For thousands of years Venus was the symbol of peace, love, and beauty because we couldn’t see it very well from Earth. It was veiled with clouds like a harem beauty and it appeared only briefly at dawn or dusk. We were free to make up any facts we liked about it, and then we began to study it with our cold, hard instruments, and eventually we went there and realized that Venus was neither beautiful nor mysterious. It was Hell. So we built the worst maximum security prison we could imagine on its surface.
Even the Island Two colony above, which could have been glorious and beautiful like those orbiting Earth, was a kind of Limbo, an anteroom of Hades, where criminals, rebels, and political unfortunates were locked away and all but forgotten by Earth’s Quasi-Police. The inmates were expected to grow their own crops and feed themselves, plus the scientists in the second cylinder of the colony, who were still studying Venus as if they expected something mysterious and beautiful to be discovered there.
Captain Armand Solla’s appointment as Warden was on record as an honor, but in fact it was punishment duty. Roman officers who proved incompetent, or made too many enemies in Rome, had been sent to govern some corner of the Empire which could not be governed, like Judea. Solla’s dishonor had been his inability to keep Progeny Brown, the leader of the Martian Rebellion, under lock and key. He could have killed Progeny the instant he had him in a cell, but then he would have become a martyr to the cause and even more powerful. Solla had tried to turn him or to use him to discredit the rebellion and in the end Progeny escaped and died free, becoming worse than a martyr. He became a legend. As is quite common in a bureaucracy, Solla had failed by trying to do his job too well.
The Quasi-Police gunship Grim-Visaged Ares docked and Solla grabbed his kit and left his cabin. As he pulled himself along the gravity-free corridors, he could hear whispers when he passed members of the crew and knew quite well that they were talking about his disgrace. He would begin his authority there with no-one’s respect. Trying to win people over would be seen as weakness, and to be too strict and cruel, as he could if he chose, would be seen as a failure. Hell is a place for hopeless cases.
A glimpse out through a port revealed the great double-cylinder of High Venus revolving slowly above the cloud-veiled planet. He was just in time to see one of the three Cerberus shuttles vanish into the upper cloud-deck toward the broiling surface below. Every few trips, the shuttles had to be repaired and re-surfaced because they returned half-eaten by the sulfuric-acid in the atmosphere and the blast-oven surface temperatures. He wondered if there were still bits of scientific data worth all that trouble, or did the installation exist only to provide a worse place than prison to scare prisoners?
Solla’s office in the end-cap was halfway between the circumference and the centre of the cylinder, at a comfortable one-third gravity. This was ironic because that was close to Martian Normal and the Martian prisoners, most of the inmates now, lived on the Earth Normal circumference. The prison had been built for Terrans back when Earthers still had some hope of revolution, but now it was able to keep Martians constantly exhausted bearing three times their normal weight, though not too exhausted to fight back now and then. Fighting back would get them exiled to the surface, where their lifespan was likely to be short. Venus was a place to be sent to and forgotten—a kind of oven-oubliette.
From his office window, Solla could see the prisoners teeming like ants on the landscapes above and below. The thick quartz solars let in the blazing Venereal sun—so much more powerful than the pale, distant sun of Mars---and the Martian prisoners usually went about veiled and hooded like Bedouin. But the landscape was not desert. It was lush and green because the Martians worked hard to green the place. Ironically, growing food here was less difficult a task than doing so on Mars, where food was grown in artificially lit water-reclamation tunnels underground, and the rare surface domes were kept for growing trees and flowers for the soul.
On his screen, Solla had the arrest details of every prisoner in the place, and he searched out those who had been shipped from Mars, looking for familiar names. If someone were to accuse him of being obsessed with Martians, he would have had to admit it. He considered them the bane of his existence and the ruin of his career. He found four familiar names. Salim Malik and Beast (Prisoner Number 666) had been in Progeny’s resistance cell and were instrumental in his escapes. Wog and Gay—real names as usual unknown—were the Free Trader crew of the smart ship Fancy Dancer. Solla himself had used them to capture Progeny at one point, and for years they had been persona non grata among Martians.
Salim Malik and Beast were returning to Little Mars Commune with a cartload of goods they had traded for at another compound. It was a good trade and they were working hard to move the cart along the dusty road. Malik was pushing and Beast was in harness, pulling like an ox with all his great strength. They found their way blocked by a pair of local toughs.
