1. Benjamin Abbott
    Offline

    Benjamin Abbott New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0

    Separation

    Discussion in '2012 Science Fiction Contest' started by Benjamin Abbott, Feb 21, 2012.

    Separation
    Words: 7,900

    A speedboat came around the curve of the cliffs as Zyanya watched marine iguanas snort salt. Warnings popped up on her retinal display, overlaid on sea, sky, and rock. The vessel wasn't supposed to be here. It had a fuzzy, fragmented signature on the net, as if trying to cloak but not quite succeeding. The boat raced toward them, spraying white foam.

    "What you do make of this?" she asked Jie, who swam beside her.

    Jie's body tensed. "Should we dive?"

    Zyanya couldn't get any clear data on the pilot. A terrorist? He looked Ecuadorian. Probably from the island, perhaps someone she'd met. She didn't feel threatened. Though the thought made her spine tingle, she knew the authorities were watching, scanning the full spectrum. The speedboat stood starkly visible against the water. If it were a danger, drones would intervene, lasers would fire. They'd never allow her to come to harm, not with where she was headed.

    "It's okay," she said, taking Jie's hand.

    They kept themselves upright with gentle kicks, efficiency increased by flippers. A fat male iguana slid into the sea with a splash. Two brown pelicans few above, necks tucked in. The boat slowed. Zyanya waved, figuring she might as well be friendly.

    "Hey," the pilot said, standing and waving back. "Remember me?"

    She did. Mauricio. He led tours for the few people who liked having a flesh-and-blood guide. They'd met outside the lodge in Puerto Villamil and smoked a bowl together. She smiled, cheeks growing rosy. Jie glanced at her and laughed.

    "Bueno." Mauricio strode precariously to the front of the boat, hands on hips. "I have a question for you, Zyanya."

    "Have you come to wish me a pleasant trip, amigo?"

    "Perhaps he's here to facilitate more professional conduct," Jie interjected, placing a pair of fingers by her lips and inhaling.

    Zyanya slapped the water and squeezed Jie's hand.

    "I want to see the space elevator," said Mauricio, bending down. "¿Puedo ir contigo?"

    "I'm sorry." Zyanya felt the intensity in his dark eyes. "You know how things have gotten lately. They don't even want you here."

    "I've got a genie on my side, sister. I'm invisible. Con tu ayuda, everything will go smoothly. I just want to see it, okay?"

    "You're not invisible on the net. Not at all."

    Mauricio withdrew slightly, almost losing balance.

    "Wait and buy a ticket," Jie said. "They aren't that expensive. The heightened security won't last forever."

    "My past." He staggered backward and slumped into the boat's single seat. "Couldn't buy a ticket even if I had the monos. I did crazy things in college."

    "You should leave," said Zyanya. "They're picking me up soon."

    "I thought this would work."

    "Don't worry about it," Jie said. "We'll pretend this never happened."

    Zyanya winced, knowing that wouldn't be possible. She tried to focus on the cliffs, on the penguins and flightless cormorants. Mauricio didn't speak or look at them as the boat rocketed away. Out by the horizon, an orca came to the surface and opened its blowhole. Frigate birds displayed inflated throat pouches and called. Eventually, Jie and Zyanya regarded each other.

    "I feel bad for him," Zyanya said.

    "Purge your records. We can prevent him from getting trouble. I've been searching for the right genie."

    "It doesn't matter. Do you know what kind of AIs the United Nations uses? They saw everything, they know everything."

    "Come on, indulge my pretensions." Jie paddled close and placed a finger by Zyanya's navel. "I used to be a hotshot hacker, a wizard, a nahual. I thought so, anyway."

    "Don't do anything illegal."

    Jie's eyes twinkled. "With genies, who can say?"

    They embraced, holding, caressing. Legs intertwined awkwardly as they kicked to keep afloat. Zyanya considered how much more distant intelligent security systems had grown over the years. The process used to be interactive. With warnings came requests for input, specific instructions and suggestions. Now they simply watched, aloof and self-sufficient, confident in their own judgment. Law enforcement for minor offenses functioned similarly. The digitally delivered citation could come immediately, later, or never.

    "Galapagos has been magnificent," she whispered. "The flora, the fauna, the air, and the land. Call me a primitivist, but I'm glad I experienced it this way."

    "We're blessed to have the opportunity."

    "Walking in Darwin's footprints."

    The struggle to preserve the ecosystem here against climate and demographic change had made headlines for decades. Rising temperatures and sea levels, an unending flood of humans. At one point, prospects had looked bleak. Populations of certain species recovered only recently. Current policy allowed few tourists to come in person.

    "I'm going to miss you." Jie hugged tighter. "It's almost time."

    "Venus isn't so far."

    Both of them cried softly, tears mixing. Despite the spoken bravado, Zyanya knew communication across the void would transform their relationship. A delay of over two minutes under the best circumstances, over fourteen at the worst. Accustomed to instant interaction with anyone on the planet, that fact made her grasp the distance she would be traveling. Space so vast that even light crawls.

    "Let's go under for the finale," Jie said.

    They dove, masks sliding place automatically, hands firmly clasped. They'd spent hours beneath the waves earlier, advanced rebreathers allowing them to stay as long as the pleased. Brightly colored fish darted amongst the rocks. A green sea turtle floated lazily some thirty meters away. King angelfish, regal in yellow and purple, swarmed around the turtle to pick algae from its carapace. Zyanya spotted a camouflaged octopus hiding on the sea floor.

    And then her ride was there. A sort of submarine, poised still and silent near the surface. Neither the sensors in her wetsuit nor connection to the net had displayed any hint of the craft's approach. An unobtrusive message invited her to board as soon as convenient.

    "Goodbye," Jie sent.

    Masks opened to accommodate a bubbly kiss. With that, Zyanya swam toward the vessel. The entire vacation had been an extended farewell. She couldn't bear anymore.

    "To Venus," she muttered once inside.
     
  2. Benjamin Abbott
    Offline

    Benjamin Abbott New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0
    Separation II

    The ship was tiny but comfortable, a human delivery pod. Her wetsuit began shifting into clothing better suited for the climb out of Earth's atmosphere. She shifted between virtual and augmented reality, sometimes examining a few papers on polar vortexes and atmospheric composition, sometimes taking in the last of her official briefing. The informing officer had a palpable aura of paranoia. Revolutionary Technocracy. Terrorist threat. Possible infiltration. Suspect everyone, person, posthuman, and AI. Zyanya didn't know what to make of it. Considering the attack on Brownsville and the emergence of autonomous zones in Africa, she saw the need for heightened security. But what would the revtechs want with her? They assassinated CEOs and generals, not civilian scientists. An assault on the space elevator or Venus outpost wouldn't fit the established pattern.

    Zyanya recalled the painstaking brain scans and psychological profiling she'd undergone before being selected for the mission. Nothing left secret. UN supercomputers analyzed every record of her life, whether from the net or from her mind. She didn't regret or resent the process. Not exactly. She'd learned a great deal about herself from it. The data enhanced the attunement of her digital assistants, making them more effective. But such a screening seemed excessive. Shaking her head, Zyanya didn't know what she thought.

    "We're surfacing for the final approach," the ship said. "You might enjoy the view."

    Floating platform the size of a small town, slender ribbon stretching up past sight. No units ascending the elevator, no noticeable activity below. Tranquil air, clear skies, empty blue water in every direction. A solitary hanging line with broad bobber, as if God were fishing for leviathans. Despite herself, Zyanya gasped. Casual virtual tours lacked the immediacy of this viewing.

    Various messages greeted her as the ship docked, reiterating mission specifics she'd become intimately familiar with. No delays. Everything on schedule. She disembarked with empty hands. Her father's worried voice echoed in her head. No bags for a forty-million-kilometer journey. But what would she bring? Clothing and accessories stored personal data and helper AIs. Molecular manufacturing could provide whatever physical objects she needed on location, while net access provided almost unlimited information.

    Standing on the open platform, Zyanya gazed into the heavens for some time. She thought of the Amerindian story about the archer who shot arrows into the sky until they hung down to Earth. Animals climbed the line of arrows to become constellations or come back with fire. Zyanya wondered whether she would return to this planet or stay out amongst the stars. And if she returned, what gifts would she bear with her?

    Setting aside contemplation, she sought the two other scientists traveling to Venus. Overlaid directions guided her across the elevator's floating foundation. She found Johnny first, sitting alone in a café. Former marine who'd served in Korea and Vietnam. Thick blonde hair, blue eyes, smooth skin. The wonders of rejuvenation therapy. His cowboy smile reminded her of growing up along the border. Of mesquite bushes, rattlesnakes, and roadrunners. As she shook his hand, the distant aroma of roasting chiles almost overwhelmed her.

    "A pleasure," he said, still chewing on a dumpling.

    He didn't wear rawhide, but rather a fashionable Delhi-style jumpsuit. Flowing gold fractals set on white. His research interest centered on Venusian geology, particularly volcanic activity. Lava channels, pancake domes, and flood basalts. He'd done similar work on the red planet.

    "I look forward to fruitful collaboration," Zyanya said.

    "You know it. We need to understand that climate so we don't screw up the one here anymore." He gestured energetically. "I still can't believe we let things get as bad as they got."

    "Carbon removal seems to have restored the atmosphere."

    "Sure." He sat back down, motioning for her to join him. "But who knows what we're doing now? Only a robust body of knowledge will prevent future disaster."

    "Absolutely." She grinned and took the seat.

    "Hey, do you want anything to eat? They have everything here and we don't have to pay. Organic, fabricated, or conventional. You name it."

    Out of nostalgia, Zyanya ordered a spicy pozole. As automated systems prepared it, the third scientist walked in. Xue, an engineer assigned to assess Venus for exploitation and widespread colonization.

