Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 16th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1988

Venus: Biology:

 

After the landing of the first manned EastBloc (1981) and American (1982) expeditions to Venus, a torrent of discoveries renewed Earth's waning fascination with her sister world. The greatest single shock was the extreme similarity of Venusian life to that of Earth, not only in gross anatomy—the unmanned probes had made that obvious as early as the 1960's and 1970's—but in detail, even at the cellular and molecular levels. As was the case with Mars but to an even greater degree, the fundamental mechanisms of cell division, DNA/RNA operation and serum immunology seemed closer to those of terrestrial life than could be accounted for by any amount of parallel evolution.

Venusian life even proved to be edible, apart from a few poisonous species and a modest range of allergic reactions, greatly aiding the establishment of research stations. The enforced 4-year span of isolation before surface-to-orbit facilities were established at Cosmograd and Jamestown gave a welcome quarantine period; experience showed no great bacteriological or viral threats to the base personnel, and great care was taken under the UN Extraterrestrial Protection Act of 1980 to ensure that no pathogens were transmitted by interplanetary travel...

 

@@@

 

Venus, Gagarin Continent, Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone

 

"Hey, growing fast, you," Marc said, taking a deep breath of the crisp morning air and letting his greatwolf out into the front-yard run.

Tahyo was; he was already as high as the earthman's waist and the size of his blocky wedge-shaped head and enormous platter-shaped paws showed he'd be bigger yet. The body between feet and fangs was still gawky-gaunt, but it weighed more than half what the man's did. The legs were thicker relative to their length than a dog's, which was to be expected in something that would be as heavy as a small lion when full-grown, but otherwise Tahyo's layout wasn't far from the canine-wolf basic pattern. Right now the whole stern was wagging along with the tail, and then he stuck it in the air and bowed over his forepaws, looking up. Behind him the sun was rising on a long Venusian day, turning the western horizon salmon-pink. There was a deep hush to the air; Jamestown hadn't really quite begun its working routine yet.

"Note for Doc Feldman, classic canine let's-play behavior," Marc said, and reached down to ruffle Tahyo's ears.

"Classic drooling, too," he went on, as the not-really-a-dog licked enthusiastically at any part of the man he could reach.

Marc grabbed the beast by the ruff, rolled it over and stared straight into its eyes, making his voice deep: "Who's the boss, eh, you? Who's the boss?"

Tahyo made a whimpering sound and tried to lick the hands which held him, then lay back in splay-legged submission, which was a good enough answer for government work. Marc stepped back and let the big animal rise; when he showed it the leash it began to leap and wiggle in mid-air again.

"Heel!" he said, and it did. "Sit! Good boy!"

He tossed it a treat—the bones from a rack of tharg ribs he'd brought home from the base messhall yesterday. Today he'd be cooking at home, and not just for himself. The greatwolf made short work of them, crunching them with the relish of a kid with a piece of hard candy; even as a semi-pup, the strength it could bring to bear on the crushing and shearing molars at the back of its huge mouth was impressive. He'd rigged up the front yard as Tahyo's territory; it was a half-acre, walled in adobe and unlike the back not planted to anything but a couple of big oak trees that had been here before the house. It was pretty bare now—it turned out greatwolves were enthusiastic diggers—but as an added bonus they were easy to housebreak and naturally buried their own wastes.

"Stand!" he said as he opened the front gate, slung his rifle, and clipped the chain leash to its collar. "Let's go!"

Instead of the wild lunge of the first few times the greatwolf trotted along beside him as he jogged, obviously wondering why he was going so slowly, and equally obviously resigned to the foibles of the boss. They passed a few pedestrians and one woman mounted on churr-back; Tahyo behaved perfectly, and Marc felt a glow of pride. The process was mutual, too. People were getting used to seeing a man running with a young greatwolf, and even the locals weren't quite as weirded out as they had been at first.

"They wanted me to have you iced," he told the dog, as they passed the tannery, which Tahyo found fascinating. "Not going to turn you into an electronic zombie, boy. So you be good, eh? No gobbling peoples' cats or bebettes."

Out past the tannery he turned south, into the pastures outside the town proper. They were still well within the boundaries the Kings had granted Jamestown—that covered an area about the size of Delaware—but they weren't liable to run into anyone while Tahyo was excited.

"Weh, neg," he said, and unclipped the leash. "Go, boy! Go!"

Tahyo shot away across the rolling grass, green and up to his back and starred with big crimson flowers; a trail of butterflies and bugs shot into the air in his wake, and occasionally he'd leap his own length into the air with a tombstone clomp of jaws to catch one, or just for the hell of it. On all four paws he had to keep his head up to see where he was going, and sometimes he disappeared for a moment as the stems closed over his back.

"Stop!" Marc called.

The greatwolf did, albeit with a glance over his shoulder that said plain as words: Do I have to?

"Sit! Lie down... up!" He threw a stick. "Fetch!" For an hour he worked the animal with basic commands.

"You're smart, you," he said, when it lay panting beside him beneath an oak tree. Tahyo looked at him again and put its head in his lap. "Doc says you should be a stupid one, eh, primitive form of mammal... but wherever your pawpaws came from, your family's been here a long time, eh? Dodging the 'saurs and catching dinner. So you've got as much brains as any mutt I've had. Which is a good thing..."

