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About The Author

S.M. Stirling

S. M. Stirling is the author of numerous SF and fantasy novels, including the popular Nantucket series that began with Island in the Sea of Time, Dies the Fire and The Protector's War. A former lawyer and an amateur historian, he lives in the Southwest with his wife, Jan.

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EXCERPT

Chapter One

Encyclopedia Britannica, 16th Edition
University of Chicago Press, 1988
 
Venus: Parameters
 
Orbit: 0.723 AU
Orbital period: 224.7 days
Rotation: 30hrs. 6mins. (retrograde)
Mass: 0.815 ¥ Earth
Average density: 5.2 g/cc
Surface gravity: 0.91 ¥ Earth
Diameter: 7,520 miles (equatorial; 94.7% ¥ Earth)
Surface: land 20%, water 80%
Atmospheric composition:
 
Nitrogen           76.2%
Oxygen            22.7%
Carbon dioxide 0.088%
 
Trace Elements: Argon, Neon, Helium, Krypton, Hydrogen
Atmospheric Pressure: 17.7 psi average at sea level
 
Venus differs from Earth, its sister planet, primarily in its slightly smaller size and slightly lower average density, as well as the lack of a moon or satellite, and its retrograde (clockwise) rotation. The composition of the atmosphere is closely similar to that of Earth, the main differences being the higher percentage of oxygen and the somewhat greater mass and density of the atmosphere as a whole.
 
Average temperatures on Venus are roughly 10 degrees Celsius higher than those on Earth, due to greater solar energy input, moderated by the reflective properties of the high cloud layer; isotope analysis suggests that these temperatures are similar to those on Earth in the Upper Cretaceous period, at which time Earth, like Venus today, had no polar ice caps.
 
Most of Venus’ land area of approximately 40,000,000 sq. miles is concentrated in the Arctic supercontinent of Gagarin, roughly the size of Eurasia, and the Antarctic continent of Lobachevsky, approximately the size of Africa. Chains of islands constitute most of the remaining land surface, ranging in size from tiny atolls to nearly half a million square miles . . .
 
 
Venus, Gagarin Continent—Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone
1988
 
Unnnngg-OOOK!
 
One of the ceratopsians in the spaceport draught team raised its beaked, bony head and bellowed, stunningly loud, as the team was led around to be hitched to the newly arrived rocket-plane. The supersonic crack of the upper stage’s first pass over the dirt runways at high altitude had spooked them a little, but they were used to the size and heat of the orbiters by now.
 
Some of the new arrivals from Earth filing carefully down the gangway from the rocket-plane’s passenger door started at the cry. When one of the giant reptiles cut loose it sounded a little like the world’s largest parrot; the beasts were massive six-ton quadrupeds with columnar legs, eight feet at the shoulder and higher at their hips, twenty-five feet long from snout to the tip of the thick tail, and they had lungs and vocal cords to match their size. The long purple tongue within the beak worked as the beast called, and it shook its shield—the massive bony plate that sheathed its head and flared out behind to cover the neck. The shield was a deep bluish-gray, the pebbled hide green-brown above, with a stripe of yellow along each flank marking off the finer cream-colored skin of the belly.
 
Then it added the rank, musky scent of a massive dinosaurian dung-dump to the scorched ceramic odor of the orbital lander’s heat-shield.
 
Welcome to Venus, Marc Vitrac thought, as the score or so of new base personnel and the six spaceship crew gathered at the foot of the ladder. I’m glad it waited until the harness was hitched. That could have landed on my feet if it had happened while we were getting things fastened.
 
He switched his heavy rifle so that it rested in the crook of his left arm—it was a scope-sighted bolt-action piece with a thumbhole stock and chambered for a heavy big-game round, 9¥70 mm Magnum. Then he waved his right arm forward and called:
 
“Take it away, Sally!”
 
“Get going, you brainless lumps!” the slender ash-blond woman shouted from her seat in a saddle high on the shoulders of the left-hand beast.
 
