The Blimps of Venus
copyright © 2017 Lancelot Schaubert
photo “blimp” by Kai Schreiber, 2005 used via Creative Commons license on Flickr
photo “blimp” by Matt Schilder, 2005 used via Creative Commons license
photo “day277” by Garrett, 2012 used via Creative Commons license on Flickr
They received more dreeoon bark for their shipment of ætmosphere than ever before, which alarmed Sir Thomas. It seemed to be stockpiling.
“Truly now, Senator Holdgirth, do you really believe the rumors? Do they plan to take the blimp into the stratosphere?”
“And beyond,” said the Senator.
Surfs in bulky, third-gen oxygen masks swarmed around them as they wandered through the market on trading day. Sir Thomas and the Senator relied only on minor nose cannulas that filtered the poisons out of the Venusian ær of the surface and supplied it back in an enriched stream. The cannula were all they wore, in keeping with the aristocracy’s standards.
“And beyond?” Sir Thomas’ repetition filled the Senator’s silence, using the man’s own words against him. Around them, the market pulsed as æristocrats haggled with surfs over the exchange rate of their oxygen tanks, haggled for expended tanks and various delicacies and Venusian purple paper products.
“We don’t even know if our blimps can survive the pressure,” Sir Thomas said at last.
“Perhaps,” said the Senator, “but we also cannot control the other blimps. Or do you forget the blimpstate initiative of 533?”
“Sure, we’re independent, but our choice would affect the trade of all blimps, would it not?”
“Or in case of failure, the loss of an entire blimp would disrupt ætmospheric trade for all of Venus.”
“Trade disruptions, so I hear, are the end product of all technological innovation.”
“No, they are a side effect. Disruption for the sake of disruption is nothing but chaos, Senator. There has to be some ethical or moral improvement or imperative to—“
“Look at the people,” Senator Holdgirth said.
Thomas looked, trying to see what the Senator saw. They busied themselves, communicating via their third-generation com systems. They didn’t need the pressure of the facemasks: those had been made centuries prior for the open air cloud observatory decks on the blimps. On the surface, a steady flow of oxygen into the lungs, such as provided by the æristocracy’s nose cannulas, sufficed. But as they communicated, Thomas saw more than a thriving system threatened with disruption. He saw the children daring one another to take off their masks for longer and longer periods. He saw the mothers nursing their children behind the veils of the ær tents. He saw the domes of the terraced homes stretching out over the mountainside. And their joy at another trade day. At something like a harvest feast.
He turned to the senator. “I see people. People who smile on trading days.”
“Oh come now, Thomas. I said the people, not the surfs.”
Sir Thomas stopped cold and stared at the man.
Senator Holdgirth didn’t notice. He grinned and nodded towards their fellow members of the æristocracy. Some wore expressions of pride that they’d worn for so many years that they looked worn out. Many dragged their feet on their way down the ramp out of the blimp and clearly couldn’t wait to get back inside. Many more simply waited on the outskirts of the blimp’s ramp, watching the circus unfold — thousands more would be buried deep in the blimp’s errotatoriums and rest halls.
“They hate the surface,” Sir Thomas said. “Yet they need it.”
“Do they? I’m not so sure, my boy. Perhaps they would forgo some of their delicacies in order to cut this nonsense entirely from their lives.”
“You would condemn thousands of people either to a refugee life or to some other mountain peak beneath some other blimp, where they must begin on the bottom? Or to suffocation?”
“Senator, I believe it’s poverty that a child must suffocate so that I might live as I please.”
“Which of our children would suffocate in outer space?” Senator Holdgirth asked.
“You mean The Womb. And not our children.” Sir Thomas pointed to the swarm of surfs who traded with the æristocrats. “Theirs.”
The Senator grabbed a handful of raw ground beef as a large slab of it passed him on caterwauling wheels. “Tell me, Tomas, do you eat beef?”
The Senator squished it in his fist, squeezing it through his fingers. “And veal?”
He threw the beef at the children playing their suffocation game.
“They’re human souls, Senator, even when starving. Just because they fight over a slab of beef doesn’t make them livestock.”
The Senator gaped at him.
“Stopping trade would kill children. Besides, how would we get paper in The Womb? How would we get fresh gases to convert into oxygen? Our water reclaimer is efficient, but not 100% efficient, so how—”
“I need a drink.” He marched his old wrinkled ass back towards the blimp.
The trade continued for a few more hours, moving finally to the trade of human flesh. Poorer families would give up their children and relatives and enemies for an extra meal. Sir Thomas saw three æristocratic ladies bickering with a surf woman over the price of a small eight-year-old surf boy.
While they bickered, Sir Thomas leaned down. “What’s your name?”
“Friends, they call me Thermal, pal.”
“Well Thermal, I’ll take care of you.” Then to the parents, “What’s the most they offered you?”
“Three medium tanks,” the mother said.
“What do you need to survive?”
“At least six,” she said.
Sir Thomas shouted over the three bickering women. “I will pay ten large tanks for the boy.”
It grew so quiet the ær itself felt sore.
“Now Thom, be reasonable.”
