In Hellish lowlands,
Lost and wandering, they hear
the Sirens’ voices.
"I don’t know what you said to the Old Lady," the Doctor told him. “But she's got a whole squad of guards in the corridor. I refused to allow her to post a guard in the room. It's a goddamn hospital, I said. Now we've got all these goons blocking traffic in the hallway."
Karil was in a wheelchair by the window, looking out into the cylinder. The doctor squeezed by him and leaned out.
"She told me to make sure you couldn't get out this way," he went on. "Wanted to know why there were no bars on the windows. I told her we weren't much troubled by prisoners trying to break out of the hospital back into prison. Christ, you'd have to be an orangutan to get out this way. Besides, the guards' quarters are right below us. You'd drop right into their laps, even if the fall didn't kill you. Is there anything you'd like?"
"Any last requests, you mean? Before Feronia gets her hands on me?"
"Something like that."
"How about binoculars?"
The doctor glanced down into the Amazon camp, where a number of women were sunbathing. "Sure. Why not?"
He returned with them later and Karil spent the afternoon studying the interior of the cylinder. The hospital was halfway up the end-wall, in low gravity for the patients' comfort. He leaned out and examined the wall. There were balconies and terraces everywhere, but though Karil was a lot stronger than he pretended to be, he doubted his ability to make such formidable leaps.
And there were the guards. He could see them sunning themselves on a terrace not far away, conveniently overlooking the Amazon camp. It must have been their recreation centre; there was a swimming pool and the standard space-colony amusements...
Including hang-gliders. That was strange. Gliding in the zero-grav of the axis was great fun--Karil had grown up doing the same thing--but what guard would want to take the chance of landing alone among the prisoners?
Then he noticed the gas-canisters slung beneath the gliders. Riot-control gear. Very ingenious. The guards on the terrace could gas any disturbance without going back inside, taking an elevator to the hangar, and boarding a squad-shuttle. Might save them several minutes.
Karil studied the gliders for a while with covetous attention but gave it up. What good would it do to be inside the cylinder? He needed out--access to a spaceship. He might live longer if he could get lost among the prisoners--it would take some time to find him in that crowd--but Feronia would find him eventually, if she had to seize and search every compound in the cylinder. And this was assuming he could get to the gliders and steal one from under the guards' noses. He doubted it.
He continued to peer at the landscapes above and below. A village with some activity going on in the square attracted his attention. A group of rather foul-looking men had some prisoners of their own, locked up in tiger cages. Stoolies, he supposed, or members of a rival gang. They were being removed from the cages and dragged to the centre of the square to be staked out on the ground. Not a pretty business, to be sure.
Well, there wasn't much he could do about it. He shifted his gaze onward, but some morbid fascination brought him back.
"My God," he said. "They're women."
He focused on the scene. He could not see them well in the shadows of the compound, but one was tall and dark, the other small and blonde. They were badly outnumbered and being manhandled viciously but fighting back. One broke loose and ran free for a moment--the dark one. She stumbled, obviously in pain from being cramped up in the tiger cage. Three men went after her, caught up with her. She turned, and in a single blur of movement, crippled all three of them before collapsing.
Karil dropped his binoculars in shock, and it was only the cord around his neck that prevented them from spinning to destruction a half-kilometre below. He quickly fished them up again and took another look. Then the tears of joy in his eyes blurred his vision and he tossed the binoculars back into the room. He wiped his eyes. He would have to be able to see extremely well if he was to judge distances accurately.
His eyes swept the end-wall below. He might make that jump, but not that one, this but not this one. It would not do to slip; Karil no longer wanted to die.
He climbed out onto the window-ledge and swung outside. He leaned back against the frame, judged his distance, took a deep breath, and leaped. His fingers caught an edge and he hung on, managed to pull himself up onto the balcony. He crossed to the other end and readied himself for the next leap.
It was farther this time, and he was not sure he could do it. But there seemed no choice. He backed up, raced the length of the balcony onto the railing and kicked off from there. Terran muscles. Half-gravity. One hand closed on crumbling masonry, and he hung, swinging. Muscles straining, he pulled himself up and lay panting on the balcony.