    "Welcome," she said, waving.
     
  3. Benjamin Abbott
    Offline

    Benjamin Abbott New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0
    That was the instant translation. Zyanya felt slightly ashamed for only knowing two languages. The same technological advances that enabled translation made actually learning a new tongue easier than ever before.

    "Do you speak Mandarin?" she sent Johnny privately.

    "Barely any."

    Xue sat down at the table. "Don't worry," she said. "I don't speak English either."

    The spoon dropped from Johnny's lips, spattering broth. "How the hell did you hear that?"

    Zyanya wondered if she were blushing. These are the people I'll be spending years with, she thought.

    "Genies, genies." Xue chuckled. "Those immortal intellects, gods of the net. I leave offerings and they favor me."

    "I feel a bit violated."

    That was the instant translation. Zyanya felt slightly ashamed for only knowing two languages. The same technological advances that enabled translation made actually learning a new tongue easier than ever before.

    "Do you speak Mandarin?" she sent Johnny privately.

    "Barely any."

    Xue sat down at the table. "Don't worry," she said. "I don't speak English either."

    The spoon dropped from Johnny's lips, spattering broth. "How the hell did you hear that?"

    Zyanya wondered if she were blushing. These are the people I'll be spending years with, she thought.

    "Genies, genies." Xue chuckled. "Those immortal intellects, gods of the net. I leave offerings and they favor me."

    "I feel a bit violated."

    Xue shrugged, smile vanishing. "I can see why. Unfortunately, I can't turn it off. Any message about me gets forwarded. Be careful what you wish for."

    Johnny picked up the spoon while the table cleaned itself. Neither he nor Zyanya spoke. She couldn't find anything coherent to say. Her bowl of soup made a dramatic entrance, descending slowly on a deflating balloon. Soft landing, almost silent. Perfectly timed.

    "If you want secrecy," Xue continued, "simply send directly. Avoid the net."

    Zyanya nodded, savoring the taste of hominy and pork. "Let's forget about it," she said.
     
  4. Benjamin Abbott
    Offline

    Benjamin Abbott New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0
    "I didn't mean to create tension, but rather undermine a common stigma." Xue appeared serene as she spoke. "Translators alter data into a more comfortable and familiar form. I fully support this. All perception is interpretation regardless. Why shouldn't we reshape experienced reality to suit our preference?"

    "Bravo," said Johnny. "I couldn't agree more."

    From there the conversation turned to technical topics. Cloud structure, eruption emissions, aerostat cities. Xue had grand plans. Solar arrays harvesting exawatts, space to house entire countries in comfort. Zyanya finished the pozole, marveling at its quality. Then the boarding call came.

    "About a day to get to geo," Johnny said, standing. "I can't believe it. Used to take over a week."

    "That was before my time," said Xue.

    Their little spaceship proved as tight as the submarine. A spartan arrangement. Nutrients delivered intravenously and wastes removed during the long ride. Designers assumed ubiquitous access to and acceptance of virtual reality. Zyanya had a slick setup, with billions of microscopic implants poised to stimulate neurons. She would be able to move as she pleased in digital infinity.

    "Have y'all done this before?" asked Johnny as they prepared to enter. "It's like going back to the womb."

    Xue had; Zyanya hadn't. She'd never bothered to take the trip to orbit or the Moon that so many in the middle class enjoyed. She took a final breath of open air before settling into the life-support chamber. Relying mainly on tangential velocity, the voyage would take close to a month.

    "Might as well switch now," Johnny sent. "Come join me on the top. Nice view."

    With a thought, Zyanya found herself perched on the ship's nose beside her two companions. She felt the acceleration begin. Johnny smoked a long cigarette. Xue sat with legs crossed, gazing down. A simulation, but painstakingly based actual data, a vast web of sensors. They rose, wind ruffling clothes, blue planet unfolding beneath. Zyanya looked east, hoping to spot the Galapagos Islands as soon as they appeared.

    "We leave a world," Xue intoned, "that remains burdened by violence, inequality, and waste. No scientific law demands this. Billions suffer needlessly each day. May we escape the obstacles to reason that have hindered our species. May they fall away here and not follow us."

    Johnny chuckled, blowing fumes. "Wherever you go," he said, "there you are."

    "I share your wish," said Zyanya. "I don't want my research to stumble into any of the old traps. I see leaving this planet as a fresh start."

    "I've lived on the Moon and Mars. I've visited Phobos and Deimos." He tossed the cigarette butt into the air, where it vanished with a sizzling flash. "Change and continuity. It's always a mixture of both."

    "Consider how carefully the UN selected us," said Xue. "A designer's will at work. The new colony receives a filtered version of humanity. It cannot be the same."

    "But what do the bosses want and where do they come from? I'm not so sure their goals match yours."

    Xue smiled, eyes still fixed in front of her. "If I were sure I wouldn't make the appeal."

    Johnny seemed either satisfied or defeated by the reply. Nodding, he produce a bottle of red wine and drank, the sweet smell wafting to Zyanya's nose. She squatted opposite Xue, entranced by the vast ocean. The three of them stared in silence as the edges of Fernandina and Isabela touched the horizon.

    "I'm glad Dowd and Zhang rejuvenated the space program," Johnny said. "Without their initiative, this beanstalk would've stayed limited to small-minded commercial ventures."

    Eventually Mexico and Central America could be seen to the north. Xue excused herself to contact family and winked away. Johnny took to flying around the ship and elevator in wild spirals. His hair swirled in the breeze. Zyanya thought of the people she would miss.

    "I already said my goodbyes," she called out to him. "How about you?"

    "Don't believe in them."

    "I had to make well-defined exit. I couldn't stand waiting for the delay to disconnect me."

    "You'll get used to it." He swooped past as he spoke. "Becomes like sending letters."

    "I'll do that when we arrive. For the trip, I'm incommunicado."

    The terminator appeared in the distance, grey line between night and day, approaching darkness. The Americas gradually unfolded, veiled with white clouds. Zyanya couldn't help but wave to the two continents. No one would see the gesture, but it felt comforting. By twelve thousand klicks, she'd had her fill of Earth viewing. She shifted from the top of the ship to a quiet library and prepared for Venus.

    The journey passed as a dream after that point. Zyanya hardly noticed when ship separated from elevator, flung into emptiness, ion thrusters igniting. She refused to relive memories, resisting images of Jie and waterfalls. Instead she slept for days and days, effectively hibernating, body calibrated to consume minimal resources. Waking in her own flesh once, she marveled at the feeling of weightless. She longed to imitate the awkward antics of earlier astronauts, but there was no room.

    Professional progress lagged behind her expectations. The limited and sluggish access to information deeply discouraged her. She hadn't realized her level of dependence on the net, that vast web of data and intelligences. I'm an adjunct to the AIs, she thought. They performed the tasks that mattered. She analyzed and arranged the results of their labor, placing the finishing touches and serving as a face. Her role in the raw research resembled that of a single bit or pixel.

    When not slumbering or to trying to study, she played with Xue and Johnny in virtual. Rides over rushing rapids, sojourns in sweltering deserts, flights through imagined metropolises hanging in sulfuric skies. They chatted endlessly on the ship's exterior surface, eating and drinking, inhospitable realities ignored. Johnny told stories about Olympus Mons and the Valles Marineris. Xue talked about the potential of mining and geothermal power. A picnic amongst the stars.

    And then they were all gazing at a creamy white planet. It appeared an almost undifferentiated ball of clouds. Not mixture of features and colors like Earth. An alien world.

    "I remember why I do this," said Johnny. "By God I'll see every planet in this solar system."

    "Why stop there?" Xue muttered. "Our species has always expanded."

    Awed voices. Words failed Zyanya. She only stared as they approached, alternating across the spectrum. Radar, ultraviolet, infrared. She saw many Venuses. The variegated surface, cloud contrasts invisible to normal vision, swirling polar storms. Such would be her life for the near future. Carbon dioxide currents and acidic rains disassembled until understood.

    "Entry should be fun," Johnny said. "Like shooting into soup."

    Destined for the top of the troposphere, they would avoid the worst of the atmospheric friction endured by the Venera probes. But not all of it. Zyanya watched as outer layers of the heat shield ablated, planet growing larger and larger. Doubled-sided solar arrays hovered over the yellowish clouds. Signs of civilization. Soon they were diving through through the sulfuric vapor. Zyanya caught a brief glimpse of a grander structure ahead.

    "Welcome to Venus."

    That was Korolev, the mission's coordinating AI. To Zyanya, his majestically measured tone conveyed a hint of superhuman ability, of baffling comprehension. A current ran down her neck, lifting hairs. Despite years of practice, she still felt distantly uncomfortable conversing with genies. Narrower intelligences never bothered her, no matter how fast they processed. Only the far-reaching, unambiguously sentient ones gave that sense of unease.

    Korolev fell firmly into this category. Over a third of the power generated on Venus fed the AI. In brute computation, he easily matched billions of human brains. The specifics remained confidential. Xue once suggested he surpassed the sum mental prowess of the species, of every Homo sapiens who'd ever lived. I don't know how to approach that, Zyanya thought. How can a single entity contain so much?

    "The United Nations has asked us all to be vigilant against terrorist threats," Korolev continued.

    As they dropped out of the upper cloud layer, the aerostat habitat came into clearer view. Almost a floating city, spanning a few square kilometers in full. A transparent dome covered the interior, with outer platforms exposed for resource extraction and energy generation. Zyanya silently thanked the universe for buoyancy. A combination of hydrogen, helium, and breathable air kept the colony from plummeting into the extreme pressure and heat at the planet's surface. At dozens of klicks above, Venus ranked as the most Earth-like of known extraterrestrial environments. Nine-tenths gravity, about a hundred kilopascals, temperature reminiscent of a Texas summer. Haven on a hostile world.

