Well and truly dead,
or so he believes, he sees
his ghosts before him.
Every time a robot crawler returned, it had to be overhauled. The heat and acid would corrode its surface and work its way into the interior, under ninety atmospheres of pressure, destroying whole systems.
The crawlers entered the hangar red-hot and radiating. Despite the refrigeration, Karil, like the others, worked stripped to the waist and dripping with perspiration. The guards watched from behind ports, cool and bored.
Fortunately, however, Karil was good with calculations and was often assigned to the computer room, where the data collected by the crawlers was collated and beamed to the colony above. There was always a guard looking over his shoulder, but the data on the screen was Greek to him, and Karil could punch up whatever information he wanted.
He studied the charts until the surface of Venus was as familiar to him as that of Mars. He studied the research complex, the shuttle schedule, the layout of the colony above.
Sometimes, too, he was assigned to the kitchen. The guards were well-fed with fresh food from the colony. Karil would steal eggs, smuggle them back to his room and hide them in a warm place.
He got to know both guards and prisoners. The young man who had spoken to him above did not last long; he was killed while resisting rape and his killer served as an example to the next batch of arriving prisoners. Most of the other prisoners had as little use for Karil as anyone else, but two of them became his friends--Archiv and the Beast.
Archiv was a trusty, but well-liked nonetheless for his quiet manner and willingness to be of service to guard and prisoner alike. He had been a librarian, and still kept the handful of books the prisoners were allowed to read. He was almost as widely read as Karil and their conversations bored everyone to tears.
The Beast's nickname arose from his enormous size and the fact that his number was 666. But like many giants he was a gentle man, unless provoked to rage. One such rage, many years ago, was responsible for him being in the Hole. He had been sent to Venus during the early years of the Rebellion, and eventually Karil discovered that he, too, had been a friend of Progeny. He had spent many years in isolation and Karil was able to fill him in on Progeny's last years of life, for which the Beast was enormously grateful.
One day, one of the robot crawlers failed to return, and a manned vehicle had to be sent after it, down the slope and into the lowlands. Archiv volunteered.
"You're crazy," the other prisoners told him. "Everybody knows the lowlands are haunted."
Archiv only laughed.
"I tell you true," said one old veteran. "The ghosts of Venus' victims wander there. It's the loneliness that gets them. They want souls to join them in their wanderings. They come right into the crawler after you and steal your wits away."
"He's right," said another. "I was there once. I could hear their voices through the bulkhead, like the voices of the drowned that ancient sailors used to hear on Earth."
"Those were whales," Karil said.
"Whales? There ain't no whales on Venus."
"No, that's what the ancient sailors heard. The songs of whales."
"Maybe you're right about that. But here it's ghosts. They called me by name. Called the guard by name too. We were both scared shitless. He said: let's go back up the slope and hang around for a while, and when we get back, I'll tell them we went on in the lowlands, but the equipment failed. He kept his word, too. That's how scared he was."
"Which guard was that?"
"He ain't here anymore. Got himself transferred topside as soon as he could. Took a big pay-cut too."
Archiv scoffed and left in a crawler with a guard, who was not particularly enthralled, but had little choice in the matter, crawler duty being on a strict rotation.
Hours crept by and the second crawler was long overdue. There had been no radio-response for quite some time, and Karil was in the hangar with the Beast when it was finally sighted, creeping toward them across the plateau. Guards and prisoners alike gathered in the hangar.
It cycled through the lock and when it was cool enough to approach, Karil and the Beast opened the hatch. Ignoring his burns, the Beast forced his bulk inside. He emerged in tears, cradling Archiv's body in his arms. The expression on the dead lad's face was one of stark terror. Shocked whispers swept the room.
Karil climbed inside and found the guard slumped in the corner, jabbering to himself. As Karil approached, he screamed.
"No. Don't touch me. Get away. Keep them away." He thrust Karil aside, leapt from the crawler, and crouched like an animal at bay. He fell upon the other guards as they approached, and it took four to subdue him.
"Send for a shuttle," the Warden said, appearing at the door. "Take him to the hospital topside. Madame Feronia will want to question him. What about the prisoner, is he alive?"
