The Big Rain
One of the best-known writers in science fiction, Poul Anderson made his first sale in 1947, while he was still in college, and in the course of his subsequent career has published almost a hundred books (in several different fields, as Anderson has written historical novels, fantasies, and mysteries, in addition to SF), sold hundreds of short pieces to every conceivable market, and won seven Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, and the Tolkien Memorial Award for life achievement.
Anderson had trained to be a scientist, taking a degree in physics from the University of Minnesota, but the writing life proved to be more seductive, and he never did get around to working in his original field of choice. Instead, the sales mounted steadily, until by the late fifties and early sixties he may have been one of the most prolific writers in the genre.
In spite of his high output of fiction, he somehow managed to maintain an amazingly high standard of literary quality as well, and by the early to mid-1960s was also on his way to becoming one of the most honored and respected writers in the genre. At one point during this period (in addition to non-related work, and lesser series such as the “Hoka” stories he was writing in collaboration with Gordon R. Dickson), Anderson was running three of the most popular and prestigious series in science fiction all at the same time: the “Technic History” series detailing the exploits of the wily trader Nicholas Van Rijn (which includes novels such as The Man Who Counts, The Trouble Twisters, Satan’s World, Mirkheim, The People of the Wind, and collections such as Trader to the Stars and The Earth Book of Stormgate); the extremely popular series relating the adventures of interstellar secret agent Dominic Flandry, probably the most successful attempt to cross SF with the spy thriller, next to Jack Vance’s “Demon Princes” novels (the Flandry series includes novels such as A Circus of Hells, The Rebel Worlds, The Day of Their Return, Flandry of Terra, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, A Stone in Heaven, and The Game of Empire, and collections such as Agent of the Terran Empire); and, my own personal favorite, a series that took us along on assignment with the agents of the Time Patrol (including the collections The Guardians of Time, Time Patrolman, The Shield of Time, and The Time Patrol).
When you add to this amazing collection of memorable titles the impact of the best of Anderson’s non-series novels, works such as Brain Wave, Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Night Face, The Enemy Stars, and The High Crusade, all of which were being published in addition to the series books, it becomes clear that Anderson dominated the late 1950s and the pre-New Wave sixties in a way that only Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke could rival. And, like them, he remained an active and dominant figure right through the 1970s and 1980s, and is still producing strong new work.
In the gritty, hard-hitting, and powerful story that follows, he gives us a vivid impression of the amount of sheer, backbreaking, hands-on, physical work it would take to terraform a world; and an unsettling reminder that one person’s vision of what Utopia should be like, and how much you’re willing to pay to achieve it, may differ irrevocably from another’s—with fatal results.
Anderson’s other books (among many others) include The Broken Sword, Tau Zero, A Midsummer Tempest, Orion Shall Rise, The Boat of a Million Years, Harvest of Stars, The Fleet of Stars, Starfarers, and Operation Luna. His short work has been collected in The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories, Fantasy, The Unicorn Trade (with Karen Anderson), Past Times, The Best of Poul Anderson, Explorations, and, most recently, the retrospective collection All One Universe. His novel, Genesis, was published in February 2000. Until his death on July 31, 2001, Anderson lived in Orinda, California, with his wife (and fellow writer), Karen.
The room was small and bare, nothing but a ventilator grill to relieve the drabness of its plastic walls, no furniture except a table and a couple of benches. It was hot, and the cold light of fluoros glistened off the sweat which covered the face of the man who sat there alone.
He was a big man, with hard bony features under close-cropped reddish-brown hair; his eyes were gray, with something chilly in them, and moved restlessly about the chamber to assess its crude homemade look. The coverall which draped his lean body was a bit too colorful. He had fumbled a cigarette out of his belt pouch and it smoldered between his fingers, now and then he took a heavy drag on it. But he sat quietly enough, waiting.
The door opened and another man came in. This one was smaller, with bleak features. He wore only shorts to whose waistband was pinned a star-shaped badge, and a needle-gun holstered at his side, but somehow he had a military look.
“Simon Hollister?” he asked unnecessarily.
“That’s me,” said the other, rising. He loomed over the newcomer, but he was unarmed; they had searched him thoroughly the minute he disembarked.
“I am Captain Karsov, Guardian Corps.” The English was fluent, with only a trace of accent. “Sit down.” He lowered himself to a bench. “I am only here to talk to you.”
Hollister grimaced. “How about some lunch?” he complained. “I haven’t eaten for”—he paused a second—“thirteen hours, twenty-eight minutes.”
His precision didn’t get by Karsov, but the officer ignored it for the time being. “Presently,” he said. “There isn’t much time to lose, you know. The last ferry leaves in forty hours, and we have to find out before then if you are acceptable or must go back on it.”
“Hell of a way to treat a guest,” grumbled Hollister.
“We did not ask you to come,” said Karsov coldly. “If you wish to stay on Venus, you had better conform to the regulations. Now, what do you think qualifies you?”
“To live here? I’m an engineer. Construction experience in the Amazon basin and on Luna. I’ve got papers to prove it, and letters of recommendation, if you’d let me get at my baggage.”
“Eventually. What is your reason for emigrating?”
Hollister looked sullen. “I didn’t like Earth.”
“Be more specific. You are going to be narcoquizzed later, and the whole truth will come out. These questions are just to guide the interrogators, and the better you answer me now the quicker and easier the quiz will be for all of us.”
Hollister bristled. “That’s an invasion of privacy.”
“Venus isn’t Earth,” said Karsov with an attempt at patience. “Before you were even allowed to land, you signed a waiver which puts you completely under our jurisdiction as long as you are on this planet. I could kill you, and the U.N. would not have a word to say. But we do need skilled men, and I would rather okay you for citizenship. Do not make it too hard for me.”
“All right.” Hollister shrugged heavy shoulders. “I got in a fight with a man. He died. I covered up the traces pretty well, but I could never be sure—sooner or later the police might get on to the truth, and I don’t like the idea of corrective treatment. So I figured I’d better blow out whilst I was still unsuspected.”
