«Late I Dreamt of Venus by James Van Pelt L ike a shiny pie plate, Venus hung high in the observation alcove’s window, a full globe afire with ...»
Of Late I Dreamt of Venus
by James Van Pelt
ike a shiny pie plate, Venus hung high in the observation alcove’s
window, a full globe afire with sunlight. Elizabeth Audrey
contemplated its placid surface. Many would say it was
gorgeous. Alexander Pope called the bright light “the torch of Venus,”
and some ancient astronomer, besotted with the winkless glimmer
named the planet after the goddess of love and beauty. At this distance,
clouded bands swirled across the shimmering lamp, illuminating the dark room. She held her hands behind her back, feet apart, watching the flowing weather patterns. Henry Harrison, her young assistant, sat at a console to the window’s side.
“Soon,” he said.
“Shhh.” She sniffed. The air smelled of cold machinery and air scrubbers, a tainted chemical breath with no organic trace about it.
Beyond Venus’ wet light, a mantle of stars shown with measured steadiness. One slipped behind the planet’s fully lit edge. Elizabeth could measure their orbit’s progress by the swallowing and spitting out of stars.
Elizabeth said, “Did you talk to the surgeon about your scar?” Henry touched the side of his face, tracing a line from the corner of his eye to his ear.
“No. It didn’t seem important.” “You don’t need to live with it. A little surgery. You heal in deep sleep. Two hundred years from now when we wake, you’ll be...
improved.” She lifted her foot from the floor with a magnetic click and then snapped down hard a few inches away. “I hate free fall. How long?” “Final countdown. We’ll be back in the carousel soon and you can have your weight again.” 1 James Van Pelt The scene from the window cast a mellow light. Silent. Grand. A poet would write about it if one were here.
“Ahh,” said Elizabeth. A red pustule rose in the planet’s swirling atmosphere. She leaned forward, put her palms against the window.
Orange light boiled in the clouds, spreading away from the bloody center, disrupting the bands. “It’s begun.” Henry read data on his screens. Input numbers. Checked other monitors. Tapped keys quickly. “A clean hit, on target.” He didn’t look at the actual show beyond, but watched his sensitive devices instead.
“Beta should strike... now.” A second convulsion colored the disk, this one a brilliant white at its center which settled into a deep red, overlapping the first burst’s color. A third flash, duller, erupted on the globe.
“Was that... ?” “Perfect as your money could buy.” In the next ten minutes, four more hits. Elizabeth stood at the window while red and orange storms pulsed in Venus’ disk. Henry joined her, mirroring her stance. He pursed his lips. “You can see the dust. If this had been Earth, the dinosaurs would have died seven times.” The planet’s silver sheen faded somewhat, and lightning flashes flickered in the roiling confusion.
“No dinosaurs ever walked there, Henry.” He sighed. “Venus has its own charms, or it did.” Elizabeth looked at him. The reflected light from the window caught in his dark eyes. They were the best part of him, the way they looked at her when he didn’t think she noticed. Sometimes she wished she could just fall in love with his eyes, but then she saw the scar, and he really was too short and so young, ten years shy of her forty, practically a child, although a brilliant and efficient one. She’d ask the surgeon on her own. Henry would hardly object to a few cosmetic changes while he slept. What else was there to do during the down time anyway except to
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improve? She had been considering thinning her waist a bit, toning her back muscles.
Henry clopped back to his station, then studied figures on a screen she couldn’t see. “There are seismic irregularities, as predicted, making the final calculations more difficult, but the planet is spinning slightly faster now, just a bit. We’ve also pushed it out of its orbit a bit. The next series will bump it back. You’re one step closer to your new Earth.” She turned from him, irritated. “If Venus only becomes another Earth, I failed. We can make it better. A planet to be truly proud of.
How are things on Earth, anyway?” His fingers flicked over the controls. “In the twenty-seven years we slept, your corporation in the asteroid belt has tripled in size, improving the ability to redirect asteroids above projections. We’re two years ahead of schedule there. The Kuiper Belt initiative is also ahead of schedule.” He reread a section. “We’re having trouble with the comet deflection plan. Lots of support for redirecting the Earth-crossing asteroids, but opposition to the comets. Some groups contest our aiming them all at Venus. There’s a lobby defending Halley’s Comet for its ‘historical and traditional values,’ as well as several groups who argue that ‘comets possess a lasting mythic and aesthetic relation with the people of Earth.’ The political wing of the advertising and public relations departments is working the problem, but it has requested a bigger budget.” Elizabeth snorted derisively. “Give them Halley’s comet. It doesn’t have as much water as it used to anyway.” “Noted.” Henry sent the order. “Your investments and companies are sound.” “How is the United Nation’s terraforming project on Mars going?” “Badly. They’ve lost momentum.” “Too big of a project to run by democracies and committees. Too long.” She sighed. “If nothing needs my attention, then I suppose it’s time for bed.”
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Henry shut his monitors off, powered down the equipment. A metal curtain slid across the view window, separating them from Venus’ tortured atmosphere. “Two hundred years hardly seems like going to bed. Everyone I know will be dead when we awake.” Elizabeth shrugged. “They’re all twenty-seven years older than when you talked with them last. As far as they’re concerned, you’re the dead one.” A door opened in the center of the floor. Elizabeth looked down the ladder that connected the alcove with the rest of the habitat. The ladder rotated beneath her. She timed her step to land on the top rung, then moved down so she held the ladder, leaving her head and shoulders at floor level. The room turned slowly around her. “No second thoughts, Henry. You knew the cost going in.” He nodded at her. She saw in his eyes the yearning. The dream of a terraformed Venus hadn’t brought him onto the project, made him say goodbye to everyone he’d ever known, committed him to a project on a time scale never attempted.
No, he came for her.
The rotation turned her so she didn’t have to see his gaze. She continued down the ladder. Mostly she thought about the project and the long line of asteroids on their way to add their inertia to Venus’ spin, but below those thoughts ran a thread about Henry. She thought, as long as he remains a reliable assistant, what does it matter why he signed up? Henry Harrison isn’t the first man who worked for me because he wanted me.
Two hundred years of suspended life, trembling on death’s edge, metabolism so slow that only the most sensitive instruments detected it.
Busy nanomechs coursing through the veins, correcting flaws, patching break downs, keeping the protein machine whole and ready to function.
Automatic devices moving the still limbs through a range of motion
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every day, maintaining joint flexibility, stretching muscles, reminding the body that it was alive because really, really, Elizabeth Audrey, the richest human being who ever lived, whose wealth purchased and sold nations, whose power now stretched over generations, was mostly dead. A whisper could end it.
Maybe in her dreams she heard that deadly voice caressing her, and she would hear it for sure if she were a weaker woman, but if she did hear, she ignored it. Instead she dreamed of Venus transformed. A vision big enough for her ambition. A Venus fit for her feet. A planet done right, not like old Earth, sputtering in its wastes. A Venus fit for a queen.
Elizabeth walked spinward in the carousel, the silky robe she donned after the doctors revived her flapped against her bare legs. Two hundred years didn’t feel bad, and the slimming in her waist gave her a limberness she didn’t remember from before. The air smelled fresher too, less metal-washed. It should, she thought. Much of her money was devoted to research and development.
Henry joined her in the dining room for breakfast.
“What’s the progress?” she asked. Bacon and egg scents seeped from the kitchen.
He smiled. “How did you sleep? How are you feeling? Good to see you? It’s only been two centuries.” Elizabeth waved the questions away. “Are we on schedule?” Henry shrugged. “As we projected, the plans evolved. There have been breakthroughs that make the job easier. We’ve shaded the planet with a combination of solar shields, aluminum dust rail-gunned from the moon, and both manned and unmanned reflective aerostat structures in the upper atmosphere, cooling it considerably, although we have a long way to go. An unforeseen benefit has been dry ice harvesting, which we’ve been selling to the U.N.’s Mars project. Venus’ frozen greenhouse gasses are heating Mars. Of course, the bombardment of asteroids and
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comets has been continuous.” A young man, carrying a tray of covered plates, walked toward them from the kitchen. He wore his dark hair short, and his loose, pale shirt was buttoned all the way to his neck. He nodded at Henry as he put the tray in front of them, but he seemed to avoid looking at Elizabeth.
