Copyright © 2015 by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Introduction copyright © 2015 by Gardner Dozois
Story copyrights appear on this page
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Title page illustration by Stephen Youll
BANTAM BOOKS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Old Venus / edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-7985-0
1. Science fiction. I. Martin, George R. R. , editor. II. Dozois, Gardner R. , editor.
PN6071. S33O43 2015
808. 83’8762—dc23 2014020453
Jacket design: David G. Stevenson
Jacket illustrations: © Stephen Youll
Introduction: Return to Venusport
THE DROWNED CELESTIAL
PLANET OF FEAR
GREEVES AND THE EVENING STAR
A PLANET CALLED DESIRE
BONES OF AIR, BONES OF STONE
THE TUMBLEDOWNS OF CLEOPATRA ABYSS
BY FROGSLED AND LIZARDBACK TO OUTCAST VENUSIAN LEPERS
THE SUNSET OF TIME
PALE BLUE MEMORIES
THE HEART’S FILTHY LESSON
THE WIZARD OF THE TREES
THE GODSTONE OF VENUS
BOTANICA VENERIS: THIRTEEN PAPERCUTS BY IDA COUNTESS RATHANGAN
Return to Venusport
BY GARDNER DOZOIS
DAWN ON VENUS:
The sleek, furry heads of the web-footed amphibious Venusians break water near one of the rare archipelagos in the world-girdling ocean. Nearby, the toothy head and long, snaky neck of a Plesiosaur-like sea creature momentarily rears above the waves. Elsewhere, vast swamps are pocked and shimmered by the ceaseless, unending rain, while immense dinosaurian shapes grunt and wallow in the mud. Elsewhere, tall, spindly people in elaborate headdresses and jewel-encrusted robes walk across rope bridges strung between huge trees, bigger by far than any Terrestrial Redwood or Sequoia, and the spreading ashen light reveals that there’s an entire city up there, up in the trees. Elsewhere, shining silver rockets are landing at the spaceport at Venusport. Still elsewhere, the thick, fetid, steamy jungle is ripped asunder by a dinosaur-like beast, reminiscent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, who emerges from the dripping vegetation and opens his massive, dagger-studded mouth to roar defiance at the morning.
Then, one day in 1962, all these dreams abruptly vanish, like someone blowing out a candle.
People have always noticed Venus (and sometimes worshipped it), perhaps because it’s the brightest natural object in the night sky, other than the Moon. In ancient times, they thought Venus was two separate objects, the Morning Star and the Evening Star—the Greeks called them Phosphoros and Hesperos, the Romans Lucifer and Vesper. By Pythagoras’s day in the sixth century B. C. , it was recognized as a single celestial object, which the Greeks called Aphrodite, and the Romans called Venus, after the goddesses of love in their respective religions. Somehow, Venus has always been associated with goddesses, perhaps in contrast with the second-brightest object in the night sky, Mars, which because of its ruddy color was associated with war, usually the province of men and of male gods. The Babylonians, who realized it was a single celestial object hundreds of years before the Greeks, called it “the Bright Queen of the Sky,” and named it Ishtar, after
When telescopes were invented, Venus could be seen to present a bright but featureless face to observation, and the idea slowly developed that Venus was shrouded in a permanent layer of clouds, unlike Mars or Mercury or the Moon, and speculation as to what might be
Clouds meant rain, and a planet permanently shrouded in clouds must certainly be a planet where it
Just as future speculation about Mars was shaped by American astronomer Percival Lowell, who trained telescopes on Mars and believed that he saw canals there, most future speculation about what lay beneath the clouds of Venus was shaped and given direction by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who speculated, in his 1918 book,
This idea, that the surface of Venus was covered with swamps, making it resemble Earth in the Carboniferous Period, would be the ruling paradigm for almost the next fifty years, along with the related idea that Venus was an ocean world, perhaps consisting only of one world-encircling sea. So pervasive was this vision that as late as 1964, Soviet scientists were still designing the
As the subgenre of the Planetary Romance slowly precipitated out of the older body of pulp adventure, the swamps grew jungles and dinosaurs, and the seas grew monsters.
