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Fiction

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson

The sun burned through the clouds around noon on the long Cytherean day, and Dharthi happened to be awake and in a position to see it. She was alone in the highlands of Ishtar Terra on a research trip, five sleeps out from Butler base camp, and—despite the nagging desire to keep traveling—had decided to take a rest break for an hour or two. Noon at this latitude was close enough to the one hundredth solar dieiversary of her birth that she’d broken out her little hoard of shelf-stable cake to celebrate. The prehensile fingers and leaping legs of her bioreactor-printed, skin-bonded adaptshell made it simple enough to swarm up one of the tall, gracile pseudo-figs and creep along its gray smooth branches until the ceaseless Venusian rain dripped directly on her adaptshell’s slick-furred head.

It was safer in the treetops, if you were sitting still. Nothing big enough to want to eat her was likely to climb up this far. The grues didn’t come out until nightfall, but there were swamp-tigers, damnthings, and velociraptors to worry about. The forest was too thick for predators any bigger than that, but a swarm of scorpion-rats was no joke. And Venus had only been settled for three hundred days, and most of that devoted to Aphrodite Terra; there were still plenty of undiscovered monsters out here in the wilderness.

The water did not bother Dharthi, nor did the dip and sway of the branch in the wind. Her adaptshell was beautifully tailored to this terrain, and that fur shed water like the hydrophobic miracle of engineering that it was. The fur was a glossy, iridescent purple that qualified as black in most lights, to match the foliage that dripped rain like strings of glass beads from the multiple points of palmate leaves. Red-black, to make the most of the rainy grey light. They’d fold their leaves up tight and go dormant when night came.

Dharthi had been born with a chromosomal abnormality that produced red-green colorblindness. She’d been about ten solar days old when they’d done the gene therapy to fix it, and she just about remembered her first glimpses of the true, saturated colors of Venus. She’d seen it first as if it were Earth: washed out and faded.

For now, however, they were alive with the scurryings and chitterings of a few hundred different species of Cytherean canopy-dwellers. And the quiet, nearly-contented sound of Dharthi munching on cake. She would not dwell; she would not stew. She would look at all this natural majesty, and try to spot the places where an unnaturally geometric line or angle showed in the topography of the canopy.

From here, she could stare up the enormous sweep of Maxwell Montes to the north, its heights forested to the top in Venus’ deep, rich atmosphere—but the sight of them lost for most of its reach in clouds. Dharthi could only glimpse the escarpment at all because she was on the “dry” side. Maxwell Montes scraped the heavens, kicking the cloud layer up as if it had struck an aileron, so the “wet” side got the balance of the rain. Balance in this case meaning that the mountains on the windward side were scoured down to granite, and a nonadapted terrestrial organism had better bring breathing gear.

But here in the lee, the forest flourished, and on a clear hour from a height, visibility might reach a couple of klicks or more.

Dharthi took another bite of cake—it might have been “chocolate”; it was definitely caffeinated, because she was picking up the hit on her blood monitors already—and turned herself around on her branch to face downslope. The sky was definitely brighter, the rain falling back to a drizzle and then a mist, and the clouds were peeling back along an arrowhead trail that led directly back to the peak above her. A watery golden smudge brightened one patch of clouds. They tore and she glimpsed the full, unguarded brilliance of the daystar, just hanging there in a chip of glossy cerulean sky, the clouds all around it smeared with thick, unbelievable rainbows. Waves of mist rolled and slid among the leaves of the canopy, made golden by the shimmering unreal light.

Dharthi was glad she was wearing the shell. It played the sun’s warmth through to her skin without also relaying the risks of ultraviolet exposure. She ought to be careful of her eyes, however: A crystalline shield protected them, but its filters weren’t designed for naked light.

The forest noises rose to a cacophony. It was the third time in Dharthi’s one hundred solar days of life that she had glimpsed the sun. Even here, she imagined that some of these animals would never have seen it before.

She decided to accept it as a good omen for her journey. Sadly, there was no way to spin the next thing that happened that way.

“Hey,” said a voice in her head. “Good cake.”

“That proves your pan is malfunctioning, if anything does,” Dharthi replied sourly. Never accept a remote synaptic link with a romantic and professional partner. No matter how convenient it seems at the time, and in the field.

Because someday they might be a romantic and professional partner you really would rather not talk to right now.

“I heard that.”

“What do you want, Kraken?”

Dharthi imagined Kraken smiling, and wished she hadn’t. She could hear it in her partner’s “voice” when she spoke again, anyway. “Just to wish you a happy dieiversary.”

“Aw,” Dharthi said. “Aren’t you sweet. Noblesse oblige?”

“Maybe,” Kraken said tiredly, “I actually care?”

“Mmm,” Dharthi said. “What’s the ulterior motive this time?”

Kraken sighed. It was more a neural flutter than a heave of breath, but Dharthi got the point all right. “Maybe I actually care.”

“Sure,” Dharthi said. “Every so often you have to glance down from Mount Olympus and check up on the lesser beings.”

“Olympus is on Mars,” Kraken said.

It didn’t make Dharthi laugh, because she clenched her right fist hard enough that, even though the cushioning adaptshell squished against her palm, she still squeezed the blood out of her fingers. You and all your charm. You don’t get to charm me any more.

“Look,” Kraken said. “You have something to prove. I understand that.”

“How can you possibly understand that? When was the last time you were turned down for a resource allocation? Doctor youngest-ever recipient of the Cytherean Award for Excellence in Xenoarcheology? Doctor Founding Field-Martius Chair of Archaeology at the University on Aphrodite?”

“The University on Aphrodite,” Kraken said, “is five Quonset huts and a repurposed colonial landing module.”

“It’s what we’ve got.”

“I peaked early,” Kraken said, after a pause. “I was never your rival, Dharthi. We were colleagues.” Too late, in Dharthi’s silence, she realized her mistake. “Are colleagues.”

“You look up from your work often enough to notice I’m missing?”

There was a pause. “That may be fair,” Kraken said at last. “But if being professionally focused—”

Obsessed.”

