Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Vivian Shaw
“The Utmost Bound" is a story I've been wanting to write ever since I first came across "The Man who Lost the Sea," my favorite Sturgeon story, both stark and beautiful and desperately moving in its realization of inevitable death and profound achievement. In the paragraph
The truth, then, is that the satellite fading here is Phobos, that those footprints are your own, that there is no sea here, that you have crashed and are killed and will in a moment be dead. The cold hand ready to squeeze and still your heart is not anoxia or even fear, it is death. Now, if there is something more important than this, now is the time for it to show itself.
the image that you have crashed and are killed and will in a moment be dead stuck with me, and the shattering realization that he is on another planet, that the landscape around him is not that of Earth, that he is the first person ever to see with his own eyes what he is seeing, and that he will die of it, is such a powerful image that I wanted to do something with it, one day. I wasn't sure what or when, until I got a good look at the Soviet images of Venus (Don P. Mitchell’s website has all the information you could want; a horribly ordinary view of a landscape that is effectively hell). The Venera landers, back in the late seventies and early eighties, sent back pictures of shattered rocky ground, distant hills, an overcast sky that could have been any number of places on Earth. Its familiarity, coupled with the fact that anyone seeing those hills and that sky with their own two eyes would be dead long before their brain could process the visual input, that while that sky looks ordinary it is in fact poisonous yellow, that what could be a mild and overcast day on a rocky plateau in Wales or Iceland is in fact 900 degrees and ninety atmospheres of pressure, that these pictures are what a dead man would see -- all of that struck me as deliciously, wonderfully creepy.
The lost-cosmonaut hoax recordings and the Venera images cemented together with that realization of being on another planet and in the active process of dying from the Sturgeon story to form part of "The Utmost Bound"; the other source of inspiration is the M.P. Shiel story "The Dark Lot of One Saul", a tale that impressed much-younger me with its enormous crushing inevitability, the narrator’s awareness that they were trapped by vast and implacable natural forces, that escape was utterly impossible, that it was only a matter of time. Once I had all the pieces, "The Utmost Bound" came together almost in one sitting. The Venera probes look as if you could put someone inside that spherical pressure hull, even though there's absolutely no room for anything other than the equipment; it was easy enough to picture one with a larger pressure hull, one that had a viewport where no viewport should be.
It was also an opportunity to write the kind of hard SF I particularly love to read; I'm a space nerd and enormously enjoyed getting to include details from the actual history of spaceflight, and getting to play with that and horror at the same time was a plain and simple joy.
Vivian shared an excerpt of “The Utmost Bound” at the Museum’s “More Than Human Holiday” gathering. What follows is the full story, which first appeared in Uncanny issue 20.
The Utmost Bound
By Vivian Shaw
… and this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
The check-in chime in his headset: on time, annoyingly on time, as usual, waking him as they came around the curve of Venus. “Aphrodite-1, this is Honolulu, do you read?”
Faint washes of static through the words, three months of interplanetary travel and a scant handful of minutes away by radio wave. Again: “Aphrodite-1, Honolulu, do you read? Over.”
“Hi, Hawaii,” said McBride, pushing the headset mike a little further from his mouth. He was used to the delay by now, the measured pauses in conversation while the signal made its way across twenty-five million miles of nothingness. At first it had been disconcerting; now he barely even noticed. “Weather okay down there?”
“Just dandy, since you ask, Commander, but it’s time for the morning report. How’s Little Buddy doing?”
McBride yawned and keyed up the monitors, one by one, waking them into life: you didn’t waste juice out here on instruments you weren’t actually using. The cabin lights dimmed slightly as the displays came on line. “Little Buddy’s reet and complete at last report,” he said, scanning the data, and typed in the downlink command to send Honolulu everything the rover had been up to since the previous infodump transmission. “There you go. Still trundling west over Lakshmi Planum as we speak. Temperature’s—let’s see—still holding at 469 C, pressure 93, no significant changes in atmospheric makeup. Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.”
Honolulu laughed, a tinny little sound, rasping with distance. “Keep your personal aesthetic impressions out of the record, Commander. Okay. We want you to go north today—there’s a couple of anomalies we’d like to get a closer look at. Stand by for transmission of coordinates.”