Senator Holdgirth had returned, apparently having slaked his thirst. “That boy has no good gene to offer the pool. Look.” He pointed to the slide under the microscope’s display screen. “Hardly worth what I paid your father for you all those years ago.”
Sir Thomas ignored his former Master Father and leaned in to the mother of the child. “Take what you need of these ten tanks, keep a reserve, and give to anyone in need.” Then he turned to the old, bearded surf who always attended him. “Keep a close eye on him.”
His personal attendant nodded.
And then, once the rest of the slave traders had finished, the surfs weeping their thanks, the aeristocrats and their newly-acquired property gathered into the blimp, which filled its main ballast tanks with helium and, adjusting its forward trim tank, it ascended into the upper ætmosphere once more.
Sir Thomas ignored the surf as he talked, assuming the silver refuse plate would be there for the thing in his hand the moment he turned loose. “Yes, I concur Lady Prittany — I’ve grown weary of these lower altitudes as well.” He dropped the bone. Meatless. Like most of the men in the blimpstate. The surf caught it on top of a pile of other discarded high-class scraps: lobster and shrimp tails, buffalo wings, snake scales, dreeoon bark, raw ground beef. An eye. “But that gives us no license to stop the trade.”
“They obsess on how the other side lives,” Lady Prittany said. “Do you believe they have any cause for getting as close as we did today? Of course not. Of course not. They encourage our city’s descent because they want to watch the animals parade around in clothes.”
The surf sniffed and blew out. Wet.
She looked at Sir Thomas’ face as if trying to decipher a page of text. He knew she was busy assessing the fluctuating asymmetry of him, sizing up his genes, comparing him to the other men in the room and the memory of her other suitors. Sir Thomas was an anomaly in the studbook the ruling ladies maintained, especially the core book from which the other ladies derived their own priorities, the one kept by Madame Matchmaker. His commonness was exotic, his devotion tempting, his manfulness graceful, his refusal to indulge in body modification attractive. He knew he was seductive precisely because he looked so radical, looked like the root of what made the æristocracy human, looked like a beautiful embodiment of his own fogs-to-heavens story.
Though she assessed him quicker than the others thanks to her brilliant mind, she still took her time. And, per custom, Sir Thomas let her finish before saying, “Seeing the red sun set over the green clouds… who would want to lower themselves into The Grey?”
She lowered her gaze for a moment, taking liberty with the subtext of his question. Then lifted her eyes to Sir Thomas and said, “I cannot imagine. That is why I truly hope you sign our stratosphere initiative.”
“You too?” he asked. “You are all turning against me.”
“Turning on to you, more like,” the surf muttered.
Sir Thomas nearly laughed aloud, but he bit down on the urge.
The lady had not heard. “Come now. For some time, the principles, policies, and precepts my dear mother drafts have equipped our cities to survive the implosive atmospheric pressure of that vacuum in The Womb beyond our world. What cause have we to remain upon this gas bag of a planet? It is little more than hot air.” She leaned in and lowered her voice, almost conspiratorially. “Much like many of these old senators.”
Thomas gave her a courtesy grin, but little more. “You and your initiatives. We would do better to coast the ærstreams and limit trade, if it’s only the surfs that bother you. We still require a trading economy. Why—“
“Coast?” she said. “Coast! There is no coasting. There is only adventure into the planets beyond or orbital decay.”
“Ah,” he said. “Planets beyond. There it is.”
“I choose adventure. What of it?” She lit her longpipe with real fire. The flame burned higher and brighter thanks to the oxygen-rich environ and, once lit, she extinguished the main flame only with great effort.
The surf hand-mopped the sticky floor around them, his grey beard occasionally mingling with streaks of real water. He managed to refrain from lapping it up. This time.
Other patrons mingled in the Great Hall, the variegated light from motley Venusian clouds pouring in the great bay windows that bounded the floor of the blimp’s prime environ. Many of them smoked their longpipes, all of them naked as the day they were born with neckties or necklaces painted or tattooed around their collarbones.
The surf wore white woolen robes that flayed out as he finished mopping up her ashes.
She smiled at Thomas. “I believe that the only way we and they --” She faintly nodded at the fully-clothed surf. “--will ever properly coexist will be if we leave one another alone. The uppest class needs Space, you know. The lowest class needs… well they need space in their own way I suppose. We don’t mingle well.”
“Yes, but perhaps The Womb of Space is not the best way to achieve this. We may well rupture a seal trying to go this high. Were our blimps originally made for interplanetary travel? Certainly not interstellar…”
“Of course they were. They were made for interstellar travel or else why create an ætmosphere recycling system like this?”
“And meteors? Space is hard,” he said.
“Mayhap, but up there we will be safe from the surfs.”
The surf clicked his tongue.
Her jaw muscles flexed. The surf was pushing it.
“Safe?” Sir Thomas asked. “What do we need saving from anyhow?” He laughed. “They certainly couldn’t pollute our bloodlines with that much fabric between them and us.”
The surf coughed.
Lady Prittany held up her finger to the surf, meaning she intended to say something he shouldn’t hear. The surf mimed plugging his ears per custom, but would still listen per habit — Thomas had asked him to do as much.
She leaned into Sir Thomas. “Rumors of a plot. A plot, Thomas.”
