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Jovian Nightmare
Steven P. Warr This story has been submitted to the
Writers of the Future Contest



Major Jeff Graham shook the cobwebs from the back of his brain as sleep slowly drizzled away and he finally came fully awake. It was unusual for him to be anything but completely alert, but now was an unusual moment. He had slept for only three hours and his last waking period had been for more than thirty-six. The lack of sleep had not been from necessity, but from choice. Graham would descend into Jupiter's lethal atmosphere within the next four hours. There was a high chance it would mean his death. During his long and decorated military career he had faced such choices many times, but this mission's importance was paramount to all the others combined. Failure on this mission could spell the end of mankind.

Tall and confident, Graham exuded that indefinable quality that labeled him successful at any task. Few men possess just slight touches of that quality, but he demonstrated it from the top of his sandy head to the toes of his well-polished flight boots. Flight boots were not normally worn aboard spacecraft, but Graham had grown so accustomed to them, that he refused to be without them. He had worn the same boots throughout the Iranian war, in which he had been an ace pilot, and during his two-year tour with the Air Force's Thunderbirds precision flying team. His incredible reflexes and split-second judgment, his flight experience and uncanny ability to remain alert under G forces which would cause ordinary men to black out had qualified him for the impending mission. He would need it all.

Project Icarus was ultimately as dependent upon Jeff Graham and others like him, as it was on Stanislav and Plummer who created the stanisplmmer (SP) which incorporated quantum entanglement to transmit matter instantaneously. Two entangled particles would change their states simultaneously no matter how far apart they happened to be, but the problem was getting them far apart. That required a conventional rocket big enough to contain an SP terminal that housed the entangle particles. Spacecraft flying at up to half light speed between stars would require a huge amount of fuel. More than Earth could possibly produce would be required for only one craft. On the planet Jupiter swirled huge amounts of almost pure hydrogen -- the fuel of the stars themselves -- there for the taking.

Getting the fuel sounds easy, but in reality there were formidable obstacles. Although it would seem simple to descend to the liquid surface of the behemoth planet where the fuel could be taken, there remained three problems: the temperature, the pressure and the weather. At thirty one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and pressure four and a half times that on Earth, the more than three hundred mile per hour wind created an eternal hurricane which no earthly vehicle could survive -- save one. Faust, aptly named for it would descend into a Hell, was extremely well insulated, entirely for the comfort of its human baggage, but not well enough to keep out the extreme heat for more than the ten or so minutes necessary to ensure the stabilization of the craft in the hydrogen soup. Graham would have considerable computer aid, but at the end he would be essentially a barnstormer, flying literally by the seat of his pants. He alone could maneuver the craft and lightly set down on the raging sea.

The door slid softly into the wall and Jeff stepped out of the SP booth into the long hallway that led to the nerve center of project Icarus. As his boots clumped proudly that direction he acknowledged the many back slaps and calls of "good luck" from the technicians he passed with a characteristic grin and slight wave of his hand. Once in the big room, however his features fell into a mask of seriousness. He was ready to go, and any distraction annoyed him. His initial survey of the room told him that General Janakowski had already arrived, and Graham scarcely paused before he moved directly to where the general was having an animated conversation with a rather tall man.

"Good morning sir. Nothing wrong I hope?"

"Hello Graham. Nothing serious. Hadley here is just discussing some of the finer details of the Faust. Seems like he turned up something unusual on yesterday's tests. Tell him about it, Hadley."

Hadley was one of the scientists who'd helped develop and conduct wind tunnel tests of the Jupiter lander. A problem there could cause considerable delay, so Graham watched and listened closely to the man.

"Right on top, let me tell you it is not really anything to be much concerned about, and there's probably no problem at all; just data errors. The model we used was slightly different than usual, because we want to check all angles. Anyway, at the equivalent speed of about three hundred miles per hour, the model began to vibrate intensely, and it took more time than usual to bring it under control. We think we know what the problem was, and are now modifying the model accordingly. We should be able to test again in about ten minutes."

He paused his explanation momentarily, then asked graham, "You want to watch?"

Neither Jeff nor Janakowski was much concerned about the problem. After years with NASA they had become used to over-cautious techs, but Jeff still had some time to kill, so he accepted Hadley's invitation. The twenty-foot long, one-tenth scale model in the tunnel looked exactly like the irreverent nickname it had been given -- the pregnant stick. Long and streamlined the Faust was built to provide cushioning from the heavy turbulence on Jupiter. The "sticks" fore and aft of the bubble that was the actual craft, employed computer controlled countermotion engines. Before a strong gust hit the craft, the software could actually predict it and swing, providing counter motion to absorb the brunt of the shock. They were absolutely vital to preventing the pilot from being smashed all over the side of the cabin.

