Today's thump was overdue. Jonah wondered if it might not come at all.
Just like last Thorday when — at the Old Clock's mid-morning chime — farmers all across the bubble-habitat clambered up pinyon vines or crouched low in expectation of the regular, daily throb — a pulse and quake that hammered up your foot-soles and made all the bubble boundaries shake. Only Thorday's thump never came. The chime was followed by silence and a creepy let-down feeling. And Jonah's mother lit a candle to avert bad luck.
Early last spring, there had been almost a whole week without any thumps. Five days in a row, with no rain of detritus, shaken loose from the Upper World, tumbling down here to the ocean bottom. And two, smaller gaps the previous year.
Apparently, today would be yet another hiatus...
Delayed, the thump came hard, shaking the moist ground beneath Jonah's feet. He glanced with concern toward the bubble boundary, more than two hundred meters away — a membrane of ancient, translucent volcanic stone, separating the paddies and pinyon forest from black, crushing waters just outside. The barrier vibrated, an unpleasant, scraping sound.
This time, especially, it caused Jonah's teeth to grind.
"They used to sing, you know," commented the complacent old woman who worked at a nearby freeboard loom, nodding as gnarled fingers sent her shuttle flying among the strands, weaving ropy cloth. Her hands did not shake, though the nearby grove of thick vines did, quivering much worse than after any normal thump.
"I'm sorry grandmother." Jonah reached out to a nearby bole of twisted cables that dangled from the bubble-habitat's high-arching roof, where shining glowleaves provided the settlement's light.
"Who used to sing?"
"The walls, silly boy. The bubble walls. Thumps used to come exactly on time, according to the Old Clock. Though every year we would shorten the main wheel by the same amount, taking thirteen seconds off the length of a day. After-shakes always arrived from the same direction, you could depend on it! And the bubble sang to us."
"It sang... you mean like that awful groan?" Jonah poked a finger in one ear, as if the pry out the fading reverberation. He peered into the nearby forest of thick trunks and vines, listening for signs of breakage. Of disaster.
"Not at all! It was musical. Comforting. Especially after a miscarriage. Back then, a woman would lose over half of her quickenings. Not like today, when more babies are born alive than warped or misshapen or dead. Your generation has it lucky! And it's said things were even worse in olden days. The Founders were fortunate to get any living replacements at all! Several times, our population dropped dangerously." She shook her head, then smiled. "Oh... but the music! After every mid-morning thump you could face the bubble walls and relish it. That music helped us women bear our heavy burden."
"Yes, grandmother, I'm sure it was lovely," Jonah replied, keeping a respectful voice as he tugged on the nearest pinyon to test its strength, then clambered upward, hooking long, unwebbed toes into the braided vines, rising high enough to look around. None of the other men or boys could climb as well.
Several nearby boles appeared to have torn loose their mooring suckers from the domelike roof. Five... no six of them... teetered, lost their final grip-holds, then tumbled, their luminous tops crashing into the rice lagoon, setting off eruptions of sparks... or else onto the work sheds where Panalina and her mechanics could be heard, shouting in dismay. It's a bad one, Jonah thought. Already the hab-bubble seemed dimmer. If many more pinyons fell, the clan might dwell in semi-darkness, or even go hungry.
"Oh, it was beautiful, all right," the old woman continued, blithely ignoring any ruckus. "Of course in my grandmother's day, the thumps weren't just regular and perfectly timed. They came in pairs! And it is said that long before — in her grandmother's grandmother's time, when a day lasted so long that it spanned several sleep periods — thumps used to arrive in clusters of four or five! How things must've shook, back then! But always from the same direction, and exactly at the mid-morning chime."
She sighed, implying that Jonah and all the younger folk were making too much fuss. You call this a thump shock?
"Of course," she admitted, "the bubbles were younger then. More flexible, I suppose. Eventually, some misplaced thump is gonna end us all."
Jonah took a chance — he was in enough trouble already without offending the Oldest Female, who had undergone thirty-four pregnancies and still had six living womb-fruit — four of them precious females.
But grandmother seemed in a good mood, distracted by memories....
Jonah took off, clambering higher till he could reach with his left hand for one of the independent dangle vines that sometimes laced the gaps between pinyons. With his right hand he flicked with his belt knife, severing the dangler a meter or so below his knees. Sheathing the blade and taking a deep breath — he launched off, swinging across an open space in the forest... and finally alighting along a second giant bole. It shook from his impact and Jonah worried. If this one was weakened, and I'm the reason that it falls, I could be in for real punishment. Not just grandma-tending duty!
A "rascal's" reputation might have been harmless, when Jonah was younger. But now, the mothers were pondering what amount Tairee Dome might have to pay, in dowry, for some other bubble colony to take him. A boy known to be unruly might not get any offers, at any marriage price... and a man without a wife-sponsor led a marginal existence.
But honestly, this last time wasn't my fault! How am I supposed to make an improved pump without filling something with high pressure water? All right, the kitchen rice cooker was a poor choice. But it has a gauge and everything... or, it used to.
After quivering far too long, the great vine held. With a brief sense of relief, he scrambled around to the other side. There was no convenient dangler, this time, but another pinyon towered fairly close. Jonah flexed his legs, prepared, and launched himself across the gap, hurtling with open arms, alighting with shock and painful clumsiness. He didn't wait though, scurrying to the other side — where there was another dangle vine, well-positioned for a wide-spanning swing.
This time he couldn't help himself while hurtling across open space, giving vent to a yell of exhilaration.
Two swings and four leaps later, he was right next to the bubble's edge, reaching out to stroke the nearest patch of ancient, vitrified stone, in a place where no one would see him break taboo. Pushing at the transparent barrier, Jonah felt deep ocean pressure shoving back. The texture felt rough-ribbed, uneven. Sliver-flakes rubbed off, dusting his hand.
"Of course, bubbles were younger then," the old woman said. "More flexible."
Jonah had to wrap a length of dangle vine around his left wrist and clutch the pinyon with his toes, in order to lean far out and bring his face right up against the bubble — it sucked heat into bottomless cold — using his right hand and arm to cup around his face and peer into the blackness outside. Adapting vision gradually revealed the stony walls of Cleopatra Crevice, the narrow-deep canyon where humanity had come to take shelter so very long ago. Fleeing the Coss invaders. Before many lifespans of grandmothers.
Several strings of globe-like habitats lay parallel along the canyon bottom, like pearls on a necklace, each of them surrounded by a froth of smaller bubbles... though fewer of the little ones than there were in olden times, and none anymore in the most useful sizes. It was said that, way back at the time of the Founding, there used to be faint illumination overhead, filtering downward from the surface and demarking night from day: light that came from the mythological god-thing that old books called the sun, so fierce that it could penetrate both dense, poisonous clouds and the ever-growing ocean.
But that was way back in a long-ago past, when the sea had not yet burgeoned so, filling canyons, becoming a dark and mighty deep. Now, the only gifts that fell from above were clots of detritus that men gathered to feed algae ponds. Debris that got stranger, every year.
These days, the canyon walls could only be seen by light from the bubbles themselves, by their pinyon glow within. Jonah turned slowly left to right, counting and naming those farm-enclaves he could see. Amtor... Leininger... Chown... Kuttner... Okumo... each one a clan with traditions and styles all their own. Each one possibly the place where Tairee tribe might sell him in a marriage pact. A mere boy and good riddance. Good at numbers and letters. A bit skilled with his hands, but notoriously absent-minded, prone to staring at nothing, and occasionally putting action to rascally thoughts.
He kept tallying: Brakutt... Lewis... Booros... Napeer... Carson... what?
Jonah blinked. What was happening to Carson? And the bubble just beyond it. Both Carson and Bezo were still quivering. He could make out few details at this range, through the milky, pitted membrane. But one of the two was rippling and convulsing, the glimmer of its pinyon forest shaking back and forth as the giant boles swayed... then collapsed!
The other distant habitat seemed to be inflating. Or so Jonah thought at first. Rubbing his eyes and pressing even closer, as Bezo habitat grew bigger...
...or else it was rising! Jonah could not believe what he saw. Torn loose, somehow, from the ocean floor, the entire bubble was moving. Upward. And as Bezo ascended, its flattened bottom now re-shaped itself as farms and homes and lagoons tumbled together into the base of the accelerating globe. With its pinyons still mostly in place, Bezo colony continued glowing as it climbed upward.
Aghast, and yet compelled to look, Jonah watched until the glimmer that had been Bezo finally vanished in blackness, accelerating toward the poison surface of Venus.
Then, without warning or mercy, habitat Carson imploded.
"I was born in Bezo, you know."