“Good stories, graphs, and gardens all have one.”
“Stop your games, this is the future of our community.”
“I’m well aware, my lady.” He spoke so the surf could hear. “But swapping one plot for another is bad math, and unless the future of our community is composed of morons—”
She scoffed at his volume and the secrets of the conversation he’d leaked through it. “Well we will be at least safe from them up in The Womb.”
“Perhaps.” Sir Thomas looked around at other surfs. “But will we remain so? I doubt we will stay up there for long, will we?”
“We shall see,” she said. “They’re signing the resolution in the green room.”
“Signed my portion this morning after finishing the final draft.”
The surf stifled a cough. Almost a gag.
“Why would you do this without consulting me?”
“Why would you assume I require the consultation of a man to perform my legislative duties? Besides, I just told you.”
“After you signed your portion into law,” Sir Thomas said.
“Consult. Consign. What’s the difference?”
Sir Thomas went red in the cheeks. Both sets.
“Oh calm yourself, Sir Thomas,” she said. “Still needs another half dozen signatories. And fear not, we included provisions for men like yourself who insist upon visiting rights. Something about escape pods and the like, I don’t quite remember.” She glanced at his jawline. “You don’t quite have the masculine jawline that the others have. Perhaps you’d make a more consistent and reliable mate?”
“It’s about more than visiting rights, Lady Prittany. It’s about actually—would you please look at my eyes? I’m up here.”
She looked up.
“Thank you. You think we have an infinite supply of gauze for the hospital wing? You think we can just manufacture the glass from nothing inside the Hatchery?”
Her eyes glowed. “You plan to do more than visit clothed animals in The Grey now and then?”
“Our entire economy for a thousand years has depended upon our control of the flow of oxygen, making sure it trickles down there from up here and not the other way. If they knew the true power of the resources they possess—“
“They would give us all the reason in all the worlds to ascend away from this gasbag of a planet. Better now, when we have the initiative and momentum. Pre-emptive flight.”
Thomas bristled and marched through the Great Hall, the lady heeling behind him. He saw them with fresh eyes, then, passing the courting couples in their nakedness, some of the women ripe and some of the men fully erect in the piebald daylight, a great courting ritual meant to preserve the integrity of the Higher Realm and prevent them from mingling with the Lower Realm in The Grey. Some æristocrats had retired into the erotitoriums along the sides, the rooms from whence the moaning came. All in the name of preserving the bloodlines. As if that were their only motivation. Beside them stood the Gestatory, and beyond it, on the balcony that hung beyond the airlock out over open Venusian air, the Flirtifface.
She nodded toward them both and looked at him, a hint in her widened eyelids, a waning temple, an eyebrow taking the arc of her back, the raising of her nearest hip.
He could sleep with her — it might be the only thing that would stop the legislation of the ascent. “Terms?”
“I’ll remove the bill from the floor in exchange for five years, exclusive.”
It was clear to him then. She had her shelter, her food, her offspring in mind, and she wanted a man with fluctuating asymmetry, slightly less masculine facial features, a higher vocal pitch, a behavioral strategist — all indicators of a long-term mate. She had not been haggling when she had said as much earlier. She had been showing her cards. But what was the catch?
“And you?” he asked.
“I breed with as many studs as I please,” she said.
The hypocrisy of it — demanding faithfulness and loyalty while practicing adultery and betrayal. He considered it, though. There was more than trade at stake. And she was pretty — the hips were wide enough to bear him five children in that time. Seven if they worked hard and she was willing to risk her health, which many did for the sake of eugenics. He’d secure his bloodline, and his ambition to infiltrate the upper echelon would be fulfilled.
And yet… he didn’t want that. Didn’t even believe in that, however gorgeous she was. Besides, could she deliver? “You women led by Madame Matchmaker legislate, but interpretation of law and agreement upon it comes from the men.”
“And that means you can’t deliver shit.”
Slack went into her every flirtatious pose at the vulgarity.
And he scoffed at her shock. The only thing vulgar here was their nudity, was it not? The commonness — as opposed to sacredness — of their sex?
Rushing down the hall, surf in tow, he passed old sketches — art, really — of the earliest blimps in the colored clouds. He slowed and stopped to notice, as if waking from a dream about fog, the tiny people on The Grey below, mingling on the ground. And he noticed the trees -- or tree-like things that had learned to grow on the soil of Venus, nightshades beneath the tinted overcast. Why had he never seen them before? No strawberries. Venusian humans at this point in their history had never tasted strawberries.
His surf looked at him and shook his head and old grey beard. Sadness there. He nodded back.
As he and Sir Thomas moved onward towards the green room, they heard her coming up behind them. Not coming up behind them, mind you — they were well past the erotitoriums. Sir Thomas looked back and saw her Venuses bouncing as she ran, grinning, her nipples firm as if dedicated to the task ahead: warrior mother, spears at the ready, prepared to seduce or poison him with the milk of her breast, whichever came first.
She raised her head. “You are proud of me, I see it.”
“Pride comes before the fall,” he said.
“Falling high jumpers and skydivers and hang gliders call their falling flying.”
