Carys Rex, professional daredevil and freelance adventure writer, wanted the next big adventure. After everything that she had tackled on Earth the next challenge was a sky city floating in hurricane force winds on another planet — Venus!

Hired by the Diaspora Group, Carys gets a chance to visit the most remarkable colony established and discover new adventures among the sulfuric acid clouds.

1

Carys Rex jumped that last step from the transport airlock, onto the brilliant green grass growing beside the path. She wriggled her toes against the cool blades, sinking her toes into the dirt beneath.

The air tasted fresh, not recycled like the on the transport. Almost like being back on Earth, rather than being in a spherical city floating around 164,000 feet above Venus’ hellish surface.

She was twenty-six, a freelance adventure writer and professional daredevil, hired by Terra Blackstone’s Diaspora Group to vlog about life on Earth’s evil twin planet. She was wearing a dark, earthy brown skirt that ended just above her knee, a light green tank top, and her black curly hair was mostly captured in a hand-crocheted red snood hat. All of her belongings were in the big, neon yellow messenger bag that hugged her hip. Except her glasses. She tapped the side to activate the recording, while her hand dug down into the messenger bag.

All things considered, you wouldn’t think that you were even on another planet. Maybe some sort of future resort city, but it didn’t look like an outpost on another planet. Buildings rose up ahead, around the plaza. A fountain sprayed water into the air, people on bicycles, and on foot, gathered around the plaza, a crowd greeting the rest of the new arrivals disembarking from the transport. No cars, of course.

Four months trapped in a the small transport space craft, one of the Diaspora Group’s new passenger capsules, launched from Earth orbit to Venus. As the new solar sail production picked up from Mercury, there’d be regular routes picking up capsules, releasing them to rendezvous with all sorts of worlds. It was almost like being back in the days of sailing ships, only these ships carried their passengers between the planetary bodies.

Tilting her head back, there was the dome framework, big triangles against the structure of the dome, across the sky. So, like a really exclusive, domed-over city, like the climate-controlled ones that they had back on Earth, where the rich people hung out and pretended that the Earth wasn’t getting hotter all the time.

 

“Time to open up guys,” Carys said.

The two spheres buzzed and uncoiled. Bright wings unrolled and snapped out, four on each, and black legs unkinked and grabbed at her hand, pinching gently.

“There you are,” Carys cooed. “Up and at em. Catch the sunlight and watch me.”

Her spy-eyes flicked their wings and took off, fat bright flies that buzzed around her before taking up positions ahead and behind. All about the footage.

Carys beamed and threw her hands up in the air. “Welcome to Venus!”

She strolled out on to the grass. “We’ve made it! We’re on Venus! This is Aphrodite, the first human colony on this world. Up here it’s heaven, while down below is quite literally hell.”

She winked at the camera. “We’re going to get to know this new world! It’s pretty much as big as the entire Earth! Think about that for a minute. Imagine it, a whole world out there! Except this is not Earth. It’s —”

Two uniformed-types, in tan ranger uniforms, a man and a woman, were coming across the plaza. Coming for her, no question of that from their looks and bearing. Carys laughed.

“Looks like we’re already getting in trouble! That’s what, five minutes on a new world? I think that’s a new record!”

Carys didn’t wait. She walked right up to them, spy-eyes filming everything, glasses filming everything, positioning themselves in pre-programmed patterns, giving her options to edit later. She smiled at the two, what? Officials? Guards? Police?

“Is this like an official greeting? Or did I break some rule by stepping on the grass?” Carys put her hand to her mouth, eyes going wide with mock shock. “Am I going to get thrown out for stepping on the grass? I saw an old show once, where the people living in paradise executed newcomers for the slightest offense.”

The pair might have been siblings. Both thin, fit, with sandy brown hair. The guy had a cleft chin. The woman had fine features, delicate with a tiny button nose. Their tan uniforms both sported the Venus astronomical symbol, Venus’ hand mirror, the round circle with the cross handle beneath.

“Carys Rex?” The woman asked, holding out her hand. “Rhea Silvia, Media Coordinator for Aphrodite.”

Carys took her hand and shook. Good grip for someone that looked like she might easily break. Rhea wore cam jewelry on her ears and around her neck. Functional tech, a bit out-dated but pretty. As Carys released Rhea’s hand, she shifted her gaze to the man.

He smiled, a warm, nice smile. Good teeth. Confident, and a bit cocky. He wasn’t with Rhea, not romantically. He reached out.

She took his hand. Firm grip, professional. She expected him to reach up with his other hand to touch her arm. He didn’t.

“Victor Crane, Residence Coordinator, basically I’m the guy that makes sure you have everything you need.”

Carys stepped closer. “I’m flattered. I didn’t expect a welcoming committee.”

Rhea laughed. “Not much of a committee, but Blackstone is excited to have you join our team. We’re eager to see what you come up with, I’ve been a big fan of your work back on Earth.”

“Is it true that you rode a mountain bike along the continental divide, across the United States, in less than three weeks?” Victor asked.

Carys reached out and ran her fingers up the front of his uniform. “The tour divide? Yeah, that was a blast. All self-supported, it’s gotten tougher as the climate has worsened. That was nothing, though, compared to the outback ride.”

Victor’s smile faded. “I heard about that.”

Rhea took Carys’ arm. “Why don’t you let us show you your new home? There’s an orientation, and then you can get settled in from the trip?”

That was the absolute last thing that she wanted to do. She pulled away. “I’ve been cooped up in that ship for the past four months. I want to check this place out, and I know my viewers want to see the super-exclusive Aphrodite colony! We’re talking a real-life cloud city! And I’ll tell you, at first look, this seems like paradise. Especially after four months in that transport!”

Rhea smiled brightly, too strained, with a glance up at the spy-eyes hovering silently behind Carys. Of course Carys saw the look, which meant that her glasses caught it too. Perfect.

“There are some things we need to go over first,” Rhea said. “Contractual matters, that sort of thing. The orientation covers everything.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope.”

Rhea and Victor looked at each other, and back to Carys. “Carys, we —”

“Nope.” Carys took a step back. “I’m independent. I’m not part of the Diaspora Group. Terra Blackstone asked me to come here, to Venus, to do what I do. Diaspora might write the checks, but I’ve been assured of my independence.”

Rhea pressed her hands together. “We understand that, we do. We’re not trying to control what you’re doing, we’re not, Carys. It isn’t like that.”

“Great! Then I’m going to take a look around on my own for a while, I’ll catch up to you later.” Carys waved and turned her back on the reception committee.

As soon as she did she pulled out her cell and touched the spy-eyes override. She tagged Rhea and Victor on Blue’s targeting.

The grass was wonderful against her bare feet. She had sandals in her bag but after months in the transport from Earth, the last thing she wanted was to put on sandals. The grass was cool, damp as if from a morning rain. She wasn’t the only one enjoying the lawns. In other sections, residents were playing or resting on the lawns. It had a college-campus feel to it, almost, like a college in a big city with students hanging out between classes.

Zoo humans, pretending that they weren’t suspended in a floating city above Hell. She had to get a shot of that. On the cell, Blue slowly floated after her, rear camera eyes and directional mic watching Rhea and Victor.

“Should we follow her?” Victor asked. “She doesn’t know her way around.”

“Actually I’m sure she does. She probably studied everything during the trip,” Rhea said. She was right there. “And where’s she going to go? She can’t leave Aphrodite? Let her go. She’s been cooped up and wants to stretch her legs.”

That was right. She did. Carys swiped the targeting from Blue, and the spy-eye picked up speed to catch up to her.

Carys skipped and smiled widely, to show off her dimples. She winked. “See? They’re already getting it. Four months on the way here, time to get outside! Even if this outside is actually inside.”

The lawn ended ahead at a wide pathway, slick and smooth. Beyond that was another strip of grass, some flowers and then a low wall, and beyond that a yellow and black rail. And on the other side of the rail — the wall of Aphrodite, the barrier between herself and Venus. Carys pointed at the rail.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Do you see it? There’s a low wall, and some sort of gap, and on the other side a warning rail, and past that, where you see those struts? That’s actually the structure that holds up this entire city! Let’s check it out!”

She ran across that last stretch of grass. It was fantastic to stretch her legs, except immediately her muscles ached. How had she gotten so weak? The transport had rotated the living areas, providing a third of a gee, but obviously not enough to keep her muscles in shape. Carys slowed as she reached the pathway, sucking air, actually winded.

Never forgetting the audience, she laughed. “Wow. Living in a tin can for months in low-gee has wiped me out! I’ll have to do some serious training to get back into shape!”

The pathway was some sort of carbon weave, firm and cool to her feet. Carbon was one of the resources that Aphrodite had in abundance. All they had to do was suck it in and process it, given that the atmosphere was primarily carbon dioxide.

Carys skipped across the path, back onto the narrow strip of grass. That ended and she stepped carefully between the flowers, marigolds in bright orange. The dirt was rough and fantastic beneath her feet. Months in the transport had left her craving being out in the wild. This wasn’t wild, but it was dirt, and the plants were alive.

She dug her bare toes into the surface and looked down so that the glasses got a shot of her bare feet, toenails bright red against her pale feet and the dark earth.

“Look at that! Venusian dirt! This isn’t dirt shipped all the way from Earth, this is material that has been brought up from the surface, more than thirty miles beneath us! And it’s growing these lovely marigolds, and the grass behind us.”

