Weave again for sweet Eurydice life’s pattern that was taken from the loom too quick. – Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X
After more than eighteen hours of struggle, during which half a dozen different solutions had been developed and tried, Tanya finally had to accept the fact that the mission for which they had trained so long was a failure. Their orbit was decaying; already the heat resulting from atmospheric friction was too much for the climate control to handle, and her clothes were plastered to her body with sweat. Richard was pale when he should have been flushed, and she knew that he, too, grasped the full import of the situation: they were going to die when the ship broke up, and there was absolutely nothing either they or Mission Control back on Earth could do about it.
“Orpheus One to Mission Control,” he said calmly into the mike. “Request permission to initiate protocol six-seven-four.” She did not let her face betray her sinking feelings; though she well understood that the self-destruct mechanism would be far less awful than waiting as many as twelve or fourteen more hours for the inevitable end, this was being televised to the whole world and she was unsure how the authorities were explaining it to the viewers. “Repeat, protocol Six. Seven. Four.”
“Request for protocol six-seven-four received and understood. Stand by, Orpheus One; will advise shortly.” Then, more quietly on the private channel: “Hang in there, Rich, we’ll get an answer for you ASAP.” Richard smiled bravely at her and squeezed her hand. The two of them had been selected for compatibility; they both believed passionately in the project and had trained together for two years even before embarking on the months-long voyage to Venus in the cramped quarters of the seeding ship. It would have been a miracle if they hadn’t fallen in love. But there was no time to talk about it now when there were still dozens of tasks to perform; even if they were doomed, the telemetry and their reports would make Orpheus Two’s descent into Hell much less likely to fail.
The response from Earth came back with surprising speed; obviously Mission Control concurred with their assessment of the situation. “Orpheus One, you are cleared for protocol six-seven-four once the commanding and biology officer’s reports are filed.” And on the private channel: “I’m sorry, Rich, Tanya. Whenever you’re ready.”
Though they had hoped it would never be necessary, they had drilled this a dozen times. Tanya had already filed her final report; since the engineering problem had developed before they even started to seed the clouds, there was very little to report. She checked the valves that would release the anesthesia gas into the cockpit, then opened them once Rich gave the all-clear; as soon as the computer registered that they were completely unconscious, the self-destruct device would automatically engage and the shattered fragments of Orpheus One and her two human occupants would soon come to rest on the surface of the hostile world they hoped to one day make fit for human habitation.
“I love you,” he whispered, embracing her for the last time.
“Oh, I love you so!” she answered through tears, as she slipped into sleep.
The next thing Tanya was aware of was that it was very cold and much too bright; she thought she must only feel cold because it had been so hot before, but that begged the question of why she should feel anything at all when she was dead. Eventually her drugged brain concluded that she must not be dead, however impossible that seemed; she started to make out fragments of conversation that seemed to be about her, and then understood that someone – a doctor or nurse? – was telling her that she was safe. She ventured a complaint about the light, but it was ignored until she had repeated it several times; she then asked for a blanket and that was granted much more quickly. Then it was a dizzying and unpleasant trip by gurney to a quieter, darker room, strong arms lifting her into a soft bed, and oblivion again.
The next time she woke her mind was instantly alert and full of questions; the attending nurse claimed not to know anything, and called for help when Tanya responded to her advice to lie calm with a string of profanity and demands to talk to someone who “Does know something goddammit!” That succeeded in getting a hospital administrator there, and he assured her that he didn’t know much more than she did, that he was under orders not to discuss the little he did know, and that a VIP would be there to explain things to her in a few hours. She used the time to eat, to take her first proper shower in months and to ascertain that wherever she was, it was definitely on Earth (judging by air and gravity) but had no windows. After an interminable amount of time an orderly brought her one of her own uniforms (freshly laundered) and bade her dress, and then she waited still longer.
Finally, she was ushered into a briefing room, and the VIP turned out to be no less than the Undersecretary of Space Exploration himself. He had visited the project many times during the training period, and Tanya felt she knew him well enough to be blunt with him; after he greeted her and shook her hand, she responded with “No offense, Mr. Secretary, but what the hell is going on here?”