“Venus is no place for the rugged individualist, Hollister. Men have to work together, and be very tolerant of each other, if they are to survive at all.”
“Yes, I know. This was a special case. The man had it coming.” Hollister’s face twisted. “I have a daughter—Never mind. I’d rather tell it under narco than consciously. But I just couldn’t see letting a snake like that get ‘corrected’ and then walk around free again.” Defensively: “I’ve always been a rough sort, I suppose, but you’ve got to admit this was extreme provocation.”
“That is all right,” said Karsov, “if you are telling the truth. But if you have family ties back on Earth, it might lessen your usefulness here.”
“None,” said Hollister bitterly. “Not anymore.”
The interview went on. Karsov extracted the facts skillfully: Hollister, Simon James; born Frisco Unit, U.S.A., of good stock; chronological age, thirty-eight Earth-years; physiological age, thanks to taking intelligent advantage of biomedics, about twenty-five; Second-class education, major in civil engineering with emphasis on nuclear-powered construction machines; work record; psych rating at last checkup; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Somewhere a recorder took sound and visual impressions of every nuance for later analysis and filing.
At the end, the Guardian rose and stretched. “I think you will do,” he said. “Come along now for the narcoquiz. It will take about three hours, and you will need another hour to recover, and then I will see that you get something to eat.”
The city crouched on a mountainside in a blast of eternal wind. Overhead rolled the poisonous gray clouds; sometimes a sleet of paraformaldehyde hid the grim red slopes around, and always the scudding dust veiled men’s eyes so they could not see the alkali desert below. Fantastically storm-gnawed crags loomed over the city, and often there was the nearby rumble of an avalanche, but the ledge on which it stood had been carefully checked for stability.
The city was one armored unit of metal and concrete, low and rounded as if it hunched its back against the shrieking steady gale. From its shell protruded the stacks of hundreds of outsize Hilsch tubes, swivel-mounted so that they always faced into the wind. It blew past filters which caught the flying dust and sand and tossed them down a series of chutes to the cement factory. The tubes grabbed the rushing air and separated fast and slow molecules; the cooler part went into a refrigeration system which kept the city at a temperature men could stand—outside, it hovered around the boiling point of water; the smaller volume of superheated air was conducted to the maintenance plant where it helped run the city’s pumps and generators. There were also nearly a thousand windmills, turning furiously and drinking the force of the storm.
None of this air was for breathing. It was thick with carbon dioxide; the rest was nitrogen, inert gases, formaldehyde vapor, a little methane and ammonia. The city devoted many hectares of space to hydroponic plants which renewed its oxygen and supplied some of the food, as well as to chemical purifiers, pumps and blowers. “Free as air” was a joke on Venus.
Near the shell was the spaceport where ferries from the satellite station and the big interplanetary ships landed. Pilots had to be good to bring down a vessel, or even take one up, under such conditions as prevailed here. Except for the landing cradles, the radio mast and the GCA shack in the main shell, everything was underground, as most of the city was.
Some twenty thousand colonists lived there. They were miners, engineers, laborers, technicians in the food and maintenance centers. There were three doctors, a scattering of teachers and librarians and similar personnel, a handful of police and administrators. Exactly fifteen people were employed in brewing, distilling, tavern-running, movie operation, and the other nonessential occupations which men required as they did food and air.
This was New America, chief city of Venus in 2051 A.D.
Hollister didn’t enjoy his meal. He got it, cafeteria style, in one of the big plain mess halls, after a temporary ration book had been issued him. It consisted of a few vegetables, a lot of potato, a piece of the soggy yeast synthetic which was the closest to meat Venus offered—all liberally loaded with a tasteless basic food concentrate—a vitamin capsule, and a glass of flavored water. When he took out one of his remaining cigarettes, a score of eyes watched it hungrily. Not much tobacco here either. He inhaled savagely, feeling the obscure guilt of the have confronted with the have-not.
There were a number of people in the room with him, eating their own rations. Men and women were represented about equally. All wore coveralls of the standard shorts, and most looked young, but hard too, somehow—even the women. Hollister was used to female engineers and technicians at home, but here everybody worked.
For the time being, he stuck to his Earthside garments.
He sat alone at one end of a long table, wondering why nobody talked to him. You’d think they would be starved for a new face and word from Earth. Prejudice? Yes, a little of that, considering the political situation; but Hollister thought something more was involved.
Fear. They were all afraid of something.
When Karsov strolled in, the multilingual hum of conversation died, and Hollister guessed shrewdly at the fear. The Guardian made his way directly to the Earthling’s place. He had a blocky, bearded man with a round smiling face in tow.
“Simon Hollister … Heinrich Gebhardt,” the policeman introduced them. They shook hands, sizing each other up. Karsov sat down. “Get me the usual,” he said, handing over his ration book.
Gebhardt nodded and went over to the automat. It scanned the books and punched them when he had dialed his orders. Then it gave him two trays, which he carried back.
Karsov didn’t bother to thank him. “I have been looking for you,” he told Hollister. “Where have you been?”
“Just wandering around,” said the Earthling cautiously. Inside, he felt muscles tightening, and his mind seemed to tilt forward, as if sliding off the hypnotically imposed pseudopersonality which had been meant as camouflage in the narcoquiz. “It’s quite a labyrinth here.”
“You should have stayed in the barracks,” said Karsov. There was no expression in his smooth-boned face; there never seemed to be. “Oh, well, I wanted to say you have been found acceptable.”
“Good,” said Hollister, striving for imperturbability.
“I will administer the oath after lunch,” said Karsov. “Then you will be a full citizen of the Venusian Federation. We do not hold with formalities, you see—no time.” He reached into a pocket and got out a booklet which he gave to Hollister. “But I advise you to study this carefully. It is a résumé of the most important laws, insofar as they differ from Earth’s. Punishment for infraction is severe.”