Usually Tahyo paid close attention when Marc was talking, waiting for one of the words he understood, or just focusing on his parent-pack-leader-god. Now he glanced away, the happy sagging grin on his chops disappearing as he raised his head. Then he came to his feet and turned, and suddenly his body was one quivering arrow of attention, his wet black nose wrinkling at the end of his blunt broad muzzle.

"Eh, you scent something, you?" Marc said, using the tu-form.

He came up to one knee himself. The wind was from the west—it usually was this time of year—and it rippled the grass across the broad pasture. This stretch was empty, but a hundred yards further on was a board fence. Behind that a herd of tharg were scattered through the grass, the small domestic variety, up to their chests in the tall herbage since the settlement had far more grazing than it did stock to keep the growth down. A herdsman watched them, a Kudlack hireling mounted on churr-back, a javelin in his hand and several more in a hide bucket slung across his back, whistling a tune that could just be heard against the sough of wind through the vegetation.

Marc took his rifle from where it leaned against the tree, working the bolt, then trotted towards the fence. The greatwolf followed, black fur bristling on his shoulders, fangs showing and the beginnings of a growl rumbling in his chest.

"What's got you upset, neg?" he said.

A quick scan up showed there weren't any Quetzas or lesser predators of the air around. Nothing big showed on the ground, either...

"Except that grass there is moving against the wind!" Marc exclaimed, and threw the heavy weapon to his shoulder, letting the crosshairs fall on the patch until he saw a flicker of movement there.

CRACK!

He swayed back against the recoil and worked the bolt with a quick flick of his first three fingers. A body exploded out of the patch of tall grass he'd aimed at. It was a biped, about his own size and covered in yellow-green feathers except for a crest of crimson plumes that snapped out in reflex as the lizard body writhed in death. The jump put it a good twelve feet into the air; a good deal of its length was the powerful digitigrade legs, both with a great sickle-shaped claw held up against the hock. That flashed out in equally automatic reflex as the vicious predator struck out in one last attempt to disembowel whatever had hurt it. A steam-engine hiss escaped the long fanged mouth, scarlet-purple within, and a spray of blood came with it from the lungs shredded by the powerful expanding bullet.

"Raptor pack!" Marc shouted to the herdsman.

The yell—or possibly the sight of that leap into the air not twenty yards from him—brought the mounted man to full alertness. His javelin cocked back as the first of the feathered killers burst from cover and launched themselves at him with huge bounding strides; raptors were smart like parrots, and knew they'd have the run of the herd without its guardian. They'd probably associated the death of their pack-mate with the man, too. The steel head punched into the breast of one. The crosshairs of the scope brought the other vividly close, the long feathers working and their hair-like filaments fluttering with the speed of its passage. A raptor could outrun a churr; they'd been clocked at fifty miles an hour for short sprints.

CRACK!

The heavy hollow-point bullet punched the predator just before it began the killing leap towards the herdsman. The tharg herd were reacting with bawling panic, but also by forming a circle around the calves and yearlings, tossing their long moon-shaped horns. And Tahyo...

... gave a roar behind him.

Marc wheeled with fear-driven speed. Another raptor had crept up through the long grass, eeling on its belly until it was within leaping distance. Tahyo's jaws were closed on its hock just above the six-inch dewclaw; the other poised to kill as the raptor screamed frustration.

CRACK!

A quick check showed the other half-dozen raptors heading south at full speed, leaping fences with no more effort than a man clearing a croquette hoop; they'd been out for food, not a fight, and had had enough. The herdsman waved at him.

Tahyo lay with his jaws still locked on the dead raptor's leg; there wasn't much left of its head, after the 9mm big-game round hit. Marc gave the hairy form of the greatwolf a quick check-over. There was no obvious damage.

"Heel, boy! Sit!"

Slowly, licking his chops and glancing back at the carcass, Tahyo obeyed. Marc scavenged up his spent brass and drew his knife to open the body.

Then he stood back. "Go to it, Tahyo! You earned it."

The run back to town took more time; the young greatwolf had eaten until his stomach bulged like a beachball, and obviously thought it profoundly silly not to curl up near the kill and keep napping and eating until even the bones were gone. He obeyed, though, and sat politely when a slightly nervous Maria Feldman came by down the street, leading her toddler.

"Hello, Marc. How's it going?" she said, as they cautiously introduced two-year-old to greatwolf.

Tahyo showed intense interest; Marc could see the it's a puppy! reflex kick in after the initial is-this-interesting-or-edible curiosity, and the play-gesture followed. The toddler stuck a dubious hand in its mouth, and then reached out to pat the terrible head.

"Oh, just routine, today," Marc said. "Got to go—big dinner tonight!"

"With that nice Ms. Whitlock?" she asked with as smile.

Marc's own mouth quirked. "Among others."