She reached the wall, a six-inch thick structure stretching to either side around the perimeter of the habitat. It came up to just under chest height. Not enough to prevent you from looking over, but a clear barrier from going further.

Green flew out ahead of her, over the wall, its cameras still focused on her.

Out past the wall, a band of water flowed through an open channel. It was only four feet or so across, but followed the wall on around the habitat. Cattails and other plants grew in the water, a lush wet lands stretching around the habitat. Obviously part of the water treatment system for the habitat.

On the other side, as if more of a warning was needed, was a narrow pathway and a clear fence topped with the yellow and black rail. And on the other side of that, the habitat dome wall rose up above. This close the double-layer honeycomb structure was clear.

It obscured the view somewhat, although not too badly. Through the wall it was foggy. Like a day on Earth when the sunlight came through the fog, giving everything a bright glow, before the fog burned off.

Only here, it didn’t burn off. Carys hadn’t gotten an audience by playing it safe.

No one was paying any attention to her, Rhea and Victor had gone off wherever they were going.

“No rest for the wicked,” she said. “Let’s take a closer look.”

She planted her hands on the wall and jumped, boosting herself up, swinging her legs up onto the wall, flashing a good deal of thigh in the process. She got her legs over the edge of the wall and sat, smoothing her skirt, and taking in the view.

Carys pointed at the far wall. “Right out there, through that double-wall, is the cloudy atmosphere of Venus. The outer surface is treated against the sulfuric acid clouds. That’s right, that fog out there? It isn’t water vapor, it is acid! A few other things mixed in, but mostly acid. The habitat is designed for this environment, even so, it requires constant maintenance.”

The audience didn’t tune in to see her sit on a wall. Carys got up, standing on the wall, no doubt attracting attention now from other people nearby. She smiled, and jumped.

Despite the long period on the transport, she managed to clear the reeds and plants in the water treatment canal, landing lightly on the smooth path on the other side. She caught herself on the yellow and black railing along the transparent wall.

Carys laughed out loud. “Yes! That’s better! Look at this!”

She leaned over the rail and on the other side was a gap between the path and the outer wall. Braces at regular intervals connected the habitat to the dome wall, but it was clear that this was only a layer within the sphere. There were more levels below her.

Seen this close, gaps and texture was visible in the clouds outside. It wasn’t as uniform as it looked at first glance. Fog whipped around the outside layers in fast streamers. Color and lightning varied. Looking up, it was clear that the brightness varied, like any cloudy day on Earth.

She looked down again, over the rail. No end to the clouds beneath her, but here it was clear that they were suspended in the air floating along with the wind.

“Look at that! Over thirty miles down to the surface! Not an Earth-like surface, it’s an inferno down there that would melt metal, with active volcanoes and a tortured rocky surface. I’m sure we’ll get to see more pictures of the surface, but wow, we’re actually flying! Not only flying, but Aphrodite floats in the atmosphere, carried along by hurricane-force winds!” Carys shook her head. “Is it any wonder I wanted to come here?”

She turned, leaning against the caution rail and smiled up at the camera. Green dropped, automatically responding to her smile, zooming in to get a good shot, not too close, she wanted the audience to see her.

“You get to come along with me! This is going to be a great adventure!” Carys looked at the channel, with the water and reeds, and the wall on the other side. No easy way back from this side.

“We’re going to have to find another way out of here, let’s follow the path, and see where it takes us.”

Carys walked along the path, her hand playing lightly along the caution rail. Aphrodite was a test case, to prove that human settlement was possible and worked. As such, it was actually a small-scale test. A small city, two miles across, with a bit under 2,000 acres of space on the main level.

All of which meant that this path, if it went clear around Aphrodite, was probably almost six miles long!

“Maybe I should have packed a bike! Aphrodite isn’t all that big, but a bike would still be fantastic for getting around. There were some people back there at the landing plaza with bikes, so I should be able to get one somewhere.” She winked. “For now, I’ll walk.”

A few minutes later, up ahead, there was a bridge straight across the channel, with a gate in the short wall. A weeping willow tree grew nearby, the long hanging branches nearly touching the wall.

“At last! We can get back into the city itself, and see what we can discover.” It was a good thing too, she was getting tired. Her stomach growled. “Maybe find a place to eat! I’m starved. The last thing I had to eat was reconstituted eggs this morning.”

Carys walked across the bridge to the gate. It wouldn’t open. She chuckled and climbed up, swinging her leg over the gate, straddling it, the cool carbon fiber clenched between her thighs. There was a sign, pressing against her bare knee.

“Authorized Personnel Only,” it read.

“Oops,” she said, winking at the camera. She blew the audience a kiss before swinging her other leg over, giving them another flash.

She dropped to the path.

Her trip along the channel had taken her away from the landing plaza into the University district. This was the section dedicated to all sorts of scientific research. In the background material, it talked about how select researchers from institutions all over Earth were sent here to study. Not just Venus studies, although there were all sorts of scientists doing that, but also anything else. Even a few lucky students, earning their degrees while doing work for the Diaspora Group.

The weeping willow was only one of several trees growing in the University district. The buildings were up to three stories tall, all appearing as if made from massive stone blocks. Carys knew that wasn’t entirely the case. The dark rock faces did come from rocks cut from the surface by robotic miners, but each ‘block’ was nothing more than a stone facade over a more light-weight structure.

Aphrodite might have plenty of lifting ability, but that didn’t mean that they wasted it.

“Look at this!” Carys gestured to the campus. “Looks like an Ivy League university, doesn’t it? That’s deliberate, part of the Diaspora Group’s plans for Venus. The stones are actually a facade, rather than being made from stone blocks, but the facade is made from stones quarried on the surface and hoisted up to Aphrodite.”

She strolled along the path between immaculate lawns and well-trimmed hedges. There were a few people out, moving between the buildings, but not many. Everyone was in class or working.

“You might wonder how Aphrodite stays afloat. How can an entire city float through the atmosphere? Well, from what I understand, it’s because the air we breathe is a lifting gas in the carbon-dioxide rich environment of Venus. At this altitude the pressure outside is about the same as inside, but our oxygen-nitrogen mix is buoyant, so the whole city floats!”

She laughed. “Don’t worry! I’m not going to turn all stuffy on you. Let’s look around and see if we can find a place to eat. There has to be something on a campus like this!”

It didn’t take long at all to find a place, Carys went around the corner of one of the big academic buildings and there was a charming little outdoor cafe. Well, as outdoor as things were in a floating city.

Tables were arranged outside. Most were empty, although at two tables were two couples. The double-doors leading into the cafe were still open.

“Gee,” she said, as she walked over. “I wonder what time it is locally?”

Between the transport and here, who knew what time it was? Carys took out her cell and switched to the settings. “Adjust to local time.”

The display shifted from just before noon to ten p.m.! “Ten P.M.? Wow, I didn’t think it was so late! I should have realized, given Venus’ slow rotation, it’s more the movement of Aphrodite itself that determines how long the days are! I’m starved, hopefully this place is still serving.”

The sign above the doors was “Cornucopia,” etched into a panel, with an illustration of a crescent planet shape surrounded by a planetary ring of food. Nice and spacey. The tables were black, hexagons, mirroring the shapes of the dome stretching above.

As she approached the building the spy-eyes dropped lower and closer, to keep their focus on her while she moved inside. They’d run through a library of positions around her based on the interior layout.

Inside was cute, small, with only a few tables. Most were outside. The guy behind the counter was handsome, with a rough black stubble over golden skin. He had dark eyes and black ringlets of hair fell down around his ears. He was wearing a tight black polo shirt, and shorts. No name badge or anything like that.

He wasn’t alone in the place. One of the three booths were occupied by more young men and women, four in the booth, plus the guy behind the counter who was talking to them.

He held up a hand to the group and moved over as she walked inside. His eyes flicked up, taking in the spy-eyes, and he smiled. “Nice gear! You’re in journalism, aren’t you?”

One of the girls at the table rose to her feet. She was a blond pixie, cute, wearing a dark brown tank top, and shorts. “You’re Carys Rex!”

Great, a fan! That made it so much easier. Carys smiled and did a small curtsy. “Yep, in the flesh! Newly arrived, and absolutely starving.”

She leaned into the counter, her fingertips playing along the edge. She locked her eyes on the guy behind the counter. “Any chance you could serve me?”

One of the guys in the booth, big and broad shouldered, laughed. “Yeah, Mitchell, you going to serve her?”

Mitchell, apparently that was his name, laughed and spread his hands. “Don’t listen to Chuck. He’s crazy. Of course, we’re still open. What can I get you?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Go with the garden burger,” the blond suggested. “It’s the best thing on the menu.”

“Thanks!” Carys nodded to Mitchell. “I’ll do that.”

“Why don’t you come join us?” The blond asked. “We can scooch over.”

“Okay.”

“Go on,” Mitchell said. “I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Thanks.” She smiled and headed over to the group.

They made room for her, and quickly introduced themselves. The blond was Amy. Chuck was the big guy sitting across the booth. There was also Joseph, round-faced, with curly read hair. And on the other side of Amy was Kirsten, beautiful, elegant features, straight hair, and a very smart tan blazer.

The remains of their meal still cluttered the table, with empty plates, but the glasses were full. The spy-eyes took up positions, Green floating above the aisle, taking in the whole booth, while Blue hovered behind Chuck, to focus on her.