Jonah turned to see Enoch leaning on his rake, staring south along the canyon wall, toward a gaping crater where that ill-fated settlement bubble used to squat. Distant glimmers of glow-lamps flickered over there as crews prowled along the Carson debris field, sifting for salvage. But that was a job for mechanics and senior workers. Meanwhile, the algae ponds and pinyons must be fed, so Jonah also found himself outside, in coveralls that stank and fogged from his own breath and many generations of previous wearers, helping to gather the week's harvest of organic detritus.
Jonah responded in the same dialect Enoch had used. Click-Talk. The only way to converse, when both of you are deep underwater.
"Come on," he urged his older friend, a recent, marriage-price immigrant to Tairee Bubble. "All of that is behind you. A male should never look back. We do as we are told."
Enoch shrugged — broad shoulders making his stiff coveralls scrunch around the helmet, fashioned from an old foam bubble of a size no longer found in these parts. Enoch's phlegmatic resignation was an adaptive skill that served him well, as he was married to Jonah's cousin, Jezzy, an especially strong-willed young woman, bent on exerting authority and not above threatening her new husband with casting-out.
I can hope for someone gentle, when I'm sent to live beside a stranger in strange dome.
Jonah resumed raking up newly fallen organic stuff — mostly ropy bits of vegetation that lay limp and pressure-crushed after their long tumble to the bottom. In recent decades, there had also been detritus of another kind. Shells that had holes in them for legs and heads. And skeleton fragments from slinky creatures that must have — when living — stretched as long as Jonah was tall! Much more complicated than the mud worms that kept burrowing closer to the domes, of late. More like the fabled snakes or fish that featured in tales from Old Earth.
Panalina's dad — old Scholar Wu — kept a collection of skyfalls in the little museum by Tairee's eastern arc, neatly labeled specimens dating back at least ten grandmother cycles, to the era when light and heat still came down along with debris from above — a claim that Jonah still deemed mystical. Perhaps just a legend, like Old Earth.
"These samples... do you see how they are getting more complicated, Jonah?" So explained old man Wu as he traced patterns of veins in a recently gathered sea weed. "And do you make out what's embedded here? Bits of creatures living on or within the plant. And there! Does that resemble a bite mark? The outlines of where teeth tore into this vegetation? Could that act of devouring be what sent it tumbling down to us?"
Jonah pondered what it all might mean while raking up dross and piling it onto the sledge, still imagining the size of a jaw that could have torn such a path through tough, fibrous weed. And everything was pressure-shrunk down here!
"How can anything live up at the surface?" He recalled asking Wu, who was said to have read every book that existed in the Cleopatra Canyon colonies, most of them two or three times. "Did not the founders say the sky was thick with poison?"
"With carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid, yes. I have shown you how we use pinyon leaves to separate out those two substances, both of which have uses in the workshop. One we exhale —"
"And the other burns! Yet, in small amounts it smells sweet."
"That is because the Founders, in their wisdom, put sym-bi-ants in our blood. Creatures that help us deal with pressure and gases that would kill folks who still live on enslaved Earth."
Jonah didn't like to envision tiny animals coursing through his body, even if they did him good. Each year, a dozen kids throughout the bubble colonies were chosen to study such useful things — biological things. A smaller number chose the field that interested Jonah, where even fewer were allowed to specialize.
"But the blood creatures can only help us down here, where the pinyons supply us with breathable air. Not up top, where poisons are so thick." Jonah gestured skyward. "Is that why none of the Risers have ever returned?"
Once every year or two, the canyon colonies lost a person to the hell that awaited above. Most often because of a buoyancy accident; a broken tether or boot-ballast sent some hapless soul plummeting upward. Another common cause was suicide. And — more rarely — it happened for another reason, one the mothers commanded that no one may discuss, or even mention. A forbidden reason.
Only now, after the sudden rise of Bezo Bubble and a thousand human inhabitants, followed by the Carson implosion, little else was on anyone's mind.
"Even if you survive the rapid change in pressure... one breath up there and your lungs would be scorched as if by flame," old Scholar Wu had answered, yesterday. "That is why the Founders seeded living creatures a bit higher than us, but beneath the protective therm-o-cline layer that keeps most of the poison out of our abyss..."
The old man paused, fondling a strange, multi-jawed skeleton. "It seems that life — some kind of life — has found a way to flourish near that barrier. So much so, that I have begun to wonder —"
A sharp voice roused him.
This time it was Enoch, reminding him to concentrate on work. A good reason to work in pairs. He got busy with the rake. Mother was pregnant again, along with Aunts Leor and Sosun. It always made them cranky with tension, as the fetuses took their time, deciding whether to go or stay — and if they stayed, whether to come out healthy or as warped ruins. No, it would not do to return from this salvage outing with only half a load!
So he and Enoch forged farther afield, hauling the sledge to another spot where high ocean currents often dumped interesting things after colliding with the canyon walls. The algae ponds and pinyons needed fresh supplies of organic matter. Especially in recent decades, after the old volcanic vents dried up.
The Book of Exile says we came down here to use the vents, way back when the sea was hot and new. A shallow refuge for free humans to hide from the Coss, while comets fell in regular rhythm, thumping Venus to life. Drowning her fever and stirring her veins.
Jonah had only a vague notion what "comets" were — great balls drifting through vast emptiness, till godlike beings with magical powers flung them down upon this planet. Balls of ice, like the pale-blue slush that formed on the cool, downstream sides of boulders in a fast, underwater current. About as big as Cleopatra Canyon was wide, that's what books said about a comet.
Jonah gazed at the towering cliff walls, enclosing all the world he ever knew. Comets were so vast! Yet, they had been striking Venus daily, since centuries before colonists came, immense, pre-creation icebergs, pelting the sister world of Old Earth. Perhaps several million of them by now, herded first by human civilization and later by Coss Masters, who adopted the project as their own — one so ambitious as to be nearly inconceivable.
So much ice. So much water. Building higher and higher till it has to fill the sky, even the poison skies of Venus. So much that it fills all of creatio—
"Jonah, watch out!"
Enoch's shouted warning made him crouch and spin about. Or Jonah tried to, in the clumsy coveralls, raising clouds of muck stirred by heavy, shuffling boots. "Wha—? What is it?"
"Above you! Heads up!"
Tilting back was strenuous, especially in a hurry. The foggy faceplate didn't help. Only now Jonah glimpsed something overhead, shadowy and huge, looming fast out of the black.
He required no urging. Heart pounding in terror, Jonah pumped his legs for all they were worth, barely lifting weighted shoes to shuffle-skip with long strides toward the nearby canyon wall, sensing and then back-glimpsing a massive, sinuous shape that plummeted toward him out of the abyssal sky. By dim light from a distant habitat-dome, the monstrous shape turned languidly, following his dash for safety, swooping in to close the distance fast! Over his right shoulder, Jonah glimpsed a gaping mouth and rows of glistening-huge teeth. A sinuous body from some nightmare.
I'm not gonna make it. The canyon wall was just too far.
Jonah skidded to a stop, raising plumes of bottom muck. Swiveling into a crouch and half moaning with fear, he lifted his only weapon — a rake meant for gathering organic junk from the sea floor. He brandished it crosswise, hoping to stymie the wide jaw that now careened out of dimness, framed by four glistening eyes. Like some ancient storybook dragon, stooping for prey. No protection, the rake was more a gesture of defiance.
Come on, monster.
A decent plan, on the spur of the moment.
It didn't work.
It didn't have to.
The rake shattered, along with several ivory teeth as the giant maw plunged around Jonah, crashing into the surrounding mud, trapping him... but never closing, nor biting or chewing. Having braced for all those things, he stood there in a tense hunker as tremors shook the canyon bottom, closer and more spread out than the daily thump. It had to be more of the sinuous monster, colliding with surrounding muck — a long, long leviathan!
A final ground-quiver, then silence. Some creakings. Then more silence.
And darkness. Enveloped, surrounded by the titan's mouth, Jonah at first saw nothing... then a few faint glimmers. Pinyon light from nearby Monsat bubble habitat. Streaming in through holes. Holes in the gigantic head. Holes that gradually opened wider as ocean-bottom pressure wreaked havoc on flesh meant for much higher waters.
Then the smell hit Jonah.
An odor of death.
Of course. Such a creature would never dive this deep of its own accord. Instead of being pursued by a ravenous monster, Jonah must have run along the same downdraft conveying a corpse to its grave. An intersection and collision that might seem hilarious someday, when he told the story as an old grandpa, assuming his luck held. Right now, he felt sore, bruised, angry, embarrassed... and concerned about the vanishing supply in his meager air bubble.
With his belt knife, Jonah began probing and cutting a path out of the trap. He had another reason to hurry. If he had to be rescued by others, there would be no claiming this flesh for Tairee, for his clan and family. For his dowry and husband price.
