I dreamed of Earth—again.
I should have known better than to dream of violence—not in my planet’s most peaceful airship. Dream cybermagic was my specialty—and yet, this night, I simply slept, completely unaware that I dreamed.
It began innocently, with a flight through the familiar pale green sky of Venus, teeming with a flock of airships—from several giant multi-hulls to mid-size zeppelins to smaller blimps. My flying city, an enormous organism whose parts coordinated seamlessly, continuously changing shape—like flocks of starlings did on Earth—while heading westward with the wind.
In no time, it seemed, I reached its leading edge. I’d outrun the bustling traffic of the individual winged flyers like myself, the rotobikes, the cargo copters. I had left the Temple of Dreams airship, my home, far behind. Ahead of me, only the pale green haze of the sulfuric acid clouds. No ground visible, completely hidden thirty-four miles under—while a slightly brighter patch of sky concealed the sun.
Then, suddenly, the clouds disappeared, revealing a bright disk that hurt my eyes. The ground—barely a mile away, unnerving me. And then, I noticed: the sky had changed to blue.
I was on Earth—and heading straight toward the massive spire housing its government.
My mind ignited with anticipation. Yes! I’ll show those bastards!
I was clad in black and green—the uniform of VIRGA.
So cool! This was a dream come true. The Vénusienne Intelligence, Retribution, and Guerrilla Agency was legendary. VIRGA agents disappeared like virga rain that never reached the ground, before Earthers even knew what hit them. VIRGA was responsible for the most daring commando raids and retribution acts in history.
But would a VIRGA agent advertise herself by wearing the uniform—on Earth?
A single question—and I knew this was a dream.
Alright. An opportunity to try applying my dream cybermagic against my mortal enemies. It could be used for spying—never mind the uniform. A tactical illusion to distract the guards. Emotional influence upon the leaders of Earth’s government. Heck, screw it, I could try all three. I was the strongest of the temple acolytes and even some full priests. If anyone could do that—
But before I could begin to color my dreamscape or weave emotions, a disembodied voice said, “Marian, stop. This is an unpeaceful dream.”
I woke up.
Those blasted priests! So pacifist, they even screened the dreams of temple residents for any signs of violence.
I chased the lingering connection to the oh-so-watchful priest, through cyberspace.
«The Earthers killed my father,» I sent, using cyberspeech.
«And my entire family,» the priestess answered. «And parents of most children in the temple airship. But we, the Priests of Dreams, are here to give peace to those suffering from loss and pain—not to avenge the fallen, Marian.»
When outside a dream, the voice did not feel like plain speech, but it did carry her emotions. I sensed the woman’s pain.
«I hear you,» I whispered, reflecting her emotions right back at her—and she signed off, without an official reprimand.
I wished my mom was here. Mother was a priestess, too. But she worked with the artificial wombs and babies underground, in the super-secret population farms. We hadn’t seen each other for some time.
I opened my eyes.
My hammock was at the top level of the children’s quarters, and the ceiling told the story of my people well enough. The structural supports designed to hold suspended row upon row of the children’s hammocks in this massive hold, within the belly of the temple airship, ran from the hooks above me left and right, behind my head and past my feet. I lay smack in the middle of a lattice made of many hammocks, which extended several levels down, too.
And most of the children sleeping here—all of them, if only counting within two hammocks’ reach from me to every side—were orphans. Contract kids, conceived from sperm and eggs preserved in the fertility banks, then gestated in the artificial wombs, and born… to parents already dead.
Just like my father.
It was rare when an Earth’s invasion didn’t claim a quarter of my planet’s population—which, despite the Medical Corps’ efforts to churn babies out of the artificial wombs, remained under ten million.
I scowled. Bloody Earthers, to whom my new human species, Homo vénusienne, was a target for extermination. And for what? For stopping terraforming and, instead of changing our planet to suit us, for changing ourselves to suit the planet: adding elements of native microorganisms to our genomes, daring to split away from Homo sapiens.
Inside the children’s quarters, silence reigned. If anyone remained awake, like me, they didn’t give a sign.
At least, these sleeping orphans had each other. I could only hug myself.