 

@@@

 

Venus, Gagarin Continent—far West

 

Teesa sat under the thatched overhang at the front of the Chief's House, sitting cross-legged on a rug of skins and examining the death-thing that had killed her Jondlar, nostrils twitching at the faint remaining scent, acrid and fiery. It carried like a minor key through the stronger smells of the village, woodsmoke and cooking, sweat and dung and drying hides tacked to the log walls and the warm clean forest-smell from the mountains above.

The death-thing had a wooden part at the rear, made to fit against the shoulder, and another where a hand would support the front, but the most of it was the strange blue-silvery metal. It was heavy, like stone or bronze, but harder than either; cautious tests on the big knives of the same metal had shown that they could nick bronze, and the tube that spat death was harder still. Hard stone would grind the edges of the knives sharp, as with a bronze blade. It was more work, but warriors had nearly come to blows over the having of them.

None had wanted to touch the death-thing, which might well be laden with misfortune.

Her dead mate's brother Taldi thought it was cursed, of course. But then, Taldi thought having a whitefeather shit on his head meant a curse, or letting his fire go out.

This is cursed, that is cursed, he's not happy unless he has a good curse on him, Teesa thought. Though perhaps all of us are under a curse. And I do not like the way he hints that I should join his hearth, just because my mate was his brother. That is just a custom, not law. I like him well enough but I do not wish to mate with him—or anyone, not for a long while.

She sighed and let the death-thing rest across her lap as she looked up. The village was about its work. There were a dozen houses like hers scattered on either side down half a mile of pathway, differing only in that each held several families while in hers only she dwelt with her little sister Zore. Each had walls of oak logs chinked with mud and sticks on a base course of fieldstone carefully fitted; the roofs were high-pitched and neatly thatched with greenish-gold reeds cut into decorative patterns. In this mild, comfortable summer weather the reed curtains that covered windows were rolled up and the shutters open. Every house had a space in front where the roof was continued out past the walls, and where a hearth burned in a circle of stones. Each also had a post planted in the dirt, twice a tall man's height, carved to show which of the clans of the Cloud Mountain folk dwelt within.

In a wider open spot was a bigger, round building, roofed but open-sided save for the supporting pillars. That was the Gathering House, for ceremonies and meetings; a spring welled up in the middle of it, feeding a pond from which all could draw water, and a mossy stone-lined channel carried the overflow away. The whole was hidden in a circular depression of the hilly plateau; above to the south reared the mountains; every settlement of the Cloud Mountain people had to be hard to reach and hard to see these days.

Most of the men and some young women were out hunting. Children wandered about, playing or doing chores among the free-ranging knee-high flightless purple-and-green housebirds and small pigs with black and yellow stripes on their bristly hides—one of the chores being scraping up droppings in baskets to spread on the small gardens behind the houses. Here and there an adult knapped obsidian or flint, or shaped wood and leather and shamboo into things useful or beautiful. One old man, his yellow hair turned silver, bent with exquisite care over a small pot filled with the poison sacks of black swamp-spiders, boiling them down into a tarry sludge in which the points of blowgun darts would be dipped. The empty traps and the bodies of the noxious palm-sized insects were piled nearby.

Teesa bent her head back over the death-thing. Only after days of study had the various shapes and bits come clear to her eyes, so alien were they. She pulled back on the little lever on the right side, feeling a smooth heavy resistance as if she were pulling up a bucket on a rope. Inside was an empty space, and the other end of the tube. The thing went click as well, and the little finger-sized lever inside the metal loop ahead of the grip made for a hand came forward.

Zore leaned forward, nostrils flaring. There was an oily scent from the complex interior; it looked—

"I am tired of thinking that this looks like nothing else in the world," Teesa said.

Zore giggled. She was just fifteen sun-turnings, and squatted naked save for a string of beads around her neck and some body-paint, her shock of tousled white hair falling loose down her back.

"But it does look like nothing else," she said, and craned nearer. "It looks like the insides of an animal," she went on. "If only the insides of an animal were made of this strange metal."

Teesa opened her mouth to tell the young girl to be silent, then closed it again.

That is quite clever! she thought instead. I have been spending too much time angry since the raid; angry with fate, and the gods, and Taldi, and myself... and not enough using my wits. I should let Jondlar's spirit go, if I can. It is enough to avenge him.

She forced his image out of her heard—thinking about a ghost could summon it—and held the death-thing up to look down the tube from the rear. It held spiraling grooves cut into the hard metal.

"This must be like the dart for a blowgun," she said, fingering one of the little things the beastman chief had had in a hide pouch.

There were several hundred of them, small cylinders about the size of a finger and colored like copper. She brought one up to her nose and sniffed deeply; yes, there was a smell, something strangely like the lingering scent in the tube. A touch of the tongue confirmed that it was copper or bronze or something like, the sharp taste was unmistakable. Teesa held the little cylinder to her forehead and concentrated on her memories.

"When the beastman used this death-thing, many of these little tubes were cast out of the side of it—here, where you can pull back on this lever and look down the tube. But—" sweat broke out on her forehead as forced the details back "—they were shorter. Part of them was missing!"

Zore turned one of the little tubes in her fingers. "The pointed part at this end, or the round-and-flat part?"

"The pointed part was gone! That must be the dart-that-kills! And a magic breath to push it!"

