Friday, December 14, 2007

Chapter fifteen: Apparently, I was going to try to stay alive

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The nightmares that besieged me that night were the ones about being somebody else, somebody who stared back at me from mirrors with a sick, evil expression on his face. I heard his voice, in my dreams, with the appalling not-quite-familiarity of my own recorded voice played back to me. Sometimes I had to watch his hands doing terrible things. Then there were the screams, and the blood.

I awoke with a convulsive effort, just after dawn, when Darkunder gets a few fugitive rays of sunshine, just before the sun disappears behind the City that floats overhead. I figured that it was too early to call Marjori Low, so I tried Calvin Lee at City Center. He answered on one ring.

"Oh, hi Ed," he said, so cheerfully I was glad I wasn't near enough to throttle him. "We've got the raid set for tomorrow afternoon."

"During daylight?" I asked.

"Yeah, we figure that they won't be expecting anything at that time. It's down nearly on the bottom level, so there won't be all that much light anyway."

"What do you figure to find?" I asked.

"Well, plant extracts, of course. And we might get lucky and find it's a crank mill. We've had a little flare up of smokable amphetamine recently."

"That usually doesn't last long," I told him. "It burns out the users too fast. It's good for prepping the market for narcotics, though."

"Yes," he agreed. "Express riders need something to cool off after a while. So anyway, are you coming along?"

Sometimes I had to watch his hands doing terrible things.

"I said I would and I haven't changed my mind," I told him.

"Good," he told me. "Check in tomorrow morning for the briefing." Then we said goodbye and clicked off.

I went uplevel to the coffee shop and had some wake up, then some breakfast. Then I plugged into the news channel for a while, something I seldom do. No obscure facts presented themselves to resolve all our mysteries at once.

I needed to think some things through and I figured that some free sail might clear my head. So I buzzed Joey to check and see if there were air slot available. He said sure, so I told him I'd be right up.

But first I called Marjori.

She answered on the fourth ring, in a husky morning sort of voice. "Did I wake you?" I asked.

"No, darling," she said. "I was just lying here in bed like a useless slug enjoying the morning light. You should be here."

"I make a dreadful slug," I told her. "Slimy trail, always looking for some snail to dispossess..."

"Ah, darling, it's so good to hear your voice. You don't mind do you? My calling you darling, I mean?"

"Not at all," I replied. "Like water off a duck."

"Pssh," she said. "Besides, have you ever seen a duck?"

"Deciduous Littoral Biome on Luna," I told her. "They have thousands of them. "All from a single breeding pair that made it through the famine."

"You'll have to tell me about them sometime."

"Yes," I agreed. "I'm about to do some air jockey work," I said. "I'll call you in a few hours, and maybe we can have dinner tonight."

"That would be lovely," she said.


"Besides, have you ever seen a duck?"

I went uplevel and got a transport bloom from Joey's stable. "I've got Old Bess for you, Ed," Joey told me.

I once called her "Old Bess" and Joey has called her that ever since. Most bloons used for free sail are corpses, just the skin and skeleton of once living organisms. This makes some sense. Any transport bloon has to be bald, the root tendrils underneath would get in the way of drag line deployment. Also, a sail bloon has to have quite a few openings in it that a living bloon doesn't have naturally, and it's easier to work dead bloonskin, since the live stuff has a tendency to heal up any cuts.

Old Bess was really old, however, and her healing powers were pretty well gone. She was naturally bald besides, which is why I called her Bess, from something I read once about Queen Elizabeth I of England. Joey and I had kept Bess alive long past her natural span by continuing to feed her sugar and amino acids in her inner mouth, and by generally treating her right. In the wild, she would have long ago been eaten by sharks, squids, or taken by fishermen.

Part of the reason why I did it, is that I prefer to free sail in live bloons. When they did the genetic engineering on the Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish last century, they tried out a lot of different ways of making an organism that was capable of floating and feeding in the upper atmosphere of Venus. One of the things they paid special attention to was the lifting organs. God only knows how many they tried, and whether all of them survive in the plethora of bloon species there are on Venus, but there are three or four main ones that are common.