Without waiting for thanks, he backed away.
“Who was that?” Elizabeth uncovered a steaming omelet.
“Shawcroft. He’s a bio-ecopoiesis engineer. Good man. He helped design an algae that grows on the underside of the aerostats for oxygen production. The surface is still too warm for biologicals.” Elizabeth tasted the omelet. The food made her stomach uneasy, and didn’t look as appetizing as she hoped. “What’s he doing serving me breakfast then?” Henry laughed. “To see you, of course. You’re the Elizabeth Audrey, asleep for two hundred years, but still pulling the strings. His career exists because of your investments. He won a lottery among the crew to bring out the tray.” “What about you? He acted like he knew you.” Uncovering his plate, Henry revealed a pancake under a layer of strawberries. “I’ve been awake for four years. He and I play handball almost every day.” Elizabeth chewed a small bite thoughtfully. Henry’s face did look older.
“What did you think of my gift?” Henry touched the side of his face between his eye and ear.
Without smiling he said, “For a couple of years I was mad as hell. I’m sorry you reminded me.” His fork separated a strawberry and chunk of pancake from the rest.
Elizabeth tried to meet his eyes. He couldn’t be seriously angry.
Without the scar, he looked much better.
He put the fork down, the bite uneaten. “Are you ready for a visit
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to Laputa? You can check the facilities, and they would be honored if you came down.” “Laputa?” She relaxed in the remembering, not realizing until then that she’d been tense. After two hundred years, so much could have changed. When she let the doctor hook her to the complicated devices, she had thought about unstable governments, about unplanned celestial events, about changes in corporate policy. Who could guarantee that she’d wake up in the world she’d designed? This was the great leap of faith she’d made when she started the project. The plan for her to see it to the end would be to outlive everyone around her, and the way to do that was to be the test subject for the long sleep. Henry, for obvious reasons, accompanied her. “You really named the workstation that?” “A city now. Much more than a station. The name was in your notes. I don’t think Jonathan Swift imagined it this way, though.” He pushed his plate away. “It’s quite a bit bigger than the initial designs.
The more functions we built in, the more cubic feet of air we needed to keep from sinking into the hotter regions of the atmosphere. It’s the largest completely man-made structure in the solar system. Tourist traffic alone makes it profitable.” The trip from the carousel to Laputa took a little more than an hour under constant acceleration or deceleration except for a stomach lurching moment midway when the craft turned. Out the porthole beside her seat, she could see Venus’ changed face. Where the sun hit, it was much darker, but the sun itself was darker too, fuzzy and red, partly blocked by the dust umbrella protecting the planet from the heat, cooling it from its initial 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Henry offered a glass of wine. She sipped it, enjoying its crisp edge. Wine swirled in the bottom of the glass. She sipped again, held the taste in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. “I don’t recognize this.” He sat across from her. The wine bottle rested in a secure holder in the table’s center. “It’s an eighty-year old Chateau Laputa. One of the
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original bottles of Venusian aperitif. Bit of a gamble. Some of this vintage didn’t age well, but it turns out being thirty percent closer to the sun makes for excellent grapes. They grew them in soil from the surface, heavily treated, of course.” The ferry shuddered. “Upper edges of the atmosphere. We’ll be there soon.” Through the porthole, Laputa appeared first as bright red glimmer on Venus’ broad horizon, and as they grew closer, revealing details.
Elizabeth realized the glow was the sun’s reflected light. And then she saw Laputa truly was huge, it felt like flying low over the San Gabriels into the Los Angeles basin, when the city opened beneath her. But Laputa dwarfed that. They continued to travel, bumping hard through turbulence until the floating city’s boundaries disappeared to the left and right, and then they were over the structure, their shadow racing across the mirrored surface.