Concerned clicks told him Enoch was nearby and one promising gap in the monster's cheek suddenly gave way to the handle of a rake. Soon they both were tearing at it, sawing tough membranes, tossing aside clots of shriveling muscle and skin. His bubble helmet might keep out the salt-sea, but pungent aromas were another matter. Finally, with Enoch tugging helpfully on one arm, Jonah squeezed out and stumbled several steps before falling to his knees, coughing.
"Here come others," said his friend. And Jonah lifted his gaze, spying men in bottom suits and helmets, hurrying this way, brandishing glow bulbs and makeshift weapons. Behind them he glimpsed one of the cargo subs — a string of mid-sized bubbles, pushed by hand-crank propellers — catching up fast.
"Help me get up ... on top," he urged Enoch, who bore some of his weight as he stood. Together, they sought a route onto the massive head. There was danger in this moment. Without clear ownership, fighting might break out among salvage crews from different domes, as happened a generation ago, over the last hot vent on the floor of Cleopatra Canyon. Only after a dozen men were dead had the grandmothers made peace. But if Tairee held a firm claim to this corpse, then rules of gift-generosity would parcel out shares to every dome, with only a largest-best allotment to Tairee. Peace and honor now depended on his speed. But the monster's cranium was steep, crumbly and slick.
Frustrated and almost out of time, Jonah decided to take a chance. He slashed at the ropy cables binding his soft overalls to the weighted clogs that kept him firmly on the ocean bottom. Suddenly buoyant, he began to sense the Fell Tug... the pull toward heaven, toward doom. The same tug that had yanked Bezo colony, a few days ago, sending that bubble-habitat and all of its inhabitants plummeting skyward.
Enoch understood the gamble. Gripping Jonah's arm, he stuffed his rake and knife and hatchet into Jonah's belt. Anything convenient. So far, so good. The net force seemed to be slightly downward. Jonah nodded at his friend, and jumped.
The marriage party made its way toward Tairee's bubble-dock, shuffling along to beating tambourines. Youngsters — gaily decked in rice-flowers and pinyon garlands — danced alongside the newlyweds. Although many of the children wore masks or makeup to disguise minor birth defects, they seemed light of spirit.
They were the only ones.
Some adults tried their best, chanting and shouting at all the right places. Especially several dozen refugees — Tairee's allocated share of threadbare escapees from the ruin of Cixin and Sadoul settlements — who cheered with the fervid eagerness of people desperately trying for acceptance in their new home, rather than mere sufferance. As for other guests from unaffected domes? Most appeared to have come only for free food. These now crowded near the dock, eager to depart as soon as the nuptial sub was on its way.
Not that Jonah could blame them. Most people preferred staying close to home, ever since the thumps started going all crazy, setting off a chain of tragedies, tearing at the old, placid ways.
And today's thump is already overdue, he thought. In fact, there hadn't been a ground-shaking comet strike in close to a month. Such a gap would have been unnerving, just a year or two ago. Now, given how awful some recent impacts had been, any respite was welcome.
A time of chaos. Few see good omens, even in a new marriage.
Jonah glanced at his bride, come to collect him from Lausanne Bubble, all the way at the far northern outlet of Cleopatra Canyon. Taller than average, with a clear complexion and strong carriage, she had good hips and only a slight mutant-mottling on the back of her scalp, where the hair grew in a wild, discolored corkscrew. An easily-overlooked defect, like Jonah's lack of toe webbing, or the way he would sneeze or yawn uncontrollably, whenever air pressure changed too fast. No one jettisoned a child over such inconsequentials.
Though you can be exiled forever from all you ever knew, if you're born with the genetic defect of maleness. Jonah could not help scanning the workshops and dorms, the pinyons and paddies of Tairee, wondering if he would see this place — his birth bubble — ever again. Perhaps, if the grandmothers of Lausanne trusted him with errands. Or next time Tairee hosted a festival — if his new wife chose to take him along.
He had barely met Petri Smoth before this day, having spoken just a few words with her over the years, at various craft-and-seed fairs, hosted by some of the largest domes. During last year's festival, held in ill-fated Carson Bubble, she had asked him a few pointed questions about some tinkered gimmicks he displayed. In fact, now that he looked back on it, her tone and expression must have been... evaluating. Weighing his answers with this possible outcome in mind. It just never occurred to Jonah, at the time, that he was impressing a girl enough to choose him as a mate.
I thought she was interested in my improved ballast transfer valve.
And maybe... in a way... she was.
Or, at least, in Jonah's mechanical abilities. Panalina suggested that explanation yesterday, while helping Jonah prepare his dowry — an old cargo truck that he had purchased with his prize winnings for claiming the dead sea serpent — a long-discarded submersible freighter that he spent the last year reconditioning. A hopeless wreck, some called it, but no longer.
"Well, it's functional, I'll give you that," the Master Mechanic of Tairee Bubble had decreed last night, after going over the vessel from stem to stern, checking everything from hand-wound anchor tethers and stone keel-weights to the bench where several pairs of burly men might labor at a long crank, turning a propeller to drive the boat forward. She thumped extra storage bubbles, turning stop-cocks to sniff at the hissing, pressurized air. Then Panalina tested levers that would let seawater into those tanks, if need-be, keeping the sub weighed down on the bottom, safe from falling into the deadly sky.
"It'll do," she finally decreed, to Jonah's relief. This could help him begin married life on a good note. Not every boy got to present his new bride with a whole submarine!
Jonah had acquired the old relic months before people realized just how valuable each truck might be, even junkers like this one — for rescue and escape — as a chain of calamities disrupted the canyon settlements. His repairs hadn't been completed in time to help evacuate more families from cracked and doomed Cixin or Sadoul bubbles, and he felt bad about that. Still, with Panalina's ruling of seaworthiness, this vehicle would help make Petri Smoth a woman of substance in the hierarchy at Laussane, and prove Jonah a real asset to his wife.
Only... what happens when so many bubbles fail that the others can't take refugees anymore?
Already there was talk of sealing Tairee against outsiders, even evacuees, and concentrating on total self-reliance.
Some spoke of arming the colony's subs for war.
"These older hull-bubbles were thicker and heavier," Panalina commented, patting the nearest bulkhead, the first of three ancient, translucent spheres that had been fused together into a short chain, like a trio of pearls on a string. "They fell out of favor, maybe four or five mother generations ago. You'll need to pay six big fellows in order to crank a full load of trade goods. That won't leave you much profit on cargo."
Good old Panalina, always talking as if everything would soon be normal again, as if the barter network was likely to ever be the same. With streaks of gray in her hair, the artificer claimed to be sixty years old, but was certainly younger. The grandmothers let her get away with the fib, and what would normally be criminal neglect, leaving her womb fallow most of the time, with only two still-living heirs, and both of those boys.
"Still," Panalina looked around and thumped the hull one last time. "He's a sturdy little boat. You know, there was talk among the mothers about refusing to let you take him away from Tairee. The Smoths had to promise half a ton of crushed grapes in return, and to take in one of the Sadoul families. Still, I think it's you they mostly want."
Jonah had puzzled over that cryptic remark, after Panalina left, then all during the brew-swilled bachelor party, suffering crude jokes and ribbing from the married men, and later during a fretful sleep-shift, as he tossed and turned with pre-wedding jitters. During the ceremony itself, Mother had been gracious and warm — not her typical mien, but a side of her that Jonah felt he would surely miss. Though he knew that an underlying source of her cheerfulness was simple — one less male mouth to feed.
It had made Jonah reflect, even during the wrist-binding part of the ceremony, on something old Scholar Wu said recently.
The balance of the sexes may change, if it really comes down to war. Breeders could start to seem less valuable than fighters.
In the docklock, Jonah found that his little truck had been decked with flowers, and all three of the spheres gleamed, where they had been polished above the water line. The gesture warmed Jonah's heart. There was even a freshly painted name, arcing just above the propeller.
Bird of Tairee
Well. Mother had always loved stories about those prehistoric creatures of Old Earth, who flew through a sky that was immeasurably vast and sweet.
"I thought you were going to name it after me," Petri commented in a low voice, without breaking her gracious smile.
"I shall do that, lady-love. Just after we dock in Laussane."
"Well... perhaps not just after," she commented, and Jonah's right buttock took a sharp-nailed pinch. He managed not to jump or visibly react. But clearly, his new wife did not intend wasting time, once they were home.
Home. He would have to re-define the word, in his mind.
Still, as Jonah checked the final loading of luggage, gifts and passengers, he glanced at the fantail one last time, picturing there a name that he really wanted to give the little vessel.
They were underway, having traveled more than half of the distance to Laussane Bubble, when a thump struck at the wrong time, shaking the little sub-truck like a rattle.
The blow came hard and late. So late that everyone at the wedding had simply written-off any chance of one today. Folks assumed that at least another work-and-sleep cycle would pass without a comet fall. Already this was the longest gap in memory. Perhaps (some murmured) the age of thumps had come to an end, as prophesied long ago. After the disasters that befell Carson and Bezo, then Sadoul and Cixin, it was a wish now shared by all.