The green bloons are filled with oxygen or sometimes oxynitrogen. It's usually oxynitrogen for bloons with people in them, though I've heard of some high altitude bloons that have their inhabitants breathing pure O2 under low pressure. The green bloons make the O2 from the CO2 in the air, and they control their ballast by making charcoal in an excretory organ. The nitrogen is either made internally from ammonia and nitrates that are fixed by special root tendril nodes, or else it enters through membranes that are permeable to N2 but not CO2. The nitrogen pass membranes are a main feature of another organ that some bloons have called the 'stiff body.' The stiff body is a cage of stiff cartilage wrapped in a nitrogen pass membrane. When the bloon descends, the stiff body resists compression at the lower depths, and nitrogen passes through the membrane to equalize the pressure.

Another kind of altitude control organ is filled with ammonia, since the vapor pressure of ammonia can be easily controlled by varying the temperature in the organ. Except for the stiff body, all of the bloon lifting organs inflate and deflate to maintain or change the altitude of the bloon according to either the creature's needs or those of the occupant.

Bess still had both her stiff body and ammonia bags, which is rare, since both are usually taken and sold before a bloon is put into service for sailing. But I preferred the greater altitude stability that they gave her, and I would have paid to keep them in. Also, Joey had asked Fumio to keep Bess alive, and since the removal of her stiff body and ammonia bags would have certainly killed her, Fumio acquiesced.

I called her Bess, from something I read once about Queen Elizabeth I of England.

I took Bess out to the edge of the City, and sent a quick transponder beep to let the herders know I was there. The green bloon herders are the other half of the oxygen supply transaction, free sailors who don't have City sail licenses, and who round up strings of green bloons, preferably of the pure oxy kind, and bring them to the City Edge. There an air jockey can make a quick cheap buy and not have to go out searching himself. I worked the herding areas before I got my City sail license and some of the herders would give me a price break, hoping that I'd help them if they ever made it to shadowville.

Doing an air run is mostly reflex and exercise, hauling lines, setting and resetting fins, watching to make sure you don't get near enough to anybody else to tangle your lines. It's a good way to let your unconscious work on a problem, since it only occupies a little bit of your mind. That day I just sort of generally let things sift and watched what my intuition came up with.

First there was Sheila, of course. She was tortured and killed. More and more it felt like she was killed because she maybe knew where Doria or Thomas were hiding out (if that's what they were doing, I reminded myself that we couldn't be sure that they were even alive). All it took was somebody thinking that she knew where they were. And there were probably drugs involved in it, unless it was a rank coincidence that both Sheila and Doria worked at a place where they grew the stuff. But there wasn't really enough profit to drugs like tobacco, coca, and hemp, not on Venus anyway. So that suggested that there was a link to some offworld smuggling operation.

Everything pointed to Robert Whitley Grayling. He had the offworld connections and some of his companies traded in pharmaceuticals. If you want to smuggle rock, it's a lot easier to do it if you traffic in mountains.

Then there was the fact that Grayling wanted his son back. Lunars are wiggy about their offspring; population control is the most central feature of Lunar existence. Grayling's father had only the one son, and Grayling himself only a single son, despite the both of them having emigrated to Venus, where birth restrictions don't apply. It would be a good bet that Grayling had tried to spawn at least a few more times with women other than his wife and had been unsuccessful. I let myself speculate for a while on the nature of Grayling's wife's depression.

Then there was the fact that he'd tried to turn me into his own mole, by waving money and other inducements at me. Indicative of something, but maybe no more than a father desperate to get his son back. On the other hand, maybe he wanted a bit of an edge on the police.

And why had he gotten so furious at his son for skimming dope? Because he didn't want an addict son? Or because he didn't want people going over his books?

If there was anything fishy about Grayling's operation, it was probably being deodorized at that very moment. The heat was on, and Grayling himself was raising the thermostat in an effort to find his son. Calvin Lee's lab raid was looking like a better and better idea, opening up a new front, shaking the tree by a different branch to see what would fall. If there was a drug smuggling and refining setup working out of Sky City's dark underbelly, this might be useful exploratory surgery.

Everything pointed to Robert Whitley Grayling.

# # #

My first air run that day was smooth as silk. I got three fat oxybloons in tow and made it back to Fumio's in less than two hours. That took care of Fumio's needs, so the next run was for a restaurant cluster a couple of klicks further in toward the City Center. The way out got tricky in a several places where a couple of dunderheads were asking to get their lines tangled, so I hauled in the drag line and powered out of their way.

