Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chapter three: Throw away a body? That's the same as killing babies.

Previous Chapter

A canvass of the area where Sheila's body had been found came up blank, as I had more or less figured it would. Sheila hadn't been bar hopping that night, somebody had just wanted it to look that way. We couldn't even know how far away she'd been killed.

The Sky City legwork had been done by Lee's unit with some added manpower. Skyhook Authority in Anchorage had gotten interested, and with good reason. I'd filed an amicus report that concluded that whoever did it was a Lunar, or a recent immigrant, and that meant that they'd come through Skyhook at some point. So Skyhook and Sky City management were in agreement that this had to be checked out.

Quietly, of course.

"I'm on special detail now, and you're officially a paid consultant," Calvin Lee told me. "I still have some robbery detail assignments, but this case is my whole work load for Homicide. There's still a few of the brass who think it's a kink killing, but if it is, they still don't want it to go serial. And if there's any organization behind it…" He let the sentence hang.
…that would not occur to most Luna natives; they just don't think that way.
"We don't borrow trouble just yet," I told him. "Maybe it was only one guy. Let's hope. The perpetrator grew up on Luna, or at least whoever disposed of the body did. The most logical thing to have done with the body would have been to drop it over the side. It would have been char by the time it hit the surface, and nobody would ever have found it. But that would not occur to most Luna natives; they just don't think that way."

"I don't quite get it," Lee said. "Why not?"

"Just the way we're brought up," I told him. "When we lost Earth a hundred and twenty some odd years ago, Luna was left high and dry. Especially dry. It has no water at all, none. And no hydrogen to speak of, not anymore, anyway, so we couldn't make any water, either. There used to be a little bit of H in the lunar soils from the solar wind impact, but that got used up two hundred years ago, nobody really knew we'd ever need it so badly.

"Luna wasn't a closed system when the Plague hit Earth. The bubble houses leaked, airlocks vented straight to vacuum, and all the shuttle craft ran on oxyhydrogen. Not a problem when Earth was in the circuit, but after the Madness, well, blooie. By the time Colonel Maximilian took over and set up Pan Luna, the well was nearly dry.

"Do you guys get taught much Luna history?" I asked him. He shook his head. "Well, take the Cryonics Riots. I learned about the Cryonics Riots in grade school. Pan Luna decided that the Cryoleums had to be shut down and the bodies and liquid nitrogen recycled through the biospheres. The Cryonicists considered that to be murder, because all they expected to revive those corpsicles someday. Over a thousand people died from the riots, and one of the domes was nearly blown away. The Cryonics Society was banned from then on.

"That was just a little piece of it. Even now, things are tight as a drum on Luna. It goes deep. Throw away a body? That's the same as killing babies. Lose hydrogen and you have to cut the birth rate again."

He shook his head. "Obviously this isn't something I can get at, emotionally," he said. "Luna history isn't our strong suit. Besides, I thought things were a lot better now."

"Oh, they are," I said. "I've personally never seen a water riot; the last one was before I was born. The Skimmer was a reprieve and when Skyhook opened up sixty years ago, Luna came off of death row. Then when we captured Comet Alpha twenty years ago there was dancing in the streets." I thought back. Not all my memories hurt and they'd tried to leave the good ones alone. "They eased the birth restrictions then, and my parents were allowed a second child. She's twenty-three years younger than I am, so she'd be about sixteen now."

He looked at me like he was about to say something, then apparently thought better of it. So we just sat in silence for a while.

We were in an aircar just above the cloud deck, headed for the farming cluster where Sheila had lived. The bloon cluster was about two hundred kilometers to the southwest of Sky City on that day and we'd get there in about six hours. We had a full net hookup with us, so we didn't have just each others voices to listen to, which was good. Calvin Lee was okay company, but his boy scout attitude was often more than I could take.
Not all my memories hurt and they'd tried to leave the good ones alone.
Eventually Calvin must have decided he didn't like the silence, so he started talking again. "Sheila didn't have much family back on Luna," he said. "Mother dead, father remarried, maybe she and the stepmother didn't get along." My memory clicked that as right on, but I didn't bother to corroborate; I wasn't ready to talk just yet. So I pretended to listen to my ear piece.

"Sheila shipped out to Venus," he continued, "No money, no Venus relatives, no sponsor. Straight steerage, no offense." He looked over at me apologetically, as if the accommodations on a sunship were a matter of something other than economics.

"When she got here, she signed up for position placement and requested a posting outside of Sky City. Most Lunars stay City bound, at least for the first few years, while they get their bloon legs, but Sheila was the adventurous type, I suppose." He was still trying to draw me out and I was still pretending he was a potted plant.

"Anyway, she opted for the farms clusters. Three postings in two and a half years is pretty stable for farm workers, and this last one she'd worked at for over a year. That's about all we have. This cluster gave her a clean bill. We've notified them that we wanted to come to ask some questions of any friends she had there, and they had no problem with that. Which is good. Questions of jurisdiction in the rural clusters can get sticky."

I sighed. "Oh, crap," I said, just to make conversation. I couldn't pretend to be listening to the news anymore; the news was about as interesting as a weather report. Who cares who won the 3rd District Primary? Who cares where the 3rd District is? I should have tried a music channel.

"Listen up," I told him. "You're Sky City Police, and you're running on full authority from Skyhook out of Anchorage. If Skyhook wants to blow off some dinky farm cluster, stop trading with them, put them off-line, whatever, that cluster is history. Their money turns worthless, they lose their comm links and they might as well ship out as bloon fishers at the poles, or go offline like some dink religious commune. Skyhook runs however much of Venus it wants to bother with.
If Skyhook wants to blow off some dinky farm cluster, stop trading with them, put them off-line, whatever, that cluster is history.
"It's nice to be diplomatic, when you don't have to be. So we should be real polite, but don't kid yourself. Anybody we talk to is going to know that we have more muscle behind us than they want to even think about. They'll either get testy or they'll fall all over themselves being helpful, depending on their turn of mind. And if we have to shake the tree to dislodge some fruit, don't be squeamish. Look on it as one of the perks of the job."