Sir Thomas searched the halls and found his reprieve: the door to a men-only lounge, one of the last of its kind since the resolution had passed to make way for the mixer rooms. He was all for bringing different people together, but now and again he longed for a conversation with like-minded men, a conversation that didn’t take so much damn work. He figured the only way to truly arrive at unity in diversity was to delve deeper first into his own tradition and person. And whatever else he was, he was a man.
He ducked in the room, the surf behind him, and watched her hover between coming in and staying out — law still protected rooms like these for both of them. As he closed the door, he saw her finally make up her mind to barge in and break the law her mother had penned. She darted toward him, but he was the quicker. He shut the door in her face and latched it. Then he walked through the hall of white noise to the second door, closed and latched it as well.
And now he and his surf sat alone in the men’s lounge.
“What do I do, dad?” Sir Thomas asked.
The old surf rolled up his white sleeves and looked him up and down. “They really should let you wear your clothes, Tommy.”
“What if I like living the life of a rich nudist?”
“You know that clothes help intensify—“
“Well not only that, the fertility of our devout—“
“Dad! Answer my question: what if I like being rich and nude?”
His father shrugged. “What is rich?”
“I have no time for mind games.”
“No game. What are the qualities of rich? Its accidentals?”
Sir Thomas sighed. “I suppose it affects possession more than position.”
“A rich man may be anywhere, but he is one who has accumulated many things.”
“Ha! You don’t look like you’ve accumulated a damn thing on this blimp.”
And Sir Thomas stood there, naked. “I still like the nudist life.” He suddenly felt very small, as small as the only surfs that went around nude in public: their toddlers.
“I guess you never really followed your older brothers. That one time you dropped your drawers in—“
“What do I do, dad?”
“Well, go in there and try to stop the ascending before it starts an hour from now. I’ll talk to the surfs.”
“And tell them to do what?”
“I don’t know, Tom, not yet. But get ready for anything.”
“Just in case you decide to blow something up again?”
“No. Just in case you decide to strip down and join the aristocracy against your mother’s best and deepest wishes and convictions.”
“My and my brothers’ births are evidence that mom got naked plenty.”
The old man blushed. “Can’t even see straight when you’re like this.”
“You see me pretty clearly right now.” Thomas gyrated his hips in a way that drew attention to… what it drew attention to.
The surf groaned. “Get to work, and so will I.”
“But I’m working it now, pop.” The helicopter continued.
The surf flicked it hard on the head.
Thomas shouted out from the brilliance of the pain.
The surf ignored him, went to the door, unlatched it and the door beyond, and bowed to the nude lady who was sitting, cross-legged, back straight, waiting. Hen-like.
“Well?” she asked. “Is he still in there?”
The surf bowed again and waved his hand towards the gentleman’s room.
She got up to go inside.
Sir Thomas burst out, pushed past her and moved further along the white hall.
In the council chambers, the oldest Venusians — still clean-shaven from head-to-toe and still naked as Eden — debated the nuances of the term up. They were a people that liked the sound of things and wanted to make sure those things they liked the sound of harmonized with one another.
Sir Thomas crashed into their chambers in the middle of Senator Holdgirth’s long discourse on the philosophical, rather than the topographical, connotation behind the word up. He had no time for this. He jumped up onto the platform and said, “Fellow Senators and lawmakers, I beg you, forgive my interruption.”
“We may,” the Speaker said, “but Senator Holdgirth will of course need to finish this discourse on the nature of up-ness. Proceedings on your argumentation will follow the rest of the midrash subsets beholden to this particular line of thought. Your time, of course, will be awarded proportionally.”
All of the men in the chamber looked straight at Sir Thomas’ manhood. It was of average size. And then there was the glaring consequence of his father’s flick.
The rest standing were… let’s say it is no coincidence that the term “studbook” and the phrase “hung like a horse” are etymologically related. Senator Holdgirth led the herd, so to speak.
Sir Thomas nodded slowly so as not to upset them and sat back down in his assigned seat. Senator Holdgirth galloped off again on the arcana of language.
And the side door to the circular chambers squeaked open.
Sir Thomas braved a glace over that direction and caught a glimpse of Lady Prittany edging in around the circumference of the debate arena, flushed and flustered. They named it The Arena, Thomas knew, because of its low sandy floor — a floor now covered in the dark brown of old blood. There senators grappled with one another during debate if their dialectics reached a standstill and logic had given way to ad hominem attack. Their rules of engagement read that, if an argument denigrated into one man working against another rather than one man building with another towards some coherent line of thought, then they might as well acknowledge the reality of the ad hominem attack and turn to martial combat. Suffice to say, as parliaments and congresses go, The Arena fell on the more brutal end of the spectrum. Naked old men, their goals opposed, their powers exposed, their blood hosing the ground below them. The Athenians and Spartans would both have been awed and both have been disgusted by The Arena, but for different reasons. Chesterton would have loved both sides, but the nudity would have made him fumble with his cape and his top hat.
She sat down beside him on the bench.
He crossed his legs so as to cover his proportionality and turned so that the slightest angle made it seem like he’d turned to cover the coldest side of his shoulder.
“Excuse me, Sir Thomas,” she said, “but we never quite finished our discussion.”