Venus was dry not just of water—of affection, too. So, most orphans hated kids like me.
While Earth had no special word for a non-orphan, Venus had a whole two of them: dep, for a kid with both living parents; and immy, for someone like me, with only one. It didn’t help that my mom visited me only rarely. It didn’t help that I remained aloof from her whenever she did come—afraid that any visible signs of affection from my mom would make the orphans jealous. They still hated me.
I so desperately wanted to belong!
That—and to kick some Earther butt.
The living quarters were enormous—for the temple airship had taken so many orphans in, of any cyberhuman caste—but our passageways were narrow and cramped. A lot of nooks to keep out of sight. The sound carried, however.
I was on my way to supervise a group of younger kids, when—
“It is branding time!”
That phrase—so familiar, so chilling—jolted me.
Even the voice—a boy’s voice, the same age as when I had been branded—had the same mix of amusement, scorn, and eager cruelty.
My heart raced wildly as a memory rushed back.
My arms—pinned tight against my back.
My chin—pushed to one side, cranking my neck.
A heavy weight straddling my legs.
A branding iron hissing as it seared my skin.
And pain—insistent, hot.
The memory was so vivid, I smelled something burning once again.
I rounded a corner in the passageway and came upon four younger kids pinning another to the floor, one shoulder already bared but still unmarked.
I was upon them in a heartbeat.
“Stop! Kutomba mbali, eh, hùnzhàng zázhǒng!” I shoved the boy sitting on top of their victim as hard as I could. “Get off, I said!”
But he rolled nimbly out of my grasp. The warrior caste. Oops. The way the others rose up—one fluidly, two clumsily—told me they had another warrior, a girl.
I had a sliding-out blade worn as a necklace. Our temple had a no-weapons policy, of course. But this was Venus, chums. Only my airship was so pacifist—an abnormality, to put it mildly. Naturally, every kid had to have something handy, just in case. Not that a knife would have helped much against the inborn fighting instincts, nanocarbon skeletons, and enhanced strength of cyberhuman warriors—even if only little kids.
I had to hope my dream cybermagic would suffice at least to daze them some—or, hopefully, put them to sleep. I was a wizard, after all. Yes, I could manage four unruly brats.
But they just stood and blinked at me, while the diminutive girl they’d been sitting on shakily scrambled to her feet.
They must be from the group that I was going to supervise!
I grinned, relieved for once to get this chore. They wouldn’t fight a caretaker. Venus was a harsh and ruthless place, but insubordination carried heavy penalties—worse than for merely branding someone’s shoulders.
Deep breaths. I had allowed my memory to get the better of my senses. These weren’t the Nasties who had branded me.
I gathered myself. “What were you thinking, huh?” I thundered.
One of the boys hurriedly slipped something into his bag.
“Is that a heating element for branding?” I called out, frowning.
The warrior girl didn’t bother to deny it, pointing at the victim. “She’s a dep.”
The others only shrugged, like this was something everyone must surely understand.
I seethed. They even made the same kind of excuse!
These bullies would have branded both of the victim’s shoulders—while only one of mine once carried the same brand. Only…. Being an immy wasn’t really like being half a dep, for orphans didn’t hate you only half as much. The noun ‘parents’ defied arithmetic. It wasn’t easily divisible by two.
“Alright.” I sounded much calmer than I felt. “She’s got two living parents—so what?”
They stared at me like I had grown horns—even the little dep.
Well, I’d been sent to supervise these kids, so a little lesson was in order.
“Listen here, peeps,” I said, in my best no-nonsense voice. “The folk here in this airship? They ain’t your enemies—not other kids your age, not me, not the adults. Immies or deps or orphans? Not your enemies. The people in the other airships, from other wizard orders, all around Venus? You have guessed it—not your enemies.”
They didn’t look convinced… until I added, “Know who is? Earth.”
This time, I saw a glint in their eyes—like fire, suddenly awoken. The little dep girl made fists, too, and even bared her teeth. Mentioning Earth had that effect on kids.
I nodded to the dep girl. “What’s your name?”
“Lakshmi,” the girl replied.
“Alright, Lakshmi. Come here,” I instructed.