Chuck twisted around, looking up at the spy-eye. “You always have those out?”

“She does,” Amy said quickly. “You should see the films she’s done, amazing!”

“Thank you,” Carys said. “That’s so sweet.”

“You’re here,” Amy said. She looked at the rest of the group. “Oh, we should so bring her in! She’d be perfect.”

Joseph laughed, snorting, and held up his hand. “Wait a sec, Amy, we’re not bringing in anyone else.”

Now she was intrigued. “In for what?”

Joseph’s lips pressed together. “It’s nothing. School project, that’s all.”

Amy shook her head. “Seriously? Do a search. See what she’s done.” Amy turned to Carys. “I loved your tour divide videos. I watched the whole thing live, and then the final cut was great too. All those ghost towns? I don’t think I could have done it.”

“There used to be more services,” Carys said. “It’s gotten tougher.”

Mitchell came out, from around the counter, carrying a glass and a plate with a burger and a pile of fries. Actual fries! Carys licked her lips as she took it, inhaling the rich scent. Mitchell put the glass of water down in front of her.

“Oh, you have no idea. Fresh food, after months on the transport here! This is heaven.”

Mitchell watched her as she took her first bite. The bun was crisp, golden on the outside, and oven-warmed with caramelized onions on top. The burger itself was a thick garden burger, crispy on the outside, and bursting with hot, spicy juices inside. The flavors spread across her tongue, the tang of the dill pickle, and it was heaven.

After she swallowed, she beamed up at Mitchell. “Oh, baby, that was great.” She laughed and picked up a fry. It was crispy and scorching hot in her fingers. She bit off half. “Heaven. Pure heaven.”

Mitchell laughed. “Glad you like it. Most new arrivals don’t make it over here so fast. What’d you do, skip the orientation?”

“Yes.” Carys winked. She took another bite then, couldn’t resist. It felt impossibly piggy to scarf the burger down in front of the group after just meeting them, but she couldn’t help herself. She spent the next few minutes focusing on eating. No one was saying anything.

It didn’t take long at all for the burger to disappear. Carys leaned back and picked up the water. It was ice cold and delicious. She took a drink then held up the glass.

“I walked along the water treatment channel to get here, where does all the water come from? I thought Venus was pretty much dry?”

“It is,” Kirsten said. “Although there is enough hydrogen and trace water vapor in the atmosphere to condense out what we need. When Diaspora gets the sail network up and running we’ll eventually divert a comet or two into orbit, to serve as extra resources for settlements.”

Carys nibbled on a fry and looked up at Mitchell. “So how about you? Are you going to tell me what you’re all doing that’s so super-secret?”

Mitchell crossed his arms. “I can’t. It isn’t up to me.”

She looked around the table. “So Joseph, you’re in charge, is that it?”

“It was my idea,” Joseph said.

“And you think what, that I’ll steal it? Leak it?” Carys laughed. “I’m here to explore, to have fun, and tell the folks back home about how great life is on another world. I can get you an audience bigger than you can imagine.”

“We should tell her,” Amy insisted. “It’s totally her sort of thing.”

Chuck shrugged. “Heck, what do I care? I think you’re all crazy anyway.”

Carys ate a couple more fries and then slid on up out of the booth. “How about I let you think about it? It isn’t like I’m going anywhere. If you want to share, I’m sure you can find me.”

Whatever they were planning, it sounded intriguing, but trying to probe too much now would only spook them. Better that they come to her.

“Thank you,” Joseph said. His neck was flushed.

“Don’t mention it.” Carys turned and Mitchell was there. He smiled at her, she smiled back.

“Hey, since I skipped the orientation, do you think you can show me back to where I’m staying. It must be getting real food, which was great by the way, but I’m suddenly beat.”

Mitchell nodded. “Sure, I’ll show you. Come on.”

“Hey, Mitchell,” Joseph said.

Mitchell waved. “Don’t worry about it, I won’t say anything, and I’ll go along with the group.”

Carys took his arm, feeling his firm muscles, and walked with him to the door. She paused. “Wait, don’t you have to worry about the cafe?”

He shook his head. “Naw, it’s more of a community kitchen, a shared space. We all just take turns. They’ll take care of it.”

Arm, in arm, they strolled out along the pathways between the young trees. “This really looks like it could be someplace back on Earth, except for the yellow light.”

“Yeah, you get used to it, but it’s strange not having blue skies. And no weather. It’s always warm and calm here.”

Carys swung her leg out, toes grazing across the grass. “Comfy, though. Don’t have to worry about getting cold.”

“Nope.”

He was young, at least a few years younger than her, but not much. She looked up at him. “So what about you, what do you do?”

“Engineering student. I work on keeping all of this running, while studying. Diaspora pays well, and covers my education. Can’t complain about that.”

“And the others?”

“All student workers. We’re the engine that keeps Aphrodite afloat. We study, we work and that’s about it. It seems exciting, being on another planet, but we do our best to keep it as boring as possible.”

“I find that hard to believe. You have to have fun around here.” Carys bit her lip and skipped away onto the grass. The cool blades tickled her feet. She ducked beneath the hanging branches of a weeping willow and swung around the trunk, laughing.

Playful always looked good on the cameras.

Mitchell laughed.

Carys laced her fingers together and strolled out, putting a sway into her walk. “I’d hate to think that I bore you.”

Mitchell shook his head. His eyes traveled down her, and back up to meet her eyes. “You don’t bore me. Not at all.”

Carys made a decision. She was going to be on Aphrodite for quite some time, so there wasn’t any sense in delaying things. Mitchell was handsome, smart and interesting. She reached him, and ran her hand along his abdomen. Through the black polo she traced the lines his abs.

“You certainly stay in shape here,” she said, tilting her head to look up at him.

Mitchell put his hands on her waist. “Mandatory requirement. Diaspora wants healthy, productive people. They make sure that we stay in shape.”

“As they should.” Carys turned, slipping her hand around his waist to the small of his back. She played her fingers along the line of his shorts. “Makes more sense to keep workers healthy than to have them call in sick all the time.”

His arm went around her back and he started walking. She moved closer to him as they strolled.

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’re obviously in great shape. I doubt Diaspora had anything to do with that.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope. That’s just me. There’s always so many things I want to do, doing them keeps me in shape.”

“So you don’t train?”

“No, I do. I even wrote a book about it, if you want to download it.” Never hurt to mention things like that for the audience. “It’s more about maintaining my fitness now, and mostly I do that through having fun.”

“Amy certainly seemed like a fan of your work.”

Carys pushed away from him. “You really haven’t seen anything of mine?”

Mitchell shook his head. “Nope, sorry. We’re cut off here from Earthnet. Well, not entirely cut off, but the lag makes it difficult to get anything from Earth quickly. It’s more like sending old-time paper mail than being connected.”

“That sucks.” Carys pulled out her cell. It showed a localnet connection only. A few swipes also showed that her storage space was rapidly diminishing as the spy-eyes streamed the video to her cell, as they were programmed to do in low connection environments.

“Suck! I’m going to hit my storage limit in two days at this rate.” She looked up, and discovered Mitchell was laughing quietly. She swung her hand at him, it didn’t hit because he moved back. “It isn’t funny. Blackstone never talked about a data limit, it never even occurred to me to ask. I’m so accustomed to not worrying about storage back on Earth. Except for some of the more remote places I’ve been, a fat connection is pretty much universal.”

“It’s fine,” Mitchell said. “We can get you set up with space. Trust me, with all the data we’re generating, we have lots of data space. In fact they probably would have helped you out with that, if you hadn’t skipped the orientation.”

She smiled at him. “If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have met you. Or your friends with their mysterious top secret project.”

Mitchell shook his head. “I’m not talking about that.”

Carys pressed close, running her hand up his chest. “No matter what I do to you?”

He bent and — finally! — kissed her. His lips were perfect, soft and firm, and delicious. He didn’t ram his tongue down her throat right away either, waiting until her tongue flicked his top lip before meeting her. The kiss went on, drawing out her breath, and sent shivers down her spine.

Finally they broke apart. Carys started giggling, she couldn’t help it.

“What’s so funny?” Mitchell asked, although he was grinning.

“Nothing!” Carys beamed at him. “Just happy to be on Venus!”

Eventually, with a few stops for slow, lingering kisses, they reached a structure almost on the other side of the city from the university district. Carys probed her sleep-deprived brain and recognized it as one of the central residential areas. The buildings were plain, mostly dark glass panel walls, rising four stories up, a half-dozen of them arranged around a central plaza with a fountain and sculpture in the center.

The sculpture was rough-hewn stone, carved in the shape of a Classical Greek statue of Venus. The water splashed around her feet from fountains around the rim of the pool.

“So this is where I’m supposed to live?” Carys said. She flipped through her cell messages. There were several from Rhea and Victor.

“Carys!” The voice came from behind her.

She turned, and there was Victor, coming out of the nearest building. He was still wearing the same tan uniform, and carried a tablet in his hands. She smiled brightly as he got close. “Hey there, if it isn’t Victor Crane.”

Victor took in Mitchell’s presence with a nod. “No time wasted making friends, I see.”

Mitchell stepped back with a small wave. “We’ll be in touch, Carys, it was great meeting you.”

Carys waved back. She winked. “Yeah, thanks for everything.”

