Turning men to beasts,

Madame Feronia sends

our heroes to Hell.


The cell door opened with a clang, startling Loris and Slava out of their sleep. Loris leapt from the hammock, tensed for battle, hurling Slava into the bulkhead with a shriek.

"Sorry," she said. "Reflexes." She caught the girl on the rebound.

"This way," said the guard. They pulled themselves down the narrow corridor, the guard's stunner on their backs. The Poseidon seemed endless, an orbiting termite mound.

"Loris," Slava whispered, "I have to go to the bathroom."

"Come on then," the guard laughed. "But I'm ordered not to let you out of my sight."

"I think I'll wait."

Loris was not paying attention. She was peering at something behind Slava, who turned and followed her gaze. A picture-port revealed Venus turning below--a featureless ball of pale-yellow smoke--and adrift against its face was an orbiting colony of enormous proportions.

"I want you to keep your eyes open," Loris told her. "Do you hear me? Don't let anything escape your attention. We'll compare notes later."

"Will we be separated?" Slava struggled to keep the quaver out of her voice.

"I don't know. Maybe. But sooner or later we'll meet again, and we'll plan an escape."

"Yes, Loris."

They were led forward, ushered through a lock into a shuttle. As they descended, Slava studied the details of the colony. There were two revolving cylinders, surrounded by a ring of solar collectors, and each cylinder was divided longitudinally into three opaque sections alternating with three transparent panels. Hinged mirrors reflected sunlight into the interiors, which contained three long strips of green landscape, further divided into agricultural plots of varying sizes. The details burned into Slava's memory.

The shuttle mated with a docking bay. They were shoved into an elevator and dropped to the rim, where the doors opened onto a bare waiting room. Bars and armed guards were all about them. A beefy, uniformed matron stepped forward.

Slava would have preferred to forget the next few hours, but she dutifully took note of every incident, every detail of their surroundings. They were stripped, searched, hosed down with ice-cold water, and tossed ill-fitting prison garb. Slava's uniform in particular was oversized; the shirtsleeves covered her hands and she had to hold the pants up when she walked. The matrons handled them roughly and several male guards watched behind ports, laughing inaudibly and making comments among themselves.

At first, Slava was crushed by humiliation, but gradually she felt a cold anger rising within her. It built until she was shaking, not with fear or the chill of the cold shower and thin uniform, but with rage. She glanced at Loris and saw her eyes burning like coals, her temples throbbing with the tension of the set of her jaw. Slava tried to match her, gathering her dignity and her pants about her.

Suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder. She was spun about and looked up at a veritable mountain of male guard. Her trousers dropped to her ankles.

"Now here's a sweet little thing," he said. "Let's keep this one for ourselves, shall we?"

"Leave her alone." Loris' voice was like ice. For a second, the man, as big as he was, hesitated, but other guards were watching, and his courage returned.

"Oh, she's yours, is she? Well, maybe you can have her back when we're finished."

More guards appeared out of nowhere--big men with truncheons in their hands. Loris' hand shot out and snatched Slava out of the biggest guard's grip. She tripped on the fabric about her ankles and fell to the floor at Loris' feet.

There was a series of movements on Loris' part that Slava could not even follow with her eyes, and the big guard seemed to fold up like an accordion and collapse, a more than ordinarily stupid expression on his face. The other guards advanced, slapping their truncheons in their hands. Slava dutifully counted seven of them.

Loris straddled Slava's prone figure and crouched, eyes flicking from face to face. The room fairly crackled with tension. The guards, though armed, and though there were seven of them, hesitated. Those on the end circled behind her.

"Kapiteni!" Loris shouted.

The guards turned to see to whom she spoke. Through the bars that separated the room from the corridor, they saw a party passing by toward the elevators. One dark figure towered above the others. He turned his head with slow, deliberate grace and his eyes met Loris's. He glanced down at the big guard unconscious on the floor, Slava cowering at Loris' feet, the other guards surrounding them.

"This girl is threatened with rape, Captain," Loris said. "I am honour-bound to protect her with my life. I ask you to help me."

Captain Kesho was silent for a moment, his face impassive.