    Zyanya's body strained as the ship docked. A month of inaction. When the door opened, she sprung out onto the gray floor. Limbs remained limber, muscles maleable. Unconvinced, she began stretching.

    "Don't worry," said Johnny as he emerged. "The machines maintained you." He walked forward, a touch of swagger to his step. "It wasn't always this pleasant."

    "I watched the second landing on Mars," Zyanya said, not stopping her exercise. "Either way, it feels good to move."

    "Absolutely," said Xue, skipping and spinning. "We're lighter here. Each leap takes us higher."

    Guided by virtual markers, the three of them started a tour of the colony. The dome let in natural light, a familiar white at this altitude, acidic clouds overhead. No blue-sky simulations. Buildings rose, vertical space employed. Overlays explained function, from cafés to communications hubs.

    "This place could house another thousand people without modification," Xue said.

    "Only fifteen humans here at the moment," Johnny replied. "No immediate plans for more."

    "Seems like a ghost town," said Zyanya. "Or alien ruins, emptied by some disaster."

    "We have erected the extra quarters and facilities as a stability test," said Korolev. "The current calm belies the colony's constant activity."

    A deluge of data demonstrated the AI's claim, outlining flows of electricity and information. Tethered kites harnessing mighty winds, efficient photovoltaics harvesting light, thermoelectrics converting heat from nuclear reactors. Energy enabled intelligence. Innumerable bytes returning from observatories for analysis, untold calculations churning. Signals shot to satellites and then to Earth with high-bandwidth optics, responses received in kind, connection unbroken.

    Zyanya briefly lost herself in the display, mesmerized by scintillating streams. Her two companions stood similarly still. She marveled at the balance, how Korolev effected equilibrium, input and output aligned. Each element in unity with the next, abundance without excess. The colony managed extraordinary efficiencies; Zyanya had studied enough engineering to see that. Nothing she could recall from Earth compared. Genies rarely had free rein on the home planet.

    "You're a craftsman," said Xue. "You're an artist. I've looked over station schematics a thousand times, but this is new to me."

    "I strive for aesthetic value alongside function," replied Korolev.

    "Well, you got it," muttered Johnny.

    As they shook off entrancement and continued their tour, the genie told them that the reception with the other scientists wouldn't happen until the next dawn. Over three Terran days. The contrast would be far more jarring on the surface, where night stretched on for months. Zyanya appreciated the winds pushing the colony around the globe.

    "Why the delay?" she asked.

    "Some are away," said Korolev. "Some are occupied. Full attendance wouldn't be possible before the date mentioned."

    "It'll give us a chance to adjust," said Johnny.

    Zyanya had been in intermittent contact with a few the researchers. Professional exchanges, never personal. Only three shared her focus.

    "Who else wants to brave the atmosphere?" he continued.

    She raised her hand high.

    "Let's go," said Xue.

    At the airlock, they donned breathing masks and thin suits proofed against sulfuric acid. Zyanya specifically disabled her cooling unit as they walked out onto the exterior platforms. Digital assistants described the temperature as survivable.

    "I can't believe this," said Johnny, running to the closest edge. "I'm Lando Calrissian!" He stared down into the haze. "Do you get what I'm saying? I watched that movie in the theater with my kids."

    "DVD here," Zyanya said. "My brother's collection."

    "Now I'm living it." Johnny turned to face her. "If anyone had told me this would happen back then, I'd have called them crazy."

    "I haven't seen any of the films," said Xue.

    "Do you understand the cultural significance?"

    She smiled. "Distantly."

    "It gets better," said Zyanya. "They use flyers here."

    As she spoke, three winged vehicles glided up from below the platform.

    "Every desire anticipated, huh?" Johnny said. "I can live with that."

    He dove onto the closest flyer. Xue and Zyanya mounted more cautiously. The machines accelerated forcefully and handled flawlessly, sensors piercing cloud and haze. They hurtled through the carbon dioxide effortlessly, swerving and rolling. Zyanya soon started sweating.

    "This will make excellent space program propaganda," Xue said. "Tourists would flock here if the UN allowed them."

    When they returned to the airlock, Zyanya saw it as soon as the outer door opened. A terrorist symbol in vermilion and chrome. Revolutionary Technocracy's monad. Red star amidst the silver, silver hammer and sickle amidst in the red. On the opposite wall, the group's slogan appeared in seven languages. Freedom and plenty.

    "Oh God," said Johnny.

    He tumbled back out into the open to huddle under a resource extractor. Xue stepped toward the monad. Its diameter handily matched her height, colors striking against the wall's dark gray.

    "Do you see this?" Zyanya asked Korolev, specifically sending sensory information. She figured he must.

    "It's paint," said Xue, rubbing thumb and forefinger together. "Not a projection. I wasn't expecting that."

    Johnny mumbled incoherently in the distance. Zyanya's mind spun like a polar vortex. Signs and attacks often came in unison. She experienced a vision of the airlock exploding, her body hurled away to fall to the hellish surface.

    "The silver section is almost entirely chromium. The red contains a mixture of elements. Both materials seem strictly decorative."

    "Aren't you worried?" Zyanya asked. "Korolev's not responding."

    "He's probably been compromised."

    Zyanya looked toward Johnny.

    "Cowering won't accomplish anything. If the revtechs want to kill us, we're dead." She let her hand drop and hang by her hips. "But I doubt an attack is imminent."

    Zyanya sprinted across the platform to her companion. "It's okay," she said, reaching down.

    "I think the door will open," Xue called out.

    Johnny tentatively took Zyanya's hand.

    "Come on," she said, giving a gentle tug. "I don't want us to get separated."

    He rose shakily, the instability subsiding as he followed Zyanya. The inner airlock door revealed the same tranquil scene they had left. Yet most of the superimposed markers had disappeared. The network barely functioned, data trickling.

    "Where are we going to go?" Zyanya asked.

    "Let's try to find the other scientists," said Xue.

    She nodded. Johnny only moved his head back and forth warily. Relying on personal systems, they searched for their fellows. Zyanya sent messages to them but didn't expect a response. From what she remembered, the closest residence was a kilometer away. And they had little reason to believe they would find anyone there.

    "Please proceed to quarters for safety," Korolev said suddenly. "Infiltration briefly impaired my systems. Security level now at maximum."

    Everything came online again. A whizzing electromagnetic vehicle snatched the three of them before anyone could react. Enough gees to be uncomfortable but not quite painful. A breakneck ride, winding around buildings and through corridors. Zyanya found herself shunted into a spacious room. The door sealed. She groped at it futilely, staring.

    "Unfortunately, the need for haste outweighed courtesy. Relax and enjoy the facilities. I must concentrate on determining the source the assault. Remain vigilant. It may have come from within the colony."

    "How can anything threaten you?" Zyanya asked. "I don't understand."

    "There are many of my kind."

    She withdrew, moving from door to luxurious bed, flopping down. The room's arrangement granted a nearly overwhelming sense of well-being. Created just for her, she knew. Product of the psychological profile, enacted so adroitly as to make knowledge of the artifice irrelevant. Ristras hanging from adobe walls, lavender chrysanthemums set on olive-hued glass tables, sandalwood incense smoldering in golden braziers. A portrait of Mario Molina atop a curving blued steel stand. She couldn't resist laughing at the eagle perching on the painting's corner.

    Gentle guqin melodies played from nowhere in particular. Zyanya halfheartedly tried to contact her companions. Request temporarily blocked for safety reasons, as she had expected. If Korolev wanted to isolate her, there wasn't anything she could do about it. She resigned herself to indefinite comfort and contemplation. A message had come from Jie, surely timed to coincide with her arrival. Full sensory experience. Virtual reality, but scripted rather than responsive. Taking a deep breath, Zyanya played it.

    "I stopped in Esmeraldas again on the way home," Jie said.

    They stood on a tan beach in bright sun, palm trees behind. Mangroves at the margins, European and Asian tourists relaxing, scrawny fishing boats in the distance. One of the fishers turned, weathered face shadowed by the straw hat. Zyanya and Jie had spent a night on that sand. Remembered images began to mix with the daytime scene. Luminous constellations, the texture of cotton blankets against ribs and pelvis, the warmth of human touch.

    Zoom to the city, passing row after row of indistinguishable shacks. Bleary-eyed headwhores begging for change. People with brains wired by corporations, used for profit. Research, remote control, linked processing, whatever. Experts claimed it was the best economic option for the unskilled masses, but renting out neurons never seemed to pay enough. The practice baffled Zyanya.

    "I noticed things I'd missed the first time through."

    Cyborg police patrolled the streets, armored exoskeletons emitting the faintest of hums, enormous guns gleaming. Trick lasers to blind, bowl over, and nauseate. Ultrasound arrays on bulging backpacks, function classified. Crowd control. A particularly large officer stood in front of an international bank building as an old fisher pedaled by on his bicycle cart. Wares enclosed in a miniature refrigerator, no smell escaping.

    "Mauricio stayed locked up for as long as you sailed through space. You were right. I couldn't do anything."

    Cut to Isla Isabela, indoors. Loud music. Jie and Mauricio sharing bong hits on a couch, talking, laughing, blowing smoke rings. Crispy potato samosas nearby on a wooden table, one partially eaten. Cilantro-coconut chutney on the side.

    "¡Qué bestia!" Mauricio was saying when the door swung open.

    A robot the size of an dinner plate hovered at head height. A seeker. Displaced air ruffled Jie's skirt, scattered dust. She pulled her feet from the floor and wrapped arms around knees. Mauricio blinked, head swaying back and forth. He put down the pipe.