Up until that very moment, the nuptial voyage had been placid, enjoyable, even for tense newlyweds.
Jonah was at the tiller up front, gazing ahead through a patch of hull-bubble that had been polished on both sides, making it clear enough to see through. Hoping that he looked like a stalwart, fierce-eyed seaman, he gripped the rudder ropes that steered Bird of Tairee, though the sub's propeller lay still and powerless. For this voyage, the old truck was being hauled as a trailer behind a larger, sleeker and more modern Laussanite sub, where a team of twelve burly men sweated and tugged in perfect rhythm, turning their drive-shaft crank.
Petri stood beside her new husband, while passengers chattered in the second compartment, behind them. As bubble colonies drifted past, she gestured at each of the gleaming domes and spoke of womanly matters, like the politics of trade and diplomacy, or the personalities and traditions of each settlement. Which goods and food items they excelled at producing, or needed. Their rates of mutation and successful child-raising. Or how well each habitat was managing its genetic diversity... and her tone changed a bit at that point, as if suddenly aware how the topic bore upon them both. For this marriage-match had been judged by the Laussane mothers on that basis, above all others.
"Of course I had final say, the final choice," she told Jonah, and it warmed him that Petri felt a need to explain.
"Anyway, there is a project I've been working on," she continued in a lower voice. "With a few others in Laussane and Landis bubbles. Younger folks, mostly. And we can use a good mechanic like you."
Like me? So I was chosen for that reason?
Jonah felt put off, and tensed a bit when Petri put an arm around his waist. But she leaned up and whispered in his ear.
"I think you'll like what we're up to. It's something just right for a rascal."
The word surprised him and he almost turned to stare. But her arm was tight and Petri's breath was still in his ear. So Jonah chose to keep his features steady, unmoved. Perhaps sensing his stiff reaction, Petri let go. She slid around to face him with her back resting upon the transparent patch, leaning against the window.
Clever girl, he thought. It was the direction he had to look, in order to watch the Pride of Laussane's rudder, up ahead, matching his tiller to that of the larger sub. Now he could not avert his eyes from her, using boyish reticence as an excuse.
Petri's oval face was a bit wide, as were her eyes. The classic Laussane chin cleft was barely noticeable, though her mutant-patch — the whorl of wild hair — was visible as a reflection behind her, on the bubble's curved, inner surface. Her wedding garment, sleek and close-cut, revealed enough to prove her fitness to bear and nurse... plus a little more. And Jonah wondered — when am I supposed to let the sight of her affect me? Arouse me? Too soon and he might seem brutish, in need of tight reins. Too late or too little, and his bride might feel insulted.
And fretting over it will make me an impotent fool. Deliberately, Jonah calmed himself, allowing some pleasure to creep in, at the sight of her. A seed of anticipation grew... as he knew she wanted.
"What project are you talking about? Something involving trucks?" He offered a guess. "Something the mothers may not care for? Something suited to a... to a..."
He glanced over his shoulder, past the open hatch leading to the middle bubble, containing a jumble of cargo — wedding gifts and Jonah's hope chest, plus luggage for Laussane dignitaries who rode in comfort aboard the bigger submersible ahead. Here, a dozen lower caste passengers sat or lay atop the stacks and piles — some of Petri's younger cousins, plus a family of evacuees from doomed Sadoul dome, sent to relieve Tairee's overcrowded refugee encampment, as part of the complex marriage deal.
Perhaps it would be best to hold off this conversation until a time and place with fewer ears around, to pick up stray sonic reflections. Perhaps delaying it for wife-and-husband pillow talk — the one and only kind of privacy that could be relied upon, in the colonies. He looked forward again, raising one eyebrow and Petri clearly got his meaning. Still, in a lower voice, she finished Jonah's sentence.
"To a rascal, yes. In fact, your reputation as a young fellow always coming up with bothersome questions helped me bargain well for you. Did you intend it that way, I wonder? For you to wind up only sought by one like me, who would value such attributes? If so, clever boy."
Jonah decided to keep silent, letting Petri give him credit for cunning he never had. After a moment, she shrugged with a smile, then continued in a voice that was nearly inaudible.
"But in fact, our small bunch of conspirators and connivers were inspired by yet another rascal. The one we have foremost in our minds was a fellow named... Melvil."
Jonah had been about to ask about the mysterious "we." But mention of that particular name stopped him short. He blinked hard — two, three times — striving not to flinch or otherwise react. It took him several tries to speak, barely mouthing the words.
"You're talking about... Theodora Canyon?"
A place of legend. And Petri's eyes now conveyed many things. Approval of his quickness... overlain upon an evident grimness of purpose. A willingness — even eagerness — to take risks and adapt in chaotic times, finding a path forward, even if it meant following a folktale. All of that was apparent in Petri's visage. Though clearly, Jonah was expected to say more.
"I've heard... one hears rumors... that there was a map to what Melvil found... another canyon filled with Gift-of-Venus bubbles like those the Founders discovered here in Cleopatra Canyon. But the mothers forbade any discussion or return voyages, and —" Jonah slowed down when he realized he was babbling. "And so, after Melvil fled his punishment, they hid the map away...."
"I've been promised a copy," Petri confided, evidently weighing his reaction. "Once we're ready to set out."
Jonah couldn't help himself. He turned around again to check the next compartment, where several smaller children were chasing each other up and down the luggage piles, making a ruckus and almost tipping over a crate of Panalina's smithy tools, consigned for trans-shipment to Gollancz dome. Beyond, through a second hatchway to the final chamber, where sweating rowers would normally sit, lay stacked bags of exported Tairee rice. The refugee family and several of Petri's sub-adult cousins lounged back there, talking idly, keeping apart from the raucous children.
Jonah looked back at his bride, still keeping his voice low.
"You're kidding! So there truly was a boy named Melvil? Who stole a sub and vanished —"
"— for a month and a week and a day and an hour," Petri finished for him. "Then returned with tales of a far-off canyon filled with gleaming bubbles of all sizes, a vast foam of hollow, volcanic globes, left over from this world's creation, never touched by human hands. Bubbles just as raw and virginal as our ancestors found, when they first arrived down here beneath a newborn ocean, seeking refuge far below the poison sky."
Much of what she said was from the Founders' Catechism, retaining its rhythm and flowery tone. Clearly, it amused Petri to quote modified scripture while speaking admiringly of an infamous rebel; Jonah could tell as much from her wry expression. But poetry — and especially irony — had always escaped Jonah, and she might as well get used to that husbandly lack, right now.
"So... this is about... finding new homes?"
"Perhaps, if things keep getting worse here in Cleo Abyss, shouldn't we have options? Oh, we're selling it as an expedition to harvest fresh bubbles, all the sizes that have grown scarce hereabouts, useful for helmets and cooking and chemistry. But we'll also check out any big ones. Maybe they're holding up better in Theodora than they are here. Because, at the rate things are going —" Petri shook her head. And, looking downward, her expression leaked just a bit, losing some of its tough, determined veneer, giving way to plainly visible worry.
She knows things. Information that the mothers won't tell mere men. And she's afraid.
Strangely, that moment of vulnerability touched Jonah's heart, thawing a patch that he had never realized was chill. For the first time, he felt drawn... compelled to reach out. Not sexually. But to comfort, to hold....
That was when the thump struck — harder than Jonah would have believed possible.
Concussion slammed the little submarine over, halfway onto its port side and set the ancient bubble hull ringing. Petri hurtled into him, tearing the rudder straps from his hands as they tumbled together backwards, caroming off the open hatch between compartments, then rolling forward again as Bird of Tairee heaved.
With the sliver of his brain that still functioned, Jonah wondered if there had been a collision. But the Laussanite ship was bobbing and rocking some distance ahead, still tethered to the Bird, and nothing else was closer than a bubble-habitat, at least two hundred meters away. Jonah caught sight of all this while landing against the window patch up-front, with Petri squished between. This time, as the Bird lurched again, he managed to grab a stanchion and hold on, while gripping her waist with his other arm. Petri's breath came in wheezing gasps, and now there was no attempt to mask her terror.
"What? What was..."
Jonah swallowed, bracing himself against another rocking sway that almost tore her from his grasp.
"A thump! Do you hear the low tone? But they're never this late!"
He didn't have breath to add — I've never felt one outside a dome, before. No one ventures into water during late morning, when comets always used to fall. And now Jonah knew why. His ears rang and hurt like crazy.
All this time he had been counting. Thump vibrations came in sequence. One tone passed through rock by compression, arriving many seconds before the slower transverse waves. He had once even read one of Scholar Wu's books about that, with partial understanding. And he recalled what the old teacher said. That you could tell from the difference in tremor arrivals how far away the impact was from Cleopatra Canyon.
