Authors: Pamela Sargent
To George, again
Malik's visitor was late. "Salaam, Linker Malik," she murmured, bowing her head slightly as she entered his apartment.
"Salaam," Malik replied. He led her to a chair and sat down across from her. He had been wary when the woman first called and asked for a meeting with him. Malik's uncle, in his last message, had warned him to be careful; there were complaints about some of Malik's recent writings. The warning had been vague, as most of Muhammad's messages were lately, with hints that the older man felt threatened and might no longer be able to protect his nephew.
Yet this woman seemed innocuous enough. He glanced at her as he poured coffee. Her name was Wadzia Zayed, and she claimed to be one of his former students. Malik had verified that much through his forehead implant; it was still something of a novelty to be Linked, to have all of the information in Earth's cyberminds open to him.
He had remembered her only after viewing an image in the university's records. Wadzia Zayed had been a shy girl with sad dark eyes, another female student from one of his Nomarchy's outlying villages who wore a scarf over her head and kept her eyes lowered whenever she spoke. The attractive, self-assured woman who sat in front of him now hardly seemed the same person.
"I am honored that you agreed to see me," Wadzia said in formal Arabic with a trace of a rural accent. "I was surprised to learn that you are now Linked, although your accomplishments surely merit that honor."
Malik touched the small jewel on his forehead that marked him as a Linker. "I have tried to be worthy of it." His uncle's influence had helped to win him the Link; Muhammad was grooming him for better things. Grateful as he was, he wasn't sure if he shared his uncle's ambitions.
"Well." Wadzia set down her cup, then shook back her uncovered black hair. "I assume you've already viewed my mind-tour." She was speaking in Anglaic now, the official language of Earth, although any truly educated person knew Arabic as well.
"Indeed I have," he answered in the same tongue.
"And what did you think?"
"Your depiction has an impact," Malik said carefully, "but I'm puzzled by your reasons for asking me to see it. I used to view such things as a boy, and had many happy moments experiencing them through my band, but I'm hardly an expert on mind-tours and sensory entertainments." Such visual images and simulated, experiences, some of which depicted historical incidents, could impart a bit of knowledge to the many illiterate and unschooled people of Earth's Nomarchies, but to Malik, they seemed much like the more trivial mind-tours with which such people amused themselves.
"I value your opinion," Wadzia replied. "I wouldn't ask for a recommendation, even though one from a historian of your standing might help in promoting it, but I would appreciate any suggestions you'd care to make." She lifted her head and gazed directly at him.
Malik's lingering suspicions vanished; apparently this meeting was partly an excuse to entice him. Women had begun to seek him out when he was hardly more than a boy, attracted by his handsome face and well-formed body. It had become easy to enjoy the novelty of each new love while knowing that he was certain to find another before that love died. Wadzia might have nursed an infatuation since her student days, although any intimate encounter with her then would have been dishonorable on his part. He sighed; anticipation of a new love was now often tinged with weariness.
"Your subject is fascinating, of course," he said. "That by itself makes your mind-tour quite dramatic. You simplified events somewhat, but I didn't note blatant inaccuracies. I know these events have been used in other depictions, but your treatment seemed fresh. I especially enjoyed the way you thrust the observer into various scenes before contrasting them with more distant perspectives."
Wadzia smiled a little. He was being honest; the story of the Venus Project could still move him. The efforts of people to create a livable world from such a hellish planet, a world none of them would survive to see, was surely testimony to the human spirit.
Terraforming Venus had been the dream of Karim al-Anwar, one of the earliest of Earth's Mukhtars. The Earth that Karim and his fellow Mukhtars had ruled more than five hundred years ago was a world ravaged by wars over resources. Many people had abandoned the home world for habitats in space, hollowed-out asteroids and vast globes built from the resources space offered. Karim's Earth was a wounded world, deserted by those who had become the Habitat-dwellers, with the people left behind clinging to the little that remained.
The Nomarchies of Earth had finally won peace. A Mukhtar had ruled each region ever since, and the armed force known as the Guardians of the Nomarchies preserved that peace. But Karim al-Anwar had seen that Earth needed a new dream, one that might rival the accomplishments of the Associated Habitats; without such an achievement, human history might pass into the hands of the Habitat-dwellers. Karim had looked toward Venus, that planet of intense heat held in by a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide with a barometric pressure ninety times that of Earth, and had seen a place human beings might transform. The Habitat-dwellers might believe that humanity's future lay in space; Earth's people would show that they were wrong.
Karim had lived only long enough to see a feasibility study begun, but his dream had won out. Anwara, the space station named for him, circled Earth's sister-world in a high orbit. The shield called the Parasol, an umbrella of giant panels with a diameter as large as the planet's, hid Venus from the sun, enabling that world to cool. Frozen hydrogen had been siphoned off from distant Saturn and hurled toward Venus in tanks, where the hydrogen combined with free oxygen to form water. The atmosphere had been seeded with new strains of algae that fed on sulfuric acid and then expelled it as iron and copper sulfides.