No time to rest. The next leap was even longer, but he had a longer runway. He ran the length of the terrace, leaped across the void, crashed into a railing with blinding pain, felt himself slipping.
"Did you hear a noise?" someone asked.
Shit! Karil thought. He scrambled up onto the ledge, surprised at his own agility, and flattened against the wall as a man came through the door. Karil decked him, leaped through the door, and landed on a woman in bed.
His hand covered her mouth, choking off her scream, and a quick right cross rendered her unconscious. He turned, spotted the wine on the night-table, and tossed off a glass.
He'd needed that.
He stepped over the man, climbed up onto the ledge and made another leap, dropping two stories this time, landing and rolling gently. For a man newly resurrected from the dead, he was in remarkable shape.
The problem was: the next drop would put him on the guards' terrace, right in the middle of them. They would be surprised, no doubt, but too surprised to act? And if he hurt himself in the fall...
He could always land in the pool. But then he would have to scramble out again and that would take precious time.
Suddenly the guards were leaping to their feet from deckchairs. Karil dropped behind the parapet. Had they seen him? He peeked over the edge.
No, they were lining up along their own parapet, looking at the landscape below. One pointed and Karil saw a crowd surging along the road, headed toward the compound where Loris and Slava were imprisoned.
A rescue mission? To the guards it was an incipient riot.
Then he noticed one guard who had not gotten up. He was enormously fat, asleep on a lounge with a sleep-mask and earphones on.
Karil vaulted over the parapet and dropped, landed on the fat guard's stomach, causing an ear-splitting shriek. The lounge collapsed, but the bounce put Karil a good distance toward the hang-gliders.
The guards at the parapet turned at the sound of the scream and saw him. One shook off his surprise before the others and leaped toward him. Karil stiff-armed him away, flung two others apart and bounded between them, kicked a fourth into the pool. He reached the nearest glider, tore off a tear-gas canister, and dashed it to the ground in the midst of the guards.
Amid the coughing and spluttering, his own eyes streaming, he tore the glider from its rack and leaped into space. A hand grasped his ankle at the last moment, and he kicked a face. But he was thrown off balance and was slewing into the wall. For one terrifying instant he contemplated a crumpled glider and a long spinning tumble.
He shifted his weight, managed to gain control, and soared over the hills. Where was the village? That way, where the crowd was headed.
He glanced back and saw gliders coming after him. A thousand sirens seemed to go off at once. Karil held onto the bar with one hand, reached out and opened a canister, leaving a trail of tear-gas behind him. One guard flew into it and tumbled like Icarus to the earth. The others wasted time avoiding the smoke.
As he glided into the village compound, he saw Loris on her knees, held by several men. One had a dagger against her throat, and another was holding her by the hair, forcing her to watch what was happening to Slava.
She was naked on the ground, spread-eagled, four men holding down her arms and legs. A fifth was standing over her, unfastening his trousers. Slava was struggling and screaming, but suddenly she looked up at the sky and her eyes widened in astonishment.
The would-be rapist turned in time to see Karil coming, but too late to duck. Karil swung forward and kicked him full in the face with both feet, used his slumping body as a springboard by the simple expedient of stepping off his shoulders as the man fell, and ploughed into Loris and her captors.
Not surprisingly, their grip on her loosened. Two received broken windpipes, another a fractured jaw, and another much worse. Karil and Loris leaped upon the crowd surrounding Slava and found her on her feet in the midst of them, lashing out with foot and hand.
"Nice, eh?" Loris said. "I taught her." She ruptured a man's kidney as she spoke.
Karil fractured a collarbone with his elbow. "Very nice," he said, and kicked someone in the chest.
"I won't ask where in Hell you came from," Loris said. She grabbed someone by the arm, flung him toward Karil, and Karil broke his jaw.
"Long story," he said. "Later."
A crowd gathered about them, pressing forward, armed with knives and clubs. Other men had ducked into the long-hut and emerged with crossbows. Karil and Loris and Slava stood back to back to back. The stockade-gate splintered into matchwood and a crowd of men and women with torches poured into the compound. The sky filled with police-craft and tear-gas rained down upon them.