“Look,” I added once the girl stood by my side, facing the other kids. “You, peeps—you see her foil?”
I pointed at the silvery-like but semi-transparent sheen on their skin and mine—a product of genetic engineering that made us different from Homo sapiens.
“Hers is no different from mine,” I said. “No different from yours. She’s a Vénusienne, like all of us. Foil shields us from sulfuric acid in the clouds—just what Earthers hate us for.”
They stared at me—like, sure, so what?
I shook my head. “Look, guys. I too sometimes despise the deps.”
«No disrespect,» I sent to Lakshmi privately, before the little girl could open her mouth to object. «Just let me handle this.»
“The other times,” I said, “I envy them. But know what? I never hate them.”
Then, I pointed in the general direction upward. “I hate Earth.”
Everyone nodded to that solemnly, all five of their little faces looking grave.
“You think your life is hard? Well, yeah, it is. You think that it’s unfair you were born long after both of your parents had died? It sure is.”
I didn’t know whether these four orphans were birth contract kids, but it was a good bet.
“Maybe an older kid beat you up good some days ago. But you tough it out quietly, without telling anyone, not even to get healing from the priests. While some kid next to you may have a parent to share pain with—so unfair, right? But know what? They tough it out, too.” I nodded toward Lakshmi. “They don’t run to their parents to hide from you. But no matter how many ‘enemies’ you think you have, Earth is much worse. It’s Earth that makes all lives on Venus hard—including Lakshmi’s. It’s because of Earth that we have so many orphans, after all. Hate chafu Earthers—not your neighbors two hammocks away from you.”
As I was speaking, Eva and Latrisha passed us by.
«Nice speech!» Latrisha gave me a thumbs-up, and Eva winked.
The little kids could not have heard Latrisha’s private cyberspeech, but they had noticed the gestures, certainly. That bolstered my words.
«Thanks!» I replied.
Both Eva and Latrisha were among those orphans that had branded me. But their hatred, burning like a brand back then, had lessened gradually from those early days. They didn’t haze me nearly as much—not anymore. My mother was a priestess here, after all.
We’d grown up, moved on past that. Had we?
I so wanted to belong!
“Go on,” I told the kids. “Learn well in class, so we can all stand up together to our real enemies.”
There, a good conclusion. That should do.
I turned to herd the youngsters into their study room when, suddenly, a high-importance letter streamed into my mind. My breath caught as I recognized the sender’s signature.
Fortress Venus Academy—what, really? No way!
The most prestigious military school on Venus—no, I would bet on it, in the entire universe. Its graduates were greatly feared by Federation Earth and held in awe by the best fighters of the Union of Settled Worlds, from Mars to Saturn and beyond.
To Marian of Dreaming Shade, the letter read.
This was no routing mistake—I was addressed by my full wizard name.
Our wizard order was an import from the Saturn system, and on Venus, it stood out like a sore thumb because of its pacifism. It wasn’t a good match for military schools. So, why this letter, then?
You are invited to attend the Fortress Venus Academy.
What? I hadn’t even bothered applying, and the deadline had already passed—that airship had sailed.
But wait—invited? Did I read it right? Yet there it was, carved into my mind:
You are invited to attend the Fortress Venus Academy….
The only path to those wishing to become a VIRGA agent—or an Army general, or any other high position in my planet’s military government.
There was more within the letter: the instructions on where to go, what to do, and what to bring. But I stopped reading, savoring the moment, letting my subconscious cyber modules parse the fine print out.
Yes! My body was a gong, reverberating after it was struck.
I could still kick some Earther butt.
But should I go, after all?
That evening, at lights-out, I lay in my hammock—all alone among orphans. Mom was far away and probably responding to a whole slew of medical emergencies, because she hadn’t called me the entire day. Combining native microorganisms with our genomes had exacted a high price in infant lives. She must be having a hard day.
But anyhow, I was not yet ready to discuss that invitation letter with my mom.
My own branding…. What had almost happened to that Lakshmi girl today reminded me of it. But I had stopped that ugly ritual—today, at least—and, even more incredibly, both Eva and Latrisha had supported me. The very girls that, once upon a time, had held me down, while….