She leaned over and gave her sister a hug for an instant. Then she returned to the death-thing. "So the dart must go in here, with the pointed end first."

Fumbling, she slid the cylinder into the opening and let the moving part run forward; it pinched her finger a little and she sucked at the minor hurt as she thought.

"Then he held the wooden part against his shoulder, so, and—ah!"

Peering down the tube, there was a notch and a blade that came into alignment. "How clever! It is by this that you see where the dart will strike!"

The way the rear sight could be adjusted up and down puzzled her for a few minutes, but the Cloud Mountain people were familiar with the concept of 'aiming up' when trying for a long-distance shot with a blowpipe, and with throwing javelins on a high trajectory. At last she clicked the sight down flat for point-blank range and looked around.

A pig was walking down the beaten earth of the street not far away, with only empty savannah and scattered trees beyond it. Teesa brought the blade into the notch and moved them until they rested just behind the pig's shoulder, then put her hand to the grip and pulled the little curved lever before it.

Crack!

Teesa toppled backward as the death-thing punched her shoulder with a sharp pain like a fist striking; the acrid smell was back, overpoweringly strong. Lying on her mat, she saw and heard as the pig sounded a single short note of agony and dropped, blood pouring from a hole in its side. Others ran squealing and squawking, children screamed, adults sprang up with weapons in their hands. Zore leapt up and yodeled delight, turning cartwheels as the crowd gathered and babbled questions.

Slowly, for the first time in weeks, Teesa began to smile.

 

@@@

 

Venus, Gagarin continent, Jamestown

 

"Save early, save often," Marc muttered to himself; the rich brown chicken-stock-frying onions smell from the kitchen was getting to him.

And while Ametri is a pretty good cook, she ain't Cajun, her. Can't trust her to make a good roux. Got to do that myself.

He tapped the button at the side of the keyboard. The computer whirred softly to itself; just for safety's sake, the same procedure saved a copy of his report on the wild tharg migrations to the base mainframe and its ROM disks. Venus could get some humongous thunderstorms and electronic storage had to be redundant. Then...

"Oh, hell, it can't hurt," he muttered to himself. "It's just the public records. Or the semi-public."

Wing-Commander Christopher Blair, he typed. Selection history.

The usual stuff; high marks at Eaton, Sandhurst, Olympic-level fencer, marksman... something sprang out at him.

On the Beta list until departure minus twelve, when Commander Jason Brady killed in auto crash on M1 north of Milton Keynes.

"No," Marc said, slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand. "You are not going down that route, P'tit Boug," he said to himself. "You know why you don't like him. People die in traffic accidents. Down that route lies madness and bad bad things. This place, it's too small for any of us to go crazy."

He flicked off the computer, rose and stretched, looking around and smiling wryly. Jamestown wasn't all that short of housing; adobe brick was—

Cheap as dirt, he told himself.

And they could hire local builders for not much more. Anything that came from Earth was expensive and in short supply, of course, which made for some odd contrasts; the computer was connected to all the others in town with the latest in fiber-optic cable, but the water system was based on shamboo pipes and elm logs bored hollow and pegged together.

The rugs on the tile floor of the big living-room-office would have fetched plenty on Earth, and the furniture was hand-crafted of tiger-striped woods; lustrous furs covered the benches built into the walls. The windows were of thin-scraped 'saur intestine, and translucent rather than clear; the available glass was better, but not much—the first Kartahownian shops were just getting the knack, and it was wavy and full of bubbles. The heating system was an arched kiva-style fireplace in one corner, where a low fire of split oak soaked warmth into the massive walls and radiated out again, keeping the raw chill of the winter day outside at bay. A special research effort back on Earth had been necessary to produce the everlasting fluorescent lights above. It was cheaper to make light-bulbs that cost thousands of dollars each to send to Venus, rather than send replacements for forty-five cent ones that burned out. Even so, residents were 'encouraged' to use alcohol-fueled lanterns as much as possible.

The kitchen-dining area was behind a doorway closed with strings of wooden beads. It had the same mixture of luxury and primitivism; broad counters and an island of polished honey-colored wood whose grain swirled with scarlet streaks, but the stove was built of brick, its main luxury cast-bronze disks set in the top. He'd hired some kitchen help for today, a middle-aged woman named Ametri and her daughter. They were chopping vegetables as he came in, and looked mildly scandalized as he moved over to the oven—in Kartahown cooking was woman's work; there weren't even male chefs. Both of them wore simple ankle-length gowns of what amounted to linen; Ametri had her hair up under a kerchief as befitted a widow, but and her teenaged daughter wore her long black locks tied back with a headband and woven with scarlet ribbons.

The stock for the gumbo was nearly ready—simmering away in an eight-quart clay pot, with ten pounds of browned chicken parts, necks and bones, the onions and garlic, parsley and celery, all scenting the air even more delightfully than the loaves of fresh bread beside the earth oven. The simmering had been going on for four hours; now he dropped in the sachet d'epices, and put the shrimp shells and heads on a small cutting board, ready to dump in.