He looked at me and gave me another one of his little Asian smiles. "When you did 'good cop/bad cop,' back on Luna." he said, "Were you ever the 'good' cop."

"Sure," I told him. "But that was a long time ago."


Bloons with people in them are big; one large enough to lift even a single man is over ten meters on a side. Family sized bloons are larger still, and have enough photosynthetic area to supply its inhabitants with air and food (though the textured protein that bloons yield is pretty bland). Bloons with inhabitants aren't quite a closed ecosystem, since the bloon's tendril roots draw additional sustenance from the acid clouds below, but there's precious little waste, and usually a mineral, energy, and water surplus.

But the surplus for even the most efficient bloons is pretty small. For those with limited light, or little direct access to the clouds, you have to have "external inputs." The bloons in Sky City's shadow have abdicated their photosynthetic functions entirely; many of them are just dead corpses of once living creatures. Even in Sky City, the net productivity balance is negative, so it's "external inputs" or cancel the deal.

Bloon-human symbiosis notwithstanding, the primary productivity of Venus comes mostly from the free floating, uninhabited bloons. These have a float range that is not limited by the physical delicacies of human physiology. Most of the free floaters bob between the cloud tops and the second cloud deck above the surface of the planet, where nutrients from dust are the higher than in the upper clouds. The free floaters are the essential resource in the human habitation of Venus.

Bloon fishermen, operating mainly at the high latitudes capture free floating bloons and drain their liquids, peel their skins, and turn the silklike tendrils into raw fiber for cloth and fabrics. The remainder of the bloon carcasses go to the farm clusters that are the middle link in the bloon/human ecology. So "external inputs" is a euphemism for the corpses of dead bloons, and material derived from them.

If human-inhabited bloons are big, farm bloons are gigantic, usually several hundred meters on a side. Even a small farm cluster is pretty big. We saw our destination long before we arrived, with every few minutes of approach causing another perceptual jolt as our sense of scale shifted again. Those of us who live near Sky City tend to think of everything outside of the City as small, which is true in a relative sense, but irrelevant in the absolute. We're just tiny little creatures, actually, mere parasitic flukes who live in the bodies of creatures more majestic than ourselves.

"It's called Marley Farm," Calvin Lee told me as we watched the giant disk of connected bloons get nearer. "The original settlement dates back to some of the earliest bloon dwellers. The founders of Marley Farm were from a religion called Rastafarianism, that originated on an Earth island named Jamaica. The Earth Rastas, were primarily of African descent, and believed that a former Emperor of Ethiopia was divine, at least that's according to the settlement database.
We're just tiny little creatures, actually, mere parasitic flukes who live in the bodies of creatures more majestic than ourselves.
"The Marley Farm settlers weren't closely connected to the Jamaican Rastafarians; the major appeal of the religion to non-Jamaicans seems to have been a sacramental drug called 'ganja,' which was a mixture of cannabis and tobacco. They ingest it by burning the dried compressed leaves and inhaling the smoke." He shuddered slightly.

I found myself becoming amused. "I thought tobacco and cannabis were legal in Sky City, and for that matter anything goes out among the free floaters," I said. "Why the squeamishness?"

"Smoke inhalation disgusts me," he said. "I've seen a few smokers and they're even worse than those on the needle. At least with a needle you don't run the risk of killing everyone in the bloon."

I shrugged. "On Luna it's not an issue. With a pure O2 atmosphere, fire is too dangerous to play with. Besides, most everything is illegal on Luna."

Now it was his turn to be amused. "So you never saw a druggie during your entire police career?"

"I didn't say that," I told him. "I just never made any distinctions among the ways they got hopped up."


Marley Farms was a series of nested rings, a giant wheel shape made of bloons connected end-to-end and cross connected with more bloon "spokes." The tendrils of City Bloons are almost vestigial; the corpses of Darkunder are completely bald. But the farm bloons had full beards coming out of their underbellies, with the tendrils so tangled together that they formed a loose mat underneath. A man could fall from a bloon above and snag in the tangled mass below, a safety net of sorts, provided the caustic in the tendrils didn't burn through his clothing or bubble mask.

The aircar was smaller than a normal two-man bloon because the lift bag was filled with hydrogen that has three times the lifting power of oxynitrogen. I had a Lunar's queasiness about hydrogen; H2 in a pure O2 atmosphere is nothing but a touchy gas bomb, but I'd told myself at the outset that it was safe in a CO2 atmosphere and I staunchly ignored the idea from then on. It did make for faster travel and an easy negotiation of the docking at Marley Farm, anyway. We slid smoothly into a hitching rack at the center of the wheel, no muss, no fuss. Calvin Lee might be a little twerpish, but he was a slick pilot.

The only problem was that all the airlock docks on the Farm were on the outer edge, and those were truck transport sized to boot. Welcome to rural Venus, where you have to go outside to get inside. Lee and I donned bubble masks to make the short trip outbloon.

I must say that it was quite a sight. Some of the clouds came up over the Farm, while some decked down below. The illusion was of being perched on the side of an enormous white cliff, slightly pink with the afternoon sunlight, slowly twisting as the winds of Venus continued their slow sculpting. My Lunar agoraphobia gave me a twinge, but I ignored it as I ignore so many other things.

One of the farmers had tossed us a rope bridge, and Lee tied it to our hitch. We clutched our way across, followed the fellow through a lock, and we were inside.

The first thing that hit me was the smells. Every biome has a different smell, but few of them are as rich as those that are under continual harvest. The air inside that first Marley Farm bloon was damp and pungent with the smell of cut leaves, saprophytic molds, and tropical oils. There was an underlying pine-smoke smell to it that led us to guess that the sacramental ganja of the Rastafarians hadn't been abandoned.