A gray-haired man ran up to Loris. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Chief. This is--cough--Karil."
"Karil! I'll be damned!" He bellowed with laughter.
Karil coughed a greeting. In the smoke, he could see police-craft landing everywhere, disgorging riot-helmeted guards.
"Look," he shouted over the roar. "Just what we need."
He grabbed Slava, ducking as she swung her tiny fist at him. She put her hand to her mouth. "Karil! I'm sorry."
"Don't mention it. Come on."
"The hell with your clothes." He took off his pyjama top and wrapped it around her. "Come on."
He threw her over his shoulder and carried her to the shuttle, yanked open the door, grabbed the pilot by the arm and tossed him to Loris. He dumped Slava inside and they climbed in after her. Loris stretched out her arm to the Chief.
"Come on. Now's your chance."
He started forward and stopped. "My people," he said. "I have to stay with them."
She smiled. "So long, Chief." She bent down and kissed him. "Third man I ever kissed," she said.
"Who was the first?" Karil asked.
"Shut up and close the door."
"This'll make one hell of a story," the Chief shouted over the roaring engine. He grabbed a riot-cop who was running toward the shuttle, snatched his club away, and tripped him with it. He waved as the craft leapt skyward.
The village dropped away beneath them. A few laser-beams flashed after them, out of the smoke, but they were well wide of the mark.
"Now what?" Slava asked. "How do we get out?"
"Through the window," Karil said.
"No! You'll kill us. You'll kill everybody."
"This colony's a lot bigger than yours, Slava. Much more air inside. The robots will have the damage repaired before the pressure drops that much. They'll just have to stop fighting and scramble, that's all."
"Pursuit," Loris said. Several craft were behind them.
"They won't catch us."
"Just out of curiosity, where are we going when we get outside?"
"In this thing? It might as well be made of balsa-wood."
"We'll change cabs."
A kilometre-wide expanse of blue glass rushed toward them. It was like falling into the sea. Karil fired both bow-lasers into it and a panel exploded into slivers in their path. A black hole opened up and air-pressure sucked them through and flung them into space.
"Pursuit has broken off," Loris said. "I guess they've got more important things to worry about."
Titanic clockwork was whirling all about them. Mirrors. Solar collectors. Enormous cables. Under Karil's control, the tiny ship darted among them like a grasshopper through a reaper. Karil steered the shuttle to the other cylinder and verniered up to the landing pad.
"Police," he shouted into the comm. "Open that hatch. Quickly!"
"Yes, Sir," said a voice. A hatch irised open and they drifted inside. As the lock was being pressurized, Karil reached back over the seat and grabbed a weapon from the rack. He opened the hatch and thrust it into the startled lock-attendant's stomach.
"Madame Feronia's shuttle. Take us to it."
The attendant began to stutter.
"Quickly, Man. Or we'll turn you over to the blonde. She's vicious."
Slava did not look terribly vicious, dressed only in a too-large pyjama top, but the attendant was rattled. He kicked off down the corridor and the escapees trailed after him. They passed a skylight, saw hundreds of prisoners on an assembly line below, making electronic components. In a hangar at the end of the corridor, they found several shuttles, including one formidable craft with the name FERONIA in meter-tall letters on the side. The shielding was massive, the drivers enormous.
"This will do nicely," Karil said. He thrust the gun into the attendant's back and pushed him into the lock-control gantry, watched while he set the lock for automatic cycle.
"Don't kill me," the man said. "Please."
"I won't kill you." Karil began opening doors, found an empty storage-locker. "Inside. Count to one hundred and no peeking. Got that?"
"I think you're crazy."
"Would you rather come with us? We can double-date." He leaned forward and whispered. "You can take the brunette. She's only crippled twelve men today."
The attendant stared into Karil's face and Karil waggled his eyebrows at him. The man darted into the locker and closed the door. Karil raced for the shuttle as Loris fired up the drivers. He dove inside and spun the hatch tight, and in a moment, they had cycled through a lock and were falling into the clouds.
Karil breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to Slava, kissed her passionately, turned and kissed Loris.
"Leave me alone. I'm driving."
"But I thought you were dead, both of you."