Gebhardt looked apologetic. “It has to be,” he added. His bass voice had a slight blur and hiss of German accent, but he was good at the English which was becoming the common language of Venus. “This planet vas made in hell. If ve do not all work together, ve all die.”
“And then, of course, there is the trouble with Earth,” said Karsov. His narrow eyes studied Hollister for a long moment. “Just how do people back there feel about our declaration of independence?”
“Well—” Hollister paused. Best to tell the unvarnished truth, he decided. “Some resentment, of course. After all the money we … they … put into developing the colonies—”
“And all the resources they took out,” said Gebhardt. “Men vere planted on Venus back in the last century to mine fissionables, vich vere getting short efen then. The colonies vere made self-supporting because that vas cheaper than hauling supplies for them, vich vould haff been an impossible task anyvay. Some of the colonies vere penal, some vere manned by arbitrarily assigned personnel; the so-called democracies often relied on broken men, who could not find vork at home or who had been displaced by var. No, ve owe them notting.”
Hollister shrugged. “I’m not arguing. But people do wonder why, if you wanted national status, you didn’t at least stay with the U.N. That’s what Mars is doing.”
“Because we are … necessarily … developing a whole new civilization here, something altogether remote from anything Earth has ever seen,” snapped Karsov. “We will still trade our fissionables for things we need, until the day we can make everything here ourselves, but we want as little to do with Earth as possible. Never mind, you will understand in time.”
Hollister’s mouth lifted in a crooked grin. There hadn’t been much Earth could do about it; in the present stage of astronautics, a military expedition to suppress the nationalists would cost more than anyone could hope to gain even from the crudest imperialism. Also, as long as no clear danger was known to exist, it wouldn’t have sat well with a planet sick of war; the dissension produced might well have torn the young world government, which still had only limited powers, apart.
But astronautics was going to progress, he thought grimly. Spaceships wouldn’t have to improve much to carry, cheaply, loads of soldiers in cold sleep, ready to land when thermonuclear bombardment from the skies had smashed a world’s civilization. And however peaceful Earth might be, she was still a shining temptation to the rest of the System, and it looked very much as if something was brewing here on Venus which could become ugly before the century was past.
“Your first assignment is already arranged,” said Karsov. Hollister jerked out of his reverie and tried to keep his fists unclenched. “Gebhardt will be your boss. If you do well, you can look for speedy promotion. Meanwhile”—he flipped a voucher across—“here is the equivalent of the dollars you had along, in our currency.”
Hollister stuck the sheet in his pouch. It was highway robbery, he knew, but he was in no position to complain and the Venusian government wanted the foreign exchange. And he could only buy trifles with it anyway; the essentials were issued without payment, the size of the ration depending on rank. Incentive bonuses were money, though, permitting you to amuse yourself but not to consume more of the scarce food or textiles or living space.
He reflected that the communist countries before World War Three had never gone this far. Here, everything was government property. The system didn’t call itself communism, naturally, but it was, and probably there was no choice. Private enterprise demanded a fairly large economic surplus, which simply did not exist on Venus.
Well, it wasn’t his business to criticize their internal arrangements. He had never been among the few fanatics left on Earth who still made a god of a particular economic setup.
Gebhardt cleared his throat. “I am in charge of the atmosphere detail in this district,” he said. “I am here on leafe, and vill be going back later today. Very glad to haff you, Hollister, ve are alvays short of men. Ve lost two in the last rock storm.”
“Cheerful news,” said the Earthman. His face resumed its hard woodenness. “Well, I didn’t think Venus was going to be any bed of roses.”
“It vill be,” said Gebhardt. Dedication glowed on the hairy face. “Someday it vill be.”
The oath was pretty drastic: in effect, Hollister put himself completely at the mercy of the Technic Board, which for all practical purposes was the city government. Each colony, he gathered, had such a body, and there was a federal board in this town which decided policy for the entire planet.
Anyone who wished to enter the government had to pass a series of rigid tests, after which there were years of apprenticeship and study, gradual promotion on the recommendation of seniors. The study was an exhausting course of history, psychotechnics, and physical science: in principle, thought Hollister, remembering some of the blubberheads who still got themselves elected at home, a good idea. The governing boards combined legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and totaled only a couple of thousand people for the whole world. It didn’t seem like much for a nation of nearly two million, and the minimal paperwork surprised him—he had expected an omnipresent bureaucracy.
But of course they had the machines to serve them, recording everything in electronic files whose computers could find and correlate any data and were always checking up. And he was told pridefully that the schools were inculcating the rising generation with a tight ethic of obedience.
Hollister had supper, and returned to the Casual barracks to sleep. There were only a few men in there with him, most of them here on business from some other town. He was awakened by the alarm, whose photocells singled him out and shot forth a supersonic beam; it was a carrier wave for the harsh ringing in his head which brought him to his feet.
Gebhardt met him at an agreed-on locker room. There was a wiry, tough-looking Mongoloid with him who was introduced as Henry Yamashita. “Stow your fancy clothes, boy,” boomed the chief, “and get on some TBI’s.” He handed over a drab, close-fitting coverall.
Hollister checked his own garments and donned the new suit wordlessly. After that there was a heavy plasticord outfit which, with boots and gloves, decked his whole body. Yamashita helped him strap on the oxygen bottles and plug in the Hilsch cooler. The helmet came last, its shoulderpiece buckled to the airsuit, but all of them kept theirs hinged back to leave their heads free.
“If somet’ing happens to our tank,” said Gebhardt, “you slap that helmet down fast. Or maybe you like being embalmed. Haw!” His cheerfulness was more evident when Karsov wasn’t around.
Hollister checked the valves with the caution taught him on Luna—his engineering experience was not faked. Gebhardt grunted approvingly. Then they slipped on the packs containing toilet kits, change of clothes, and emergency rations; clipped ropes, batteries, and canteens to their belts—the latter with the standard sucker tubes by which a man could drink directly even in his suit; and clumped out of the room.