I was just lowering the drag and raising the topfoil again when I heard it.

It wasn't exactly an explosion, more like a sharp and sudden whoosh! The sound of it got a little garbled coming through my bubble mask, so I first turned the wrong way. When I did turn in the direction of the sound, the glow from the charge was just fading.

Someone had planted a bomb or some sort of incendiary device on Bess's exterior. The sudden heat of it had burnt a hole in the bloon's outer skin, and the upper nitrogen bag had been breached.

This did not make me happy. I dumped my ballast and hit the transponder to send a distress call. Then the next one went off.

The upper chambers of a bloon are segmented, partly to protect against the effects of a catastrophic breech. Two upper bags were now leaking badly, and I wasn't at all surprised when a third flare bomb went off.

It wasn't a particularly good way to try to kill somebody. If I'd been within sight of a green herder I'd have been okay, probably. If I'd been towing the oxybloons, I could have just transferred over and cut Bess loose. As it stood, though, there was nothing substantial between me and Hell below.


It wasn't exactly an explosion, more like a sharp and sudden whoosh!

Bess tipped backwards and began to drop. I cut the drag line immediately, which only slowed the rate of descent a little bit. There was no way that anyone was going to get to me in time, so I ignored the transponder, grabbed my spare peroxypack, put on a couple of wrist claws, and climbed outside, wondering if today was going to be the day I died.

I'd been running the topfoil about fifty meters above the bloon. The topfoil is the upper counterpart to the drag line, a trefoil-shaped lifting body that can catch the wind at higher levels and help to steer a free sailing bloon. Under power, it sits right atop the bloon, but I'd been letting it out as I went to free sailing. Now I needed it back.

The topfoil is filled with nitrogen usually, although you can fill them with H2 if you need a very high fetch or extra lift. I was wishing that mine was hydrogen filled at the moment, since that would give me more lift, though even a hydrogen topfoil won't support a full grown man.

But a topfoil is aerodynamic, and I might be able to get it to fly. There are bubble domes on Luna where you can fly body gliders, things that look a little like a topfoil, and I'd heard other Luna natives speculate that you might be able to ride a topfoil that way.

I'd never heard of anybody stupid enough to try it, though. Or desperate enough. At least one of those now applied to me. Apparently, I'd decided to put up a fight. Apparently, I was going to try to stay alive.

I clawed my way around Bess's exterior until I was atop the bloon. The topfoil has three sets of double lines set too far apart where they connect to the main bloon to grab all at once. I pulled my new knife from my ankle scabbard, severed the rear lines, and wrapped them around my wrist while I clawed forward to get the other two sets.

When I cut the last line, Bess dropped away rapidly and my descent slowed. Just before Bess fell out of earshot, I heard a sickening crunch as her stiff body organ imploded, unable to meet the sudden increase in atmospheric pressure. It was one of the most horrible sounds I'd ever heard.

Apparently, I'd decided to put up a fight.

It was already getting hot; I was well below the 310 Kelvin level already, easily a full kilometer down from where we'd started. I knew it would get much hotter before I could climb to the topfoil and try to control it.

Bloonsilk is similar to spider silk, the protein comes from the same cloned genes. Bloon cable lines are thin and strong, hard to grab hold of. I hauled myself up the triple set of lines, sometimes wrapping a loop around me as I went, in case my grip slipped.

I favored the forward lines as I climbed, trying to pull the topfoil level, so it would give more parachute drag. I forgot what would happen when the topfoil tipped forward. I was still maybe fifteen meters from the topfoil when I finally overbalanced it, so its nose dipped and with a sickening lurch we started a dive.

The plus side was that for a few moments, my weight relative to the topfoil went negative, and I scampered up the last few meters to the top foil. But the sudden acceleration of the lifting body put it out ahead of me, which meant that when the lines went taut, I became a rearward drag. The nose of the trefoil pulled up, then when the dive pulled up, the topfoil stalled. My glider and I started to tumble backwards.

I loosed the rear lines and let myself drop a meter or so, and the jolt on the front lines yanked the nose down again. This time I was nearer to the topfoil, and didn't pendulum enough to kill the dive. I used the time of reduced weight to wrap the rear lines around my feet and each of the forward lines around my wrists. Then I tried pushing my weight down on the rear line.