...twenty-one... twenty-two... twenty three...
Jonah hoped to reach sixty-two seconds, the normal separation, for generation after generation of grandmothers.
The transverse tone, higher pitched and much louder than ever, set the forward bubble of the Bird ringing like a bell, even as the tooth-jarring sways diminished, allowing Jonah and Petri to grab separate straps and find their feet.
Less than half the usual distance. That comet almost hit us! He struggled with a numb brain. Maybe just a couple of thousand kilometers away.
"The children!" Petri cried, and cast herself — stumbling — aft toward the middle compartment. Jonah followed, but just two steps in order to verify no seals were broken. No hatches had to be closed and dogged... not yet. And the crying kids back there looked shaken, not badly hurt. So okay, trust Petri to take care of things back there —
— as he plunged back to the tiller harness. Soon, Jonah was tugging at balky cables, struggling to make the rudder obedient, fighting surges while catching brief glimpses of a tumult outside. Ahead, forty or fifty meters, the Pride of Laussane's propeller churned a roiling cauldron of water. The men inside must be cranking with all their might.
Backward, Jonah realized with dismay. Their motion in reverse might bring the Pride's prop in contact with the tow-line. Why are they hauling ass backwards?
One clue. The tether remained taut and straight, despite the rowers' efforts. And with a horrified realization, Jonah realized why. The bigger sub tilted upward almost halfway to vertical, with its nose aimed high.
They've lost their main ballast! Great slugs of stone and raw metal normally weighed a sub down, lashed along the keel. They must have torn loose amid the chaos of the thump — nearly all of them! But how? Certainly, bad luck and lousy maintenance, or a hard collision with the ocean bottom. For whatever reason, the Pride of Laussane was straining upward, climbing toward the sky.
Already, Jonah could see one of the bubble habitats from an angle no canyonite ever wanted... looking down upon the curved dome from above, its forest of pinyon vines glowing from within.
Cursing his own slowness of mind, Jonah let go of the rudder cables and half-stumbled toward the hatch at the rear of the control chamber, shouting for Petri. There was a job to do, more vital than any other. Their very lives might depend on it.
"When I give the word, open valve number one just a quarter turn!"
It wasn't a demure tone to use toward a woman, but he saw no sign of wrath or resentment as his new wife nodded. "A quarter turn. Yes, Jonah."
Clamping his legs around one of the ballast jars, he started pushing rhythmically on his new and improved model air pump. "Okay... now!"
As soon as Petri twisted the valve they heard water spew into the ballast chamber, helping Jonah push the air out, for storage at pressure in a neighboring bottle. It would be simpler and less work to just let the air spill outside, but he couldn't bring himself to do that. There might be further uses for the stuff.
When Bird started tilting sideways, he shifted their efforts to a bottle next to the starboard viewing patch... another bit of the old hull that had been polished for seeing. Farther aft, in the third compartment, he could hear some of the passengers struggling with bags of rice, clearing the propeller crank for possible use. In fact, Jonah had ordered it done mostly to give them a distraction. Something to do.
"We should be getting heavier," he told Petri as they shifted back and forth, left to right and then left again, letting water into storage bubbles and storing displaced air. As expected, this had an effect on the sub's pitch, raising the nose as it dragged on the tether cable, which in turn linked them to the crippled Pride of Laussane.
The crew of that hapless vessel had given up cranking to propel their ship backwards. Everything depended on Jonah and Petri, now. If they could make Bird heavy enough, quickly enough, both vessels might be prevented from sinking into the sky.
And we'll be heroes, Jonah pondered at one point, while his arms throbbed with pain. This could be a great start to his life and reputation in Laussane Bubble... that is, if it worked. Jonah ached to go and check the little sub's instruments, but there was no time. Not even when he drafted the father of the Sadoul refugee family to pump alongside him. Gradually, all the tanks were filling, making the Bird heavier, dragging at the runaway Pride of Laussane. And indeed....
Yes! He saw a welcome sight. One of the big habitat domes! Perhaps the very one they had been passing, when the thump struck. Jonah shared a grin with Petri, seeing in her eyes a glimmer of earned respect. Perhaps I'll need to rest a bit before our wedding night. Though funny, it didn't feel as if fatigue would be a problem.
Weighed down by almost-full ballast tanks, Bird slid almost along the great, curved flank of the habitat. Jonah signaled Xerish to ease off pumping and for Petri to close her valve. He didn't want to hit the sea bottom too hard. As they descended, Petri identified the nearby colony as Leininger Dome. It was hard to see much through both sweat-stung eyes and the barely polished window patch, but Jonah could soon tell that a crowd of citizens had come to press their faces against the inner side of the great, transparent bubble wall, staring up and out toward the descending subs.
As Bird drifted backward, it appeared that the landing would be pretty fast. Jonah shouted for all the passengers to brace themselves for a rough impact, one that should come any second as they drew even with the Leininger onlookers. A bump into bottom mud that...
...that didn't come.
Something was wrong. Instinct told him, before reason could, when Jonah's ears popped and he gave vent to a violent sneeze.
Petri and Jonah stared at the Leiningerites, who stared back in resigned dismay as the Bird dropped below their ground level... and kept dropping. Or rather, Leininger Bubble kept ascending, faster and faster, tugged by the deadly buoyancy of all that air inside, its anchor roots torn loose by that last violent thump. Following the path and fate of Bezo Colony, without the warning that had allowed partial evacuation of Cixin and Sadoul.
With a shout of self-loathing, Jonah rushed to perform a task that he should have done already. Check instruments. The pressure gauge wouldn't be much use in an absolute sense, but relative values could at least tell if they were falling. Not just relative to the doomed habitat, but drifting back toward the safe bottom muck, or else —
"Rising," he told Petri in a low voice, as she sidled alongside and rested her head against his shoulder. He slid his arm around her waist, as if they had been married forever. Or, at least, most of what remained of their short lives.
"Is there anything else we can do?" she asked.
"Not much." He shrugged. "Finish flooding the tanks, I suppose. But they're already almost full, and the weight isn't enough. That is just too strong." And he pointed out the forward viewing patch at the Pride of Laussane, its five large, air-filled compartments buoyant enough to overcome any resistance by this little truck.
"But... can't they do what we've done? Fill their own balls —"
"Ballast tanks. Sorry, my lady. They don't have any big ones. Just a few little bottles for adjusting trim."
Jonah kept his voice even and matter-of-fact, the way a vessel captain should, even though his stomach churned with dread, explaining how external keel weights saved interior cargo space. Also, newer craft used bubbles with slimmer walls. You didn't want to penetrate them with too many inlets, valves and such.
"And no one else has your new pump," Petri added. And her approving tone meant more to Jonah, in these final minutes, than he ever would have expected.
;"Of course..." he mused.
"Yes? You've thought of something?"
"Well, if we could somehow cut the tether cable..."
"We'd sink back to safety!" Then Petri frowned. "But we're the only chance they have, on the Pride of Lausanne. Without our weight, they would shoot skyward like a seed pip from a lorgo fruit."
"Anyway, it's up to them to decide," Jonah explained. "The tether release is at their end, not ours. Sorry. It's a design flaw that I'll fix as soon as I get a chance, right after re-painting your name on the stern."
"Hm. See that you do," she commanded.
Then, after a brief pause.
"Do you think they might release us, when they realize both ships are doomed?"
Jonah shrugged. There was no telling what people would do, when faced with such an end. He vowed to stand watch though, just in case.
He sneezed hard, twice. Pressure effects were starting to tell on him.
"Should we inform the others?" he asked Petri, with a nod back toward Bird's other two compartments, where the crying had settled down to low whimpers from a couple of younger kids.
She shook her head. "It will be quick, yes?"
Jonah considered lying, and dismissed the idea.
"It depends. As we rise, the water pressure outside falls, so if air pressure inside remains high, that could lead to a blow-out, cracking one of our shells, letting the sea rush in awfully fast. So fast, we'll be knocked out before we can drown. Of course, that's the least gruesome end."
"What a cheerful lad," she commented. "Go on."
"Let's say the hull compartments hold. This is a tough old bird." He patted the nearest curved flank. "We can help protect against blowout by venting compartment air, trying to keep pace with falling pressure outside. In that case, we'll suffer one kind or another kind of pressure-change disease. The most common is the Bends. That's when gas that's dissolved in our blood suddenly pops into tiny bubbles that fill your veins and arteries. I hear it's a painful way to die."
Whether because of his mutation, or purely in his mind, Jonah felt a return of the scratchy throat and burning eyes. He turned his head barely in time to sneeze away from the window, and Petri.