That was purely to relieve her feelings. Nobody really liked the dim-witted, bad-tempered dinosaurs, useful though they were. The joystick in her hand was the real control; she shoved it forward, and the unit relayed its signals to the receivers on each beast’s forehead, hidden under hemispheres of tough plastic. That triggered current through the implants running down through skulls and into the motor ganglions and pleasure-pain centers of their tiny brains. The two ceratopsians leaned into their harness, and the yard-thick hauling cable of braided dinosaur hide came taut with a snap. After a moment’s motionless straining, the rocket stage lurched into motion and trundled down the long strip of reddish dirt towards the hangars and cranes where it would be mated with the big dart-shaped booster and made ready for its next lift to orbit.
 
It was a lot cheaper to ship electronic controller units from Earth than tractors and bulldozers, not to mention the non-existent infrastructure of fuel and spare parts. All you needed to collect ceratopsians was a heavy-duty trank gun; they’d eat anything that grew, including the trunks of oak trees, and they lived indefinitely unless something killed them.
 
Marc wiped his face on the sleeve of his jacket as the rocket-plane left, trailing dust, taking with it the radiant heat still throbbing out of its ceramic underbelly and a stink of burnt kerosene. The coastal air of Gagarin flowed in instead, the iodine scent of the sea half a mile northward, and smells of vegetation and animals not quite Earthly. The sun was a little bigger in the sky than it would be on the third rock from the sun, partly because they were closer to it, and partly from the light white haze that never really cleared from the blue arch above. Otherwise, apart from the weird fauna—and the size of the bugs—it might have been a spring day in California, temperature in the seventies and air fairly dry, yellow flowers studding a rolling plain of waist-high grass around them, just turning from rainy-season green to champagne color. Already some of the birds and fliers scared off by the rocket-plane’s descent were winging back in. Something with iridescent blue-and-yellow feathers, a twelve-foot wingspan, and a beak full of teeth screeched at him as it passed, snapping at dragonflies six inches across.
 
Okay.
 
Most of the Carson’s six-person crew were here as well, looking a little more relieved than usual: There had been some sort of problem with the main fission reactor this time, just after the final insertion burn. The Aerospace Force kept two nuclear-boost ships on the run between Venus and Earth, the Carson and the Susan Constant.
 
The little clump of new fish in their blue Aerospace Force overalls stood at the base of the wheeled gangway, woozy even in Venus’ ninety-percent gravity after three months of zero-G despite all that exercise en route could do. At least they were used to the denser air and higher oxygen, since the passenger ships adjusted their own gradually on the trip. Some of them were looking a little stunned; others were grinning ear to ear. He knew exactly what they were thinking, and his lips turned up as well—the thrill wasn’t gone for him yet, not by a long shot:
 
Yeah, I’ve finally made it! All the tests and psych tests and physical tests and trials and qualifications and all the millions who started out on the selections and I was the one who made it!
 
One young black woman with civilian-specialist shoulder-flashes—she looked to be a couple of years short of Marc’s twenty-five—bent down and gently touched the Venusian soil; when she straightened, a look of astonished delight was on her face. He met her eye and winked; on his first day he’d gone down flat and kissed the dirt.
 
“Welcome to Venus in general and the Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone in particular, folks! I’m Lieutenant Marc Vitrac, USASF, and one of the Ranger squad here, which means specimen-collector, liaison with the locals, and general dogsbody. We’ve got a howdah laid on. I know three months in zero-G makes you feel like a boiled noodle when you get back dirtside.”
 
A murmur of “no problem, feeling fine” and shaking of heads: You had to be nearly Olympic caliber physically as well as qualified in two or three degree-equivalents even to get onto the short list for Venus. All of them were probably proud of it, and they were all aggressive self-starters by definition. He shrugged mentally; he’d done exactly the same thing when he arrived, and had been puffing by the time he made it to the reception hall. The plain fact of the matter was that it took weeks to months of carefully phased acclimatizing before you got full function back. That was why they used the more expensive nuclear-rocket craft for shipping people between planets, instead of the cheap but slow solar-sail freighters. A big nuclear booster could get you here in a hundred and twenty days, give or take, depending on orbital positions—the robot freighters took three or four times that long, and nobody could stand a year and a half without gravity, not to mention the risk of solar flares en route.
 