McBride flicked a couple of switches. “Standing by, Honolulu.” He looked back at the monitor showing the live camera feed from the Aeneas rover. While he and Artanian slept in their cocoons, Aeneas—which had been Little Buddy ever since it had unfolded from the lander-capsule that had taken it down through the killing atmosphere of Venus and looked around, tilting its multi-lens camera probes in a remarkable imitation of interest—had made considerable progress across the Venusian highlands. Even so, the view was predictable. Blank yellow sky, the color of a dehydrated man’s CUVMS piss-bag; distant half-imagined mountains; grey-green-brown slaty rock and soil. McBride knew it was mostly basalts, but it looked a hell of a lot like sedimentary layers half-shattered and worn away by the kind of freeze-thaw cycle you got back on Earth, where water was a thing.
Behind him Artanian stirred in her cocoon, unzipped herself, yawned hugely. McBride could hear her spine cracking as she stretched, a series of little pops. You got used to it after a while: with no gravity squashing you down in any particular direction, the discs between your vertebrae expanded. You stopped noticing that it hurt.
“What do they want us to do today?” Artanian asked, coming to join him at the console. The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.
“Want us to head north. Some kind of anomaly to check out. I bet you six bacon cubes it’s another fuckup on the radio-topography survey, like the last few times.”
“Interference bars,” Artanian said, and sighed, plugging her headset in to take over talking-to-the-ground duty. “Your turn to get the coffee.”
Aph-One wasn’t bad, in terms of crew comfort, compared to some of the tubs McBride had flown: the same basic layout as the old Apollo and Orion command modules, a truncated cone with its curved heatshield snugly settled into a service module containing oxygen and hydrogen tanks and electrical equipment. It wasn’t very much more spacious than Orion, even with the deep-sleep pods tucked underneath the crew couches to maximize the available room, but what space there was had been designed with comfort in mind; all the research on long-duration missions agreed on the significance of this factor.
In other news, water is wet, McBride thought, floating down to the left lower equipment bay to retrieve a couple of coffee tubes. Keeping two humans in a space roughly the size of a smallish SUV for months at a time was difficult even if they spent most of the transit in deep-sleep, and when you were all the way out here anything that made the experience slightly more comfortable was of vital importance.
Like the coffee. NASA had earnestly made an attempt to cater to their individual preferences, so the tubes marked C and CRMP—everything was titles, not names, Commander and Command Remote Module Pilot—contained two distinct kinds of terrible instant coffee, to which one added pre-measured lukewarm water from a dispensing gun. McBride didn’t have a lot of emotional lability—it was one of the reasons he’d made the cut for this mission—but sometimes, thinking about real fresh hot coffee, he found himself getting uncomfortably nostalgic for the green hills of Earth.
They were in a high orbit, far above the edge of Venus’s horrible atmosphere. The spacecraft spun slowly on its longitudinal axis to maintain thermal control, ensuring that no part of it got too baked by the sun or too chilled by the lack of it. Below them, though, on the wretched hide of the planet, the Aeneas rover had to deal with what effectively constituted hell. Ninety-plus atmospheres of pressure, temperatures hot enough to melt lead, baking-dry atmosphere of supersaturated carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid—all the place lacked, McBride considered, was a couple of demons with leathery wings and sharp-spined pitchforks.
It was why nobody had ever tried to land on the surface. Instrument packages, sure, back in the 70s and 80s. Cleverly designed machines that could withstand an hour, maybe an hour and a half of concentrated torture, but nothing more vulnerable than that. The Aeneas mission was the first time anyone had attempted to put a rover on the surface and keep it alive—the nominal duration was one week, but they were almost into their third now, and Little Buddy was still going strong. You had to hand it to the people in design and engineering: once the funding finally started to trickle back in for space exploration, it hadn’t taken them long to figure out how to get shit done.
“Hey,” said Artanian, above him. “Come look at this.”
McBride floated back up to join her, handing over the coffee tube. “What’s up?”
“Look.” She pointed at the monitor showing the video feed. “What is that thing?”