“—is a failing, it was hardly a failing limited to me. Come back. Come back to me. We’ll talk about it. I’ll help you try for a resource voucher again tomorrow.”

“I don’t want your damned help, Kraken!”

The forest around Dharthi fell silent. Shocked, she realized she’d shouted out loud.

“Haring off across Ishtar alone, with no support—you’re not going to prove your theory about aboriginal Cytherean settlement patterns, Dhar. You’re going to get eaten by a grue.”

“I’ll be home by dark,” Dharthi said. “Anyway, if I’m not—all the better for the grue.”

“You know who else was always on about being laughed out of the Academy?” Kraken said. Her voice had that teasing tone that could break Dharthi’s worst, most self-loathing, prickliest mood—if she let it. “Moriarty.”

I will not laugh. Fuck you.

Dharthi couldn’t tell if Kraken had picked it up or not. There was a silence, as if she were controlling her temper or waiting for Dharthi to speak.

“If you get killed,” Kraken said, “make a note in your file that I can use your DNA. You’re not getting out of giving me children that easily.”

Ha ha, Dharthi thought. Only serious. She couldn’t think of what to say, and so she said nothing. The idea of a little Kraken filled her up with mushy softness inside. But somebody’s career would go on hold for the first fifty solar days of that kid’s life, and Dharthi was pretty sure it wouldn’t be Kraken.

She couldn’t think of what to say in response, and the silence got heavy until Kraken said, “Dammit. I’m worried about you.”

“Worry about yourself.” Dharthi couldn’t break the connection, but she could bloody well shut down her end of the dialogue. And she could refuse to hear.

She pitched the remains of the cake as far across the canopy as she could, then regretted it. Hopefully nothing Cytherean would try to eat it; it might give the local biology a belly ache.

• • • •

It was ironically inevitable that Dharthi, named by her parents in a fit of homesickness for Terra, would grow up to be the most Cytherean of Cythereans. She took great pride in her adaptation, in her ability to rough it. Some of the indigenous plants and many of the indigenous animals could be eaten, and Dharthi knew which ones. She also knew, more importantly, which ones were likely to eat her.

She hadn’t mastered humans nearly as well. Dharthi wasn’t good at politics. Unlike Kraken. Dharthi wasn’t good at making friends. Unlike Kraken. Dharthi wasn’t charming or beautiful or popular or brilliant. Unlike Kraken, Kraken, Kraken.

Kraken was a better scientist, or at least a better-understood one. Kraken was a better person, probably. More generous, less prickly, certainly. But there was one thing Dharthi was good at. Better at than Kraken. Better at than anyone. Dharthi was good at living on Venus, at being Cytherean. She was more comfortable in and proficient with an adaptshell than anyone she had ever met.

In fact, it was peeling the shell off that came hard. So much easier to glide through the jungle or the swamp like something that belonged there, wearing a quasibiologic suit of super-powered armor bonded to your neural network and your skin. The human inside was a soft, fragile, fleshy thing, subject to complicated feelings and social dynamics, and Dharthi despised her. But that same human, while bonded to the shell, ghosted through the rain forest like a native, and saw things no one else ever had.

A kilometer from where she had stopped for cake, she picked up the trail of a velociraptor. It was going in the right direction, so she tracked it. It wasn’t a real velociraptor; it wasn’t even a dinosaur. Those were Terran creatures, albeit extinct; this was a Cytherean meat-eating monster that bore a superficial resemblance. Like the majority of Cytherean vertebrates, it had six limbs, though it ran balanced on the rear ones and the two forward pairs had evolved into little more than graspers. Four eyes were spaced equidistantly around the dome of its skull, giving it a dome of monocular vision punctuated by narrow slices of depth perception. The business end of the thing was delineated by a sawtoothed maw that split wide enough to bite a human being in half. The whole of it was camouflaged with long draggled fur-feathers that grew thick with near-black algae, or the Cytherean cognate.

Dharthi followed the velociraptor for over two kilometers, and the beast never even noticed she was there. She smiled inside her adaptshell. Kraken was right: going out into the jungle alone and unsupported would be suicide for most people. But wasn’t it like her not to give Dharthi credit for this one single thing that Dharthi could do better than anyone?

She knew that the main Cytherean settlements had been on Ishtar Terra. Knew it in her bones. And she was going to prove it, whether anybody was willing to give her an allocation for the study or not.

They’ll be sorry, she thought, and had to smile at her own adolescent petulance. They’ll rush to support me once this is done.

The not-a-dinosaur finally veered off to the left. Dharthi kept jogging/swinging/swimming/splashing/climbing forward, letting the shell do most of the work. The highlands leveled out into the great plateau the new settlers called the Lakshmi Planum. No one knew what the aboriginals had called it. They’d been gone for—to an approximation—ten thousand years: as long as it had taken humankind to get from the Neolithic (agriculture, stone tools) to jogging through the jungles of alien world wearing a suit of power armor engineered from printed muscle fiber and cheetah DNA.

Lakshmi Planum, ringed with mountains on four sides, was one of the few places on the surface of Venus where you could not see an ocean. The major Cytherean land masses, Aphrodite and Ishtar, were smaller than South America. The surface of this world was eighty-five percent water—water less salty than Earth’s oceans, because there was less surface to leach minerals into it through runoff. And the Lakshmi Planum was tectonically active, with great volcanoes and living faults.

That activity was one of the reasons Dharthi’s research had brought her here.

The jungle of the central Ishtarean plateau was not as creeper-clogged and vine-throttled as Dharthi might have expected. It was a mature climax forest, and the majority of the biomass hung suspended over Dharthi’s head, great limbs stretching up umbrellalike to the limited light. Up there, the branches and trunks were festooned with symbiotes, parasites, and commensal organisms. Down here among the trunks, it was dark and still except for the squish of loam underfoot and the ceaseless patter of what rain came through the leaves.