The second thing about the place was the sound of it. There was a constant low level throb of music in the air, and all the people that we saw were in a perpetual slow sway, as if ready to begin to dance at any instant. It seemed to be a very happy place, and I found it disturbing.

"Mr. Lee? Mr. Honlin? We were told you were a-coming."

The speaker was a deeply tanned man whose only attire was shorts, sandals and a necktie. I could appreciate the getup. It was hot in the Marley bloons. Already my face was covered with sweat, though Calvin Lee seemed not to notice.

"Mr. Horowith?" Lee inquired, and held out his hand to shake the other man's.

"Hallo, man," said the dark man. "I indeed be Horowith." He grabbed Lee's hand in some sort of crosshanded shake. Local customs, I thought.

Horowith was short for a Venus native, with a square face made even more square by a full, dark beard. His hair was thick, long, and black, braided in what the encyclopedia had called "dred locks," a style of the Jamaican Rastafarians. From my limited experience, I would have put Horowith's Earth ancestry as Mediterranean, but not equatorial African, his skin was swarthy but not black. On Luna questions of ancestry are pretty well moot; everybody is of mixed ancestry and it's unusual for one of the roots to dominate. But on Venus there were still plenty of inbred groups, and Marley Farms was no doubt one of them. Horowith was one of the owners, if ownership was the correct word for what the bloon cluster directory called a "communal arrangement."

"It's very tragic about Sheila, I think," said Horowith, shaking his head, as he led us to a chamber that I took to be his office. "I didn't really know her, which I find a little embarrassing since I've found that she'd been here thirteen months, and I try to get to know all the workers, even those that stay only a little while." He shrugged. "Still, we've over three hundred positioners here, and some stay only a few weeks. God, he know them all, even if I don't." He chuckled a little bit, either at his own wit or at the idea of such a gregarious God. I thought the last idea a little laughable myself.
His hair was thick, long, and black, braided in what the encyclopedia had called "dred locks,"
Horowith's voice and laughter had a rhythm to it, in keeping with the constant beat of the music that played over the comm system. Some of it was over three hundred years old and straight from the music archives; Calvin and I'd listened to some of it on our trip out. We'd discussed whether it was infectious or grating, coming to no conclusion, other than that I judged Calvin to be a bit of a music snob, and he thought me uneducated in the finer things.

We sat for a while in Horowith's chamber and listened to the music while we waited for our guide, one of the work crew foremen, Horowith said. I'd noticed that the music program was set so that the sound dimmed whenever anyone spoke, so that it did not interfere with conversation. Horowith offered us some ganja and we politely refused. "Snuff, chew, a little taste of hash oil?" he asked politely. "Chocolate, coffee, coca tea? We specialize in psychoactive herbs here at Marley Farm, as you may have gathered by now. There's plenty of food grown too, of course, but the herbs are our cash crop."

"It sounds lucrative," Calvin Lee said in a neutral tone.

"Ah, it is, it is," said Horowith with a laugh. "Most of the alkaloids can be made in the labs, a course, and about half have engineered bloon product substitutes that come close. But we have species of the original plants, because my great-great-grandfather, he didn't believe in ersatz. There's maybe about twenty farms on Venus that can match our range of product. A 'Marley Farm' Point of Origin, on the herb bag is a mark of quality herb."

We were saved from more of the pharmocopoean boosterism by the arrival of a darkly tanned woman clad only in a bottom briefs and a tie similar to Horowith's. Her hair was also dredded.

"Hey, cousin, these the p'lice?" she asked as she swayed through the entryway.

"The very same," said Horowith with a grin.

"Monick will take care of you," Horowith told us. "She was foreman of little Sheila's work crew, and she knows everybody in our southwest quarter. Follow her and try not to step in too much of it, eh man?"


It was a long walk to the southwest quarter of Marley Farms, and periodically we'd stop as I stripped off another article of clothing. I was down to my shorts by the time we'd gone half a klick. Bare to the waist, I didn't look completely out of place. Bloon sailing had kept me fit, and I still pushed weights periodically and did kata from long habit, so my overall build was similar to many of the farmers. But my natural skin color is a light golden tan, like most Lunar natives. Compared to the farmers I felt unnaturally white.

Calvin Lee shed nary a stitch and still refused to sweat. I'd have thought him ethereal, gay, or sexless except for his obvious admiration of Monick's nearly naked form.

Monick tried to act oblivious, but it was clear that she was enjoying the attention of the two strangers who were trying not to stare. She moved with a long-limbed languid grace that owed in part to the alkaloids that must have pervaded her system. Or so I thought. Catching the thought I chided myself on my Lunar puritanism. Then I considered the folly of trying to transcend one's early rearing. Then self-examination became a tangled mess and I dismissed it all with a snort.

"Is it a good joke?" Monick asked, mistaking my snort for a laugh.

"Who knows?" I said. "If I get to a punchline, I'll let you know."

"Ah, I'd just as soon laugh as hear a joke," she said cryptically, and demonstrated by laughing herself, a gentle mocking sound that somehow fluttered against my soul.

Next Chapter

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chapter two: But nine years ago it all goes blank…

Previous Chapter

I bought a couple of bottles at the hotel bar, and rented a vid player. I drank, trying desperately to get drunk, and not succeeding, but that went with the territory. I watched cartoons through the night, yelling at the coyote to forget Acme and strangle the damn bird. The coyote had about as much success with the bird as I had with the bottle. None of my neighbors had the nerve to complain. Finally I fell asleep.

There were dreams, just as I expected. There are always the dreams. In them, the air was dry, things fell slowly, and the faceless screams made me want to open the door and embrace the silent vacuum night.

I awoke with a penitence hangover, and went to work without bothering to bathe or shave. So I'd wallow in my own stench all day. Who'd care?

The City had hit the dawn by then, but underneath was barely more than twilight. Sky City extended for more than forty klicks in any direction from the Hook at an average thickness of five hundred meters, comprised by living and formerly living bloons. No light made it down through the floating City itself, and the City's shadow darkened the clouds below. Sometimes it's lighter at night, when the storms light the clouds and the thunder growls at us.