It’s in the past, I told myself. They had moved on. I no longer jumped out of my sleep at random through the night only because, then as today, nearly everyone in their hammocks on all sides of me had no living parent.
Small sounds resonated through the chamber, though noises made by kids were going down as they fell asleep, while those coming from the outside—the turbulence occasionally buffeting the airship, perhaps—became more obvious.
I liked the sounds of the wind. They usually calmed my mind.
Wait, was I really alone among orphans? I had come to know them. They weren’t abstract bodies rocking slowly in their sleep. To my right, Eva and Latrisha slept—and to my left, Sunil and Norman. Twenty more, laid out in a five-by-five around me—they all had names. Tessa and Bobby, right below me.
I used to hate the Nasties. Well, I used to call them worse than that, having perfected swearing in many languages. But what began as ‘air il’e yoshmotak’ and ‘nǐ zhé hùnzhàng wúchǐ bēibǐ xiàliú zázhǒng’ had given way to mere ‘chafu clown’ and, almost affectionately, ‘разпиздяй.’ Who would have thought that things would change this much?
I lay awake, listening to the sounds that the sleeping kids made in the dark—their quiet breathing, a few snores. The air stirred, and something swooshed as the weights shifted when the airship occasionally lurched in flight. But most of the time, a silence reigned. The kids were bushed—from chores and exercises, physical and cybermagical.
Another area of turbulence. My hammock creaked.
I didn’t like the sound of it. Strange.
My neighbors tossed and turned, restless after a busy day. Or maybe, it was only orphans dreaming of their dead parents. No matter how much they might despise the immies and the deps, I knew that many had been hunting for mementos in the bowels of cyberspace, the digital trails their parents had left—all sorts of records, photos, videos. I, too, had tried to simulate my father’s personality, a disembodied voice that sometimes talked to me in cyberspeech—until discovering I had to calibrate the simulation’s love for me. Then, I turned it off.
Would the Academy be any better? I was so close to making friends with all these orphans. Fortress Venus was a harsh and ruthless place. Or did I want to kick the Earther butt this bad?
I listened to the sounds of uneasy sleep around me.
Come on, I thought, you Priests of Dreams, ‘here to give peace to those suffering from loss and pain.’ I quoted. Or do you only screen our dreams for violence?
But nothing changed. If any priests were out and about giving peace, I saw no signs of that.
To hell with it!
To shut my eyes on these kids’ restlessness and not to help them with dream cybermagic felt… not right. To give them a refreshing sleep would be the least that I could do for them, whether I leave for the Academy or not.
I began weaving a dream tapestry, mixing the flavors of the threads to keep it light and pleasant, but not so sweet they would get sticky, later burdening the waking consciousness. I stretched the tapestry two hammocks to each side—but not directly under me, where Tessa once again climbed into Bobby’s hammock, making kissing noises quietly. A little older, those two weren’t the kind to mess with, not tonight.
I only brushed the children’s minds with the dream fabric of the tapestry—the mere whispers of intent—without joining them in their dreams. Only the lightest touch—enough to calm the mind and nudge it closer toward a place of inner peace.
With some of them, I sensed an odd resistance, as if they remained awake. Indeed, they might be only half-asleep, with all that tossing, turning, even snickering at something only they could see. I didn’t try exploring further, just kept weaving my dream tapestry for everyone—a soft, light blanket no one had tucked them in with, soothing like a mother’s lullaby.
I halfway lulled myself to sleep….
The airship lurched suddenly, much stronger than before, and—
The fabric ripped. My hammock broke from its hooks. I crashed on top of Tessa straddling Bobby’s thighs.
I heard two angry cries:
“Nǐ zhé hùnzhàng wúchǐ bēibǐ xiàliú zázhǒng!”
“You chafu разпиздяйка… air il’e yoshmotak!”
At least, I’d taught them swearing like champs. While cyberhumans could speak any language, this particular repertoire was mine.
Tessa slid nimbly out of the way—the flexible spine of the warrior caste counted for something—and alighted on one of the rails that ran between the hammocks for support.
Enveloped in my hammock, I slammed into Bobby’s chest.
