Friday, February 16, 2018

Venera 19

There, on the screen, I can see him.  

How busy he is!   Writing away on his research, so very important.  His face illuminated by the glow of his computer, a lean sharp face, the face of a starving fox.  His eyes flick back across what he has written, and he mutters to himself and chews his chapped lower lip, which he always does when he is nervous.

I want to say, Kolya, stop!  Stop nibbling at your face!  You’ll make yourself bleed again!  So I say it.

But he does not listen.  Oh, Kolya.  You never listen.  

And there, look, of course he is bleeding.  It takes him a moment to realize it, because he is so distracted, so lost in his own thinking.

He half-realizes blood is flowing, feels it on his face.  He brushes at it, a smear of dark red on the light blue cuff of his rumpled collar shirt.  He sees the stain, grumbles.  He has done it again.  

Then his face vanishes from the screen as he fumbles in the pocket of his pants for a tissue, which he presses against his lip.  He does not stop reading, still working, one hand pressing against his lip to stop the bleeding, his mouth agape, his crooked teeth showing above the gum.

For such a brilliant man, he looks very stupid.  He continues muttering, his voice absurdly slurred.

I struggle not to laugh, but it does not matter.  He does not see me, because that is not how spyware works.

It is so silly for him to be wiping away the blood.  There will be so much more blood on his shirt when I kill him.  

That will be in, oh, what, five minutes?  

Maybe six.  Or ten.  I am not sure.  I am in no hurry.  It just needs to happen tonight.

And I would like him to finish his memo, because it’s really very good work.  Very important.  It could change all of history.

If he wasn’t going to die.  Which he is.

Still, even if you’re going to kill a man, it seems unfair not to let him finish the project that is his life’s greatest achievement.

His death will be a “robbery,” a sign of our times, one of the best scientific minds in the New Russian Federation snuffed out at the prime of his career.  And why?  So that some criminal can help themselves to his meager possessions?  So that his modest illicit cryptocurrency hoard can be ransacked, the handwritten access codes taken from his cracked safe?  

There will be a few articles in the “independent” media about the rise of crime, and about how the new president really needs to crack down.  Some arrests will be made.

And that will be that.  All as planned.

So tragic.  Dear, dear Kolya is the brightest of bright minds.  I have read all of our very thick dossier on him, not just once.  I’m almost proud of him.  

No, I am proud of him.  

I open my’s slow, of course, an old unit...and dig down into the menu to take one last look at his file.

Nikolai Sergeiovich Vostov is one of the best the Neo Russian Federation has to offer, from a long distinguished line of great scientists.  His great grandfather survived the gulag, then the sharashka, worked with Korolev and Mishin in those first heady days.  His grandmother, herself a force to be reckoned with, leading the further development of the RSS after the beautiful idiot Americans were helped along into their collapse into chaos.  Which left that orbiting station as an unguarded prize free for the taking.

That same station still shines in the night sky, ten times the size, like the north star above the clear air of the steppes.

And his father, oh, his father.  Without him, we would not have beaten our dear Chinese friends to the Moon.  Mother Russia’s flags would not now be able to claim so many of the ore-rich space rocks we now harvest.  None of that possible, had it not been for Sergei Ivanovich Rostov.  

At forty seven, Kolya honors their memory.  A lifetime of study, both a brilliant theoretician and a highly competent engineer.

His file is one triumph after another.   All the best marks in school.  Prize after prize.  Driven, earnest, utterly devoted to his work.  Completely loyal.  The ideal citizen.

And no carefully hidden perversions!  Not interesting on that front at all.  Just a failed and childless marriage, and she wasn’t right for a man of his focus and temperament anyway.  He doesn’t even drink!  Such a wonderfully odd man.

Without Kolya, the new Venera missions would not have succeeded.  Venus, once again the focus of Russian efforts now that the red soil of Mars is definitively Russian soil.  There would not be a ring of satellites around that shrouded world, scanning and mapping the hidden surface through the towering smothering blanket of clouds.  There would not be the eager dreamers talking about a thousand year project of terraforming that world some far off day.  