Loris dropped her gaze and bowed her head, though without abandoning her defensive posture. "I clasp your feet, Captain," she said.

Kesho acknowledged her bow with a slight tilt of his head. "Leave the girl alone," he told the guards. "Let them stay together for the young one's protection." He started to turn away.

One of the guards approached the bars. "This is not your concern, Kesho," he said. "You'd better stay out of..."

Kesho covered the space between them in two long strides. An incredibly long arm shot through the bars, a hand gripped the guard's shirtfront, lifted him off his feet and pulled him back into the bars with a clang. He hung there, kicking, his face pressed between the bars. He was released and slid to the floor.

"Is there anyone else who challenges my authority here?"

"No, Sir."

"Not me, Captain."

"These women are not to be molested. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Understood, Sir."

"I will be inquiring as to their safety." Kesho turned away.

"Asante sana, Kapiteni," Loris said. At the door of the elevator he turned, bowed gracefully to her and stepped into the car, ducking his head. The rest of the party hurried after him.

Loris helped Slava to her feet. "I've got to teach you how to fight," she said.

The door was opened for them, the guards keeping well out of Loris' way, and they were escorted down another corridor onto an open-air platform. A guard-tower extended from the end-wall above them, a sheer drop of several meters surrounded them, and an open elevator cage hung nearby, loaded with bales of goods.

"Into the elevator," a guard said. They stepped aboard, the gate closed, and the car descended.

Slava looked about her, examining the inside of the cylinder. The landscape curved into the sky overhead, visible through blue-tinted atmosphere and a few clouds; below there were long furrows of cultivated fields, patches of trees, and collections of huts within wooden palisades.

A group of men, mostly dressed in rags, was coming up the hill toward them as the car settled to the ground.

"Now that's what I call trade-goods," said one, and the others laughed.

"Ignore them," Loris said. "Help unload this stuff. If we don't pay for our protection with work, we'll be expected to pay for it in other ways."

Slava hesitated.

"Do you want that?"

She bent to her task. The men watched from a distance without offering to help. When the car was unloaded, Loris looked at the guards above and waved.

"All clear," she shouted, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The elevator rose. The men approached and Loris turned to face them. "I'm Loris, and this is Slava. We want to talk to the chief of that village." She pointed to the nearest collection of huts.

"You will," said one. "A little later." They stepped forward.

"Stop!" Loris snarled, and they hesitated.

"You'd better listen," said a voice from above, and there was much laughter.

Their pride at stake now, the men advanced. Loris kicked one in the throat, elbowed another in the jaw, and broke a third one's thigh with the arch of her foot. It had seemed like one movement. She turned to face the rest amid the guards' applause and catcalls. The wounded lay on the ground, moaning.

"Oh, shut up," Loris said. "I could have killed the lot of you. Slava here is a trained nurse. She'll have you fixed up soon. Do I get to see the Chief or not?"

"Right this way," said one of the men. They fell back to let the women pass, then followed, carrying their wounded.


Shagrug was at work when the Professor called. He was jockeying a beam into position in his free-flier work-capsule, manipulators gripping the aluminium delta-beam while spider-legs clutched the completed beam nearby to hold the flier steady. He was just reaching for the welding-torch waldoes when the Professor's face appeared on the screen.

"I've given orders to have someone take over for you," Kelley said. "I want you to join me in the docking-bay. We've got visitors."

"Karil and Loris?" Shagrug's heart leaped.

"I'm afraid not, Shag. This is a Jovian Fuels wrecker from Ganymede. There's a fellow named Zito who says he worked with them in the Galilean."

"That was fast."

"These wreckers are antimatter-driven, using the Suzuki Drive. Fastest ships in space. Emergency vehicles." The Professor’s expression turned troubled. "Uh, Shag, he says Atalanta should have been here two weeks ago."

"Oh no!"

"He was supposed to have been contacted when they arrived. When he realized they were overdue, he requisitioned a wrecker and crew. We're organizing a search. Thought you'd like to be in on it."

"Of course. I should be finished with this weld by the time the relief gets here."

"See you soon." The Professor's image faded.