As he left she turned back to Victor, who was watching Mitchell leave. A muscle twitched in Victor’s jaw. Interesting.

“I’m afraid I missed orientation,” she said.

Victor turned his attention back to her, and smiled widely. “So you did. What do you think of Aphrodite?”

“It’s beautiful, amazing. I keep forgetting that I’m inside. It feels like being outside.”

“We try to use that,” Victor said. “We’ve got all the lower levels for infrastructure, support, storage and work spaces. It lets us open up most of the volume.”

“It’s brilliant.” Carys felt a yawn coming on, and covered her mouth. She squinted her eyes tight as she yawned. When it passed, Victor was closer. “I’m beat. I hadn’t realized how much the trip had taken out of me. You said something about place for me?”

“Yes, here.” Victor tapped the screen of his tablet.

Her cell buzzed. Carys checked it. A message with attached orientation materials and a digital key to her apartment located in Venera 4, 310B. A map highlighted the building on the left side of the plaza as Venera 4.

“The buildings are named for the missions?”

“Yes,” Victor said. “There’s a replica statue in the lobby when you go in. Check it out, it was shipped from Earth.”

Which meant it was valuable. Every bit of weight mattered. “Thank you. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Another yawn was coming on. Carys fought it. Victor grinned. “Hey, get yourself settled in. My contact information is in the packet, if you need anything let me know. Have you eaten?”

That question sounded forced casual. Carys jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Yeah, got something over at the U.”

“Okay, well, then, good night. It’s not going to get dark tonight, I’m afraid, but the curtains are light-blocking.”

Not dark, she’d read about that and it reminded her of a question. On Aphrodite, day and night were determined more by how fast they circled the planet in the hurricane force winds. “Why don’t you move closer to the poles to get more of a standard day/night cycle?”

“Too turbulent. Not that it’s calm out there either, but it’s more stable. It takes Aphrodite about four days to circle the planet, so we get two days of light, and two days of dark. During the dark phase we use interior lighting during daylight hours and for safety.”

“Great. Something to look forward to.” Yet another yawn swept over her. Carys covered it and shook her head. “Long day. I’m going to hit the hay. Good night!”

“Good night.” Victor looked like he might say something else, but then he shook his head, waved, and headed back to the other building.

Carys tilted her head up and squinted at Green. The spy-eye picked up on her expression and moved a bit closer. She didn’t have to look to know that Blue was tracking Victor, if he looked back, the camera would catch it.

“Well! It’s been an exciting day! It’s almost time for me to get in bed —” she waggled a finger at the camera. “Get that thought out of your head! I will give you a quick tour, and then it’s time for this girl to get some sleep!”

Suddenly she was really feeling it, exhaustion in her legs, in her whole body. Nothing that she hadn’t worked through before. How many ultra-endurance events had she done? Taking the transport to a new planet might count, but that had been months of looking at the same place. This, at least, was something different.

The show had to go on. Carys walked over to the fountain and jumped up on the narrow rim around the pool. The smooth surface was slick but her bare feet gripped the edge and she walked nimbly along to the other side and jumped down.

Inside the main doors of Venera 4 was a polished lobby of dark stone. In the center, caught in a spotlight, was the promised model of Venera 4. A Russian probe, according to the plaque, it was the first probe to land on another planet. It rose up through the center of the building, over three meters high.

Clunky, old, with bulky components and none of the grace of even the transport that brought her to Venus. How far had they come! From this, to Aphrodite, the floating city that she was currently enjoying. It was humbling. She was a thrill-seeker, a professional adventurer, and so too, in a way, were the people that built this probe.

Carys looked up at Green. “That’s where it all started, isn’t it? Impressive, I’m glad that they added this replica. It’s fantastic, brilliant.”

The rest of the building was modern, indistinguishable from anything that she might find on Earth, although the pictures lining the hallway were portraits of those involved in the history of Venus exploration.

There was an elevator, which she took, to the third floor. It opened onto a narrower corridor, the floor smooth and artificial, panels instead of stone. Lights brightened the otherwise dark hall, shining on alcoves overgrowing with green plants at regular spaces down the hall.

Her door, 310B opened into a corner suite. She used the digital key on her cell to open the door and walked in to a bright apartment. All the curtains were open, and the outer walls were simply windows. Opaque from the outside, transparent in here. The glass filtered the light, giving it a bluish tint, so that even the sky outside looked somewhat more bluish than yellow.

Carys frowned and pointed at the windows. “Look at that, blue skies on Venus? I guess it makes people feel more at home or something, than always seeing that yellowish sky.”

The apartment itself was furnished simply, tastefully. No plants in here, although there were small tables and shelves that could hold plants. Probably if she asked for them, she could get them.

She wandered into the apartment, spy-eyes rotating around her to keep her in view, and took it all in. Main room, a couch, loveseat facing each other across a coffee table. Wall screen, taking up the space above an inset artificial fireplace. A dining area, with a short shelving unit helping to define and separate the space from the living area, in front of the windows. A round table, four chairs. It looked sunny and inviting.

Around the corner, a kitchen area, and beyond it an open door into the bedroom area.

Carys smiled and spun in place. “Well! This is lovely, isn’t it? I didn’t bring much, but I’ll make it home soon!”

She went to the windows between the dining area and the kitchen, there was a door and a narrow balcony outside. Down below was a park-like space with weeping willows, a few small pines, and green lawn. Beyond it, more buildings, and not too far off, the honeycomb outer barrier rising up across the sky. The colors looked more Earth-like, given the tinted glass.

“Look at that view! Yes, I definitely will be comfortable here. Diaspora does know how to treat a girl.” She covered another yawn, then winked at the camera. “Right now it’s time for lights out! I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

A couple taps on her cell, and Blue and Green descended, landing on her hand, rolling up into balls. She slipped them into her bag. They’d need to charge tonight.

Moving into the bedroom she touched her lips lightly with her fingers, thinking of Mitchell. He was nice. Real. Interesting, too. Whatever he and his friends were keeping secret, it had Joseph wound tight. Finding out what it was might turn out to be fun.

Her chance came quicker than she had expected, when Mitchell asked her to meet him at the Cornucopia the next afternoon. When he called she was fresh from the shower, wrapped in a towel. She took the call in the living room, and Mitchell appeared larger than life on the wall screen. He gaped, blushed and turned away.

Fortunately the spy-eyes were recording it all, as she laughed, delighted at his reaction. Later, when she edited the footage, she might spare him and cut that out, but she was glad to have it for herself at least.

Today she wore a short polka dot skirt (pink dots) that ended above her knees. She still wasn’t shoes, she’d brought one pair only, and was saving those for special events. With the skirt she work a light white sleeveless blouse. Her hair, which tended to escape in all directions, was mostly captured in her signature red net snood hat. The strap of her bag crossed her chest while the yellow bag hung at the small of her back.

Her spy-eyes, Green and Blue, buzzed ahead and behind, taking in everything that she was recording along with the feed from her glasses. One of the things in the download Victor had given her, were keys to Aphrodite’s cloud, so storage wasn’t an issue any longer.

Cornucopia was busier when she reached it, with groups siting at many of the outside tables, and go in and out of the door. Mitchell and his friends occupied two tables around the corner, somewhat separated from the rest. Two pizzas sat on the tables in front of them.

Mitchell waved her over, and she waved back as she approached.

“Hey there!” She said, as she reached the group. She inhaled deeply, catching the rich tomato and basil smell of the pizza. The cheese was melty, and just browning on the top. “Who do I have to kill to get a slice?”

“No one,” Mitchell said. He gestured to an empty chair beside him. “Care to sit?”

“I’d love to.”

Amy beamed at her as she sat. “Hi! Did you get settled in?”

“I did, thanks.” Carys picked up a plate and held it as Mitchell used a spatula to serve up a slice. “Oh, this looks fantastic!”

Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten all said hellos. Joseph even managed a bit of a smile, lifting a slice in a salute before taking a bite.

She couldn’t resist. She took a bite. Spicy tomato sauce exploded across her tongue, the roof of her mouth, hot but not so hot that it blistered anything. The cheese was rich and stretched as she pulled the slice back.

She swallowed. “Wow, four months in transit gives you a whole new appreciate for good food!”

Joseph put down his slice and leaned forward. “We’re celebrating.”

“What?” Carys took a bite, while looking around the group. They all looked pretty pleased.

Mitchell leaned close. “They’ve agreed to bring you on board.”

“Okay.” Carys snagged a glass of water. “I’m game. On board for what?”

Chuck grinned and held out a tablet. “This. Check it out.”

Everyone was watching. Carys reluctantly put down the slice of pizza, wiped her hands on a cloth napkin, and took the tablet. A video was on the screen, paused.

Her first impression was that she was looking at an artificial whale, one made of largely transparent materials, a honeycomb structure that mirror that of the habitat. Except it wasn’t so much a whale, as whale-like, with a fat central body, longer than wide, a whale-like flipper in the rear and two fin-like propellers on either side.

Inside the whale, visible through the mostly transparent walls, were rods and cables, and other equipment, and at the heart of it a reclining seat. Like where someone would sit.

“Play it,” Kirsten urged.

Carys shrugged, grinned and tapped play.

On the screen an animated featureless blue person climbed up into the belly of the whale, and went forward to the chair, where it sat. The feet went out into pedals and the hands dropped to handles on each side of the seat.

