it?”
“I just know.” Tarik sounded weary. “Use the safety harness. Cut it out of the pod and wrap it around my chest.”
There was a simple knife in the tool kit she had found. She used it to cut out the harness, then knelt beside him.
“Put it under my clothes, next to the skin,” he told her. “You will have to help me take my jacket off.”
The closures were pressure-sensitive, so it was easy enough to release them and peel the heavy dark blue fabric off his chest. It was harder to get his arms out of the sleeves. Narisa realized he was in a great deal more pain than he had revealed to her. She tried to be gentle, but he winced more than once, and finally he groaned.
“I’m sorry, Commander Tarik.” She laid the jacket on the ground and picked up the harness.
“Can’t be helped. Now wrap it. Do it tightly. It’s elastic; I’ll be able to breathe. I need the support.”
She could guess by the short, clipped sentences how much it must hurt him to breathe and talk. She could also see the large blue bruises over the broken bones on his left side. Dislike him or not, she had to admire the courage it took for him to cry out in pain yet not give up.
She held one end of the harness against his chest with her hand flat on his warm skin, and reached her other arm around his back to catch the loose end and draw it forward. Except for their ride in the pod, she had never been this close to Commander Tarik before. She had avoided him as much as possible.
Now here she was on her knees next to him, and her arms were around him in an awkward embrace while she fumbled with the harness. She kept her head down so she would not have to look at him, but that meant her face was pressed against his chest when she reached behind him.
He smelled so nice. The scent of his skin reminded her of gentle sunlight and cool breezes, and the tangy fragrance of moist green leaves.
“Pull the strap tighter,” he said, his lips almost touching her ear. She could feel his warm breath on her neck, and she suddenly recalled how he had felt in the pod, pressed closely against her back during all that dangerous ride. “Tighter, lieutenant. Ah, that’s good. Now wind it around again, and then another time if it’s long enough.”
She must be going mad. It must be the hot sun and the unfamiliar air. This was the despicable Commander Tarik, not a friend. She finished wrapping the harness about his rib cage, fastened the end with one of the clips from the neck of her own uniform, and sat back on her heels, looking anywhere but into his eyes, or at his mouth, or at the chest and shoulders and upper arms that had proven to be remarkably hard-muscled in spite of his slenderness.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “Now, if you would help me with my jacket again.”
It was easier to get it on than it had been to take it off. He did not seem to be in as much pain now, thanks to the support provided by the harness. By the time he was covered and the closures fastened, Narisa had herself under complete control once more.
“Drink some water,” she told him, handing over the largest of the three packages that made up the total of all their supplies.
He took a mouthful, swallowed, and then inhaled deeply. She could tell it hurt because he doubled over and nearly dropped the water container.
“Be careful.” She snatched it away from him, hastily reclosing it. “If you spill this, there isn’t any more.”
“Exactly. We must find more. Help me up, lieutenant.”
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