Dharthi stayed alert, but didn’t spot any more large predators on that leg of the journey. There were flickers and scuttlers and flyers galore, species she was sure nobody had named or described. Perhaps on the way back she’d have time to do more, but for now she contented herself with extensive video archives. It wouldn’t hurt to cultivate some good karma with Bio while she was out here. She might need a job sweeping up offices when she got back.

Stop. Failure is not an option. Not even a possibility.

Like all such glib sentiments, it didn’t make much of a dent in the bleakness of her mood. Even walking, observing, surveying, she had entirely too much time to think.

She waded through two more swamps and scaled a basalt ridge—one of the stretching roots of the vast volcano named Sacajawea. Nearly everything on Venus was named after female persons—historical, literary, or mythological—from Terra, from the quaint old system of binary and exclusive genders. For a moment, Dharthi considered such medieval horrors as dentistry without anesthetic, binary gender, and being stuck forever in the body you were born in, locked in and struggling against what your genes dictated. The trap of biology appalled her; she found it impossible to comprehend how people in the olden days had gotten anything done, with their painfully short lives and their limited access to resources, education, and technology.

The adaptshell stumbled over a tree root, forcing her attention back to the landscape. Of course, modern technology wasn’t exactly perfect either. The suit needed carbohydrate to keep moving, and protein to repair muscle tissue. Fortunately, it wasn’t picky about its food source—and Dharthi herself needed rest. The day was long, and only half over. She wouldn’t prove herself if she got so tired she got herself eaten by a megaspider.

We haven’t conquered all those human frailties yet.

Sleepily, she climbed a big tree, one that broke the canopy, and slung a hammock high in branches that dripped with fleshy, gorgeous, thickly scented parasitic blossoms, opportunistically decking every limb up here where the light was stronger. They shone bright whites and yellows, mostly, set off against the dark, glossy foliage. Dharthi set proximity sensors, established a tech perimeter above and below, and unsealed the shell before sending it down to forage for the sorts of simple biomass that sustained it. It would be happy with the mulch of the forest floor, and she could call it back when she needed it. Dharthi rolled herself into the hammock as if it were a scentproof, claw-proof cocoon and tried to sleep.

Rest eluded. The leaves and the cocoon filtered the sunlight, so it was pleasantly dim, and the cocoon kept the water off except what she’d brought inside with herself when she wrapped up. She was warm and well-supported. But that all did very little to alleviate her anxiety.

She didn’t know exactly where she was going. She was flying blind—hah, she wished she were flying. If she’d had the allocations for an aerial survey, this would all be a lot easier, assuming they could pick anything out through the jungle—and operating on a hunch. An educated hunch.

But one that Kraken and her other colleagues—and more importantly, the Board of Allocation—thought was at best a wild guess and at worst crackpottery.

What if you’re wrong?

If she was wrong . . . well. She didn’t have much to go home to. So she’d better be right that the settlements they’d found on Aphrodite were merely outposts, and that the aboriginal Cythereans had stuck much closer to the North pole. She had realized that the remains—such as they were—of Cytherean settlements clustered in geologically active areas. She theorized that they used geothermal energy, or perhaps had some other unknown purpose for staying there. In any case, Ishtar was far younger, far more geologically active than Aphrodite, as attested by its upthrust granite ranges and its scattering of massive volcanoes. Aphrodite—larger, calmer, safer—had drawn the Terran settlers. Dharthi theorized that Ishtar had been the foundation of Cytherean culture for exactly the opposite reasons.

She hoped that if she found a big settlement—the remains of one of their cities—she could prove this. And possibly even produce some clue as to what had happened to them all.

It wouldn’t be easy. A city buried under ten thousand years of sediment and jungle could go unnoticed even by an archaeologist’s trained eye and the most perspicacious modern mapping and visualization technology. And of course she had to be in the right place, and all she had to go on there were guesses—deductions, if she was feeling kind to herself, which she rarely was—about the patterns of relationships between those geologically active areas on Aphrodite and the aboriginal settlements nearby.

This is stupid. You’ll never find anything without support and an allocation. Kraken never would have pushed her luck this way.

Kraken never would have needed to. Dharthi knew better than anyone how much effort and dedication and scholarship went into Kraken’s work—but still, it sometimes seemed as if fantastic opportunities just fell into her lover’s lap without effort. And Kraken’s intellect and charisma were so dazzling . . . it was hard to see past that to the amount of study it took to support that seemingly effortless, comprehensive knowledge of just about everything.

Nothing made Dharthi feel the limitations of her own ability like spending time with her lover. Hell, Kraken probably would have known which of the animals she was spotting as she ran were new species, and the names and describers of all the known ones.

If she could have this, Dharthi thought, just this—if she could do one thing to equal all of Kraken’s effortless successes—then she could tolerate how perfect Kraken was the rest of the time.

This line of thought wasn’t helping the anxiety. She thrashed in the cocoon for another half-hour before she finally gave in and took a sedative. Not safe, out in the jungle. But if she didn’t rest, she couldn’t run—and even the Cytherean daylight wasn’t actually endless.

• • • •

Dharthi awakened to an animal sniffing her cocoon with great whuffing predatory breaths. An atavistic response, something from the brainstem, froze her in place even as it awakened her. Her arms and legs—naked, so fragile without her skin—felt heavy, numb, limp as if they had fallen asleep. The shadow of the thing’s head darkened the translucent steelsilk as it passed between Dharthi and the sky. The drumming of the rain stopped, momentarily. Hard to tell how big it was, from that—but big, she thought. An estimation confirmed when it nosed or pawed the side of the cocoon and she felt a broad blunt object as big as her two hands together prod her in the ribs.

She held her breath, and it withdrew. There was the rain, tapping on her cocoon where it dripped between the leaves. She was almost ready to breathe out again when it made a sound—a thick chugging noise followed by a sort of roar that had more in common with trains and waterfalls than what most people would identify as an animal sound.

Dharthi swallowed her scream. She didn’t need Kraken to tell her what that was. Every schoolchild could manage a piping reproduction of the call of one of Venus’s nastiest pieces of charismatic megafauna, the Cytherean swamp-tiger.

