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

No comments: