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Surface Action

For Mark L. Van Name
Who has made my life easier
as well as more interesting.


And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night. 

—Matthew Arnold

Five hundred years before the first colony ship landed on Venus, an asteroid which had been expanded into a fat nickel-iron balloon impacted with the upper Venerian atmosphere. There it spread its filling of tailored bacteria to graze among the roiling hydrocarbons.

That was the start of the terraforming process.

Thousands of asteroid casings followed the first. All the early ones were loaded with bacteria which broke down the poisons, forming free water through biochemical processes and creating mulch as they died and their bodies drifted toward the surface.

The upper layers of the atmosphere cleared and no longer trapped the sun's heat. The blankets of bacteria moved lower, following the hellish temperatures and poisonous hydrocarbons in which alone they could exist.

Rain fell—and vaporized again, long before the huge lashing drops had reached the surface. Furnace-hot layers of air cooled and cleared, and the rain continued to fall.

Even before the Venerian highlands rose above the remaining strata of hydrocarbon haze, asteroids spewed seeds, spores, and Earth-standard one-celled life into the atmosphere. The new cargoes spread and fell with the rain; and mostly died, but not quite all.

Men sent more asteroids filled with more life, and the life flourished.

The sheen of water-vapor clouds reflected the dangerous majority of sunlight from the reformed planet, but the short, higher-energy end of the spectrum penetrated the clouds most easily. The actinic rays aided mutation, and the virgin surface of the planet permitted adaptive radiation on a scale never imaginable on Earth.

Asteroids strewed eggs; at first invertebrates, then those of backboned life forms, though none so advanced that the young required parental care.

The colony ships arrived.

In a degree, the planners who seeded Venus with life had been too successful. Land and sea both teemed with a savage parody of "Nature red in fang and claw."

The seas proved easier to colonize—"at first," the planners said, though the temporary expedient quickly hardened to permanence. Domed cities sprang up on continental shelves a few thousand feet down—beneath the sunlight and the light-driven violence of the surface layers, but well above the scarcely less fierce competition in the deep trenches where all organic matter at last settled.

Seven days, four hours, and thirty-four minutes after the last colony ship landed on Venus, Earth's final war triggered a fusion reaction in her oceans. By astronomical standards, the resulting star was both small and short-lived; but it would smolder for thousands of years, and its first milliseconds had been enough to cleanse the planet of life.

Mankind survived in the domes of Venus.

Only in the domes of Venus.

The individual cities were independent and fiercely competitive, though the causes of their conflicts had no more logic to those not involved than did the causes of men's wars through the previous ages. Earth's blazing death throes imposed order of a kind on the wars of Venus, but not even that warning trauma could bring peace.

Nuclear power and weapons were banned, as guns had been banned in Japan during the Shogunate. The ban was enforced with absolute ruthlessness. Domed cities were vulnerable to conventional weapons of the simplest sort. A dome which was believed to harbor nuclear experiments was cracked so that water pressure crushed its inhabitants into the ooze before they could drown.

Apart from that, war on Venus was fought on the surface, and by warriors.

Independent contractors, like the condottieri of Renaissance Italy, built bases and fleets with private funding and staffed them with volunteers. They fought one another for hire, and in the interim they fought the jungles for their very lives.

Domes went to war according to set rules. When battle and mercenaries' blood had decided the point at issue, the losing city ransomed itself to penury. The winning dome recouped the cost of the fleet it hired, and the winning military entrepreneurs collected a comfortable victory bonus.

The losing mercenaries had the amount of their original hire and whatever they had managed to save from the wrack of defeat. That might be enough for them to go on to lesser contracts, desperately trying to rebuild their fortunes; or they might be forced to merge with another company on unfavorable terms.

Sometimes they merged with the fleet which had just defeated them. Business was business.

The fleets seemed a romantic alternative to life in the climate-controlled safety of the domed cities. Civilians aped the dress and manners of the mercenaries or scorned them, but no one in the domes could ignore fleet personnel in their uniforms and their dark-tanned skins.

There was no shortage of volunteers to take up the reality of the romantic challenge. . . . 




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