Shagrug thrust his troubled thoughts into the back of his mind and concentrated on the weld. He looked up later to see a work-capsule jetting toward him; he disengaged and backed off several dozen meters, then punched up the roustabouts' standard frequency, but no face appeared on the screen. Puzzled, he peered at the approaching capsule to try to identify it by its decals and customizing.

It was unfamiliar--a new capsule without personalization--and the numbers were unknown to him. He tapped them out and the screen read UNASSIGNED--OUT OF ORDER.

It was at that moment that he realized the thing was not headed for the starship, but for him.

He slapped the mayday-switch but there was nothing online but static. His communications were being jammed. The other capsule's manipulator-arms opened. Shagrug slammed the stick into reverse and his capsule lurched backwards and shot away at top speed. The other capsule flashed by and began to slow.

Shagrug spun about and rocketed away into space. On the stern-monitor he saw his enemy change course and accelerate in pursuit.

"Christ! Why didn't I head for the marina? There's no place to hide out here." He glanced at his fuel-gauge. "One-quarter. And I suppose he's just fuelled up."

Shagrug cut the rockets and swivelled about. The pursuer rushed toward him, manipulators extended, welding-torch blazing. Shagrug lit his torch as well. He waited until the attacker was almost upon him, then lurched sideways with a puff of gas.

As his antagonist shot by, Shagrug reached out with one manipulator and grabbed the vehicle. There was a near-whiplash lurch and they were locked together, manipulator-arms gripped in a metallic handshake, torches blazing like raised sabres. The enemy spun to face him and Shagrug saw his features. It was a cyborg he knew by sight but not by name--a sullen sort with a reputation for canteen-brawling.

An image flashed in Shagrug's mind--two corridor-punks, wrists tied together, duelling with flash-knives.

The cyborg's torch jabbed toward his viewport. Shagrug parried the thrust with a manipulator and, desperation growing, slashed with his own torch. A scar appeared on the other's port.

The enemy grabbed Shagrug's torch-arm with a manipulator-claw and tightened his grip. Gas-lines snapped and Shagrug's torch winked out. The cyborg, grinning horribly, began methodically to burn a hole in Shagrug's viewport. Shag responded by releasing his grip and grabbing the other's torch-arm with both manipulators. He tried to bend the torch-arm back.

The two machines struggled like Titans while their human operators watched, sweat beading on their faces. Shagrug's port began to glow. In a moment it would weaken, and internal air-pressure would buckle it, sucking him out into space.

Out of the corner of his eye, Shagrug noticed his crippled torch-arm, cables and gas-lines hanging loose. Gases, he thought. A cloud of oxygen and acetylene was forming invisibly in vacuum. With no air-currents to sweep it away, it would simply expand.

He turned his face away. The cyborg, believing that Shagrug was averting his gaze out of fear of his own imminent death, smiled crookedly, just as the ball of gas exploded into blue flame. The cyborg let go of the waldoes and clapped his hands over his blinded eyes.

Shagrug drew back a manipulator-arm like a fist and smashed it into the scar on the other capsule's port. It cracked and shattered. Sudden decompression sucked the cyborg into vacuum. He flattened, spread-eagled, against Shagrug's port and there was a momentary glimpse of agony on the would-be assassin's blood-soaked face before he bounced away and tumbled into space.

Shaking uncontrollably, Shagrug released the evacuated capsule and sent it tumbling after him. Then he grabbed the space-sickness bag.

He waited until he was in control of his body before turning for home. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the glint of sunlight on steel among the stars. Another object was moving toward him.

His heart sank.

"Jesus Christ! Not another one. Is Solla sending his whole army after me?" He swung the camera toward the object and punched up the magnification.

Atalanta appeared on the screen. Shagrug gasped at the sight of her wrecked bridge. Blinking away the tears in his eyes, the boy yawed the capsule about and accelerated toward the drifting wreck.


"This village," said the Chief, "tills the fields from the wall to the Big Hill. Whatever is left after we send our tithe to the other cylinder, to feed the administration and research station, we use to feed ourselves, and if there is any surplus we trade for supplies from other villages."

He was a big man, well-muscled, not fat, approaching middle-age, but his hair was white. There was a teen-age girl at his feet and the big hut was filled with bales of goods. It was apparently the village storehouse as well as the Chief's house.