"He's dead," the Beast said. "He died of fright."
"Bad luck," the Chief said. "She'd want to question him too." He turned away.
Before anyone could move, the Beast was upon him, lifting him off the floor and slamming him against the wall. "Murderer!" he shouted. "Monster!" One of the guards swung his laser-rifle in his direction.
Karil dove for the weapon, but he was too late. The laser cut cleanly into the Beast's back and he slumped to the floor. The Chief crawled out from under his body.
"Take the prisoners to their cells. You, get online and get that shuttle down here. A few casualties and the place falls to pieces."
Karil knew it was time to act; everyone was on the verge of panic and it would not take much to push them over. When order was restored, security would be tighter than ever. Locked in his cell, he waited until he could hear the roar of the descending shuttle outside. Then he took his eggs out of hiding, climbed up onto his bunk, and inserted them one by one into the air-vent. He could hear them break as they fell, and the stench of rotten egg filled the room.
Sirens began to wail. A guard ran through the corridor, shouting:
"Sulphur-dioxide! Leak in section Four. Evacuate Section Four!"
The cell-doors sprung open, and the corridors were filled with rushing bodies. Karil made his way to the crawler hangar unchallenged. In a few minutes, he had started one of the huge vehicles, cycled through the lock, and was creeping toward the shuttle-pad. He mated with the space-vehicle and opened the hatch.
He stuck his head and shoulders through, blocking the view of the crawler's interior. A guard appeared at the other end of the tunnel.
"Warden says we need the Doc," Karil said. "Hurry!"
The Doctor pulled the guard aside and squeezed through. He looked about with a puzzled expression. "Where's the...?"
Karil silenced him with a right cross and crawled through the tunnel into the shuttle. "Doc says he needs help with the patient. He's pretty hard to manage."
As the guard stooped to enter, Karil snatched his stun-gun from his holster. "Everyone into the crawler. You too."
The guards and the pilot crawled through into the hatch. Karil secured it and broke the connection with a hiss. He slipped into the pilot's seat, watching the crawler make its way slowly back to the dome, fired the engines, and lifted off.
The broiling plains of Lakshmi sped beneath him. The Vesta Palisades dropped away, and he descended into the lowlands of the Sedna Plains, where the perfect hiding-place existed--a portion of the planet which no-one had ever succeeded in mapping. He would hide there and make his plans for his assault on the colony above. It would be assumed that he had headed for orbit, and no-one would ever think to look for him there, in the uncharted, haunted lowlands.
The shuttle lay, a tangled mass of corroding steel, on the outer slope of the northern wall of Sappho Crater. The hull was still intact, thick steel pressure-plates unbroken in the crash, but Karil's body lay sprawled across the instrument panel.
He observed it from above, without passion, without attachment. The body had served him well in life, but its demands had been a burden. He was surprised to realize how little he would miss it.
He turned toward the light. It seemed to enfold him, and he moved through luminous mist, drifting down a long tunnel. There was a figure waiting for him, shadowy at first, but soon revealed as a paunchy, ship-suited man with long sandy hair and a drooping moustache.
"I knew you wouldn't make it this time, Stillborn," he said.
"In the flesh. No, that's not right. What should I say? In the astral body?"
"I think that's the term," Karil said.
"Well, you know more about this mystical crap than I do."
Karil walked, or perhaps drifted, closer. He examined his former captain's grinning face. How long had it been since Shagrug's death? Terry's son, named after him, must be eight or nine now, in Martian years.
"Too bad Atty can't be with us, eh, Stillborn? We could buzz some of these humourless assholes and scare the astral shit out of them. But she's got no soul, they tell me. That's a load of crap, if you ask me. Atty had more soul than most of the human beings I've met. Look, there's a lot of people been waitin' to see you. Turn around."
Karil turned and saw Johanna approaching. If anything, she was more beautiful than she had been in life. There was no sign of the laser-hole through her heart, but of course Shagrug had been blown to bits, so the condition of one’s body at death obviously made no difference here. Funny, he thought, the things one thinks of.