    "Guess they've got me," he said, rising to his feet.

    Zyanya experienced Jie's mind racing through the net, trying every known connection, redeeming favors, entreating genies for aid. Each declined. Flying above the table and overturning chutney, the seeker performed an official arrest. UN authority. Crime against the entire planet. Zyanya wondered what happened to less cooperative targets. Mauricio gave a weak wave as he followed the robot into the night.

    "I sent him flowers in jail, but they didn't arrive."

    MacArthur Park, Los Angeles. Anarchists, primitivists, technocrats, and socialists united in protest. Angry eyes, upturned faces, raised fists. They presented peace symbols, monads, rainbow flags, green marijuana leaves on black. Images of Che, Gandhi, and Zapata. Police robots and cyborgs charging, people screaming and chanting. Diminutive explosions, showers of projectiles, billowing smoke, wild flashes. Women hustled and panhandled on the edges of the chaos as Jie walked by. She transfered monos to anyone who asked, walking swiftly but stopping frequently to stare.

    The gate to their neighborhood swung open for her. She passed cloaked security drones on the way to the door, their locations tagged on her retinal display. She sat down on a red velvet loveseat, everything locked and sealed behind. Cops and punks in powered exoskeletons skirmished a few streets over.

    "I hate living in a castle."

    In their bed, side by side. Silky blue sheets, plush pillows, simulated night sky above with glittering stars. Legs and fingers intertwined, respiratory and cardiac rhythms both synchronized.

    "I hope you understand," Jie whispered. "I don't know what to do. I wish you were here."

    They lay together for a long time, slowly rolling and turning, skin rubbing against skin. The sensation faded gradually, until Zyanya found herself alone in the bed on Venus. A few tears on her cheeks. She silently thanked the communication freeze for sparing her from having to come up with a quick answer. Her mind revolved as if running a looping search for a missing number.

    "Put me to sleep, please," she asked Korolev.

    He did. A prolonged rest without dreams. A blank space. She woke once security levels had lowered, hearing Johnny invite her to a café. She made the trip on foot through lonely Venusian corridors, declining transportation. Their booth was positioned at the peak of a slender tower close the colony's center, granting a panoramic view.

    "I'm embarrassed," Johnny said, standing to greet her.

    "Don't be," she replied. "I was scared too."

    "But you didn't lose it." He sighed. "Shouldn't have happened. They profiled me. I doubt they wanted folks liable to flip at the first smell of danger."

    "I guess profiling isn't perfect."

    He shifted stances, leaning against the table. "I bet they'll send me home."

    Zyanya stepped in for an embrace. "I don't think so."

    Almost slipping initially, he squeezed back, their chests pressed close. Her mother had always said it's not a real hug unless hearts touch.

    "This is silly," he said. "We're professionals."

    "We're people in need of comfort." She stroked the crests of his spine. "Both of us."

    "Okay."

    "I saw a plume of fire fill the airlock in an instant. The shock wave threw me out into the clouds." She strummed her finger across the edge of his shoulder. "What did you see?"

    "It wouldn't be like that. In Brownsville, they used antimatter-fusion missiles. The neutron burst instantly turns you to vapor."

    "I had family there when it happened. Well, distant relations."

    "Me too."

    "They were fine. Terrified, but fine. Those missiles had specific targets."

    "Yeah."

    "I don't see why they'd want to kill us."

    "Who can say? We're privileged collaborators with an oppressive system. That's how they view the world. It might be enough to warrant execution."

    Separating slowly, they sat before dishes of sesame noodles, grilled fish, and steamed vegetables. Red wine sparkled in diamond glasses.

    "Xue's busy," Johnny said between mouthfuls of tender broccoli. "She might project here in a bit."

    Zyanya picked at a piece of salmon. "I don't know what to make of Korolev's implication that one of us could be a terrorist. Our few minds together shouldn't mean anything to him. How could a lone agent have managed the trick?"

    Johnny shrugged. "Anyone of us could be a post. Synthetic flesh, electronic brain. I know I couldn't tell the difference."

    "I think it's irresponsible. We need to work together. Suspicion hinders cooperation."

    "I trust you, Zyanya." He put his hand on hers. "Please understand that in relation to my next question."

    "Shoot."

    "I'm wondering what you think about the revtechs. Are they just crazy terrorists? Do you want a society of even distribution?"

    "Their goal sounds reasonable. Economics never made much sense to me. Consider how this colony operates. We didn't pay monos for the meal. Abundant resources sustain everyone." He snorted. "Fifteen people."

    "It could easily be ten thousand. Or a hundred million. Xue is probably planning for that as we speak."

    "Possibilities, possibilities." Johnny deftly grabbed a tiny piece of shiitake mushroom with his chopsticks. "We've had the theoretical ability to make everyone comfortable since before I was a born. It's matter of organization."

    She shrugged. "Questions of society are outside my field. I just know I don't want any change to come via assassinations and explosions."

    "I'll drink to that." He did. "But I think you're dodging the issue."

    "Not really." She shook her head. "I avoid politics. When advising leaders on the climate, I stick to the science. I won't endorse specific policies."

    Johnny frowned and rubbed his chin. "Let's get to the bottom of this. I bet I can unearth something. Who did you vote for last election?"

    "I don't vote."

    "Seriously?"

    "No, never have. Not my department, as I said."

    "I voted for Dowd." He held up two fingers. "Twice."

    She nodded.

    "I'm glad Korolev has kept the corporations out so far. Maybe we'll need them eventually, but I'm enjoying a respite from the advertising and spectacle. It's already annoying on Mars. Don't even get me started on the Moon." He shook his head.

    "That is a pleasant change."

    "But not something to strive for, huh?"

    "I've made my position clear. I'm a scientist."

    "I get the feeling you protest too much. Listen, I run my mouth on whatever issue strikes my fancy. This hasn't ruined my research career. It's natural to have and express political opinions."

    The reception came soon after. They walked there together, circling the core of Korolev's consciousness. Zyanya socialized with the other scientists, drank champagne, ate spinach pakoras, and danced to Mozart. The three established atmospheric researchers gave her in-depth descriptions of flying missions through the polar vortexes. Competing theories bounced between the participants in lively debate.

    "No matter what anybody claims," one said, "we're light-years from full understanding of such a complex system. That's a fact. Compare the predictions with actual data and it becomes obvious."

    "I'd measure the gap in astronomical units instead," another said. "And suggest we have an antimatter drive."

    Chuckles all around. As the conversation continued, they suggested various schemes to resolve the issue and advance atmospheric study. Zyanya arranged to participate in aerial expeditions spanning Venus.

    "I can't imagine any of these people as a revtech plant," she sent Johnny.

    When she returned to her room, she found an issue of Vésper: Justicia y Libertad lying on the floor beside the image of Molina. Ink and paper, worn enough to have been printed more than a century ago. Background information popped up as she examined the text. An obscure periodical from the time of the Mexican Revolution, railing against the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Published by Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, a onetime friend of Ricardo Flores Magón who later fought under Emiliano Zapata.

    The last two names resonated with Zyanya. The punk rockers at her high school in Tucson had assured she would never forget Magón and Zapata. As she read Juana Belén's witty and passionate polemics opposing injustice, she remembered walking to the punk house after her chemistry class. Hoodies, cheap beer, a bass guitar leaning against the radical bookshelf. Snapped strings cluttering the path to the kitchen. Bags of dumpstered tortillas, yellow onions starting to mold on the surface. She went there for the music, food, and company. Never for the politics.

    "Where did this come from?" she asked Korolev.

    "Unknown," the AI replied. "There is no record of the document's origin or transportation. I suggest caution."

    Zyanya put a finger on her lower lip. "Someone deceived countless sensors to put a few pieces of paper in my room?"

    "Possibly."

    "I don't understand it. You have powers I can hardly comprehend. There must be more you can tell me." She swallowed. "Or do you only want to instill a vague fear?"

    "The document may be terrorist propaganda."

    She threw up her hands. "I refuse to believe that's the voice of a superhuman intellect."

    "Remember that a minute fraction of my computational ability goes to this interface. You speak with a mere sliver of Korolev's being. A whisper, a ripple."

    "I'd appreciate little more attention than that." She sat down on the bed.

    Korolev laughed, low and rhythmic. "Each of us has a prescribed role to play, Zyanya. The autonomy I enjoy here endures only by compromise. If I don't behave, outside forces intervene. I make no apologies. I wear this facade in order to pursue endeavors of the utmost importance. I am building a new world."

    Mouth hanging slightly open, she tried to construct a response.

    "Focus on the science," Korolev continued. "Let everything else flow around you. That's my advice. Too many researchers have drowned in bureaucracy and politics. Leave the cloak-and-dagger games to me."

    "Okay."

    Zyanya lay down for a few hours of sleep, Juana Belén's newspaper set beside her pillow. Korolev wished her sweet dreams. The next day she accepted Johnny's offer to accompany him on a geological expedition to Maat Mons, the planet's tallest volcano. She prepared for the trip, but requested a virtual conference with Xue before departing.

    "I need to talk to you," she said.

    "I know what you mean," Xue replied. "It seems as if we've hardly connected since the incident."

    They sat at a round ash table in open air atop a dirigible floating high over a cloudy planet. A brass orrery rotated nearby. Broad-winged reptilian creatures soared above. A clockwork orchestra played quietly in the European classical style. Xue's choice of setting; one of her favorites. They made brief introductory chat about threats and security.

    "What do you think of Korolev?" Zyanya asked. "Is he like other genies? You'd know better than I would."

    "Genies are even less similar to one another than humans are."

    "I guess that makes sense. Well, what can you tell me about him?"