"Our organization is rather informal, but we don't tolerate shirkers or thieves. Some of the villages are communistic as to goods, labour, and women. There are Martian-style communes, but many of them have become very hard in here. Some villages are drawn up along Spartan lines, with a military cadre and a slave-caste. And others are simply rough-and-tumble survivor-takes-all. There is even an Amazon tribe of sorts, but though you seem to be a pretty tough lady, I don't think you'd want to live there. It's too regimented. Frankly, I don't think you'll find another village as free as this one."

"That's what I thought," Loris said. "From above I could see that different villages were laid out on different plans. Some had single long huts, some had what looked like separate men's and women's quarters, and a few, like this one, were a collection of small separate dwellings. It seemed to be well kept, but not obsessively so--halfway between pig-sty and army barracks, if you know what I mean. That's why I asked to speak to you. We need protection right away, and I thought this was a place where Slava and I could build our own private house and be left alone."

"What skills do you have to offer?"

"Slava here has some medical training, as you know, and is trained in a wide assortment of skills, like most Belters. I can fight, and I can lead an attack. And we're both fliers."

The Chief laughed. "The other skills sound very useful, but I don't think we'll need fliers."

"Why not? Do you intend to stay here forever?"

The Chief sobered. "Naturally, I'd like to get out of here, but after twenty years I'm not too optimistic about my chances. You'd best keep such talk to yourself, incidentally. There are always spies."

"One more thing. You say it's relatively free here. Does that mean we'll have to fight off every man in the village?"

"I don't think so," the Chief laughed. "Not after your demonstration today. As I said, we don't tolerate thieves, and that includes stealers of women. As you can imagine, with two thousand male and three hundred female prisoners in the cylinder, women tend to be thought of as prizes to be won. They usually find a protector or two as soon as possible. But I suspect you're all the protection you'll need."

"I can see how the system works. We intend to be treated with respect. I could have killed those men today without breaking a sweat."

"I'm sure you could have. And Slava did a good job doctoring them. The two of you are already being referred to as Death and the Maiden. There will be some grumbling. Two women together, with so many extra men about, will be a source of discontent. I have to admit that gave me pause at first, but a chance for a trained nurse and a military officer is too good to pass up."

"Is supervision that lax in the prison?"

"Well, the riot-squad moves in whenever war breaks out, but they don't hurry. The guards usually have wagers going, and they like to see who's winning first. Some villages specialize in guerrilla raids. They move in, grab crops and women, and get out fast."

"It's not fair," Slava said.

"No, it's not," the Chief said. "But as far as the High Companies are concerned, there are no petty criminals here. Thieves, murderers, political prisoners, it's all the same to them. We help feed the research colony in the other cylinder and keep its costs down; that's why we're allowed to live."

"It's hard to believe," Slava said, "that scientists are living off slave-labour."

The Chief laughed. "If it was good enough for Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson, I suppose it's good enough for them. Most, I suspect, don't stop to think about it."

"You're obviously an educated man," Loris said. "May I ask why you've been here for twenty years?"

"You may ask. I'll even tell you. I was a university professor in High Europe. I'm in here for poor taste in curriculum. What about you?"

"Poor taste in enemies," Loris said.


When Karil's wrists were unshackled from the bunk, he hardly noticed. Accompanied by the doctor and flanked by guards, he was hauled down the corridor to the shuttle bay.

"Prisoner 57457," the doctor said. "He's fit for transfer."

The guard at the terminal looked up. "He doesn't look so good to me."

"Physically, he's fit. But he won't last long down there. No will to live."

The doctor gestured toward the port and Karil glanced out. He could see the colony and the cloudscape of Venus below. There was no reaction on his face.

Processed expeditiously, Karil was placed aboard a shuttle and taken across to the docking-bay at the hub of the prison-cylinder, where he waited under guard with a handful of fellow prisoners. One of them was sobbing quietly.

"Going to the Hole?" asked the prisoner beside him.

Karil glanced at him--a young boy with downy cheeks. Karil did not respond. He did not even bother to wonder what a lad his age could have done to warrant such punishment.

