Stevie glanced over his shoulder, tiptoeing barefoot through the deepest corridors of the Barnum. The ship was huge, as ponderous and lumbering as a garbage barge, but Stevie had lived here all his life. He knew the corridors like the back of his handâ€”even the ones where he wasn’t allowed.
The soft glow of emergency lighting turned his skin blue as Stevie reached for the keypad on a maintenance duct, tapping in the code he’d bought off of a janitor with two chocolate bars and a cigarette. The circus moved everywhere and anywhere around the galaxy, so currency was fairly meaningless to its workersâ€”money was pretty, Stevie had to admit, but on the Barnum, transactions were conducted through barter with trade goods. He grinned with relief when the hatch opened under his touch, sneaking in and closing it behind him. The chocolate had been worth it.
The duct was cramped, but Stevie was small, and he’d looked at enough blueprints to know which turns to take. When he finally reached the hatch he wanted on the opposite side, Stevie was grinning so hard his face hurt. He barely managed to calm himself enough to turn the handle and crank the hatch open from the inside.
His heart jumped into his throat when Stevie snuck out of the hatch, his teenage eyes darting around the cargo bay to make sure no guards were around. The glow in this room was different from the one in the hallways. The soft blue light was there, but its presence was eclipsed by the white glow that came from the opposite corner of the bay. Eyes widening, Stevie approached the force shield, his heart in his throat. When he got close enough, the angle would allow him to see through what now appeared as a frosted white pane, finally catching a glimpse of the creature inside.
Stevie had seen the gentle giant before; the enormous, alien-looking creature was extinct on its natural Earth habitat, but it was the star attraction of the circus he had performed with all his life, so Stevie had naturally seen it during the shows. No one but the handlers was allowed near, however, so all that Stevie had ever seen had been what he could catch while peeping through the wings. If he worked off his indentured status, he might someday be allowed to train for a better role in the circus, maybe even become a handler himselfâ€”but there were years of service between Stevie and freedom, and he had to know. He had to see.
All at once, the fog cleared, and Stevie could see through the force shield as if it was only air. He gasped, eyes widening, and tilted his open-mouthed face up, up, up. It was even larger than he’d imagined, this powerful mass of grey, the creature whose majesty had captivated audiences across the galaxy. Stevie reached out involuntarily but was stopped by the spark of the force shield, wincing as he took his hand back. His heart quailed when the creature moved in response, its huge head lowering to investigate the spark. It would be angry, surely it would be angry, it would trumpet the call that he had heard so many times, but this time the guards would come, and that would mean another five years… Stevie wanted to turn and run, but he was rooted to the spot, frozen before the great beast.
Silently, the grey head leaned down until one black, round eye was level with the boy’s face. Stevie held himself very still and tried not to breathe. The huge trunk rose and Stevie nearly fainted at the sightâ€”but it didn’t attack him. It didn’t break through the wall. Instead, the soft snout pressed up against the force shield, staying there despite the sparks.
Stevie was stunned. He looked deep into the black eye and suddenly, the fear was gone. Stevie reached out and pressed his hand against the shield, ignoring the shock of the energy sparks. Despite the inch of clear space between them, he almost felt the soft wet touch of the elephant’s nose.
Chuck surveyed the landing pad with a nod, his proprietary self-satisfied grin encompassing all he could see. It felt good, he reflected, to be a champion of the most powerful force in the universe: awesome.
Chuck was a Space Ranger and proud of it. They weren’t universally liked, but then, awesome never was. The Space Rangers were loners, a band held together only loosely by the bonds of a common purpose: liberating the innocent from the clutches of the bad guys. From system to system, their mission was the same, despite the vast difference in the ships they flew, the methods they used, and the caliber of laser pistol they employedâ€”the only difficult conundrum was that Space Rangers tended to disagree on the definitions of “innocents” and “bad guys.”
Luckily for Chuck’s peace of mind, no matter what your definition was, there was no way to deny that this mission had been purely awesome. His own definition of “bad guys” included anything non-humanoid, mostly because their bodies tended to crumple and fold entertainingly when sent flying by Chuck’s ancient martial arts techniques. Fighting aliens always made for an awesome show.
With a last tug on his genuine, imported, one-hundred-percent lung-killing Marlboro Red Octane, Chuck tossed the cigarette aside and ground the flame away in the alien soil. It felt good to know that no bug-eyed monsters or creatures with more legs than brains would be terrorizing the good, elongated but still humanoid Drampuuls. The planet was now in the hands of people who had hands, and in the mind of Space Ranger Chuck, that was a thoroughly awesome feeling.
“Here’s to a job well done,” he said, lifting his flask to toast the binary sunset. The Arnorian whiskey inside of it had been a gift of thanks from the leaders of the last world he’d liberated, and Chuck thought it was only fitting that he enjoy it in the wake of another great battle. Corking the flask again, Chuck raised his hand to the horizon in a cocky salute. Then he pulled his wide-brimmed hat down low over his eyes, bowing his head as he made his way back to his ship. A Space Ranger’s work was never done.
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.