He had watched the test before, and had never ceased to marvel at some of the gyrations the stick would go through. Sometimes they would be almost perpendicular to their original plane. The turbulence in the tunnel was awesome and Jeff thought they must have been exaggerating the relative wind, because even with the sophisticated technology, the cabin whipped violently. Intellectually he knew he would be safe, but a primitive prickly feeling at the nape of his neck was aroused while he watched. He was glad when the sergeant called him out of the room.

"Time to go, sir."

Eager and reluctant at the same time, Graham followed the man, who had worked with Graham before and knew enough to be silent at this moment. All that could be heard in the walk to the control room was the sound of flight boots on the concrete. Had it not been for that, Graham was sure the sound of his rapidly beating heart would have been audible. They arrived at the main stanisplummer, and without a pause the astronaut stepped inside and punched the button that would seal the door and send him into adventure. He forced the butterflies from his stomach by emitting a high screech from between tightly clenched lips. Just then he felt the queasiness that accompanied stanning, and the door slid back into the wall.

He moved out of the cubicle, as usual feeling no discomfort in a null gravity environment. The two men already in the ship were the captain, and first officer. They had worked aboard the Jupiter orbiter for more than six months constructing the actual Faust. Through the transparent port between the two men Graham could see the spindly Jovian lander posed against the background of brilliant, fiery red; the color of Jupiter.

"Hi Greg." He addressed the greeting to the elder of the pair.

Although no more than thirty-five, Commander Gregory Nielsen had prematurely grayed, and with his command presence, he looked much more mature. He acknowledged the greeting with a mere lifting of an eyebrow, the friendliest gesture Jeff had ever seen him bestow.

"Graham, we're a little behind schedule. Right now we're at seventy-eight minutes and counting to launch. I know you've been through briefing after briefing for the last month, but I'm a firm believer in Murphy's Law, and we've got to be sure nothing is left to chance. I originally set aside fifteen minutes for the final brief. This will be a dialogue, if you wish. You, of course, have the most on the line, but Jack and I have ultimate responsibility for the success of this portion of the mission. If something does go wrong, you will not be here to explain it, but we will! I know that sound callous, but I want to re-emphasize the risks of the mission."

"Let's start with Jack reading the checklist. Feel free to interrupt with questions or comments at any time. This is being recorded for further reference."

Lieutenant Jack Peterson, the first officer, was a young and brilliant engineer, who preferred being a military man to the more lucrative and boring private industry. He spoke with a slight lisp.

"Seal and check heat resistant suit . . . to also be checked twice at all possible leak points, prior to entry into the atmosphere."

The commander broke in. "You know the problems they've had with those suits leaking. Not critical before, and the designers have made some modifications which should help, but cabin temperatures will reach almost a thousand degrees at the end, so triple check those seals."

Jeff was aware from his military training, that the smallest detail neglected could cause failure of a mission. He had been through all this at least six times, but he forced himself to be alert.

Peterson went on to the next item. "Pilot boards the lander. Instrument and communications check. . . Seal hatches to both mother craft and lander . . . pressure check the seals. . . Third instrument and communications check. . ."

The commander again interrupted him. "Jack. I think you can skip the instrument and commo checks from here on in the interest of time. We're all aware that they must be performed on a regular basis. Any failure there is grounds for immediate abort."

"Yes sir. . . Disengagement of lander from mother ship, and visual check to ensure all explosive bolts have severed . . . Comm . . . Uh . . . separation of the two craft . . . After a separation of one kilometer, firing of the retro-rockets to take the lander out of orbit."

"The timing of the retro fire is automatic, but be sure to monitor it yourself. A few seconds one way or the other won't make much difference, but we don't want you entering the atmosphere too fast and burning away a lot of the insulation prematurely."

Graham grunted acknowledgement, and Peterson again turned to the list.

"Entry into the outer reaches of Jupiter's atmosphere, approximately eighty-seven kilometers above the surface at ten point two-one minutes after retro-fire . . . Twenty-eight hundredths of a minute later you reach the cloud tops, something over seventy kilometers high . . ."

Nielsen interrupted again. "Here's where the communications checks become extremely critical, Jeff. The planet's magnetosphere produces so much radiation that's the only way we can track you under the clouds. If we get a negative, we go back to square one and try again in about six months."

