Venus of Dreams
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by Pamela Sargent
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Iris Angharads, a determined, independent woman, sets herself one massive goal: to make the poison-filled atmosphere of Venus hospitable to humans. She works day and night to realize her dream, with only one person sharing her passion, Liang Chen. It seems impossible to make Venus, with its intolerable air and waterless environment, into a paradise, but Iris succeeds. And in doing so, she also creates a powerful dynasty, beginning with her first born, Benzi Liangharad.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1989
eBookwise Release Date: May 2001
27 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [848 KB]
Reading time: 591-828 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
The night air was clear and cool. In the hour before dawn, the village of Lincoln was silent. Julia walked along the town's narrow main road; her granddaughter Iris clung to her hand. A dark wall of houses lined the road on either side. Julia moved slowly so that the little girl could keep up with her.
Julia had been born in Lincoln. The small town, one of hundreds in the Plains Communes of North America, took pride in its illustrious name; in the centuries before the Mukhtars of Earth's Nomarchies had brought peace to the world, a great Plains city, now a ruin, had borne the name of Lincoln.
The road began to curve upward as the two left the houses behind; it came to an end near the bottom of a small hill. Julia and Iris climbed the slope and stopped at the top of the hill, where the little girl could see a field of grain stretching to the northern horizon. Julia gazed at the sea of wheat silently for a moment before turning east, then sat down and covered the child with a fold of her warm cloak.
"There's your star," Julia said as Iris nestled under her arm. "That one there--the one shining steadily. I saw it the moment you were born."
Iris stirred restlessly. "Wenda told me," she murmured. "She said women born under that star have many lovers because it was named for love." The girl recited the words, not really sure exactly what they meant.
"All women have lovers," Julia said, "and any respectable woman has several. That's not what it means. Wenda believes a lot of foolish things." Her arm tightened around Iris. "You mustn't say that to Wenda, though. You'd hurt her feelings, and most of Lincoln would rather give her credit for wisdom."
Iris looked up at her grandmother. She had just begun to notice that Julia's voice often sounded hard and mocking; sometimes she seemed to mean the opposite of what she was saying. "What does it mean, then?"
"First of all, it's not a star--it's a planet. It's a world, like Earth, and it's being tinkered with so that people can live on it someday. Maybe your children will live there instead of here--that might be what it means. Maybe you'll become something different."
Iris was puzzled. She had known that the star was a planet, though she had only a vague idea of what a planet was. Planets, like Earth, circled the sun, but, unlike the Associated Habitats, they had not been built by people. What did Julia mean by saying that Iris's children might live on Venus? The boys would wander the Plains and the girls would stay in Lincoln and farm, as her family had always done.
Iris's mother, Angharad, was proud of her lineage; her people had been part of the Plains Communes even before the Plains became one of Earth's Nomarchies. Angharad could recite lists of ancestors, among them Indians and old farm families; a few had migrated to the Native American Nomarchy, but most had remained on the Plains. This lineage was preserved not only in Angharad's memory but also in the memory banks of the cyberminds that served Lincoln. Anyone could call up an ancestral list and listen to the musical chanting of names, and Angharad's list was more illustrious than many.
"Bet you don't know that it isn't really the light of Venus you're seeing," Julia said. "They had to build a giant shield in space near that world to protect it from the sun and let it cool, so what you're actually seeing is the shield's reflected light. Wenda probably didn't think of that when she decided what that sign meant for you. There's more to life than Lincoln, you know. I left this town once."
"But you came back."
"Yes." Julia's voice sounded hard once more.
"You never talk about it," Iris said. "Nobody's ever even told me where you went."
Julia shrugged under her cloak. "There's no reason anyone should have mentioned it to you, but it isn't a secret. I went to live in the Atlantic Federation. They needed workers to repair a few of the sea walls."
Iris's mouth dropped open. "Really?" She shivered a bit, thrilled by the revelation.
"I worked on the dikes near New York. A few of us even took a trip into the city once, a boat tour."
"Oh, Julia." Iris imagined a boat with sails gliding among the nearly submerged towers of the old city. The girl had seen images of New York with the aid of the band that could link her to the cyberminds, and that had been almost like being there, but Julia had seen the sight with her own eyes.
"It wasn't a fancy tour. Manhattan in the morning, lunch at the cafe on top of the World Trade Center, a lot of gab from the guide, and a little diving for anyone willing to risk getting hit by another boat."
"Oh, Julia," Iris said again.
