Venus, Episode 1: Trouble in Zuroz

The nations wish to go to war,” said Captain Johanna Arcadelt, setting down a mug of steaming coffee.

“And what do they hope to gain by it?” replied Stephanie Martinez, plucking a pensive chord on her mandolin.

“I can’t bloody say. But it sure as hell makes our work more difficult.” Arcadelt raised the coffee to her lips, took a sip, and recoiled.

“My deepest apologies, my dear,” said Martinez. “I neglected to inform you of the infamous state of coffee among the Venusians.”

“Damn,” muttered Arcadelt, setting down the mug far from reach. “And of the Venusian nations. You know I love a good, honest fight, but all-out war is only going to make Napoleon’s work easier.”

“As if such a thing were possible,” said Martinez in a dark but detached voice. “All the major axes for their Sphere are in place. It is only a question of time and materials; certainly not one of money.”

The wide, tall doors engraved with vines and flowers and Venusian columns swung open, and the magistrate entered, flanked by a smartly-dressed retinue. Since contact had been made between Earth and Venus, the inhabitants of the latter world had taken on many aspects of the former with great enthusiasm, while seeming to ignore the rest outright.

One such aspect was clothing. Rural Venusians could still be seen in traditional dress, a minimal assortment of various skins and teeth from the native fauna of Venus’ plentiful seas and swamps. But these more urbane Venusians, such as the magistrate standing proudly before them, had taken rather keenly to Earth’s clothings, and, some would say, exceeded the humans’ sense of style. The magistrate dazzled in buttons, sash, cap, and epaulettes: his wardrobe’s inspiration spanned disparate centuries and cultures, but somehow collected itself into a surreal but impressive aesthetic.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” said the magistrate in a silky, reptilian accent.

“Not at all, not at all,” said Arcadelt, extending a hand to shake with the magistrate’s tentacle — another Earth custom adopted with great, if sometimes crushing, enthusiasm. “We understand you’re a bit preoccupied — fighting the good fight and all that — but we require special passage.”

“Oh?” said the magistrate obliquely.

“We are hunting a certain prey that is an enemy to us all. The Napoleon Corporation has sent an expedition to drain the oil from your desert flats. We were in pursuit until your ships detained us. Respectfully, sir, we’d like to continue on our course.”

“Yes, alarming. Most alarming,” said the magistrate, crossing to his desk and grasping the pot of coffee with one tentacle. “Any more coffee for either of you?”

Arcadelt and Martinez stiffly refused, and the magistrate poured a cup of sludge for himself and took a dainty slurp.

“I’m afraid that regulation binds me in this circumstance,” he said. “You’ll of course understand that with the threats from West and North, the vines of bureaucracy are thoroughly entangled. If you’ll just give me a couple of days to sort things through…” He gazed hopefully at Arcadelt, black eyes blinking from the sides.

“Days…couple of…” stammered the captain. “Sir, you must understand that in mere hours our quarry will be unreachable. Martinez…?”

Martinez set down her mandolin and stepped forward. “One of our operatives has informed us of their plans to detonate the outer cliffs as they pass, forcing any in pursuit to carry their boats over the wreckage, and ignore any survivors from those villages built into said cliffs…”

The magistrate swallowed. “I see. Very…very alarming news. Yes. Please take a seat in the atrium, if you will. I’m sure my office can come to an arrangement in due time.”

Arcadelt and Martinez exchanged a look, bowed to the magistrate, and exited the office.

In the atrium, stained glass windows depicted the great cities of the Venusian Kingdom of Zuroz rising over sea and swamp.

“He’s a pitiful liar,” mumbled Martinez, smoothing her black hair.

“A damned shame, too, with such an acute sense of style,” replied Arcadelt. “Napoleon must be piping claret into the magistrate’s villa at this rate of bribery. Come to think of it, a claret faucet isn’t such a bad idea…”

Martinez cleared her throat. “I can’t think of a better use of modern engineering. After these guards, then?”

Arcadelt nodded. The two Venusians passed in lush regalia, electric halbreds flashing in the stained glass light. Arcadelt led, yellow hair tied back, tricorn in one hand; Martinez followed, gripping the neck of her mandolin, her smaller frame obscured by her captain’s.

They slipped out a side door and stepped onto the hoverboat before the dockworkers could get a word in.

“Magistrate’s orders. We’re to depart at once,” roared Arcadelt, blustering into the cabin. Two startled Venusians shot up: they had been rooting around in the drawers and paging through the logbook. One of them said something quickly to the other in their slithering tongue and stepped off the boat. Wasting no time, Arcadelt wrapped the other in a less than friendly embrace and tossed him overboard, tentacles flailing.