"I was afraid you were dead, too. I knew if you were still alive, you'd try something, but when I saw you coming out of the sky--on a hang-glider for God's sake..." She nearly doubled up in laughter, had to get control of herself to keep the shuttle on course. "Karil, you're the most entertaining person I ever met."
"Where's Atalanta?" Slava asked. "Is she on the surface?"
Karil's face fell. "That's why I thought you were dead."
"What happened?" Loris demanded.
"The Poseidon got her, Lor. She's gone. I saw it happen."
"Fucking bastards," Loris said, and Slava burst into tears. Karil put his arm around her. Loris was silent now, eyes tearing.
After a moment, she said, "Now will you tell us what we're looking for down there?"
"I won't know that," Karil said, "until it finds us."
Karil spooned beef stew from the tin into his mouth. The shuttle sat on the surface of Venus, deep in the uncharted lowlands. "So, when I saw you were still alive, I knew the whole experience had been phoney. Induced, somehow. Using information from my own mind. And Feronia wasn't responsible--she knew you weren't dead. You hear me?"
Loris was rummaging through the food-locker. "Look, the Old Lady's got a wine-cellar in here. How about that? Yes, I hear you. Go on."
"Whoever they are, their mind-control techniques are very sophisticated. They make the Quasi-Police look like the Spanish Inquisition. I wasn't in their clutches that long--I couldn't have told them all those details. Their only source of information was my own memory. And their medicine is phenomenal. I was practically dead, and by the time I got to the prison hospital, I was nearly recovered. Much the same thing happened to Feronia, Malik, and Solla, apparently."
Loris sat down next to Slava and opened the wine. "And all to stop the Project, is that what you're saying?"
"That's how it looks to me."
Loris handed the bottle to Slava. "But why? And if they're so powerful, why can't they do it some simpler, more reliable way?"
"I think they're stuck here. I think they can't leave Venus."
"Because we'd see they're not human, that's why."
Loris' eyes narrowed. "I beg your pardon?"
Karil sighed. "Look. These incidents have been happening ever since the research installations were built and serious exploration of the lowlands began. Most of the time they were content to scare the hell out of people and keep them away. Some people died, but I think that was a side-effect."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Seriously, Lor. I don't think they like killing."
"You hope they don't like killing. Are you saying they're indigenous? Adapted to this environment?"
"No, no. I don't see how life could evolve under these conditions either. But we’re here, aren't we?" He gestured toward the port and the lethal landscape outside. "A more advanced technology than ours could establish a really permanent base--undiscovered for God knows how long."
"This is so exciting," Slava said.
Karil grinned and took the bottle. "But ever since the Odysseus Project began--they must have found out about it from Solla, or Feronia's husband--they've been sending people out to stop it. I think..."
"Wait. Let me see if I'm crazy enough to follow your logic. You think they're from another solar system. They're afraid we'll stumble on their home planet."
"Exactly. It can't be far. How many light-years could they have travelled? There are limits, even to the most..."
"As a paranoid fantasy," Loris said, "I like it. But even if you're as mgonjwa as you sound, there's something spooky going on down here. Besides, Feronia's searching the skies for us right now and it's a hell of a lot easier to hide where we are, so we might as well stay for a while." She spooned up her stew. "So how do we find these aliens of yours?"
"I don't know. I've got a fairly good idea where they might be hiding, because there's a certain extent of territory no-one's been able to explore."
"What makes you think we can?"
"Because we're on to them now and won't be scared away. If we begin to see hallucinations, we'll know we're getting close."
"That's just fine. If they don't want to hallucinate us into a mountainside, all they have to do is leave our minds alone and we'll fly right by. We've got an area the size of the Atlantic Ocean floor to search. How long before this shuttle breaks down."
"Feronia designed it expressly for these conditions. Besides, I've got it pinpointed better than that." Karil went to the control-panel, displayed a map on the screen. "The Titan installation never reported anything amiss, and they pretty well explored the Aphrodite region..."
"Speaking of which, what happened to them? They were squashed flat after Malik left. How come, if these aliens don't like to...?"
"Malik did that. Planted a bomb to cover his escape. I'm sure of it."