When I got down to the bloon docking area of my hotel, somebody was yelling at Joey.

Joey is some distant cousin of Madame Fumio, the owner of the hotel where I live, and she brought him to her place to take care of him after the accident that left his parents dead and left him the way he was. I've never gotten the details, but they were in a bloon that lost its lift in a pretty catastrophic manner and it dropped way down into the pressure and heat. Joey didn't quite die from the CO2 shock, but the anoxia and heat damaged his brain, and when he was rescued they pulled the bloon up a little too quickly and he wound up crippled with the bends. He was maybe eight or nine at the time, and his joints never grew right after the damage, so he walks with a limp, and he'll never have any more intellect than he had at the time of the accident. But Madame Fumio loves him more than all her play-boys put together, and Joey's smile is worth seeing, worth working for. It seems always to be a grateful smile, grateful to be alive despite everything that's been taken from him. I think he sleeps soundly at night.
I watched cartoons through the night, yelling at the coyote to forget Acme and strangle the damn bird.

Now this guy was yelling at Joey, something about his bags should be there, and how he had an important meeting that he was going to miss, the usual sort of crap. If the meeting was so important, why was this guy staying at a cheap joint in Darkunder? His back was to me as he was yammering, so I could see Joey's face and it looked hurt and confused. It was a good bet that whatever the screw up had been wasn't Joey's fault, because Joey is plenty competent within his limits, and he knows not to exceed them. So I reached out and tapped the guy on the shoulder. Maybe I tapped a little hard. The guy stopped in mid-sentence and turned around, still angry and ready to lay into anybody else who got in his way.

But I'm a big guy, and that morning I probably didn't look like somebody who likes to get yelled at, what with my day's growth of beard, uncombed hair, and rumpled clothing. I probably looked annoyed, as well. I don't like it when people give Joey a hard time.

But I was polite. "What seems to be the problem?" I asked.

He tried to keep his anger going. "I've got an appointment this morning in the City," he snarled. "I'm running late and my bags were supposed to be loaded and ready to go. If they've been lost, I'll..."

I cut him off. "I'm sure your bags are at the front desk or at the bell station," I told him. "Joey's job is the bloons, not bags."

He tried to haul himself up to full height, and maybe he did, but he was still shorter than me by several centimeters. "What business is it of yours?" he demanded.

"Please go back inside and ask for your baggage," I said, ignoring his question. I noticed that my voice had a kind of grating quality to it. "And please try to be more polite in the future, especially to Joey." I put one fist in the other hand and cracked my knuckles, which sounded especially loud that morning. Maybe even threatening.

"Ptah!" he snarled and pushed past me toward the portal that led back to the lobby. He nearly tripped when I moved out of his way so fast that he never touched me. It doesn't look fast when you move that way, either. The sensei who first taught it to me could move like drifting smoke, and he was about as easy to grab.

When he was out of sight, Joey said, "Thanks, Mr. Honlin."

"Call me Ed, Joey," I told him, just like I always do. He still always calls me Mr. Honlin, though. Maybe it's a joke for us by now.

"You might want to go and get an air runner ready for me," I told him. That way he wouldn't be there when the guy came back out. "I'll watch things here."

He smiled at me again; he certainly knew why I was doing it. He may have the mind of an eight year old, but he's a bright eight year old.

"Okay, Mr. Honlin," he said. "That guy was checking out, anyway."

"I don't think he'll be back, either," I told him, and he smiled again.

While Joey was getting a bloon ready for me, a bellhop, named George came out, followed by Mr. Courteous. I glowered a bit at him as his bags were being loaded onto a taxi, and I helped George pull the ballast to compensate for the weight change. Then I smiled as the guy got into the squid. "Hurry back," I told him, but I let my lip curl into a faint sneer and he avoided my gaze.

After he left, I tipped George, because Mr. Courteous certainly hadn't. "Give you a hard time?" I asked him.

"Not really," he told me. "He asked me who you were though."

I grinned. "What did you tell him?"

"That Madame F hired you as a bouncer after you'd gotten kicked out of the City for multiple assault charges, what else?" he told me.

I laughed. "You should have told him I was an axe murderer," I said. "Really put the fear of God into him."

"Oh, I think you already did that just fine," he said with a grin.

Then Joey called out to me and I went to the bloon to start an air run.


Since bloons can't photosynthesize without light, breathable air has to be ferried to the Shadow City below the City of Light above. That was my job at Madame Fumio's, or part of it anyway: bringing air to Darkunder. Sometimes there would be a bit of stealthy choreography, and an air carrier bloon would illegally dock at an underside City tether. By law, all goods into and out of Sky City paid a tariff to Skyhook Authority and the City Government. In practice, some of the trade came "up through the floor," with a jumpered City gate and a bribed guard.
The sensei who first taught it to me could move like drifting smoke, and he was about as easy to grab.

That day I just shuttled O2 bloons for recharging the air supply in free floating shadow clusters like my hotel. Take a one-man wind rider and drop down below the main clusters and send a drag line even further down. Tack on the drag line and cut across the planetary jet to the north. Pop up, pick up an O2 bloon from one of the herders just beyond the edge of the City, then repeat the process in reverse.

It's light at the edge of the City, of course, so there's a photo-rhythm to oxy-running, dark to light, light to dark. The free bloons and tethered clusters that exist below the City go from dark gray to silver and green as the ambient light gets stronger. Near the edge of the City, the population of live bloons increases, and the long tendril roots below them become lush and luxurious, but there aren't very many such habitats; even untethered bloons have to have permits anywhere near Sky City, and too much habitation down below would interfere with transport.

Beyond the City and further down into the clouds, there are even a fair number of free bloons, those without inhabitants, and there are semi-wild herds of green oxy-bloons, those with pure O2 inside. Those get rounded up by the herders who supply the extra air needs of the City and the dark underside of it. Most air runners started out as bloon herders, and how well you get along with the herders affects a runner's profit by quite a bit. I get along with them pretty well. They're a closed-mouth, standoffish lot, and birds of a feather know when to give each other plenty of room.