"Well, look who's here?" the boy said. "You wonder how a woman so beautiful could be in charge of..."

Karil glanced up and saw the Captain of the Poseidon Earthshaker drift out of the elevator, ducking his head. His name was Kesho. Karil had seen him only briefly aboard the ship. Beside him drifted a black-haired beauty with an imperious air.

Karil let loose a scream more like that of a beast than a human being. He launched himself across the room, dragging his shackled fellow prisoners behind him. Madame Feronia fell back against the bulkhead with a look of terror on her face. Held back by the mass of the other prisoners, Karil's lunge was halted a meter from her. He stretched out his arms, trying to reach her throat with his handcuff-chains. His face was twisted horribly, and his chest rumbled with a feral growl.

Kesho planted his feet against the bulkhead beside Madame Feronia, snatched Karil from the air and hurled him back. Prisoners went flying and guards pounced upon them with truncheons and beat heads and bodies indiscriminately.

Karil was thrust against the bulkhead, five guards struggling to hold him. Ignoring the thud of hard plastic on his skull and shoulders, and the blood pouring from his face and spreading in a cloud about him, he shrieked:

"You murdering bitch! I'll come back for you. Send me to Hell and I'll come back for you."

Kesho held him back with a forearm against his throat. Karil's hands were cuffed behind his back and his ankles were shackled. He looked into Kesho's face.

"Guard her well, Captain," he whispered.

He was dragged into the centre of the room and held. Madame Feronia gathered her dignity about her and drifted forward. She reached out and touched his bearded cheek. It was almost a caress.

Karil spat in her face.

She smiled cruelly. "You heard the man," she said. "Send him to Hell." She twisted away and drifted out of the room, followed by Kesho.

Karil was dragged into a shuttle called Cerberus Two and the other prisoners filed in behind him. The vehicle unmated and fell into the cloudscape below.

Karil was alive again. Adrenalin pumped in his veins, and he observed his surroundings with preternatural attention.

He could see past the pilot's shoulder and out through the forward port. A thin haze surrounded them, gradually blotting out the stars, and they plunged into thick clouds at an altitude of 70 kilometres. A sickly yellow fog swirled in the light-beams and Karil could see the sulphuric acid already eating away at the port. They must have to replace the outer layer of quartz and re-plate the entire shuttle every trip or two, he thought.

Then the winds hit them at four hundred kilometres per hour. The vehicle began to toss and shudder, dropping like a stone for meters and then climbing again, swinging from side to side like a great bell, jerking like a puppet on a string. The pilot fought to control his aircraft.

Great bolts of lightning cracked about them. The clouds would blaze into a bright copper colour for an instant and then return to the normal dismal yellow. They dropped out of the clouds at an altitude of 50 kilometres and descended through a driving sulphuric-acid rain--a rain that never reached the surface in liquid form.

Through the scoured port he could see, at last, the surface emerging from the gloom. Beneath lowering, phosphorescent, lightning-rent clouds stretched a desert landscape shimmering in the unimaginable heat, a wasteland of semi-liquid rock under atmospheric pressures ninety times that of Earth--pressures that made the shuttle's hull groan, accompanied by the ceaseless kettledrum roll of thunder and temperatures approaching 500 degrees Centigrade.

They were flying over the continent-sized mass of Ishtar Terra. Atop a kilometre-high escarpment, a tiny collection of domes huddled on the Lakshmi Plateau beneath the Himalayan heights of the Maxwell Range. The shuttle settled on the roasting sands and hissed in relief.

"Welcome to Hell, Gentlemen," the pilot laughed. "Everybody out."


"Just a joke," he guffawed. "You'd be flattened like a pancake in a split-second and vaporized. Here comes your ride."

A huge tractor-like vehicle rose from the ground and crept toward them, plated like a dinosaur and supported by enormous treads that crushed the taffy-soft rocks to glass. Human faces were visible through narrow slits in the bow, safe behind meter-thick quartz. An appendage thrust out and mated with the shuttle's lock.

The inner hatch opened, and the prisoners crawled through a tunnel like a blast-furnace chimney. Inside, guards gestured them to benches with their stun-rifles and the craft began to turn.