"Great. Feronia, Malik, and Armand Solla, the three of them mad as a hatter, with entire armies at their disposal, and they're sent out to stop the Project at all costs. Some respect for human life."
"In any event," Karil went on, dismissing her comment, "I figure they're somewhere on the northern edge of the Alpha Regio, between Sappho and Eve."
"Between Sappho and Eve," Loris laughed. "Exactly where you like to be. Okay. Let's go."
Karil had narrowed the search to an area roughly the size of Brazil. To Slava, who had been brought up in a world with no horizon, the lowlands of Venus were beyond belief. The shuttle roared over kilometre after kilometre of barren, rocky, baking landscape. Always the surface was the same, always the clouds overhead were the same. Karil and Loris bent over their instruments, searching for unusual radiation profiles--some gravitational anomaly or magnetic disturbance that might reveal a hidden power source.
Slava found herself nodding off once or twice and finally gave in to the monotony. She climbed out of her seat, made her way up the aisle, and curled up beneath one of the air-filled thermal blankets stored in the rear. In a moment, lulled by the movement of the shuttle and the constant gurgle and wheeze of the refrigeration system, she drifted off to sleep.
When she awoke, the craft was sitting motionless on the surface. The interior was filled with a yellow mist, through which she could vaguely see Karil and Loris slumped over the instrument panel.
"Oh my God!" She leapt to her feet and ran forward. "Karil! Loris!" She swivelled Karil's chair to speak to him. It spun around.
The flesh on his face, exposed chest, and arms was eaten away by acid, sloughing off in great putrid masses to reveal the corroded skeleton beneath.
She screamed and stepped back, stumbling against Loris' chair as she did so, and it too swung about, revealing Loris' acid-eaten corpse.
Whimpering in terror, she backed away to the rear of the craft, felt her heel touch something on the deck and looked down at her own dissolving body. She flattened against the bulkhead, stopping her mouth with her fist, and stared about her with horror-widened eyes.
Slowly, Karil and Loris rose and came toward her, eyeless sockets revealing the blackness inside their skulls.
"No," she sobbed. "Stay back. Oh God. Please."
They stood still.
Her body was trembling uncontrollably. She took a deep breath and spoke again. "I'm dreaming. I'm having a nightmare."
They began to move toward her. "No! Don't move yet. You're right, Karil. They're in my mind. Let me get hold of myself first. I'm so scared."
She continued to tremble against the bulkhead, her hand on her chest to try to still her furiously pounding heart. Then she said, slowly, "I'm going to fight them. I'm coming toward you. Don't move. Just put out your arms."
They opened their rotting arms to her. She whimpered and closed her eyes, then opened them again. Slowly she stepped forward and walked toward them.
She shrank back at the touch of their skeletal hands. But she steeled herself, reached up and took Karil's rotting head between her hands, then stood on tiptoes to kiss his lipless, grinning mouth.
She felt his beard scratching her cheek, his warm lips on hers, and looked up to see his dark, liquid eyes. She put out her hand to touch Loris' smooth, brown cheek. Then she fainted.
Slava sat up with a start. Karil and Loris, beautifully whole and wholly beautiful, were bent over her. She smiled and embraced them, trembling.
"Slava," Loris said, "I've seen courage in my time, but you..."
"Courage!" Slava exclaimed. "I was scared to death. I think I wet your pyjamas, Karil."
"But you fought them, didn't you? I don't know what you saw, but..."
"I don't want to talk about it. I had nightmares as a child, after my parents died. They went into my mind and... No, I don't want to talk about it."
"Well, we've got something to show you. Come on."
They took her forward to the instrument panel and showed her something on a screen. At first, she could make nothing of it, but then she realized it was just like an asteroid in negative. Instead of veins of denser nickel-iron within a mass of stony chondrite, it was hollow space within dense rock.
"A cave," she said.
"A cave? It's the Mother of All Caves, my girl. That mountain you see outside is basically just a dome with rock on top."
"The whole mountain is hollow?"
"That's right. And the cave goes down into the bedrock too. It's bigger than the biggest space colony humans have ever built, and it supports its own weight, not to mention all that basalt on top, not to mention ninety atmospheres of pressure on top of that."