That day, I took a double shift, twenty straight hours of the dance of light and dark, twenty hours of trying to beat my imagination into submission. Freesailing is nearly mindless physical labor, hauling lines up and down, climbing around inside and sometimes even outside the bloon, setting the airfoils and watching for snags. It's work that is usually good for shutting off the mind and sometimes even bringing dreamless sleep at the end of a shift. But that wasn't going to happen this time. At the end of the second shift the dream screams still echoed in my ears even though I was still awake. The night ahead promised to be long and vicious.

Calvin Lee was waiting in my room when I returned. I was almost glad to see him. Anything but trying to go to sleep.

"No door lock," he said, glancing up from a portable comm unit that he had on his lap. Except for the faint leakage from outside, the light from the screen was the only light in the room.

"You get what you pay for," I told him. "Wait here, I'll be back."

I went down the hall and took a full ten liter shower, shaved and put on fresher clothes. Lee was still there when I got back, still sitting in an inflatable chair he'd brought with him, still fussing with a keyboard and looking at the comm screen.

"Did you bring two?" I asked. "Chairs, I mean. I don't care about the gadgets." He shook his head. I shrugged and sat on the floor. I was used to it.

"So?" I asked him.

"We tweaked a coroner up in Anchorage, and he did the full autopsy. You were right, or near enough. The coroner wasn't sure about the actual cause of death; he said some things about dehydration, neurosensitizing drugs, and he wasn't sure how much electrical shock was used, but he had no doubt that she'd died during torture. But that's not news to you, right?"

I made an appropriate noise and he continued. "I also commed Luna for your service record. It's a very good record. Superb, in fact. Would you like to see it?"

I grunted something noncommittal that he took for an assent. Or maybe he just wanted to show me his toy. He turned it around so I could see the screen. It was a full bore computational comm unit with a holorez screen that could do three-D if it had to. They were common as dirt on Luna, but not many on Venus had one, or had the need for one, either. But the holorez was wasted; it was only showing text at the moment, text that I knew moderately well. I'd seen my own record a few times, after all.

"So here we have where you joined the Luna Security Force," Calvin said, "Your first couple of years, the Speaker's Park incident, a couple of commendations, and a group award to your unit for consultation during the rewrite of the manual for crowd control. That was about the time you placed second in the Division unarmed combat competition." He looked at me as if he expected me to say something. I didn't.

He shrugged and started in again. "Then a transfer to Homicide, more commendations, a very high clearance and conviction rate, then some shared time with Drugs and Vice with that big raid on the drug lab in Clavius. You were also teaching an Academy course in hand-weapons techniques during that time. Did you ever sleep?" By this time it was obvious that he was consciously trying to provoke me. It was almost working.

"But nine years ago it all goes blank," he said. "Watch this." He tapped a key, the screen showed a date, then just a string of garbage symbols. "That's encrypted," he said ruefully, "And it usually means that there's a court ordered scramble put on someone's record, usually for legal reasons. Like somebody did some jail time that was later rescinded, or pardoned off. But I asked one of our higher ups and he did some checking. We have a few people who can get a peak at some of the first levels of file encryption--don't tell anybody I told you. Anyway, our guy told me off the record that your record seems to be just encrypted noise. You're under a double blackout. Your record for that period has been completely wiped; there's nothing left to get at. That's LunaGov security procedure. Very high level. Very no questions asked."
"You were also teaching an Academy course in hand-weapons techniques during that time. Did you ever sleep?"

I'd made it obvious that I wasn't going to say anything unless he asked me directly. He blanked the screen and the room went dark. He'd brought a lamp with him this time and he switched it on. He looked at me with something like an apology on his face. He really wasn't very good at this. "Can you tell me about it?" he asked.

I thought about that, thinking of all the different meanings of that question. "I'm not a Luna cop, any more, if that's what you mean. Legally, LunaGov has no direct power on Venus, though I guess they have a lot of slick with Skyhook. But hell, that doesn't cut much, and legally you have no authority outside of Sky City, even. So you're asking off the record, man to man, is that it?"

He nodded. "It's your call," he said. "Man to man."

"Man to man," I said with what was probably a nasty look on my face, "I don't talk about it and I won't talk about it. I didn't like it, which is no real secret, but other than that I refuse to say. I've put it in a box, and I don't open that box."

His lips thinned. "Shit," he said quietly. "You don't make it easy, do you?"

I shrugged. "It isn't easy and I can't make it that way."

He got to his feet and began to pace. "Okay. A review," he said. "I come to you with an ordinary slash murder ID and you tell me that it's actually some sort of torture thing, like out of freak books and old vids. Then you walk. I check and find out just enough to confirm that you probably know what you're talking about and this is, indeed, one ugly can of worms we've peeped. You may have an idea of what this is about, but you don't want to talk about it."

He turned to glare at me. "I should have slapped you with a witness writ before you got to the gate. If I had the authority, I'd yank you now. You've left me high and dry, damn you! Don't you care even a little bit about nailing the bastard or bastards who did this to Sheila Mason? She thought enough of you to list you as quasi-kin. Does that burned-out- asshole attitude of yours go all the way to the bone?"

The silence stretched for what seemed like minutes. Downside in the distance I heard the rumble of an late morning storm.
"…I've put it in a box, and I don't open that box."

"No," I heard myself say. I sighed as I realized what I was about to do.

"I said I wouldn't break Luna security." I told him. "I won't tell you how and why I know the things I know. That's the way it is and that's the way it has to be."

I looked him dead on, and wondered how good he was in a tight spot and I wondered if that might be important sometime.

"But I didn't say I wouldn't help you," I told him. "You want to catch the assholes who did that to Sheila, count me in."

Next Chapter

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chapter one: So Who Died?