This was one point that Graham was not ready to concede. He was determined to go through with the entire mission today, regardless, but he merely nodded his head and Peterson went on.

"At an elevation of about thirty-five kilometers, entry speed will have been reduced by friction to about two hundred kilometers per hour, where it will remain until the landing rockets are fired. At this time the viewing ports may be opened because friction heat will be gone, and the temperature will drop to about zero. You probably won't be able to see much, even with lights. Atmospheric pressure will be fairly high at this point, so you will begin to feel some turbulence. Do not leave the viewing ports open for more than forty-five seconds. They are not as impervious to radiation as the hull. "Seven minutes later comes the real test. If it turns out instruments cannot be monitored from here, and that will probably he the case, you will have to open the viewing ports and land the craft manually. Any impact of greater than seven or eight KPH will probably destroy the main hydrogen transfer stanisplummer, and the mission. Timing is critical. From the time the view ports are open, you have only eight and a half minutes to land and return here via your escape stanisplummer, or be roasted. We can deploy the floats from here."

Graham nodded his head, and Nielsen opened his mouth to speak. "Jeff, are there any questions?"

When the negative was indicated he continued. "Look over the list again, and be sure there is nothing left to chance. I cannot over emphasize the need for thoroughness. We can always replace the Faust, but not you."

"There's nothing, Commander. At this point it's too late to second-guess the experts. I'm ready, let's get on with it."

There was no live television coverage of the event for two reasons. There was a high possibility of failure, and no one wanted the public to witness that. A series of problems had already put the project behind schedule and dampened public opinion somewhat, and the liberals were becoming more and more vocal in their demands to solve poverty and hunger with the funds that, from their point of view, were being swallowed up in the bottomless gullet of Project Icarus. The other reason was to prevent the distraction of the participants.

Now the time was here, Jeff felt the butterflies returning. He zipped himself into the protective sheath of the suit, and before his nervousness could magnify he pushed open the hatch between the two craft. Sealing it behind him, he floated into the cocoon of the lander and began tightening the restraining straps. The thickly padded head and body shells, composed of high impact kevlar were next, making Jeff feel as if he were in an extremely tight body cast. He heard the hiss that indicated the empty spaces in the cabin were being filled with the hardening foam, which would provide further protection, not only from the jolting but also as insulation from the heat and radiation. There were only small air-bubbles around his hands and face, and the heads up display for the control panel, so he could see and manipulate the instruments would remain empty. He was actually part of the spacecraft now. On the completion of his mission he would be stanned back to Houston where a crew was standing by to remove him from the foam and suit, ready to treat him for heat, radiation, or broken body.

"Faust, this is Mother. How do you hear me?"

On hearing Neilsen's radioed question, Graham was reminded that he had already forgotten the first communication check. The first one was not critical, but it served to remind him of how easy it would be to make a mistake. That realization brought the butterflies back in force, but he successfully fought them down.

He almost stuttered his response, "Roger, Mother. You're loud and clear. Stand by. I'll give you visual . . ." and went on more smoothly, "Houston, this is Faust. How do you hear?"

"This is Houston. We've got you loud and clear", came the voice that sounded closer to Graham than Mother. He supposed that was due to more space for better equipment. "We've got clear audio and visual. You're a go for separation. Good luck."

"Roger, Houston. I'm strapped in, sealed and checked here. Mother, anytime you're ready, kick me loose."

"Roger, Faust. Audio and visual are clear. . . Stand by for separation in ten seconds . Mark . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . five . . . four . . . three . . ."

Graham braced himself for the expected jolt, even though he knew he was so bound in, the minor bump of the explosive bolts would be nothing compared to what he'd feel in the next half hour.

" Two. . . one . . . separation. Well you're on your own, Jeff go get 'em."

The bolts did their job well. He could see that he had already drifted more than ten meters from the mother ship.

"Clean separation, Mother. I'm gonna put some distance between us." His left little finger was on the button that would give impetus to the rocket that would move Faust from the bigger ship. He pressed hard, feeling the whiteness of his knuckles, and immediately felt the slight acceleration. His eyes found the digital readout that would show him his distance from Mother. When the number reached one thousand he wiggled his left hand ring finger. Simultaneously he felt the acceleration of the retro-rockets and a pang that had him almost wishing he could call it off.