He sighed and steepled his fingers. “Tanya, I know you may find this hard to accept at first, but your mission didn’t fail; it succeeded.”
“How so? The hull design turned out to be unable to withstand the conditions in the upper Venusian atmosphere, and its integrity was compromised before we could even begin the seeding run.”
“Didn’t you find that at all suspicious?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve studied Venus for decades; we’re almost as familiar with its atmospheric conditions as we are with Earth’s. We’ve sent dozens of unmanned probes there; don’t you think we should know how to build a ship that would stand up to it by now?”
“I’m not an engineer,” Tanya retorted, but she inwardly felt very foolish; of course they could.
“The ship didn’t break up, Tanya; it did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to simulate a doomed terraforming mission.”
“Simulate?” she asked weakly. “But there was a real ship. We saw it several times a week for two years.”
“A real mockup. When you entered the cockpit module, the crane transferred you into the simulator instead of the dummy ship.”
“But why? What was the point? I mean obviously you wanted to put on some big survival drama for television, and you didn’t tell us…was Richard in on this?” she asked angrily.
“Richard was as much in the dark as you were. We wanted your reactions to be authentic.”
“WHY?” she exploded. “For the love of God, what was it all for? It must have cost billions!”
He sighed more deeply this time, and seemed to let his practiced poise drop a little. “Tanya, there are twelve billion people on the planet now; thanks to advances of the past century hunger is a thing of the past, and the number of people in dire poverty is so low it’s barely worth mentioning. Automation handles all of the jobs that are too dangerous for humans, and we’ve banned all dangerous sports and unhealthy activities; the average person now lives to be one hundred and eight, and spends most of his non-working hours immersed in unproductive fantasy. Depression is epidemic, and our whole society is drowning in ennui; the population needs a great adventure they can experience vicariously, something they can believe in. Because when people have nothing to look forward to, they have no reason to go on living.”
“Richard and I often wondered why the government was sending humans on a dangerous mission a robot ship could’ve handled just as well.”
“Now you know. The point of the mission wasn’t to terraform Venus, which won’t be technically feasible for decades yet despite those bogus figures you were taught; the point was to get the world excited about a huge adventure, to give them heroes to root for and love and cry over and mourn for. Tomorrow I’m going to a ceremony to unveil plans for a giant memorial for you and Richard.”
“But we’re still alive!”
“A technicality. We couldn’t allow two such talented scientists to be lost, especially with all the training the state has invested in you; you’ll be given new faces and new identities, and retrained for other work.”
“So we don’t even get to enjoy being heroes,” Tanya said bitterly.
“This isn’t about you.”
“Look, Tanya, I understand you’re upset; the rug’s just been yanked out from under you and everything you thought you knew has been turned upside-down. I’ve authorized a 50% salary increase plus a very generous bonus package, and I’ve had all your baggage moved from the training center to a secure residence facility near here; soon you’ll be discharged from the hospital and moved there, and you can take as much time off as you need. We won’t start your retraining until you’re ready, OK?”
“Yeah, great. Thanks.”
When Tanya was left alone in her new quarters hours later, she proceeded to nervously dig through her bags, hoping to find something which had been among her toiletries at the training center. At last, she found it; the housekeeper had apparently received no instructions other than to collect all of her things, because if anyone had given it some thought this bottle would almost certainly have been confiscated. She carefully counted out the pills, allowing four extra to provide a margin for error; she had always had almost textbook reactions to medicine, so she was certain it would be enough. For the first time since they had embarked on their fake voyage, there was no telemetry taped to her body; by the time anyone checked on her tomorrow, she would already be cold. As she swallowed the pills in small handfuls with a glass of filtered water, she reflected that the secretary was right about one thing: she had believed in Project Orpheus with all her heart, and was fervently dedicated to the goal of opening another world up to human colonization. But that had all been ripped away from her in the last 24 hours, along with her name, her identity, the man she loved and her entire life history. She had nothing left, except whatever the state decided to magnanimously dole out to her; given the way she had been used without her consent, she had absolutely no faith that her new life would be anything worth looking forward to. And when people have nothing to look forward to…