Centuries into the future, the sunken city of Venus has been salvaged from beneath the sea and rebuilt there under a dome, where it is supported by a vast network of computers that regulate weather, noise, and the most precious undersea commodity of all—air. It is here that a macabre experiment takes place. Conducted by geneticists at the university, the test consists of the resurrection of two lost souls, both murdered in their times: Jula, a first-century gladiatrix, and Cloudio del Nero, the eighteenth-century composer who met his fate in Lee’s acclaimed first volume of the Secret Books of Venus series. An unexplained catastrophe occurs, claiming several lives. Was it merely an accident, computer failure, or has the trial unleashed an airborne virus? Or is there an even more sinister danger afoot, a force from beyond that threatens the survival of Venus itself? To answer these questions, a traveler from the surface is forced to confront mysteries in his own past that have remained buried, and to reveal the connection that ties him to the unavenged spirits wreaking havoc on the doomed city.
“The last of the four Secret Books of Venus is a tale of suspense and mystery.” —Booklist
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About the Author
Tanith Lee (1947–2015) was born in the United Kingdom. Although she couldn’t read until she was eight, she began writing at nine and never stopped, producing more than ninety novels and three hundred short stories. She also wrote for the BBC television series Blake’s 7 and various BBC radio plays. After winning the 1980 British Fantasy Award for her novel Death’s Master, endless awards followed. She was named a World Horror Grand Master in 2009 and honored with the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2013. Lee was married to artist and writer John Kaiine.
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WHAT WAS ON THE COAST was the body, not the soul. The buildings looked pleasing enough, classical even, washed in faded rose-browns and creamy vanillas. But they were mostly given over to administration. Inside, behind the stucco and the birdcage balconies and the windows like fretted pastry, were sheer glass, plasticore, and the half-heard thrum of CXs.
Besides, the traffic on the sea and in the canals ruined any effect. Power-boats and raz'scafos churned and spooned the serpentine water.
And when you came down to the subvenerine station, all illusion was dashed to bits.
It was a modern marina. The jetty wasn't even fifty years old and erected to deal with Jet Skis and other contemporary surface-water vehicles. Not even fishing-craft, not any more. The actual building was a rigid white maw, like the mouth of a glacial Hades, and arched above with dark blue glass, and fluted fins that belonged, perhaps, on the moon. (Or on the planet Venus. Maybe that was the joke.)
You went down in the air-conditioned elevator, to Visitor Control. Which was like those things always were.
There were no viewing windows.
Some Russans in iridescent shades were complaining about this, a smiling hostess explaining that they must wait, the views would come.
The Amerian who (Picaro recalled) had sat beside him on the plane, remarked, "Like waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve." Picaro glanced at him. "And if the kids ain't good, he won't arrive, right?"
Picaro smiled. It was the smile he kept for decent people passing through his life. A nice smile, but far off.
The Amerian, whose name was Flayd, said, "I guess you and I read the literature beforehand."
Picaro nodded. Then they reached the check-in. It was quick for Picaro, longer for Flayd, an archaeologist, who had come laden with hand-held equipment. He was soon left behind.
Having been read for weapons and illegal substances, Picaro watched his hand scan under the blue tracer. It looked as it always did at such times.
"Yes." (He was seldom recognized.)
"Purpose of visit."
"To live here."
"Here it is on screen now. PB Status. Congratulations. You have your apartment details? That's fine, Sin Picaro. Pass through."
The corridor, which ran down to the subvenerine's hull, had a moving floor, and sang, via its CX system, to a small guitar.
A steward saw him aboard.
Two minutes later, a puffing Flayd, a large man garnished with long auburn hair, shouldered his bags through the hull entry.
Apparently embarrassed, he took the last seat, beside Picaro.
"We gotta stop meeting like this."
But now Picaro gave no response at all.
Then the safety arms moved around them all, and the little complimentary drinks rose from the plasleather, in their plasticrystal shakers. There came the rumble of the ship's internal motors.