"You should hire my daughter Talti as housekeeper," Ametri said, as she sliced tomatoes. "Then you would not have to cook—she learns quickly your way of cooking, and already she is good at our way. She is a hard worker and clever to learn your customs, always clean and neat, and so pretty! It's not right for an uork like you to live by yourself without a woman."

Uork was Kartahownian for nobleman. Trying to convince Ametri that he wasn't one was as futile as trying to tell her General Clarke wasn't a king. Marc groaned inwardly; Talti was about seventeen in Earth-years, and built like something from the latest Beach Blanket movie, which was uncomfortably obvious under the thin almost-linen of her gown, and she was giving him a big white smile as her mother tried to...

... well, not exactly pimp her. Being a housekeeper for someone well-off is a recognized sort of relationship in Kartahown, a way for a poor girl to earn a dowry.

A couple of guys did have 'housekeepers' like that, but it was officially frowned upon, a policy he agreed with... or at least the part of him above the neck did so. Dr. Feldman was eagerly awaiting conclusive evidence on whether the Terran and Venusian varieties of human were interfertile; if so it would screw up the biology even worse. It hadn't taken nearly as long for someone to prove that Part A fit Part B.

A sound came from the front yard; not quite a bark—Greatwolves didn't—but at least a long ooroorrrff by Tahyo followed by happy thumping noises as his tail beat against the wooden gate, and then more as someone thumped his ribs. Marc smiled; that more or less settled who it was. The pup's run was in the front yard, so he wouldn't destroy the pot-herbs and truck out back, and while he'd learned not to growl at people who came through the gate, there were only a few he fussed over.

Then the bell over the door tinkled and the someone came in. "Damn that dog and his slobbering jaws of love!" Cynthia said. "I brought this dress from Earth!"

"Hi, podna," he said mildly.

"Podna my ass!"

He heard her go into the bathroom and the water run. Ametri and Talti scowled as she came back to the kitchen, and ostentatiously turned back to their work.

"Lord Jesus, but that smells good," Cynthia said, sounding a bit mollified.

She was dressed in a simple sleeveless brown dress and a pair of gold hoop earrings that did wonders against the long slender ebony neck. This was a semiformal occasion after all, although she looked nearly as good in field overalls...

Down boy! he told himself, and returned her smile.

"What's for dinner?" she went on, taking a piece of celery and nibbling on it.

"Shrimp-chicken-and-andouille gumbo, dirty rice... well, sort of rice... fresh wheat bread, and wop salad. Comar tarts for desert."

"Wheat bread? My, my," she said, raising one slim brow.

The first experimental plots were just now yielding something beyond enough seed-grain, finally acclimatized to the shorter year here. She went on:

"And it would take someone from New Orleans to make a salad into an ethnic slur."

He flashed her a grin as he combined the lettuces, not-quite-olives and tomatoes and dressing in a large bowl, then tossed and divided the result on eight plates.

"I'm not from the Big Sleazy, I'm a bayou boy, me," he said. "And at least I haven't started calling you ma negresse, eh?"

"And you'd better not!" she said, sounding as if she were only half-joking.

He gave a mock-whimper as he laid two anchovies and one boiled shrimp across each salad, then added a spear of boiled shamboo-sprout.

"Plus the General is coming," he said mischeviously.

The celery stopped halfway to Cynthia's full lips. "Are you bullshitting me?"

"I said a few section heads were coming," Marc put in reasonably. "One of them turned out to be the Commandant. Want to help get ready?"

"As long as it doesn't involve ruining my only Earth-made dress," Cynthia said. "You didn't tell me the General was coming. Shee-it!"

"Mais, would you mind putting out these and the salsa and chips and drinks? The next part here in the kitchen requires the skills of a Joint Chief and a choreographer."

Marc whistled silently to himself as she worked. He could imagine them doing this for themselves, a family dinner... The whistle became audible as he beat the roux with a whisk and waited while it turned to the proper chocolate-brown color for Cajun Napalm. The nickname wasn't given idly and you had to be careful not to get any on your bare skin. He added it to the stock; this part did require focus.

Forty minutes later he stepped back, dusted his hands together with satisfaction and began to pull off the apron. The doorbell tingled again. His smile turned a little gelid when Chris Blair's face showed beyond the door, and they did the squeeze-the-hand thing. Doc Feldman and his wife Maria followed, then the General and his spouse, an elegant woman in her late thirties who ran Jamestown's information systems. General Clarke was in his early forties, lean and square-jawed and energetic. Marc liked and admired him, without the element of awe that a lot of the older hands felt; most of them swore the man would have been President someday if he hadn't volunteered to lead the First Fleet's landing team.

Possibly. But I don't think he made much of a sacrifice to take this position. There's not much call for generals back home, except for the Army Corps of Engineers.

After all, the United States hadn't fought a real war since Korea, and none looked likely anytime soon; nuclear war was mutual suicide, and neither the Americans and their Commonwealth allies nor the Russian-Chinese alliance wanted to risk it by clashing directly. For that matter, apart from some ongoing squabbles in Africa, nobody on Earth had fought a serious conflict since... when had that last one in the Middle East been?

Nineteen sixty-seven, he remembered. Twenty years ago and change.