In the heyday of the Planetary Romance, also called Sword and Planet stories, roughly between the 1930s and the 1950s, the solar system swarmed with alien races and alien civilizations, as crowded and chummy as an Elks picnic, with almost every world boasting an alien race that it would be possible for a Terran adventurer to have swordfights or romances with, even Jupiter and Saturn and Mercury. Mars always claimed pride of place, and was the preferred setting for most Planetary Romances—but Venus wasn’t far behind.
Venus had appeared as a setting in religious allegories and Fabulous Journey stories throughout the nineteenth century, but the first Planetary Romance to take us there, something recognizable as what we’d today consider to be science fiction, was probably Otis Adelbert Kline’s 1929 novel
The purest expression of the Planetary Romance story was probably to be found between 1939 and 1955 in the pages of
Venus also featured as a setting in somewhat more mainline science fiction as well, outside of the confines of the pure Planetary Romance story (which, truth to tell, was looked down upon as somewhat raffish and déclassé by the core science-fiction fans), being visited by Olaf Stapledon in
Then, abruptly, the Venus bubble burst.
On December 14, 1962, the American
There couldn’t possibly be any life on Venus. No dinosaurs. No web-footed amphibious natives. No ferocious warriors to have swordfights with or beautiful green-skinned princesses in diaphanous gowns to romance. It was just a ball of baking-hot rock and scalding poisonous gas, duller than a supermarket parking lot.
Almost at once, science-fiction writers lost interest.
There was one last great Venus story published, the nostalgic and deliberately retro (since the author certainly knew better by then) “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth,” by Roger Zelazny, published in 1965.
By 1968, Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison had edited a retrospective anthology called
And after that, the Venus story effectively disappeared.
For a while.
Few if any stories set on Venus—or, for that matter, on Mars, or on any of the other planets of the solar system—were published in science fiction in the seventies. By the eighties, though, and in an accelerating fashion throughout the nineties and the oughts, science-fiction writers began to become interested in the solar system again, as subsequent space probes began to make it seem a much more interesting and even surprising place than it had initially been thought to be. They even returned to Venus, as the idea of terraforming Venus to make it conducive to life—something first suggested, as far as I know, in Olaf Stapledon’s
So there have been plenty of stories about the New Venus in the last couple of decades. One of them, using the floating-cities model, Geoffrey A. Landis’s “The Sultan of the Clouds,” won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 2011.
But some of us missed the Old Venus, the Venus of so many dreams over so many years.
So why not write about it?
After all, as my coeditor George R. R. Martin pointed out in his introduction to this anthology’s companion volume,
So why not rekindle the wonderful, gorgeously colored dream of Old Venus?
So we contacted some of the best writers we know, both established names and bright new talents, and told them that we weren’t looking for pastiches or postmodern satire, or stories set on the kind of terraformed, colonized modern Venus common in most recent science fiction, or orbital space colonies circling the planet high above, or domed cities set in hellish landscapes with poisonous atmospheres, but for stories set in the kind of nostalgic, habitable Venus found in the works of writers like Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Otis Adelbert Kline, Poul Anderson, Robert A. Heinlein, and so many others, before the hard facts gathered by space probes blew those dreams away. Stories set in the old-style Venus of vast swamps and limitless oceans and steaming jungles and wallowing dinosaurs. And Venusians, another sentient race to interact with, one of the great dreams of science fiction, whether that interaction involved swordfights or romance or close scientific observation or exploitation or uneasy coexistence.
The results of those newly hatched dreams of Venus are to be found in this anthology, stories that will take you to places that you’ve never been—but will not regret having visited.