Then the figure started pedaling. the propellers spun and the wide tail rose and fell. The whale-vehicle rose in a spiral, yellowish clouds drifting by, and then a bubble appeared in the distance, catching the sunlight. The figure continued to pedal, using the handles on each side of the seat to change direction and pitch.

The bubble emerged from the clouds, a soap-bubble holding a city, and green trees, walkways clearly visible between green lawns. The whale-vehicle circled the city and then the video stopped.

Carys realized she was holding her breath and everyone was watching her, obviously waiting for her reaction. She exhaled, and said.

“Wow! That’s incredible. Are you telling me that you want to build this?”

“No,” Mitchell said.

“We already have,” Joseph said, smugly. He picked up his pizza and took a bite.

“We want you to come with us,” Mitchell said.

“We so need someone like you,” Amy added. “Someone that can film what we’re trying to do, you know? Experienced at that sort of thing. I showed them my recordings of what you’ve done, I’d brought them with me.”

“You’ve done some impressive feats of endurance,” Kirsten said. “This won’t be that different.”

Carys handed the tablet across the table to Chuck. She picked up her pizza and leaned back, putting her toes up on the edge of the table. “Okay. Cool! Tell me more.”

They all looked at each other. Finally Mitchell leaned close and said, “We’re going to race around Venus!”

It sounded impossibly wonderful. “What? What do you mean?”

Chuck gestured for the tablet. “I’ll show you.”

She handed it back. He took it and quickly pulled up a new display, an animated graphic showing Venus, a bright bubble that must be Aphrodite, and a pod of tiny whale-like vehicles. Red streamers flowed past the city and the pod started swimming, racing ahead of the city, racing each other. In moments they raced clear around the planet and caught up with the city.

“No!” Carys reached out and took the tablet. Her glasses were recording it all. She replayed the animation. Once again the tiny vehicles raced around the planet. “How long is going to take?”

Amy winced. “We’re not sure.”

“We think it’s going to be at least three weeks,” Kirsten said.

“Although that’s assuming everything happens perfectly,” Mitchell added.

Carys handed the tablet back to Chuck. “Wait. Three weeks? Doesn’t it only take four days for the city to get around the planet?”

“We’re not only going around the planet,” Joseph said. “We’re racing the wind ahead of Aphrodite, but it’s blowing with the wind behind us. Our tests suggest that the sky-bikes —”

“That’s what you’re calling them?” Carys asked.

Joseph nodded. “Yes. So we —”

“They don’t look like bikes.” Carys held up her hands. “Sorry, I know that’s not the point, I know you pedal, but they don’t look like a bike.”

“The sky-bikes only gain about 60 kilometers an hour on the city,” Joseph said quickly. “At this altitude that gives us about three weeks of flight time to catch back up to Aphrodite from the other side. We’re essentially chasing the city around the planet.”

“In hurricane force winds?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Amy put her hands on the table. “See this is why you’d be so great! You’ve done things like this!”

“I need more pizza if I’m going to think about this,” Carys announced.

She picked up her slice and took another bite, melted cheese dissolving in her mouth. Nothing about this suggested that any of them had experience with endurance events. And this wasn’t any ordinary effort. She would have to pack everything, no resupply on the way. Nothing beneath the sky bike except miles of air.

Carys chewed. Everyone else was eating pizza too, but what they were really doing was watching her. So were the spy-eyes. She could edit the footage, of course, but she wanted to keep editing to the minimum.

This was exactly what Blackstone hired her for, had she known about the project?

Terra Blackstone hadn’t left anything to chance, if Carys knew anything, she had already figured that out. The team stored their files in the VenusNet, so really there wasn’t anything that would have kept Terra out. And that reception party? Had Rhea and Victor been planning to tell her about the project, arrange an introduction?

It made sense.

Carys finished the slice and picked up another. Amy bit her lip. Mitchell leaned closer. Kirsten and Joseph exchanged a look.

“Okay, I —”

Amy squealed.

Carys held up her hand. “Wait. I have some conditions.”

“Conditions?” Joseph asked.

“Yes. Raise your hand if you’re a trained pilot.”

Kirsten, was that a smirk, raised her hand. So did Joseph and Chuck, but not Amy or Mitchell. Carys waved a finger at the two of them.

“Okay, first, you’re not going. You’re talking about flying around a pilot with a violent atmosphere. No one without flight experience.”

“The sky bikes are lighter than air craft here,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Nope. Doesn’t matter. And I’m not done. Out of those of you who are pilots, how many have completed an ultramarathon?”

Only Chuck raised his hand, slowly. Carys gaped at the big guy. “Really? You’ve run an ultramarathon? How far? When?”

“When I was in the military,” Chuck said. “There’s a fifty miler in the Capitol Forest near my folks’ place. I was on leave and didn’t want to get out of shape.”

He certainly was big, much more mass. “How long ago?”

Chuck grinned. “Four years ago.”

“And how much have you run since?”

“Not much.”

She nodded and looked at the group. “So I do this solo. I take a sky bike, and make the attempt. The rest of you stay here.”

“We’ve been working out,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Working out isn’t going to do it. If you don’t have the mind-set to do an ultra, then you won’t make it. Conditions out there are going to be crazy. Wind, currents, storms, lightning, it’s crazy!”

She smiled at them. “Fortunately I was born crazy.”

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’ve been cooped up in the transport for four months. Are you in shape to do this?”

“I will be,” Carys said. “We start training. I need to learn to fly this thing you’ve built. We’ll do tests around the city. Out and back, that sort of thing. When I’m ready, then I’ll go.”

There were a lot of hesitant looks around the table. Kirsten spoke up. “We don’t actually have approval for all of this. We figured that once we were on the way, they couldn’t do anything about it. There isn’t really anything that could come out and get us.”

“Are you suicidal?” Carys asked. “Even out riding in remote areas on Earth, I had GPS tracking, I had planned ways to bail out, if necessary. We had my itinerary figured out, so if I didn’t make a checkpoint that help would get dispatched.”

“We didn’t think they’d approve it,” Amy said. “We’ve been doing it after hours. What do we do if we can’t get approval?”

“Leave that to me.” Carys picked up her slice of pizza. “Technically I’m independent. I’ll call Blackstone, get her to back the project. We’ll have all the support we want. That’s the deal, I do it solo, I’ll get the support we need, and you all back me up. Deal?”

She took a bite of the pizza, savory the spicy sauce while everyone looked at everyone else, but they were smiling, even Joseph.

“Yes,” Kirsten said, breaking the silence.

Everyone cheered. Carys lifted her pizza slice in salute. Absolute insanity, her favorite thing.

Getting a hold of Blackstone proved harder than Carys expected, but after getting bumped up the Diaspora chain of command, she finally was connected through to Terra in route back to Earth behind the first solar sail from Mercury. Apparently she’d taken a transport out for the first launch. Given the lag, a real-time conversation wasn’t possible. Carys outlined the proposal and waited for an answer.

It was evening, actually dark this time, as Aphrodite had moved into the nightside of the planet, when the call came back. Carys was in her new apartment, reviewing all the details on the sky bikes.

Terra Blackstone, beautiful as always, was wearing a black workall when she came on the screen. Not the baggy sack regulation version, but a custom one that hugged her curves. The top three snaps were undone, revealing a generous cleavage. Her dark hair was braided back in a complicated French braid. The transport habitat must be rotating, because she didn’t have that puffy face look that zero gravity gave everyone. And she wasn’t floating.

Blackstone smiled brightly and spoke, with solidly American Northwest accent. “Carys! I’m so glad that you made it across the void to Venus! You’re perfect for Aphrodite, exactly what it needs to liven things up! And from your report, it looks like you’ve found exactly the way to do it. I’d heard a rumor about this plan, I’m glad that it panned out.”

A rumor? Of course that’s what it was. Carys shook her head at the recording. Leave it to Blackstone to know what was going on anywhere in the solar system right now.

“I’ve already sent word to support this enterprise. We need to show people the sorts of adventures that are available out here. It isn’t all about cataloging rocks. We’re out here to live life! This is perfect. I trust you to work out the details, work with the administration to get what you need for the project.”

Blackstone pressed her hands together in front of her chest. “Carys, I have to say it, be careful. I appreciate your sense of adventure, but I also appreciate your good sense. It’s dangerous out here, and mistakes can quickly lead to disaster. We will have accidents, we can’t help that. I still want to avoid them if possible.”

Diaspora had already weathered several accidents. People back on Earth were adapting to the idea that if people were going to live in space, sooner or later they’d die there too.

Blackstone smiled. “And have fun! I can’t wait to see your footage!”

The recording ended. Carys grinned up at the floating spy eyes. “You heard it here! We’re going to race around the planet!’

Hell, she was going to race around the planet. A small part of her had been hoping that Blackstone would squash the project. But that was okay? It was normal enough to have the jitters before a big adventure. She just had to work out all the details and it’d be fine.

Her door chime rang an hour later, while she was studying atmospheric data gathered so far on Venus.

“Come in,” Carys said.

The front door opened. Green buzzed around to a new position to take in the door, her and whoever came through. Blue mirrored Green on the other side.

Mitchell walked in, all dreaming and dark. He smiled at her, and that was nice too.

“How’s it going?” He asked, letting the door close.

Carys put aside her tablet and rose up off the couch. She stretched her arms out above her head, arching her back, and really stretched, groaning appreciatively. Mitchell’s smile widened.