Sir Thomas kept both eyes forward. He knew as a representative, especially a junior one, that they would watch him carefully to see if he obeyed protocol. And he knew Lady Prittany didn’t quite remember this. As a woman, she would have the higher calling of writing and enforcing the law but not the lower calling of debating and haggling over jurisprudence for the sake of making judgment calls on specific instances. An executive and a legislator, not a judge. Scribes seldom interacted in the debate, leaving her ignorant of protocol.
And so she continued on. “Sir Thomas? Did you hear me?”
Senator Holdgirth seemed annoyed at the interruption and nodded towards them, mid-speech.
Sir Thomas kept his eyes forward, nothing in his posture betraying any connection to the naked woman at his side.
The Speaker took note in a logbook, marking on a different page than the one he’d used for Thomas’ earlier infraction. So it wasn’t put down to him
Senator Holdgirth continued, “—if we chose then to travel up, then up will affect—“
“Are you ignoring me?” she asked.
“That is your third strike, Lady Prittany,” The Speaker said. “You have yielded the remainder of your time today to the rest of those present and will be escorted from the chambers until tomorrow, at which time you may again attempt to participate. Further infractions upon the morrow will compound the yielding of your time, potentially banning you from these chambers entirely.”
“What? That’s absurd, you silly little man, I was only—“
“Make it two and a half days,” the Speaker said.
She went quiet after that and left with a bruiser on either arm who made sure she found the exit.
Sir Thomas had not flinched.
“Our apologies, Senator Holdgirth,” The Speaker said. “Please continue.”
The man rambled for another hour. At the end of which, many in the chambers were asleep but had not left. A vote this important, you never left unless you couldn’t hold your water anymore. Something interesting would likely wake you up anyways.
Such as Sir Thomas taking to the pit.
He stood up tall. “I have a very simple counterpoint to Senator Holdgirth and those of you who support Lady Prittany’s rather eloquent bill. The problem with ascendancy is, of course, trade. Do we have a self-sustaining environ? We did en route to Venus as an early wombfaring civilization. As you all know, our forefathers came here by way of one of the great cylinders, crossed the expanse of the womb of the worlds and upon entering the stratosphere, they inflated the atmosphere of this and every other blimp.
“But I call you to remember, we quickly ran out of supplies and sent down our working classes onto the surface, constantly resupplying them with oxygen. Temporary habitats became permanent, and long-term trade routes were established with a healthy rotation of descending rather than ascending blimps. Indeed, my knighthood itself is one result of those trades, as many of you know.”
A senator raised his hand.
“Yes, Senator Hart,” Sir Thomas said.
“What is oxygen?”
“It’s what we in the æristocracy refer to as atmosphere, but it is only one component of true atmosphere. Atmosphere is as much about pressure as it is about the content of the gases inside.”
“Oh. Please continue.”
“Thank you. This trade — the oxygen tanks through our local reclaimer — became the means by which we obtained the type of organics grown only on the surface by our servants, those savages who wear clothes.”
Several of the old nudists chuckled, both because they’d agreed and because they’d brought this ambitious surf so far since Senator Holdgirth took him in as a child for what he could offer the gene pool.
Sir Thomas hadn’t meant it, he’d simply used it to gain their ear. “Therefore without a connection to the surface, and without a chosen sister planet as our destination, we will quite simply run out of supplies as a satellite within a few short years. We won’t starve, per se, but our bodies will shrivel without some of the nutrients we obtain from below. You see, my friends, trade is not about delicacies or entertainment. Trade is about essences, about what is essential to our survival. Both the manpower and the things that manpower produces are fragilely threaded into our social contract with the poor surfs below. Pull that one hemline, and the whole fabric of our society unravels. In short, we need the poor as much as they need us. We have the means to ease their poverty. They have the means to ease our poverty of spirit. I yield the remainder of my time.”
The words hung out there. For a while.
Then Senator Trignom stood and The Speaker invited him to the floor.
“I believe Sir Thomas brings up a rather sobering thought,” he said. ”Us wasting away above the planet that could feed us. Therefore I propose we share our great æristocracy with those who live back on planet Earth.”
There were cries of huzzah.
Sir Thomas hated himself for that word “remainder.” He could have asked for an intermission in his time to hear counter arguments, but in his passion, he had cornered himself and was now stuck. They would not starve if they returned to Earth, but neither would he be a few thousand feet above his family any more.
Not to mention the whole part about Earth being uninhabitable for blimp environs.
Or their thin walls — walls too thin for deep space. Walls that had not deployed until the cylinders had entered the stratosphere before moving on to another planet.
Other speeches came and went. He didn’t listen. There was no point.
He was already leaving as the unanimous vote to head toward Earth was recorded for posterity, assuming there would be one.
“You know they would—“
“You know?” Sir Thomas said to her just outside. “I’m quite tired right now, and require a nap. If it appeases you, I did not linger to cast my own vote, only to add a voice of reason.”
“Reason! Well in any case . . . ” She batted her eyes and pushed her hip forward. “We could retire into my chambers.”
No one stood in that posture except with intent to sire a child. An entire generation of his family born in the skies — he would truly improve their standing in the world with such a gesture. He could preserve his family’s line.