Before Arcadelt could give the order, Martinez had started the engines, and with a mighty whirr, they lifted out of the brackish waters of this port, mooring ropes pulled taut and then snapping as the privateer forced her way free. They barely heard the enraged shouts behind them, and when the blasts of artillery reached their ears, they were already well out of range, flattening a forest of reeds on their way out to sea.

“We’ll sure catch hell for that one,” said Arcadelt once the hatches had shut, sealing out the engines’ roar. “But I’ll be damned if I let some slippery fool keep me from my quarry.” A flask appeared in the Captain’s hand. “A toast, my dear, to our escape and to the Stingray’s capture!”

Martinez muttered, “This is perhaps not the ideal time for — ”

“Nonsense!” Arcadelt took a generous swig, and at that moment, the starboard engine exploded. The hoverboat flipped once, twice, then buried itself in the muck with a sickening lurch.

Martinez picked herself off the floor. “That would be Napoleon’s engine lock.”

“Damn bloody whoreson of a magistrate!” roared Arcadelt, leaping to her feet and throwing open the hatch. “Three boats on their way. Martinez?”

Stephanie Martinez, unfunded doctoral student turned bounty hunter, tapped a code and slammed a thick red button. With a hiss and a fog of dry ice, two hoverpacks sprung from the wall. “They’re ready, captain!”

As they strapped on the frigid devices, Arcadelt muttered, “You know, the title would mean much more to me if I had a crew.”

Martinez grinned wryly: the University didn’t want to pay for her research, and the U.N. didn’t want to pay for Arcadelt’s enforcement. So they made their way together as privateers, though there would be no pretty explanation for the hoverboat’s demise.

They stepped out the hatch. There was a great slurp; the hoverboat sank deeper in the swamp, and the roar of engines came closer. With a cold whirr, captain and chief scientific officer levitated from the sinking wreckage, staying low enough to the marsh to get bitten by musk-flies but high enough to avoid getting wet.

Sure enough, three of the Kingdom’s signature cutters angled towards them, banners flapping angrily in the thick, salty air.

“These aren’t built for speed, my dear,” called Martinez as they puttered away from their pursuit, shivering at the icy metal strapped to their backs.

“The devil and these Venusians know that well enough,” shouted Arcadelt. “Luckily for us, we’ll hardly need any speed at all.”

“Captain, I would take it as a kindness if you would explain yourself in these circumstances before — ”

“Never mind that! Drop, Martinez!” With clumsy hands, Arcadelt fumbled for her hoverpack’s controls.

“Drop?” protested Martinez, as the whine of the cutters’ engines came ever closer. “My dear captain, I’m all for sustaining the health of the Venusian wetlands, but if the price is a feast of my own skin, I — “

“Drop!” roared Captain Arcadelt, cutting power to the hoverpack and plummeting to the reedscape below.

“Damned imbecile,” quivered Martinez, as she did the same, and to the utter perplexity of their pursuers, captain and scientist dropped abruptly into the engulfing maw of the marsh. They splashed into the reedy muck, whirling their arms for balance. The various rich sediments underfoot clung to their shoes and attempted to pull them off with every step.

Stephanie Martinez nervously scanned the surroundings. “Captain, you realize we have, at maximum, three minutes before we are devoured by one of several fascinating, and very large, native species.”

“They certainly realize it! Hah! Go back to Napoleon, you filthy stooges!” Arcadelt called to the Kingdom’s cutters, which slowed, then came about, angling back towards the Magistrate’s docks.

“We are neither equipped to fight nor to cut ourselves out of a coral serpent’s belly,” insisted Martinez.

“Not to worry, not to worry,” said Arcadelt, sloshing around in the muck, searching for something barely remembered. She brought one foot out of silty soil and set it down on hard metal. “Hah! Here, my dear, this is what we’re looking for. Yes, indeed.” Arcadelt kicked the ground in a series of muffled, hollow thuds.

“Come on now, old friend,” she muttered, kicking harder. With a lurch, the ground rose up and swallowed them.

They were spit out, dripping and mud-coated, into a sophisticated subterranean home.

“Arcadelt!” exclaimed the small Venusian behind a console full of obscure instruments. “What the hell are you doing on top of my house?”

“Kozny,” replied Arcadelt, attempting to brush mud off of her coat. “It’s very good to see you. You always said to visit if we were in the area.”

Kozny tilted his eyes in that uniquely Venusian gesture of confusion. Unlike the typically blue-skinned Venusians of Eastern Zuroz, Kozny’s scales were a deep purple, with occasional stripes of dark red.