“You want to help us for a share?” Malik asked.
“No. Actually, we were thinking of taking it all,” one of them said.
“Seriously? Do you really want to piss off the Martians?” It was broad daylight, with the mirrors fully open, and the incident could be seen, not only by the guards at the gates of the nearby camps, but by those in the sky and the prison guards as well, who recorded everything.
“We’re not afraid of Martians,” the other tough laughed.
“We’re a commune,” Malik said, beginning to lose his temper. “If you take on one of us, you take on all of us. And most of us are here for beating the crap out of Quasi Police back on Mars. You must be fucking crazy.”
As an answer of sorts, Malik’s antagonist pulled a gun--the last argument of a fool. Malik recognized it as a Quasi Police Laser Special, no doubt taken from a guard. He laughed out loud. “You idiot! That won’t work!”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re programmed for the guard’s fingerprints and DNA. You can’t even pull the trigger.”
The tough took aim at Beast’s feet and put a bolt into the ground, making him hop. “The next one he gets in the head.”
Malik was stunned. Either the guard had programmed the weapon for this guy or he killed the guard and knew how to re-program it for himself in the guard’s hand before the hand went cold. Either possibility was not only highly unlikely, but suicidal in the long run. Malik raised his hands, thinking that this guy was crazy enough to shoot him down in the open with a guard’s weapon. No-one, not even Malik, was faster than a laser.
The second tough climbed up on the oxcart, took up the whip, and began to belabour Beast with it. At first, Beast did not even react. He let the whip tear his shirt and raise welts across his back.
“Pull, you big ox,” the rider shouted, and pulled a gun of his own. How was it possible that two guards provided two prisoners with programmed weapons? If those guards did this willingly, they would surely end up in the Hole with the most incorrigible prisoners, and they wouldn’t last long. Or did they have the warden’s sanction?
Beast could have stood there and taken a whipping all day but was worried about Malik with these guns being waved about, so he put his great back into it and began to haul the cart down the road. The driver continued to strike Beast with the whip, criss-crossing his now-bare back with angry red welts. He did not cry out, but he began to stumble, and the driver waved his weapon angrily.
Malik, enraged, whipped out the shiv hidden under his shirt and thrust it into his own antagonist’s heart. He grabbed the man’s arm as he crumpled, swung it and the programmed weapon toward the second tough, and put a laser bolt into his forehead. Before the dead men had hit the ground, the sky filled with Quasi-Police cruisers, blazing with bright lights and screaming with sirens.
“On the ground!” someone yelled from the nearest cruiser, “Now!”
Malik and Beast dropped and stretched out on the road. The cruiser landed next to them and officers leaped out with handcuffs.
“We acted in self-defence,” Malik shouted into the dust. “They had stolen guard weapons. Check them out.”
“Yeah? Tell it to Captain Solla.” The guard yanked up Malik’s arm behind his back to put on the cuffs and dislocated his shoulder. Malik screamed. Beast darted forward at a speed no-one would have believed possible of the huge man, shoving the other guard out of his way. The guard’s head struck the cart and he dropped to the road, unconscious.
“You’re both going to the Hole now,” the Squad Commander said as his cruiser landed in the dust.
Malik had heard the rumour that Armand Solla had been assigned to High Venus. He was certain that Solla had orchestrated this entire incident, including the deaths of the two hapless tough guys. For exactly what, he could not say, but Solla had set a trap and Malik and Beast had walked right into it.
Wog and Gay were working in the garden out behind the Martian commune, both of them stripped to the waist in the bright sun of Venus. Bent over with his spade, Wog did not see the attack coming until he realized that some punk was holding a homemade dagger to Gay’s throat. Wog started to move when he saw the man begin to fondle her, but a tiny drop of blood appeared on her fine throat and he stopped. He did not see the other attacker until the man had a blade against his own throat.
I’m getting old and slow, he thought. Prison life is too easy on me. When he and Gay were Free Traders and names to be reckoned with in the interplanetary smuggling trade, no-one could have gotten the drop on either of them, especially with Fancy Dancer backing them up.
“Easy,” he said. “What do you want?”