“Fine,” Carys said, lowering her arms and moving closer. “You?”

“Better now,” Mitchell said, taking her hands.

She drew him down for a kiss, which didn’t really end until somehow they ended up down on the couch, and she was lying half on him, half off. She rose up, kissing his nose as she pulled back.

“I heard back from Blackstone. She loves it.” Carys grinned. “We’re getting all the support we could want. Did you know that she was on Mercury?”

“What was she doing there?”

Carys trailed her fingers along his ear. “Apparently she went there to catch a ride on the first solar sail. Now she’s on her way back to Earth, or the Moon, probably.”

“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?” Mitchell asked.

She pushed up more, planting her hands on his chest, she swung her leg over his, straddling his thigh. “What? Before I came along you were planning on doing it yourself!”

Carys squeezed her legs against his, applying enough pressure to let him know how strong she was. “I’m up for it. Are you?”

His hands came up, running up her hips beneath the skirt. “Up for something, but not the ride. We weren’t going to do it.”

“What?” Carys laughed and tugged his shirt up, exposing his stomach. It wasn’t exactly a six-pack, maybe a three-pack, with a little extra padding. “You weren’t?”

“No.” Mitchell lifted his head toward her cleavage, but she pulled back.

“What do you mean?”

Mitchell dropped back, groaning. “We weren’t. We’d talk and talk about it, but we weren’t doing anything. It was very frustrating.”

She moved up higher, rubbing against him. “And then I showed up.”

His hands cupped her bottom, shifting her over a few inches. “Yes. You showed up. You called their dare.”

She leaned forward, her blouse grazing his face. “And now we’re going to do it for real.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes,” Carys said.

The few weeks before launch passed quickly. The group worked on getting the sky bike operational, and Carys worked on training, using a recumbent trike that Chuck put together for her. She spent hours, racing around the paths around and through Aphrodite, tracing out a route that took her over ten miles to complete and repeated it over and over again.

Riding the trike worked different muscles than riding a mountain bike or street bike. Instead of being up she was sitting in a mesh seat slung across a metal frame, reclining with her feet up on the pedals. The first couple days she had issues with her toes feeling numb, until her legs adjusted to the new position.

The weakness induced by four months in transit to Venus melted away.

And there was Mitchell. That worked a whole different set of muscles.

In addition to the trike, she spent hours working on body weight exercises, just getting herself in shape. She’d ride the trike around Aphrodite and stop in one of the many lawn areas to stretch, jump and work out. She climbed the willow trees.

Then the day came when Joseph approached her holding a what looked like a red latex body suit, while she was stretching on the lawn near Cornucopia. He held out the suit.

“What’s that?”

“Your environmental suit,” he said.

“My what?”

“Environmental suit. For working outside in the Venus atmosphere. You don’t need a space suit, the air pressure is essentially the same outside as inside, but you need protection from the aerosol acids.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” Carys took the suit. It was slick and shiny, and apparently it’d be skin tight if she put it on. Early on they’d done measurements with lasers, that must have been used to make this. She raised an eyebrow. “Did you have to make it skin tight?”

Joseph actually turned an interesting shade of red himself, and rubbed his scruffy beard. “If it’s loose, the acid might pool, and is harder to clean off. It needs to be, um, as smooth as possible.”

He turned redder, and took off a hard black backpack he was wearing. He held it out. “This is a breathing unit. It scrubs CO2, and provides supplemental oxygen.”

He flipped a catch and the curved neck piece opened up. “This fastens to the neck collar, making a seal so that the air doesn’t leak. The whole thing is coated, like the suit, to shed the acid.”

Carys tossed the suit over her shoulder and took the breathing unit. The backside was sculpted, clearly designed to fit her back as tightly as the suit. “Do I have to wear this while I’m riding the sky bike?”

“Well, um, it’s a precaution. If you have a leak, or have to go outside to fix something, it’ll protect you. I don’t think you’d want to have to change in an emergency.”

“A leak?” She slid the suit down her arm, running her hands over the suit. There was a seam at the front. “Speaking of that, how do I take care of business while wearing this?”

“You’d have to take it off.” The red had been bleeding from Joseph’s cheeks, now it flooded back. “We tried to minimize seams.”

“Okay. So as long as I don’t have an emergency while I’m naked, taking care of business. Maybe I should just fly naked, it doesn’t look all that comfortable.”

“Oh, it is!” Joseph smiled and rubbed at his jaw, blushing furiously. “Not that I’ve worn it! I mean, your’s. I’ve tried one made for me. A prototype test. It’s stretchy, very comfortable.”

“Glad to hear it. Thanks Joseph. Anything else?”

“Yes,” he said. “We wanted to give that to you because we’ve got the sky bike ready, two more are just about ready to go.”

“That’s great!” Carys glanced up at Green, hovering off to the side, to catch them both in the shot. “Did you hear that? Time to fly!”

“Now?” Joseph asked.

“You just said it was ready.”

“I thought you’d want more time to train, to get ready.”

“I might,” Carys said. “After I get a feel for what it’s like. Let’s take it out for a test flight, stay near Aphrodite, and see how it handles. Assuming that goes well, we’ll have more information for our planned launch.”

Joseph grinned, but it was an uneasy thing, like he was going to be sick. Carys thumped him on the shoulder. “Aren’t you glad I came along? If I hadn’t it might be you taking it out for the first test flight.”

Carys went over to the trike parked on the path and sat down, slipping her feet into the pedal straps. She held the pack and suit on her lap, awkward, but she didn’t plan to go far. “Let’s go! Lead on!”

With a nodded Joseph moved, heading up the path toward the university buildings.

Carys had been in the workshop once before, shortly after taking on the role of the solo pilot. The group had given her the grand tour of the partially built sky bike and had shown off the model versions they’d built and tested in a wind tunnel that Amy had put together.

Outside the building Carys parked the trike in a rack, took her messenger bag off the rack in back, slug it over her shoulder and carried the suit and breathing unit as she followed Joseph down into the workshop.

The workshop had changed. The sky bike hung suspended from the ceiling, facing the large airlock doors in the outer wall. This space had been chosen because it had direct access to outside, through the airlock. That had also imposed certain design limitations on the sky bike, notably that the flipper-propellers couldn’t be deployed until the bike was outside, and both airlock doors had to open at once to let it out. That had meant more work to seal the workshop so that the atmosphere could be pressurized so that it kept the Venusian atmosphere out when they launched the bike.

None of which had been accomplished until Carys had gotten Blackstone’s support on the project. Then the administration had pitched in, even as Carys insisted the team maintained control over the project.

That hadn’t made certain professors happy about being excluded.

The sky bike was magnificent. Up close, it was sleek and elegant, with a whale-like shape. The whole thing was covered in a transparent material over a honeycomb frame. the same sort of materials as Aphrodite itself. Which meant that it was tested materials, even if the shape and design differed.

Everyone was there, including Mitchell. He gestured up at the sky bike. “What do you think?”

“She’s beautiful.” Carys dropped her bag, the suit and breathing unit in a heap on the floor. Then she walked around the sky bike, reaching up to run her fingers along the skin. It was smooth to the touch, but not fragile-feeling. Solid. Ready to face the forces outside.

Amy popped up at Carys’ elbow. “What are you going to call it?”

Carys grinned. “The Vestal Virgin.”

“That’s great!” Amy clapped her hands.

Kirsten stepped in front of Carys. “Good choice, you’ll take good care of her?”

“Yes. We’ll take care of each other.”

Chuck pointed up at the Vestal Virgin. “Wait until you get up into the cockpit. I think you’ll like it. Everything cut to your measurements.”

Carys laughed. “Like the suit?”

“It has to fit like that,” Mitchell said.

She tilted her head. “I’m sure. Joseph explained it. Maybe later you can give me a hand trying it on.”

Mitchell kissed her, his lips warm. “I’d like that.”

“Enough of that,” Kirsten said. “Let’s get you up in there. See how she feels.”

“You know that sounds wrong, don’t you?” Carys asked.

Laughter all around, all good stuff for the cameras. Chuck brought over the rolling stairs and with everyone, including her audience once she published this, watching, Carys climbed up to the side.

There was a hatch on the top side, just ahead of the tail joints, leading into a small airlock space. A twist and pull, and it popped open. Not too hard. She swung her legs in and realized immediately that anyone below would be seeing right up her skirt. Her lips quirked into a smirk and she winked up at the camera.

“Don’t do this with someone beneath,” she said.

Everyone was standing back at the moment. She dropped into the small space. The spy-eyes zoomed in, programmed to follow her, but she waved them off. “Stay back, film from outside.”

The spy-eyes pulled back.

Carys crouched and pulled the hatch shut behind her.

Hot air blasted her from all sides, blowing up her skirt. Carys pressed it down and shouted. She heard laughter outside. After a moment the wind died, although strands of her hair had escaped from her net hat. She pointed at Mitchell and the rest laughing.

“What was that?”

“It’s designed to purge any outside gasses, and dry out your suit,” Joseph called, his voice only somewhat muffled. “Sorry! We didn’t think to warn you.”

Right. They just wanted to laugh about her skirt getting blown up around her waist. The space didn’t let her stand up straight. There was another hatch, in the wall this time. Another twist and pull, and it opened up. She crawled through, moving forward into the bike.