A descending ramp brought them to a garage where the tanks were stored. These looked not unlike the sandcats of Mars, but were built lower and heavier, with a refrigerating tube above and a grapple in the nose. A mechanic gestured at one dragging a covered steel wagon full of supplies, and the three men squeezed into the tiny transparent cab.
Gebhardt gunned the engine, nodding as it roared. “Okay,” he said. “On ve go.”
“What’s the power source?” asked Hollister above the racket.
“Alcohol,” answered Yamashita. “We get it from the formaldehyde. Bottled oxygen. A compressor and cooling system to keep the oxy tanks from blowing up on us—not that they don’t once in a while. Some of the newer models use a peroxide system.”
“And I suppose you save the water vapor and CO2 to get the oxygen back,” ventured Hollister.
“Just the water. There’s always plenty of carbon dioxide.” Yamashita looked out, and his face set in tight lines.
The tank waddled through the great air lock and up a long tunnel toward the surface. When they emerged, the wind was like a blow in the face. Hollister felt the machine shudder, and the demon howl drowned out the engine. He accepted the earplugs Yamashita handed him with a grateful smile.
There was dust and sand scudding by them, making it hard to see the mountainside down which they crawled. Hollister caught glimpses of naked fanglike peaks, raw slashes of ocher and blue where minerals veined the land, the steady march of dunes across the lower ledges. Overhead, the sky was an unholy tide of ragged, flying clouds, black and gray and sulfurous yellow. He could not see the sun, but the light around him was a weird hard brass color, like the light on Earth just before a thunderstorm.
The wind hooted and screamed, banging on the tank walls, yelling and rattling and groaning. Now and then a dull quiver ran through the land and trembled in Hollister’s bones, somewhere an avalanche was ripping out a mountain’s flanks. Briefly, a veil of dust fell so thick around them that they were blind, grinding through an elemental night with hell and the furies loose outside. The control board’s lights were wan on Gebhardt’s intent face, most of the time he was steering by instruments.
Once the tank lurched into a gully. Hollister, watching the pilot’s lips, thought he muttered: “Damn! That wasn’t here before!” He extended the grapple, clutching rock and pulling the tank and its load upward.
Yamashita clipped two small disks to his larynx and gestured at the same equipment hanging on Hollister’s suit. His voice came thin but fairly clear: “Put on your talkie unit if you want to say anything.” Hollister obeyed, guessing that the earplugs had a transistor arrangement powered by a piece of radioactive isotope which reproduced the vibrations in the throat. It took concentration to understand the language as they distorted it, but he supposed he’d catch on fast enough.
“How many hours till nightfall?” he asked.
“About twenty.” Yamashita pointed to the clock on the board, it was calibrated to Venus’ seventy-two-hour day. “It’s around one hundred thirty kilometers to the camp, so we should just about make it by sunset.”
“That isn’t very fast,” said Hollister. “Why not fly, or at least build roads?”
“The aircraft are all needed for speed travel and impassable terrain, and the roads will come later,” said Yamashita. “These tanks can go it all right—most of the time.”
“But why have the camp so far from the city?”
“It’s the best location from a supply standpoint. We get most of our food from Little Moscow, and water from Hellfire, and chemicals from New America and Roger’s Landing. The cities more or less specialize, you know. They have to: there isn’t enough iron ore and whatnot handy to any one spot to build a city big enough to do everything by itself. So the air camps are set up at points which minimize the total distance over which supplies have to be hauled.”
“You mean action distance, don’t you? The product of the energy and time required for hauling.”
Yamashita nodded, with a new respect in his eyes. “You’ll do,” he said.
The wind roared about them. It was more than just the slow rotation of the planet and its nearness to the sun which created such an incessant storm; if that had been all, there would never have been any chance of making it habitable. It was the high carbon dioxide content of the air, and its greenhouse effect; and in the long night, naked arid rock cooled off considerably. With plenty of water and vegetation, and an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, Venus would have a warm but rather gentle climate on the whole, the hurricanes moderated to trade winds; indeed, with the lower Coriolis force, the destructive cyclones of Earth would be unknown.
Such, at least, was the dream of the Venusians. But looking out, Hollister realized that a fraction of the time and effort they were expending would have made the Sahara desert bloom. They had been sent here once as miners, but there was no longer any compulsion on them to stay; if they asked to come back to Earth, their appeal could not be denied however expensive it would be to ship them all home.
Then why didn’t they?
Well, why go back to a rotten civilization like—Hollister caught himself. Sometimes his pseudomemories were real enough in him and drown out the genuine ones, rage and grief could nearly overwhelm him till he recalled that the sorrow was for people who had never existed. The anger had had to be planted deep, to get by a narcoquiz, but he wondered if it might not interfere with his mission, come the day.
He grinned sardonically at himself. One man, caught on a planet at the gates of the Inferno, watched by a powerful and ruthless government embracing that entire world, and he was setting himself against it.
Most likely he would die here, and the economical Venusians would process his body for its chemicals as they did other corpses, and that would be the end of it as far as he was concerned.
Well, he quoted to himself, a man might try.
Gebhardt’s camp was a small shell, a radio mast, and a shed sticking out of a rolling landscape of rock and sand; the rest was underground. The sun was down on a ragged horizon, dimly visible as a huge blood-red disk, when he arrived. Yamashita and Hollister had taken their turns piloting; the Earthman found it exhausting work, and his head rang with the noise when he finally stepped out into the subterranean garage.
Yamashita led him to the barracks. “We’re about fifty here,” he explained. “All men.” He grinned. “That makes a system of minor rewards and punishments based on leaves to a city very effective.”
The barracks was a long room with triple rows of bunks and a few tables and chairs; only Gebhardt rated a chamber of his own, though curtains on the bunks did permit some privacy. An effort had been made to brighten the place up with murals, some of which weren’t bad at all, and the men sat about reading, writing letters, talking, playing games. They were the usual conglomerate of races and nationalities, with some interesting half-breeds; hard work and a parsimonious diet had made them smaller than the average American or European, but they looked healthy enough.