Swamp-tigers were two lies, six taloned legs, and an indiscriminate number of enormous daggerlike teeth in a four hundred kilogram body. Two lies, because they didn’t live in swamps—though they passed through them on occasion, because what on Venus didn’t?—and they weren’t tigers. But they were striped violet and jade green to disappear into the thick jungle foliage; they had long, slinky bodies that twisted around sharp turns and barreled up tree trunks without any need to decelerate; and their whisker-ringed mouths hinged open wide enough to bite a grown person in half.

All four of the swamp-tiger’s bright blue eyes were directed forward. Because it didn’t hurt their hunting, and what creature in its right mind would want to sneak up on a thing like that?

They weren’t supposed to hunt this high up. The branches were supposed to be too slender to support them.

Dharthi wasn’t looking forward to getting a better look at this one. It nudged the cocoon again. Despite herself, Dharthi went rigid. She pressed both fists against her chest and concentrated on not whimpering, on not making a single sound. She forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly. To consider. Panic gets you eaten.

She wouldn’t give Kraken the damned satisfaction.

She had some resources. The cocoon would attenuate her scent, and might disguise it almost entirely. The adaptshell was somewhere in the vicinity, munching away, and if she could make it into that, she stood a chance of outrunning the thing. She weighed a quarter what the swamp-tiger did; she could get up higher into the treetops than it could. Theoretically; after all, it wasn’t supposed to come up this high.

And she was, at least presumptively, somewhat smarter.

But it could outjump her, outrun her, outsneak her, and—perhaps most importantly—outchomp her.

She wasted a few moments worrying about how it had gotten past her perimeter before the sharp pressure of its claws skidding down the rip-proof surface of the cocoon refocused her attention. That was a temporary protection; it might not be able to pierce the cocoon, but it could certainly squash Dharthi to death inside of it, or rip it out of the tree and toss it to the jungle floor. If the fall didn’t kill her, she’d have the cheerful and humiliating choice of yelling for rescue or wandering around injured until something bigger ate her. She needed a way out; she needed to channel five million years of successful primate adaptation, the legacy of clever monkey ancestors, and figure out how to get away from the not-exactly-cat.

What would a monkey do? The question was the answer, she realized.

She just needed the courage to apply it. And the luck to survive whatever then transpired.

The cocoon was waterproof as well as claw-proof—hydrophobic on the outside, a wicking polymer on the inside. The whole system was impregnated with an engineered bacteria that broke down the waste products in human sweat—or other fluids—and returned them to the environment as safe, nearly odorless, non-polluting water, salts, and a few trace chemicals. Dharthi was going to have to unfasten the damn thing.

She waited while the swamp-tiger prodded her again. It seemed to have a pattern of investigating and withdrawing—Dharthi heard the rustle and felt the thump and sway as it leaped from branch to branch, circling, making a few horrifically unsettling noises and a bloodcurdling snarl or two, and coming back for another go at the cocoon. The discipline required to hold herself still—not even merely still, but limp—as the creature whuffed and poked left her nauseated with adrenaline. She felt it moving away, then. The swing of branches under its weight did nothing to ease the roiling in her gut.

Now or never.

Shell! Come and get me! Then she palmed the cocoon’s seal and whipped it open, left hand and foot shoved through internal grips so she didn’t accidentally evert herself into free fall. As she swung, she shook a heavy patter of water drops loose from the folds of the cocoon’s hydrophobic surface. They pattered down. There were a lot of branches between her and the ground; she didn’t fancy making the intimate acquaintanceship of each and every one of them.

The swamp-tiger hadn’t gone as far as she expected. In fact, it was on the branch just under hers. As it whipped its head around and roared, she had an eloquent view from above—a clear shot down its black-violet gullet. The mouth hinged wide enough to bite her in half across the middle; the tongue was thick and fleshy; the palate ribbed and mottled in paler shades of red. If I live through this, I will be able to draw every one of those seventy-two perfectly white teeth from memory.

She grabbed the safety handle with her right hand as well, heaved with her hips, and flipped the cocoon over so her legs swung free. For a moment, she dangled just above the swamp-tiger. It reared back on its heavy haunches like a startled cat, long tail lashing around to protect its abdomen. Dharthi knew that as soon as it collected its wits it was going to take a swipe at her, possibly with both sets of forelegs.

It was small for a swamp-tiger—perhaps only two hundred kilos—and its stripes were quite a bit brighter than she would have expected. Even wet, its feathery plumage had the unfinished raggedness she associated with young animals still in their baby coats. It might even have been fuzzy, if it were ever properly dry. Which might explain why it was so high up in the treetops. Previously undocumented behavior in a juvenile animal.

Wouldn’t it be an irony if this were the next in a long line of xenobiological discoveries temporarily undiscovered again because a scientist happened to get herself eaten? At least she had a transponder. And maybe the shell was nearby enough to record some of this.

Data might survive.

Great, she thought. I wonder where its mama is.

Then she urinated in its face.

It wasn’t an aimed stream by any means, though she was wearing the external plumbing currently—easier in the field, until you got a bladder stone. But she had a bladder full of pee saved up during sleep, so there was plenty of it. It splashed down her legs and over the swamp-tiger’s face, and Dharthi didn’t care what your biology was, if you were carbon-oxygen based, a snout full of ammonia and urea had to be pretty nasty.

The swamp-tiger backed away, cringing. If it had been a human being, Dharthi would have said it was spluttering. She didn’t take too much time to watch; good a story as it would make someday, it would always be a better one than otherwise if she survived to tell it. She pumped her legs for momentum, glad that the sweat-wicking properties of the cocoon’s lining kept the grip dry, because right now her palms weren’t doing any of that work themselves. Kick high, a twist from the core, and she had one leg over the cocoon. It was dry—she’d shaken off what little water it had collected. Dharthi pulled her feet up—standing on the stuff was like standing on a slack sail, and she was glad that some biotuning trained up by the time she spent running the canopy had given her the balance of a perching bird.