ALLEN M. STEELE
In the suspenseful story that follows, we accompany a tough PI to Venus on a risky mission that takes him down some very Mean Streets indeed—even if, on Venus, there
Allen Steele made his first sale to
ALLEN M. STEELE
THE SHUTTLE FELL THROUGH THE CLOUDS—CLOUDS AS DENSE as grey wool, separating purple sky and sun above from perpetual rain below—for what seemed like a very long time until the windows finally cleared and Venus’s global ocean lay revealed: dark blue, storm-lashed, endless.
Engines along the spacecraft’s boatlike underbelly fired, forming a concentric circle of white-peaked wavelets that spread outward upon the ocean surface. Gradually the shuttle made its final descent until its hull settled upon the water. As careful as the pilots were, though, the splashdown was rough. A swift, violent jolt passed through the passenger compartment, shaking everyone in their seats, causing an overhead storage compartment to snap open and spill a couple of carry-on bags into the center aisle. Through the compartment, people cursed—mainly in Russian although a few American obscenities were heard as well—and someone in the back noisily threw up, an involuntary act that was greeted by more foul language.
Ronson wasn’t happy about the landing either. This wasn’t the first time he’d traveled off-world, but landing on Mars was mild compared to this. He couldn’t blame the guy a few rows back for getting sick. Although the shuttle was no longer airborne, it still remained in motion, slowly bobbing up and down as it was rocked by the ocean. He’d been warned to take Dramamine before boarding, and he was glad he’d heeded the advice.
Clutching the armrests, Ronson gazed through the oval porthole beside his seat. Rain spattered the outer pane, but he could still see where he was. Not that there was much to look at: ocean for as far as the eye could see—the Venusian horizon was about three miles away, nearly the same as Earth’s at sea level—beneath a slate-colored sky bloated by clouds that had never parted and never would. The shuttle was supposed to make planetfall at Veneragrad, but the floating colony must be on the other side of the spacecraft. Unless, of course, the pilots had miscalculated the colony’s current position and had come down—
That was a possibility. Ronson had spent the last four months in hibernation, but his waking hours aboard the
Everyone on his side of the passenger compartment peered through the windows as the shuttle pulled into Veneragrad, including the middle-aged Russian in the aisle seat who unapologetically leaned over Ronson as he craned his head for a look at the man-made island. Veneragrad was as utilitarian as only a Soviet-era artifact could be: a tiered hemisphere a kilometer in diameter, a shade darker than the ocean it floated upon, the long, wooden piers jutting out from its sides giving it the appearance of an enormous, bloated water spider. Rickety-looking platforms, also constructed of native timber, rose as irregularly spaced towers from the outside balconies; they supported the open-top steel tanks that caught the rain and distilled it as the colony’s drinking water. Radio masts and dish antennae jutted out at odd angles from near the top of the dome; a helicopter lifted off from a landing pad on its roof. An ugly, unwelcoming place.
“Looks bad, yes?” The man seated beside him stared past him. “Better than nothing … it’s dry. ”
Ronson had already learned that his traveling companion spoke English, albeit not very well. His breath reeked of the vodka he swilled from a bag-wrapped bottle on the way down from orbit; he’d opened it as soon as the shuttle entered the atmosphere. “Is this where you live?” he asked, if only for the sake of being polite. “Is this your home, I mean?”
The other man barked sullen laughter. “This hellhole? No! My home, St. Petersburg. Come here to make money. Sell … um … ah”—he searched for the right word—“computers, yes? Computers for office. ”
Ronson nodded. He wasn’t much interested in making friends with the businessman, but it appeared that conversation was unavoidable. “Whole colony, built in space above Earth, sent here by rockets,” the businessman continued, telling Ronson something he already knew. “Dropped from orbit by para … para …”
“Parachutes, yes. Come down”—he lifted his hands—“
“Yes, I see. ” Again, the businessman wasn’t telling him anything new.
“Yes, you see. ” The Russian took another swig from his bottle, then offered it to Ronson. “So why you come here?”
Ronson shook his head at the bottle. There were several ways he could get out of this unwanted conversation. He opted for the easiest approach. “I’m a detective,” he said, and when the businessman gave an uncomprehending look, he rephrased his answer in simpler, if inaccurate, terms. “A cop. ”
“A cop. Yes. ” The businessman gave him the distrustful look Ronson anticipated, then withdrew the bottle and settled back into his seat.
Ronson didn’t hear from him again for the rest of the way into port. Which suited him well. He didn’t want to talk about why he’d come to Venus.
The heat hit him as soon as he stepped through the hatch. It was like walking into a sauna; the air was hot and thick, hard to breathe, humid beyond belief. The sun was larger and warmer here than on Earth, yet little more than a bright smear in the sky that heated up the atmosphere. Ronson began to sweat even before he reached the end of the wooden gangway that led from the hatch to the pier where the shuttle had been berthed. A fine, almost misty rain was falling, and it too was warm; he didn’t know whether to take off the denim jacket he’d worn on the way down or keep it on. The dockworkers didn’t seem to mind. Most of them wore only shorts, sneakers, and sometimes a rain hat, with the women wearing bikini tops or sports bras. They unloaded the bags from the cargo bay, and Ronson took a few moments to find his suitcase before walking the rest of the way down the pier to the spaceport entrance.
There were only a couple of customs officers on duty, bored-looking Russians in short-sleeve uniform shirts who regarded the line of passengers with bureaucratic disdain. The officer Ronson approached silently examined his passport and declaration form, gave his face a quick glance, then put his stamp on everything and shrugged him toward an adjacent arch. No one had asked him to open his bag, but he knew what was about to happen. Sure enough, bells rang from the arch as soon as he walked through it. Its weapons detector had found the gun he was carrying.
Just as well. It only meant that he’d meet the police sooner than he had planned.
An hour of sitting alone in a detention area, another half hour of angry interrogation by a port-authority officer whose English wasn’t much better than the businessman’s, then Ronson was loaded onto an electric cart and spirited to police headquarters. Along the way, he got what amounted to a nickel tour of Veneragrad. The colony seemed to consist mainly of narrow corridors with low ceilings and low-wattage light fixtures, their grey steel walls decorated with grime, handprints, and stenciled Cyrillic signs, then the cart passed through a broad doorway and Ronson suddenly found himself in the city center: a vast atrium, its skylight ceiling a couple of hundred meters above the floor, with interior balconies overlooking a central plaza. As the cart cut across the plaza, Ronson caught glimpses of Veneragrad’s daily life. Residents in shorts, vests, and T-shirts resting on park benches, hanging laundry on balcony clotheslines, standing in line in front of fast-food kiosks. A group of schoolchildren sitting cross-legged near a fountain, listening as their young teacher delivered a lesson. Two men in a heated argument; another couple of men watching with amusement.
A statue of V. I. Lenin stood in the center of the plaza. Incongruously dressed in a frock coat and high-collar shirt no Venusian colonist would be caught dead wearing—even inside the city, the air was tropically warm—he pointed toward some proud socialist future just ahead. But the statue was old and stained, and a broken string that might have once been a yo-yo dangled from the tip of his finger. The Communist Party was just as dead on Venus as it was on Earth; it was just taking the locals a little longer to get rid of its relics.
The cart entered another dismal corridor, then came to a halt in front of a pair of battered doors painted with a faded red star. The port-authority officer who’d questioned Ronson ushered him through the crowded police station to a private office, and it was here that he met Arkandy Bulgakov..
Veneragrad’s police chief was about Ronson’s own age, short and broad-chested, with the short-banged Caesar haircut that never seems to go out of style with European men. Seated at a desk piled with paperwork, he listened patiently while the officer delivered a stiff-toned report of the visitor’s offense, punctuated by placing Ronson’s Glock on the desk along with its extra clips, then Bulgakov murmured something and waved the officer out of the room. He waited until the door was shut, then he sighed and shook his head.
“You’re the same guy who e-mailed me a while ago about the missing kid?” His English was Russian-accented but otherwise perfect.
“That’s me. ” Ronson motioned to an empty chair in front of the desk; Bulgakov nodded, and he sat down. “Sorry about the gun. I was going to tell you about it when I reported in, but …”
“We don’t allow private ownership of firearms. Didn’t you know that?”
“I figured that my license might exempt me. ”
“No exemptions here. Only police are allowed to carry lethal weapons. ” Bulgakov’s chair squeaked as he leaned forward to pick up the Glock; he briefly weighed it in his hand before opening a drawer and dropping it in. “I won’t fine you, but you may not carry this. I’ll give you a receipt. You may reclaim it when you leave. ”
“All right, but what am I supposed to use until then? I might need a sidearm, you know. ”
“To find a missing person? I doubt it. ” Catching Ronson’s look, the chief shrugged. “You can buy a Taser if it makes you feel better, but only if you’re going outside the city. And if that’s the case, then your chances of finding this fellow …”
“David Henry. ”
“… David Henry alive are practically zero. At any rate, he’s not in Veneragrad, I can tell you that right now. ”
“That’s what you told me five months ago,” Ronson said, “and that’s what I told my client, too. But the old man isn’t satisfied. His kid was last seen here nearly a year ago, when he came to Venus on a trip his dad bought him as a college-graduation gift. ”
Bulgakov raised a querulous eyebrow. “His father must be rich. ”
“The family has a few bucks, yeah, and the kid likes to travel. He’s already been to the Moon and Mars, so I guess Venus was next on his list. Personally, if he was my boy, I would’ve given him a watch, but …”
“We don’t have many tourists, but we do get some. His kind is not unfamiliar. Privileged children coming to see the wonders of Venus”—a brief smirk—“such as they are. They go out to the vine islands, take pictures, collect a few souvenirs. Now and then they get in trouble … a bar fight, dope, soliciting a prostitute … and they wind up here. But they eventually go home and that’s the end of their adventure. ”
“That’s not how it ended for him. He didn’t come home. ”
“So it appears. ” Bulgakov turned to the antique computer on one side of his desk. He typed something on the keyboard, then swiveled the breadbox-size CRT around so that Ronson could see the screen. “This is him, yes?”
Displayed on the screen was a passport photo of a young man in his early twenties: moonfaced, arrogant blue eyes, sandy hair cut close on the sides and mousse-spiked on top. Good-looking but spoiled. The same boy in the picture his father had given Ronson when he’d visited the family home in Colorado Springs. “That’s him. ”
Bulgakov turned the screen back around, typed in something else, paused to read the information that appeared. “He was registered at the Gastinitsa Venera,” he said after a few seconds, “but failed to check out. When my detectives went there to investigate, they were told that his luggage was found in his room, which apparently he hadn’t visited for several days before his scheduled departure aboard the
“You told me this already, remember? In your e-mail. ” This was a waste of time. Which was what he’d expected; local police were seldom much help in missing-person cases. Still, he always made a point of checking in with the cops. Professional courtesy, mainly, but there was always the chance that he might learn something he could use.
“So I did, and I imagine that you shared the information with
Bulgakov hesitated. “You’ve heard of
“Yaz? Who hasn’t?”
“That’s the street name back home.
“And tastes just as bad when you smoke it,” Ronson finished. “Know all about yaz. It’s all over America and Europe. ”
Bulgakov scowled. He clearly didn’t like being interrupted. “What you probably
“And you think that’s what happened to David Henry? He was shanghaied?”