“We want your treasure.”
“What fucking treasure?”
“You Free Traders have all got something tucked away. Everybody knows that.”
“Jesus, Man! Do you know what fusion fuel costs? If we had access to a bribe like that, do you think we’d be here?”
The four of them regarded each other—Wog tall and blue-eyed with abundant sandy locks, Gay dark-haired and dark-eyed and lush, and the two idiots as unremarkable as they were clueless.
“Okay, then,” the one holding Gay said, “we’ll take your other fucking treasure,” and his hands began roaming again.
The one holding Wog grinned, no doubt looking forward to his turn, and was distracted. Wog stepped back, snatched the knife from his captor and cut the man’s throat with it. Now, the other one was distracted. Gay flipped him over her hip and laid him out on the ground. He scrambled to his feet with his knife, and then dropped it as Wog put the other attacker’s knife into his back from several meters away. Wog had no sooner congratulated himself and Gay for still having awesome skills when the sky filled with Quasi-Police cruisers.
As Wog was being handcuffed and shoved into a cruiser, a young girl came running out of the Martian compound with an article of clothing in her hand. Naturally, all the brave guards turned on her and cocked their weapons. The girl stopped.
“I have a shirt for Gay,” she said.
The bravest of the guards stepped up and examined the piece of fabric. “Okay,” he said.
The girl helped Gay put it on and button it up.
“Thank you, Genia,” she said and kissed the girl on the top of her head.
“Love is all you need,” said Genia and returned to the compound. Then Gay was cuffed and shoved into the cruiser. Some of the guards climbed in and others boarded their own cruisers and took off.
The cruiser rose into the air and through the ports Wog and Gay could see Little Mars inside its stockade and all the other stockades and villages spread out below, separated by agricultural terraces and fields and orchards. As they approached the spin axis, they could see the other landscapes above and the great revolving wheels within wheels of the colony. Reflected in the mirrors were the blazing sun and the opaque cloudscape of Venus.
The cruiser was attached to an elevator on the endcap and lowered to the one-third gravity level. For Wog and Gay, it was a reminder of home. All they could ask for now was to look out a port and see a nice, comforting dust storm. Gay’s eyes ran with tears. Wog leaned over, his arms cuffed uselessly behind him, and kissed her tears away. The guard across from him thrust the muzzle of his assault gun into Wog’s chest.
“Sit back!” he said.
“Really?” Wog laughed. “You’d fire that thing in a shuttle?” The guard had the decency to be embarrassed.
The Free Traders climbed out of the shuttle and were forced to walk down the corridor. Striding in one-third gee seemed like flying to them. They had been in prison so long that they had become used to the artificial gravity equivalent to Venus, very close to that of Earth.
The descent-shuttle berthed ahead of them was Cerberus One, its fuselage of thick titanium, its ports of equally thick quartz etched with sulfuric acid runoff, and its engines monumentally powerful to resist the roaring winds of the upper Venereal atmosphere.
Gay caught her breath. They were being transferred to the Hole. Who, Wog wondered, would put a woman in the Hole with the kind of men imprisoned there?
“Captain Solla, Sir!” said a guard, and saluted.
Wog turned and regarded Armand Solla, the man who had hounded Progeny Brown literally to death, who had tortured and killed Satan knew how many thousand Martians, and who had forced Wog and Gay to do his bidding or watch their beloved ship Fancy Dancer be lobotomized before their eyes. Wog would gladly have been torn apart by assault-gun fire if he could have taken Solla with him. But then, that was why Gay was here. Solla’s orders would still be carried out and Gay would be sent to the Hole without Wog to guard her. He had to hand it to Solla, he thought. If only he could hand him a grenade.
“Captain Solla,” Wog said, “join me in Hell?” He ducked his head and entered Cerberus One. Gay was less restrained. She spat in Solla’s face before she entered the shuttle and the guards swung their weapons toward her. Solla, spit still hanging from his nose, glared at the guards, who lowered their weapons sheepishly.
Inside the vessel, Wog and Gay found themselves looking at Salim Malik and Beast, the two men who had been arrested along with Progeny thanks to Wog and Gay’s actions.
“Wonderful!” Malik said. “Look who we get to ride with.”