Somewhere outside, the shuttle roared into life and lifted off. Inside, steam poured from vents in the walls through which they could see ice-coated coils. Fog swirled about their feet and drifted in a fine mist through the air, giving the interior an eerie, haunted look.

Soon Karil was inside the pressure-dome, looking out through the funhouse-mirror port at the shimmering landscape. At high noon it was as dark as a moonlit night on Earth, but with the ashen glow of the clouds overhead, there would be little change at midnight. The night, in fact, would last for sixty Earth-days. They had come to a world where time had no meaning.

"Attention, Prisoners," said a voice.

The crowd shuffled away from the port and turned to face the Warden, who was flanked by guards. He mounted a podium and looked down at them. His eyes were cold, and his face twitched. Karil decided he was mad as a hatter.

"You men have been sent here for two reasons. One, your technical abilities are of some use to the station here, and you can help contribute to our research; we do not want to risk the lives of valuable scientists. Two, the High Companies wish to forget you ever existed. Not only will you never be seen again, you will never be heard of again. You are dead, Gentlemen, dead and rotting in Hell."

"Not me," Karil mumbled. "I'm just visiting."

"If you work hard, there will be privileges. If you cause trouble, you will be executed. Your choice is as simple as that. Some of you may feel that you have been treated unfairly, that you do not deserve this. Probably you are right. Probably no-one deserves this. I don't care.

"As I say, the only reason you have not been executed already is so you may serve the High Companies by your labour. Even if you prove to be more trouble than you are worth, your execution will be made to serve some purpose." He snapped his fingers.

A metal plate slid open in the wall beside them, revealing a small chamber behind a thick viewport. A man was in the room, strapped to a chair, with a black bag over his head. The room reminded Karil of an ancient barbarity called a gas-chamber. Like all barbarities, it was touted as humane. He began to feel sick.

Suddenly a wall of the chamber flew open, like double-doors kicked open by a titanic foot. The man, the chair, the shackles and blindfold--all were instantly splattered against the wall behind, a sizzling mass of organic matter, accompanied by a boom like a thunderclap.

There were screams in the crowd, and the sound of retching.

"This man assaulted a guard. The only purpose left for him to serve was to be an object-lesson for you. Fortunately for him, the guard was not seriously hurt. Otherwise, we would have allowed the atmosphere into the room slowly. The guards will take you to your cells."

The Warden turned and left the room. Karil and the others were taken to their small, bare cells. He lay on his hard bunk, listening to the distant thunder, the gurgle of the refrigeration system in the walls.

If he were caught trying to escape, death would be gruesome. If he succeeded in escaping from the dome, the result would probably be the same. But for Karil, who had seen his beloved Loris, his darling Slava, and his precious Atalanta destroyed before his eyes, death held no terror.

There was, therefore, no reason why he should not attempt to escape, and one overwhelming reason why he should--to see Kesho and Madame Feronia die in agony. He drifted off to sleep in peace and contentment, immune to fear.


Their hut was finished before dark, but of course the men of the village had been a great help. The sight of Slava standing with an armload of thatch, dressed in her clownish costume and on the verge of tears of frustration, brought them from every corner of the compound. They pitched in and by the time the sirens began to wail, and the mirrors clanged shut, plunging the cylinder into darkness, the job was finished.

Torches were lit and a bonfire set ablaze. Some of the prime requisites of civilization began to appear--a tasty dark beer and a formidable corn liquor--and the celebration began.

"Loris and Slava," said the Chief, "we welcome you to our village and invite you to your housewarming."

There was singing and dancing and storytelling and quite soon Slava was tipsy. As Loris watched in consternation from her place of honour by the Chief, the girl made the rounds of the men who had helped in the hut's construction, hugging and kissing each one.

But Loris' fears were soon put to rest. Only a few men tried to take advantage of the situation by lingering a little too long over the kiss or taking advantage of the hug with a too-familiar pat, and the indignant shouts of the others put an end to that.

There was another moment of uneasiness as a delegation of women approached, but they came with gifts and good advice, respect for Loris and motherly affection for Slava. It seemed the newcomers were thought of, not as rivals, but as much-needed allies.

"We've come to the right village," Loris told the Chief.