“I’d say that’s a strong possibility. ”
Ronson slowly let out his breath. His job had just become much more difficult. “If you’re right, then how do I find him? I understand those islands can drift quite a long distance …”
“There are thousands of them being carried by the ocean currents, and the croppers do a good job staying hidden. My people have always had trouble tracking them down. Locating the boy on one particular island will be difficult. ” Bulgakov paused. “However, there may be a way. As you Americans say, it’s a long shot, but …”
“As we Americans say, I’m all ears. ”
“Talk to a froghead. ”
“Frogheads. The native aborigines. No one calls them Venusians … sounds like a bad movie. Anyway, they’re intelligent”—another smirk—“although I wouldn’t call them good company. And they see a lot of what goes on here. ”
“I can’t even speak Russian. How am I supposed to talk to …?”
“I know someone who does. Mad Mikhail. You can find him down on the docks. Bring lots of rubles. ” Bulgakov smiled. “And chocolate, too. ”
“You’ll see. ”
Mad Mikhail hung out on the waterfront. Everyone who worked there knew who he was; all Ronson had to do was follow their pointing fingers to a small shack set up on the dock where the tour boats were moored.
Mad Mikhail made sushi from whatever he’d been brought by local fishermen, which he then sold to tourists. When Ronson found him, he was sitting on a stool inside his open-sided shack, cutting up something that looked like a cross between a squid and a lionfish and wrapping the filets around wads of sticky rice. He was a squat old man with a potbelly and fleshy arms and legs, his dense white beard nearly reaching his collarbone. His skin was wrinkled and rain-bleached, and he wore nothing but a frayed straw hat and baggy shorts; when he looked up at Ronson, it was with eyes both sharp and vaguely mystical.
“Sushi?” he asked, his rasping voice thickened by a Ukrainian accent. “Fresh today. Very good. Try some. ”
Bulgakov had warned Ronson not to eat anything Mad Mikhail offered him; whatever he failed to sell today, he’d simply keep until tomorrow even if it had been spoiled by the heat and humidity. At least he spoke English. “No thanks. I’ve been told you can help me. I want to talk to a froghead. ”
Mikhail’s eyes narrowed. “They are not frogheads. They are the Water Folk, the Masters of the World Ocean. You do not respect them, you do not talk to them. ”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know they …”
Mikhail slammed the long knife he’d been using down on the counter before him. “No one knows this! They call them frogheads, make jokes about them. Only I”—he jabbed a scarred thumb against his bare chest—“make friends with them when I came here over thirty years ago! Only Mikhail Kronow …!”
“You’ve been on Venus thirty years?” Ronson seized the chance to change the subject. “That means you would have belonged to one of the first expeditions. ”
“Then, Chief Petty Officer Kronow, you’re the person I need to see. ” The best way to handle Mad Mikhail would be to appeal to his vanity. “I’d like to speak with the Water Folk … or rather, have you speak with them on my behalf since you know them so well. ”
Mikhail’s gaze became suspicious. “About what? If it’s only a picture you want …
“I’m not a tourist, and I don’t want a picture. ” Ronson reached into the pocket of his trousers—he’d have to buy shorts soon; his Earth clothes were beginning to stick to him—and produced the snapshot of David Henry his father had given him. Holding it beneath the shack’s awning so that the rain wouldn’t get it wet, he showed it to Mikhail. “I’m looking for this person. He came here almost a year ago, then disappeared. His family sent me here to find him. ”
Mad Mikhail took the photo, closely inspected it. “I do not know this boy,” he said at last, “but the Water Folk would. If he went out to sea, they would have seen him. They see everyone who goes out into the World Ocean. You have chocolate?”
Ronson had purchased a handful of Cadbury bars at the hotel shop. He pulled them out and showed them to Mikhail. The old man said nothing but simply gave him a questioning look. Ronson found his money clip, peeled off several high-denomination notes, held them up. Mikhail thought it over for a moment. “Very well,” he said at last, easing himself down from his stool. “Come with me. ”
He emerged from the shack wielding a cricket bat, the sort an Englishman would carry to a sports field. Taking the money and the chocolate bars from Ronson, he led the detective down the dock, passing the boats tied up alongside. Captains and crew members lounging on their decks watched him with amusement; someone called to him in Russian and the others laughed, but Mad Mikhail only scowled and ignored them.