The EastBloc and the US had stepped in after that and imposed a settlement, and the place had gone back to being a sleepy backwater, only marginally more important than Africa itself. With two entire habitable—and inhabited—planets at stake, everyone who mattered was too focused on space anyway.

Even the French and their pissant little European Union.

According to the news, they were busting their asses at that base in Guiana and their little space station, but it would be years before they could do anything interplanetary, and by then they'd be a distant third fiddle.

So the General probably made a pretty good career choice, if he didn't want to sit in the Pentagon and shuffle paper clips or in Jerusalem with the International Force.

Still, he was intelligent and hard-working and a good commander, if a little fond of thinking of himself in the history books. Right now he was playing Man of the People, with a Hawaiian shirt under his coat. His enthusiasm for the gumbo as they moved to the table was probably genuine, though. Jamestown's food tended to the three B's; Big and Bland or BBQ. You could get decent ribs, but the main alternatives to military-flavored American were Aussie vegemite and Brit meat pies and soggy sprouts. And he was a fascinating conversationalist, particularly when he got on to the first couple of years here at Jamestown and the desperate struggles involved, which he made seem heroic and funny at the same time.

When the fruit tarts were there and the zulk-tea poured, Clarke's manner changed. "You heard about the EastBloc shuttle that went down two months ago. Venusian months, that is—forty days."

Everyone around the table nodded. Strictly speaking it had been the upper stage, not the whole shuttle, but without the rocket-plane that rode it piggyback the first stage was simply a big supersonic jet without much purpose in life. The loss hadn't been quite the disaster it would have been for Jamestown; the Sino-Russian base was bigger and had four surface-to-orbit craft to Jamestown's pair. It was still a massive setback; a new one would have to be shipped from Earth by solar-sail freighter, assembled in orbit, piloted down... and the loss of the highly trained crew had been almost as bad. Even just in money costs, sending three more people to Venus would cost nearly as much as the rocket-plane.

Clarke went on: "Well, my counterpart at Cosmograd, General Wang Enlai—amazing how the Chinese tail is wagging the Russian dog these days, isn't it?—has given me some news."

Dr. Feldman snorted. "That's a first. Usually they treat the sun setting in the east as a state secret."

Clarke gave him a quelling glance. "They've heard from their crew. They're still alive, out there in the far west. The radio beacon was triggered last week."

"They want us to help, and they're offering something in return?" Marc said.

Everyone looked at him, and then Clarke smiled grimly. "Bingo. In fact, they're offering to share their biological and geological research files."

"I'm surprised," Marc said. "We had that potain with them just before I left, when they tried to say we should 'discuss' our operations on Venus with them before we did anything, because they got here first."

"By six months," Clarke snorted. "And President Dole told them to go pound sand. Which is why I'm not surprised they're being reasonable. To them, reasonable is what you do if you can't get away with barking out orders. Push back and they respect you; act soft, and they push harder."

Sam Feldman looked as if he was going to drool into his empty plate. "They've been operating in the interior highland, which means they're observing different strata and a different local ecology. Getting their data would more than double our knowledge base overnight," he said. "That's a prize worth having."

"How exactly do they want us to help them, sir?" Chris Blair said.

Brown-noser, Marc thought. Although the Englishman might just be formal by reflex.

"Nothing they have has the range; the crash site's way out at the western end of Gagarin, six thousand miles from here," he said. "That's a bit far to walk."

Everyone nodded or murmured agreement. The equivalent of New York to San Francisco and back, across trackless wilderness swarming with savages human and quasi-human, not to mention a bellowing profusion of wildlife like nothing Earth had seen in geological ages. Clarke continued:

"They want us to send one of our blimps for their people; none of theirs have the range, they're all turbine-powered. I'm inclined to agree. I need two lighter-than-air qualified pilots and an information and power systems specialist. Volunteers, of course."

Marc and Blair looked at each other; for once they shared a thought, and a quick slight nod. Cynthia was grinning openly.

"Sir," Marc said, sincerely. "I got into the volunteering habit thirty million miles away and it's too late to change."

"That's good," Clarke said. "I hope you get along with the EastBloc member, too." He laughed at the fallen faces around the table. "Be glad I hung tough. They wanted to put a whole crew of theirs on our airship!"

"Oh, great, some stone-faced Slavic goon with degrees in engineering and toenail-pulling," Cynthia said.

Clarke shook his head. "I think you might be surprised. For one thing, she's qualified as lighter-than-air crew—they've got a blimp of their own, even if it isn't as long-ranged as ours."

"For one thing?" Marc said curiously.

"Ah, caught that, did you? Well, her last name is Binkis—same as the pilot of the Riga. Guess they picked someone with real strong motivation to help the mission."

 

@@@

 

The Vepaja was six hundred feet long where she swung against the west wind at the mooring mast over the gathered crowd. The airship was a smooth orca shape two hundred feet through at its thickest point a third of the way back from the blunt prow, with an X of control fins at the rear and the gondola built into the lower hull. The frame was a geodesic mesh of shamboo sheathed in varnished parachute cloth—and you needed tough cloth to brake a cargo pod coming down from orbit. The upper half was covered in a shiny black material, amorphous-silicon solar collectors originally developed for the space program and adapted to power the four ducted-fan electric engines slung on either side of the hull's centerline; fuel cells inside ran on hydrogen and provided backup for night work or cloudy weather. In the bright morning sunlight the airship looked light and festive for all its bulk, the colors and lines of it bright and sharp.