Or he could preserve his family’s race.
“I’ll consider it,” Sir Thomas said, but he’d already turned and started walking away.
“What’s the plan?” he asked his biological father, the surf in white.
The roomful of surfacers couldn’t help but to watch him wide-eyed. None of the æristocrats had ever entered their quarters. It was as scandalous to them as it would have been for Sir Thomas if any of his colleagues were to discover him. Several in the room seemed to notice his nakedness a bit more compared to when they worked near one another out in the Great Hall and other subsectors within the massive blimp complex.
“Well?” he asked again.
His father, one of the chief serfs, asked, “How did your legislating go?”
“I’m no legislator, dad. The women—”
They felt the floor shift beneath them as if the entire complex were an elevator. The blimp began ascending towards the stratosphere and the womb that wove the worlds.
“That bad, eh?” his father asked.
Sir Thomas spat.
“They do realize they’ll starve without a connection to the surface?”
“Yes,” Sir Thomas said, “which is why we’re headed to Earth.”
Several surfants gasped. Others cried out — they would have no more leave to go down during holidays. Holidays that the capitalists who ruled the æristocracy gave them one day at a time, more so that they could prepare for more work, more to recoup their bodies than their minds. But without a holiday, they wouldn’t have their families returned to them. Their bodies wouldn’t rest. And their minds still wouldn’t have room to think — the heavens forbid they think through their lot and discover a creative solution.
Which they now began to do.
Discussions splintered out from Sir Thomas’ declaration, coalescing into one great din.
“I am not leaving my wife and your brothers behind,” the chief surf said.
“I know, dad,” Sir Thomas said. “I don’t want to either.”
“Not so great now, is it, your quest for fame and power by way of lucky genes?”
“Rub it in later. We’ve got other things to think about.”
“All of your geneticists up here talk about perfecting a race, and they forget the one flaw in their stinking thinking: they don’t get to pick their own genes.”
“You’ve made your point, and I accept my proper place as your son. Now, what’s the plan?”
His father pulled an eight-year-old forward. “This is Thermal.”
Thomas recognized the boy from the market.
“Thermal’s a little genius, he is. Been tinkering with a thing called a ‘blowtorch’ down on the surface and figured out a way to make one up here while he’s been waiting for his assignment from you. Had plenty of spare time while you’ve been getting busy.”
Several surfs sniggered.
“I haven’t been—“
“And these… what are these called, Thermal?”
“Carabineers,” Thermal said. “It’s an ancient form of climbing gear.”
“Climbing gear,” Thom’s father said. “I guess they’re left over from the first generation and still good. Go to the Great Hall, Thom. They’ll need you for presenting their new edict. Do they often implement law before announcing it?”
“They always implement it. They seldom announce it. What Venus doesn’t know, hurts her.”
A long line of naked old men stood before a Great Hall filled with the who’s-who of the æristocracy. More moaning than usual echoed out of the errotatoriums. The Gestatuaries had emptied, and the early mothers lined the hall with their papers and pens, bellies heavy with the fruit of a “final” race, one that had already fifty years prior given itself permission to beat the broken and injure the infirm who dwelled on the surface. Dozen of the surfs Sir Thomas had just inspired moved around the room offering appetizers to everyone — plates of raw-cut fish, faces of little monkeys with poisonous eyes that would be discarded as garnish, chicken legs, cuts of the rigger snake, dreeoon wood still on the bark. No one else paid attention to the surfs, but Sir Thomas saw. His father had taught him to see when he had been a squire on the subblimpan world below, that most of life is out there for the observant if only you’d take a look. From his place in the chorus line of nude old men and younger men like himself, Sir Thomas looked out and saw large protrusions on the back of every serf, as if something hid beneath the outer robes of each. No one else saw because no one else cared to look.
The feeling of an elevator ascending underfoot.
The announcement of the new edict, the one that had already been enacted by the navigation room much earlier.
The movement high above that drew the eyes of all below. An eight-year-old had somehow maneuvered behind the towering structure of the wet bar and had begun using climbing spikes to scale the soft, egg-like curvature of the blimp, moving higher and higher until he dangled from the peak of the main room’s hundred-foot vault. Most of the upper level of the blimp included the cloud observatory that lined the edges of the great hall and a hall leading to the ante chambers and elevators leading down to the senatorial rooms, the thousands of bedrooms, and so on. But the upper level of the blimp? It worked like a penthouse, really, the soft Venusian clouds passing by.
Many of the elders began yelling at the well-clothed child.
Many of the bewombed women also yelled.
Thermal lit the lighter he’d nicked from Lady Prittany’s fannypack and ignited his handmade torch.
Which, despite of remarkable craft for an eight-year-old combustion engineering savant, still owed both its power to trinkets the kid had found lying around the blimpan habitat. Therefore, it had no regulator.
And therefore, it exploded.
And since they had already entered into the stratosphere, therefore the oxygen within the blimp caught flame and turned the entire habitat into one great billowing rocket engine, the heated and pressurized atmosphere blasting out of that four-foot hole, which had now turned into a makeshift nozzle.
The body of that child named Thermal hung loosely on a climbing spike that had not detatched from the wall.