“Somehow,” he said, “I don’t think you stopped by to share a glass and laugh over old academy days.”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” protested Arcadelt. “However, we are in pursuit of a particularly vile captain working for Napoleon, and our boat is slowly sinking into this muck.”

Kozny raised his tentacles in a shrug. “As much as I’d like to help, I can’t possibly tow a boat out of this fine swamp here, much less patch a leak…”

Stephanie Martinez strummed a mournful chord on her mandolin. “The boat exploded. Then caught on fire. Now is sinking. It is no longer a concern of ours, friend Kozny.”

“Indeed,” agreed Arcadelt. “What we need now is a way of anticipating his next move. For that, we need to arrive at the Shuvor Cliffs before he does.”

Kozny rose and meandered over to a complicated set of instruments below several large screens. “You wish to use my network.”

Martinez raised an eyebrow and absently strummed a series of two-five-ones.

“If such a thing would not be an imposition,” said Arcadelt, smoothing out her sodden jacket.

“You realize that my network is primarily for the transport of chum and fish oil.”

“My dear, we shall not be deterred by some lipid sludge,” declared Arcadelt. “If one of your capsules will allow us enough air to reach the cliffs, then I beg you to stuff us inside like so many menhaden.”

“Actually, the chum in this region is primarily sourced from — “ began Martinez.

“Done,” said Kozny. “But on one condition. Return after you’ve captured Napoleon’s captain, and we’ll open a bottle and you can tell me how you ended up here, when you were always yearning after the Martian deserts.”

Mars! How she longed for the clear deserts of Mars, the cinnamon-scented air and the jasmine springs, the oases with their austere and lovely gardens, the quiet, noble dignity of the Martian race, bravely carving their canals to catch each precious drop of water. Arcadelt shook herself free of reverie. “Yes. I shall, with the greatest pleasure.”

In no time at all they were placed into a large cylinder, which itself rested inside of a pneumatic tube. Everything reeked of guts and oil, and anything touching the cylinder’s sides was immediately coated in fragrant slime.

“Martinez,” said Arcadelt awkwardly, trying her best not to accidentally elbow her scientific officer.

“Yes, my dear?”

“How is it that your mandolin is not a pile of shards floating in brackish water?”

Martinez smiled. “The miracles of fine craftsmanship and careful sourcing of materials.”

Kozny waved at them, and the two attempted to wave back, but their arms were pinned too tightly. Without further warning, the Venusian twisted several instruments on his console. There was a deep, hollow pop, and with a jolt, they were flying through a series of dark and winding tubes.

MEANWHILE!

Deep in Napoleon’s iron sphere, waited on by the finest French androids, two men conversed. Perhaps to one not properly acquainted with the situation, they would seem inconsequential: the one, tall and broad of belly, suit coat spilling out over red leather chair; the other, diminutive in figure yet monumental in hair — a tangled yellow forest civilized by gel into a sweeping wave.

The smaller man, facing the larger over an antique mahogany desk, spoke first.

“The Stingray continues unhindered. She shall reach the cliffs by the second day of Thermidor.”

The larger twirled a lemon peel, then dropped it into his tumbler with a sharp fizz. “And the bounty hunters?”

“Waylaid by one of our fine magistrates, then sunk off the coast in an escape attempt. You see, they placed bombs under their — “

“Excellent,” rumbled the large man, drowning the smaller’s reedy exposition. “Remind me of the captain’s name?”

“Arcadelt, sir. Johanna Arcadelt.” He pushed several papers across the desk. His superior leaned back and rested his feet on them.

“Arcadelt, yes. Fitzroy’s brat. Her demise is an especial concern of mine; were it not for the likes of her and her family, we would already own each of the natural spheres.”

The smaller man grinned thinly. “Surely her bones lie within the stomach of a swamp-serpent.”

“Or,” replied the larger, sweeping his feet and several stacks of paper to the floor, “she has entered the pneumatic tubing essential to Venus’ commerce.”

“I severely doubt — “

The large man placed his hands on the table and leaned forward, with the lantern directly above his head, shrouding his face in blackness. “You do not know the Arcadelts. Thick-headed, but tenacious to a fault. I will have her stopped at all costs. Do you hear me, Jacques?”

“I — “ stammered Jacques, clinging to the arms of his seat, shuddering from the refusal to draw back. “Admiral, our agents searched the area once it was safe to approach. Their hoverboat is a ruin. And no child of Earth can last more than two decimal minutes in waters such as those.”

“She is alive. I know it. You trust the Stingray and her captain: very well. But if an Arcadelt upends this little expedition of ours, heads will roll, dear Jacques.” The Admiral glared meaningfully at the smaller man’s birdlike neck.