He clipped his harness into the anchor-points under the console so he could stay put without hanging on to anything, and typed in a couple of commands. On the rover’s visible-light video cam, the weird object looked like a twisted chunk of rock, indistinct in the distance, standing alone in a flat stony plain. Through Little Buddy’s more sophisticated scanners, though—
McBride swore, staring at the monitors. “That’s not rock. That’s some kind of metal,” he said. “And it’s big. What the hell is it? There isn’t supposed to be anything man-made on this part of the surface.”
“None of our stuff landed in this area,” Artanian said quietly, glancing over at him. “Closest thing is the Pioneer Venus north probe, and that’s a long way east of here.”
This hadn’t been included in their training protocols: something that had no right to be where it was. McBride rubbed at his face. They were here to make discoveries.
“Take us closer,” he said. “The Russian landers aren’t supposed to be on this continent, either, but that’s the only other option I can think of.”
The only acceptable other option.
Artanian flipped up the safety cover on a small joystick hand-controller and typed in the command that would override Little Buddy’s remote guidance programming and give her manual control. Neither of them spoke as she drove, the picture on their monitor tilting crazily as the rover’s wheels negotiated the uneven surface.
McBride could remember training in the simulator, back home, watching as she guided the boilerplate mock-up of Aeneas over a fake landscape, wondering if NASA planned to throw any virtual little green men at them to see how they’d react. Now he wondered what the psych assholes would make of this situation.
“It’s just a probe,” said Artanian, not taking her eyes off the screens. “Got to be. I mean, maybe the Russians sent more of them, without telling us?”
He wasn’t so sure. The thing looked too big to be a probe. As she guided Aeneas closer he took over the job of focusing its multiple scanners, trying to make sense of what they were seeing. It was hard to make out details while the rover was still bumping over rocks and soil, but McBride thought it looked oddly familiar—a kind of round lumpy shape, canted to one side, with something sticking up at an angle from the top of it—
All at once the outlines made sense, clicked in his head: just like looking at one of those garbled Magic Eye pictures and suddenly being able to see the hidden shape.
“It’s a lander,” he said, not quite sure whether to be relieved. “It’s a fucking Russian lander. One of the Veneras—you’re right, they must have sent another mission, one we never heard about. See the remains of the helical antenna? And that’s the aerobrake disc underneath of it. The whole thing’s leaning over at about twenty degrees.”
The USSR had sent a series of probes to Venus between the sixties and eighties, ten of which had survived landing and transmitted data from the surface. Some of them—Veneras 9, 10, 13, and 14—had sent back pictures more or less identical to what McBride and Artanian had been seeing through the rover’s eyes for weeks now: yellow sky, dark friable rock. The landers themselves were immediately recognizable, consisting of a spherical titanium pressure hull supported above a landing ring by shock-absorbing struts; a flat disc-shaped aerobrake surmounted the hull, and above that a cylindrical protuberance housed scientific instruments and the helical antenna used to transmit data. The antenna and aerobrake together looked a little like a giant metal top hat. Cooling pipes stuck out of the side of the spherical pressure hull and extended upward through the aerobrake hat-brim. They were ugly and also unmistakable, and McBride was pretty sure he was looking at the remains of one right now. One that the Soviets had never talked about, unlike the rest of the Venera program.
“Hang on,” said Artanian, “I’m going around to the other side, I think the surface is a bit smoother. I should be able to get in pretty close.”
He didn’t reply, watching the monitors. She drove carefully in a wide arc around the thing—it seemed to have sunk partway into the surface, which was interesting and slightly unnerving, what if Aeneas fell through a goddamn lava tube, how were they ever going to explain that one to Hawaii—and drew to a stop.
The shape of the lander was blurred by time and decay. The remains of the thermal control pipes had melted, drooping into an unrecognizable mass, and half of the aerobrake was simply gone. A slick of unpleasant matter around the base of it probably represented the melted remains of long-dead electronics. The instruments mounted on the landing ring were nothing but a snarl of twisted debris, and all of it—the entire metal surface, all that remained—was furred with a blanket of mottled, multicolored salts: corrosion products formed by reaction with the chemicals in the atmosphere.