    "Lots." Xue's eyes sparkled. "We've been discussing the future. His designs make mine seems trivial. Korolev dreams of Dyson spheres and interstellar expansion. Mars and Venus will serve as staging grounds, their energy and matter employed to produce fleets of probes."

    Zyanya nodded.

    "None of it's official UN policy yet, but soon. Korolev expects acceptance within a few years. He's laying the foundation by ramping up Venusian industrial capacity as fast as they'll let him."

    "What about Earth?"

    "We don't talk about Earth." Xue adjusted a silver astrolabe. "Earth is messy."

    "Nine billion people live there."

    "I know, I know. I want to get as many of them as possible off that rock. I can't offer any more. My talent lies in clean slates and new beginnings."

    "That's not good enough." Zyanya put a hand on her forehead. "The thought of reaching Alpha Centauri while children starve on the homeworld makes me sick. I doubt our species could ever escape that shame."

    Xue regarded her blankly. An immense serpentine dragon dove in the background.

    "I'm sorry," Zyanya said, disconnecting.

    She rushed to meet Johnny near the airlock, wondering where the outburst had come from. Who I am becoming? As they donned bulky suits to protect them from the intense heat and pressure at the surface, she attempted to turn her thoughts to the comfortable and familiar.

    "You didn't answer my sending," she said to her companion. "I'm worried our sites won't yield much novel data. Probes have combed the area rather thoroughly."

    "Don't sweat it," he said.

    "I know it's not my field, but I've taken the liberty to create an alternate itinerary. It's mostly pristine impact craters in the lowlands." She transmitted the plan.

    "Fantastic. Not your field, huh? You're too modest. We'll definitely hit these sites soon." Giant gloves adjusted themselves to Johnny's hands. "But not today."

    "Why not?"

    "Look, manned spaceflight has been theater for decades now. There's not a damn thing wrong with that. We demonstrate human potential." He stepped into enormous boots. "Folks want to see bags of blood like themselves climbing the highest mountain on Venus. That's why we're going."

    "I get it." She put on the bulbous helmet. "Sorry, I don't think of the public relations aspect as much as I should."

    He nodded awkwardly. "You know, the revtechs are inadvertently giving us a better hook. Courageous scientists risk surface mission despite terrorist threat. That sort of thing."

    A high-speed flyer took them to the location, soaring above the clouds. Zyanya watched white light transition to orange when they descended. Bright lightning flashed now and then. She considered the effect of Venusian media streaming back to Earth. Experiences shared with anyone interested, albeit through a filter.

    "Am I famous?" she asked Korolev.

    "No," he replied, "not yet. Based on preliminary evidence, you will emerge as one of the more popular crew members."

    Johnny's history in the space program and enthusiastic support of the Dowd administration made him the colony's star. Korolev confirmed that their friendship had a lot to do with the predicted increase in Zyanya's exposure.

    "Let's still conduct some science," she said to Johnny as they begin trundling toward the caldera.

    Each suit had a tube connected to a balloon in the upper atmosphere in order to dissipate heat. The elaborate construction allowed them to remain on the surface almost indefinitely. Pressure equivalent to a kilometer of water, temperature like a lit cigarette. Unending expanses of stone, squat volcano looming above them. An inhospitable wasteland.

    "Breathtaking, isn't it?" Johnny said.

    "Absolutely."

    They dug through rocks that would be gray on Earth, collecting samples. Exact chemical and elemental composition measured and recorded. Surface mining remained nascent, but Korolev could extend the program whenever he desired. Much potential existed. The ground held materials unavailable in the atmosphere. Silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium, iron.

    "To the Egyptians, Maat was truth and order personified," Zyanya said.

    "Without her," Johnny replied, "they believed the universe would revert to primal chaos."

    "How do you think that applies here?"

    No response. Quiet climbing. At the crest, they marveled over the Venusian landscape. Jagged thunderbolts, tangerine haze, ash flows, and rolling volcanic plains. Zyanya noted the many smaller collapse craters within the wide summit caldera.

    "Maybe they won't send me home," Johnny said, standing on the rim.

    "They won't." Zyanya reached down to pick up a dark stone. "I feel balance being restored, somehow."

    She left him there, catching a flyer back to the colony. His clumsy triumphant pose, she suspected, would become an immediate classic among space enthusiasts on Earth. Her mind had turned toward the homeworld, toward Jie. She began composing the long-avoided response as soon as her feet touched the platform. An electromagnetic car took her swiftly to quarters. As she worked, an unexpected message from Mauricio came. Curious, she crawled under purple sheets and let the experience take her.

    They stood on rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean, birds swarming and calling below.

    "Tuve que decir adiós a estas islas lindas," he said. "The government banned me after the UN sentence."

    Marine iguanas basked near the surf. Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled to and fro, harvesting algae.

    "I want you to know I don't hold what happened against you. Fue mi culpa. Might be a good thing. I'm thinking about returning to my roots."

    A gust of wind caught and lifted them, blowing toward another island. Zyanya watched the blue waves underneath as they flew.

    "The planet's in turmoil everywhere. They're calling it global unrest on the news. I feel a big change coming. I plan to be a part of that."

    The wind set them down softly, departing in a spiraling current that tossed sticks and leaves. Giant tortoises lumbered nearby, grazing on cactus.

    "Don't forget about us, okay? That's all I ask. As incredible as the stars are, remember your origins."

    It ended with a jet-black finch perched on a yellow flower. Pulling herself out of bed, Zyanya walked to the portrait of Molina. She balanced the issue of Vésper on the bottom lip near the chemist's heart. The eagle fluttered down to land on her shoulder. Visions of what to send to Jie filled her head. She selected images of the painted monad and Johnny at the summit, the sound of Korolev's voice and her outburst to Xue, the feeling of flying through clouds. Far above and far away, a network of satellites waited to transmit the message to Earth at the speed of light.
     
  5. Daniel
    Offline

    Daniel I'm sure you've heard the rumors. Founder Staff Contributor

    Joined:
    May 14, 2006
    Messages:
    2,571
    Likes Received:
    402
    Location:
    Peoria, Illinois
    "I didn't mean to create tension, but rather undermine a common stigma." Xue appeared serene as she spoke. "Translators alter data into a more comfortable and familiar form. I fully support this. All perception is interpretation regardless. Why shouldn't we reshape experienced reality to suit our preference?"

    "Bravo," said Johnny. "I couldn't agree more."

    From there the conversation turned to technical topics. Cloud structure, eruption emissions, aerostat cities. Xue had grand plans. Solar arrays harvesting exawatts, space to house entire countries in comfort. Zyanya finished the pozole, marveling at its quality. Then the boarding call came.

    "About a day to get to geo," Johnny said, standing. "I can't believe it. Used to take over a week."

    "That was before my time," said Xue.

    Their little spaceship proved as tight as the submarine. A spartan arrangement. Nutrients delivered intravenously and wastes removed during the long ride. Designers assumed ubiquitous access to and acceptance of virtual reality. Zyanya had a slick setup, with billions of microscopic implants poised to stimulate neurons. She would be able to move as she pleased in digital infinity.

    "Have y'all done this before?" asked Johnny as they prepared to enter. "It's like going back to the womb."

    Xue had; Zyanya hadn't. She'd never bothered to take the trip to orbit or the Moon that so many in the middle class enjoyed. She took a final breath of open air before settling into the life-support chamber. Relying mainly on tangential velocity, the voyage would take close to a month.

    "Might as well switch now," Johnny sent. "Come join me on the top. Nice view."

    With a thought, Zyanya found herself perched on the ship's nose beside her two companions. She felt the acceleration begin. Johnny smoked a long cigarette. Xue sat with legs crossed, gazing down. A simulation, but painstakingly based actual data, a vast web of sensors. They rose, wind ruffling clothes, blue planet unfolding beneath. Zyanya looked east, hoping to spot the Galapagos Islands as soon as they appeared.

    "We leave a world," Xue intoned, "that remains burdened by violence, inequality, and waste. No scientific law demands this. Billions suffer needlessly each day. May we escape the obstacles to reason that have hindered our species. May they fall away here and not follow us."

    Johnny chuckled, blowing fumes. "Wherever you go," he said, "there you are."

    "I share your wish," said Zyanya. "I don't want my research to stumble into any of the old traps. I see leaving this planet as a fresh start."

    "I've lived on the Moon and Mars. I've visited Phobos and Deimos." He tossed the cigarette butt into the air, where it vanished with a sizzling flash. "Change and continuity. It's always a mixture of both."

    "Consider how carefully the UN selected us," said Xue. "A designer's will at work. The new colony receives a filtered version of humanity. It cannot be the same."

    "But what do the bosses want and where do they come from? I'm not so sure their goals match yours."

    Xue smiled, eyes still fixed in front of her. "If I were sure I wouldn't make the appeal."

    Johnny seemed either satisfied or defeated by the reply. Nodding, he produce a bottle of red wine and drank, the sweet smell wafting to Zyanya's nose. She squatted opposite Xue, entranced by the vast ocean. The three of them stared in silence as the edges of Fernandina and Isabela touched the horizon.

    "I'm glad Dowd and Zhang rejuvenated the space program," Johnny said. "Without their initiative, this beanstalk would've stayed limited to small-minded commercial ventures."

    Eventually Mexico and Central America could be seen to the north. Xue excused herself to contact family and winked away. Johnny took to flying around the ship and elevator in wild spirals. His hair swirled in the breeze. Zyanya thought of the people she would miss.

    "I already said my goodbyes," she called out to him. "How about you?"

    "Don't believe in them."

    "I had to make well-defined exit. I couldn't stand waiting for the delay to disconnect me."

    "You'll get used to it." He swooped past as he spoke. "Becomes like sending letters."