"I worked on dikes for over a year. Some of my friends went on down the coast afterward, but the rest of us weren't needed, so I came back home." The woman paused, as if wondering how much more to tell the child. "You see, they had enough workers on the dikes, and they knew my mother had a farm here, and that I could be more useful here than there. I had to come back."
Iris frowned. "They forced you?"
Julia chuckled mirthlessly. "The Nomarchies never force anyone, you know that, and especially not here. We're a free people--we always have been. I had a choice--come back here or risk being sent to a strange place where my skills might be needed. I guess I was afraid of where I might end up, and my mother was begging me to come back and continue our line." Julia drew up her legs. "The Nomarchies and the Mukhtars always give you a choice. The cyberminds can teach you anything you want to know, and if you don't take advantage of it, that's your decision. You can do anything you want as long as there's a demand for it. You can live anywhere you want, as long as you have work in that place. Why, you can even have as many children as you want, if you're prepared to ignore the Counselor telling you and all your neighbors that only one or two are needed, and don't mind people thinking you're being obstinate or selfish." Her low voice was hoarse; her fingers dug into Iris's shoulder.
Julia bit her lip. She was saying too much, saying bitter words that an eight-year-old child should not hear, yet she wanted Iris to hear them.
Julia glanced at her right wrist, gazing at the identity bracelet she no longer needed but still wore even though she was unlikely to leave Lincoln again. Turning her head, she looked south, past the town's sloping roofs, at the clearing where the floater cradle stood. The airship bringing her home had docked there; her mother Gwen had been there to greet it. Gwen's grasping hands had made her think of the clamps and tethers holding the helium-filled dirigible in its egg-shaped cradle. Even now, she did not care to watch when a floater, freed from its bonds, left Lincoln for the world beyond. Her own bonds still bound her.
She loosened her grip on her granddaughter's shoulder. You might still have a chance, she thought. You might find a way to bring greater glory to our line instead of losing yourself in dreams of the past, as my daughter does. If people could change a world, then they could change themselves.
Iris was feeling uneasy. She already knew, without a warning from her grandmother, that this was not a conversation to share with Angharad or anyone else. "I can do what I want, can't I?"
"Of course you can." Julia sounded as though she did not mean it. "But you'd better be sure of what you want first, and of how to get it. By the time I found out, it was too late."
Iris gazed at the distant morning star. She had never doubted the pattern of her life before; now Julia was saying that some terrible disappointment awaited her. She looked up at her grandmother's round face, which was nearly hidden by her hood; two tiny lines, the only sign of age, were already etched on either side of Julia's broad mouth. Julia was older than the grandmothers of Iris's friends; she had been nearly thirty when Angharad, her only child, had been born. Was that why Julia was unhappy? Had she waited too long to give birth? Had she wanted other children and been told by the Counselor that Lincoln had enough young ones?
Every Plainswoman valued her line; most bore at least one child before the age of twenty. Because most people could expect to live for more than a century, seven or eight generations of women might live in the same house or town, thus preserving the continuity of their line. The past lived on in the oldest; the future was reflected in the youngest, who could see what she would become. A line was a living bond in a household.
But Julia's line was not like others. Only three generations of her line were alive in Lincoln, and their grasp of the past and future was more tenuous. Julia's mother Gwen had died early, never reaching her seventh decade, and Julia's grandmother had died soon after that--of grief, according to Wenda.
Iris, feeling the weight of her own responsibility to her line, was suddenly afraid. "What should I do?" the child wailed, as she thought of the distant misery that might await her.
"Iris, Iris." Julia hugged her, then let her arm drop away. "What do you want?"
The girl was silent for a moment, wondering how much she dared to admit. But Julia would understand. Maybe her grandmother had already guessed why she had been awake so early. Iris had sensed the woman's restlessness before, had heard Julia creeping down the stairs in the night or caught a glimpse of her at dawn on the hill. Perhaps Julia had heard her too. Her grandmother hadn't seemed surprised to find her awake so early that morning.
"You won't tell anyone?" Iris said. "You won't tell Angharad, will you?"
"I won't say a word."
Iris believed her. Julia did not gossip with any of the townsfolk or even with the women of their household. "I want to find out things," Iris burst out. "Sometimes I wait until everyone's asleep, and then I turn on my screen or put on my band. First, I just wanted to see places. I swam around New York--it was just like being there."
Julia shook her head. "Better than being there, child. A mind-tour always shows you the nicest spots. Well, you needn't hide that. Everybody takes mind-tours--keeps us happy to stay put the rest of the time."
"Not just that, Grandmother. I wanted to see where it all was--how far New York is from Lincoln, how far Tashkent is from Islamabad. The cybers showed me maps, just with pictures at first, until I learned how to read the names."