There the space opened up more. Not enough to let her stand up right, but she could move around. There was a narrow honeycomb deck that ran around the central section to the front where her seat was. The big central mass held all of the equipment for her environmental systems, and storage of food, water and everything else she needed. Before she went out, she’d inventory everything, but right now she wanted to see the pilot’s seat.

Carys moved on ahead.

The seat was comfortably familiar, much like the trike. She dropped into the seat and instantly felt at home. Two tablets mounted on armatures gave her controls over the electronic systems, but the real key were the pedals directly in front of the seat. She slipped her feet into the straps. Perfect fit.

The lock bar was down, preventing the pedals from turning. Same thing that she’d do when she slept, leaving the sky bike to drift with the wind. They’d discussed autopilots, but as soon as they automated it, she’d be nothing more than a passenger. She had insisted only on life-support, nothing more.

They’d really done it. Carys ran her hands along the steering rods on either side of the seat. Those rods controlled the flipper-propellers still stowed against the sides. The pedaling action caused the tail to move as well, providing even more thrust to propel the Vestal Virgin through the sky. Twist controls on the right handle shifted gears in the internal hub to increase power. Braking levers on both handles would slow the flippers down to provide some brake-steering capability.

Outside Blue and Green both flew around the front of the sky bike, coming closer from both sides to get a good look at her face.

She smiled widely and waved at the cameras. “This is going to be a blast!”

It took two more days to get everything ready for the Vestal Virgin’s maiden voyage.

When Carys walked into the workshop, her spy eyes ahead and behind, conversation died as all eyes were on her.

It wasn’t only the team. In addition to them, there was a crowd of nearly thirty other people gathered around the Vestal Virgin. News of the launch had spread through the tight-knit community. Someone in the crowd whistled. Carys grinned in response.

Joseph had been right, the suit was comfortable, but it left nothing to the imagination. The slick red material clung to her like a second skin, like she had been dipped into the suit rather than having pulled it on. It covered her from her toes all the way to the open seal at her neck. She’d left the front open enough to show some cleavage. She carried the breathing unit in one hand, and the transparent top of the suit was hanging down her back.

Carys paused, placing her left hand on her hip and waved her right happily at the crowd.

Now wasn’t the time to be shy. Mitchell moved out of the crowd and walked toward her. She moved, walking to meet him. They came together and she melted against him, the slick suit doing little to diminish the sensation of him touching her. They had already experimented with that when she first tried on the suit. She’d never been much for the whole latex and bondage scene, but this was very interesting. No exposed metal, of course, given the need to resist the corrosive atmosphere.

Mitchell’s lips found hers and they kissed. As she melted into his warm touch, the crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped, more whistles rang out.

He pulled back. “Everyone’s excited about the flight.”

“It’s only a test flight,” she said. “This isn’t the big launch yet.”

“Still, it’s a big deal. A new craft.”

Carys looked up past him at the camera, then away, to kiss his neck. Mitchell moaned, then pushed her gently back. “None of that, or I’m never going to let you try this. You can still back out, you know? We could do more tests.”

“No. I want to do this.” She laughed. “Come on, it’ll be a blast. Let’s go!”

She squeezed his hand and moved around him, waving again to the cheering crowd. Rhea and Victor came forward. Rhea smiled.

“This is exciting! Thanks for inviting me. I can’t believe you’re doing this, I’d be too scared!”

Carys shook her head. “I have confidence in the team. The Vestal Virgin is only the first sky bike. They’ve got several more in production. I think this is going to be a popular draw for Venus, after we prove the concept.”

“Good luck,” Rhea said.

“Yes,” Victor added. “Good luck. Be careful out there!”

Carys kept moving, then Amy was there, bouncing in front of her with a high-pitched squeal. Amy threw her arms around Carys and hugged her tight. Carys laughed, hugging her back. When Amy pulled away her eyes were watery.

“Hey!” Carys shook her head. “No tears! This will be great. Just wait and see.”

Amy blinked rapidly. “I know, I’m just excited. I get teary when I get excited.”

“Okay,” Carys said, laughing gently.

Everyone was crowding around her, but she kept moving. Now that she was here, essentially naked in this red suit, she wanted to get on the sky bike and get out there. But she had to be friendly for the crowd, so she waved, shook hands and accepted the well-wishes.

Right at the base she found the rest of the team. Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten were all standing together beneath the sky bike. Carys smiled at them.

“Hey! Look at this, you’ve got everyone excited. Nice, isn’t it?”

Chuck nodded. “Yes, it’s crazy.”

“Good luck,” Kirsten said. “You’ll be fabulous.”

“Thank you.”

“Good luck,” Joseph said.

Carys ran a hand down her side. “Thanks for the suit, it fits great.”

Once again, Joseph blushed, grinning widely. Carys grinned back. “You may have started a new fashion statement, people are going to want to come to ride sky bikes, and they’re all going to need suits. You should go into business.”

Joseph nodded. “I think we’ll all be busy with this!”

The ladder was already in place. Carys climbed up the steps. When she reached the top she waved at the crowd below. The crowd cheered, and listening to their cheers, she climbed down into the airlock. Once inside she held up her hand.

“Come on, boys!”

The spy eyes descended to her outstretched hand. Blue landed first and rolled into a ball. Green followed. She didn’t have any pockets in the suit, so she just held onto them and pulled the hatch down with her other hand.

This time, as the hatch closed, she was ready for the blasts of hot air. If she’d been outside it would evaporate and purge the Venusian atmosphere from her suit. When it stopped she opened the inner door and moved through, sealing the hatch behind her.

The breathing unit fit into a storage space within easy reach behind the seat. If she got into trouble it would only take a second to pull the suit’s hood up over her head, seal it, and get on the breathing unit.

After storing the unit, Carys dropped into the seat. Through the transparent sides the crowd was moving away, leaving the workshop. They wouldn’t want to be inside when those doors opened. The higher pressure inside the workshop would keep out most of the Venusian gasses, but not all.

Carys lifted up the rolled up spy eyes. She tapped on Blue’s shell. “Wake up!”

Blue unrolled, its wings unrolled out and it buzzed.

“Yeah, it’s time! Let’s get filming. Try not to run into the walls.”

Blue rose up and flew around the small cabin. Carys tapped on Green’s shell. “Come on, wake back up. We’ve got a flight to record!”

Green unfurled and in a few seconds had taken a perch up on the storage section behind her seat.

Carys activated the tablets mounted on either side, above her handle controls, and the radio. “This is Vestal Virgin, anyone out there?”

“Virgin, this is Aphrodite.” That was Mitchell. “The workshop is clear. We’re ready to launch if you are?”

Carys flipped through the displays on the tablets. All the sensors throughout the sky bike reported green. Navigation and external cameras all functioning. They hadn’t automated the sky bike, but there were plenty of diagnostics. If necessary, she was able to make quite a few repairs while in flight.

“Everything looks green here, Aphrodite. Let’s get those doors open and go for launch.”

“Okay, Virgin. We’re starting the launch sequence. Doors opening.”

Red strobes came on ahead around the big airlock door. The panels slid open, revealing the inner airlock. It took a few minutes. Carys grinned up at Blue.

“I hate waiting. It’s the worst. I want to get out there, and see what she can do!”

Soon the inner doors were fully open.

“Opening outer doors, Virgin. Stand by.”

“Just waiting here, Aphrodite. Maybe I’ll take a nap while you get things ready.”

Mitchell laughed. “No napping. We’ll have you launched in a few minutes.”

The outer doors cracked open.

On the other side, nothing. A void of yellowish clouds like a bright, dense fog bank. She hadn’t wanted to do the test during the passage around the night side. This was meant as a short run, a couple laps around the city to prove the capabilities.

The wind outside howled against the opening. They’d pressurized the interior, so they were actually blowing out breathable atmosphere to keep out the Venusian atmosphere.

The outer doors finished opening.

“Extending carrier,” Mitchell said. “Hang on, time to move.”

Carys dropped her hands down to the controls. The rail above moved, carrying the sky bike forward toward the doors. The Virgin wasn’t buoyant until it got outside.

The rail extended out into the airlock and the Virgin moved with it. The bright opening was closer and closer. Nothing but clouds outside. Carys breathed in and out. Nothing to worry about.

Sensors were picking up conditions outside. Just over 26 C degrees. Wind speed in excess of 321 km/h. That didn’t matter as much, everything was moving with the wind. Nothing out there except the wind. And the clouds.

The tip of the Virgin penetrated the atmosphere outside. The sky bike shook and swung on the rail as the wind grabbed at it.

Carys clutched the handles. “Launch!”

“Launching,” Mitchell’s voice said. “Hang on!”

With a snap that pressed her back into the seat, the rail flung her out into the atmosphere. The Virgin spun around and fell.

The Vestal Virgin spun out of control and Carys didn’t even try to fight it. Snap out the flippers now and the sheer forces would rip them right off. She hung onto the seat and it was almost like floating. Except every few seconds the city flipped past, dwindling as she fell away.

The rotation slowed.

“Carys! Carys!” Now she heard Mitchell, coming over the radio. His voice frantic.

“Vestal Virgin here,” she said. “Situation stabilizing. I think.”

It was. The rotation kept slowing. The Vestal Virgin rotated around and finally the orientation settled down enough that she thought it safe to move. Blue and Green took to the air again, filming the inside of the sky bike, and her.