People screamed as the Great Hall depressurized. Once it reentered the atmosphere, it grew even heavier, having no lift left, and it began to fall. Sir Thomas felt someone grab him. It was his father.
The surfs? Thom noticed that they all now had on gas masks — the very masks the surface dwellers always wore when bartering with the æristocracy below, the very masks that depended on the æristocracy’s oxygen, the very masks that had made the blimp environ a monopoly thousands of years prior.
His father handed him one and then, with free-fall speed achieved, the people in the Great Hall began to float.
Then the blimp repressurized, filling up with the sexiest colors imaginable: pink and turquoise and violet, all the colors of a surf woman’s lingerie drawer. But this was not silk and lace. It was instead the clouds of Venus, great poisonous things that burn through human lungs in mere minutes. Nude æristocrats passed one another in midair, snatching at the space around them with vein-bulging arms or choking to death through bloated throats. He hadn’t wished Lady Prittany ill. In fact, under other circumstances he may have even taken her for his wife. But she had wished ill on his family and their caste. Sir Thomas had no category for this, and so his gas masked filled with the steady stream of his tears and the fog of his tears until the floating bodies and the swirling poisonous gas faded beyond the glass visor of his mask, faded into an impressionists’ pastel painting of Venusian clouds.
Soon, the clouds began to leak back out the hole and a clearer air leaked back inside. The fog cleared in his mask as the temperatures balanced out. Sir Thomas noticed how many of the surfs, in spite of their masters, were using the lifeless naked bodies like platforms in some prehistoric videogame, jumping from one to another until they made it to a handhold in the wall and strapped themselves in for the ride. Thomas followed suit, first jumping off of the body of his former Master Father Senator Holdgirth, then Senator Hart’s, The Speaker’s, and finally Lady Pritanny’s, moving through the weightless freefall to the edge of the environ, barefoot and flying. He had no rope, but he wasn’t so far from his father, who walked along the handholds of the blimp’s bowside wall. There with his hand on a hold in the zero gravity air, the old surf strapped his son tightly in and smiled.
Then the bottom of the floor gave out as the blimp hit solid ground.
Thom’s real father shot downward to his death, his white robe like a cascading party ribbon, cast down in the blood among the bouncing nudes.
Thomas shouted into his mask, but the wall of the blimp was crumbling, a nanometal fabric made for holding well under pressure but not a hard landing. It shattered as empty egg shells will shatter on the sharp end of a skillet, some of the pieces falling like great curved sleds, rocking back and forth until they held purchase on the something solid.
When he came to, Thomas found himself untethered and a surf, a young woman, attending a wound in his side, softly singing one of the old hymns:
And notwithstondyng al his suffisaunce
His gentil herte is of so gret humblesse
To me in word, in werk, in contenaunce,
And me to serve is all his besynesse,
That I am set in very silkernesse.
Thus oghte I blesse wel myna venture
Sith that him list me serven and honoure
For every wight preiseth his gentilesse.
He rose and she followed after. Whatever she had done made the pain manageable.
He picked his way through the wreckage. It was clear that the whole blimp had landed on one of the sharper Venusian peaks, the one with the landing platform cut into it. It had cracked the blimp like an egg, sending large pieces of it sliding down into The Gray below where it had crushed subblimpan houses filled with occupants who had, like Thomas’ family, bred for years to sire a son or daughter worth of the heavens.
Sir Thomas came to his father’s body in the wreckage and carnage and lifted it up onto his shoulder. He carried it through the shattered remains of the hull to the path, then down the mountain. The subblimpan population emerged out of their homes all along the cold lavaflows of the mountainside and began pilfering the blimp of its survival systems — particularly the oxygen generators.
Thomas didn’t know what to do. He’d been too young when he’d left home to know where to go, hadn’t even know how to find a gene testing facility. But seeing the houses and the way the poor lived down here — actually seeing them — he thought he could learn to get along with them. Assuming they figured out a way to make their own oxygen with the broken machines.
That or suffocate.
But the young woman who had healed him beckoned with her finger. There was something in it that wasn’t… sexual? Yes. Almost beckoning like a friend beckons. Like one child will beckon another to come and see, to take and read. Like Venus herself might have beckoned before she brought Eros to bear upon the worlds. She hopped down the mountainside, prancing almost, careless about the damage or the risks of hitting a rock, almost as if the only naked thing on her, her feet, knew the sacred way. It seemed foolish to Sir Thomas — sure their bodies had adapted to the pressure, sure the planet had cooled when it had been knocked further from the sun into the habitable zone. But why test his luck in moving closer to the core?
So he followed her and listened to the hymn as her mask amplified her soft singing into his ears:
Herte, to the hit oughte ynogh suffise
That Love so high a grace to the sente
To chese the worthieste in alle wise
And most agreeable unto myn entente
Seche no ferthe neythir wey ne wente,
Sith I have suffisaunce unto my pay.
Thus wol I ende this compleynt or this lay;
To love hym best ne shal I never repente.
The cold lava flows began to show signs of natural water.
Then of plant life.