She was looking behind them, into the next compartment. "If death is unavoidable, but we can pick our way to die, then I say let's choose —"
At that moment, Jonah tensed at a sudden, jarring sensation — a snap that rattled the viewing-patch in front of him. Something was happening, above and ahead. Without light from the Cleopatra domes, darkness was near total outside, broken only by some algae-glowbulbs placed along the flank of the Pride of Laussane. Letting go of Petri, he went to all the bulbs inside the Bird's forward compartment and covered them, then hurried back to press his face against the viewing-patch.
"What is it?" Petri asked. "What's going on?"
"I think..." Jonah made out a queer, sinuous rippling in the blackness between the two submarines.
He jumped as something struck the window. With pounding heart, he saw and heard a snakelike thing slither across the clear zone of bubble, before falling aside. And beyond, starting from just twenty meters away, the row of tiny glow spots now shot upward, like legendary rockets, quickly diminishing then fading from view.
"The tether," he announced in a matter-of-fact voice.
"They let go? Let us go?" A blend of hope and awe in her voice.
"Made sense," he answered. "They were goners anyway." And now they will be the heroes, when all is told. Songs will be sung about their choice, back home.
That is, assuming there still is a home. We have no idea if Leininger dome was the only victim, this time.
He stared at the pressure gauge. After a long pause when it refused to budge, the needle finally began to move. Opposite to its former direction of change.
"We're descending," he decreed with a sigh. "In fact, we'd better adjust. To keep from falling too fast. It wouldn't do, to reach safety down there, only to crack open from impact."
Jonah put the Sadoulite dad — Xerish — to work, pumping in the opposite direction, less frantically than before, but harder work, using compressed air to push out-and-overboard some water from the ballast tanks, while Petri, now experienced, handled the valves. After supervising for a few minutes, he went back to the viewing port and peered outside. I must keep a sharp look out for the lights of Cleo Crevice. We may have drifted laterally and I can adjust better while we're falling than later, at the bottom. He used the rudder and stubby elevation planes to turn his little sub, explaining to Petri how it was done. She might have to steer, if Jonah's strength was needed on the propeller crank.
A low, concussive report caused the chamber to rattle and groan. Not as bad as the horrid thump had been, but closer, coming from somewhere above. Jonah shared eye contact with Petri, a sad recognition of something inevitable. The end of a gallant ship — Pride of Laussane.
Two more muffled booms followed, rather fainter, then another.
They must have closed their inner hatches. Each compartment is failing separately.
But something felt wrong about that. The third concussion, especially, had felt deep-throated, lasting longer than reasonable. Amid another bout of sneezing, Jonah pressed close against the view-patch once again, in order to peer about. First toward the bottom and then upward.
Clearly, this day had to be the last straw. It rang a death knell for the old, complacent ways of doing things. Leininger had been a big, important colony, and perhaps not today's only major victim. If thumps were going unpredictable and lethal, then Cleopatra might have to be abandoned.
Jonah knew very little about the plan concocted by Petri's mysterious cabal of young women and men, though he was glad to have been chosen to help. To follow a rascal's legend in search of new homes. In fact, two things were abundantly clear. Expeditions must get under way just as soon as we get back. And there should be more than just one, following Melvil's clues. Subs must be sent in many directions! If Venus created other realms filled with hollow volcanic globes that can be seeded with Earthly life, then we must find them.
A second fact had also emerged, made evident during the last hour or so. Jonah turned to glance back at a person he had barely known, until just a day ago.
It appears that I married really well.
Although the chamber was very dim, Petri glanced up from her task and noticed him looking at her. She smiled — an expression of respect and dawning equality that seemed just as pleased as he now felt. Jonah smiled back — then unleashed another great sneeze. At which she chirped a short laugh and shook her head in fake-mocking ruefulness.
Grinning, he turned back to the window, gazed upward — then shouted —
"Grab something! Brace yourselves!"
That was all he had time or breath to cry, while yanking on the tiller cables and shoving his knee hard against the elevator control plane. Bird heeled over to starboard, both rolling and struggling to yaw-turn. Harsh cries of surprise and alarm erupted from the back compartments, as crates and luggage toppled.
He heard Petri shout — "stay where you are!" — at the panicky Xerish, who whimpered in terror. Jonah caught a glimpse of them, reflected in the view-patch, as they clutched one of the air-storage bottles to keep from tumbling across the deck, onto the right-side bulkhead.
Come on, old boy, he urged the little sub and wished he had six strong men cranking at the stern end, driving the propeller to accelerate Bird of Tairee forward. If there had been, Jonah might — just barely — have guided the sub clear of peril tumbling from above. Debris from a catastrophe, only a small fraction of it glittering in the darkness.
Hard chunks of something rattled against the hull. He glimpsed an object, thin and metallic — perhaps a torn piece of pipe — carom off the view-patch with a bang, plowing several nasty scars before it fell away. Jonah half expected the transparent zone to start spalling and cracking, at any second.
That didn't happen, but now debris was coming down in a positive rain, clattering along the whole length of his vessel, testing the sturdy old shells with every strike. Desperate, he hauled even harder, steering Bird away from what seemed the worst of it, toward a zone that glittered a bit less. More cries erupted from the back two chambers.
I should have sealed the hatches, he thought. But then, what good would that do for anyone, honestly? Having drifted laterally from Cleo Canyon, any surviving chambers would be helpless, unable to maneuver, never to be found or rescued before the stored air turned to poison. Better that we all go, together.
He recognized the sound that most of the rubble made upon the hull — bubble-stone striking more bubble-stone. Could it all have come from the Pride of Laussane? Impossible! There was far too much.
The doomed dome must have imploded, or exploded, or simply come apart without the stabilizing pressure of the depths. Then, with all its air lost and rushing skyward, the rest would plummet. Shards of bubble wall, dirt, pinyons glowing feebly as they drifted ever-lower... and people. That was the detritus Jonah most hoped to avoid.
There. It looks jet black over there. The faithful old sub had almost finished its turn. Soon he might slack off, setting the boat upright. Once clear of the debris field, he could check on the passengers, then go back to seeking the home canyon...
He never saw whatever struck next, but it had to be big, perhaps a major chunk of Leininger's wall. The blow hammered all three compartments in succession, ringing them like great gongs, making Jonah cry out in pain. There were other sounds, like ripping, tearing. The impact — somewhere below and toward portside, lifted him off his feet, tearing one of the rudder straps out of Jonah's hand, leaving him to swing wildly by the other. Bird sawed hard to the left as Jonah clawed desperately to reclaim the controls.
At any moment, he expected to greet the harsh, cold sea and have his vessel join the skyfall of lost hopes.
Only gradually did it dawn on him — it wasn't over. The peril and problems, he wasn't about to escape them that easily. Yes, damage was evident, but the hulls — three ancient, volcanic globes, still held.
In fact, some while after that horrible collision, it did seem that Bird of Tairee had drifted clear of the heavy stuff. Material still rained upon the sub, but evidently softer items. Like still-glowing chunks of pinyon vine.
Petri took charge of the rear compartments, crisply commanding passengers to help each other dig out and assessing their hurts, in order of priority. She shouted reports to Jonah, whose hands were full. In truth, he had trouble hearing what she said, over the ringing in his ears, and had to ask for repetition several times. The crux: one teenager had a fractured wrist, while others bore bruises and contusions — a luckier toll than he expected. Bema — the Sadoulite mother — kept busy delivering first aid.
More worrisome was a leak. Very narrow, but powerful, a needle jet spewed water into the rear compartment. Not through a crack in the shell — fortunately — but via the packing material that surrounded the propeller bearing. Jonah would have to go back and have a look, but first he assessed other troubles. For example, the sub wouldn't right herself completely. There was a constant tilt to starboard around the roll axis...
...then he checked the pressure gauge, and muttered a low invocation to ancient gods and demons of Old Earth.
"We've stopped falling," he confided to Petri in the stern compartment, once the leak seemed under control. It had taken some time, showing the others how to jam rubbery cloths into the bearing and then bracing it all with planks of wood torn from the floor. The arrangement was holding, for now.
"How can that be?" she asked. "We were heavy when the Pride let us go. I thought our problem was how to slow our descent."
"It was. Till our collision with whatever-hit-us. Based on where it struck, along the portside keel, I'd guess that it knocked off some of our static ballast — the stones lashed to our bottom. The same thing that happened to Pride during that awful thump quake. Other stones may have been dislodged or had just one of their lashings cut, leaving them to dangle below the starboard side, making us tilt like this. From these two examples, I'd say we've just learned a lesson today, about a really bad flaw in the whole way we've done sub design."
"So which is it? Are we rising?"
"Slowly. It's not too bad yet. And I suppose it's possible we might resume our descent, if we fill all the ballast tanks completely. Only there's a problem."
"Isn't there always?" Petri rolled her eyes, clearly exasperated.