"Yes, you have," he said. "But it won't be long before Slava has a line of suitors stretching across the encampment. What are you going to do then?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Loris told the Chief.

"Well, you've obviously got a lot of influence over her. She's damn lucky to have you to protect her, that's for sure. I'm not going to pry into the nature of your relationship, but you'd better think about making the best arrangement for both of you."

"I'm hoping we won't be here that long."

The Chief sighed. "Everybody feels that way at first. Eventually, if they survive, they settle down and make the best of it."

"No, Chief. We're getting out. We have friends on the outside. I have a ship, and somewhere there's my astrogator and Slava's lover. If we can contact him somehow..."

"Well, for the time being you'd better work on your friends on the inside. Why don't you take over the spotlight?" He gestured toward the man singing bawdy songs in the centre of the circle.

"I'm not an entertainer."

"Come on, Loris. These people are cut off from the whole Solar System. Give them a good story and they'll be eating out of your hand. And I'll bet you've got a hell of a story."

Loris rose and walked into the firelight. The singer bowed and sat down. She stood a moment, wild and magnificent in the flickering light, looking at the faces about her, and then she spoke:

"My friends, I'm a spacer, not a storyteller. I'm more accustomed to the loneliness of space than the noise and revelry of a village compound, but I have to take the spotlight to express to you my joy and gratitude for your kindness to Slava and myself. We have little to offer you in return--a willing arm, a few skills, a smile or two." She turned to Slava, who blushed amid the cheers. "But a smile is no small thing in a place like this, where decent men are transformed into beasts.

"Think of it! Two women, who arrived only today, defenceless--" There was a resounding chorus of laughter and catcalls. "--and in fear of their lives. And what do we find? A wise and benevolent leader, a secure and private home, a group of generous and civilized men, of loving and courageous women. And this, a celebration of welcome which, after the degradation of our imprisonment, is enough to bring tears to our eyes."

Slava, as if on cue, burst into tears. The fireside circle rang with shouts of concern and comfort. The Chief barely managed to suppress his laughter.

"And so, in partial repayment and as my contribution to the festivities, since I can neither sing nor dance--"

"Don't dance, Loris," someone shouted. "You'll kill somebody."

"--I beg leave to tell you a story."

"Yes. A story."

"Tell us, Loris. Tell us."

Loris paused, looking about her. And suddenly she realized what to do: she would imitate Karil. How many times had she marvelled at his way with an audience, in a Martian commune dining-hall, or at a table in a Ganymede spacer bar, or even in Atalanta's recreation cabin, with no-one to impress but Loris and Atty? She would frequently scoff at his histrionics and his grand gestures but was always entertained.

Her voice dropped to an ominous tone. "This is a story fit for firelight, an epic tale of terror and danger, of murder and betrayal, and the cruelty--I blush to say it--of a woman. No, not a woman. A witch. A sorceress. A creature by the name of Madame Feronia."

A beast-like growl swept about the circle.

Loris' voice rose like that of a preacher in a pulpit. "But it is also a tale of courage and human endurance, of undying friendship, and of love." Her eyes met Slava's. The girl sat watching her, the tears on her face glistening in the firelight. Utter silence descended upon the group. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire, the whisper of the wind in the trees, and the occasional human voice carried to them from a landscape in the sky.

She told them of the Professor's great starship and the mystery of the vanishing solar sailers, of Karil's shipwreck and Slava's plucky rescue, the battle in the Lotus Pool and the desperate flight through the Great Red Spot, of Slava's rescue from the Ganymede slavers and reunion with Karil, his courageous boarding of the doomed Zephyr and his subsequent disappearance, and finally of Madame Feronia's poisonous treachery.

The Chief listened in open-mouthed admiration as she reduced her audience to tears, cheers, gasps of horror, and shouts of rage by turns.

Finally, she stood in silence, breast heaving with emotion, fists clenched at her sides. The audience sat enraptured, waiting for the next word. She said nothing.

"Death to Feronia," a voice growled.

Another voice joined in, and then another, and a chant began.

"Death to Feronia. Death to the High Companies."