"Mother. This is Faust. Here I go." His eyes found the view screen that revealed the planet, huge and menacing. At first it didn't seem to be getting any larger and he harbored a brief feeling of relief that the rocket hadn't worked and he wouldn't have to go after all. But presently the screen showed he was getting closer, and after two or three minutes he could not see the horizon without adjusting the camera.

The awesome sight had a hypnotic effect on him. He could no more force his eyes from the spectacle, than he could will his heart to stop beating. It was a scene out of a movie about Hell. The dominant color was red, but the diagonal upper-right to lower-left of his view screen bands of color bled into each other like raspberry ripple ice cream with brown, green and blue all blended together. But the dominant feature where his eyes seemed to automatically settle was the huge red spot in the lower-left of his screen. With the tremendous turbulence he expected in another, calmer area, where he would land he could not imagine what it would be like in the spot.

He remained mesmerized by the spectacle until the slight buffeting and movement of the compensating shafts on the craft signaled his arrival into the atmosphere. Fifteen seconds later be braced himself involuntarily, expecting an impact as the clouds rushed to it and then swallowed him in the misty void. All he could see then was the projections of his own craft.

"Houston. This is Faust. I just went under and the road is getting a little bumpy."

"Roger Faust. We've still got a line on you. We'll let you know when we can't see you anymore."

There was not much either could say or do at this point. It was a matter of wait and see. He could see nothing now and assumed it was the heat of entry that would probably obscure transmission from Houston for a while anyway. He began to get used to the constant bouncing and was almost enjoying the ride now that the initial vertigo had dissipated.

Less than three minutes after disappearing under the clouds he hit the first of many big "air" pockets. He could see again, a little, just in time to watch a compensator arm fly wildly to his right. He felt as if he'd been hit simultaneously with about two hundred paddles. He hadn't expected it so soon and was preoccupied with trying to pierce the gelatinous mass outside, so it surprised him all the more. The second and third jolts came in quick succession, feeling if anything, worse than the first. The experts were wrong. It was going to be a wilder ride than they thought.

"Houston. This is Faust. The real bumps have already begun, and they are tough..."

He stopped to ride out another.

" but I should be okay."

The huge jolts came closer together now, and with them came the noise. The constant rush of the wind was overwhelming. It rose to the pitch of a thousand banshees, even through the heavy insulation of the craft. When the strongest gusts hit, perhaps because of a warping of the hull and reverberation along the shafts, it was like being inside a huge steel ball, with which giants with sledgehammers for racquets were playing tennis. As it got worse, it felt to Graham like someone had gotten inside his brain with a jackhammer. At the same time the vibration grew in leaps and bounds. Communications with mission control were almost totally gone. The only way they could make him understand was by repeating each word three times, and the technicians had great difficulty sorting his voice from the background, even with sophisticated filters and equipment. The vibration had either destroyed the cameras or was so great as to prevent focus, so there was no video. Contact was lost entirely then, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Express train noise seemed to permeate every tissue of Graham's body, and it began to drive sanity out.

He struggled to cover his ears with his hands, knowing full well they were fixed in position, and couldn't be moved. The index finger of his right hand longed to apply the pressure on the button it was poised over. That would activate the stanisplummer and remove him from this raging Hell. Had he been fully rational, that is almost certainly what he would have done, but the only thought that would surface from his tortured mind was:

"noise. . . noise. . . My God! . . . Got to! . . . Cover my ears!. . ."

Then blackness drew a merciful blanket over him as he fell away into unconsciousness. The frantic calls from Houston and Mother could not have been heard over the din, even had Graham been conscious to hear.

The voice of "Houston" at that moment, General Frank Janakowski himself quavered in its quest to pierce that awful clatter which poured from speakers even with the volume turned way down, but he already knew it was futile.

To him this was a disaster which would not only rob him of a man he'd come to consider almost as a son, but also threatened to rob him of Project Icarus. He knew Icarus was dead at that moment. This was worse than the Columbia disaster, because they had realized the risk and gone way beyond the minimum to negate it. A Congress, which was plainly promised complete success, would simply not provide funds for another mission. Oh, maybe ten years from now, but by then it would be too late for him and millions of people.

The silence in the room could have been cut with a knife, someone had turned off the sound of Jupiter completely or the vibration had destroyed the equipment on Faust. The technicians seemed too tired to move, and many simply laid their heads down on consoles, and slumped in chairs. The minutes seemed to drag interminably.

"Houston, this is Mother, " The sound echoed hollowly in the room, "I've got a ready light on the stanisplummer!"