It was true night when the buzzer sounded, but the clock day had already begun. A storm far down below lit the clouds with lightning that occasionally flickered through the translucent floor and walls of my room. Then the thunder would punctuate, with a dim rumbling that sounded as if the hidden planet was trying to clear its throat.

Despite the adversities of sound and the nightmares, I still tried to sleep. But the buzzer sounded again and I gave up ignoring it, so I pushed to my feet and stumbled to the door. The comm button glowed a dim red and I pressed it twice before I remembered that the light and the buzzer were the only thing that worked. On my third motion I tried to punch it through the bloon's flexible wall. Then I yelled through the door, "Comm's broken. You'll have to speak up!"

"Ed Honlin?" came a voice through the bloon portal. "I'm looking for Ed Honlin."

I debated lying, but he'd probably only come back later. "You got him," I said. "Who's asking?"

"My name is Calvin Lee," he told me. "I'm with Sky City Police." He hesitated, then added in a quieter voice that barely made it through the membrane, "Homicide."

"Who died?" I asked.

"May I come in please?" he responded. "I'd rather not yell through your door."

Fair enough, I thought. Everyone along the corridor had already gotten an earful. As if any of them would care. I flipzipped the door and the bloonskin peeled back to reveal a slim Asian holding a flashlight in the nearly dark hall. I beckoned and he entered.

He was shorter than I am, but then, most people are. Medium height for Calvin Lee, then, say about 165 centimeters. Dark hair, Asian eyes and face. He looked nearly pure ethnic, which meant that he was probably third generation Venus born, at least. He was only about twenty five, by my estimation, but I might be shaving a couple of years because he looked like an eager beaver type. It didn't seem likely that he was using the anti-aging drugs yet, anyway.

His light was in my eyes, so I snapped a chembulb and a pale green light expanded hesitantly into the room. Lee switched off his light and looked around for a seat.

"No chairs," I told him. "Not much of anything, in fact."

A storm far down below lit the clouds with lightning that occasionally flickered through the translucent floor and walls of my room. Then the thunder would punctuate, with a dim rumbling that sounded as if the hidden planet was trying to clear its throat.


He looked around the room with obvious dismay. Hell, what did he expect from the cheapest digs in Darkunder? No furniture, my bedding against the one wall and my clothes tossed against the other. Any excess baggage and my landlady would charge a weight fee. The toilet and shower were down the hall in a live bloon where the waste would do some good.

"So who died?" I asked again.

"Sheila Mason," he answered. He looked around the room again and started to say something, then stopped.

I felt my scowl get deeper. "Sheila?" I let that sink in. I shook my head trying to force a picture of her face up from the depths of memory. All I could get was a glimpse of her eyes, the sound of her voice, how she'd been clumsy in zero G during the long sail from Luna.

"Damn," I said. "I haven't seen Sheila in months." I thought back. "Hell, it's been more like four years. Why me? Why tell me about it?"

"You're given as a contact on her Ident bracelet," Calvin Lee told me. "We need someone to identify the body."

I sighed. "We came across on the same ship," I told him, by way of explanation. "She must have put me on the ID and never thought to pick a replacement." I sighed again. "What time is it?"

"7615," he said, looking at his watch. I worked only during lighttime, so I had maybe 20 hours before my next shift.

"Wait in the hall while I dress," I told him.


A few minutes later we walked down the hall, through the two zippered doors, and climbed into his waiting motor squid. Calvin left a man's weight worth of ballast on the dock; it would go onto the next taxi that dropped off a passenger. The police squid had running lights, so as we pulled away from the hotel I got another exterior shot of the joint. Pretty it was not. It looked a lot like an inflatable Christmas tree with sausages attached to it. That's what bloons are, after all, just giant gas bags usually shaped like sausages. The live ones are green and have hair coming out the bottom, but there's not many live bloons in the shadow of Sky City. So we live in bare corpses. Well, what do you expect at these prices?

"You shipped with Miss Mason four years ago?" Lee asked, more to make conversation than anything else I suppose. Or maybe it was just to act like a proper policeman.

"Yeah," I told him. "Lunar sunship. It took ten months. Everybody lives in everybody else's pocket on a sunship."

He nodded. "Why did you immigrate to Venus?" he asked.

I looked at him. "Ever been to Luna?" He shook his head.

"Then the answer would make no sense to you," I told him. "Let's just say I got underfed up." He smiled faintly at my faint joke.

"What do you do for a living?" he asked. I snorted. He was prying now.

"This and that," I said, the standard Under answer. He didn't like it.

"What did you do on Luna?"

"I was a cop."
Every so often a shaft of light comes through Sky City's dark underbelly, visible evidence that one can move up in the world.

That shut him up for a while and I watched the scenery. The lowest level of Sky City proper is mostly warehouse space and there aren't many avenues to get inside, at least not easily or legally. So it's all a dim, uneven expanse of faintly glowing bloons, lit by whatever interior light escapes during the forty-eight hour Venus night. Every so often a shaft of light comes through Sky City's dark underbelly, visible evidence that one can move up in the world. Calvin aimed the bloon toward one of these. As soon as we ascended, we entered the artificial light provided on the avenues of Sky City. It still wasn't much to look at, just lumpy walls of bloons connected cheek by jowl; one bloon exterior looks pretty much like any other, except maybe for deluxe house bloons or the giants in the warehouse sections. When I'd first arrived on Venus I'd compared the City to a chemical refinery, or a giant abstract sculpture, with thin tubes connecting bulbous shapes in clusters and sheets, but eventually I realized that all comparisons were useless. Sky City looked like Sky City, and like nothing else in the solar system.

In the planned parts of the City you can see for kilometers out along the transport avenues filled with taxi squids and barge bloons. Since the avenues are all one-way, every bit of traffic that we could see was migrating toward the hub, the Skyhook itself and the Maze that surrounds it.