“Simon Hollister, our new sub-engineer,” called Yamashita as they entered. “Just got in from Earth. Now you know as much as I do.” He flopped onto a bunk while the others drifted over. “Go ahead. Tell all. Birth, education, hobbies, religion, sex life, interests, prejudices—they’ll find it out anyway, and God knows we could use a little variety around here.”
A stocky blond man paused suspiciously. “From Earth?” he asked slowly. “We’ve had no new people from Earth for thirty years. What did you want to come here for?”
“I felt like it,” snapped Hollister. “That’s enough!”
“So, a jetheading snob, huh? We’re too good for you, I guess.”
“Take it easy, Sam,” said someone else.
“Yeah,” a Negro grinned, “he might be bossin’ you, you know.”
“That’s just it,” said the blond man. “I was born here. I’ve been studying, and I’ve been on air detail for twenty years, and this bull walks right in and takes my promotion the first day.”
Part of Hollister checked off the fact that the Venusians used the terms “year” and “day” to mean those periods for their own world, one shorter and one longer than Earth’s. The rest of him tightened up for trouble, but others intervened. He found a vacant bunk and sat down on it, swinging his legs and trying to make friendly conversation. It wasn’t easy. He felt terribly alone.
Presently someone got out a steel and plastic guitar and strummed it, and soon they were all singing. Hollister listened with half an ear.
“When the Big Rain comes, all the air will be good,
and the rivers all flow with beer,
with the cigarettes bloomin’ by the beefsteak bush,
and the ice-cream-bergs right here.
When the Big Rain comes, we will all be a-swillin’
of champagne, while the violin tree
plays love songs because all the gals will be wi/lin’,
and we’ll all have a Big Rain spree!”
Paradise, he thought. They can joke about it, but it’s still the Paradise they work for and know they’ll never see. Then why do they work for it? What is it that’s driving them?
After a meal, a sleep, and another meal, Hollister was given a set of blueprints to study. He bent his mind to the task, using all the powers which an arduous training had given it, and in a few hours reported to Gebhardt. “I know them,” he said.
“Already?” The chief’s small eyes narrowed. “It iss not vort vile trying to bluff here, boy. Venus alvays callss it.”
“I’m not bluffing,” said Hollister angrily. “If you want me to lounge around for another day, okay, but I know those specs by heart.”
The bearded man stood up. There was muscle under his plumpness. “Okay, by damn,” he said. “You go out vit me next trip.”
That was only a few hours off. Gebhardt took a third man, a quiet grizzled fellow they called Johnny, and let Hollister drive. The tank hauled the usual wagonload of equipment, and the rough ground made piloting a harsh task. Hollister had used multiple transmissions before, and while the navigating instruments were complicated, he caught on to them quickly enough; it was the strain and muscular effort that wore him out.
Venus’ night was not the pitchy gloom one might have expected. The clouds diffused sunlight around the planet, and there was also a steady flicker of aurora even in these middle latitudes. The headlamps were needed only when they went into a deep ravine. Wind growled around them, but Hollister was getting used to that.
The first airmaker on their tour was only a dozen kilometers from the camp. It was a dark, crouching bulk on a stony ridge, its intake funnel like the rearing neck of some archaic monster. They pulled up beside it, slapped down their helmets, and went one by one through the air lock. It was a standard midget type, barely large enough to hold one man, which meant little air to be pumped out and hence greater speed in getting through. Gebhardt had told Hollister to face the exit leeward; now the three roped themselves together and stepped around the tank, out of its shelter.
Hollister lost his footing, crashed to the ground, and went spinning away in the gale. Gebhardt and Johnny dug their cleated heels in and brought the rope up short. When they had the new man back on his feet, Hollister saw them grinning behind their faceplates. Thereafter he paid attention to his balance, leaning against the wind.
Inspection and servicing of the unit was a slow task, and it was hard to see the finer parts even in the headlights’ glare. One by one, the various sections were uncovered and checked, adjustments made, full gas bottles removed and empty ones substituted.
It was no wonder Gebhardt had doubted Hollister’s claim. The airmaker was one of the most complicated machines in existence. A thing meant to transform the atmosphere of a planet had to be.
The intake scooped up the wind and drove it, with the help of windpowered compressors, through a series of chambers; some of them held catalysts, some electric arcs or heating coils maintaining temperature—the continuous storm ran a good-sized generator—and some led back into others in a maze of interconnections. The actual chemistry was simple enough. Paraformaldehyde was broken down and yielded its binding water molecules; the formaldehyde, together with that taken directly from the air, reacted with ammonia and methane—or with itself—to produce a whole series of hydrocarbons, carbohydrates, and more complex compounds for food, fuel and fertilizer; such carbon dioxide as did not enter other reactions was broken down by sheer brute force in an arc to oxygen and soot. The oxygen was bottled for industrial use; the remaining substances were partly separated by distillation—again using wind power, this time to refrigerate—and collected. Further processing would take place at the appropriate cities.
Huge as the unit loomed, it seemed pathetically small when you thought of the fantastic tonnage which was the total planetary atmosphere. But more of its kind were being built every day and scattered around the surface of the world; over a million already existed, seven million was the goal, and that number should theoretically be able to do the job in another twenty Earth-years.
That was theory, as Gebhardt explained over the helmet radio. Other considerations entered, such as the law of diminishing returns; as the effect of the machines became noticeable, the percentage of the air they could deal with would necessarily drop; then there was stratospheric gas, some of which apparently never got down to the surface; and the chemistry of a changing atmosphere had to be taken into account. The basic time estimate for this work had to be revised upward another decade.
There was oxygen everywhere, locked into rocks and ores, enough for the needs of man if it could be gotten out. Specially mutated bacteria were doing that job, living off carbon and silicon, releasing more gas than their own metabolisms took up; their basic energy source was the sun. Some of the oxygen recombined, of course, but not enough to matter, especially since it could only act on or near the surface and most of the bacterial gnawing went on far down. Already there was a barely detectable percentage of the element in the atmosphere. By the time the airmakers were finished, the bacteria would also be.
