Before we go any further, let me stop to ask you some questions. I’m so excited to have met you, but there’s something I want to tell you before you enter the port. You see, I haven’t really been honest with you and you must have wondered why I was out here all alone.
Surely you have noticed by now that there are no fusion reactors. No glorious buzz of electricity and a lack of any sort of decent vegetation or animal kin. Oh, so you have noticed. Then let me skip to the worst part.
This is all that is left. You’ve come from so long ago and hoped that somehow life has improved itself? I’m sorry to disappoint you. I am not a proud man, nor am I any sort of leader. Just last week, the previous leader disappeared and the others voted for me to control everything that was left.
Noticeably, I am no handsome fellow either. No woman would bear my children, and I’m lost to a life of thanklessness and a tomorrow that is one day closer to my end. Did I mention how excited I am that you are here? Please, have a seat.
The Port was supposed to be grand once. Perhaps my grandfather said something about it, but now the dust clouds come and go and the nutrient reactors shut down years ago. Port Walden is nothing more than survivors who are losing at their daily professions. What is it you said you didâ€¦an engineer? You’ll find little use for your abilities without electricity.
I’m getting to the point, please be patient. I’ve seen children gasp their last breaths as the hunger overcomes them and becomes a deathly starvation. Scraps of leather became chew toys and after they were gone, well, no man calls dog their best friend any longer than he can swallow. Gruesome? That’s life. It is what it has to be so that we can survive. Survival is key.
Look up and see the grey clouds above you, stranger. Your time once held blue skies, I suppose, and purple at times, yes? The bark from these husks we once called trees are gone and I don’t need to tell you what use came from that bark. Look at my face, stranger. My face is more robust than anyone in the village but it by far much gaunter than yours.
Well, I suppose I’ve ventured further from my point. I came out here with this pistol to end the suffering. To watch children die is a nightmare and to know that others are watching the same happen to me is a slow agonizing hell. Perhaps they would have found me and taken what they could from me to help them survive just a little bit longer. I haven’t been honest with you at all. When I saw you I didn’t care where you were from. What I do care about is that you will feed many children for a few days at least; a few days for the hell to subside. Please, don’t run. I may be weak but I can still shoot and I’d prefer to aim somewhere that won’t spoil too much meat. I am so excited you are here.
Venusians do not worry about being on time, and I think I know why. Itâ€™s the fogâ€”the dense fog that permeates the atmosphere and keeps visibility so low. Every terraformed planet has its quirks, and this is ours: though the poisonous gases have been removed, the fog is still here, and it follows us wherever we go. Travel is always problematic on Venus, no matter how many new sensor techniques are developed, and it is accepted that a meeting will take at least an hour to start. Thatâ€™s how the tea ceremony developed. I hear it came from one of the immigrant cultures back when the planet was first colonized, but itâ€™s different now, a ceremony of waiting. Weâ€™ve evolved.
The fog is everywhere, no matter what time of day or night, and though it does lighten during the hours when the sun hits us, it never breaks. A life on Venus is a life of isolation. We donâ€™t need to be told not to talk to strangers; we are not inclined. Movement through the fog is like stepping into oneâ€™s own world, secret and secluded from everyone else on the planet, and the presence of others is an intrusion rather than a blessing. It is impolite to cross paths with someone on the street, and if a Venusian should be so crass as to do so, it is expected that he ignore you in order to preserve the sense of privacy.
For some time, the leading social problem on Venus was the declining birthrate, brought on not by sterility but by disinclination. We are not interested in meeting others. The family is the core of Venusian life, and we stick to it, preferring our own brightly lit homes and the familiar faces of parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins to the grey mists of the outside world. A century ago the government was forced to issue a mandate that all young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty-nine would meet at city-sponsored social gatherings in order to increase matchmaking potential. Though it was met with resentment at first, we all knew it was necessary. Mutations and inbreeding were not a problem that could be ignored.
Families are still large and close, but the government now subsidizes housing for couples who want to move out of their familiesâ€™ homes, even providing space for those family members who cannot bear to be left behind. Our old practices have become deep taboos, so much so that even twins can no longer share the same cradle without becoming the subject of hushed whispers and aghast looks. I am twenty-seven years old, and I know that soon Iâ€™ll have to choose. Unspoken custom dictates that we select our lifemates by twenty-five, so I am already an outlier, but Venusâ€”Venus is in my blood.