Behind and below, she heard the Cytherean monster make a sound like a kettle boiling over—one part whistle, and one part hiss. She imagined claws in her haunches, a crushing bite to the skull or the nape—

The next branch up was a half-meter beyond her reach. Her balance on her toes, she jumped as hard as she could off the yielding surface under her bare feet. Her left hand missed; the right hooked a limb but did not close. She dangled sideways for a moment, the stretch across her shoulder strong and almost pleasant. Her fingers locked in the claw position, she flexed her bicep—not a pull up, she couldn’t chin herself one-handed—but just enough to let her left hand latch securely. A parasitic orchid squashed beneath the pads of her fingers. A dying bug wriggled. Caustic sap burned her skin. She swung, and managed to hang on.

She wanted to dangle for a moment, panting and shaking and gathering herself for the next ridiculous effort. But beneath her, the rattle of leaves, the creak of a bough. The not-tiger was coming.

Climb. Climb!

She had to get high. She had to get further out from the trunk, onto branches where it would not pursue her. She had to stay alive until the shell got to her. Then she could run or fight as necessary.

Survival was starting to seem like less of a pipe dream now.

She swung herself up again, risking a glance through her armpit as she mantled herself up onto the bough. It dipped and twisted under her weight. Below, the swamp-tiger paced, snarled, reared back, and took a great, outraged swing up at her cocoon with its two left-side forepaws.

The fabric held. The branches it was slung between did not. They cracked and swung down, crashing on the boughs below and missing the swamp-tiger only because the Cytherean cat had reflexes preternaturally adapted to life in the trees. It still came very close to being knocked off its balance, and Dharthi took advantage of its distraction to scramble higher, careful to remember not to wipe her itching palms on the more sensitive flesh of her thighs.

Another logic problem presented itself. The closer she got to the trunk, the higher she could scramble, and the faster the adaptshell could get to her—but the swamp-tiger was less likely to follow her out on the thinner ends of the boughs. She was still moving as she decided that she’d go up a bit more first, and move diagonally—up and out, until “up” was no longer an option.

She made two more branches before hearing the rustle of the swamp-tiger leaping upwards behind her. She’d instinctively made a good choice in climbing away from it rather than descending, she realized—laterally or down, there was no telling how far the thing could leap. Going up, on unsteady branches, it was limited to shorter hops. Shorter . . . but much longer than Dharthi’s. Now the choice was made for her—out, before it caught up, or get eaten. At least the wet of the leaves and the rain were washing the irritant sap from her palms.

She hauled her feet up again and gathered herself to stand and sprint down the center stem of this bough, a perilous highway no wider than her palm. When she raised her eyes, though, she found herself looking straight into the four bright, curious blue eyes of a second swamp-tiger.

“Aw, crud,” Dharthi said. “Didn’t anyone tell you guys you’re supposed to be solitary predators?”

It looked about the same age and size and fluffiness as the other one. Littermates? Littermates of some Terran species hunted together until they reached maturity. That was probably the answer, and there was another groundbreaking bit of Cytherean biology that would go into a swamp-tiger’s belly with Dharthi’s masticated brains. Maybe she’d have enough time to relay the information to Kraken while they were disemboweling her.

The swamp-tiger lifted its anterior right forefoot and dabbed experimentally at Dharthi. Dharthi drew back her lips and hissed at it, and it pulled the leg back and contemplated her, but it didn’t put the paw down. The next swipe would be for keeps.

She could call Kraken now, of course. But that would just be a distraction, not help. Help had the potential to arrive in time.

The idea of telling Kraken—and everybody—how she had gotten out of a confrontation with two of Venus’s most impressive predators put a new rush of strength in her trembling legs. They were juveniles. They were inexperienced. They lacked confidence in their abilities, and they did not know how to estimate hers.

Wild predators had no interest in fighting anything to the death. They were out for a meal.

Dharthi stood up on her refirming knees, screamed in the swamp-tiger’s face, and punched it as hard as she could, right in the nose.

She almost knocked herself out of the damned tree, and only her windmilling left hand snatching at twigs hauled her upright again and saved her. The swamp-tiger had crouched back, face wrinkled up in distaste or discomfort. The other one was coming up behind her.

Dharthi turned on the ball of her foot and sprinted for the end of the bough. Ten meters, fifteen, and it trembled and curved down sharply under her weight. There was still a lot of forest giant left above her, but this bough was arching now until it almost touched the one below. It moved in the wind, and with every breath. It creaked and made fragile little crackling noises.

A few more meters, and it might bend down far enough that she could reach the branch below.

A few more meters, and it might crack and drop.

It probably wouldn’t pull free of the tree entirely—fresh Cytherean “wood” was fibrous and full of sap—but it might dump her off pretty handily.

She took a deep breath—clean air, rain, deep sweetness of flowers, herby scents of crushed leaves—and turned again to face the tigers.

They were still where she had left them, crouched close to the trunk of the tree, tails lashing as they stared balefully after her out of eight gleaming cerulean eyes. Their fanged heads were sunk low between bladelike shoulders. Their lips curled over teeth as big as fingers.

“Nice kitties,” Dharthi said ineffectually. “Why don’t you two just scamper on home? I bet mama has a nice bit of grue for supper.”

The one she had peed on snarled at her. She supposed she couldn’t blame it. She edged a little further away on the branch.

A rustling below. Now that’s just ridiculous.

But it wasn’t a third swamp-tiger. She glanced down and glimpsed an anthropoid shape clambering up through the branches fifty meters below, mostly hidden in foliage but moving with a peculiar empty lightness. The shell. Coming for her.

The urge to speed up the process, to try to climb down to it, was almost unbearable, but Dharthi made herself sit tight. One of the tigers—the one she’d punched—rose up on six padded legs and slunk forward. It made a half dozen steps before the branch’s increasing droop and the cracking, creaking sounds made it freeze. It was close enough now that she could make out the pattern of its damp, feathery whiskers. Dharthi braced her bare feet under tributary limbs and tried not to hunker down; swamp-tigers were supposed to go for crouching prey, and standing up and being big was supposed to discourage them. She spread her arms and rode the sway of the wind, the sway of the limb.