Meanwhile giant pulverizers were reducing barren stone and sand to fine particles which would be mixed with fertilizers to yield soil; and the genetic engineers were evolving still other strains of life which could provide a balanced ecology; and the water units were under construction.
These would be the key to the whole operation. There was plenty of water on Venus, trapped down in the body of the planet, and the volcanoes brought it up as they had done long ago on Earth. Here it was quickly snatched by the polymerizing formaldehyde, except in spots like Hellfire where machinery had been built to extract it from magma and hydrated minerals. But there was less formaldehyde in the air every day.
At the right time, hydrogen bombs were to be touched off in places the geologists had already selected, and the volcanoes would all wake up. They would spume forth plenty of carbon dioxide—though by that time the amount of the free gas would be so low that this would be welcomed—but there would be water too, unthinkable tons of water. And simultaneously aircraft would be sowing platinum catalyst in the skies, and with its help Venus’ own lightning would attack the remaining poisons in the air. They would come down as carbohydrates and other compounds, washed out by the rain and leached from the sterile ground.
That would be the Big Rain. It would last an estimated ten Earth-years, and at the end there would be rivers and lakes and seas on a planet which had never known them. And the soil would be spread, the bacteria and plants and small animal life released. Venus would still be mostly desert, the rains would slacken off but remain heavy for centuries, but men could walk unclothed on this world and they could piece by piece make the desert green.
A hundred years after the airmen had finished their work, the reclaimed sections might be close to Earth conditions. In five hundred years, all of Venus might be Paradise.
To Hollister it seemed like a long time to wait.
He didn’t need many days to catch on to the operations and be made boss of a construction gang. Then he took out twenty men and a train of supplies and machinery, to erect still another airmaker.
It was blowing hard then, too hard to set up the seat-tents which ordinarily provided a measure of comfort. Men rested in the tanks, side by side, dozing uneasily and smelling each other’s sweat. They griped loudly, but endured. It was a lengthy trip to their site; eventually the whole camp was to be broken up and reestablished in a better location, but meanwhile they had to accept the monotony of travel.
Hollister noticed that his men had evolved an Asian ability just to sit, without thinking, hour after hour. Their conversation and humor also suggested Asia: acrid, often brutal, though maintaining a careful surface politeness most of the time. It was probably more characteristic of this particular job than of the whole planet, though, and maybe they sloughed it off again when their hitches on air detail had expired and they got more congenial assignments.
As boss, he had the privilege of sharing his tank with only one man; he chose the wizened Johnny, whom he rather liked. Steering through a yelling sandstorm, he was now able to carry on a conversation—and it was about time, he reflected, that he got on with his real job.
“Ever thought of going back to Earth?” he asked casually.
“Back?” Johnny looked surprised. “I was born here.”
“Well … going to Earth, then.”
“What’d I use for passage money?”
“Distress clause of the Space Navigation Act. They’d have to give you a berth if you applied. Not that you couldn’t repay your passage, with interest, in a while. With your experience here, you could get a fine post in one of the reclamation projects on Earth.”
“Look,” said Johnny in a flustered voice, “I’m a good Venusian. I’m needed here and I know it.”
“Forget the Guardians,” snapped Hollister, irritated. “I’m not going to report you. Why you people put up with a secret police anyway, is more than I can understand.”
“You’ve got to keep people in line,” said Johnny. “We all got to work together to make a go of it.”
“But haven’t you ever thought it’d be nice to decide your own future and not have somebody to tell you what to do next?”
“It ain’t just ‘somebody.’ It’s the Board. They know how you and me fit in best. Sure, I suppose there are subversives, but I’m not one of them.”
“Why don’t the malcontents just run away, if they don’t dare apply for passage to Earth? They could steal materials and make their own village. Venus is a big place.”
“It ain’t that easy. And supposin’ they could and did, what’d they do then? Just sit and wait for the Big Rain? We don’t want any freeloaders on Venus, mister.”
Hollister shrugged. There was something about the psychology that baffled him. “I’m not preaching revolution,” he said carefully. “I came here of my own free will, remember, I’m just trying to understand the setup.”
Johnny’s faded eyes were shrewd on him. “You’ve always had it easy compared to us, I guess. It may look hard to you here. But remember, we ain’t never had it different, except that things are gettin’ better little by little. The food ration gets upped every so often, and we’re allowed a dress suit now as well as utility clothes, and before long there’s goin’ to be broadcast shows to the outposts—and someday the Big Rain is comin’. Then we can all afford to take it free and easy.” He paused. “That’s why we broke with Earth. Why should we slave our guts out to make a good life for our grandchildren, if a bunch of freeloaders are gonna come from Earth and fill up the planet then? It’s ours. It’s gonna be the richest planet men ever saw, and it belongs to us what developed it.”
Official propaganda line, thought Hollister. It sounded plausible enough till you stopped to analyze. For one thing, each country still had the right to set its own immigration policies. Furthermore, at the rate Earth was progressing, with reclamation, population control, and new resources from the oceans, by the time Venus was ripe there wouldn’t be any motive to leave home—an emigration which would be too long and expensive anyway. For their own reasons, which he still had to discover, the rulers of Venus had not mentioned all the facts and had instead built up a paranoid attitude in their people.
The new airmaker site was the top of a ridge thrusting from a boulder-strewn plain. An eerie coppercolored light seemed to tinge the horizon with blood. A pair of bulldozers had already gone ahead and scooped out a walled hollow in which seal-tents could be erected; Hollister’s gang swarmed from the tanks and got at that job. Then the real work began—blasting and carving a foundation, sinking piers, assembling the unit on top.
On the fourth day the rock storm came. It had dawned with an angry glow like sulfur, and as it progressed the wind strengthened and a dirty rack of clouds whipped low overhead. On the third shift, the gale was strong enough to lean against, and the sheet steel which made the unit’s armor fought the men as if it lived.
The blond man, Sam Robbins, who had never liked Hollister, made his way up to the chief. His voice came over the helmet radio, dim beneath static and the drumming wind: “I don’t like this. Better we take cover fast.”
Hollister was not unwilling, but the delicate arc electrodes were being set up and he couldn’t take them down again; nor could he leave them unprotected to the scouring drift of sand. “As soon as we get the shielding up,” he said.
“I tell you, there’s no time to shield ’em!”
“Yes, there is.” Hollister turned his back. Robbins snarled something and returned to his labor.
A black wall, rust-red on the edges, was lifting to the east, the heaviest sandstorm Hollister had yet seen. He hunched his shoulders and struggled through the sleetlike dust to the unit. Turning up his radio: “Everybody come help on this. The sooner it gets done, the sooner we can quit.”
The helmeted figures swarmed around him, battling the thunderously flapping metal sheets, holding them down by main force while they were welded to the frame. Hollister saw lightning livid across the sky. Once a bolt flamed at the rod which protected the site. Thunder rolled and banged after it.
The wind slapped at them, and a sheet tore loose and went sailing down the hill. It struck a crag and wrapped itself around. “Robbins, Lewis, go get that!” cried Hollister, and returned attention to the piece he was clutching. An end ripped loose from his hands and tried to slash his suit.
The wind was so deafening that he couldn’t hear it rise still higher, and in the murk of sand whirling about him he was nearly blind. But he caught the first glimpse of gale-borne gravel whipping past, and heard the terror in his earphones: “Rock storm!”
The voice shut up; orders were strict that the channel be kept clear. But the gasping men labored still more frantically, while struck metal rang and boomed.
Hollister peered through the darkness. “That’s enough!” he decided. “Take cover!”
Nobody dropped his tools, but they all turned fast and groped down toward the camp. The way led past the crag, where Robbins and Lewis had just quit wrestling with the stubborn plate.
Hollister didn’t see Lewis killed, but he did see him die. Suddenly his airsuit was flayed open, and there was a spurt of blood, and he toppled. The wind took his body, rolling it out of sight in the dust. A piece of rock, thought Hollister wildly. It tore his suit, and he’s already embalmed—
The storm hooted and squealed about him as he climbed the sand wall. Even the blown dust was audible, hissing against his helmet. He fumbled through utter blackness, fell over the top and into the comparative shelter of the camp ground. On hands and knees, he crawled toward the biggest of the self-sealing tents.
There was no time for niceties. They sacrificed the atmosphere within, letting the air lock stand open while they pushed inside. Had everybody made it to some tent or other? Hollister wasn’t sure, but sand was coming in, filling the shelter. He went over and closed the lock. Somebody else started the pump, using bottled nitrogen to maintain air pressure and flush out the poisons. It seemed like a long time before the oxygen containers could be opened.
Hollister took off his helmet and looked around. The tent was half filled by seven white-faced men standing in the dust. The single fluorotube threw a cold light on their sweating bodies and barred the place with shadows. Outside, the wind bellowed.
“Might as well be comfortable,” said Johnny in a small voice, and began shucking his airsuit. “If the tent goes, we’re all done for anyhow.” He sat down on the ground and checked his equipment methodically. Then he took a curved stone and spat on it and began scouring his faceplate to remove the accumulated scratches in its hard plastic. One by one the others imitated him.
Hollister looked up from his own suit. Sam Robbins stood before him. The man’s eyes were red and his mouth worked.
“You killed Jim Lewis.”
There was murder here. Hollister raised himself till he looked down at the Venusian. “I’m sorry he’s dead,” he replied, trying for quietness. “He was a good man. But these things will happen.”
Robbins shuddered. “You sent him down there where the gravel got him. I was there, too. Was it meant for me?”
“Nobody could tell where that chunk was going to hit,” said Hollister mildly. “I could just as easily have been killed.”
“I told you to quit half an hour before the things started.”
“We couldn’t quit then without ruining all our work. Sit down, Robbins. You’re overtired and scared.”
The men were very still sitting and watching in the thick damp heat of the tent. Thunder crashed outside.
“You rotten Earthling—” Robbins’ fist lashed out. It caught Hollister on the cheekbone and he stumbled back, shaking a dazed head. Robbins advanced grinning.
Hollister felt a cold viciousness of rage. It was his pseudopersonality he realized dimly but no time to think of that now. As Robbins closed in, he crouched and punched for the stomach.
Hard muscle met him. Robbins clipped him on the jaw. Hollister tried an uppercut, but it was skillfully blocked. This man knew how to fight.
Hollister gave him another fusillade in the belly. Robbins grunted and rabbit-punched. Hollister caught it on his shoulder, reached up, grabbed an arm, and whirled his enemy over his head. Robbins hit a bunkframe that buckled under him.
He came back, dizzy but game. Hollister was well trained in combat. But it took him a good ten minutes to stretch his man bleeding on the ground.
Panting, he looked about him. There was no expression on the faces that ringed him in. “Anybody else?” he asked hoarsely.
“No, boss,” said Johnny. “You’re right, o’ course. I don’t think nobody else here wants twenty lashes back at base.”
“Who said—” Hollister straightened, blinking. “Lashes?”
“Why, sure. This was mutiny, you know. It’s gotta be punished.”
Hollister shook his head. “Too barbaric. Correction—”
“Look, boss,” said Johnny, “you’re a good engineer but you don’t seem to understand much about Venus yet. We ain’t got the time or the manpower or the materials to spend on them there corrective jails. A bull what don’t keep his nose clean gets the whip or the sweatbox, and then back to the job. The really hard cases go to the uranium mines at Lucifer.” He shivered, even in the dense heat.
Hollister frowned. “Not a bad system,” he said, to stay in character. “But I think Robbins here has had enough. I’m not going to report him if he behaves himself from now on, and I’ll trust the rest of you to cooperate.”
They mumbled assent. He wasn’t sure whether they respected him for it or not, but the boss was boss. Privately, he suspected that the Boards must frame a lot of men, or at least sentence them arbitrarily for minor crimes, to keep the mines going; there didn’t seem to be enough rebellion in the Venusian character to supply them otherwise.