"Yeah." He gestured toward where Xerish — by luck a carpenter — was hammering more bracing into place. Jonah lowered his voice. "If we drop back to the sea floor, that bearing may not hold against full-bottom pressure. It's likely to start spewing again, probably faster."
"If it does, how long will we have?"
Jonah frowned. "Hard to say. Air pressure would fight back, of course. Still, I'd say less than an hour. Maybe not that much. We would have to spot one of the canyon domes right away, steer right for it and plop ourselves into dock as fast as possible, with everyone cranking like mad —"
"— only using the propeller will put even more stress on the bearing," Petri concluded with a thoughtful frown. "It might blow completely."
Jonah couldn't prevent a brief smile. Brave enough to face facts... and a mechanical aptitude, as well? I could find this woman attractive.
"Well, I'm sure we can work something out," she added. "You haven't let us down, yet."
Not yet, he thought and returned to work, feeling trapped by her confidence in him. And cornered by the laws of chemistry and physics — as well as he understood them with his meager education, taken from ancient books that were rudimentary and obsolete when the Founders first came to Venus, cowering away from alien invaders under a newborn ocean, while comets poured in with perfect regularity.
Perfect for many lifetimes, but not forever. Not anymore. Even if we make it home, then go ahead with the Melvil Plan, and manage to find another bubble-filled canyon less affected by the rogue thumps, how long will that last?
Wasn't this whole project, colonizing the bottom of an alien sea with crude technology, always doomed from the start?
In the middle compartment, Jonah opened his personal chest and took out some treasures — books and charts that he had personally copied under supervision by Scholar Wu, onto bundles of hand-scraped pinyon leaves. In one, he verified his recollection of Boyle's Law and the dangers of changing air pressure on the human body. From another he got a formula that — he hoped — might predict how the leaky propeller shaft bearing would behave, if they descended the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Petri put a couple of the larger teen girls to work on a bilge pump, transferring water from the floor of the third compartment into some almost-full ballast tanks. Over the next hour, Jonah kept glancing at the pressure gauge. The truck appeared to be leveling off again. Up and down. Up and down. This can't be good for my old Bird.
Leveled. Stable... for now. That meant the onus fell on him, with no excuse.
To descend and risk the leak becoming a torrent, blasting those who worked the propeller crank... or else...
Two hands laid pressure on his shoulders and squeezed inward, surrounding his neck, forcefully. Slim hands, kneading tense muscles and tendons. Jonah closed his eyes, not wanting to divulge what he had decided.
"Some wedding day, huh?"
Jonah nodded. No verbal response seemed needed. He felt married for years — and glad of the illusion. Evidently, Petri knew him now, as well.
"I bet you've figured out what to do."
He nodded again.
"And it won't be fun, or offer good odds of success."
A head shake. Left, then right.
Her hands dug in, wreaking a mixture of pleasure and pain, like life.
"Then tell me, husband," she commanded, coming around to bring their faces close. "Tell me what you'll have us do. Which way do we go?"
He exhaled a sigh. Then inhaled. And finally spoke one word.
Toward the deadly sky. Toward Venusian hell. It had to be. No other choice was possible.
"If we rise to the surface, I can try to repair the bearing from inside, without water gushing through. And if it requires outside work, then I can do that by putting on a helmet and coveralls. Perhaps they'll keep out the poisons long enough."
Petri shuddered at the thought. "Let us hope that won't be necessary."
"Yeah. Though while I'm there I could also fix the ballast straps holding some of the weight stones to our keel. I... just don't see any other way."
Petri sat on a crate opposite Jonah, mulling it over.
"Wasn't upward motion what destroyed Leininger Colony and the Pride?"
"Yes... but their ascent was uncontrolled. Rapid and chaotic. We'll rise slowly, reducing cabin air pressure in pace with the decreased push of water outside. We have to go slow, anyway, or the gas that's dissolved in our blood will boil and kill us. Slow and gentle. That's the way."
She smiled. "You know all the right things to say to a virgin."
Jonah felt his face go red, and was relieved when Petri got serious again.
"If we rise slowly, won't there be another problem? Won't we run out of breathable air?"
He nodded. "Activity must be kept to a minimum. Recycle and shift stale air into bottles, exchanging with the good air they now contain. Also, I have a spark separator."
"You do? How did... aren't they rare and expensive?"
"I made this one myself. Well, Panalina showed me how to use pinyon crystals and electric current to split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen. We'll put some passengers to work, taking turns at the spin generator." And he warned her. "It's a small unit. It may not produce enough."
"Well, no sense putting things off, then." Petri said with a grandmother's tone of decisiveness. "Give your orders, man."
The ascent became grueling. Adults and larger teens took turns at the pumps, expelling enough ballast water for the sub to start rising at a good pace... then correcting when it seemed too quick. Jonah kept close track of gauges revealing pressure, both inside and beyond the shells. He also watched for symptoms of decompression sickness — another factor keeping things slow. All passengers not on-shift were encouraged to sleep — difficult enough when the youngest children kept crying over the pain in their ears. Jonah taught them all how to yawn or pinch their noses to equalize pressure, though his explanations kept being punctuated by fits of sneezing.
Above all, even while resting, they had to breathe deep, as their lungs gradually purged and expelled excess gas from their bloodstreams.
Meanwhile, the fore-chamber resonated with a constant background whine as older kids took turns at the spark separator, turning its crank so that small amounts of seawater divided into component elements — one of them breathable. The device had to be working — a layer of salt gathered in the brine-collector. Still, Jonah worried. Did I attach the poles right? Might I be filling the storage bottle with oxygen and letting hydrogen into the cabin? Polluting the sub with an explosive mix that could put us out of our misery, at any second?
He wasn't sure how to tell — none of his books said — though he recalled vaguely that hydrogen had no odor.
After following him on his rounds, inspecting everything and repeating his explanations several times, Petri felt confident enough to insist. "You must rest now, Jonah. I will continue to monitor our rate of ascent and make minor adjustments. Right now, I want you to close your eyes."
When he tried to protest, she insisted, with a little more of the accented tone used by Laussane mothers. "We will need you far more, in a while. You'll require all your powers near the end. So lie down and recharge yourself. I promise to call, if anything much changes."
Accepting her reasoning, he obeyed by curling upon a couple of grain sacks that Xerish brought forward to the control cabin. Jonah's eyelids shut, gratefully. The brain, however, was another matter.
How deep are we now?
It prompted an even bigger question: how deep is the bottom of Cleopatra Canyon, nowadays?
According to lore, the first colonists used to care a lot about measuring the thickness of Venusian seas, back when some surface light used to penetrate all the way to the ocean floor. They would launch balloons attached to huge coils of string, in order to both judge depth and sample beyond the therm-o-cline barrier and even from the hot, deadly sky. Those practices died out — though Jonah had seen one of the giant capstan reels once, during a visit to Chown Dome, gathering dust and mouldering in a swampy corner.
The way Earth denizens viewed their planet's hellish interior, that was how Cleo dwellers thought of the realm above. Though there had been exceptions. Rumors held that Melvil, that legendary rascal, upon returning from his discovery of Theodora Crevice, had demanded support to start exploring the great heights. Possible even the barrier zone where living things thronged and might be caught for food. Of course, he was quite mad — though boys still whispered about him in hushed tones.
How many comets? Jonah found himself wondering. Only one book in Tairee spoke of the great Venus Terraforming Project that predated the Coss invasion. Mighty robots, as patient as gods, gathered iceballs at the farthest fringe of the Solar System and sent them plummeting from that unimaginably distant realm to strike this planet — several each day, always at the same angle and position — both speeding the world's rotation and drenching its long-parched basins. If each comet was several kilometers in diameter... how thick an ocean might spread across an entire globe, in twenty generations of grandmothers?
For every one that struck, five others were aimed to skim close by, tearing through the dense, clotted atmosphere of Venus, dragging some of it away before plunging to the sun. The scale of such an enterprise was stunning, beyond belief. So much so that Jonah truly doubted he could be of the same species that did such things. Petri, maybe. She could be that smart. Not me.
How were such a people ever conquered?
The roil of his drifting mind moved onward to might-have-beens. If not for that misguided comet — striking six hours late to wreak havoc near the canyon colonies — Jonah and his bride would by now have settled into a small Laussane cottage, getting to know each other in more traditional ways. Despite, or perhaps because of the emergency, he actually felt far more the husband of a vividly real person than he would in that other reality, where physical intimacy happened... still, the lumpy grain sacks made part of him yearn for her in ways that — now — might never come to pass. That world would have been better... one where the pinyons waved their bright leaves gently overhead. Where he might show her tricks of climbing vines, then swing from branch to branch, carrying her in his arms while the wind of flying passage ruffled their hair —
A twang sound vibrated the cabin, like some mighty cord coming apart. The sub throbbed and Jonah felt it roll a bit.