"I've been waiting a long time for you, Karil," she said. "So many times, I thought you were about to join us, but you managed to wriggle out of it at the last moment." She smiled radiantly and Karil smiled back, filled with joy at seeing her again. "But I didn't mind waiting," she went on. "It wasn't your time yet."
"It was really sweet of Terry, wasn't it?" Shagrug said. "Naming the kids after us. And Jay too, of course."
"Jay! Where is he?"
"Over here, Still."
Karil turned and saw Jay Coldwell's familiar lanky figure emerging from the mist. Not even death could dim the sparkle in his eye, or the sardonic grin.
"Well, here we are," he said. "A couple of atheists surprised to find themselves in the afterlife. The undiscovered country. Sure makes us look like a couple of fools, doesn't it? Remember all those serious discussions in the student quarters?"
"Maybe it's not true. Maybe I'm hallucinating."
"Same old Karil," Jay laughed. "What would you prefer? Gardens with hot and cold running houris? Or gloomy shades flitting through Limbo? I'm not sure what this is all about myself, Still, but I think it's the collective unconscious. When you die, apparently, some kind of personality survives, and because our lives were linked, we're here together. Even your mother."
"Look over there."
She appeared as she had appeared in the hologram he had possessed as a child--a dark Sudanese-Greek beauty dressed in High Company concubine's silks.
"Yes, Ali Karil." Her voice was soft and gentle, like Atalanta's. "You are surprised, Ali Karil. I sound like your beloved ship."
"How did you know what she sounds like? Or do you know everything here?"
She laughed daintily. "No, not everything. Your friend Shagrug said much the same. That my voice reminded him of Atalanta. Perhaps you heard my voice in the womb and that is why you became so close to her so quickly."
"But you died before I was born."
"The soul is aware of things the brain cannot know, Ali Karil. My brain was dead, my body alive in a machine, and yet I saw you. I saw my body give birth to you, I watched you grow into manhood, I recognized your friends when they appeared here, one by one, and we have waited together."
Karil was overwhelmed with joy. He turned and smiled at Shagrug, who grinned broadly. He exchanged loving glances with Johanna. He turned to Jay.
"I wanted to talk to you, Jay. I wanted to say how sorry I was that we drifted apart. Terry came between us, somehow, though it was the last thing she wanted."
"I know, Still. It's all right. It really is. I had hoped you would stay with her on Mars when I died. You should go back to her, you know. She needs you."
"What? How can I do that? I'm dead too. At least, I think I'm dead."
"You're not dead, Karil," Johanna told him. "You're hovering between life and death. Your body is in the prison hospital even now."
"I have to go back? I don't want to go back. I want to stay with you. All of you. Where's Loris and Slava?"
They appeared beside him, as if summoned by their names. He reached out to embrace them, his heart leaping with joy, but some force restrained him.
"You've got to go back, Karil," Loris said. "You've been brought here to receive an important message. I don't understand much about it, myself. I just got here. Jay's the one you should listen to."
Karil turned to Jay.
"We haven't much time," the latter said. "They're working on reviving your body. There's a lot you'll have to take on faith. Of course," he laughed, "faith was never your strong point. But this is important."
"I'm listening. Go on."
"We're in touch with things here. We have all the memories of mankind to draw on. We can see patterns that the living can't see, wrapped up as they are in themselves. But you might be able to understand, because you're a citizen of the Solar System and have no allegiance to one small moon or planet. And you understand history.
"The Solar System is an island, quarantined by distance from the other stars. That's no accident, Karil. We have an abundance of energy in the sun--billions of years' worth. We have the Belt--ores and minerals we can gather like shells on a beach. We have water, and fuel--entire worlds of the stuff, Karil. Everything we need, and all safely isolated by the light-speed barrier, so we can develop without interference.
"But Professor Kelley's about to break that quarantine. I love the man, Karil, but he's playing with fire."
"Why? Is there danger out there?"
"Terrible danger. We've been naive, Karil. Remember all those discussions about extra-terrestrial life? About alien civilizations? Either they're younger than us and therefore no threat, or they're older and therefore wiser. But we were wrong."