“The Stingray’s captain will not disappoint,” said Jacques firmly, in spite of a pulse threatening to burst out of his veins. “He has dealt with such problems before, with a sense of pleasure and style uniquely Venusian.”

“Oh,” said The Admiral, a slow grin spreading on his fat face. He took a sip from his fizzy drink. “How delightfully barbaric. I shall look forward, then, to his handling of our” — he suddenly slammed the table — “certainly alive” — he drew back once more — “Captain Arcadelt.”

“Yes, Admiral,” said Jacques, smiling in spite of himself. “Arcadelt shall be dealt with in a most — shall we say — exotic fashion.”

Their laughter echoed through the halls of the iron sphere, thin cackling enveloped by a thundrous basso profundo.

BACK ON VENUS…

They rattled in the crowded, slime-coated tube through unknown kilometers of darkness. Then there was a rippling force from above that was felt but not heard; and then the tube burst through turbulent waters and into the murky light of day, and immediately they were enthralled by the blasts of lasers, the bursts of bombs, the stuttering gunfire of a most violent battle.

Just as quickly as they witnessed it, the battle vanished into darkness, and they came to an abrupt halt in a windowless room full of pipes, tubes, and consoles. The building shook with a nearby explosion as they glimpsed a frantic Venusian fleeing the room.

“Quickly! Get his attention!” barked Arcadelt, squirming in an attempt to raise her fists to the glass they were trapped in.

“The spotted markings near her neck clearly identify her as a female,” said Martinez stiffly, doing her best to make way for her captain’s not insubstantial fists.

The Venusian had clearly noticed them, and hesitated in the open doorway. In a fit of disgusted frustration, Arcadelt began banging her forehead against the tube. “For God’s sake, you fool, let us out!” she bellowed.

Martinez, wincing at the volume of her captain’s voice, nonetheless contributed the knocking of her head.

After several agonizing moments, the Venusian took pity on the bounty hunters and dashed back into the trembling room, reaching three tentacles over a wall of consoles and futzing with buttons and switches until the tube imprisoning the two humans popped open, spilling them into a slick reservoir. Stinking of fermented fish, they climbed the ladder and with great relief emerged into the forest of consoles and pipes.

The Venusian lingered, quivering. “Not for people,” she said in shaky Mandarin, pointing to the open tube.

“Thank ye kindly,” replied Stephanie Martinez in archaic Zurozi.

Their rescuer tilted her eyes. “I don’t…words..” she stammered before bolting out of the open door. There was a splash from below, then the thrum of a motor, and then an explosion which shook the entire building, hopefully unrelated to the preceding chain of events.

“That fool Kozny must have sent us through the wrong pipes,” grumbled Arcadelt, bracing herself against a pillar full of strange widgets.

Martinez wobbled against a console, tracing a long line of Zurozi glyphs. “Ah, Captain…”

“Do you know how to operate these contraptions? Is there a way we can automate the launching of a tube?”

Martinez glared at her captain. “Kozny made no mistake. We’re at the cliffs.”

A series of violent blasts threw the two of them to the floor. Also thrown to the floor were several racks of sensitive equipment and two of the pillars which up until that point had generously been supporting the ceiling.

“Run!” they shouted to one another as they leapt to their feet and vaulted over shattered glass and pools of mercury. With a strange grace, they dove simultaneously off of a three-story-high balcony just as the iron waystation connected to the pneumatic tubing buckled, burst, and collapsed into the murky waters.

To their detriment, they, too, plummeted into the same murky waters, Arcadelt with a great splash, Martinez with just the slightest slip between the waves. A moment or two later, their heads bobbed up to the surface and they beheld, with fascination (and horror on Martinez’s part; and excitement on Aradelt’s) the great instruments of death arrayed against each other, the flashes of guns, bombs, and laser bursts reflected on the oddly thick and glassy water. Just behind the naval maelstrom were the Kukunaw Cliffs, the Stingray’s destination and therefore their own.

“Well,” remarked Arcadelt, “at least Napoleon’s henchmen aboard the Stingray will also have to pass through that mess.”

“No,” replied Martinez, “they will not, as they have already done so.”

Johanna Arcadelt beheld, with a frustration whose depths were beginning to equal those of the starry Void above, the flag of the Napoleon Corporation flapping cheekily as the Venusian xebec beneath it — unmistakably the Stingray — slipped smoothly into the cliffs.

NEXT TIME, ON VENUS:

The Stingray’s captain reveals himself — will our heroes succumb to his barbaric ways? (The Admiral’s words, not ours! Trust us, we’re not racist!)

And — how many tentacles do Venusians really have? Find out next time, on — VENUS!

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