The Maze is the part of the City that first grew up after the Hook came down; there was no thought to control it for the first few years. By the time that Skyhook realized they had to regulate, people had staked claims, made alliances, and more or less grandfathered themselves into a permanent setup. From then on, growth had been managed by restricting tethering privileges and power connections, but the first anarchic patterns were now permanent, a three dimensional twisting canyon of connected and interlocked bloons, sometimes with only a squid's worth of alley space between the walls.

The Maze gets more regular when you get to the Center clusters, where the Hook owns most of the real estate outright. Lee aimed the squid toward a docking near Center 2, about a klick from the main Hook entrances and near the City Offices. The sight of Police Headquarters must have caused Lee's detective habits to kick in, because he started asking questions again.

"How well did you know her?" he asked me. "How well did you know Sheila Mason?"

"We weren't lovers and we weren't related," I said. "Anything else is gossip. A Luna-Venus trip is long and it's dull. You learn a lot about the other passengers, because everybody talks from having nothing else to do. When the trip is over, you do your best to forget about it. At least I did."

"She thought enough of you to put you on her ID," he said. "How well have you forgotten?"

"Mighty damn well," I said truthfully, as I tried again to picture Sheila's face.

"I'm surprised at that attitude from an ex-policeman," he said.

"That's right," I said sharply. "Ex-policeman. I like the ex- part a lot.

He shrugged and began docking the squid. I'd been doing a lot of bloon piloting lately, most of it free sail, but some of it motorized. The police squid was a fancier rig than I was used to. It had eight fans and a prow snout that made docking a dream. Lee just slid the prow into a hitch depression and the velcro lined up and grabbed practically by itself. He cut the engines and we entered Sky City.

The seals were rubber tight; the airlock walls showed not even a hint of excess CO2 blue from the air outside. I've been though some that were damn near sapphire, where you reach for a breath bubble by force of habit. But this was Sky City, after all, where CO2 shock is declassè.

Once we got through the lock, Lee slid his Ident tag into the City gate and pressed his thumb to the lit sensor square. Then he punched a couple of buttons.

"Your turn," he said to me.

One of the reasons I seldom come to the City is that I hate the damn Gates. They're too much like the checkpoints on Luna. The distaste must have shown on my face. Ah, screw it, I thought, and gave it my middle finger instead of my thumb.

That works too, but it takes a little longer. The gate hesitated, then beeped. Calvin Lee and I both entered Sky City and the official jurisdiction of Skyhook.

"Had your fill of regimentation already?" he asked, suppressing a smirk.

"What the hell do you know about it?" I asked. I imagine I snarled the words a bit.

He looked at me sideways. "Look," he said. "You can cut the crap now. You've made the point. You've got a one note song so you don't have to deal with this except as a once-over-lightly. Fine. Just look at the body, make the ID and we'll send your barnacle butt back to shadowville."

I started to flip back at him, then closed my mouth. What's the use, and he was right besides. Just get it over with.

By clock time it was mid-afternoon and the corridors of police headquarters were fairly crowded by Venus standards, which is to say we'd meet someone about every twenty paces. "The morgue's below," he said and pointed to a ladder.

It was cold down below, for obvious reasons. Keep them fresh, if you can. The police morgue was a small room, without much in it, three zip bags on inflatable cots. I looked around and couldn't help asking, "What's the City murder rate?"

"Maybe one a week, usually a knifing in a bar fight. There's three of us part time in homicide."

I shook my head and did the arithmetic. Five million people, one murder per week. Murder rate of one per hundred thousand per year. Luna has 20 million people and a homicide rate of 5 per hundred thousand. When I'd worked homicide we had 15 full time detectives and we were always short.

"We had a mass killing about 4 years ago, just after I joined the force," he said. His face clouded. "A guy went nuts and lit off a butane tank in a factory bloon. Blew out the wall and killed the lot of them. It was wall to wall down here for days."

He stopped, apparently startled at the recollection and his telling of it. He blinked and pointed at one of the body bags.

"There she is," he said.

He zipped back the bag and I caught that first whiff of recent death. He motioned me over to look at the body.

I'd been wondering how I'd react. The first few times you look at a corpse, especially a violent death, it's a shock. Then that initial horror fades and soon enough only the bad ones get through the jaded crust. Finally images of death lose all emotional impact and intensity and it all goes flat as a washed out print. After that, it's just a matter of getting used to the smell.

Sheila was a good test of how much armor I retained, because she'd been cut up pretty badly, and I'd known her personally. Her face finally clicked in my memory; a jigsaw puzzle of ruined features and distant recollection.

"It's Sheila," I said.

He nodded and spoke into a recorder. "Mr. Honlin has made a positive identification of the body of Sheila Mason. Date stamp now please."

He sighed, another task out of the way. "The body was found two days ago, stuffed in a waste shaft just up from the warehouse level. It was found by complete accident; her corpse turned wrong on the way down and snagged. There's a constant downdraft maintained on the waste shafts to keep the methane from building up at the top. It's to keep the smells confined, also. A sensor registered a loss of air flow and when a worker went to check the obstruction, there she was."

He made a face. "Must have made his day -- the worker I mean." He shook his head, then continued.

"She was on a visitor's visa from some small farm and light craft cluster down south. We've already notified them.

"There's a lot of bars near where she was found, some of them with some pretty rough trade. Our current guess is that she got picked up by someone who wound up not liking her very much. Maybe she said 'no' at the wrong time, or 'yes' in the wrong tone of voice."

I looked at the body again. No autopsy yet, and her clothing still hung in tatters from the multiple slash lines. The body hadn't been in the waste tube for very long; there wasn't much extraneous material on her clothing. "Who's your coroner?" I asked him.

"We time share with public health and two of the ex-im companies." I looked at him and he shrugged. "Once a week is not a full time posting," he said, by way of explanation.

I made a face. A quarter-time slot split up four or five ways, most likely farmed out to an insurance autopsy clinic. Might as well cut them open with a pen knife for a bridge club to look at. That would get you as much information as insurance autopsy clowns.

"Official cause of death?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was nuts. "She's been cut to ribbons," he said.