Instead of arguing, he turned to the four spaceport laborers. “ImiTaWok s’wee, tob,” he said in the tongue of Kartahown: Get it back to the building, guys.
 
The locals grabbed the shamboo-framed wheeled staircase and began dragging it off after the rocket-plane. The newcomers spared a few startled glances at them: You had to look fairly closely to see that they weren’t common garden-variety Caucasoid Earthlings. People around here tended to medium-tall height, olive coloring, and mostly brown or black hair, with a minority of blonds and a smaller one of redheads; only the sharply triangular faces and hooked noses were even a little out of the ordinary. The four workers were shaved and barbered Terran-style and dressed in ordinary-for-Jamestown pants and shirts of parachute cloth; they couldn’t be told from Earthlings until they spoke. Put Marc Vitrac into an off-the-right-shoulder tunic, grow his hair long and tie it in a knot on the left side of his head, and give him a bronze sword, and he’d fit right in on this coast.
 
“Yeah, those guys are from Kartahown,” he said, pointing east along the coast. The Bronze Age city-state, which was Venus’ highest civilization, was about forty miles thataway. “Some of them have picked up English, too, since they moved up this way looking for work.”
 
Including some escaped slaves we’re sheltering from people who’d like to beat them to death with bronze-tipped scourges, but let’s not get into that right now.
 
“That’s quick,” said the oldest of the newcomers, in his midthirties and with a bird colonel’s insignia. “We’ve only been here six years, and the base was pretty small for most of that period.”
 
“Well, we’re even more exotic and interesting to them than they are to us, sir,” Vitrac said. “And by local standards, we’re wizards and richer than God. A steel knife or a couple of yards of parachute fabric is real money here.”
 
Plus we don’t beat people to death with bronze-tipped scourges.
 
“And if you’ll all follow me . . .”
 
He led them off, slowly, across the cropped grass near the landing strip; there were two in an X-shaped combination, each several thousand yards long. Another ceratopsian stood waiting patiently; in fact, it was blissed out by a trickle charge to the pleasure center, drooling slightly onto the grass. On its back rested a twenty-foot howdah made of laminated shamboo, with a shaped and padded underside and two broad leather girths running under the dinosaur’s belly to hold it on. The seats were stepped like those in a movie theater to accommodate the slope of the animal’s back from the high point over its hips. Marc stood by the short folding ladder at the right foreleg, once or twice discreetly helping a passenger with his free hand.
 
More than one gave the bigger-than-elephantine beast a dubious look; its steady breathing was a machinelike whoosh . . . whoosh . . .  and the heavy reptile stink was strong, like a neglected cage full of iguanas at a pet shop. The massive columnar legs were taller than a big man, too.
 
When everyone was settled Marc folded up the ladder, put his foot on the ceratopsian’s knee, grabbed the edge of the bony shield, and vaulted into the front seat to take up the controls. Once you got your muscle tone back, the combination of lower gravity and extra oxygen made you hell on wheels physically—and they’d all been distinctly above-average specimens to begin with.
 
“Fasten your seat belts, please,” he said.
 
And keep your barf-bags handy. This thing sways like a sonofabitch.
 
Unlike many, he didn’t bother to say git or the equivalent, just pushed the control forward a notch and rotated the joystick. The beast gave a low coughing grunt and then a wince-inducing screech of complaint as it came out of a daze of quasi-reptilian ecstasy and turned in place before pacing forward; the weight of howdah and passengers wasn’t really noticeable to something that weighed about as much as a big dump truck, and everyone clutched the grab-bars. The strings of silver bells around the edges of the howdah chimed in chorus at the first lurch, then settled down into a ting-ting-ting-ting beneath the heavy thud of footfalls as the animal paced along. It wasn’t doing more than walk, but each stride covered a lot of ground.
 