Julia clutched her wrist. "You read the names?"
"You promised you wouldn't tell."
"And I'll keep my promise."
"I learned the names, and then the cybers showed me stories about some of the places. I saw pictures with the band and then a voice told me I could look at words on my screen and now I can look at the words and make up my own pictures in my head."
Julia let go of Iris's arm. The woman's eyes were wide; Iris couldn't tell if she was upset or pleased. "Go on."
"I wanted to find out more things, about what New York was like before the flooding--things like that. Sometimes, when I think a question, I see a woman and she tells me where to find the answer and gives me codes to call it up and if I can answer her questions afterward, she gives me more to read." Iris turned toward the town. Light shone through a few of the windows; Lincoln was beginning to wake up.
"Now she's teaching me about numbers too," Iris continued in a lower voice. "She says they're another language, like words. She told me I can learn whatever I want. It's true, isn't it?"
"Of course it's true. She's a teaching image. Iris--you're supposed to learn from her."
"My friends don't. I told Laiza about her and she told me she never saw anything like that. I made her promise not to tell or I'd tell everyone her secrets."
"Of course they don't know about her. I was just like your friends, playing games and using my band for mind-adventures. All I needed to know was how to run the farm equipment, and you don't need reading for that." Julia sighed. "Listen to me. Do what that image tells you to do. The more you learn, the more chances--" She paused. "I wish I had learned more. By the time I tried, it was too late. I can't read anything except my name and a few others and enough figures to keep track of the time."
"But that's all anyone needs here."
"Here." Julia patted Iris's head, smoothing down the long, thick curls.
Can I travel if I learn more? Iris wondered. That notion excited her, but disturbed her as well. Would she have to leave her family and friends? She wouldn't mind traveling for a while, but she could not imagine leaving Lincoln for good; even Julia had come back. But Julia wasn't happy. Iris felt bewildered.
She looked up at her grandmother. Julia wasn't happy because she had not reached for enough; she had left Lincoln only to find that she was not really needed anywhere else. Julia was telling her to try for more than Julia herself had attempted.
The eastern sky was pale with light. Julia rose, adjusting her cloak. "Time to go home," she murmured to Iris.
The teaching image, who called herself Bari, had become Iris's friend. The girl knew that the image was not a real woman, but only a set of complex responses presented to her by the cyberminds when she linked herself to them with her band. The real Bari who had served as the model would be living her life elsewhere, unaware of Iris, or might even be dead, but Iris forgot that when she spoke to Bari's image.
Julia, with her talk about Venus, had aroused the child's curiosity about that world. There, her grandmother had told her, was a place where people did great deeds; there was a place where people could do something new instead of what others had done before them, where even a worker was of value. It was Bari who explained what Venus's transformation might mean to humanity.
With her band, Iris was able to see Venus as it had been over four hundred years ago, before its transformation had begun. She floated at the edge of an atmosphere nearly two hundred kilometers thick, then dropped through the ionized layers toward the poisonous clouds below, where the strong winds howled as they swept westward around the planet. Venus was shrieking its warning to her and to all people: You tame me at your peril; you may have named me for love, but remember the wildness and cruelty that is so often part of love.
As Iris continued to fall, the winds died and the acidic clouds thinned into a haze. Now, she seemed to be standing on a barren plain of basaltic rock; to the west, lightning flickered above a volcano. The volcano's slopes made her think of a mountain of shields, thrown there by invisible warriors as they awaited a coming battle. An eerie orange light shone through the stagnant haze, illuminating the hellish world.
That surface, four hundred years before, had been almost nine times as hot as the hottest summer days on the Plains; the atmospheric pressure had been ninety times as great as Earth's. Even if Iris could have stood on the surface and endured the heat without being crushed by the pressure of Venus's atmosphere or poisoned by the sulfuric acid of the clouds, she would have had no air to breathe. The atmosphere of carbon dioxide, which kept the intense heat from escaping, would have killed her.
Yet human beings had begun to terraform that world, dreaming of making it a new Earth. If they could do that, Iris thought, then they could do almost anything; the light of the planet would show all the people of Earth their true greatness. She thought: If I could be part of it and work there, I'd be doing something wonderful. She would not return to Lincoln discouraged and unhappy, as Julia had; she would stand on the hill with her descendants and tell them proudly of her own deeds as she pointed at the beacon of Venus.
This dream had begun in one mind, the mind of a man who had somehow managed to look beyond the ruined Earth on which he lived.