“Look on the bright side,” Wog replied. “Maybe the hull will be breached this trip and we’ll all be ripped apart by sulfuric-acid winds together. The odds are good.”
“Shut up, all of you.” Solla said as he strapped into his seat, “or you’ll be riding with a bag on your head and miss the best part of the trip.”
What part would that be? Wog wondered.
The pilot entered and strapped into his acceleration couch. He was probably paid more than Solla, if you counted the hazard pay. Only the best pilots in the Solar System could fly this brick of a shuttle in these conditions and each trip was another opportunity to die horribly.
The shuttle’s hatch irised shut with a bang and bars slid home like guillotine blades. The drivers roared, the colony’s hatch opened up, and the shuttle was hurled into space. The vast, swirling cloudscape below grew to fill the port and the ship vanished into the maelstrom. The burning 400 kilometer winds shook the ship like a rat in a terrier’s jaws and the pilot was shaken in his restraints as every face aboard bore the look of fear. The sulfuric acid rain poured over the ports, further eroding the thick quartz panes, powerful light-beams pierced the darkness ahead, and suddenly they were through the upper atmosphere into the lower.
It was preternaturally calm, but everyone knew it was because of the atmospheric pressure, comparable to the water pressure at the bottom of Earth’s deepest oceans. The ship creaked ominously like a sounding submarine as they approached the planet’s surface. A trick of the light made it seem that they were flying over the bottom of a deep dish and the landscape seemed to rise above them on all sides. After the screaming hurricane above, it seemed like they were drifting in a world of silence, except for the dull thunder of the powerful fusion drivers behind them. The colony on the surface below appeared, blazing with lights in the gloom. It squatted like a dark toad on the oven-baked surface, shimmering visibly in the unimaginable, 500-degree heat.
“Cerberus One,” said a voice. “You are cleared for docking.”
“Acknowledged, Hades,” Solla replied. The ship nosed into the lock and was sealed in with a dull thud. The drivers dopplered down into utter silence. Then the hatches began to open with a clanging like church bells and the prison air rushed in with a serpent’s hiss.
“Everybody out,” Solla said. “Abandon hope and enter here.” Malik looked for some sign on Solla’s face that he had actually made a joke, but there was none. Wog prayed he was not going to be listening to Hell jokes for the rest of his life. The comment had pretty much gone over Beast’s head, and Gay was quietly trying to figure out how she could kill Solla.
The four of them were put in a crowded holding cell with other new arrivals. Gay immediately attracted unwelcome attention from a number of fellow prisoners and Wog made sure she was tucked safely behind him. But the prisoners began to talk among themselves, obviously planning a move. Guards hung about beyond the bars, obviously hoping to be entertained by a fight or a rape, or both. The prisoners did not expect the guards to intervene. There was little entertainment available in the Hole.
Malik sidled over and stood next to Wog. “Do you think these guys need protection from Gay?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Wog chuckled. “Thanks, Malik.”
“I still don’t trust you,” Malik said. “But you and Gay don’t deserve what these guys are dishing out.” His dark-eyed, bearded scowl made several prisoners wander off. Beast stepped in next to him and Gay vanished from sight entirely behind him. She put a hand on his huge arm.
“Thank you, Beast,” she said.
“You’re welcome, Ma’am.” His battered face lit up with a warm smile, which was quickly replaced by a terrifying glare, and more prisoners drifted off to the corners of the cell.
The four did not know how long they would have to remain on guard like this. Wog looked directly into the spy-camera on the ceiling above. Clearly, Solla was watching, because it was not long before the four of them were transferred to separate cells in a room next to Solla’s office, where they waited for the warden’s next move. One by one, they were brought before him and chained to chairs on the other side of his desk. Wog was first.
“All right, Solla,” he said. “What’s all this about? You’ve manipulated us into killing fellow prisoners, which is punished by being sent to the Hole. Obviously, you want something from us. Last time, you threatened to kill Fancy Dancer unless we helped you grab Progeny. We smuggled for the Martians, but we were not really part of the Rebellion, so we gave in. Despite that, we were welcomed by most of the Martians here and have become their friends. Now you want something else. What is it?”