He and Ronson reached the end of the dock. A wooden light post rose above the water slurping against the dock’s edge. The former cosmonaut raised the cricket bat and, with both hands, slammed it against the post: two times, pause, then two more times, another pause, then two more times after that. Mikhail stopped, peered out over the water, and waited a minute. Then he hit the post six more times, two beats apiece.
“This is how you summon fro … the Water Folk?” Ronson wondered if he was wasting his time.
“Yes. ” Mikhail turned his head back and forth, searching. “They hear vibrations, come to see why I call them. They do this for no one but me. ”
He’d barely completed his third repetition when, one at a time, three dark blue mounds breached from the rain-spattered surface just a couple of meters from the dock. With a chill, Ronson found himself being studied by three pairs of slitted eyes the color of tarnished pewter. Those eyes were all he could see for a few moments, then Mikhail held up the chocolate bars and the creatures swam closer.
“Move back and give them room,” Mikhail said quietly. “Do not speak to them. They will not understand you. ”
One by one, the Venusian natives emerged from the water, climbing up onto the dock until they stood before Ronson and Mikhail. Each stood about a meter and a half in height, the size of a boy, and were bipedal, but their resemblance to humans ended there. They looked like a weird hybrid of a frog, a salamander, and a dolphin: sloping, neckless heads, broad-mouthed and lipless, with protruding eyes; sleek hairless bodies, streamlined and mammalian, their slender arms and legs ending in webbed, four-fingered hands and broad, paddlelike feet; short dorsal fins running down their backs, away from blowholes that vibrated slightly with each breath and tapered off as reptilian tails that barely touched the wet planks of the dock.
Ronson couldn’t see any anatomical differences between males and females even though he knew that the natives had two genders. Each were naked, their light blue underbellies revealing no obvious genitalia; only subtle splotches and stripes upon their wine-colored skin distinguished one individual from another.
And they smelled. As they came out of the water, his nose picked up a fetid, organic odor that reminded him of an algae bloom in summer. The stench was offensive enough to make him step back, and not just because Mad Mikhail had asked him to do so. If they came any closer, he was afraid he’d lose his lunch.
Ronson had recently read a magazine article about how an Egyptian-American scientist, who’d perished during a dust storm on Mars, had discovered just before his death certain genetic evidence linking
Mikhail unwrapped the chocolate bars and offered them to the natives. As he did so, he addressed them in a low, warbling croak:
Only the native in the center remained where it was. It watched its companions with what seemed to be disdain as they each took a chocolate bar from Mikhail. When they opened their mouths, Ronson was startled to see that they contained rows of short, sharp teeth, with slightly longer incisors at the corners of the upper set. He was even more startled by the way they gobbled down the chocolate bars. Repulsively long tongues snatched the candy from their webbed hands; chocolate bars that even a hungry child might have taken a couple of minutes to eat were devoured in seconds. And yet the third froghead—Ronson couldn’t help but to think of it that way—refused the bar that Mikhail held out to it.
“Why doesn’t it take it?” Ronson whispered.
“I do not know,” Mikhail murmured; he was a bit surprised himself. “They have never done that before. ” He raised his voice again.
“What did it say?”
Mikhail didn’t respond at once. He held out the bar for another moment or two, then slipped it in his pocket. The other two Water Folk made hissing noises that sounded like protests, but the third one stopped thrashing its tail and appeared to calm down a little. “The one in the middle is the leader,” Mikhail said softly. “She …”
“You can tell it’s a she?”
“Their leaders are always females. She refused the chocolate because … I think … she said it’s poisonous. ” He shrugged. ...