Why do this?  For no other reason than to show this world we rule it.  Russia, at the forefront of science!  Russia, the envy of the world, the sole superpower, greater even than at the height of our unprofitable Soviet hubris!

From his diligent, earnest submissions to the Directorate, his particular interest has been clearer and clearer.  A decade ago, from the Venera 15 orbiter, when the first hint of Venus Object 47 was reported.  The data, revealed in a scan of debris and microsatellites in orbit around the planet.  Necessary to insure the subsequent missions didn’t play bumpercars with existing objects.

Most were of no interest, just a smattering of debris.  But Object 47?  It was different.  Metallic, six meters in diameter, regularly shaped.  

Venera 16 and 17 confirmed it’s peculiar profile.  An object for special focus.  Then Venera 18.  A loss.  A very large explosion on the launch pad.  No deaths, which made it good for the state news.  People like explosions.  Bright colors and danger and noise add spice to life.

But Venera 19 included a side mission for the orbiter.  And a sophisticated probe and computing software, the very latest.  Only a handful knew about it.  Vostov himself.  Kureyev at the Ministry of Security.  And, of course, the Directorate.

When Vostov’s suspicions were confirmed, he took control.  Closed out all others.  Managed the contact with what was clearly not a natural object.  His instruments..a cutting edge nanoscale cryptoprocessing system I don’t even begin to understand... made the connection.  Uploaded results that were, how do they say, “interesting.”  

Results which he is now summarizing, in an exhaustive memo to the Directorate.

Kolya is meticulous and careful in all that he does, and does nothing rashly or without being absolutely certain of himself.  If he wasn’t, perhaps he wouldn’t be about to die.  That is such an irony.

A more headstrong man would have told everyone what he knew, perhaps the moment he first discovered it.  Would have shared with his team.  Would have perhaps fled to Japan, or to Switzerland.  We’d have found him and killed him there, too.  Russia does what it wishes, wherever it wishes.  But at least others would have known.

But that would not have been like Kolya.  Kolya had to keep his cards close to his chest.  Had to shut out everyone else once he began to realize what his discovery meant, hiding his suspicions behind the veil of security and state secrecy.   National interest, or so the clearance level indicated.  But really, he just had to be sure.  He had to know without a doubt that he was right, and had to have complete confidence in his findings.  

Which he is.  He knows he is correct.  I hope there will be a satisfaction in that.

Finally, finally, he pushes away from the screen.  He is done.  Through the audio, I can hear the sound of an ancient printer whirring away in the background.  

I take a deep breath, and sigh.  It is time.  I must stop putting this off.  I deactivate my flat.

I slide the old trusty Makarov into its soft, well-worn holster, and ease myself up.  I groan, because groaning is what I do now.  Fifty two years, and I am getting old for this job.  It’s good to be a big man in this profession, but after a while, you start feeling all that weight in your knees.

Out in the stairwell, it is hot.  Knees be damned.  I force myself to climb the stairs.  Six floors from my basement apartment to where he waits.  In part, because it is good for my heart.  Also, I do not trust the elevator in this old building.  Every other day, it breaks, and I would feel silly, stuck there ringing the lazy superintendent for hours  “Hey!  Come get me out!  I’m on my way to go kill my friend Kolya!”  Such things do happen.

One flight, then two.  I can feel the sweat beading on my forehead almost immediately.  Even in December, now, Baikonur is still so very warm.  Thirty two degrees yesterday!  And the air conditioning, crudely installed by drunken men who were not adequately paid off, works pretty much never.

That is a pity.  I think that every time I enter the building.

Because the world is warming, faster and faster now, it seems.  Even the state media comments on it, because you had to, because you couldn’t miss it.  It’s usually a joke.  Or talking about technical solutions.  Or about how sturdy and patient the people are.  It’s not a problem.  No need to worry.  So people don’t.  Why bother with something like that?  And it’s just weather, they say.