Her adaptshell heaved itself up behind her while the tigers watched. Her arms were already spread wide, her legs braced. The shell just cozied up behind her and squelched over her outstretched limbs, snuggling up and tightening down. It affected her balance, though, and the wobbling of the branch—

She crouched fast and grabbed at a convenient limb. And that was more than tiger number two could bear.

From a standing start, still halfway down the branch, the tiger gathered itself, hindquarters twitching. It leaped, and Dharthi had just enough time to try to throw herself flat under its arc. Enough time to try, but not quite enough time to succeed.

One of the swamp-tiger’s second rank of legs caught her right arm like the swing of a baseball bat. Because she had dodged, it was her arm and not her head. The force of the blow still sent Dharthi sliding over the side of the limb, clutching and failing to clutch, falling in her adaptshell. She heard the swamp-tiger land where she had been, heard the bough crack, saw it give and swing down after her. The swamp-tiger squalled, scrabbling, its littermate making abrupt noises of retreat as well—and it was falling beside Dharthi, twisting in midair, clutching a nearby branch and there was a heaving unhappy sound from the tree’s structure and then she fell alone, arm numb, head spinning.

The adaptshell saved her. It, too, twisted in midair, righted itself, reached out and grasped with her good arm. This branch held, but it bent, and she slammed into the next branch down, taking the impact on the same arm the tiger had injured. She didn’t know for a moment if that green sound was a branch breaking or her—and then she did know, because inside the shell she could feel how her right arm hung limp, meaty, flaccid—humerus shattered.

She was dangling right beside her cocoon, as it happened. She used the folds of cloth to pull herself closer to the trunk, then commanded it to detach and retract. She found one of the proximity alarms and discovered that the damp had gotten into it. It didn’t register her presence, either.

Venus.

She was stowing it one-handed in one of the shell’s cargo pockets, warily watching for the return of either tiger, when the voice burst into her head.

“Dhar!”

“Don’t worry,” she told Kraken. “Just hurt my arm getting away from a swamp-tiger. Everything’s fine.”

“Hurt or broke? Wait, swamp-tiger?

“It’s gone now. I scared it off.” She wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t about to admit that. “Tell Zamin the juveniles hunt in pairs.”

“A pair of swamp-tigers?!”

“I’m fine,” Dharthi said, and clamped down the link.

She climbed down one-handed, relying on the shell more than she would have liked. She did not see either tiger again.

At the bottom, on the jungle floor, she limped, but she ran.

• • • •

Four runs and four sleeps later—the sleeps broken, confused spirals of exhaustion broken by fractured snatches of rest—the brightest patch of pewter in the sky had shifted visibly to the east. Noon had become afternoon, and the long Cytherean day was becoming Dharthi’s enemy. She climbed trees regularly to look for signs of geometrical shapes informing the growth of the forest, and every time she did, she glanced at that brighter smear of cloud sliding down the sky and frowned.

Dharthi—assisted by her adaptshell—had come some five hundred kilometers westward. Maxwell Montes was lost behind her now, in cloud and mist and haze and behind the shoulder of the world. She was moving fast for someone creeping, climbing, and swinging through the jungle, although she was losing time because she hadn’t turned the adaptshell loose to forage on its own since the swamp-tiger. She needed it to support and knit her arm—the shell fused to itself across the front and made a seamless cast and sling—and for the pain suppressants it fed her along with its pre-chewed pap. The bones were going to knit all wrong, of course, and when she got back, they’d have to grow her a new one, but that was pretty minor stuff.

The shell filtered toxins and allergens out of the biologicals it ingested, reherving some of the carbohydrates, protein, and fat to produce a bland, faintly sweet, nutrient-rich paste that was safe for Dharthi’s consumption. She sucked it from a tube as needed, squashing it between tongue and palate to soften it before swallowing each sticky, dull mouthful.

Water was never a problem—at least, the problem was having too much of it, not any lack. This was Venus. Water squelched in every footstep across the jungle floor. It splashed on the adaptshell’s head and infiltrated every cargo pocket. The only things that stayed dry were the ones that were treated to be hydrophobic, and the coating was starting to wear off some of those. Dharthi’s cocoon was permanently damp inside. Even her shell, which molded her skin perfectly, felt alternately muggy or clammy depending on how it was comping temperature.

The adaptshell also filtered some of the fatigue toxins out of Dharthi’s system. But not enough. Sleep was sleep, and she wasn’t getting enough of it.

The landscape was becoming dreamy and strange. The forest never thinned, never gave way to another landscape—except the occasional swath of swampland—but now, occasionally, twisted fumaroles rose up through it, smoking towers of orange and ochre that sent wisps of steam drifting between scalded yellowed leaves. Dharthi saw one of the geysers erupt; she noticed that over it, and where the spray would tend to blow, there was a hole in the canopy. But vines grew right up the knobby accreted limestone on the windward side.

Five runs and five . . . five attempts at a sleep later, Dharthi began to accept that she desperately, desperately wanted to go home.

She wouldn’t, of course.

Her arm hurt less. That was a positive thing. Other than that, she was exhausted and damp and cold and some kind of thick liver-colored leech kept trying to attach itself to the adaptshell’s legs. A species new to science, probably, and Dharthi didn’t give a damn.

Kraken tried to contact her every few hours.

She didn’t answer, because she knew if she did, she would ask Kraken to come and get her. And then she’d never be able to look another living Cytherean in the face again.

It wasn’t like Venus had a big population.

Dharthi was going to prove herself or die trying.

The satlink from Zamin, though, she took at once. They chatted about swamp-tigers—Zamin, predictably, was fascinated, and told Dharthi she’d write it up and give full credit to Dharthi as observer. “Tell Hazards, too,” Dharthi said, as an afterthought.

“Oh, yeah,” Zamin replied. “I guess it is at that. Dhar . . . are you okay out there?”

