Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 29.12.2319
++++ TIME 01:01 Venusian Central Time
++++ LOCATION Sacajawea Aerostat, Ishtar Terra Stake, Venus
Outside, sulfuric clouds choked the floating aerostat city of Sacajawea in a cloying, acrid embrace.
Other cultures had long since discarded the conceit of a hell full of brimstone and unbearable heat as a fable, but those who lived in the floating cities of Venus knew better; Hell was real, and lay only fifty kilometers below their feet in a churning inferno that was hot enough to melt lead.
Cyril Mauk clutched the taser dart gun awkwardly, sweat beading on his forehead. A long look around the faces of his fellow revolutionaries reflected a mix of emotions, none of which were difficult to see. Some bore their fear with nobility, others their anger upon a barely restrained dog's leash, still more with excitement and even fierce pride. Cyril was an engineering student, the others mostly students themselves, but not all.
Alžběta Svobodová's face was blank. Somehow, that made Cyril more uncomfortable than any of the other cauldron of emotions of the members of the small cell that had seized the aerostat's attitude thruster control room.
Alžběta cradled an illegal flechette shotgun in her own arms, a better weapon than any of the others, even including the cell's captain, an Estonian named Kristo Kuul. Alžběta had the weapon because Kristo trusted her more than he trusted any of the others.
Below them through the glass porthole Venus' clouds churned, a faint rippling lightning bolt briefly lighting up the dense air upon which the aerostat floated.
Taking the control room had been surprisingly easy. A pair of automated guards, a DNA confirmation system backed by a simple password was all that had kept them out, and Kristo's mysterious contacts had given them everything they had needed to turn the guards off and let them pass through the security system.
Kristo stood where Alžběta sat on the low step up to the observation deck. Cyril could see Kristo fighting the urge to pace, but the industrialist's son was too savvy to let his own impatience communicate itself to the men and women under his command.
The terminal chimed. Kristo looked around the room at the members of his cell, deliberately waiting to answer. For a time, the only sound that Cyril could hear was the chime. Finally, Kristo touched the terminal. His voice radiated no tension. "This is the Cell Captain of Cell Venera, and ranking officer of the Andělé Smrti organization for this operation. You have had time to consider our demands."
The voice on the other end was had a faint accent to Cyril's ears. "I have consulted with my superiors. I have been instructed to inform you that it is Eastern Federation policy to not negotiate with terrorists."
Kristo snorted. "You are already negotiating with us by speaking with us."
"Nevertheless, my statement stands. We have consulted with Republic Security as well, and they have informed us that there are teams already moving in on your position, as well as that of the other two terrorist cells you have deployed to Sif and Navka. You cannot win. Surrender now and perhaps we can argue for leniency."
Kristo paused. "Ten minutes. Then we cut the intakes on the attitude thrusters. This is not a bluff." He touched the terminal again, cutting the signal. He exchanged a few soft words to Alžběta that Cyril could not hear, and Alžběta stood, but otherwise stayed where she was. Kristo glanced around the room. "They'll bend at the end," he promised. "We may just have to play a little game of chicken, however. Stay strong." Kristo turned, touching his earpiece as he contacted his own mysterious contact, the presumptive leader of the Andělé Smrti.
It was all the Eastern Federation's fault.
The aerostat cities were founded by a number of countries of Old Europe. Germans, Czech, Estonians - each had supported one or several of the great floating aerostat cities that let themselves be carried on the tumultuous winds of Venus, up high enough where both temperature and pressure were Earth-normal and only the unbreathable sulfuric clouds had to be combated. They had built these cities out of carbon and glass and other things, pumping the interiors full of breathable nitrogen and oxygen that created enough lift to buoy the aerostats high in Venus' clouds.
They had built their cities. Not the Eastern Federation vultures.
But the Eastern Federation corporates had come, buying up everything share or stock they could get their hands on, quietly building up majority shares in three of the aerostats, not to mention lesser interests in many of the other aerostats.
And the courts had agreed, damn them to hell. They had agreed, saying that the Venusians who had struggled to build new homes on this toxic world where humans could not even safely set foot on the surface without their blood boiling had no claim.
No claim. As if their blood and births made no claim.
Kristo had recruited each of them.
Some, merely for blind loyalty to the cause, like, Cyril presumed, Alžběta and a few of the others. Some, like Cyril, for his engineering knowledge as his sympathies. Come join us, he had told Cyril. Choose to take back what was ours, not to let bureaucrats and corporates devour the work of decades.
"Cyril," Kristo said. "We're going to need a demonstration, I think. Show me what I need to do."
Cyril pushed himself to his feet, wiping his forehead. He crossed the room quickly, eyes not meeting any of the others. He stepped past Alžběta, not able to keep the back of his neck from itching as he turned away from her. With a deep breath he looked down on the terminal. Cyril pointed. "Here," he said. "That will slave the attitude thrusters to the manual control." He pointed to another control. "Once that's done, just reduce that by, say, 3% or so. It won't take much. It'll be a little rough, but won't hurt anyone."
"Thank you," Kristo said, meeting Cyril's eyes. "You have been a tremendous help. I know I have said it before, but let me say again that we couldn't have done this without you."