She found it hard to believe. Venus Colony was the greatest artefact she had ever seen, and if she read the figures right it could be set spinning inside this hollow space--both cylinders, mirrors, and all.
"Why wasn't it seen before?"
"Nobody got this close before. From orbit, it would look like just another caldera. Basically, whoever built this took a volcano with a deep crater, built a dome inside, and camouflaged it with basalt. It's only from the surface that it could be discovered, which is probably why whoever-they-are went to so much trouble to stop surface exploration in this area. Now look at infra-red." He touched a sensor.
"It's cool inside."
"By Venerian standards, it's freezing. Comfortable for carbon-based life. The basalt is arranged to act as a radiator. Again, from orbit the radiated heat would hide it. There must be a refrigeration system in there that would boggle the mind. And do you know what that means?"
She shook her head, too dazed to think.
"Water. Lots of it. There's not another drop of water on Venus. There was, briefly, a few billion years ago, but that got boiled away long before life appeared on Earth. It must have been manufactured on site."
"Why did they let us get so close, I wonder."
"I'm not sure. They tried to scare us away, starting with you--maybe because you were asleep, maybe because Loris and I were concentrating so hard, using our left-brains, or just because they thought you were the most vulnerable..."
"They didn't know our Slava," Loris said.
Slava laughed gaily. "You might as well let us in," she shouted. "We're not afraid of you."
"I don't think it'll be that easy," Karil said. "First, we have to work our way around the mountain, probing the rock with..."
"What are we looking for?"
"A door. What else? Look, Malik's crawler was upside-down in a crevasse a thousand klicks north-northeast of here. Next thing you know, it was on Aphrodite, outside the Titan station. They didn't move it there by telekinesis--at least I don't think so. There has to be some way surface-vehicles can get in and out of there."
Karil and Loris seemed immune to fatigue. They paused, sometimes, to grab the odd bit of food and swallow of wine that Slava brought them, but they continued to pore over their instruments as the ship made its circuit of the mountain. Reluctant to stray too far, Slava stood between their chairs, peering at the figures that flashed on the screens. Now and then, Karil's arm was about her waist, or his hand on her bottom. Once he put out his hand to fondle her and found Loris' hand on her. He grinned happily.
The third time Slava jerked awake, Loris said, "Why don’t you go to sleep, Slava? You couldn't have gotten much the last time."
"What about you? You've been going for 24 hours."
"We've done that before. We're all right."
"Well," she admitted, "I'm a little scared of going back to sleep, but I guess you're right. I'll just stay close to you."
She dragged a blanket up to the bow and curled up on it between their chairs. In an instant she was sound asleep and twitching like a kitten at their feet. From time to time, Karil and Loris would glance down at her.
"God, she looks sweet like that, doesn't she?" Karil said.
Loris reached down and covered her bottom with the blanket. "Keep your mind on your work, Karil."
"Why don't you let us in?" Slava said.
"What was that?"
A minute later, she said, "We won't hurt them."
Karil and Loris looked at each other.
"They won't hurt them either," Slava said.
"My God, she's carrying on a conversation."
"They're not murderers, you know that. But they protect each other. And they protect me."
"How long can you hide here? There are more people coming all the time."
"Why are they talking to her? Because she's asleep? Most of the people they've contacted were asleep, or nearly unconscious."
"A thought just struck me," Loris said. "Slava must be the first person they've ever encountered who hasn't killed anybody."
"That must be true," Karil said. "Prisoners, prison-guards, Malik, Feronia... They haven't exactly met the best that humankind has to offer, have they? Including me, I'm afraid."
"They won't break their promise to me," Slava said. "You see how I trust them, don't you?" She turned in her sleep. "Karil?"
"Do you promise not to kill the animals?"
"I promise, Slava. Private game preserve. No hunting."
"Do you promise, too?"
"I promise, Slava. But I reserve the right to protect you and Karil. I won't stand by if you're in danger. And I know Karil feels the same way."
There was a moment of silence. "South, southwest face," Slava said. "Deep ravine cutting into the escarpment beside a granite outcrop."
The shuttle sped off.