Solla tapped a sensor on his desk and they saw the interior of the colony’s impound lot at Spacedock. The camera zoomed in on Fancy Dancer, sitting alone in a corner, dark and abandoned, surrounded by crates. “As you can see,” Solla said, “we still have her. With a word, I could have her higher functions wiped clean. No more memories, no more personality, no more intelligence.”
“So? The same question. What do you want from us? You had Progeny. He escaped. Now he’s dead and a legend and there’s nothing you can do to him anymore.”
“I can destroy his reputation.”
Wog laughed out loud. “No, you can’t. Martians know you’re the Father of Lies. They won’t believe a word you say, or any evidence you create. In fact, your attempt to tarnish his reputation will only make him more loved.” He laughed again. “I know what you want, though. You want to get out of this hellhole just as much as any prisoner here. You want to get back in good graces with your superiors and have them promote you and give you a nice Martian apartment on Pavonis Mons or in that obscene, green colony above that uses more water in an eight-day week than the Martians do all year. You need to show them something impressive. With your intelligence and authority, you could run this prison like a well-oiled machine—that would be impressive—but you’re afraid that will keep you here forever. That’s quite a position they put you in.”
Solla was even more disappointed in Gay. First, he had her brought into the office in chains because he was afraid of her. Solla had faced many dangers in his career, but Gay was the most terrifying of all. She glared at him with her dark eyes blazing and he was certain that, if she were not securely restrained, she would have launched herself across the desk and choked the life out of him, happily dying as she did so. Even the guards feared her. Solla had quietly suggested to some of them that she could be threatened with rape, but they had all declined the honour.
He made the same threat to her ship that he had made to Wog and thought that, as a woman, she would be so emotionally attached to Fancy Dancer that she would be more cooperative. But he was wrong.
“I don’t care what you do to Fancy and I don’t care what you do to Wog and me. I just want you to die. Failing that, I want you to rot in Hell like the rest of us poor schmucks and never get another fucking promotion in your life.”
She was even more amused at the idea of destroying Progeny’s reputation. “What a fucking idiot you are. Progeny Brown was a thief and a con-man but he ended up the most revered figure in Martian history. There’s not a Martian that doesn’t respect his memory. You, on the other hand are a liar and a killer and a fool and nobody will listen to a word you say.”
“Do you know about Ali Karil?”
“The Martian poet? He’s a Free Trader, I understand.”
“You don’t have to prevaricate,” Solla said. “I know he’s an agent for Galilean Security. He’s also a revered figure in the rebellion. Perhaps…”
“Perhaps what?” she laughed. “Perhaps you can sully the reputation of a handsome young libertine from Ganymede. What? Tell everybody he’s celibate? Or doesn’t drink? Maybe he’s a vegetarian. Everybody on Mars has read his poetry, even the children. Even the elders love him like a badly-behaved younger brother. Is everybody in the Quasi-Police as stupid as you? Jesus Christ! No wonder you can’t keep your prisoners locked up.”
Solla had once hoped to use Karil to create a kind of religious schism on Mars, the young rebel versus the elder statesman, dividing the Martian public, but Progeny had torpedoed that plan by dying. It was hard to give up on this attractive idea, but he had to.
Solla interviewed Beast as well but got only monosyllabic responses. The whole time, Beast peered at Solla like he was a puzzle to be solved. Finally, Solla realized that no communication was to be had and he sent Beast back to his cell. Beast then spoke his longest sentence: “Beast locked up in a cell, but Solla more prisoner than Beast is.”
He dismissed Beast and brought in Malik, who claimed to have no solution to offer him. But Solla had made sure the four of them were in adjacent cells so they could talk to each other. Beast might survive the Hole, but he would be constantly challenged by idiots who would want to measure their strength against him. Wog was tougher than he let on but would do anything to keep Gay safe and could not stand the thought of dying and leaving her without his protection. Malik knew he would lose the civilizing influence of his Martian companions and feared what he would become in the dark depths of the Hole.
“If you have nothing to offer me,” Solla said, “I’ll just leave you here and go back upstairs.” He reached for his comm. “This is Solla. Prepare a shuttle. I’m going topside. And put these four prisoners into the general population. I’m withdrawing my protection.”
“Wait a minute,” Malik said. “I know you don’t really think we’re a danger to other prisoners, so you brought us down here just to scare us and keep us under your control. We’ve been talking and we might actually have a solution for your problem. That is, if we can count on you doing your part and sending us back up to High Venus. We know they won’t let you send us home.”