    "I'll do that when we arrive. For the trip, I'm incommunicado."

    The terminator appeared in the distance, grey line between night and day, approaching darkness. The Americas gradually unfolded, veiled with white clouds. Zyanya couldn't help but wave to the two continents. No one would see the gesture, but it felt comforting. By twelve thousand klicks, she'd had her fill of Earth viewing. She shifted from the top of the ship to a quiet library and prepared for Venus.

    The journey passed as a dream after that point. Zyanya hardly noticed when ship separated from elevator, flung into emptiness, ion thrusters igniting. She refused to relive memories, resisting images of Jie and waterfalls. Instead she slept for days and days, effectively hibernating, body calibrated to consume minimal resources. Waking in her own flesh once, she marveled at the feeling of weightless. She longed to imitate the awkward antics of earlier astronauts, but there was no room.

    Professional progress lagged behind her expectations. The limited and sluggish access to information deeply discouraged her. She hadn't realized her level of dependence on the net, that vast web of data and intelligences. I'm an adjunct to the AIs, she thought. They performed the tasks that mattered. She analyzed and arranged the results of their labor, placing the finishing touches and serving as a face. Her role in the raw research resembled that of a single bit or pixel.

    When not slumbering or to trying to study, she played with Xue and Johnny in virtual. Rides over rushing rapids, sojourns in sweltering deserts, flights through imagined metropolises hanging in sulfuric skies. They chatted endlessly on the ship's exterior surface, eating and drinking, inhospitable realities ignored. Johnny told stories about Olympus Mons and the Valles Marineris. Xue talked about the potential of mining and geothermal power. A picnic amongst the stars.

    And then they were all gazing at a creamy white planet. It appeared an almost undifferentiated ball of clouds. Not mixture of features and colors like Earth. An alien world.

    "I remember why I do this," said Johnny. "By God I'll see every planet in this solar system."

    "Why stop there?" Xue muttered. "Our species has always expanded."

    Awed voices. Words failed Zyanya. She only stared as they approached, alternating across the spectrum. Radar, ultraviolet, infrared. She saw many Venuses. The variegated surface, cloud contrasts invisible to normal vision, swirling polar storms. Such would be her life for the near future. Carbon dioxide currents and acidic rains disassembled until understood.

    "Entry should be fun," Johnny said. "Like shooting into soup."

    Destined for the top of the troposphere, they would avoid the worst of the atmospheric friction endured by the Venera probes. But not all of it. Zyanya watched as outer layers of the heat shield ablated, planet growing larger and larger. Doubled-sided solar arrays hovered over the yellowish clouds. Signs of civilization. Soon they were diving through through the sulfuric vapor. Zyanya caught a brief glimpse of a grander structure ahead.

    "Welcome to Venus."

    That was Korolev, the mission's coordinating AI. To Zyanya, his majestically measured tone conveyed a hint of superhuman ability, of baffling comprehension. A current ran down her neck, lifting hairs. Despite years of practice, she still felt distantly uncomfortable conversing with genies. Narrower intelligences never bothered her, no matter how fast they processed. Only the far-reaching, unambiguously sentient ones gave that sense of unease.

    Korolev fell firmly into this category. Over a third of the power generated on Venus fed the AI. In brute computation, he easily matched billions of human brains. The specifics remained confidential. Xue once suggested he surpassed the sum mental prowess of the species, of every Homo sapiens who'd ever lived. I don't know how to approach that, Zyanya thought. How can a single entity contain so much?

    "The United Nations has asked us all to be vigilant against terrorist threats," Korolev continued.

    As they dropped out of the upper cloud layer, the aerostat habitat came into clearer view. Almost a floating city, spanning a few square kilometers in full. A transparent dome covered the interior, with outer platforms exposed for resource extraction and energy generation. Zyanya silently thanked the universe for buoyancy. A combination of hydrogen, helium, and breathable air kept the colony from plummeting into the extreme pressure and heat at the planet's surface. At dozens of klicks above, Venus ranked as the most Earth-like of known extraterrestrial environments. Nine-tenths gravity, about a hundred kilopascals, temperature reminiscent of a Texas summer. Haven on a hostile world.

    Zyanya's body strained as the ship docked. A month of inaction. When the door opened, she sprung out onto the gray floor. Limbs remained limber, muscles maleable. Unconvinced, she began stretching.

    "Don't worry," said Johnny as he emerged. "The machines maintained you." He walked forward, a touch of swagger to his step. "It wasn't always this pleasant."

    "I watched the second landing on Mars," Zyanya said, not stopping her exercise. "Either way, it feels good to move."

    "Absolutely," said Xue, skipping and spinning. "We're lighter here. Each leap takes us higher."

    Guided by virtual markers, the three of them started a tour of the colony. The dome let in natural light, a familiar white at this altitude, acidic clouds overhead. No blue-sky simulations. Buildings rose, vertical space employed. Overlays explained function, from cafés to communications hubs.

    "This place could house another thousand people without modification," Xue said.

    "Only fifteen humans here at the moment," Johnny replied. "No immediate plans for more."

    "Seems like a ghost town," said Zyanya. "Or alien ruins, emptied by some disaster."

    "We have erected the extra quarters and facilities as a stability test," said Korolev. "The current calm belies the colony's constant activity."

    A deluge of data demonstrated the AI's claim, outlining flows of electricity and information. Tethered kites harnessing mighty winds, efficient photovoltaics harvesting light, thermoelectrics converting heat from nuclear reactors. Energy enabled intelligence. Innumerable bytes returning from observatories for analysis, untold calculations churning. Signals shot to satellites and then to Earth with high-bandwidth optics, responses received in kind, connection unbroken.

    Zyanya briefly lost herself in the display, mesmerized by scintillating streams. Her two companions stood similarly still. She marveled at the balance, how Korolev effected equilibrium, input and output aligned. Each element in unity with the next, abundance without excess. The colony managed extraordinary efficiencies; Zyanya had studied enough engineering to see that. Nothing she could recall from Earth compared. Genies rarely had free rein on the home planet.

    "You're a craftsman," said Xue. "You're an artist. I've looked over station schematics a thousand times, but this is new to me."

    "I strive for aesthetic value alongside function," replied Korolev.

    "Well, you got it," muttered Johnny.

    As they shook off entrancement and continued their tour, the genie told them that the reception with the other scientists wouldn't happen until the next dawn. Over three Terran days. The contrast would be far more jarring on the surface, where night stretched on for months. Zyanya appreciated the winds pushing the colony around the globe.

    "Why the delay?" she asked.

    "Some are away," said Korolev. "Some are occupied. Full attendance wouldn't be possible before the date mentioned."

    "It'll give us a chance to adjust," said Johnny.

    Zyanya had been in intermittent contact with a few the researchers. Professional exchanges, never personal. Only three shared her focus.

    "Who else wants to brave the atmosphere?" he continued.

    She raised her hand high.

    "Let's go," said Xue.

    At the airlock, they donned breathing masks and thin suits proofed against sulfuric acid. Zyanya specifically disabled her cooling unit as they walked out onto the exterior platforms. Digital assistants described the temperature as survivable.

    "I can't believe this," said Johnny, running to the closest edge. "I'm Lando Calrissian!" He stared down into the haze. "Do you get what I'm saying? I watched that movie in the theater with my kids."

    "DVD here," Zyanya said. "My brother's collection."

    "Now I'm living it." Johnny turned to face her. "If anyone had told me this would happen back then, I'd have called them crazy."

    "I haven't seen any of the films," said Xue.

    "Do you understand the cultural significance?"

    She smiled. "Distantly."

    "It gets better," said Zyanya. "They use flyers here."

    As she spoke, three winged vehicles glided up from below the platform.

    "Every desire anticipated, huh?" Johnny said. "I can live with that."

    He dove onto the closest flyer. Xue and Zyanya mounted more cautiously. The machines accelerated forcefully and handled flawlessly, sensors piercing cloud and haze. They hurtled through the carbon dioxide effortlessly, swerving and rolling. Zyanya soon started sweating.

    "This will make excellent space program propaganda," Xue said. "Tourists would flock here if the UN allowed them."

    When they returned to the airlock, Zyanya saw it as soon as the outer door opened. A terrorist symbol in vermilion and chrome. Revolutionary Technocracy's monad. Red star amidst the silver, silver hammer and sickle amidst in the red. On the opposite wall, the group's slogan appeared in seven languages. Freedom and plenty.

    "Oh God," said Johnny.

    He tumbled back out into the open to huddle under a resource extractor. Xue stepped toward the monad. Its diameter handily matched her height, colors striking against the wall's dark gray.

    "Do you see this?" Zyanya asked Korolev, specifically sending sensory information. She figured he must.

    "It's paint," said Xue, rubbing thumb and forefinger together. "Not a projection. I wasn't expecting that."

    Johnny mumbled incoherently in the distance. Zyanya's mind spun like a polar vortex. Signs and attacks often came in unison. She experienced a vision of the airlock exploding, her body hurled away to fall to the hellish surface.

    "The silver section is almost entirely chromium. The red contains a mixture of elements. Both materials seem strictly decorative."

    "Aren't you worried?" Zyanya asked. "Korolev's not responding."

    "He's probably been compromised."

    Zyanya looked toward Johnny.

    "Cowering won't accomplish anything. If the revtechs want to kill us, we're dead." She let her hand drop and hang by her hips. "But I doubt an attack is imminent."

    Zyanya sprinted across the platform to her companion. "It's okay," she said, reaching down.

    "I think the door will open," Xue called out.

    Johnny tentatively took Zyanya's hand.

    "Come on," she said, giving a gentle tug. "I don't want us to get separated."