"How do you know?"
"Because they've been here before. Long before written history, but not before racial memory. I've had glimpses of them myself, Karil. They're not benign. What they are is unconcerned. We mean no more to them than animals mean to us. Of course, most of us like to think we're naturally kind to animals, but it doesn't stop us from locking them up in cages, experimenting on them, slaughtering them for food. Hell, we do all that to each other now and then.
"Has climbing up the gravity well made us any wiser, Karil? Have the resources of the Solar System eliminated poverty and tyranny? How can we expect interstellar travel to do the trick?
We can't afford to leave the solar system. We can't afford to draw that much attention to ourselves. We're not powerful enough, not united enough. Somebody's got to convince Charles of the danger."
"Jay's right, Karil," Loris said.
"You want me to stop the Project? It'll break the man's heart."
"I know, Karil, but once he's joined us, once he understands, he'll see it's for the best. But it'll be too late then. The Odysseus will be on its way and out of reach."
"Remember the last lines of Hamlet?" Jay said. "Absent thee from felicity awhile. Go back, Karil. Talk to the Professor. Convince him."
His friends began to recede. He cried out and reached for them, but they were gone. There was darkness and then a bright light gleaming on porcelain and steel.
"I have a pulse," someone said. "Nurse! Quickly!"
He drifted into sleep.
Loris had cut the legs off her prison trousers and tied her shirttails in a knot, leaving her midriff bare. As she worked in the fields, onlookers could not help but admire her powerful legs and washboard stomach. Slava had dispensed with her oversized trousers altogether, belting her shirt at the waist to make a short dress. Her hair was longer now, and her skin tan. Even in rags, Loris thought, she managed to look as cute as a button.
By the end of the workday, they were usually filthy. They would make their way to the irrigation-system standpipe near the Big Hill, where a long-neglected leak had caused a pool of water to collect in a shallow depression. Here they would take turns bathing, each standing guard over the other.
Hard work had made Slava's muscles taut and firm; Loris often found herself distracted by the sight and sound of the girl splashing the ice-cold water over her body. She tended to linger, of late, as she massaged Slava's shoulders. She would finish by lightly stroking her back from shoulder-blades to sacral dimples.
"Did Karil teach you that?" Slava asked, as she enjoyed the delicate stroke of Loris' deadly fingertips. "Or did you teach it to Karil?"
Loris smiled. "I don't recall, actually. He was always good with his hands. Maybe we both learned the art of massage from Terry. Living in a mining colony, she learned at an early age."
"I've always wondered. What do you do together, when you're...with someone."
"I'm not sure we should get into that subject right now," Loris said. "Come on. It's time for your lesson." She slapped Slava on the bottom and stood. Slava dressed and followed her to the grassy knoll where her lessons took place every evening.
"All right. What have you learned so far?"
"Don't be intimidated by a man's size or weight. You can use it against him."
"Show me." Loris reached for her throat. Slava grabbed her shirt-front, fell back, and tossed Loris over her shoulder.
"Very good." Of course, it would not have taken much for Loris to have countered the movement and turned the tables on the girl, and Slava would have been pretty much helpless against a well-trained opponent, but the chances were good that an attacking male of twice her weight would be overconfident enough to be taken by surprise.
"All right. What else did you learn?"
Loris leapt to her feet and confronted her again. Slava demonstrated--stiffened fingers in the kidneys, a swift chop to the windpipe, a foot to the kneecap, a knee in the groin. Slava was not good enough to pull her punches adequately and a less agile instructor than Loris would have ended up black and blue, if not unconscious, but the girl was not learning how to spar, she was learning how to maim and kill.
"Remember, Slava, you must move smoothly, as in a ballet, one movement flowing into the next. If you were attacked by enemies on all sides, you wouldn't have time to think of your next move. It would have to be automatic, instinctive. Now see if you can pin me."
Loris grabbed Slava by the shoulders, kicked her feet out from under her, and threw her to the ground. Slava rolled away an instant before Loris landed on top of her, seized the woman's wrist and bent her arm into a painful position behind her. Somehow, in a movement too swift to see, the position was reversed. To her surprise, Slava found herself on her back, arms pinned to the ground, helpless beneath her tutor.