Earth natives say they find the fog depressing, even malevolent, and will spend as little time here as they can manage. I embrace the fog. It is cool and smooth, not suffocating but comforting. It envelops me and preserves my privacy. Behind the curtain of fog, I can lie in my cousinâ€™s arms without fear of persecution. The family knowsâ€”there is no way to keep secrets, not from familyâ€”but like strangers on the street, they turn their eyes away, ignoring what they know they are not supposed to see. What is done within the fog of Venus is not meant to be known, but every so often I will catch the eyes of my family and see the hidden glimmer of approval. They know that the old traditions are still alive.
When Countess bit Zimin on the playground, her mom and dad got called in for a parent-teacher conference. Everybody was trying to pretend they werenâ€™t upset by putting on smiley faces, but they were mad, Countess could tell. She wasnâ€™t supposed to bite people till she was sixteen. Zimins blood wasnâ€™t even any good, it was all crunchy and weird. Her mom said that was because he had little robots inside him that made him smarter.
After that, they made her wear caps on her teeth. The robot nurse would come to the lunch table and take them off in front of the whole class. Countess was pale, but her face was always red when the nurse showed up.
The other kids stayed away. Even Lisa, who had been her best friend for a whole week now decided that Mary-Anne, the icky fish girl, was her best friend. Better a fish girl than a vampire. Countess didnâ€™t want to be a vampire anymore. On the playground, she went into the trees and played at being a lonely dragon, sitting on top of her book bag, pretending it was gold.
Mamma said that different families chose to be different things, and when she got older, she might decide to become something else, to have extra arms or eyes. Right now though, her mamma said, she was Countess, designed by mom and dad, just like they had been designed by their mom and dad. It may have been old fashioned, but it was who they were, and until Countess was eighteen, it was who she had to be too.
Countess stopped drinking her plastic packets of blood. She got hungry, but she didnâ€™t care; maybe if she stopped for long enough the robot nurse would stop coming to her caps off in front of everyone. Maybe if she stopped drinking blood, she might turn into something else, whether her parents liked it or not.
Thatâ€™s when her dad brought home the Squib. The Squib was small and black, with pointy ears and a pointy tail and a chubby stomach. He giggled when she tickled him, and snuggled next to her at night. He smelled like coco and floated along next to her on a little umbrella while she was at school. She was the only girl with a Squib. Mary-Anne had her tank for her fins, but that really wasnâ€™t like a Squib. The Squib held out her blood bag and would make sad faces if she didnâ€™t bite into it. When she did drink, he would do a little tottering dance with his umbrella that made the other kids laugh and clap.
Mary-Anne asked if she could tickle the Squib, and even though she was icky, Countess let her, because even smelly fish girls were better than nothing. The Squib would dance and sing for the other children but he always came back to Countess, it was clear he always liked her best. Kids would sit next to her just to see the Squib, and by the end of the week, Countess had three best friends.
Two weeks later she went out to the Transit stop and realized that her Squib wasnâ€™t with her. Her Squib hadnâ€™t been with her all morning! She ran back to the house, not even caring if she missed the Transit. She ran though the portal to her house and started looking for the Squib. Her lithe mother caught her.
â€œSweetie, whatâ€™s wrong?â€
â€œI canâ€™t find Squibbers!â€ Her mother knelt and wrapped her pale arms around Countess.
â€œOh, my little icicle. Your Squib had to go take care of other little vampire girls. Maybe heâ€™ll come back and visit sometimes, but I donâ€™t think you need him anymore. He hasnâ€™t been around much recently, did you notice?â€ She brushed back Countesses blue-black hair.
Countess sucked on her lip. Her Squib had been gone a lot recently but she had been so busy, she never noticed. She felt something strange kick in her tummy and she thought about other vampire girls. Her mother handed her a sweet blood ball and told her they could ride to school together this morning. They took their purple parasols and walked out into the morning.
The judge pounded his gavel three times on the sound block. “Next case!”
The bailiff stood at attention. “Sol versus Robert J. Walsh. Case Number 28769-807.61. Mr. Walsh was clocked doing 121,546 kilometers per hour within the ecliptic.”
The judge scanned the arrest report on his monitor. Without looking at the defendant he asked, “How do you plead, Mr. Walsh?”
“Not guilty, your Honor. I was beyond the orbit of Saturn. There’s no traffic out there. There’s over a million kilometers of empty space between ships. I don’t see why there should be a speed limit beyond the asteroid belt. It’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Walsh. But the speed limit extends to the Kepler Belt. The law is very specific.”
“Then it’s a dumb law.”
