Chapter 1 :: Into the Fog
The Marines were loaded and ready to go. There was still plenty of room for the other members of the landing party. Macgregor was anxious for his first duty assignment on Venus. Accompanied by engineering technicians, Commander McLeod and some science personnel arrived right on time with Dr. Tandekar in tow. Dr. Tandekar asked MacGregor, “Is it untoward if I am minorly armed, corporal?”
“What have you got in mind, sir?” MacGregor asked.
“My father’s monofilament kukri. I suspected it might come in handy as a tool. But I do not wish to violate protocol.”
MacGregor’s eyes looked approvingly and directed the doctor to his seat. “Remember tæ keep yoursel’ well strapped in. The Briggs is a real rough ride fer th’ unprepared.”
The doctor replied, “Corporal, clearly you have never ridden an omnibus in Delhi!”
The planetary descent was rough and bumpy due to the upper atmospheric conditions around Venus. MacGregor had secretly placed Private Robbing Hood in a padded compartment and hoped the ferret would not be too fearful of the bumpy ride. Communications were lost as soon as the frigate passed into the ionosphere. The craft homed in on an X-ray beacon the research station flashed skyward. The weather was in transition from steaming to a hot drizzle, but this was normal about 90% of the time on Venus. The bright lights of the station became visible only at about a quarter mile out. The station floated on the Sea of Chuthalani or as the British called it ‘the Sea of Chutney’, an endless hot shallow sea of Sargasso and seaweed. The city resembled a flotilla of giant pontoon boats formed into a level platform. The landing was textbook, and the Matilda Briggs was down.
The hatches of the Matilda Briggs were opened. The sauna-like atmosphere rushed in. “It in’t atall like Scotland,” remarked MacGregor. “Except fer th’ wet.”
The marines exited the vehicle wearing cool suits in lieu of their more traditional kit. Corporal MacGregor looked around to see all the wonders of Venus. The visibility was only about 80 yards so oppressive gray was all that was revealed.
A group of the scientists were at the landing deck waiting under an awning. They were all donning well-worn cool suits and some sort of makeshift celluloid koolie hat to keep the rain off their faces. The station head, Doctor Greenborough, welcomed McLeod and Tandekar with warm greetings. He invited the party into the control room for a briefing. In the semi-dryness of the conference room, Greenborough informed the party that the equipment needs to be installed in two ancillary craft (airboats) and the main system was to be installed on the base craft itself.
“I suggest that one Dauntless tech and one station tech be assigned to each device. Installation should not take more than six hours.” Greenborough suggested, “I have scheduled testing and calibration tomorrow morning. While the techs get to work, I invite you on a tour of the station since we’ll have nothing more to do until the systems are installed.”
Dr. Tandekar asked, “What manner of medical support is available here should an emergency arise?”
Greenborough replied, “Of the nine scientists working here, three have medical degrees. There is also a biochemist with a PhD in pharmacology. There is an infirmary in that Quonset over there with about half the capability you have on the Dauntless.”
“Hmmm. That should be adequate, barring massed attack of plague,” stated Tandekar while looking out of the insulated window.
MacGregor was outside looking for the local station security manager. It would be someone he could talk to person to person and not enlisted to officer. MacGregor was bursting with questions. MacGregor knew the local security would be hired guards with a minimum of real military training. After some questioning of base personnel, MacGregor finally met with security chief, Mattingly, who was accompanying Greenborough while the scientist was giving the tour. Mattingly seemed more than adequate for the task. Although he did not possess marine training, he was a veteran of the Venusian jungles and you could tell he was in his element.
“Mr. Mattingly, do ye ha’e any contact atall wi’ natives? I promised me younger brother a wee souvenir o’ every stop we made, and I would like tæ get something… Rocks, pottery, whate’er.”
“There is a species of reptilliad adapted to life in the water that we encounter from time to time. We might get lucky and spot some of them tomorrow.” Mattingly warned MacGregor, “There are all manner of wicked creatures roaming under the surface of the Venus waters. Best not to have your men stroll too near the gunwale.