His eyes opened and he realized I was asleep. Moreover, his head now rested on Petri's lap. Her hand had been the breeze in his hair.
Jonah sat up.
"What was that?"
"I do not know. There was a sharp sound. The ship hummed a bit, and now the floor no longer tilts."
"No longer —"
Jumping up with a shout, he hurried over to the gauges, then cursed low and harsh.
"What is it, Jonah?"
"Quick — wake all the adults and get them to work pumping!"
She wasted no time demanding answers. But as soon as crews were hard at work, Petri approached Jonah again at the control station, one eyebrow raised.
"The remaining stone ballast," he explained. "It must have been hanging by a thread, or a single lashing. Now it's completely gone. The sub's tilt is corrected, but we're ascending too fast."
Petri glanced at two sadoulites and two laussaners who were laboring to refill the ballast tanks. "Is there anything else we can do to slow down?"
Jonah shrugged. "I suppose we might unpack the leaky bearing and let more water into the aft compartment. But we'd have no control. The stream could explode in our faces. We might flood or lose the chamber. All told, I'd rather risk decompression sickness."
She nodded, agreeing silently.
They took their own turn at the pumps, then supervised another crew until, at last, the tanks were full. Bird could get no heavier. Not without flooding the compartments themselves.
"We have to lose internal pressure. That means venting air overboard," he said "in order to equalize."
"But we'll need it to breathe!"
"There's no choice. With our tanks full of water, there's no place to put extra air and still reduce pressure."
So, different pumps and valves, but more strenuous work. Meanwhile, Jonah kept peering at folks in the dim illumination of just two faint glow bulbs, watching for signs of the Bends. Dizziness, muscle aches and labored breathing? These could just be the result of hard labor. The book said to watch out also for joint pain, rashes, delirium or sudden unconsciousness. He did know that the old Dive Tables were useless — based on Earth-type humanity. And we've changed. First because our scientist ancestors modified themselves and their offspring. But time, too, has altered what we are, even long after we lost those wizard powers. Each generation was an experiment.
Has it made us less vulnerable to such things? Or more so?
Someone tugged his arm. It wasn't Petri, striving at her pump. Jonah looked down at one of the children, still wearing a stained and crumpled bridesmaid's dress, who pulled shyly, urging Jonah to come follow. At first, he thought: it must be the sickness. She's summoning me to help someone's agony. But what can I do?
Only it wasn't toward the stern that she led him, but the forwardmost part of the ship... to the view-patch, where she pointed.
"What is it?" Pressing close to the curved pane, Jonah tensed as he starkly envisioned some new cloud of debris... till he looked up and saw —
Vague at first. Only a child's perfect vision would have noticed it so early. But soon it spread and brightened across the entire vault overhead.
I thought we would pass through the therm-o-cline. He had expected a rough — perhaps even lethal — transition past that supposed barrier between upper and lower oceans. But it must have happened gently, while he slept.
Jonah called someone to relieve Petri and brought her forth to see.
"Go back and tell people to hold on tight," Petri dispatched the little girl, then she turned to grab Jonah's waist as he took the control straps. At this rate they appeared to be seconds away from entering Venusian hell.
Surely it has changed, he thought, nursing a hope that had never been voiced, even in his mind. The ocean has burgeoned as life fills the seas...
Already he spied signs of movement above. Flitting, flickering shapes — living versions of the crushed and dead tumbledowns that sometimes fell to Tairee's bottom realm, now undulating and darting about what looked like scattered patches of dense, dangling weed. He steered to avoid those.
If the sea has changed, then might not the sky, the air, even the highlands?
Charts of Venus, radar mapped by ancient earthling space probes, revealed vast continents and basins, a topography labeled with names like Aphrodite Terra and Lakshmi Planum. Every single appellation was that of a female from history or literature or legend. Well, that seemed fair enough. But had it been a cruel joke to call the baked and bone-dry lowlands "seas"?
Till humanity decided to make old dreams come true.
What will we find?
To his and Petri's awestruck eyes, the dense crowd of life revealed glimpses — shapes like dragons, like fish, or those ancient blimps that once cruised the skies of ancient Earth. And something within Jonah allowed itself to hope.
Assuming we survive decompression, might the fiery, sulfurous air now be breathable? Perhaps barely, as promised by the sagas? By now, could life have taken to high ground? Seeded in some clever centuries-delay by those same pre-Coss designers?
His mind pictured scenes from a few dog-eared storybooks, only enormously expanded and brightened. Vast, measureless jungles, drenched by rainstorms, echoing with the bellows of gigantic beasts. A realm so huge, so rich and densely forested that a branch of humanity might thrive, grow, prosper, and learn — regaining might and confidence — beneath that sheltering canopy, safe from invader eyes.
That, once upon a time, had been the dream, though few imagined it might fully come to pass.
Jonah tugged the tiller to avoid a looming patch of dangling vegetation. Then, ahead and above, the skyward shallows suddenly brightened, so fiercely that he and Petri had to shade their eyes, inhaling and exhaling heavy gasps. They both cried out as a great, slithering shape swerved barely out of the sub's way. Then brilliance filled the cabin like a blast of molten fire.
I was wrong to hope! It truly is hell!
A roar of foamy separation... and for long instants Jonah felt free of all weight. He let go of the straps and clutched Petri tight, twisting to put his body between hers and the wall as their vessel flew over the sea, turned slightly, then dropped back down, striking the surface with a shuddering blow and towering splash.
Lying crumpled below the viewing-patch, they panted, as did everyone else aboard, groaning and groping themselves to check for injuries. For reassurance of life. And gradually the hellish brightness seemed to abate, till Jonah realized. It is my eyes, adapting. They never saw daylight, before.
Jonah and Petri helped each other stand. Together, they turned, still shading their eyes. Sound had transformed, and so had the very texture of the air, now filled with strange aromas.
There must be a breach!
With shock, still blinking away glare-wrought tears, Jonah saw the cause. Impact must have knocked loose the dog-bolts charged with holding shut the main hatch, amidships on the starboard side — never meant to open anywhere but at the safety of a colonial dock.
With a shout he hurried over, even knowing it was too late. The poisons of Venus —
— apparently weren't here.
No one keeled over. His body's sole reaction to the inrushing atmosphere was to sneeze, a report so loud and deep that it rocked him back.
Jonah reached the hatch and tried pushing it closed, but Bird of Tairee was slightly tilted to port. The heavy door overwhelmed Jonah's resistance and kept gradually opening, from crack to slit, to gap, to chasm.
"I'll help you, Jonah," came an offer so low, like a rich male baritone, yet recognizably that of his wife. He turned, saw her eyes wide with surprise at her own voice.
"The air... it contains..." His words emerged now a deep bass. "...different gases than... we got from pinyons."
Different... but breathable. Even pleasant. Blinking a couple of times, he managed to shrug off the shock of his new voice and tried once more to close the hatch, before giving up for now. With the boat's slight leftward roll, there was no immediate danger of flooding, as seawater lapped a meter or so below. The opening must be closed soon, of course...
... but not quite yet. For, as Jonah and Petri stood at the sill, what confronted them was more than vast, rippling-blue ocean and a cloud-dense firmament. Something else lay between those two, just ahead and to starboard, a thick mass of shimmery greens and browns that filled the horizon, receding in mist toward distant, serrated skylines. Though he never dreamed of witnessing such a thing first-hand, they both recognized the sight, from ancient, faded pictures.
Land. Shore. Dense forests. Everything.
And overhead, creatures flapped strange, graceful wings, or drifted like jellyfish above leafy spires.
"It will take some time to figure out what we can eat," his wife commented, with feminine practicality.
"Hm," Jonah replied, too caught up in wonder to say more, a silence that lasted for many poundings of his heart. Until, finally, he managed to add —
"Someday. We must go back down. And tell."
After another long pause, Petri answered.
She held him tight around the chest, a forceful constriction that only filled Jonah with strength. His lungs expanded as he inhaled deeply a sweet smell, and knew that only part of that was her.
David Brin's newest story collection, INSISTENCE OF VISION, looks at what we may become. How will we endure? The future is a daunting realm, filled with real and imagined perils. So enter it prepared!
Today's public imagination has been captured by Mars. But once that desert planet had a rival for the affection of science fiction readers — back when the oceans of Venus, our sister world, stirred our spirits! Come back to those roiling seas, in a tale of the just-might-be — "The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss."
This story was first written for Gardner Dozois' Old Venus, published 2015. It was chosen by Neil Clarke for The Best Science Fiction of the Year (Night Shade Books), by Allan Kaster for The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 8 (www.audiotexttapes.net), and by David Afsharirad for The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF (Baen Books).
Copyright © 2013 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
Do not enter if you want a standard "Party" line! Contrary Brin's community pokes at too-rigid orthodoxies, proposing ideas and topics that fascinate and infuriate.