“Arm hurts,” Dharthi admitted. “The drugs are working, though. I could use some sleep in a bed. A dry bed.”

“Yeah,” Zamin said. “I bet you could. You know Kraken’s beside herself, don’t you?”

“She’ll know if I die,” Dharthi said.

“She’s a good friend,” Zamin said. A good trick, making it about her, rather than Kraken or Dharthi or Kraken and Dharthi. “I worry about her. You know she’s been unbelievably kind to me, generous through some real roughness. She’s—”

“She’s generous,” Dharthi said. “She’s a genius and a charismatic. I know it better than most. Look, I should pay attention to where my feet are, before I break the other arm. Then you will have to extract me. And won’t I feel like an idiot then?”

“Dhar—”

She broke the sat. She felt funny about it for hours afterward, but at least when she crawled into her cocoon that rest period, adaptshell and all, she was so exhausted she slept.

• • • •

She woke up sixteen hours and twelve minutes later, disoriented and sore in every joint. After ninety seconds she recollected herself enough to figure out where she was—in her shell, in her cocoon, fifty meters up in the Ishtarean canopy, struggling out of an exhaustion and painkiller haze—and when she was, with a quick check of the time.

She stowed and packed by rote, slithered down a strangler vine, stood in contemplation on the forest floor. Night was coming—the long night—and while she still had ample time to get back to base camp without calling for a pickup, every day now cut into her margin of safety.

She ran.

Rested, she almost had the resources to deal with it when Kraken spoke in her mind, so she gritted her teeth and said, “Yes, dear?”

“Hi,” Kraken said. There was a pause, in which Dharthi sensed a roil of suppressed emotion. Thump. Thump. As long as her feet kept running, nothing could catch her. That sharpness in her chest was just tight breath from running, she was sure. “Zamin says she’s worried about you.”

Dharthi snorted. She had slept too much, but now that the kinks were starting to shake out of her body, she realized that the rest had done her good. “You know what Zamin wanted to talk to me about? You. How wonderful you are. How caring. How made of charm.” Dharthi sighed. “How often do people take you aside to gush about how wonderful I am?”

“You might,” Kraken said, “be surprised.”

“It’s hard being the partner of somebody so perfect. When did you ever struggle for anything? You have led a charmed life, Kraken, from birth to now.”

“Did I?” Kraken said. “I’ve been lucky, I don’t deny. But I’ve worked hard. And lived through things. You think I’m perfect because that’s how you see me, in between bouts of hating everything I do.”

“It’s how everyone sees you. If status in the afterlife is determined by praises sung, yours is assured.”

“I wish you could hear how they talk about you. People hold you in awe, love.”

Thump. Thump. The rhythm of her feet soothed her, when nothing else could. She was even getting resigned to the ceaseless damp, which collected between her toes, between her buttocks, behind her ears. “They love you. They tolerated me. No one ever saw what you saw in me.”

“I did,” Kraken replied. “And quit acting as if I were somehow perfect. You’ve been quick enough to remind me on occasion of how I’m not. This thing, this need to prove yourself . . . it’s a sophipathology, Dhar. I love you. But this is not a healthy pattern of thought. Ambition is great, but you go beyond ambition. Nothing you do is ever good enough. You deny your own accomplishments, and inflate those of everyone around you. You grew up in Aphrodite, and there are only thirty thousand people on the whole damned planet. You can’t be surprised that, brilliant as you are, some of us are just as smart and capable as you are.”

Thump. Thump—

She was watching ahead even as she was arguing, though her attention wasn’t on it. That automatic caution was all that kept her from running off the edge of the world.

Before her—below her—a great cliff dropped away. The trees in the valley soared up. But this was not a tangled jungle: It was a climax forest, a species of tree taller and more densely canopied than any Dharthi had seen. The light below those trees was thick and crepuscular, and though she could hear the rain drumming on their leaves, very little of it dripped through.

Between them, until the foliage cut off her line of sight, Dharthi could see the familiar, crescent-shaped roofs of aboriginal Cytherean structures, some of them half-consumed in the accretions from the forest of smoking stone towers that rose among the trees.

She stood on the cliff edge overlooking the thing she had come half a world by airship and a thousand kilometers on foot to find, and pebbles crumbled from beneath the toes of her adaptshell, and she raised a hand to her face as if Kraken were really speaking into a device in her ear canal instead of into the patterns of electricity in her brain. The cavernous ruin stretched farther than her eyes could see—even dark-adapted, once the shell made the transition for her. Even in this strange, open forest filled with colorful, flitting flying things.

“Love?”

“Yes?” Kraken said, then went silent and waited.

“I’ll call you back,” Dharthi said. “I just discovered the Lost City of Ishtar.”

• • • •

Dharthi walked among the ruins. It was not all she’d hoped.

Well, it was more than she had hoped. She rappelled down, and as soon as her shell sank ankle-deep in the leaf litter, she was overcome by a hush of awe. She turned from the wet, lichen-heavy cliff, scuffed with the temporary marks of her feet, and craned back to stare up at the forest of geysers and fumaroles and trees that stretched west and south as far as she could see. The cliff behind her was basalt—another root of the volcano whose shield was lost in mists and trees. This . . . this was the clearest air she had ever seen.

The trees were planted in rows, as perfectly arranged as pillars in some enormous Faerie hall. The King of the Giants lived here, and Dharthi was Jack, except she had climbed down the beanstalk for a change.

The trunks were as big around as ten men with linked hands, tall enough that their foliage vanished in the clouds overhead. Trees on Earth, Dharthi knew, were limited in height by capillary action: How high could they lift water to their thirsty leaves?

Perhaps these Cytherean giants drank from the clouds as well as the earth.

“Oh,” Dharthi said, and the spaces between the trees both hushed and elevated her voice, so it sounded clear and thin. “Wait until Zamin sees these.”

Dharthi suddenly realized that if they were a new species, she would get to name them.