Then, it was Bobby’s hammock’s turn to break.
As we fell through, something crashed hard into the airship. A loud crack—probably, some of the support rails snapping off—and an entire section of the hammocks followed.
Wrapped in the remnants of my hammock, I tried grabbing onto something—anything—but only cut myself on Bobby’s knife. I pushed him off, then twisted out of the way of a descending rail—too late. My shoulder popped loudly. Pain bloomed like fireworks.
“The blasted immy!” Tessa tore her vocal cords.
Another, shrilly, “I will eat her guts!”
But on the deck, where I had landed, it was only injured kids groaning. I had to stop myself from helping them. This airship is filled with medics. Help yourself!
Had any of these kids been hale, they would have laid already into me. It wouldn’t take the others long to hit the deck. These orphans couldn’t care less whose fault this was, so long as they had someone to pile on—especially an immy, but about anyone would do. The blame spread out at the speed of cyberspeech. The children’s quarters had become a nest of angry wasps, who simply had to sting when hurt.
The deck vibrated to the sound of feet running after me.
“Where’s the chafu immy?” someone didn’t stop at cyberspeech. “It’s bone-breaking time!”
They wouldn’t kill me, but that was about all that I could count on.
A tüütu pile-on, in the physical. Now where were oh-so-watchful priests?
I pulled my knife and cut through the hammock’s net. It parted easily—and I was free. A glimpse was all it took to notice a wingpack lying nearby, not mine. But no time to pick and choose. I had to get off this, now most unpeaceful, airship.
I tucked the dislocated arm against my side and grabbed the wingpack. Dodging someone’s tackle, I swept my blade in an arc to clear off the nearest pursuers—thankfully, no warriors, or this knife would have worked like dope on the dead—and scampered toward the chutes, diving into the first one.
“After her!” I heard a shout. “She jumped out!”
I whizzed down a curved tube of the departure chute. An air separator membrane wrapped itself around me, then closed over behind me seamlessly, keeping carbon dioxide outside the airship.
I plummeted, while slapping the grabbed wingpack over my shoulders. Reflexively, it plugged itself into my spine, the wings unspooling from the nozzles in its back and hardening while taking shape. I felt them as a new pair of limbs at my command—a trifle unfamiliar, as the wingpack wasn’t mine, but that couldn’t be helped. They seemed to handle well enough.
Huh. These were bat-like wings, warrior style, with finer artificial muscles in the wings.
I quickly turned my fall into a horizontal flight, then pulled back up.
I cut my shift and let it drop—too loose, it would have added to the drag—remaining in my underwear. White and bulky, the shift would be visible for miles while drifting down slowly, so I sped out from that spot. My skin was black under the foil, making me harder to see in the dark.
Calm down. Breathe.
I had a limited ability to carbo-breathe—another gift of native microorganisms to the Vénusienne. Carbon dioxide, however, was a poor substitute for oxygen. I could subsist on it for only a few hours—and stink like crap if doing it for long—but that was a lifesaver in emergency. For short flights between airships, like going for groceries, I never bothered with taking oxygen—and neither while escaping an enraged mob that poured out after me, in silence, through the chutes.
I wasn’t privy to the cybershouts my pursuers probably exchanged among themselves. In flight, plain speech would have been lost to the wind.
I saw them beeline to my falling shift, which shone in crosshairs from their light sources. Good; they hadn’t seen me yet.
I banked to rise. A blast of loud music made me stop—a good thing, too, or my wings might have gotten clipped by rotor blades. A dude zipped by me on a rotobike, flying completely dark, without any beacon, either.
The biker had some company. As I looked up, I saw a whole gang of them strafing the temple airship. A long, uneven groove had dented one side, where some unlucky biker must have come too close, but they still kept having fun, playing with their lives.
Must be on drugs, was my first thought.
My next one was, Wow, that’s what made the airship lurch so hard.
Right, just my luck.
The sky behind the temple airship strobed with the lights of the police.
«Stand clear of the airship. Reduce your speed,» I heard them broadcast. «Repeat: stand clear of the airship….»
If those bikers had heard anything, they didn’t show it. I doubted they’d even noticed one of theirs plummet down with a mangled bike.