Marc did start a little as the black woman slid into the front seat beside him. He didn’t think it was his own overwhelming attractiveness; he was a slim, wiry man of medium height for Jamestown—five-ten—built like a gymnast or track-and-field star, which he’d been, with a pleasant open face, olive skin, and dark green eyes. His black hair was cropped short. She just seemed exuberantly happy to be on Venus, and less returning-gravity-whipped by the voyage than most of the newcomers. And of course she was less constrained than someone in the Aerospace Force, although military formality was distinctly low-key here. For one thing, there was scarcely anyone below commissioned rank. A lieutenant was on the bottom of the heap.
 
She touched the plank of the seat as if seeking reassurance in the rough, slightly splintery surface.
 
“I like the bells,” she said.
 
“Me too,” he replied. “It’s mostly to warn people out of the way. These things aren’t what you’d call maneuverable, even Iced.”
 
“Iced?”
 
“Ah, Jamestown slang. Internal Control Device: I-C-D, and so-Iced.”
 
“You’ve been here awhile, right, Lieutenant?” she asked.
 
“Weh,” he agreed cheerfully in the dialect of his childhood.
 
He was no more immune than most young men to attention from a good-looking woman, and on Venus you had the added pleasure of knowing she was in the top of the bell curve for brains and general ability, too. He went on:
 
“More than a year now, Venus year, that is. Mostly in construction, maintenance, supply, but just recently we’ve had more time for real exploring and research—fascinating stuff. What we’re learning is going to shake the Earth. And a lieutenant is small potatoes here, ah, Miss . . .”
 
“Cynthia Whitlock, Lieutenant,” she said, and held out a hand. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name—I was paying more attention to the surroundings than the spiel!”
 
“Marc Vitrac. Ethnology and linguistics, power systems and lighter-than-air pilot.”
 
“Geology, minors in paleontology and information systems. And . . . imiKartahownai ’n dus-jas?” she asked.
 
She had a pretty good accent for someone working from recordings rather than talking to native speakers. The hand that gripped his was firm and strong and dry, slender and long-fingered; shaking it meant he had to juggle the rifle he was holding in the crook of his other arm.
 
“Yeah, I’ve picked up a fair amount of Kartahownian. It’s damned useful here; a lot of people along the coast speak it, sort of a lingua franca. Some of them have acquired a bit of English over in the town, too. They’ve got some very smart people there—it doesn’t pay to underestimate them.”
 
She tilted her head to one side. “Louisiana?” she said.
 
“Evangeline, eh, she was my mawmaw,” he said, exaggerating the Cajun lilt for a moment. “Bayou born and bred. Grand Isle.”
 
“Harlem born and bred,” she replied, with only a trace of it in her General American.
 
Then her brows went up slightly as he took a quick glance skyward and started to raise the rifle. “Nope,” he said, lowering the weapon. “He’s not going for us. Guess we look too much like a ’saur.”
 
When he’d relaxed, she went on, indicating the rifle with a glance, “That cannon is a bird-gun?”
 
“Mais, for those things, weh, certainly,” he said, turning a thumb upward.
 
He was unsurprised she knew her way around firearms, even though she was a civilian. The selection program tended to pick intellectuals who were also outdoors types or vice versa. Then he raised his voice a little so the rest of the score of passengers could hear, and it took on a slight tour-guide tone. One that he realized was based on something he’d heard an uncle use when he conducted tours of the bayous in his swamp boat, throwing marshmallows to the quasi-tame gators for the tourists.
 
“Y’all might want to take a gander skyward. First big Quetza of the season, and they’re quite a sight.”
 
Most of the passengers did look up. He heard gasps. It was one thing to watch a video of a flying creature with a wingspan of eighty feet, but another to see one with your naked eye. Even back in the Cretaceous, nothing that size could have flown on Earth, but the gravity was a bit lower here, and the air wasn’t just thicker but also had more oxygen per unit to power flight muscles. This Quetza was coming in low, coasting down from the inland cliffs where they nested, banking to avoid the built-up area of Jamestown, and then sweeping back seaward.
 
The thin long-headed body was bigger than a man’s and roughly the same shape, but it was tiny between the vast leathery expanses of wing that caught the thermals; the eyes in its long, narrow-beaked head were huge and yellow and it turned one of them towards the wagon as it went by overhead. Then the wings half-folded, and the great beast came down on the other side of the runways like an arching thunderbolt of brown hide and white-and-scarlet body-fuzz and yellow jaws. Those were slender, like a great pickaxe beak, balanced by a bony crest behind, and full of jagged teeth.
 