That maneuver worked. I pulled the dive into a strong horizontal glide. By pulling down on the right line, I managed to give the topfoil enough of a flex to turn the flight into a circle. That was something, anyway. I was no longer falling so much as making a winged descent.

My left earring buzzed and I realized that I was getting short of air. I reached over and squeezed the peroxypack under my arm, a normally simple action made fiendishly difficult by the fact that I had to maintain constant tension in the control lines. A quick squirt of O2 puffed into my bubble mask, but I noticed that it had the telltale scent that's put in the peroxypacks to let you know when they are about at the end of their charge. I had one more pack with me; normally you don't use them much in a sail bloon, since there's plenty of O2 in the bloon air, you just need the bubblemasks to filter out the CO2 that leaks in. But soon all my O2 was going to be from my one last peroxypack in my hip pocket.

I was no longer falling so much as making a winged descent.

Besides which it was goddamn hot, well over 320 Kelvin, headed into sauna territory. And I was putting out my own calories fast enough to melt ice in a refrigerator. All the water in the air is in the sulfuric acid droplets in the clouds, so the natural air on Venus is so dry that it makes a desert biome look humid. The arid heat made most of my sweat dry almost instantly, even through the layers of clothing I wore, but my bubble mask was water impermeable, and my face was soon covered with sweat, running down into my eyes, blinding me, not that I could see anything much, because I was well into the cloud layer now. Besides, my bubble mask was trying to plaster itself to my face. Bubble masks aren't made for facing into a stiff airstream wind.

I contorted around trying to get the spare peroxypack out of my rear pocket without dropping it, and onto the valve under my arm. I speculated that I probably wouldn't have time to run out of O2. A peroxypack hold 20-30 minutes of breathing time, and I'd almost certainly pass out from the pressure, heat, and dehydration before that.

Then I hit the updraft. I'd just finished cinching the O2 valve on my peroxypack, and a good thing, too, or I'd have dropped it. As it was, the blast of hot air from down below shook the topfoil, and made it flex enough to yank my arms out to the sides, like I was being crucified.

The updraft was hot but it felt good. It meant that I might have a chance. Updrafts aren't uncommon near the equator of Venus, since the overall circulation pattern for the entire atmosphere is for air to rise at the equator and sink at the poles. I'd been counting on using updrafts to recover some of the altitude I'd lost. With real luck, somewhere down below a storm might be brewing, feeding on the upwelling air from the planet's equatorial zones. Even the most powerful storms rarely penetrate very far into the wind shear layer near the cloud tops where Sky City floats, but I was far enough down so that I was getting some major benefit.

I turned the topfoil to the left, and immediately lost the updraft. Okay, I thought, and followed my circle around until I hit the chimney again. I lifted up again and this time I turned to the right, and felt the draft get even stronger. Good. Let's see how high I could ride it.

It was hard work, harder than running lines or clawing your way on the outside of a bloon. I was panting, even though I'd pumped my bubble mask to excess pressure, which gave it considerably above 1 atmosphere partial pressure of O2 and the feel of it was harsh in my throat. If I'd thought about it, I could have also worried about overloading my CO2 filter, but I had too many other things on my mind.

The updraft was hot but it felt good. It meant that I might have a chance.

After a few minutes, that seemed much longer, I hit a small break in the clouds; nothing large, just a sudden increase in visibility from a few meters to maybe tens of meters. It was beginning to cool as well, down from the torrid air below. Checking my wrist gauge was out of the question, but I guessed that I'd managed to reach the 320 K level at least, maybe as high as the 315.

The updraft was weakening. The likelihood that anyone had caught my short distress signal was pretty slim. Sky City control probably had it as part of the continuing record, but no human beings would ever know what had happened to me unless someone went looking specifically for the transponder sequences. Besides, I'd fallen a good way, and glided even farther. Who knows how far away from my original position I was? And I wouldn't be able to get up to the height of the green herders or the air jockeys. Not on one little updraft.

But I might find a drag line, or even a free floating bloon. An oxybloon would come in mighty handy in about, oh, say ten or fifteen minutes. Maybe less. I was already beginning to get a whiff of the telltale scent from my peroxypack, but that might have been from overheating.

At what I judged to be pretty close to the top of the updraft, I peeled off, took a little bit of a dive to pick up speed, and turned my flight into a straight line. If I was going to find anything at all, I needed to cover a lot of sky, and I needed some daylight.