Forty years ago, as a boy, it was already hotter than it had been when his father was a boy.   But not like this.   It used to get cold sometimes.  There would be snow.  But I have not seen snow for five years.  Maybe six.  

Even up north, when “business” takes me there.  The world is changing.  We all feel it.

This change, like the fall of America a century ago, is a gift to Mother Russia, as the frozen wastes thaw and become...for now, at least...the new breadbasket of an increasingly starving world.   With the Arctic Sea completely open and iceless for a decade, and the Americas a feuding mess of confederacies, it is the trikolor flag that flies from the drilling rigs that harvest the last of the world’s crude.

We have the food.  We have the fuel.  Russia, ascendant, even as the deserts spread in the tropics and the crops fail in the American Southern Confederacy and Siberia is pleasant in the winter.  In Moscow, the new towers gleam and sparkle, and the big cars of the apparatchiks and the fliers of the oligarchs zip about.  

Such a strange, fleeting, glorious time.

I reach his floor and move down the hall to the right.  A woman passes me carrying a bag.  She is young and pretty, a slender Kazakh with broad cheekbones, her golden skin flecked with milk chocolate freckles.  My Ministry augmentation tells me her name, her record, everything.   I smile and tip my head.  

She does not even look at me.  This is a good choice.  Never look at or speak to big augmented men wearing suits with bulges at the armpits.  I think they teach that in the primary schools now.

There it is.  Number Seventy eight.  A nondescript grey door, the paint chipped and flecked, in a dimly lit hall.  The air hot and stale.

I take a moment to collect myself.  Then, after a breath, it is time.

I hit the door hard with my shoulder, and it buckles inward, but the bolts hold.  The stairway reverberates with the sound of the impact.  

Everyone hears it.  I know this.  That doesn’t matter, because we are Russian.  A Russian knows that if you hear a door being kicked in, you are thankful that it isn’t yours.  And you keep yours nice and closed and be sure you don’t see anything.  Don’t peek out.  Don’t get involved.

Because what would the point be, if you saw anything?  Just the risk that you might be thought to be a subversive, or one of those people who didn’t understand the necessity of minding one’s own business.

Such people disappear.  And who wants to disappear?  Better to see nothing.

I hit the door again, and the bolts burst, and I am in.  My entrance is not very graceful, and I feel a little lumbering as I regain my footing.  I’ve done better.

Kolya is there, on the far side of the room, near the small galley kitchen.  He is standing and looking right at me.  He looks a little flushed, but not really all that surprised.  

Not surprised by this very large man who has come through his door.  Nor by the small but effective pistol I have pulled from the holster.  He looks right at me, his eyes afire.  I can see his great mind working.

He does not move.

I nod my head in greetings, as I step in and slightly to the right, the door temptingly open to my left.  “Nikolai Sergeivich Vostov?”  As if it would be anyone else, but it seems good to finally formally greet him.

“You do not have to do this.”  He looks at me, and knows me.  So smart, my Kolya.

“Do what, my friend?”

“The object I am researching is not naturally occurring.  It’s an artifact of alien origin.  I must share this information with the Directorate.”

He certainly cuts right to the chase.  I say nothing.

“Surely you know what that means.  There was life on Venus.  Life!   The Venera were not just life, but civilization.  They reached into space, as we have.  Object four seven is a satellite, one that has survived billions of years.”

I nod again, my genial smile unchanging.  “Yes, Dr. Rostov.  We’re very aware of that.  It’s been in your reports.”

“And I have deciphered the information from the probe that made contact, from what it has been streaming through the secure channels, all of it.”

“Of course you have.  I’ve read your summary.  It’s very thorough.”

“You’ve read?  But it was for the Directorate, securely…but Kureyev must have...”

His mind grasped what that meant.  That they had read it.  That they had shared it with the Ministry of Security.  That the Ministry of Security has passed it on up, and that they were send me.  Kureyev himself had given my authorization.

“But they can’t, the summary, if they’ve read the summary, must realize what this means.  They must read what I have written!  The Venera left us everything they knew.  Everything.  That life arose there, over the billion years Venus was habitable.  That after stops and starts, they became sentient.”

I nod, and he continues, his voice growing more and more agitated.  

“But they made mistakes, mistakes we have replicated.  Their history is there, all of it.  Different technologies, ones of value.  But also their use of carbon fuels, from the hundreds of millions of years life existed on that dead world.  The climactic chain reaction.  That over seven hundred years, their atmospheric carbon levels exploded, their shortsighted industrial activity coupling with natural processes to trigger the cascading process that turned Venus from a habitable world into a hellscape.”  

He is almost shrill now, lost in his final monologue.  I let the words flow over me.  It’s always a little embarrassing, honestly, for a man to lose his composure in this situation.  They so often do.  I’d hoped he wouldn’t.  But it would be unfair of me to blame him.  He really does care about his work.

“It’s all there, all there left as a warning.  We’re seeing it now, all of it here on Earth, the same cascading out of control.  You think this weather will change?  Will just right itself, will plateau?  This will be the end, the end of us, we have to act, have to.”

He pauses, sees that I am still placidly smiling.

“You don’t understand.  This will not stop.  You have to see this, you...whatever your name is...have to see important this is.  You have a choice!  Your family!  Your friends!  We are dooming ourselves, to…”

“In two hundred years.  Maybe three.”

“But we can slow it, buy ourselves time, maybe find a way to…”

He is stalling now, stalling with a conversation about stalling.  I like that, and indulge him for a moment.  My voice, nice and easy and calming.

“To what?  Forstall the inevitable?  Why?  Why cause a panic now, just to buy a few dozen pointless years?  And you must know that there are trillions of rubles worth of crude still to be extracted from our Arctic holdings.  Russia has so much to gain, which the Directorate sees as valuable.”  

There’s a flash of defiant anger in his face now, one that makes him look like the pictures of his grandmother in his file.

“What does that mean!  What does power and profit mean, when the world will die?  And there are billions, billions who will starve...surely you see that…”

“Some will survive.  Enough.  Or not.  And why make the people upset about something that they can do nothing about?”

I smile, and I look at him, right in the eyes, man to man as he deserves.  

“We all die sometime, Nikolai Sergeivich Vostov.”

He understands what I mean when I say that.  Even before I raise the pistol.

When he moves, he does not come for me.  Wise, because I am a much bigger man.  He moves for the door, just as I had expected, and I am surprised at how quick he is.  I would not have thought he would still be that fast at his age.

Tiff tiff tiff, says my Makarov through its silencer.  

It sounds like two little rods of iron knocked together, so unmusical, just a very flat sound.  It would be nicer if it was a little bell, or something with a pleasant tone, something Kolya could hear and appreciate in these last moments of his life.

But it is just a tool, and the sound is dull.  A pity.

He stumbles, surprised, they always look surprised, three little holes in his blue shirt.  There is more of a mess on the other side, I am sure.

He lies there, gasping, the bright fire in his eyes dimming.  Shock.  There is not enough time for pain.

Tiff, says the Makarov again, and he is still.

“You were a brilliant man, Kolya,” I say, to the empty room.

I look around at his apartment.  I was too focused on killing him to really pay attention before, and a person’s home tells you so much about them.  

It is a small apartment, humble, but thoughtful.  Everything is orderly and in its place.  The paintings and pictures, neatly hung and tasteful, a mingling of abstractions and scenes of nature.  The kitchen, small, but with quality cookware logically presented.   Lighting, subtle and perfect.

Simple and elegant and functional.  I would have expected no less.  I breathe in, and let out a sigh.  After I secure all of the data from his illegally firewalled computer and break into his safe, I will have to smash much of it.  The apartment must look ransacked, after all.

It is all such a pity.

But business is business.