“Descent leveling out,” Carys said, watching the readouts. “That dismount is shaky. We need to work on that for next time.”

“We’re glad that you’re okay. Telemetry looks good. Systems seem good on our end.”

Carys flipped through the tablet displays. “I’m seeing the same thing here.”

The Vestal Virgin wallowed in the air, a loose balloon at the moment, caught in the air currents and drifting. Ahead and above Aphrodite was a gigantic sphere. The only thing around with much structure, hazy already through the clouds. If she didn’t move soon, she might lose sight of the city. She needed to get back up there.

“Disengaging lock out,” Carys said.

Using her right foot, she pressed the bar locking out the pedals up, against the spring loaded resistance, until it locked into place, arching over the crank and pedals. The bar locked into position.

She dropped her feet into the pedal straps and pushed against the pedals. It was hard to make them move. She slipped her hand down to the twist grip and twisted. Four twists into the lowest gear and the pedals moved easier.

At the rear, watching the video feed on the tablets, the Vestal Virgin’s flukes rose and fell. The sky bike surged forward, rolling a bit.

“Releasing flippers,” she announced. She shoved her hands down on two release bars beneath the seat.

Clanging noises sounded through the sky bike as the flippers, folded against the sides of the body, swung out into position. The handles in her hands came to life. She moved them experimentally, and the indirect steering worked like it did with the trike. She pulled in opposite directions and the Vestal Virgin swerved back and forth through the air.

Carys let out a whoop. “It works!”

She pulled back on both levers and the flippers tilted, and the front of the Virgin came up. She pedaled harder, shifted her hand down and twisted up a couple gears. She picked up speed.

It was a fantastic, freeing feeling, to sit surrounded by walls mostly transparent, flying the sky bike up toward Aphrodite.

“We see you,” Mitchell said on the radio. “Looking good. All systems reading green, how are you doing?”

“I’m doing fantastic! This thing handles great, you guys did a brilliant job!”

Pedaling action was smooth. Smoother even than riding the trike around the city. Here there was no friction. When she turned against the wind she the sky bike shook, but the motion readouts told the story as the wind continued pushing her along. It was like swimming across a strong current, it continued to carry her forward even as she moved across.

Keeping the flippers extended and rotate, gave her the necessary lift to rise up until she neared the city. She flew along with the wind currents above the city, passing across the face of it.

Over the radio, came cheering, and down there, through the walls of Aphrodite, were people standing alongside the water processing canal. The honeycombs of Aphrodite’s structure were much bigger than those of the sky bike, but the design was the same.

Carys piloted the sky bike around the curve of Aphrodite, not getting too close, and around to the front. The sky bike lurched and dropped closer to the outer dome.

She twisted the flippers, turning the sky bike away from the city, but the wall rapidly grew closer. What had happened? She pedaled, seeming without much result. The left lever pressed against her hand. The sky bike shifted that way and then the wind caught the sky bike swinging it away ahead of the city.

There must have been an eddy in front of the city, a dead zone where the wind coming around the city on all sides met.

She pushed the left lever ahead and down, pulling back on the right, as she tried turning the Virgin to circle around the other side of the city.

The sky bike dropped down and swung away from the city. The wind was blowing her away, and the flipper orientation was carrying her down.

How then?

Instincts kicked in. She stopped pedaling and brought the left flipper up, and the right back more. Now the Vestal Virgin swung into the wind, coming around and rising back up. The city was ahead, on her left, although she had drifted back a surprising distance. The gap between her and the city stayed fairly steady as the wind carried them both along like two bubbles caught in stream.

Carys started pedaling again, now trying to fly against the wind. It wasn’t so much that she made progress, but she slowed her speed slightly. From the readouts, she watched her speed drop. It was like riding up hill. The Virgin hummed around her. She was essentially flying backward, caught in the super-fast winds, but the movement of the flukes was enough to slow her relative to the city.

Aphrodite came up alongside. Carys locked the levers in place and waved to the crowd gathered outside along Aphrodite’s walls. She couldn’t make out individuals, but it looked like the whole city had turned out to watch her fly past.

She’d have to get footage of it from the city cameras, and from those inside, to edit into her posts.

A quick hard squeeze released the lock outs on the levers and she pedaled harder, gaining speed relative to the city, while in fact slowing down.

She swept around the backside of Aphrodite, dropping down and around. The wind tried to roll her as she turned across it but she was ready for that and turned the Virgin over to cut across the wind at an angle. Her speed picked up.

Around the far side of the city she swept up alongside the sphere and picked up even more speed. This was the challenging part. She had to slow down in order to dock with the extended rail and net.

She pushed both levers forward and stopped pedaling, diving down beneath the city. Her speed picked up more as she dove deeper, then she pulled back on the levers and pedaled hard.

The Virgin climbed up, arching up and up, slowing as it went vertical. A jerk of the flippers in opposite directions and the Virgin rolled over as she reached the top. She pushed forward and leveled the sky bike off, pedaling with everything she had against the wind.

She’d timed it right, coming up just before the rail. A few tweaks got her to the right altitude and she adjusted her pedaling to match the Aphrodite’s speed. Readings from the sensors showed her the relative speed dropping.

“This is Workshop, Virgin, do you read?”

Sweat trickled down her neck. She was panting. She laughed anyway. “Yep. I read you. Coming up for the grab. Are you ready?”

“We’re ready, Virgin. Let’s bring you in,” Mitchell’s voice was smooth, comforting.

A half second pause in pedaling and a twitch of the levers and she brought the Vestal Virgin right up under the rail. Automated hooks reached out, fastening into the catches along the Virgin’s spine. The bar rotated, aligning with the rail.

The sky bike swung beneath the rail, nearly sideways. Carys pulled the levers back, locking the flippers against the sides. Then she slipped her feet from the pedals’ straps and pressed down on the bar release with her right foot. It dropped with a clang down over the pedal crank, locking that in place. She put her feet up on the bar and leaned back, unzipping the front of her suit farther. Sweat trickled down between her breasts.

“Bring me in, Mitchell. That was fantastic!”

The rail pulled the sky bike inside. The rocking from the wind stopped, then the outer workshop doors slid shut, closing her off from the outside.

She did it. She was safely back inside. Fans blew, sucking off any acid that had condensed on the Vestal Virgin’s skin. The process took long minutes.

“Are you okay?” Mitchell asked.

“I’m doing great,” she said. “That was a blast! I can’t wait for the big flight. It’ll be epic.”

Blue was hovering in front of her, just above the tablets. Through it all the spy eyes had been there, filming. She was used to tuning them out. Now she smiled at the camera and winked.

“That was a taste of what’s to come,” she said. “Stay tuned for the big adventure when I race around the entire planet, flying solo, leaving Aphrodite, and circling the entire planet to catch back up to the city!”

Carys had to get out of the seat and was surprised how hard it was, not physically, but she wanted to stay. She wanted to get back out there and start the next adventure.

There was still work to be done before then. The data from the Vestal Virgin’s maiden flight needed to be evaluated. The team had a whole sequence of follow-up test flights planned. Most were out and back, where she’d fly ahead of the city, then turn and slow for the city to catch up.

Outside, people were streaming into the workshop. Mitchell was right there in front, along with the rest of the team. She waved and blew kisses. With everyone watching, she got out of the seat.

The footage that she was going to put together, that was going to sell the trip. This was the trailer to the main event. Look at the excitement out there!

Carys grinned. She’d get out there soon. A few more weeks of preparation, lots of options for test flights, and then the big solo flight around the planet. If everything went as planned, she’d have people watching the adventure on every settled planetary body in the solar system.

She opened the hatch and ducked through. Blue and Green buzzed up and landed on her outstretched hand. There wasn’t room for them to hover in the Virgin’s airlock. It was too tight.

She sealed the inner hatch and opened the upper hatch. Cheers erupted from the gathered crowd. Carys hoisted herself up onto the edge of the hatch, and there was Chuck, pushing the ladder into place. She stepped over and tossed Blue and Green into the air. They unfurled and buzzed around the crowd, filming it all.

Mitchell bounded up the stairs with a big smile on his face. He reached up and put his hands on her waist as he climbed the last few steps. They came together and kissed, to the wild cheers of the crowd.

When they broke she leaned back and caught him glancing down at the unsealed front of the suit, with her sweat-glistening cleavage.

“Hey!”

Mitchell grinned as he met her eyes. “You can’t blame me, I didn’t design it.”

“Yeah? I’m not sure that you didn’t have a hand in it.”

“I could have a hand in it, if you want?”

Carys kissed him lightly. “You’re sweet, we’ve got to go greet everyone.”

“You were fantastic,” Mitchell said. “You’ve made this project a reality in a way we never would have done.”

She kissed him again and then turned with him to look down at all the excited faces. All of these people were adventurers, all of them living and working in a floating city on a hostile planet. They were the true heroes, and when she put together her first video about the project, the teaser, she’d be sure to show that. The footage she had shot outside, showing the city in the Venusian atmosphere would help make it all real.

She waved to the crowd and they cheered. She blew kisses and hugged Mitchell close. Venus was waking up, and the adventure was only beginning!

15,383 words

Author’s Note

Venus Waking takes us to our nearest neighboring planet (I read something recently that called Mars the closest planet, um, no), the second in the Planetary Bodies stories on my tour of the solar system. If you didn’t catch Mercury Rising, it is still posted.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story.