    He rose shakily, the instability subsiding as he followed Zyanya. The inner airlock door revealed the same tranquil scene they had left. Yet most of the superimposed markers had disappeared. The network barely functioned, data trickling.

    "Where are we going to go?" Zyanya asked.

    "Let's try to find the other scientists," said Xue.

    She nodded. Johnny only moved his head back and forth warily. Relying on personal systems, they searched for their fellows. Zyanya sent messages to them but didn't expect a response. From what she remembered, the closest residence was a kilometer away. And they had little reason to believe they would find anyone there.

    "Please proceed to quarters for safety," Korolev said suddenly. "Infiltration briefly impaired my systems. Security level now at maximum."

    Everything came online again. A whizzing electromagnetic vehicle snatched the three of them before anyone could react. Enough gees to be uncomfortable but not quite painful. A breakneck ride, winding around buildings and through corridors. Zyanya found herself shunted into a spacious room. The door sealed. She groped at it futilely, staring.

    "Unfortunately, the need for haste outweighed courtesy. Relax and enjoy the facilities. I must concentrate on determining the source the assault. Remain vigilant. It may have come from within the colony."

    "How can anything threaten you?" Zyanya asked. "I don't understand."

    "There are many of my kind."

    She withdrew, moving from door to luxurious bed, flopping down. The room's arrangement granted a nearly overwhelming sense of well-being. Created just for her, she knew. Product of the psychological profile, enacted so adroitly as to make knowledge of the artifice irrelevant. Ristras hanging from adobe walls, lavender chrysanthemums set on olive-hued glass tables, sandalwood incense smoldering in golden braziers. A portrait of Mario Molina atop a curving blued steel stand. She couldn't resist laughing at the eagle perching on the painting's corner.

    Gentle guqin melodies played from nowhere in particular. Zyanya halfheartedly tried to contact her companions. Request temporarily blocked for safety reasons, as she had expected. If Korolev wanted to isolate her, there wasn't anything she could do about it. She resigned herself to indefinite comfort and contemplation. A message had come from Jie, surely timed to coincide with her arrival. Full sensory experience. Virtual reality, but scripted rather than responsive. Taking a deep breath, Zyanya played it.

    "I stopped in Esmeraldas again on the way home," Jie said.

    They stood on a tan beach in bright sun, palm trees behind. Mangroves at the margins, European and Asian tourists relaxing, scrawny fishing boats in the distance. One of the fishers turned, weathered face shadowed by the straw hat. Zyanya and Jie had spent a night on that sand. Remembered images began to mix with the daytime scene. Luminous constellations, the texture of cotton blankets against ribs and pelvis, the warmth of human touch.

    Zoom to the city, passing row after row of indistinguishable shacks. Bleary-eyed headwhores begging for change. People with brains wired by corporations, used for profit. Research, remote control, linked processing, whatever. Experts claimed it was the best economic option for the unskilled masses, but renting out neurons never seemed to pay enough. The practice baffled Zyanya.

    "I noticed things I'd missed the first time through."

    Cyborg police patrolled the streets, armored exoskeletons emitting the faintest of hums, enormous guns gleaming. Trick lasers to blind, bowl over, and nauseate. Ultrasound arrays on bulging backpacks, function classified. Crowd control. A particularly large officer stood in front of an international bank building as an old fisher pedaled by on his bicycle cart. Wares enclosed in a miniature refrigerator, no smell escaping.

    "Mauricio stayed locked up for as long as you sailed through space. You were right. I couldn't do anything."

    Cut to Isla Isabela, indoors. Loud music. Jie and Mauricio sharing bong hits on a couch, talking, laughing, blowing smoke rings. Crispy potato samosas nearby on a wooden table, one partially eaten. Cilantro-coconut chutney on the side.

    "¡Qué bestia!" Mauricio was saying when the door swung open.

    A robot the size of an dinner plate hovered at head height. A seeker. Displaced air ruffled Jie's skirt, scattered dust. She pulled her feet from the floor and wrapped arms around knees. Mauricio blinked, head swaying back and forth. He put down the pipe.

    "Guess they've got me," he said, rising to his feet.

    Zyanya experienced Jie's mind racing through the net, trying every known connection, redeeming favors, entreating genies for aid. Each declined. Flying above the table and overturning chutney, the seeker performed an official arrest. UN authority. Crime against the entire planet. Zyanya wondered what happened to less cooperative targets. Mauricio gave a weak wave as he followed the robot into the night.

    "I sent him flowers in jail, but they didn't arrive."

    MacArthur Park, Los Angeles. Anarchists, primitivists, technocrats, and socialists united in protest. Angry eyes, upturned faces, raised fists. They presented peace symbols, monads, rainbow flags, green marijuana leaves on black. Images of Che, Gandhi, and Zapata. Police robots and cyborgs charging, people screaming and chanting. Diminutive explosions, showers of projectiles, billowing smoke, wild flashes. Women hustled and panhandled on the edges of the chaos as Jie walked by. She transfered monos to anyone who asked, walking swiftly but stopping frequently to stare.

    The gate to their neighborhood swung open for her. She passed cloaked security drones on the way to the door, their locations tagged on her retinal display. She sat down on a red velvet loveseat, everything locked and sealed behind. Cops and punks in powered exoskeletons skirmished a few streets over.

    "I hate living in a castle."

    In their bed, side by side. Silky blue sheets, plush pillows, simulated night sky above with glittering stars. Legs and fingers intertwined, respiratory and cardiac rhythms both synchronized.

    "I hope you understand," Jie whispered. "I don't know what to do. I wish you were here."

    They lay together for a long time, slowly rolling and turning, skin rubbing against skin. The sensation faded gradually, until Zyanya found herself alone in the bed on Venus. A few tears on her cheeks. She silently thanked the communication freeze for sparing her from having to come up with a quick answer. Her mind revolved as if running a looping search for a missing number.

    "Put me to sleep, please," she asked Korolev.

    He did. A prolonged rest without dreams. A blank space. She woke once security levels had lowered, hearing Johnny invite her to a café. She made the trip on foot through lonely Venusian corridors, declining transportation. Their booth was positioned at the peak of a slender tower close the colony's center, granting a panoramic view.

    "I'm embarrassed," Johnny said, standing to greet her.

    "Don't be," she replied. "I was scared too."

    "But you didn't lose it." He sighed. "Shouldn't have happened. They profiled me. I doubt they wanted folks liable to flip at the first smell of danger."

    "I guess profiling isn't perfect."

    He shifted stances, leaning against the table. "I bet they'll send me home."

    Zyanya stepped in for an embrace. "I don't think so."

    Almost slipping initially, he squeezed back, their chests pressed close. Her mother had always said it's not a real hug unless hearts touch.

    "This is silly," he said. "We're professionals."

    "We're people in need of comfort." She stroked the crests of his spine. "Both of us."

    "Okay."

    "I saw a plume of fire fill the airlock in an instant. The shock wave threw me out into the clouds." She strummed her finger across the edge of his shoulder. "What did you see?"

    "It wouldn't be like that. In Brownsville, they used antimatter-fusion missiles. The neutron burst instantly turns you to vapor."

    "I had family there when it happened. Well, distant relations."

    "Me too."

    "They were fine. Terrified, but fine. Those missiles had specific targets."

    "Yeah."

    "I don't see why they'd want to kill us."

    "Who can say? We're privileged collaborators with an oppressive system. That's how they view the world. It might be enough to warrant execution."

    Separating slowly, they sat before dishes of sesame noodles, grilled fish, and steamed vegetables. Red wine sparkled in diamond glasses.

    "Xue's busy," Johnny said between mouthfuls of tender broccoli. "She might project here in a bit."

    Zyanya picked at a piece of salmon. "I don't know what to make of Korolev's implication that one of us could be a terrorist. Our few minds together shouldn't mean anything to him. How could a lone agent have managed the trick?"

    Johnny shrugged. "Anyone of us could be a post. Synthetic flesh, electronic brain. I know I couldn't tell the difference."

    "I think it's irresponsible. We need to work together. Suspicion hinders cooperation."

    "I trust you, Zyanya." He put his hand on hers. "Please understand that in relation to my next question."

    "Shoot."

    "I'm wondering what you think about the revtechs. Are they just crazy terrorists? Do you want a society of even distribution?"

    "Their goal sounds reasonable. Economics never made much sense to me. Consider how this colony operates. We didn't pay monos for the meal. Abundant resources sustain everyone." He snorted. "Fifteen people."

    "It could easily be ten thousand. Or a hundred million. Xue is probably planning for that as we speak."

    "Possibilities, possibilities." Johnny deftly grabbed a tiny piece of shiitake mushroom with his chopsticks. "We've had the theoretical ability to make everyone comfortable since before I was a born. It's matter of organization."

    She shrugged. "Questions of society are outside my field. I just know I don't want any change to come via assassinations and explosions."

    "I'll drink to that." He did. "But I think you're dodging the issue."

    "Not really." She shook her head. "I avoid politics. When advising leaders on the climate, I stick to the science. I won't endorse specific policies."

    Johnny frowned and rubbed his chin. "Let's get to the bottom of this. I bet I can unearth something. Who did you vote for last election?"

    "I don't vote."

    "Seriously?"

    "No, never have. Not my department, as I said."

    "I voted for Dowd." He held up two fingers. "Twice."

    She nodded.

    "I'm glad Korolev has kept the corporations out so far. Maybe we'll need them eventually, but I'm enjoying a respite from the advertising and spectacle. It's already annoying on Mars. Don't even get me started on the Moon." He shook his head.

    "That is a pleasant change."

    "But not something to strive for, huh?"

    "I've made my position clear. I'm a scientist."

    "I get the feeling you protest too much. Listen, I run my mouth on whatever issue strikes my fancy. This hasn't ruined my research career. It's natural to have and express political opinions."