Karim al-Anwar had been one of the earliest of Earth's Mukhtars; that simple title, which any village elder in his part of the world might have claimed, belied his power. The Mukhtars who had preceded him had survived Earth's wars over resources and had seen many of the ravaged world's people abandon Earth for space, to make new homes in hollowed-out asteroids and, later, inside vast globes built out of the resources sunspace offered. Those left behind on Earth had gathered together, seeing that the world could now be theirs and the destiny of their people fulfilled.
The New Islamic States became the first Nomarchy, which stretched from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to the Central Asian plain. A few people in that region had seen their chance for power at the end of the last of the Resource Wars, when the Russians who had dominated them for so long had finally lost their grip on that territory. If the soldiers of the New Islamic States could seize control of the weapons in Earth orbit, the world would be theirs.
Those soldiers, along with the rest of Earth, endured the humiliation of being forced into peace, for those living on the space stations had repudiated any allegiance to Earth and taken control of the orbiting weapons, and it was then that the Islamic soldiers saw their opportunity. They became the first to negotiate with the spacedwellers, and swallowed their pride to plead their case, for they saw that the spacedwellers did not want the burden of holding Earth in check, and were already planning to abandon the home world for habitats in space.
The New Islamic States did not win the Earth. It was thrown to them, a worn-out husk that the spacedwellers no longer wanted. Unity under one power might enable Earth to rebuild; it had not mattered to the spacedwellers which group held that power.
The first Nomarchy's old enemies, drained by war, made an alliance with the Islamic States; nations that had once been stronger were in no position to fight. Once, the Mukhtars and their people had been suspicious of the culture that had dominated the world; now they saw that they would have to make it their own in order to survive.
Earth began to rebuild. More Nomarchies were formed, each with some autonomy, but ruled at first by one of the first Nomarchy's Mukhtars, and later by those the Mukhtars had trained. The Guardians of the Nomarchies, all that remained of the armed forces that had once fought Earth's battles, would maintain the orbiting weapons systems and keep the peace.
Karim al-Anwar might have contented himself with helping to keep what Earth had managed to wrest from the ruins. But where others saw people finally at peace, Karim saw people who needed a new dream, a goal that might lift them to greater endeavors that would rival the accomplishments of the Associated Habitats and their people, who had abandoned Earth. The people of the Nomarchies needed more than the placid hope of preserving what they had. They had been fortunate; Earth's most destructive weapons had been used only intermittently during the Resource Wars. Yet Karim believed that, without an outlet, widespread violence might once again be visited upon his world.
Karim might have had hidden reasons for his dream. Perhaps he had wanted his name to live forever; perhaps his vision had been the product of a half-mad mind wanting to dominate human history. Maybe he had wanted to bury the shame of knowing that his own people would have had no power if the spacedwellers had not given it to them. There was no way for Iris, as she learned of Karim, to be sure, for Karim's true self had been swallowed by the legend he had helped to create.
Karim had dreamed of transforming another world. The ways of the Associated Habitats were a break with Earth's past, while Karim sought a continuity with the older culture. Planets were the proper homes of humanity, not the closed Habitats. There were worlds within Earth's grasp, planets that could become new homes.
Mars had seemed the most likely candidate for terraforming, but Habbers lived on the two Martian satellites and had already established their claim to the Red Planet. The gas giants beyond the orbit of Mars offered too many obstacles to transformation, and people inhabiting their satellites would be too far from Earth and its influence. That left Venus, Earth's so-called twin.
The ancient goddess who had borne the names of Venus and Aphrodite had been born of the sea and the blood and seed of the ancient god Uranus; she had risen from the sea in all her beauty, alighting on the island of Cythera to be worshipped. The death of the old god had given her life; his blood had become her beauty. So the planet named for her would also be transformed, and its people become a new Nomarchy of Cytherians.
Though the legend said that Karim al-Anwar had quickly brought others to share his dream, it was likely that many had thought him mad. His Venus Project would demand much from Earth, and there was little enough to give. Why should more resources be drained by such a task?
Karim, as it happened (though the legend might also have exaggerated his capabilities), was not only an engineer but also a student of history. The Venus Project, he argued, costly as it might be, would stretch Earth's abilities; the new technologies that would have to be developed would enrich the home world, and Earth would acquire a new generation of knowers and doers, as the Associated Habitats had done. Earth, he believed, had suffered strife not because its resources were too few, but because the world had not seized the opportunities for greater resources that space had offered; it was no surprise that the spacedwellers, growing impatient, had escaped Earth's bonds.