The chant continued. Suddenly other voices joined in the chorus, picking up the refrain, drifting toward them out of the blackness from villages far away. The great cylinder rang with the chant.

Lights appeared in the sky.

The Chief leapt to his feet. "Kill that fire," he shouted. "Bury it. Everyone into your huts. Put out those torches. Clear the area. Hurry."

The fire was buried in sand. Bodies rushed everywhere in the diminishing light of quenched torches. The Chief grabbed Loris' arm in passing.

"And you said you weren't a storyteller."

"I didn't think I was."

In a moment, the compound was deserted. The fires smouldered and the population sat in darkness in their huts. Loris and Slava huddled together, peering out through chinks in the wall. Flashing lights hovered in the air over the compound as searchlights swept the ground amid the roaring of engines and the rush of wind. Then the lights darted away toward distant villages where shouting still rang out.

"I love you, Loris," Slava said.

"Then be brave, Slava. And don't forget Karil. Ever."

Slava crawled into Loris' arms. They curled up together beneath a gift-blanket, warming each other in the chill of the night.


Madame Feronia stood on her terrace, her dark hair fluttering in the breeze that always arose after the mirrors had been closed to create the night. The lights of the riot-cars flickered like fireflies above and below, and the distant sound of shouting and gunfire drifted up from the darkness. Captain Kesho appeared behind her.

"The situation is under control, Madame," he said. "A few drunken parties--nothing more."

She nodded. "And is there any news from our operative at Juno?"

"He failed in his attempt to assassinate Kelley's assistant. The young man is in hiding now, working on some project whose nature we cannot determine."

"And our operative?"


"That's fortunate, at least. Is the Doctor here?"

"Yes, he is, Madame, but I don't think you should..."

"I'll do what I think best, Kesho." She returned to her splendid chambers to find the Doctor waiting. She stretched out on a lounge and held out her arm.

"Madame," the Doctor said, "these sessions are destroying you, slowly but surely. In my opinion..."

"Give me the shot, Doctor."

He sighed and injected her. "Watch her, Captain," he said. "She could do herself an injury."

"I will, Doctor."

The physician left and, in a moment, Madame Feronia was tossing and turning in disturbed sleep. Sweat broke out on her brow. She tore open her blouse.

Kesho watched impassively from a nearby chair. "What do you see, Madame?" he asked.

"The fires of Hell. I see death. It's the heat. I can't breathe." She sat up and reached out for him, eyes wild and unfocused. Suddenly an expression of peace and contentment appeared on her face.

"What do you feel?"

"Happiness. Release. There's a light. I'm going toward it." She smiled and tried to embrace the air. "He's there."

"Your husband?"

"Yes. There's a tunnel, deep in the earth. The air is cool and refreshing. There's a lake, and forest all around. A wild place, where no man has been, except my husband." She threw up her hands in terror.

"What is it?"

"Creatures. Great creatures. They're monstrous. Carved in stone. No, in ice. They're frozen. And machines. Enormous machines. The roar is deafening. It's the Earth."


"It's the Earth. I recognize it, but it's different. It's changed. Tell me what it means."

"Madame, I don't..."

"Take me with you. Don't leave me behind. I can't do it without you. Too many enemies. I can't trust anyone. Don't leave me, please."

She listened, head cocked to one side. For a moment her face appeared like that of a little girl. Kesho, though he had seen many horrors in his life, found his flesh crawling.

"Titan," she said. "I'll remember. Titan is the enemy. They must be stopped. I'll remember. Go to the High Companies. Work together. Captain Solla is the contact. He has the ear of the Council. Offer them anything, short of controlling interest."

She reached out again, her expression one of heart-breaking loss and sadness. "Don't go. Take me with you." And she hung her head. "Yes, I understand. Until then. I'll do as you say. I'll be strong. I'll be as ruthless as you were. Nothing will stop me. No one will stand in my way."

She turned on Kesho a look of ice and steel which changed as suddenly to a look of dreamy contentment. Her head fell forward, and her body relaxed.

Kesho rose and felt her pulse.

"You're mad, Madame Feronia," he said. "These trances of yours are going to kill you one day, and your financial empire will collapse like a house of cards. Then I will go home to my village."

He covered her with a blanket and left.


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