Venus's first settlements had been the Islands, constructed to float in the planet's upper atmosphere slightly to the north of the equator. Platforms built on rows of large metal cells filled with helium were covered with dirt and then enclosed in impermeable domes. On the surface, construction equipment guided by engineers on these Islands had erected three metallic pyramids housing gravitational pulse engines; rods anchoring those engines had penetrated the basaltic mantle to the edge of Venus's nickel and iron core. The planet, after being assaulted by the release of their powerful antigravitational pulse, had begun to turn more rapidly. Its tectonic plates, locked for eons, began to shift; speeding up the world's rotation would also provide Earth-like weather patterns in later centuries, and the spinning iron core had generated a magnetic field that would protect Venus's settlers from solar radiation when the Parasol no longer cast its shadow.
Now at last, Malik thought, so long after Karim al-Anwar had first had his vision, domed settlements were rising in the Maxwell Mountains of the northern landmass known as Ishtar Terra. The people who called themselves Cytherians, after the Mediterranean island of Cythera where the goddess Aphrodite had once been worshipped, were living on the world that bore one of that ancient deity's names.
Wadzia's mind-tour had hurled him into this world. Malik had stood on barren, rocky ground, peering through a misty darkness as lightning flashed above a volcano. He bad seen the Parasol, a giant flower reflecting sunlight away from a world that would bloom. He had watched as tanks of frozen hydrogen flared brightly in the planet's hot, black clouds, brief candles doused by the darkness. He had glimpsed two satellites appearing over the poles, their construction compressed into seconds, and seen their winged panels reach past the Parasol's shade to catch the light of the sun. The ground had lurched and heaved under his feet while thunder slapped his ears as a pyramid, with veins of light bulging from its black walls, released its pulse of energy.
The mind-tour had been filled with great spectacles interspersed with images of individuals who seemed to have no life apart from their obsession with the Venus Project. Wadzia had not mentioned the drain placed on Earth's limited resources by more than four centuries of support for the Project. She had barely hinted at the agreement the Mukhtars and their Project Council had reluctantly made with the Habitat-dwellers, who had decided to aid the Project for their own obscure reasons. Without Habber aid and technology, Malik knew, the Project could not have advanced this far.
Wadzia had also passed over more recent events. The pyramids had finally released their mighty pulse of energy in 555, nearly forty years ago; Wadzia had quickly moved to scenes of settlers inside the surface domes. She had avoided darker events, incidents that might have marred her tale of noble souls and grand feats of terraforming, the years when it seemed that Earth might lose the Venus Project.
The possibility of that loss was not yet past, even with Guardians stationed on Venus's Islands and with settlers moving to the surface. Malik thought again of his uncle's messages and the dilemmas that now faced Muhammad's allies among the Mukhtars.
"Do you have any other comments?" Wadzia asked.
He forced his attention back to her. "It's incomplete, isn't it? Those experiencing this mind-tour will have at least a hazy knowledge of more recent events, and wonder why they were omitted."
"I thought you might say that," she said.
"I don't see how you can avoid mentioning Pavel Gvishiani's ambitions."
"That's exactly what I think." The woman leaned forward. "The rest of my team disagrees. That's why I wanted you to see this. The opinion of a scholar who has a family so close to the Council of Mukhtars might carry some weight with my colleagues."
"The part of the story you left out has its pitfalls. You'd have to be careful in what you show, but since the tale ends with Pavel's defeat —" He reached for the pot and poured more coffee.
"Dealing with Pavel would also add some drama," Wadzia said. "After all those scenes of grandeur and self-sacrifice, we'd see the most influential of the Island Administrators trying to seize control of the Project for himself, even if it means an alliance with Habbers."
"One can feel a bit of sympathy for the man," Malik said. "The Project's progress had slowed, the Mukhtars weren't doing anything about it, and Pavel Gvishiani was faced with people who were impatient for surface settlements and resentful of the Guardian force on the Islands. He knew there wouldn't be much progress without more aid from the Habitat-dwellers."
Pavel had taken a chance, believing that Earth might not risk a confrontation, and had lost that gamble. But Wadzia could not acknowledge that without admitting how crucial the help of Habbers had become, an admission that would tarnish the glory Earth claimed for itself through the Venus Project.
How ironic, Malik thought, that Earth had to lean on Habbers for assistance in a venture meant to rival the Habber vision of humanity's future. The Mukhtars did not appreciate the irony, which only deepened their resentment of the Associated Habitats. Some believed that the Habbers had agreed to work with the Project in order to spy on the people there. Malik, however, suspected that the Habbers meant what they claimed — that working with the Project enabled them to test their own technology in various ways. Perhaps they were also moved by feelings of responsibility to those the ancestors of the Habbers had abandoned. It was hard to know what Habbers thought, given the limited contact Earth had with them.
"I certainly can't portray Pavel sympathetically," Wadzia was saying. "Assuming authority to make all decisions about the Project himself, and issuing what amounted to ultimatums to the Mukhtars, was close to treason."
"Indeed." She also could not discuss the fact that a threat from the Habbers to withdraw all their resources and sever any contact with Earth had persuaded the Mukhtars to resolve the matter peacefully. Pavel had been deprived of his Link; a few of those closest to him, including the Guardian Commander who had supported him, had also been punished. Mercy had been shown to most of the Islanders, since Pavel had misled them; Earth had achieved the semblance of a victory.