They were so immense, and dominated the light so completely, that very little grew under them. Some native fernmorphs, some mosses. Lichens shaggy on their enormous trunks and roots. Where one had fallen, a miniature Cytherean rain forest had sprung up in the admitted light, and here there was drumming, dripping rain, rain falling like strings of glass beads. It was a muddy little puddle of the real world in this otherwise alien quiet.

The trees stood like attentive gods, their faces so high above her she could not even hear the leaves rustle.

Dharthi forced herself to turn away from the trees, at last, and begin examining the structures. There were dozens of them—hundreds—sculpted out of the same translucent, mysterious, impervious material as all of the ruins in Aphrodite. But this was six, ten times the scale of any such ruin. Maybe vaster. She needed a team. She needed a mapping expedition. She needed a base camp much closer to this. She needed to give the site a name—

She needed to get back to work.

She remembered, then, to start documenting. The structures—she could not say, of course, which were habitations, which served other purposes—or even if the aboriginals had used the same sorts of divisions of usage that human beings did—were of a variety of sizes and heights. They were all designed as arcs or crescents, however—singly, in series, or in several cases as a sort of stepped spectacular with each lower, smaller level fitting inside the curve of a higher, larger one. Several had obvious access points, open to the air, and Dharthi reminded herself sternly that going inside unprepared was not just a bad idea because of risk to herself, but because she might disturb the evidence.

She clenched her good hand and stayed outside.

Her shell had been recording, of course—now she began to narrate, and to satlink the files home. No fanfare, just an upload. Data and more data—and the soothing knowledge that while she was hogging her allocated bandwidth to send, nobody could call her to ask questions, or congratulate, or—

Nobody except Kraken, with whom she was entangled for life.

“Hey,” her partner said in her head. “You found it.”

“I found it,” Dharthi said, pausing the narration but not the load. There was plenty of visual, olfactory, auditory, and kinesthetic data being sent even without her voice.

“How does it feel to be vindicated?”

She could hear the throb of Kraken’s pride in her mental voice. She tried not to let it make her feel patronized. Kraken did not mean to sound parental, proprietary. That was Dharthi’s own baggage.

“Vindicated?” She looked back over her shoulder. The valley was quiet and dark. A fumarole vented with a rushing hiss and a curve of wind brought the scent of sulfur to sting her eyes.

“Famous?”

Famous!?”

“Hell, Terran-famous. The homeworld is going to hear about this in, oh, about five minutes, given light lag—unless somebody who’s got an entangled partner back there shares sooner. You’ve just made the biggest Cytherean archaeological discovery in the past hundred days, love. And probably the next hundred. You are not going to have much of a challenge getting allocations now.”

“I—”

“You worked hard for it.”

“It feels like . . .” Dharthi picked at the bridge of her nose with a thumbnail. The skin was peeling off in flakes: Too much time in her shell was wreaking havoc with the natural oil balance of her skin. “It feels like I should be figuring out the next thing.”

“The next thing,” Kraken said. “How about coming home to me? Have you proven yourself to yourself yet?”

Dharthi shrugged. She felt like a petulant child. She knew she was acting like one. “How about to you?”

I never doubted you. You had nothing to prove to me. The self-sufficiency thing is your pathology, love, not mine. I love you as you are, not because I think I can make you perfect. I just wish you could see your strengths as well as you see your flaws—one second, bit of a squall up ahead—I’m back.”

“Are you on an airship?” Was she coming here?

“Just an airjeep.”

Relief and a stab of disappointment. You wouldn’t get from Aphrodite to Ishtar in an AJ.

Well, Dharthi thought. Looks like I might be walking home.

And when she got there? Well, she wasn’t quite ready to ask Kraken for help yet.

She would stay, she decided, two more sleeps. That would still give her time to get back to basecamp before nightfall, and it wasn’t as if her arm could get any more messed up between now and then. She was turning in a slow circle, contemplating where to sling her cocoon—the branches were really too high to be convenient—when the unmistakable low hum of an aircar broke the rustling silence of the enormous trees.

It dropped through the canopy, polished copper belly reflecting a lensed fisheye of forest, and settled down ten meters from Dharthi. Smiling, frowning, biting her lip, she went to meet it. The upper half was black hydrophobic polymer: She’d gotten a lift in one just like it at Ishtar basecamp before she set out.

The hatch opened. In the cramped space within, Kraken sat behind the control board. She half-rose, crouched under the low roof, came to the hatch, held out one her right hand, reaching down to Dharthi. Dharthi looked at Kraken’s hand, and Kraken sheepishly switched it for the other one. The left one, which Dharthi could take without strain.

“So I was going to take you to get your arm looked at,” Kraken said.

“You spent your allocations—”

Kraken shrugged. “Gonna send me away?”

“This time,” she said, “. . . no.”

Kraken wiggled her fingers.

Dharthi took it, stepped up into the GEV, realized how exhausted she was as she settled back in a chair and suddenly could not lift her head without the assistance of her shell. She wondered if she should have hugged Kraken. She realized that she was sad that Kraken hadn’t tried to hug her. But, well. The shell was sort of in the way.

Resuming her chair, Kraken fixed her eyes on the forward screen. “Hey. You did it.”

“Hey. I did.” She wished she felt it. Maybe she was too tired.

Maybe Kraken was right, and Dharthi should see about working on that.

Her eyes dragged shut. So heavy. The soft motion of the aircar lulled her. Its soundproofing had degraded, but even the noise wouldn’t be enough to keep her awake. Was this what safe felt like? “Something else.”

“I’m listening.”

“If you don’t mind, I was thinking of naming a tree after you.”

“That’s good,” Kraken said. “I was thinking of naming a kid after you.”

Dharthi grinned without opening her eyes. “We should use my Y chromosome. Color blindness on the X.”

“Ehn. Ys are half atrophied already. We’ll just use two Xs,” Kraken said decisively. “Maybe we’ll get a tetrachromat.”

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of nearly 30 novels (The most recent is Karen Memory, a Weird West adventure from Tor) and over a hundred short stories. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner, writer Scott Lynch, three adventurous cats, and an elderly and opinionated dog.