Jeff felt the violent shaking, and his first thought was that somehow he had gone back in time, and his mother was shaking the bed to wake him. "Okay Mom, I'm . . ." He stopped, puzzled. The insistent shaking, shaking was still there, but something was wrong.

"I CAN'T HEAR MYSELF!"

The noise had deafened him completely, and the absence of noise had allowed him to revive. It all came back to him in a rush, and his eyes found the digital readout. Less than three minutes to impact! His first reaction was to try to press the SP button with his index finger and escape but he fought off the panic with the realization he still had time to land the craft. The wild fluctuations of the digits, which were the altimeter, told him he would have to land visually, if he could see anything. The readout below the altimeter told him the outside temperature was twenty-six-hundred degrees. At least that was working.

He watched the timer digits change, at nine point five minutes elapsed time he would open the view port and try to find a horizon. If he couldn't find one, the procedure was simple -- punch the lander rockets with his right hand middle finger and hope the rocket got down in time for him to deploy the float before he turned into a lump of charcoal. He was already uncomfortable inside his suit, but he knew it would become much hotter.

Now! He jabbed his finger at the button and the view ports rolled back, revealing the forward stabilizer whipping so violently it reminded Jeff of the ribbon he'd tied to the mast of his bicycle when he was a kid. The sight enhanced the shaking of the craft, and Graham realized that it was only with great difficulty that he was able to read the digits on the display. Outside the craft he could see nothing but the indistinct compensator arms, but the mere fact that he could see them reassured him that he would be able to see the surface within a couple hundred meters or so. If he could make an educated guess as to when to hit the rockets, he should be able to land in time. He took a chance and gave slight pressure to the landing rockets, feeling his descent slow slightly, and strained to see through the mist.

His eyes flashed back and forth from the timer to the swirling clouds outside. Ten minutes thirty seconds. . . forty. . . At ten fifty he gave the rocket full thrust and watched the vertical speed indicator drop. 170 . . . 160 . . . 150. . . 140. . . 130. . .

He was already past the expected landing time, and strained his eyes for a glimpse of the ocean below.

Nothing! . . . 100 . . . 90. . . 80. . . 70. . . He was now at a speed that he could stop the craft within one hundred fifty meters, so he eased the pressure on the button and tried to stabilize at sixty kilometers per hour but the violent wrenching of the craft prevented him from maintaining an even pressure, and the speed varied between one hundred and thirty. He hoped he wasn't going a hundred when the surface appeared. The heat inside his suit was oppressive now like the inside of a sauna. He glanced at the temperature display. Outside thirty-one hundred, as expected, but inside it was already five hundred twenty-five that meant he had to get out soon. The readout next to the temperature indicated it had been over two minutes since he had opened the ports.

Two point twelve. . . two point twenty. His mind began to tick of the elapsed time. Two point twenty-eight."

"WHERE IS THE SURFACE?"

"There? Yes! I see it! His fingers longed to give full thrust."

"No! Make sure!" There was no longer any doubt, and he pressed both his middle and index fingers, and felt himself sink into the cushioning of the seat. He could see it clearer now, closer than he had expected. Not more than fifty meters below was the wildest raging storm that any human had ever witnessed. Waves fragmented and climbed seemingly almost to the height of the craft itself. The sight was awe inspiring to Graham, and for an instant he sat transfixed. He had to maneuver the craft to set down on the crest of one of the massive swells. Fifty meters high, if he were to miss and drop between two, a wave, with its hundred kilometer per hour speed would probably crush the craft like an egg. At first he didn't think he'd be able to bring the craft under control in time, and in fact the speed of descent had carried him below the crest of an oncoming swell. Only by maintaining full thrust was he able to rise above, just before it went flashing underneath. Now it remained to provide lateral thrust, to match the speed of the waves, land, unfold the huge stanisplummer which would accept the massive pumps, and press the button which would allow him to escape this raging Hell. Compared with what he'd already been through, Jeff thought the actual landing simple, but when he touched the liquid hydrogen he almost wished for the relative calm of the atmosphere. Every seam of the craft seemed ready to burst as he maneuvered it so the raft could be deployed in its lee. He was inside an enormous cement mixer running crazily at five hundred times normal speed. He could literally feel his brains bouncing around in his skull. What kept him conscious as he watched the spreading frame of the stanisplummer, he didn't know and he had only time for the fleeting pleasurable thought that he had succeeded.

Jeff Graham felt himself sink into a calm of relief, through which not even the raging storm could penetrate, and just before the final black curtain covered him forever, he thought serenely:

It was worth it!
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