Cyril awkwardly turned his eyes away from the other man's deep sincerity, flustered. "I just want to help."
Kristo nodded. "You have," he assured Cyril. "You better return to the door over there, in case they try to break through."
"But..." Cyril hesitated. "Don't you need me here?"
"You are an excellent tutor. I think I can handle this much. It is just as you said, right? There's nothing else?"
"No, there's nothing else," Cyril said slowly. "Yes. Okay." He moved back to the door, glancing at it as if he expected it to suddenly start vibrating with the effect of burners trying to melt their way in to the sealed hatch.
The minutes passed. Cyril glanced at the time. Thirteen minutes had gone by since the Eastern Federation corporate had last spoken. Kristo turned to the rest of them, a sober look on his face.
"Time's up," Kristo said. "We're going to need a demonstration. If you can, find someplace to brace yourself. Once they see what we're capable of, they'll back down."
He looked down at the terminal, quickly tapping the commands necessary to shutter the intake valves on the Sacajawea's attitude thrusters. Cyril's commands.
The huge aerostat shuddered, and Cyril stumbled. One of the other members of their small cell fell. Cyril helped her back to her feet.
Cyril glanced at the diagnostic terminal by the door where he stood. 48 kilometers.
The Sacajawea was sinking, and, honestly, faster than Cyril had thought it would. At some point, it would be too late to recover from. Cyril had run the calculations three times, but even so he still wasn't a hundred percent positive that he had done it correctly. Though he hated to admit it, he was a mediocre student at best, and without computer access, the numbers had had to be run all by hand, something Cyril had struggled with. Seriously, who ran trajectories and fuel consumption ratios by hand anymore?
Kristo touched the terminal again. "This is Cell Captain of Cell Venera. Have you reconsidered your decision?" Cyril marveled at how even he was able to keep his voice. It was like steel.
"You are bluffing. I don't believe for a moment you will kill yourselves," the Eastern Federation representative said.
"You misunderstand us," Kristo said quietly. "Venus is ours. This sky is ours. If we cannot have it, we will burn it before we let you have it."
"You're insane," the Eastern Federation representative retorted. "Fine. I call your bluff. Burn up in the atmosphere for all I care." The signal went abruptly dead.
Kristo reached up with two fingers to his earpiece, reluctantly. He turned away, consulting with their superiors. The conversation was not long, and Kristo dropped his fingers from his earpiece. Cyril couldn't help but notice that his hand now rested on his own weapon. Kristo looked out over the members of their own small cell.
"Brothers and sisters," Kristo said, his eyes meeting each one in turn. "We all of us have a choice. Sometimes it is not a choice that anyone would wish upon even their worst enemy, but a choice must nevertheless be made. If we falter in our conviction, then we will condemn our people, our parents, our friends, to enslavement under corporate overlords who see us as convenient pawns at best, numbered serfs at worst. Neither is acceptable to me. Neither should be acceptable to you.
"Well?" Kristo demanded. "Is it? Is it acceptable to you to be a pawn or serf?"
The cell shook their heads, murmuring disagreement.
Kristo nodded. "The Eastern Federation thinks we are all talk and no action. The Eastern Federation thinks they hold all the cards. They do not. We cannot make them retreat, but we can burn them with the fire of our own sacrifice, and in that sacrifice we will purge our world of their taint."
Cyril felt something cold settle over his heart. He couldn't be saying what Cyril thought he was saying. Could he?
"Wait," a woman said, an adjunct professor of linguistics at Sacajawea's single university. "You mean you're actually going to turn the engines to a descent? You can't mean that. Can you? That is...more than murder. It's unthinkable."
Kristo said nothing for a long moment. He touched Alžběta's shoulder. "Shoot her," he said.
Alžběta did not even hesitate. She lifted her flechette shotgun and stabbed a single round. The other woman crumpled, still alive, but her torso shredded, her voice strangling for breath as her own blood filled her mouth. She began to twitch.
Kristo did not even look at her. Instead, Kristo looked at the others. "It is hard to be strong," he said sympathetically. "But this is a time for heroes, not cowards. A time for the angels of our best natures, not the devils of our worst selves." He reached down, touching a few commands on the terminal. Cyril could hear the whine of the attitude thrusters as the thrusters on the side they were on powered down completely. Nausea rose in Cyril's throat as the aerostat's stabilization system lurched sideways, the aerostat tilting precariously as it slid downwards through the atmosphere.
"The skips," someone said. "We can still get out of here."
Kristo glanced at the man who had spoken. "Perhaps. If I hadn't dumped them."
The man who had spoken made a strangled sound. "Why would you do that? What have we done?"
"Consider it a bulwark against the mortal sins of our own weak human nature."
Alžběta trained her weapon on the man, and he sank to his knees, eyes staring ahead, looking into some hell only he could see. Others started to weep. One man raged, throwing his pistol against the wall. Alžběta glanced at Kristo, but he shook his head. Someone started to pray, the prayer catching in their throat as the Sacajawea suddenly shuddered in the death rattle of the great city.
Cyril distantly heard the communications channel open again, the panicked Eastern Federation corporate pleading with Kristo.
Kristo stood there amidst the chaos, eyes half-closed, hands out, palms down as if he was descending from some great height.
The city fell.