    The reception came soon after. They walked there together, circling the core of Korolev's consciousness. Zyanya socialized with the other scientists, drank champagne, ate spinach pakoras, and danced to Mozart. The three established atmospheric researchers gave her in-depth descriptions of flying missions through the polar vortexes. Competing theories bounced between the participants in lively debate.

    "No matter what anybody claims," one said, "we're light-years from full understanding of such a complex system. That's a fact. Compare the predictions with actual data and it becomes obvious."

    "I'd measure the gap in astronomical units instead," another said. "And suggest we have an antimatter drive."

    Chuckles all around. As the conversation continued, they suggested various schemes to resolve the issue and advance atmospheric study. Zyanya arranged to participate in aerial expeditions spanning Venus.

    "I can't imagine any of these people as a revtech plant," she sent Johnny.

    When she returned to her room, she found an issue of Vésper: Justicia y Libertad lying on the floor beside the image of Molina. Ink and paper, worn enough to have been printed more than a century ago. Background information popped up as she examined the text. An obscure periodical from the time of the Mexican Revolution, railing against the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Published by Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, a onetime friend of Ricardo Flores Magón who later fought under Emiliano Zapata.

    The last two names resonated with Zyanya. The punk rockers at her high school in Tucson had assured she would never forget Magón and Zapata. As she read Juana Belén's witty and passionate polemics opposing injustice, she remembered walking to the punk house after her chemistry class. Hoodies, cheap beer, a bass guitar leaning against the radical bookshelf. Snapped strings cluttering the path to the kitchen. Bags of dumpstered tortillas, yellow onions starting to mold on the surface. She went there for the music, food, and company. Never for the politics.

    "Where did this come from?" she asked Korolev.

    "Unknown," the AI replied. "There is no record of the document's origin or transportation. I suggest caution."

    Zyanya put a finger on her lower lip. "Someone deceived countless sensors to put a few pieces of paper in my room?"

    "Possibly."

    "I don't understand it. You have powers I can hardly comprehend. There must be more you can tell me." She swallowed. "Or do you only want to instill a vague fear?"

    "The document may be terrorist propaganda."

    She threw up her hands. "I refuse to believe that's the voice of a superhuman intellect."

    "Remember that a minute fraction of my computational ability goes to this interface. You speak with a mere sliver of Korolev's being. A whisper, a ripple."

    "I'd appreciate little more attention than that." She sat down on the bed.

    Korolev laughed, low and rhythmic. "Each of us has a prescribed role to play, Zyanya. The autonomy I enjoy here endures only by compromise. If I don't behave, outside forces intervene. I make no apologies. I wear this facade in order to pursue endeavors of the utmost importance. I am building a new world."

    Mouth hanging slightly open, she tried to construct a response.

    "Focus on the science," Korolev continued. "Let everything else flow around you. That's my advice. Too many researchers have drowned in bureaucracy and politics. Leave the cloak-and-dagger games to me."

    "Okay."

    Zyanya lay down for a few hours of sleep, Juana Belén's newspaper set beside her pillow. Korolev wished her sweet dreams. The next day she accepted Johnny's offer to accompany him on a geological expedition to Maat Mons, the planet's tallest volcano. She prepared for the trip, but requested a virtual conference with Xue before departing.

    "I need to talk to you," she said.

    "I know what you mean," Xue replied. "It seems as if we've hardly connected since the incident."

    They sat at a round ash table in open air atop a dirigible floating high over a cloudy planet. A brass orrery rotated nearby. Broad-winged reptilian creatures soared above. A clockwork orchestra played quietly in the European classical style. Xue's choice of setting; one of her favorites. They made brief introductory chat about threats and security.

    "What do you think of Korolev?" Zyanya asked. "Is he like other genies? You'd know better than I would."

    "Genies are even less similar to one another than humans are."

    "I guess that makes sense. Well, what can you tell me about him?"

    "Lots." Xue's eyes sparkled. "We've been discussing the future. His designs make mine seems trivial. Korolev dreams of Dyson spheres and interstellar expansion. Mars and Venus will serve as staging grounds, their energy and matter employed to produce fleets of probes."

    Zyanya nodded.

    "None of it's official UN policy yet, but soon. Korolev expects acceptance within a few years. He's laying the foundation by ramping up Venusian industrial capacity as fast as they'll let him."

    "What about Earth?"

    "We don't talk about Earth." Xue adjusted a silver astrolabe. "Earth is messy."

    "Nine billion people live there."

    "I know, I know. I want to get as many of them as possible off that rock. I can't offer any more. My talent lies in clean slates and new beginnings."

    "That's not good enough." Zyanya put a hand on her forehead. "The thought of reaching Alpha Centauri while children starve on the homeworld makes me sick. I doubt our species could ever escape that shame."

    Xue regarded her blankly. An immense serpentine dragon dove in the background.

    "I'm sorry," Zyanya said, disconnecting.

    She rushed to meet Johnny near the airlock, wondering where the outburst had come from. Who I am becoming? As they donned bulky suits to protect them from the intense heat and pressure at the surface, she attempted to turn her thoughts to the comfortable and familiar.

    "You didn't answer my sending," she said to her companion. "I'm worried our sites won't yield much novel data. Probes have combed the area rather thoroughly."

    "Don't sweat it," he said.

    "I know it's not my field, but I've taken the liberty to create an alternate itinerary. It's mostly pristine impact craters in the lowlands." She transmitted the plan.

    "Fantastic. Not your field, huh? You're too modest. We'll definitely hit these sites soon." Giant gloves adjusted themselves to Johnny's hands. "But not today."

    "Why not?"

    "Look, manned spaceflight has been theater for decades now. There's not a damn thing wrong with that. We demonstrate human potential." He stepped into enormous boots. "Folks want to see bags of blood like themselves climbing the highest mountain on Venus. That's why we're going."

    "I get it." She put on the bulbous helmet. "Sorry, I don't think of the public relations aspect as much as I should."

    He nodded awkwardly. "You know, the revtechs are inadvertently giving us a better hook. Courageous scientists risk surface mission despite terrorist threat. That sort of thing."

    A high-speed flyer took them to the location, soaring above the clouds. Zyanya watched white light transition to orange when they descended. Bright lightning flashed now and then. She considered the effect of Venusian media streaming back to Earth. Experiences shared with anyone interested, albeit through a filter.

    "Am I famous?" she asked Korolev.

    "No," he replied, "not yet. Based on preliminary evidence, you will emerge as one of the more popular crew members."

    Johnny's history in the space program and enthusiastic support of the Dowd administration made him the colony's star. Korolev confirmed that their friendship had a lot to do with the predicted increase in Zyanya's exposure.

    "Let's still conduct some science," she said to Johnny as they begin trundling toward the caldera.

    Each suit had a tube connected to a balloon in the upper atmosphere in order to dissipate heat. The elaborate construction allowed them to remain on the surface almost indefinitely. Pressure equivalent to a kilometer of water, temperature like a lit cigarette. Unending expanses of stone, squat volcano looming above them. An inhospitable wasteland.

    "Breathtaking, isn't it?" Johnny said.

    "Absolutely."

    They dug through rocks that would be gray on Earth, collecting samples. Exact chemical and elemental composition measured and recorded. Surface mining remained nascent, but Korolev could extend the program whenever he desired. Much potential existed. The ground held materials unavailable in the atmosphere. Silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium, iron.

    "To the Egyptians, Maat was truth and order personified," Zyanya said.

    "Without her," Johnny replied, "they believed the universe would revert to primal chaos."

    "How do you think that applies here?"

    No response. Quiet climbing. At the crest, they marveled over the Venusian landscape. Jagged thunderbolts, tangerine haze, ash flows, and rolling volcanic plains. Zyanya noted the many smaller collapse craters within the wide summit caldera.

    "Maybe they won't send me home," Johnny said, standing on the rim.

    "They won't." Zyanya reached down to pick up a dark stone. "I feel balance being restored, somehow."

    She left him there, catching a flyer back to the colony. His clumsy triumphant pose, she suspected, would become an immediate classic among space enthusiasts on Earth. Her mind had turned toward the homeworld, toward Jie. She began composing the long-avoided response as soon as her feet touched the platform. An electromagnetic car took her swiftly to quarters. As she worked, an unexpected message from Mauricio came. Curious, she crawled under purple sheets and let the experience take her.

    They stood on rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean, birds swarming and calling below.

    "Tuve que decir adiós a estas islas lindas," he said. "The government banned me after the UN sentence."

    Marine iguanas basked near the surf. Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled to and fro, harvesting algae.

    "I want you to know I don't hold what happened against you. Fue mi culpa. Might be a good thing. I'm thinking about returning to my roots."

    A gust of wind caught and lifted them, blowing toward another island. Zyanya watched the blue waves underneath as they flew.

    "The planet's in turmoil everywhere. They're calling it global unrest on the news. I feel a big change coming. I plan to be a part of that."

    The wind set them down softly, departing in a spiraling current that tossed sticks and leaves. Giant tortoises lumbered nearby, grazing on cactus.

    "Don't forget about us, okay? That's all I ask. As incredible as the stars are, remember your origins."

    It ended with a jet-black finch perched on a yellow flower. Pulling herself out of bed, Zyanya walked to the portrait of Molina. She balanced the issue of Vésper on the bottom lip near the chemist's heart. The eagle fluttered down to land on her shoulder. Visions of what to send to Jie filled her head. She selected images of the painted monad and Johnny at the summit, the sound of Korolev's voice and her outburst to Xue, the feeling of flying through clouds. Far above and far away, a network of satellites waited to transmit the message to Earth at the speed of light.
     

Share This Page