"That's the problem with getting too close, Slava. Always try to keep on your feet and out of reach if you can. Dart in, strike, and step back. If a man gets you into a position where his upper-body strength is an advantage, it's your ass on the line. Or whatever else he's after. I don't outweigh you by more than a few kilos, but I'll bet you can't escape."
Slava did her best, squirming and grunting, trying to throw Loris off. In the struggle their shirts came undone, and their sweat-slippery breasts rubbed together with a sucking sound. Slava was panting now, her skin flushed and her nipples hard.
Suddenly she lifted her head from the ground and kissed Loris passionately. Like the bursting of a dam, they were grinding their bodies together, covering each other's faces with kisses.
"That's a pretty picture, for sure," said a voice.
Too fast to follow, they were both on their feet and crouched for combat. Half a dozen men surrounded them, well out of reach, with makeshift but deadly-looking crossbows in their hands. Slava reverted to type, blushing and drawing the remnants of her shirt over her breasts. Loris' eyes darted from bearded face to bearded face, her body trembling from passion instantly converted to rage.
"Keep back," said one whose size and well-scarred body revealed him to be the leader. "Don't let her get too close." He smiled, revealing several missing teeth. "We know all about you, Loris. We've been watching you since you came. I'd hate to put a bolt through that gorgeous body of yours, but I will if you make a sudden move. Got that?"
"I got it. What do you want?"
One man began to laugh, but the leader silenced him with a look. "Our chief wants to see you. Walk in that direction, both of you. We'll keep back out of reach, but not out of range. Move!"
Loris and Slava set off down the road.
"I don't know how you did it," the Doctor said. "They brought you in yesterday, more dead than alive. Now you're on the verge of recovery. I've never seen the like."
Karil did not care. He was experiencing a profound sense of loss at finding himself alive again. The Doctor's attempts to engage him in conversation failed and the man left when his instrument-reading was done.
The sunlight reflected into the cylinder poured through the window, and he could hear the voices of prisoners. From this angle, he could even see one of the green landscapes in the sky, but this did not cheer him.
Lying there, strapped to a bed with tubes in his arms, it was easy to believe that his experience in the lowlands was all in the mind. Under the stress of the situation, drifting into coma, he had taken Malik's story, his own desire to be reunited with his loved ones, and conventional tales of out-of-body experiences, and moulded them together into a convincing hallucination.
But why should his imaginary dead try to convince him to stop the Odysseus Project? Was he prey to some unconscious fear of interstellar exploration--the ancient fear of the unknown? It was contrary to the pattern of his entire life. Had he been in some way influenced by Malik's obsession?
It had seemed so real! And even now, as he questioned his own motives and memories, there was an overwhelming desire to escape, to make his way back to the Project site and convince the Professor the ship must never be launched.
The door opened. Madame Feronia and Captain Kesho entered the room.
Karil burst out laughing.
"What's so funny!" Feronia demanded. "What do you mean by this?"
Karil managed to control himself. "You had me strapped down so I wouldn't attack you, right? But I don't want to anymore. I broke out of the Hole to do just that, and now that you're here, I couldn't care less."
"Explain yourself. What happened down there? I must know. You'll tell me or I'll..."
"Or you'll what? Kill me? There's nothing I'd like better. Your threats mean nothing to me. Besides, you'd be a fool to kill me. Your wisest move would be to let me go, so I can accomplish your goals for you." He exploded in merriment again.
"He's hysterical," Kesho said.
"No, he's not. He's changed. He's seen something that changed him." She came forward and sat on the edge of the bed, tried to use a gentle tone. "Karil, listen to me. Is there a message for me?"
"Did you see my husband?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
She seized him by the shoulders and shook him. "You saw something! What was it?"
"Madame," said Captain Kesho, "he's still on intravenous. You'll injure him."
"Tell me,” she said, calming herself. "I'll make it worth your while. What do you want? I can get it for you. Freedom? Wealth?"