“Ah, shit, it’s going for that herd of churr, probably after a bebette. Sorry, people—I’m going to have to take a shot. Fire in the hole!”
 
It was the claws on the ends of the long legs that struck first, in a puff of dust. More dust fountained into the air as the giant wings flogged the air, and something struggled beneath them as the thirty-odd adults and younglings in the herd spattered like water on a waxed floor, bawling and shrieking in terror. The week-old churr colt was the size of a medium pig except for the longer legs, and it squealed like one. Churr were what the locals used instead of horses; Venus didn’t have any equivalent of equines, as far as they knew. The shaggy, social omnivores were actually more like bears, and still more like horse-sized dogs with the digestive systems of hogs.
 
The pterodactyl worked for height, looked down at the animal thrashing in its claws, and dropped him from two hundred feet. The squeal ran all the way down as the falling beast thrashed his legs, then cut off abruptly at the meaty thud of impact. The winged reptile turned in a circling gyre as it descended and then settled to the ground like a flying avalanche, mantling its wings over the dead animal as it fed. After an instant, the long head came up with a dripping chunk in its jaws. It bolted the food whole, and you could see the lump traveling down the throat.
 
Marc brought the ceratopsian around and pressed the bliss-out button to freeze it in place before he came up with one knee on the bench, taking a hitch of the rifle sling around his left elbow to give a three-point rest and working the bolt to chamber one of the heavy rounds. Cynthia slid down and went flat to peer over the edge of the howdah, her thumbs on her ears and mouth open. The pterodactyl’s huge eye with its star-shaped pupil leaped into view through the sight: about nine hundred yards. Now shift a little for the wind, stroke the trigger . . .
 
CRACK!
 
Recoil punched into his shoulder despite the rubber pad and the weapon’s muzzle brake and the fourteen-pound mass of the heavy rifle. Through the scope he had a brief glimpse of the predator’s brain splashing away from the hollow-point bullet. When he took the scope from his eye, the forty-foot wings were thrashing the soil in a last frenzy. As they stilled to twitching, the churr herd closed back in, standing in a circle for a moment before settling in to feed amid ripping and crunching sounds; the shaggy animals liked meat more than acorns or grass, though they’d eat anything in a pinch. They’d have it down to tatters and a skeleton by sundown, with the corpse beetles making sure not enough was left to smell by tomorrow.
 
This planet had an active ecosystem.
 
Marc worked the action and caught the empty shell as it ejected. That was one hundred and seventy-five dollars of the taxpayers’ money in shipping costs, right there, and they had their own reloading shop now. The sharp, acrid chemical stink of nitro powder hung in the air for a moment, then drifted away into the flowers-hay-hot-dirt-and-ocean smells.
 
“Jesus, Lieutenant!” the bird colonel said reverently.
 
“Yeah, sir. You’ve got to watch out for the Quetzas, take a glance skyward every so often; the older ones like that can lift a grown man into the air with a high-speed snatch. They can’t carry that much weight for long . . . but they don’t have to. And you don’t let kids go out without an armed escort! The First Fleet people shot a half-dozen daily around the town for a while and that seems to have taught them to avoid it. Lucky there aren’t all that many of the really huge ones.”
 
“They can learn?” the colonel asked. “The reports say they’re not very big-brained.”
 
“About like a smart bird, say a parrot or a bald eagle—some of the smaller dinosaurian land predators are like that, too. The herbivores like this one”—he kicked the ceratopsian’s shield—“are dumb as geckos. The big Quetzas migrate to the southern hemisphere in the winter, right down to the Antarctic continent, so you only have to worry about them from this time of year to the start of the fall rains. It’s a good thing there aren’t more of the thunder-lizards this far north, or it’d be impossible to live outside a cave.”
 
The colonel nodded as Marc got their mount back into motion and headed into town. “What’s that over there?” he said, pointing left and southward.
 
Copyright © 2006 by S. M. Stirling. All rights reserved.

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