Flayd downed his drink. "Here we go." (He frowned, Picaro could see it, reflected in the window, glaring at Picaro's unresponsiveness.) "Hang on to your dreads, man. Hang on to your bloody heart." Belligerently Flayd added, "You're about to fall in love."
THE WATER WAS SHRILL blue beyond the lock, from the subsea lights of the port. Fish scattered like diamonds and drew a little tweeting from the passengers. But the lights drained away behind the vessel. Like nocturnal animals, the subvenerines needed no illumination to find their way.
Now the travelers, shut in their bubble, stole through a darkness thick as primeval night. And then the cabin lights also went down. And those who hadn't "read the literature" on what to expect let out some anxious squeaks, which needed the stewards' soft voices, here and there, to calm them.
The lamps went down so you could see.
And then they went out.
And you saw.
Only one man shouted; a few of the other passengers laughed, amazed, conspiratorial, knowing why someone always did shout.
The Amerian, who had come this way before, was silent now.
Picaro stared out through the optecx window-port, across the blood-dark sea.
The water, there, caught by the day-radiance of Venus's Viorno-Votte, was the color of the iris of a peacock's feather.
But the pupil of the feather's eye was made of glowing silver, and in it rested the City of Venus, as if in a star's heart beneath the ocean.
Even from this distance it was possible to pick out the threaded jewelry of spires and domes, arcades like filigree, the sheen of a blue air ice-floated with soft pearls of cloud ...
"The Primo Suvio!" cried a woman. "Look — look — Do you see?"
As if they had become one, the entity in the subvenerine whispered, murmured, called back to her "Yes, yes, we see — that white cupola — "
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples ...
In the light of Venus now, the sea was parting for them, making way.
The fish that fountained before them were rainbow opals. There were flotillas of weed strung with sequins of luminescence. And hardly anyone saw them, eyes fixed only on the City, under its inverted goblet of Venusian glass.
PICARO SAW VENUS under water, meshed in his own reflection caught on the window. Some glim of light, and proximity, had made his image linger there, when Flayd's had mostly melted from view.
Curious, the transparent globe with the City shining in it, set there in the black of Picaro's skin, and his black-and-white plaited hair streaming away from it — and all the while the City took more of him, more of his face, and then his body, replacing them with its gleaming self. Until he was gone, and only the City remained. Eclipsed, he watched as the burning dome came nearer and more near, and towered up, a cliff of glass. He too studied the buildings, and the sky, inside. Then closed his eyes against them.
"We will now ascend into the entry port. There will be some adjustment of light and minor sensation of displacement. This is normal and will quickly pass."
Consoled by the mechanical voice, the passengers now had no fear. And as the levers raised them, their cries of delight became orgasmic.
Dark changed wholly to light. (Picaro's eyes opened of themselves.) The vessel had broken through a surface of apparently prevailing sea — and into shining Venus day. They were now inside the dome. Positioned directly before them on the water was a vast church, sudden, and from another time. Not of course the Primo, but one of the thousand churches of Venus, exquisite, golden. Its marble façade had the bloom of a white rose. Windows of excrutiatingly beautiful color threw shards of cobalt and wine, and a tower poised above, with a silver clock clung round by winged girls, whose damp-induced verdigris had been also lovingly restored. Maria Maka Selena, which had already lain drowned under the lagoons long before the sea swallowed so much more of the City, beamed in her risen glory upon astounded pilgrims.
"What do you think?"
Flayd again, seeming unable to restrain himself.
What did Picaro think? "It's wonderful."
"You don't sound convinced."
"Why else," said Picaro reasonably, "could I be here?"
"Sky looks real, doesn't it?" asked Flayd. "That takes some doing. Perfect atmosphere, guaranteed safe for human consumption, and kept entirely clean, to protect the buildings. Not one speck of pollution can survive. Gets sucked straight out. You know about the Viorno-Votte."
And Picaro must speak again. "Of course."
"Venus has a twenty-seven hour diurnal cycle. Twenty-seven hours and thirty seconds, to be exact. Look. No sun, you see? Don't need any sun, the light is behind the sky. But they fix a sunset — and a dawn — and they put in a moon and stars for nighttime. Well, you can't have Venus without the moon."
Still far off, a backdrop to the glamour of the church, the dream of Venus hung across the water. While naturally, already you forgot that any water here was not quite water. That the true water lay outside now, beyond the magna-optecx of the dome-walls, and beyond the pale sapphire of the sky that was not a sky.
Presided over by the ancient church, the subvenerine had sprung from the green lagoon. There was only one lagoon now, separating the City, not from ocean, but from the dome-sides. Would Flayd tell him this, too?
They had docked against the island where the church stood. Little boats were already waiting. The seat-arms had let go. Everywhere, the buzz and flurry of excited exits. Flayd rose to his feet — quite a distance. "Nice to meet you. Enjoy your stay."
Picaro waited until most of them were off, until he too got up, and left the last of the real world — for the Fantasy.
PALAZZO SHAACHEN STOOD by the Canale Alchimia. It had been named for Shaachen's abilities. Although in eighteenth century Venus, the palace hadn't stood on such a canal at all, nor among these other palazzos that were now its close companions.
This was how all the City had become, after its submergence by an encroaching sea, its rescue and refurbishment under the protective dome.
The records were also a little muddled. Picaro had guessed this, said nothing, as probably no one did who was lucky enough to be awarded PBS — Proven Bloodline Status, which meant you could "inherit" an apartment in the City, since your ancestors had formerly lived there.
Picaro's PB wasn't so old. It dated to 1700 or thereabouts. But it was sufficient. The fact that he had been housed in the rebuilding of a palace reckoned to be that of the alchemist Dianus Shaachen, was only a slight mismatch. It seemed Picaro's true ancestors, who were not related to Shaachen, had yet roomed in his palazzo for two or three years. They were now known only by the names Furian and Eurydiche, but they were strange enough, both of them. He had been a rich man who had perversely chosen poverty. She was a young woman whose facial muscles did not move, making of her a lovely icon — the condition then called Stone Face.
A wanderer, (there was no modern traffic allowed in-dome) with its guiding wanderlier, brought Picaro to the Alchemy Canal. The wanderlier sang during the journey. He had a very good voice. Picaro, driven crazy by the triteness of this touch, kept silent.
Arrived, the boat was tied to a mooring pole decorated with the figure of Neptunus, the antique god of the sea, once one of the Custodians of the City. The wanderlier, unlike the boatmen of former times, assisted Picaro with his luggage.
"A fine palazzo." They idled on the strip of terrace above the water-stairs. "Do you know which are your windows, sin?"
"Do you want my boat later?"
"Maybe," said Picaro.
"I will come back, signore," said the wanderlier, giving him now the full address rather than its contemporary abbreviation. "Show you the sights."
"Maybe," said Picaro again.
Two young women stepped into view, passing through the slender space between the Shaachen Palazzo and its right-hand neighbor, a building leaden green as a swan. Emerging on the half-meter-wide terrace, they stood there, looking at Picaro. They wore replica dresses, dated from 1890, perhaps. They whispered. One smiled directly at the musician.
"They seem to know you, sin."
Indeed they did seem to.
Picaro took hold of the luggage and hauled it through the palazzo door, which had opened, also recognizing his identity. He heard the door shut behind him after a moment, closing him away from the boatman and the possible autograph hunters.
The house vestibule was cool, dark-tiled, with brown-spotted walls that looked as if they had survived at least five centuries, but were doubtless (mostly) much, much younger. A stone staircase swerved upward. He wondered if the palace had really always looked like this. Perhaps not. And yet much of its brickwork, wood, and plastering had been rewoven here, these tiles had belonged to it, either in this area or another. And the windows, with their iron bars, had conceivably always looked out on a canal, though never this one, with its dirtless glycerin water.
A small soft light had come on in one wall. A small soft voice, like a woman's, called to Picaro gently that he was welcome. A panel then opened under the light, a function of the house's hidden CXs, and drew the bags and the crate away to their destination by a concealed route.
Yet, when he had gone up a few steps, and glanced back, the wall was only a spotted-brown expanse, centuries old, and the water-glimmer through the windows flickered timeless on the tiles.
He passed no one in the corridors. Gaining his personal door, he reached into his sleeve pocket for the required key. Had he ever used a key on a door in his life, before this moment? Picaro thought he had not. But he was thirty. Others here wouldn't find keys so peculiar. It worked, anyway, as well as CX.
And beyond the second door was the apartment.
It resembled precisely the disced recx he had been sent. It was also utterly different. Here the sunlight and the shade were not merely virtual. There was a smell of things too, of the various materials, and faint dampness (fake?) he had detected in the rest of the palace, of newness and great age, weirdly commingled. Of emptiness.
A ripe red terracotta floor. A window, there, with amber glass bottles and glasses like jade, and a magenta stained-glass jewel. An unlit lamp hung from a hook in the ceiling, round as a latticed moon, oriental and from long ago, reconstructed, durable, and charming.
He walked from room to room. Each was vacant but for its occasional enhancing detail: a narrow, carved black wood cupboard in a corner, with a skull — very real and not real, re-created — on its top. A red embroidered rug, fresh and new and old once, and no doubt from fabled Candisi. Such things.
Already invisibly deposited in place, the luggage balanced against one of the walls, which themselves had a color like dark honey and glowed in slots of light.
In the last room of the seven, a long window gave on a balcony. Walking into this room, Picaro halted. Outside, perched on the balcony's outer ledge, and clinging one-handed to the ornamental iron, like a mad, wild human bird, was one of the girls from below.
Picaro undid the ancient bolt mechanism of the window. He went out on the balcony, and the girl regarded him with bright eyes. How had she got up here? Perhaps the other one, still standing on the terrace by the canal, helped hoist her aloft — awkward enough in their tight-waisted, swirling dresses.
"What are you doing?" he said.
The girl below had a somber skin and looked sullenly up at him. This one was pale, with a storm cloud of dark hair.
"I love your music," she said, "Magpie."
"I have all your decx, every one. And a music file of the notation. Everything you've composed, everything you've played and sung. I love you," she added.
"Thank you," he said again.
He wondered how to get rid of her. He hadn't expected this, of all things, not here.
"I'm Cora," she said. She jerked her head at the girl left on the terrace, "She is India."
"What nice names. But I think you ought to get down." Even as he said it, his heart sinking, thinking of having to escort her into, before out of, the rooms.
But Cora said, "Please, your autograph."
He went over to just within a meter of her, no closer. He set the wristecx swiftly, and waited, and she pointed to the bodice of her dress. "Here." The wristecx fired a tiny flick of compressed energy. Together he and she watched the miniscule spangle form on the cloth, above her breast. "Does it," she said, "speak in your voice? What does it say? Does it play music?"
"My voice. It will say, Picaro to Cora, and then it'll play you three bars of the Africarium."
"I love the Africarium."
"Good. Now — "
"Don't trouble," said Cora, the mad, wild, wingless bird, and winglessly she flew off the balcony, so his sunken heart leapt into his throat instead. But a second later she had landed, without a hitch, flawless, back on the terrace in the arms of her unfaltering friend. Both girls then turned adjacent cartwheels, revealing their modern briefs and white lace stockings. Acrobats? He laughed despite himself, despite everything. And then they laughed too and ran away, back through the alley by the green palazzo. They had been young; neither, he guessed, more than nineteen.
They were cute enough. He hoped they wouldn't return.
PICARO, THE MAGPIE, sat on the floor, in the hot, sweet stillness of Viorno-Votte afternoon.
Sometimes he drank water from a tall emerald flagon. He watched unsunned sunlight make patterns.
She had had a harpsichord here, he knew that, Eurydiche, but that was then. No harpsichord now, not even a recx harpsichord. Instead the Africara stood, potbellied, horned, and brown-black as a bull, against the wall. Sometimes the rich clear light seemed to flutter its strings, as if bees went over them. Illusion.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Venus Preserved"
Copyright © 2003 Tanith Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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