"Home sweet Grand Beede'," Marc murmured, looking up.

"As in?" Cynthia said from his other side on the bench.

"Big clumsy guy," he replied. "Or in English, a blimp."

"Rigid airship, old boy, not a blimp," Blair said from her other side. "And could we be spared the backwoods pidgin French just for once?"

"Weh," Marc said amiably, being rewarded with a slight grinding of perfect white teeth and a chuckle from Cynthia.

 Jadviga Binkis just looked at him, blinked once, and then looked away, but the EastBloc observer hadn't said much except in the line of business and not much then. She was a round-faced blond woman of about thirty, looking stocky and competent in her green overall, and she'd checked out well at everything she was supposed to know. Everyone assumed she was secret police, but Marc had his doubts.

Of course, they have to have multiple specialties too, I suppose. They're not quite as shorthanded as we are, but it's close.

Captain Tyler silenced his crew with a glare and got ready to clap. The General was finishing his speech at the podium in front of the shamboo bleachers, usually used for the audience at pickup softball games and now holding most of the adults in Jamestown not busy with something that couldn't be put aside. He did it rather well—invocation of international friendship away from Earth's rivalries, praise of the volunteers, reminding God that help would be welcome right now, and a spare ironic joke that got a ripple of laughter from the bleachers. Then the crew filed down in front and he went down the line of them, with a firm meet-the-eyes handshake and a bit of talk for everyone who'd be going.

"I envy you, lieutenant," he said to Marc. "This will be one for the history books—the first round trip to the western tip of the continent. Lewis and Clark all over again. No relation," he added with a grin. "Mostly my ancestors were tailors in Lithuania back then."

"I'd envy me myself if I wasn't going, sir," Marc said in reply, and felt his answering grin get broader.

It wasn't the first time he'd flown out in the Vepaja, of course. That was one of his rated skills; he'd helped take her out to the islands, or south to the mountains and east and west on field trips—but never more than a few days overall. He'd enjoyed it thoroughly, and seen a fair number of things no Earthman had before. You couldn't explore a planet the size of Earth in a hurry; the policy was to build capacity and do things methodically. Which was sensible... but the General was right, this was one for the history books.

He went on aloud, keeping the impulse to burble with enthusiasm under firm control: "But we'll be flying, not walking, sir, and it shouldn't take more than a month."

He was glad when the brief ceremony was over, and there was only Sam Feldman left to say goodbye. "Yes, I'll remember to keep an eye out for specimens," he said. "Keep up the good work, boss. You've got the honor of Brooklyn to think about, you."

"And you be careful, you bayou rat," the older man said gruffly, slapping him on the shoulder and then surprising him by a swift hard hug.

"Hey, that's my job!" his wife said.

Captain Tyler had a fond father's pride in his eyes as he looked at his command and a look of resignation as he glanced back at his scratch crew: Cynthia Whitlock, Christopher Blair, and Marc Vitrac. He was older than the other men by about five years, with a leathery-tanned face and sun-faded sandy hair cropped short, an old Venus hand who'd landed with the General and lived in a grass hut while they struggled to get things going.

Two rated lighter-than-air pilots, one of them a ranger, and a qualified power systems specialist, Marc thought, reading his mind. Enough for a long trip—just. Oh, well, it's not as if we can afford a standing crew anyway. And the EastBlocker, for what she's worth.

"Let's go," Tyler said, in a neutral Californian accent—his family were from San Diego, something involved with shipping, though he was an Annapolis ring-knocker himself.

There were enough of them to stand watches on a long voyage, and less of a loss to Jamestown than the regular full-time crew if the Vepaja was lost on its long, long voyage. Her sister-ship the Duare was in the hanger for maintenance at the moment, and there were enough spare parts and local supplies to build another at a pinch. They absolutely needed at least one professional airshipman, so Captain Tyler had to go along; apart from him all of them were about as expendable as people who were worth shipping out from Earth could be, which was a testimony to the General's judgment, in a rather disagreeable way.

"Heel, boy!" Marc said, as the four of them started up the curling spiral staircase within the mooring tower.

Tahyo came over, tail wagging slightly, wedge-shaped black head up and yellow eyes gleaming with interest. Captain Tyler gave him a glanced, then shrugged; the issue had been settled some time ago. Blair's lips tightened. He just didn't like the young greatwolf, but he was too smart to make much of it. Cynthia gave the beast a thump on the ribs and was rewarded with a head-butt under her hand.