The further down they went, the more he understood that the clouds surrounding the blimp had served as little more than an overcast flavor of weather rather than a death sentence. Would not lightning and lack of oxygen also kill men in Earth’s upper atmosphere, poison or no?
But she kept on cavorting down the hillside.
The light came cleaner, he saw farther, and though he began to get tired with his true father’s body and those bloodied white robes, she walked ahead and so he followed.
Until she turned and took off her gas mask.
He screamed at her, dropped his father, and ran to her side.
She breathed in and out with labor, showing him how she did. Consciously belaboring her breathing. Showing him how to breathe, how to let his first screams or laughs resound into the Venusian hill country. She was fine. She was not poisoned.
She reached up and gently brushed his face en route to the straps. What an innocent touch. Had he ever been touched by the women above this way? Had they ever been tender with him in their planned, practical, eugenic couplings?
She undid the straps of the mask.
“No, no, no,” he said. “No, please, I’ve never…”
She removed the straps and then his mask.
The atmosphere smacked him, and he thought to cry as a newborn cries. But then he took it in and . . .
. . . it was the freshest, most dewey air he’d tasted. He laughed instead.
“How?” he asked.
“How can I breathe?”
“Well it helped when the planet cooled. But after centuries of creating oxygen from the raw mass of the planet and sending it down to us… well the human body doesn’t use all of that, you know. Atmosphere is mostly about pressure.”
He shook his head: his own words, used against him. “How do you know this?”
“Oh Sir Thomas, whatever they teach you in the highlands and the blimps, every lowland surf knows the old story about the coming of the first ær. When our first generation removed their masks and became their truest selves.”
It made sense — with enough generations creating oxygen, eventually the entire ecosystem would change to accommodate them. The planet would cool as plants sucked carbon dioxide out of the air. The air would grow breathable. There might even be lakes again.
He lifted his father again and they came down the foothills of the old mountain, which he now saw faded from its black peak down to a lush, moss-covered basin. A cabin made out of strange, dark green logs lay ahead. Animals were moving below.
The young girl skipped down the moss.
He carried his father. He carried him.
Closer to the house, he saw they were not animals, but children. Dozens and dozens of children and in the distance, more houses. What was that statistic he’d read about the old world? Something about how on earth, the monogamous mating rituals of the old religions had brought about the highest rates of both fertility and orgasm… Something about courtly love: how the damsel’s distress was not over some evil maniac who held her captive, but over her own integrity and libido — the same distress that the knight himself had felt.
He saw the children again. All of them. Some of them with deformities. Some of them blind. Some of them sick. All of them playing and helping one another if one should stumble and fall to the earth.
The door opened. The young woman bounded inside, and a man stepped out. A dark man with long dark hair quite unlike Sir Thomas’ blond locks that had been tipped blue per custom. The man walked toward Sir Thomas.
When the æristocracy decides to withdraw their blimps from the Venusian economy and head back to an abandoned Earth, the surf-turned-æristocrat Sir Thomas begins tearing down their entire economy in order to save millions of lives. A dystopian sci-fi about class warfare THE BLIMPS OF VENUS shows us the true motives behind eugenics and other evils. :: PRAISE FOR LANCELOT SCHAUBERT :: “Schaubert’s words have an immediacy, a potency, an intimacy that grab the reader by the collar and say ‘Listen, this is important!’ Probing the bones and gristle of humanity, his subjects challenge, but also offer insights into redemption if only we will stop and pay attention.” — Erika Robuck, National Bestselling Author of Hemingway’s Girl “Loved this story because Lance wrote about people who don't get written about enough and he did it with humor, compassion, and heart.” — Brian Slatterly, author of Lost Everything and editor of The New Haven Review “I’m such a fan of Lance Schaubert's work. His unique view of things and his life-wisdom enriches all he does. We're lucky to count him among our contributors.” — Therese Walsh, author of The Moon Sisters and Editorial Director of Writer Unboxed "Lancelot Schaubert exhibits his talents in many forms from poetic verse to lyrical prose to musical compositions, all the while infusing them with charisma, passion, and wit. A true creative, Schaubert is one to watch in the literary world." —Heather Webb, author of Rodin's Lover & Becoming Josephine “Lance Schaubert writes with conviction but without the cliché and bluster of the propaganda that is so common in this age of blogs and tweets. Here is a real practitioner of the craft who has the patience to pay attention. May his tribe increase!” — Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, author of Common Prayer and The Awakening of Hope “Lancelot was the kind of student every writing teacher hopes to have in her class: attentive, thoughtful, a bit quirky, and innovative. Since his time in my classroom, he has continued to impress me. He ‘sees,’ and his essays, poetry, and fiction are full of details that enable his audience to see. Bravo, Lance.” — Jackina Stark, author of Things Worth Remembering and Tender Grace “[He writes] characters with distinctive personalities, multi-layered, and unpredictable. [They have] natural voices, succinct and unique to each character.” — The Missouri Scriptwriting Fellowship "Schaubert's narratives are emotionally stirring with both a vulnerable sensibility and rawness to them. They take you on a journey full of open wounds, intimate successes and personal delights. His words have a calmness, a natural ease but the meaning is always commanding and dynamic." — Natalie Gee, Brooklyn Film Festival