Visibly angered, the judge pounded his gavel once again. “I’ve heard enough. I find you guilty of violating Solar System Statute 2375.329 for exceeding the beaconed speed limit, and for reckless flying within the ecliptic.” The Judge turned back to the monitor. “I see that this is your third offence, Mr. Walsh. Therefore, I have more options in sentencing. This time, you will perform system service. And, since you appear to enjoy traversing the solar system, you are ordered to tow an ice comet, not smaller that 100,000 metric tones, which contains at least 50% of its mass in the form of water-ice, to the Deimos colony in Mars orbit. You have to tow the comet by yourself, Mr. Walsh. You cannot use your father’s credits to hire a towing company. You have six months to deliver the comet, so I suggest that you start hunting for your snowball right away. Try looking in the asteroid belt, or the rings of Saturn. You are dismissed Mr. Walsh. And I recommend you obey the speed beacons in the future.”
The defendant jumped to his feet. “What! Are you nuts? Tow a comet to Mars? Do you know who I am? I’m not an ice-jockey. I have three college degrees, including a PhD in Political Science. This sentence is ridiculous. You’re ridiculous. The damn speed limit is ridiculous.”
The judge pointed the business end of his gavel toward the defendant. “Make that 200,000 metric tones, Mr. Walsh. And if you don’t like the law, run for congress when you get back from Mars and change it. Now, if you don’t want to be towing ice cubes the rest of your life, I suggest you get the hell out of my courtroom.”
The judge pounded his gavel three times on the sound block. “Next case!”
Carlos didn’t want to appear suspicious, so he stayed in a doorway three houses down from the corner. He tried to distract himself, thinking about the possibilities of using curry sauce in chicken Kiev, but he kept looking at the corner. Carlos wanted this to be over as soon as possible, so he wouldn’t have to worry anymore. Skott had said it was simple. Meet the girl–who Carlos would know as soon as he saw, Skott assured him–make the trade, leave. That’s it.
Skott didn’t mention that Carlos would be thinking about the worst-case scenario over and over again. By the time the girl showed up two minutes late, Carlos had already envisioned himself be arrested, convicted and eyed by a gorrilla of a cell-mate named “Big Beauford.”
Skott was right, Carlos recognized her instantly. “I’m Saki,” the girl said when Carlos approached. “Are you Skott’s friend?” Even in street clothes, Saki looked like she was wearing a lab coat. Poor girl was probably born in one. She was pretty, though, in that little Japanese girl way. Carlos like the way her faded-pink hair brought out her dark eyes from behind her glasses.
“I’m a friend of anyone who’s eaten my coconut and wasabi custard pie. One bite, and you’ll know why.” It was a standard line Carlos used around girls at parties; it was the only thing he could think of. Big Beauford was still weighing very heavily on his mind.
“Heh,” Saki said, without any sort of humor. “You’re funny. You got the chow mein?”
“Hot and fresh,” said Carlos, as he handed over the paper bag stuffed with Chinese carry-out containers. Saki opened one of them, appraising the scavenged processor chips Carlos and Skott had spent all of the afternoon ripping out of junked motherboards. “You’re looking at enough processor power to run a small defense grid, you hook ’em up right. I brought the chow mein, you got the egg-drop soup?”
Saki shifted the bag to her left hip and dug into the right pocket of her jacket, removing a small translucent-plastic pod. “Here. It wasn’t easy to get, but I got it.”
Carlos cracked open the pod. Inside was a blob of silver and black, slowly swirling with the slight shaking of his hands. Thin, straight wires stuck out from the goo, giving the it the appearance of a melted spider. This was the goods. Top of the line. Unhackable. Uncorruptable.
“I don’t know what you think you’re going to with that.” Saki said after Carlos had slipped the pod into his pocket. Her voice was low, a hurried whisper. “You can’t hack it. There’s no code. The programming is part of its structure. I know Skott is all about open sourcing everything, but this tech cannot be brought to the people, okay? It can’t be done. You’d have to be some sort of biologist to take it apart.–”
“Thanks for your help, Saki,” Carlos said, turning away.
“No!.” Saki thrust the word so hard against her clenched teeth that Carlos felt her saliva on the back of his neck. “Tell you what you’re going to do with that! You owe me that much, after what I’ve been through!”
Carlos’s posture softened when she grabbed his arm. Her hands were so small; delicate for a lab monkey. Carlos found himself imagining what else she could do with those hands. “Everything comes apart, Saki. That’s what biology teaches us. It’s how it comes together that makes it work.”
“But how could it possibly–”
“Because biological components aren’t just stacked like blocks, they’re mixed in specific amounts. They’re recipes. And any cook worth his salt will tell you that any recipe can be simplified or improved upon.” Saki looked at him blankly behind her thick glasses. Skott would approve of this, surely. This was bringing enlightenment to the people, wasnâ€™t it? “Here, why don’t you come back to my place. I’ll explain everything with some curry sauce and a handful of dill.”