The staircase went up and up, until the little adobe town was laid out like a diorama below, with the ragged circle-shaped crowd of humans below reduced to waving dolls. A hundred feet up the docking ring at the Vepaja's nose slotted into the moveable collar of the tower, and below it a strip of the forward hull lowered to make a catwalk leading into the gondola. They walked along that in a creak of bending shamboo and into the gloom of the interior keel deck, then up a short ladder to the rear of the control bridge. That was brightly lit by the inward-sloping windows that surrounded the U-shaped chamber on three sides; there were railings all along the edge except where the three workstations and the helm stood, so you could look down. Behind them were the living quarters and galley; the level below held the batteries, storage and ballast, and there were hatches up into the main body of the craft and the gas cells made of 'saur intestine, as well as another ladder to an observation bubble on the top of the hull.

It all had a faint odor of ozone now, and fresh paint from the touch-up, and the pleasant almost-cedar smell of well-seasoned shamboo. By now after a week of intensive refresher-training they all knew where to go; even Tahyo headed straight for his padded basket and curled up. Jim Tyler cracked his fingers and smiled as he sat down at the consol at the apex of the control deck, glanced either way and began to press switches Marc sat and strapped himself in to the copilot's position to the right of the helm, with Blair at the navigator's consol on the other side, and Cynthia behind him holding down the flight engineer's position. In theory one man could hand the Vepaja; the controls were all fly-by-wire through the ship's computer. In practice, for such a long journey...

Mais, me, I'm even glad we've got Jadviga along. It's going to be a risky trip.

Cynthia's voice was firm: "Power systems on. Solar collector input at 99.7% of optimum for ambient light. Batteries at full charge. Fuel cells active on trickle and all nominal. Hydrate reserve fully charged."

"Navigation and communication systems are green to go," Blair said crisply. "Wind seven knots, north-north-east. Visibility unlimited—"

"I confirm all systems ready," Marc said, after the Englishman had finished listing the barometric pressure and the rest of the data, his eyes flicking over the boxes and alphanumeric readouts on his own screen. "Captain, the ship is cleared to go."

"Prepare to cast off," Tyler said. "Prepare to valve ballast." He touched a button, and his voice boomed out through the speakers below: "Clear the launch tower! Clear the area unless you want a shower, people!"

Marc glanced aside; the crowd below was dispersing nicely. Tyler's right thumb moved a wheel set into the joystick, and there was a whine from behind them as the four engines pivoted, then a rising hum as the propellers built speed. The Cajun kept his hands firmly clamped to the armrests of his seat; they itched to be on the controls themselves. The captain's left hand tapped deftly at the panel.

"Casting off!"

A thunk-clunk! as the docking collar released.

"Valving ballast! Netural buoyancy at three thousand feet."

A deep rumbling sound as water spewed out of the valves set into the ship's keel. There was a sudden rising-elevator feeling, and the ground grew further away, people shifting from

"Left full rudder, up all, all ahead one-quarter," Tyler went on, using the trigger-throttle set into the joystick and twisting it to control the rudder-elevators.

The Vepaja's nose turned upward, pressing them back as they rose; the engines gradually tilted back to the horizontal as they leveled off, and then Tyler brought the craft onto its course. With the wind behind them on their right they had to head a little north of west to keep from making leeway; the coast headed that way in any event. Marc watched the captain set the course into the autopilot—that was something he needed a little more work on—and lean back. He turned and grinned at each of them in turn.

"Prepare for boredom," he said.

"I thought this was supposed to be an adventure?" Cynthia asked, raising a brow.

"Adventure is what happens when someone fucks up, pardon my French," the airshipman said. "Like someone in Maintenance was doing, given all the things that went wrong before we got this tub ready. Boredom is what happens when everything goes right."

He pointed down below. The rectangle of Jamestown with its fields and pastures and the three-quarter-circle bay it sat on were falling behind them... slowly. The white sand of the beaches stretched in either direction, green water curling in silver foam, shading out to deep blue on their left. Ahead the coast stretched out, green-and-tawny grass, tendril-like lines of forest along watercourses that glinted silver when the sun struck them, and other copses standing tall on the north-facing slopes of hills. The road heading west dwindled away into a game-trail; the tharg and churr of the nomads were ant-tiny, hard to distinguish from the wild game that swarmed over the rich savannah, but now and then he could see the circle of a thornbrush enclosure and tents within. Off to the southwards the white peaks of the Coast Range showed at blue edge of sight; the Mother Ocean; between here and there was a chaos of forested hills.

"We're making..." Tyler glanced at the instrument board. "... thirty-two mph ground speed. We can't go much faster than that without boost from the fuel cells—which would mean running down our hydrogen, which would mean stopping in one place and cracking more, right?"

Marc and the others nodded. He was a little annoyed; Tyler was coming it the heavy Old Venus Hand, repeating commonplaces. Solar collectors just weren't very energetic, even a rectangle five hundred feet by a hundred, even this much closer to the sun, and even the highly efficient variety made in orbital fabricators.

"So we can't go faster than about thirty miles an hour—we're getting two from the tailwind. So, we're going six thousand miles—call it seven with the way we'll have to jig out around those mountains two thousand miles west of here—at thirty miles an hour. Call it fifteen, because we can't travel at night on the collectors... so that's four hundred hours of flying, and four hundred hours of mooring at night, plus additional unscheduled downtime, and so, my children, prepare to be real bored."

 

@@@

Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

Copyright © 2005-2007 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com