I hit daylight almost at once. The updraft had pushed a wedge of cloud up above the nominal cloud deck, a pretty typical effect, and one that I'd already figured on. Visibility still wasn't great, there's a sulfate haze that extends for a couple of klicks even when you're out of the clouds themselves, but at least I could see now, more or less, through my sweat streaked bubble mask.

I dipped again to boost my air speed. If I was going to get lucky, it had better come soon.

Something caught my eye in the distance. I swung around to look at it, but it had vanished. I aimed for it anyway, wondering whether I'd just manufactured an illusion out of desperation. But then I caught it again in my peripheral vision. It seemed to be just slightly below my present height, and I hoped that I could maintain enough lift to reach it.

It had to be somebody's drag bubble, a single bloon chamber cut free and weighted to act as a keel for sailing the bloon above. Drag lines are so thin that I couldn't see the ones connecting to this on until I was nearly on top of it. When I did see the lines, they looked gorgeous.

As I neared the drag bubble, I saw that my original sighting had been off, and it was a full hundred meters below my height. That was okay by me; I was more than happy to go for the drag line, and I could always lower myself to the bubble itself.

I aimed myself for the line, reached out for it¾and the topfoil wing hit it ahead of me and pushed it out of my grasp as I flew by. I almost lost it right there, trying to turn so tightly that I nearly stalled. So I pulled in my legs, dropped the nose, and managed to save my glide. The next time I took the whole thing in a wide circle.

I'd seen plenty of videos of how birds do a landing: they pull up at the last moment and flap their wings. Body gliders on Luna use the same trick to get stabilized on lofty perches, but they are dealing with only a sixth of a G. I weighed five and a half times what I would on Luna, and I couldn't flap my wings worth a damn.

But I could do a long swoop, beginning my rise a couple hundred meters from the line then yanking everything up at the last moment. If I'd missed the line I would have stalled, but I didn't miss it. I grabbed onto it with every last bit of energy I had.

The topfoil bobbed up over my head, again trying to push the line out of my grasp, as if it were jealous of my new savior. Not this time, bubby, I told it. I hugged the drag line to my body and let myself slide down it to the bubble below. My feet bounced when I hit the bubble, but I held tight to the drag line.

I weighed five and a half times what I would on Luna, and I couldn't flap my wings worth a damn.

I couldn't really see my unknown benefactor above; the drag line was well over a kilometer down from the free sailing bloon above. But the commotion down below had obviously been felt and he began to haul me up. I imagine that the extra weight came as a surprise. Sometimes a drag line will tangle with a free bloon, more often it gets tangled in someone else's line. Either way, the sailor above must be cursing, I knew, but there was no way he was going to be prepared for my entrance.

Assuming that I made it, of course. There was only a whisper left in my peroxypack by now and my earring was beginning to buzz.

I was starting to gray out by the time the bloon above me was in full view, and my breath was coming in gasps. But God bless him, once my unknown benefactor saw that there was an actual human being down below, he triggered the drag bloon to dump its ballast and began to really haul it. He dumped some gas trim, too, so the sail bloon was actually coming down to meet me.

"Where the Hell did you come from?" he asked as he pulled me into his bloon. I made face contortions and he saw my difficulty. My hands were beyond working and my vision was drifting patterns of black, so he put a peroxypack on my valve unit and gave it a squeeze. Nothing ever tasted so good as that odorless, colorless gas. I inhaled a few deep breaths and almost passed out from the hyperventilation.

But my intentions were the very best

"Go easy for a bit," he told me and I nodded my head.

He looked me over, and I'm sure I wasn't a pretty sight. I'd been down far enough into the acid clouds that my clothing had developed odd pitted discolorations and weird stains at my underarms and groin, where the sweat had evaporated and reacted with the sulfuric leaving little white patches of acid sulfate salt. My gloves were in shreds and scraps of bloon skin still clung improbably to my climbing claws. We'd had to cut me out of my impromptu rig on the topfoil, and the topfoil itself was now tied to the outside of his bloon like a hunting trophy.

"You know," he said with a bit of amusement. "Cancel that question. I'm not really sure I want to know where you've been."

"You had it right the first time," I told him, noticing that my voice sounded like a babble. "I've been on a little trip to Hell. But my intentions were the very best, oh yes, the very, very best."

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