"What do I want!" Karil shouted. "I want to join Loris and Slava, that's what I want."
"That can be arranged," she said, but not in a threatening tone of voice. Before he could puzzle out the meaning of this, she went on. "I'll confide in you. To show you I can be trusted."
"I wouldn't trust you if..."
"Listen to me! There have always been stories. Tales of ghosts and strange happenings on the surface. I didn't believe them, of course, though I encouraged the rumours, to keep the prisoners in line. Then it happened to me.
"I saw my dead husband. I thought I'd gone crazy after they brought me back, but the memory haunted me. It still does. I've tried drugs, hypnosis, séances. I've never been able to contact him since. But I know I saw him, and he spoke to me. I must know, Karil. Did you see him?"
Karil stared at her in astonishment. "You must be the most self-centred person alive. I saw my own ghosts, like Malik did. Not yours."
"Yes. Malik. I know what he experienced. Until now, he was the only person to return with his sanity."
"Don't be too sure of that. Besides, he was wrong in at least one major point--aside from the ridiculous notion of Progeny as a saint--his mission. He's dead. I killed him myself. What became of his mission then?"
"Couldn't his mission have been to send you here?"
"Wait a minute," Karil said. "I don't understand." He narrowed his gaze. "What did your husband tell you?"
"He gave me advice. Told me to keep his empire intact. Buy this. Take over that. I followed his advice and was fabulously successful. But there was one thing he emphasized--take over the Odysseus Project. Take control of it any way I could and wait for further instructions. I'm on the verge of doing that now, but I've had no further word. I've even returned to the surface, wandered everywhere over that plain. I've had special shuttles built, created for that environment. They're waiting now, on the other cylinder, if only..."
"Go back to the beginning. How did your husband die?"
"He was forced down in a storm somewhere in the lowlands. We heard his last signal as he went in, but it was garbled. We had only an approximate location. We searched for the ship, no longer believing he was alive, but hoping to find the body. I was risking my life, but we needed his body for legal reasons. And I... loved him. On one flight, our own shuttle crashed. My pilot was killed, and I lingered, half dead. My husband came and spoke to me."
"This is too much co-incidence," Karil said. "Three nearly identical experiences."
"Four. One of our guards, Captain Solla, experienced the same thing."
"Solla? Armand Solla?"
"You know him?"
"Everybody in the Rebellion knows him. I've been in his custody myself."
"Several prisoners and guards have come into contact with something. Voices. Apparitions. They all turned and fled, or died, or went insane. Only we four have actually conversed with the dead and lived to tell about it."
"Unless, of course, it's a trick."
"A trick? What kind of trick?"
"Well, there's no way I can tell how long I was unconscious, under your doctor's care. Some sort of drug-induced hypnosis, a post-hypnotic suggestion, and I wake up miraculously converted to your way of thinking--like Malik. And your story--why should I believe it? I hardly believe my own."
"What do you mean: converted to my way of thinking? Something important has happened to you. What did you see? What happened down there?"
Karil peered at her suspiciously but saw no reason not to tell her. Maybe she could even help him understand.
"It was the classic post-death experience. We've all read about it. We all know what death is supposed to be like. I hovered over my body. I was drawn to a light. I saw my dead. Shagrug first, my first captain. An appropriate guide to the other world, don't you think? It was in his company that I first left Earth.
"Then there was Johanna. As an astrogator, she's a logical companion for Shagrug. Then my best friend Jay, to welcome me to the other world. We were very close. I always trusted him. He opened up the world of the mind to me. Do you see how the pattern works? Then my mother, to make me feel I'd finally come home. Then, Loris and Slava, who..."
Madame Feronia stood suddenly, her expression like ice. "I'll get the truth out of you eventually, Stilbon. You'll be sorry you lied to me. Captain, I want this man guarded night and day. When he's in perfect condition, send for me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Madame. We'd better go now."
Karil continued to stare after the door had closed. The woman was unfathomable, as mad as Malik, as mad as Solla was said to be. Perhaps she really had been to the lowlands. It seemed that everyone who came back from that place was insane, including Karil.