"Her corpse was cut to ribbons," I told him. "At least an hour after she died. Where's the blood?"

He looked again and scowled. "Maybe..." he started, then stopped. "I don't know. There should be more blood though, shouldn't there?"

"Not really," I said, and continued rattling off the obvious. "Corpses don't bleed much. There's a trace of pooling in the legs and feet, but nowhere else. Not much mottle in the torso, so she died standing up. No obvious pooling in her hands, so she may have had her hands above her head when she died, and for a while thereafter."

I took her hand and looked carefully. It had been cut, but the cuts weren't right for defense wounds. No bleeding there, either.
There should be more blood though, shouldn't there?

"Faint chaffing and bruising of the wrists, mostly obscured by the superficial knife wounds. She was probably bound at the wrists with soft cuffs."

I looked at Lee and stabbed him with my eyes.

"Faint but characteristic burns on the genitals, breasts, lips, and corners of the eyes. She was wired up and then tortured. Most likely, she died of shock. Too much pain can do that, especially if you enhance the pain with the right drugs. So her torturers weren't good enough to parcel it out slowly, or they were impatient. Or both. The body was then mutilated to hide the traces, but they did it badly, so again, they're not top notch. Then they dumped her and she got found. Mistake number three. Or maybe just bad luck."

I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at Calvin Lee, so I wouldn't have to see the horror on his face as he realized what I was saying. It wouldn't take long for him to begin to wonder how it was that I could recognize the marks on Sheila's body and what that might say about me. There was a familiar ringing sensation in my ears. Familiar to me, anyway.

"Take me home now," I said. "I want no part of this."

Next Chapter

Authors Note and Some Introduction

About [cough] number of years ago, I had this idea. I had it while reading technical papers on the atmosphere of Venus.

The Cytherean (the hoity toity adjective for "Venusian") atmosphere is way cool for an atmospheric scientist. For one thing, there's so much of it, almost 100 times as much as Earth's. It has about as much nitrogen as Earth's atmosphere, but the rest of it is carbon dioxide, pretty much a planetary supply of it, whereas most of Earth's carbon dioxide is locked up in carbonate rocks, with a lesser amount dissolved in the oceans, and just a whisper in the air itself. Our oxygen does derive from CO2, however, with the remaining carbon mostly spread about in little bits of graphite in the crust, plus a few smidges in higher concentrations, which we call fossil fuels.

Venus is a "runaway greenhouse," hot as hell on the surface, and pressurized to boot. Not a place you'd want to live.

But while I was reading those technical articles, I noticed the pressure/temperature curves, and they said that between 50 and 60 kilometers above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure was near one bar, i.e. what we have on the Earth's surface, the temperature was also pretty livable, maybe 20-30 Celsius, say from 68 to 86 degrees F, for those who think in those units.

Well, there's a reason for that, and part of it has to do with Venus being an imperfect greenhouse, like Earth is, except that Earth has a lot of water vapor and not much CO2 and Venus has a lot of CO2 and not much water vapor. It does, however, have clouds of dilute sulfuric acid. The tops of those clouds are pretty close to that "Earth zone" of pressure and temperature.

Okay, so even in the "Earth zone" breathing the air would kill you in seconds, so you'd never notice the acid fog as it ate away your clothes and skin. So you don't want to try to live out in the open. But how about inside of something?

The air is carbon dioxide. A balloon filled with oxygen and nitrogen will float in a carbon dioxide atmosphere.

So I wrote a story about it, "Aphrodite's Children." A. J. Budrys liked it, so it appeared in Tomorrow SF. And there was a back story, about interplanetary colonies cut off from Earth because something really bad had happened on Earth. I made it a plague, with a lingering planetary defense system that had gone crazy because it was robotic and robots go crazy when a lot of people die on them. Seemed reasonable. Part of it is old SF tropes, and part is the "we need to colonize Space because all our eggs shouldn't be in one basket." And part of that was just how dubious a rationale that is for colonization. Losing Earth would probably kill any actual colonies, but I put it through the everything-you-expect-is-wrong grinder and came out with a lost Mars colony, a weirdly flourishing Venus, and an authoritarian State on the Moon.

All in the back of my head, you understand. Little of this made it to "Aphrodite's Children."

And then I woke up one morning with the beginning of a story in my head that I couldn't shake. The guy in the story woke up too, and he was irritable, and smart-mouthed, and dangerous, and he'd done something really, really bad once, and a lot of people were very indebted to him because he'd done it.

And I didn't know what he'd done, but I had to find out, so I began to write.

I was part of an ongoing group of professional writers at the time, since jokingly named "Will Write for Food." We had monthly meetings, and I brought in about three chapters a month. And most everybody was fascinated by the story, especially including me. It was rather like reading one of the old serialized pulp stories, even for me, because things kept happening in it that I didn't expect or plan on.

And the protagonist, Ed Honlin, (look, his name came from the dream also, so I can't tell you how I got it), was a classic noir detective, in an environment where firearms were almost entirely absent. You don't shoot off a gun when you're inside of a balloon, even if metal is plentiful, which it isn't on my Venus. And you don't use guns on the Moon, because, well, damn, there's vacuum outside, isn't there?

So it's all martial arts and such, and my guy is both big and well-trained. It turned out that he'd had some enhancements added as well. He can't beat everybody, but he can pretty much beat anybody, if you know what I mean.

He's also damaged goods, in many, many ways. And he knows much more than he should about torture. I wrote all of this before Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and I found upon later re-reading it that I didn't have to change a thing. I hadn't done any in depth research on torture, but it doesn't take a maven to realize that Jack Bauer fantasies are crap.

Anyway, you can get this much from the first chapter. I'm going to put up the whole thing, a chapter at a time, at my convenience or at others' urging, because there aren't any old pulp magazines to serialize this thing, and I've been recently reminded that life is short and I'm tired of waiting for agents and publishers to figure out what to do with it. Maybe if a few more people read it, they'll figure it out.

One way or another.

Begin Dark Underbelly