â€œItâ€™s not that youâ€™re boring,â€ John protested, even though it was. He hated conversations like this, and they always seemed to happen to him. This was his third uncomfortable breakup in as many months.
â€œThen what is it?â€ Lila demanded, her pout twitching on the edge between anger and tears. John sighed. Heâ€™d seen this one before.
â€œI just, well, Iâ€™ve got other things to worry about in my life, you know?â€ John turned his head away and fiddled with the miniature joystick on his day planner. Heâ€™d had a portable version of Exatz World IV custom-installed so that he could play it while waiting for the train to work. Lila slapped his hand away.
â€œYou mean like that game? Donâ€™t touch that thing when youâ€™re around me, Jonathan! I mean it!â€ Lilaâ€™s eyes were sparking and her pout increased, screwing up her face in a most unattractive manner. â€œIs that what this is all about? Did you meet some girl online? Are you cheating on me?â€
â€œNo!â€ John protested in exasperation. â€œYou canâ€™t cheat on somebody with a video game, damn it! They just have much better writers than whoever came up with your life.â€
â€œWhat do you mean, writers?â€ Lila was aghast. â€œJohn, this is real life. There are no writers! There is no script! Get your head out of the clouds!â€
â€œIâ€™m sick of real life, okay?â€ John snapped, sitting up from his customary slouch and glaring at Lila. â€œNothing changes! All the girls are the same, all the places are the same, all the stuff that happens is boring and predictable. Itâ€™s all sugar and no spice. Thereâ€™s noâ€¦ noâ€¦ conflict! No heroism! You canâ€™t be a man in real life!â€
â€œJohn, you are really starting to scare me. Are you even listening to yourself?â€ Lila stared at John as if heâ€™d grown two heads. â€œThat â€˜sugarâ€™ is called peace! The world finally gets itself into some sense of order and youâ€™re complaining?â€ She threw up her hands in disgust. â€œYou are the most disrespectful man Iâ€™ve ever known. What would your father say if he could hear you now?â€
â€œAt least my father was a man!â€ John snapped. â€œHe got to fight for what he believed in. He had a heroâ€™s death.â€
â€œWhat he believed in was a peaceful world for his son. Youâ€™re disgraceful.â€
â€œGet out of here!â€ John grabbed a cushion from the couch behind him and threw it angrily in Lilaâ€™s direction. He had had enough. Everything she said was exactly what heâ€™d predicted. It was a good thing this wasnâ€™t a script, because John would have marched right up to the writers and given them a piece of his mind.
Lila gritted her teeth and clenched her fists. â€œYour father would be ashamed of you,â€ she said, voice trembling, then turned on her heel and slammed the door behind her. John sighed. In all honesty, he was relieved that she was gone.
Turning to his console, John sank back into his comfortable, slouched position with a groan of contentment. It only took a single keystroke to call up the world of heroes and villains, of struggles and escapes and creativity. It was easier than breathing to slough off the peace that his father had fought for in the war to end all wars. As he fitted his goggles over his eyes, John prepared to lose himself in an earlier time.
TO: Major-General Peter Wixtreed
FROM: Colonel Todd Fuller
RE: Continuing contact with Species #7652-28D
As suggested, sir, we pressed for visual contact and after some time the diplomatic envoys gave in, though not without a good deal of trepidation. They seem uncomfortable dealing with military personnel, so I reduced our contact with the envoys to a minimum and instead allowed the ambassador to speak to them directly. Her conversations seemed to persuade the envoys and put them more at ease, and when they at last capitulated, they extended the condition that she be the one to make such contact, alone. It took three hours more to get them agree to our termsâ€”neutral ground, a military escort, and standard contact proceedingsâ€”but their affection for the ambassador was, I believe, the strongest motivator for their acquiescence.
The meeting took place on Elaxron, an inhabitable but as yet undeveloped planet in the near vicinity, and I commanded the troops in attendance. We were universally shocked at the sight of what the envoys had been hiding from us. The men had speculated when off-duty that we were encountering intelligent slime monsters or other creatures of legend, but none of us had expected simians. They have altered and evolved, of course, but the creatures we are meeting with are monkeys. I admit I was aghast. The ambassador was the only one who seemed unaffected, possibly due to her diplomatic training. My men and I retained composure, of course, but I intercepted more than one startled look before cowing the men back into military discipline.
Though I would have expected these creatures to fear us, they do notâ€”or at least, not in the way I would think. It soon became clear that they had indeed evolved from the monkeys of our own world, sent out in experimental rockets and presumed dead centuries ago, during Earthâ€™s first forays into spaceflight. Rather than looking upon our scientists as cruel experimenters, however, they view humans as a sort of father race. Their devotion is really quite touching. Their fear of being seen, it was revealed, was due to embarrassment rather than fearâ€”they had not expected to encounter our species, which is only a legend in their society, for many more years.
After this revelation, I allowed my men to stand down and permitted the ambassador to meet with the simians alone as they desired. This discovery is an historic one, General, and I hope it is not out of line to say that I am proud to be a part of it. It has been rather quiet here since the ambassador left for her secluded meeting; I believe the men all appreciate the gravity and awe of this situation and have made themselves scarce.
With respect, I await your next dispatch.