It probably would soon get ugly. It was time to break through upward, putting all the cops and the entire biker gang between myself and the pursuing mob.
The cops were no ninnies. In a moment, every rotobike lit up with indicator lights, hacked from afar—whatever brand of cybermagic the cops used, it clearly wasn’t a peaceful kind. Then, just as I burst upward past one of the rotobikes, it suddenly reduced its speed—apparently, not of its rider’s will: I saw the biker’s face, aghast. A police cruiser matched its course and then shot something that gummed up its rotor blades. As the bike fell, a tow copter shot a net to catch it and then reeled it in to let the bike hang meekly underneath its hull.
Was it too much to hope the police would also round up the mob? Probably not. But then, it was enough to just keep them apart. I noticed the kids below veered off to search in all directions except upward, through the cops.
I had jumped out of the airship half-naked—as had they. Still dressed for sleep, they would keep searching where it must be warm. The flying city’s median stayed at about 80ºF. My best bet would be to gain altitude and tough it out in the freezing cold. The low pressure would increase my carbo-breathing period, but I didn’t believe I’d have to stay away that long.
Within an hour, the temple’s priests would call all my pursuers in and pacify them with dream cybermagic. Soon enough, I could return to, once again, the most peaceful airship.
It felt surreal walking past the sleeping bodies in the hammocks as I climbed toward what used to be my sleeping place. By now, silence was restored—except my teeth, still chattering after an hour spent in my underwear, freezing at high altitude. The kids that had been calling for my blood slept peacefully in their hammocks now, except those that lived in the ruined section—relocated temporarily elsewhere in the airship.
Dream cybermagic was a potent thing, indeed.
My personal possessions kept near my hammock were destroyed. The next day’s change of clothes had been slashed to pieces. And my wingpack was in shambles, too—ripped and destroyed as thoroughly as only someone driven by frustration could have done. I hoped that at least my private locker had withstood the rage.
I sat upon a rail, legs dangling over the drop into the ruined section of the hammocks. But most of the upper level remained undisturbed by the collapse. The Nasties slept around me. Despite the priests’ dream cybermagic, they still tossed and turned in their sleep—just like before.
This time, I fashioned my dream cybermagic not into a warm and fuzzy blanket but sharp needles to inject myself in their dreams—so thin and delicate the sleepers would be unaware of my presence there, of my watchful eye.
In their dreams, I saw Sunil and Norman making discreet notches in the fabric of my hammock. I saw Eva and Latrisha peeking out, snickering while waiting for the rips to grow close to the breaking point, then stopping them. I saw the other Nasties also joining in the fun—reliving it in their dreams. It had been them who had spread out my name for scapegoating, in cyberspeech. The mob would have been too surprised, without that, to organize so fast to go after me.
While I—my breath caught, painful as I thought of it—while I’d been trying to give peace to them! Tessa had screamed and raged at me, Bobby had cut me with his knife—although probably by accident—but they, at least, had a good cause: because I fell on them while they were busy with each other. But the Nasties only entertained themselves at my expense—whole two hammocks to each side.
No need to ask for the security feeds from the cameras installed around the airship. No need to hack into those cameras if access was denied. And definitely no need to play a Sherlock: to investigate how my hammock broke from its hooks.
It had been sabotaged. Even without those bikers, it would have crashed later, anyway. Although other hammocks would have likely held—and I would have been caught.
To think that just an hour ago, I’d been hoping the Nasties were so close to becoming friends to me, at last. I was being a fool.
My heart kept screaming, but I steeled myself. No, I must not lash out back at them. I could give them nightmares worse than they would have believed was possible. I could….
No, stop! That was a rage—a blind rage speaking. I was better than that, better than my enemies. No, I would hold my peace and tough it out quietly, like after any other wound.
I stilled my heart to ice—just like the icicle I’d nearly become up high. With my feet dangling over the ruin of my dreams, I sat in judgment over the orphans that had caused me pain—but passed a sentence on myself.
I have no friends—and never did.
My term at the Academy was only days away. It couldn’t possibly be any worse than my oh-so-peaceful airship.