“Cancel the last message,” Solla said. He leaned back in his chair. “I’m listening, Malik.”
“Progeny and I argued all the time,” Malik went on. “I was the hot-shot young revolutionary and he was the world-weary political thinker. In fact, I busted him out of your Argyre Mines prison against his will. But I loved and respected him and would rather die than betray his memory. I remember him telling me what you had said about us: Every three-man cell in our organization consisted of one who acts, one who feels, and one who thinks, and Progeny, as the one who thinks, was the most dangerous. But he taught me how to think eventually, and I’ve been thinking about how you might get out of here.”
“When Proj and I were first arrested, we were cellmates on the Lunar Farside Prison run by High Africa. One day, when we were working in the fields, the Sultan had a visitor he was showing around. He called her Madame Feronia.”
“I know about her,” Solla said. “The Feronia family’s a very successful interplanetary business dynasty, dealing in asteroids, metals, water, fusion-fuel, all kinds of things.”
“Well, it seems she was also interested in prisons for profit. You Terrans just love to go back and try things again that didn’t work the first time. You never seem to learn.”
“I know that she made inquiries about buying High Venus at one time but turned the offer down. Not enough profit.”
“Well, that’s because it’s always been run by the Quasi-Police, which is not a business but a bureaucracy. Now you, my Dear Armand, may be the worst human being in the Solar System, but you are nevertheless a brilliant organizer of men and resources. If you were to show her how to make a profit on this place, and actually organize it so it would lose less money, she might be persuaded to take it off Quasi-Police hands. I’m sure they’d love to get rid of this white elephant but don’t want to send all these people home, which looks like failure. The place is full of free labour who feed themselves. If you can’t make a profit off of that…”
“The fucking Quasi-Police run the place on terror, which makes it so dangerous to work in that you spend a fortune on hazard pay. And they keep killing prisoners for no damn reason, which of course renders them completely non-productive. I’m sure you can fix that.”
“You sound pretty Machiavellian for a Martian.”
“I’m originally Terran. Anyway, a lot of people think I’m the second worst person in the Solar System. I think Wog is one of them.”
True to Solla’s word, surprisingly, Wog and Gay, Malik and Beast were sent topside and things began to change in High Venus. At first, the Quasi-Police hierarchy could not see how to make a profit by spending more money, but Solla purged the prison staff and the most violent and cruel were let go. The prisoners felt safer and were allowed to keep and sell more of their production. Instead of turning a blind eye to prisoner-on-prisoner crime, the wardens began to punish such activities and the prisoners felt safer still.
They tended to co-operate more with the guards. Funerals for prison guards became rare and job turnover was reduced. The actual criminals there, who had never had success, respect, or a break in their lives, found themselves, often, members of a friendly Martian commune, and no longer felt like striking out around them. It turned out that Solla, who had obsessively recorded every word written or spoken by Progeny, discovered a chapter on prison-reform and followed its instructions.
One day, a ship called Circe Enchantress docked at High Venus and Armand Solla met Madame Feronia at the airlock. She reminded Solla of a Roman imperial matriarch in a history play—dark-haired, cool and collected, with piercing eyes and a commanding voice. She was accompanied by her pilot and bodyguard, Atakua Hujambo Kesho, a well over two-metre-tall Watusi warrior. Solla allowed him to carry his weapons into the prison in violation of the rules.
Feronia observed the interior from the balcony of Solla’s office at the one-third-gee level. What had appeared to her before as a squalid, violent, noisy place seemed to be humming along nicely. There was even music and dancing in the communes, cleverly arranged by Solla. The place reminded Feronia of High Italy, where she had been born. Then she pored over the financial reports.
She left impressed, musing about speaking to the Quasi-Police commissioners about a contract to run the facilities with intent to purchase. Not long after that, Solla was gone. He did not bother to thank Malik for the idea or his help. The next Martians to arrive at High Venus complained about Armand Solla having once more returned to Mars with a place on the Quasi-Police Council. Malik never told anyone that he was largely responsible for that. But now and then, he found himself waking up in the middle of the night, saying, “What the hell have I done?”