And something was wrong. Artanian stopped the rover, looked at him, her eyes wide. He could see white all the way around the brown irises, and felt the little hairs on his arms rise in a wave. Something worse than the incongruity of this spacecraft’s presence here where no spacecraft was supposed to be: the shape of it, the thing itself, was wrong.
“It’s too big,” she said. “The hull’s too big, the proportions are all off. No Venera lander ever had a pressure-hull that size.”
“No Venera lander that they ever talked about,” McBride said, still staring at the thing. “All the rest are well-documented history, people write books about them—but not this one. Take us closer.”
Her mouth tightened, but she reached for the joystick again. McBride realized he was gripping the edge of the console hard enough to turn his nailbeds white, and made himself uncurl his fingers, watching as the wreck on the monitors grew nearer. Artanian eased Little Buddy slightly further around the curved base of it, more blotchy yellow-grey-blue salt deposits visible—
“Stop,” he said, too sharp, too loud, but she had already stopped, seeing it a split second before he did: a round, perfectly regular gap in the corrosion. A smooth surface, perhaps pitted and scratched a little by the decades of windblown rock particles, but still clear enough to see through.
A hull much bigger than it should have been, with a viewport.
Artanian’s fingers moved on the controls almost by themselves, telescoping the rover’s neck boom, bringing its head closer, and McBride absolutely did not want to look any further but found he could not turn his face away as the camera peered past the surface scratches, through three inches of—it must be sapphire, he thought, or at least quartz, the kind of thing you’d use on a deep-sea trench submersible’s windows—and into the darkness inside.
At first it was simply darkness, before the camera’s sensors adjusted themselves, and McBride had time to think oh thank god, there’s nothing in there before they got focus back.
There was something in there. An amorphous, lumpy shape, thick-furred with salt deposition. All the surfaces inside the spacecraft were covered with the stuff; if there had once been instruments, controls, switches to flip, they were long gone, vanished into the merciless hunger of the planet’s atmosphere. McBride stared at the monitor, eyes wide, as the autofocus shifted itself again, and a recognizable curve emerged: part of a ring of metal.
“Oh fuck,” said Artanian. “Oh God. Fuck. That’s a neck ring.”
“Titanium,” he said, still staring. “That’s probably all that’s left. Maybe the wrist rings, too, somewhere in there. And the hose fittings.”
On the curve of the ring, just at the front, where the suit’s helmet would have locked into place—melted, corroded away to nothing now—they could still faintly see the letters CCCP.
“Get us out of here,” McBride said, in a voice he didn’t recognize. “Christ. Get us out.”
* * *
Not since his very early days in the training program had he felt actively claustrophobic in the confines of a spacecraft, but McBride was fighting down the powerful urge to open a goddamn window.
Artanian had driven the rover away at its top speed, just on the edge of recklessness, until a rise in the terrain obscured their discovery; until all they could see in any direction was once more nothing but grey-brown rock fading into the featureless yellow haze of the sky.
She powered Little Buddy down, putting it in sleep mode, replaced the safety cover over the hand-controller with self-conscious deliberation, and turned to face McBride—who had his arms tightly folded against that mindless instinctive urge to crack the hatch.
“Do we tell them?” she asked.
McBride stared at her. It was actually a pretty good question. They could, if they chose to, erase the entire recording of the day’s excursion. They still had a good three hours before Honolulu would be expecting a downlink. They could erase the whole thing, and spend the rest of their lives keeping that awful secret, so that it would die with them, and again no living human would have to bear the awareness he and Artanian felt now, the stomach-dropping horror of it, of knowing that someone had been sent here, here to hell, and had died here, and had been here all along—was still here, in molecular form—
McBride squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to see the picture in his mind. The very clear picture. He knew what atmospheric entry felt like, all of them did, he’d juddered and blazed his way down through Earth’s rind of air a grand total of four times already, but that had been in the sure and certain knowledge that at the end of it the hatch would open on air, on clear air, on a world that wasn’t actively trying to dissolve him. Whoever had ridden that misbegotten Venera down through this atmosphere would know what waited for them. Know, and be entirely powerless to alter it in any way.
(Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do, he thought inanely, a flicker of crosspatched reference.)
He knew what that long-ago cosmonaut would have seen, through the thick conical pane of the viewport; all through the long, agonizing process of descent there would be nothing at all but clouds, deepening and deepening in color the further they fell, from a pale gold to a sick and poisonous orange-yellow. There might be lightning, cloud-to-cloud discharge, just a flicker of brightness through the haze. He could imagine the spacecraft creaking all around them as the pressure built steadily up—God only knew what they’d used to cool the thing, the other landers had been stuffed full of lithium nitrate trihydrate and recirculating coolant gas but you couldn’t do that with a person—
Coming out of the clouds there would still be a kilometer or so to fall before they struck the surface and came to rest, canted to one side, the single viewport staring south-southwest across the barren highlands of Ishtar Terra, and McBride thought of that, of that yellow sky, the blank emptiness of it, the grey-green-brown rock and soil fading into the distance; thought of seeing that with his own eyes, and not the distant camera of a mechanical device. His own eyes, through a small hole, looking out at hell. Knowing, knowing entirely, that he was dying and in a short time would be dead, and wondering in what manner that death would come; would the seals crack and the crushing ninety atmospheres of pressure collapse the hollows of his body, break his bones, render him into viscous fluid that would boil rapidly away to nothing, or would he roast to death first as the cooling failed and the tiny spacecraft’s cabin inevitably reached thermal equilibrium with the 870 degrees outside?
Would he have had any words to relay back to the men who had sent him there?
“Oh God,” he said, a strengthless little spurt of sound, and opened his eyes. Artanian was staring at him, and he realized he’d never answered her question.
“What—” she began; he cut her off.
“The Torre Bert recordings,” he said. “The—fucking lost-cosmonaut hoax shit, those Italian guys who claimed they heard people dying in space, way back in the sixties—what if—”
“What if they were real?” Artanian finished for him, as if realizing it at the same time. The color drained from her face; in the harsh sunlight from Aph-One’s viewports she looked suddenly old. “What if the signals they heard were real?”
“And what if there were more transmissions,” McBride said. “More that never got heard, after Radio Moscow shut them up in 1965—shit, we have to tell them, you know we do, it’s—I can’t keep this. I can’t carry this kind of secret. It’s too big.”
He was appalled to hear the unsteadiness in his own voice: he sounded just like the kind of hysterical idiot who couldn’t take the pressure, washed out of training in the second week. Artanian was looking intently at him, and McBride registered with a kind of angry misery that she was concerned—fuck, he wasn’t supposed to do this, falling apart wasn’t an option. He took a deep breath, reaching for calm. “I can’t do it,” he said, “and I’m willing to bet you can’t, either.”
“I could, for a while,” she said. “I think. But I’d—talk in my sleep, or something. It’d find its way out. It’s like—this wants to be told.”
She was right, and that, too, was awful; the thought of a hidden secret somehow developing its own sentience, crawling out into the world any way it could. “We’ll tell them,” he said, “and then it won’t be our problem, anymore. What happens next is…”
“Also not our problem,” Artanian finished. “This is our job. It’s what we’re for.”
That helped, a little. You did the job that was in front of you.
McBride cued up the program that would transmit Little Buddy’s data over the hundred and sixty-two million miles to Earth. He paused for a moment, looking out of his viewport at the vast curve of Venus, creamy-pale and deceptively inviting, its swirls of cloud offering no hint of the unspeakable conditions below, thinking again someone was sent here, here to hell, nor are they out of it—
And as he pushed the button, as the telltale lit up, as the transmitter told its secret in a stream of binary across the void, he thought: how many more were there, and how far did they go?
VIVIAN SHAW was born in Kenya and spent her early childhood in England before relocating to the United States at the age of seven. She has a BA in art history and an MFA in creative writing, and has worked in academic publishing and development while researching everything from the history of spaceflight to supernatural physiology. In her spare time, she writes fanfiction under the name of Coldhope. She is the author of Strange Practice and Dreadful Company (Orbit), the first and second in an urban fantasy trilogy starring Dr. Greta Helsing; the final volume, Grave Importance, will be out in fall 2019.