In the future, Karim claimed, Earth might in fact need the knowledge the Venus Project would yield, in order to transform itself. Many had noted the rise in Earth's temperatures, the slow melting of its polar ice caps, the gradual flooding of coastal cities, the increase of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. When Karim thought of the barren, hot, dead land under Venus's clouds, he saw Earth's own possible future, and feared for it.
Karim al-Anwar spoke of revitalizing Earth's cautious and fearful culture with the great task of the Venus Project. From scraps of evidence gleaned by those who had studied the Cytherian planet and who had posed the possibility that Venus might have had oceans during its distant geological past, Karim composed a dreadful picture of Earth's possible future fate, and spoke of human history passing into Habber hands if Earth could not learn how to transform a world. Perhaps he also suspected that the Venus Project would occupy those who might otherwise have interfered with the Mukhtars and their control of Earth's Nomarchies, and did not voice those particular thoughts.
Karim lived only long enough to see a study of the Venus Project's feasibility begun, but he had imbued his followers with his goal, and died knowing that others would achieve it. That, at least, was what the legend claimed. Perhaps Karim, contending with those who considered him an impractical dreamer, had begun to despair before then; maybe some of those who at first opposed him took credit for furthering his vision later. Some, in the centuries to come, might even have thought that Karim was fortunate not to have seen the results of his dream; history, as always, would confound both visionaries and naysayers alike.
Karim, Iris saw, would long be remembered. Karim had not been content with what he had, even when his power was greater than that of most; he had reached for more. Somehow, Iris felt a bond with this man, even though he had been a Mukhtar and she was only one of those millions the Mukhtars ruled. She could share his dream. She could become more than another name in the list of her line, more than another farmer who kept the bellies of Earthfolk full. Making grain grow on the Plains was little compared to seeing a world bloom under one's hands.
Bari's voice would fill with pride as Iris viewed the history of the Project's beginnings. Without being shaded from the sun so that its temperature could begin to drop, Venus could not be changed; the Project's first goal had been to provide a shield. The immensity of that task alone was enough to cause even Karim's most devoted disciples to doubt the wisdom of the Project.
The space station called Anwara had been built, and circled Venus in a high orbit; soon, new modules were added to it to house those who would build the Parasol that would shield Venus from the sun.
A large disk, kilometers wide, was set up between Venus and the sun, and metal fans were linked to that disk. Iris gazed at images of the Parasol's construction; as more fans were added, Iris found herself thinking of a flower's petals, while the tiny ships moving near it reminded her of insects.
The Parasol had grown until it was almost as wide in diameter as Venus itself, and it had taken over a century to build. Dawud Hasseen had been the chief engineer and designer of the Parasol; his name was remembered. The names of those who had died building the vast umbrella were also remembered, and there were many such names, for the work had held its dangers. Their lives might have been shortened, but the beginning of a new world would be their legacy.
More people, undeterred by reports of injured and dying workers inadequately protected from solar radiation during the construction of the Parasol, came to Anwara. Often, the new arrivals were greeted by those who were ailing and who would soon be too weak to continue to labor for the Project themselves. A few arrivals lost heart when they saw such people but many more took courage from their example and came to feel that a short life doing great deeds was better than a long one waiting for the time when one would return to the dust of Earth. More modules were added to the station, but new dwellings were needed, new and more pleasant homes for those prepared to spend their lives with the Project.
The Cytherian Islands began as vast platforms built on rows of large metal cells filled with helium. Dirt and soil were placed on top of the platforms, which were then enclosed by an impermeable, lighted dome. The Islands were gardened; soon they bloomed with trees, grass, and flowers, and those who came to live on them longed for no other home. These Islands were part of Venus, the first outposts of those whose descendants would be the first settlers. The Islands, located north of Venus's equator, floated in the upper reaches of the Cytherian atmosphere above the poisonous clouds and were protected by the Parasol's shade; they were tiny beacons lighting humanity's way.
The Parasol was the greatest structure human beings had ever built and was a monument to Karim al-Anwar's dream. Venus was cloaked in its shadow. The Parasol had succeeded in cooling the world it shaded, but even with what the Project had done since then, Venus was still a hot and deadly place. Bari had spoken movingly of those who had died helping to bring life to a world that they would never live to see.
"Venus might have been a world like ours," Bari said, "but its development took a different path. Now our world is also changing. We may need to transform it in the future. Look at Venus, and consider how tenuous our grip on life is, and how easily it could have been otherwise on our world."
It's my star, Iris thought, my world. I might even stand on it someday. She was like Venus. Bari would shield her for a time as the Parasol shielded that world, protecting her as she learned. The clouds around her mind would vanish as Bari led her to light.