“The worst creature is the Sanguine Sargasso. This species may be a plant or may be an animal the scientists haven’t made a determination yet. When it gets hungry, it floats its seaweed-appearing tentacles to the surface of the water. Their constricting Coils will then attack anything that disturbs them. The tentacles include needle-like mouths that start draining a victim’s blood as soon as they latch on.”
Dr. Tandekar interjected, “How unpleasant.”
“That’s næ a guid beastie fer a pet, now in’t it? Pettin’ the thing would leave ye feelin’ drained,” MacGregor chortled.
The group finished their tour with a visit to the specimen locker. The refrigerated atmosphere of the locker was a nice break from the steam room outside.
“Does th’ cold harm th’ beasties? Or do it put them inta hibernation?” MacGregor inquired.
Greenborough answered, “Nothing on Venus can withstand the cold, and hibernation is unknown here.”
Dr. Greenborough was very intent on showing the group what seemed to be a five inch long double octopus with armored plates. Mattingly, on the other hand, showed the group an ichthyosaurus skull measuring four feet wide and nine feet long. Greenborough continued, “The specimen locker is the largest single room on the base, and it is nearly emptied every month only to be refilled with more wonders of the Venusian Sea. There is at least one new discovery every day here, and every discovery usually raises a dozen more questions.”
Tandekar noted, “Most interesting! The diversity of life here is quite astounding.”
MacGregor added, “Aye, and there’s a great many o’ them, too.”
With an audible rumbling from his stomach, MacGregor asked, “D’ye eat eny o’ th’ critters?”
Dr. Greenborough smiled and said, “You will all be my guests for dinner. Our chef will be preparing the whole banquet from today’s catch.”
Dr. Tandekar addressed Greenborough sheepishly, “There will be, I apologize for asking, vegetables?”
Greenborough responded with a big smile, “Our people have identified over 70 species of edible marine plant life. The Boscum Pods are a delightful fruit. They are seed pods that when ripe bob to the surface. There hungry fish break open the pods and distribute the seeds.”
“I look forward to them!” Tandekar said with relief.
The officers were shown to their quarters. Unfortunately accommodations for the marines had been overlooked, but MacGregor explained that the Matilda Briggs was a fine bivouac for any marine.
Mattingly walked back with MacGregor to the Briggs, discussing firearms. All of Mattingly’s men carried a type of gyrojet pistol or rifle they called a harpees. The security chief explained to MacGregor, “Blaisers are not usually used here. Their range is about only one quarter of normal range due to the electromagnetic forces and the intervening water in the air. They also do little damage to things even under a foot of water, but Heaven help the man who fires a Blaiser under water. It’s the fastest way to make soup-de-man. Each tower on the perimeter of the base mounts a harpoon cannon. The first month we were out here we nearly depleted all our harpoon ammo, but things calmed down since we camouflaged the underside.”
MacGregor made a mental note to pick up one of those harpees as soon as possible. He also wondered why Æther Fleet Command would not warn Marines visiting Venus about the hazards of using standard arms in the Venusian environment.
That evening, the dinner was adventurous and entertaining. The wide variety of foods was amazing, but there were many items that were an acquired taste. Dr. Tandekar remarked, “Tsk. A ‘Sea of Chutney’ and no ACTUAL chutney. How the British conquered the world on British cooking, I will never know.”
“It was their cookin’ what done it, Doctor. We was sensible and kept our haggis tæ ourselves,” MacGregor chided back.
The quarters, even in the Matilda Briggs, were adequate for the night, but there was no escaping the hot moistness and smell of decay that pervaded everywhere on the station.
Night as usual was accompanied by heavy rains. Cooler than the afternoon drizzle but not the sort of rain that cools one off. One might want to shower in such a downpour, but on Venus every drop of rain might contain microorganisms that could give you a fungal disease that would ravage one’s skin and make you lose your hair. The guards in the towers saw breeching beasts every so often, but nothing that threatened the station. The night passed without incident.