Chalk up another point for the government. The score to settle was getting rather big.
Time was hard to estimate on Venus; it wasn’t only that they had their own calendar here, but one day was so much like another. Insensibly and despite himself, Hollister began sliding into the intellectual lethargy of the camp. He had read the few books—and with his trained memory, he could only read a book once—and he knew every man there inside out, and he had no family in one of the cities to write to and think about. The job itself presented a daily challenge, no two situations were ever quite the same and occasionally he came near death, but outside of it there was a tendency to stagnate.
The other two engineers, Gebhardt and Yamashita, were pleasant company. The first was from Hörselberg, which had been a German settlement and still retained some character of its own, and he had interesting stories to tell of it; the second, though of old Venus-American stock, was mentally agile for a colonist, had read more than most and had a lively interest in the larger world of the Solar System. But even the stimulation they offered wore a little thin in six months or so.
The region spun through a “winter” that was hardly different from summer except in having longer nights, and the sterile spring returned, and the work went on. Hollister’s time sense ticked off days with an accuracy falling within a few seconds, and he wondered how long he would be kept here and when he would get a chance to report to his home office. That would be in letters ostensibly to friends, which one of the spaceships would carry back; he knew censors would read them first, but his code was keyed to an obscure eighteenth-century book he was certain no one on Venus had ever heard of.
Already he knew more about this planet than anyone on Earth. It had always been too expensive to send correspondents here, and the last couple of U.N. representatives hadn’t found much to tell. The secretiveness toward Earthmen might be an old habit, going back to the ultra-nationalistic days of the last century. Colony A and Colony B, of two countries which at home might not be on speaking terms, were not supposed to give aid and comfort to each other; but on Venus such artificial barriers had to go if anyone was to survive. Yamashita told with relish how prospectors from Little Moscow and Trollen had worked together and divided up their finds. But of course, you couldn’t let your nominal rulers know—
Hollister was beginning to realize that the essential ethos of Venus was, indeed, different from anything which existed on Earth. It had to be, the landscape had made it so. Man was necessarily a more collective creature than at home. That helped explain the evolution of the peculiar governmental forms and the patience of the citizenry toward the most outrageous demands. Even the dullest laborer seemed to live in the future.
Our children and grandchildren will build the temples, read the books, write the music. Ours is only to lay the foundation.
And was that why they stuck here, instead of shipping back and turning the whole job over to automatic machinery and a few paid volunteers? They had been the lonely, the rejected, the dwellers in outer darkness, for a long time; now they could not let go of their fierce and angry pride, even when there was no more need for it. Hollister thought about Ireland. Man is not a logical animal.
Still, there were features of Venusian society that struck him as unnecessary and menacing. Something would have to be done about them, though as yet he wasn’t sure what it would be.
He worked, and he gathered impressions and filed them away, and he waited. And at last the orders came through. This camp had served its purpose, it was to be broken up and replanted elsewhere, but first its personnel were to report to New America and get a furlough. Hollister swung almost gaily into the work of dismantling everything portable and loading it in the wagons. Maybe he finally was going to get somewhere.
He reported at the Air Control office with Gebhardt and Yamashita, to get his pay and quarters assignment. The official handed him a small card. “You’ve been raised to chief engineer’s rank,” he said. “You’ll probably get a camp of your own next time.”
Gebhardt pounded him on the back. “Ach, sehr gut! I recommended you, boy, you did fine, but I am going to miss you.”
“Oh … we’ll both be around for a while, won’t we?” asked Hollister uncomfortably.
“Not I! I haff vife and kids, I hop the next rocket to Hörselberg.”
Yamashita had his own family in town, and Hollister didn’t want to intrude too much on them. He wandered off, feeling rather lonesome.
His new rating entitled him to private quarters, a tiny room with minimal furniture, though he still had to wash and eat publicly like everyone else except the very top. He sat down in it and began composing the planned letters.
There was a knock at the door. He fumbled briefly, being used to scanners at home and not used to doors on Venus, and finally said: “Come in.”
A woman entered. She was young, quite good-looking, with a supple tread and spectacularly red hair. Cool green eyes swept up and down his height. “My name is Barbara Brandon,” she said. “Administrative assistant in Air Control.”
“Oh … hello.” He offered her the chair. “You’re here on business?”
Amusement tinged her impersonal voice. “In a way. I’m going to marry you.”
Hollister’s jaw did not drop, but it tried. “Come again?” he asked weakly.
She sat down. “It’s simple enough. I’m thirty-seven years old, which is almost the maximum permissible age of celibacy except in special cases.” With a brief, unexpectedly feminine touch: “That’s Venus years, of course! I’ve seen you around, and looked at your record; good heredity there, I think. Pops okayed it genetically—that’s Population Control—and the Guardians cleared it, too.”
“Um-m-m … look here.” Hollister wished there were room to pace. He settled for sitting on the table and swinging his legs. “Don’t I get any say in the matter?”
“You can file any objections, of course, and probably they’d be heeded; but you’ll have to have children by someone pretty soon. We need them. Frankly, I think a match between us would be ideal. You’ll be out in the field so much that we won’t get in each other’s hair, and we’d probably get along well enough while we are together.”
Hollister scowled. It wasn’t the morality of it—much. He was a bachelor on Earth, secret service Un-men really had no business getting married; and in any case the law would wink at what he had done on Venus if he ever got home. But something about the whole approach annoyed him.
“I can’t see where you need rules to make people breed,” he said coldly. “They’ll do that anyway. You don’t realize what a struggle it is on Earth to bring the population back down toward a sensible figure.”
“Things are different here,” answered Barbara Brandon in a dry tone. “We’re going to need plenty of people for a long time to come, and they have to be of the right stock. The congenitally handicapped can’t produce enough to justify their own existence; there’s been a program of euthanasia there, as you may know. But the new people are also needed in the right places. This town, for instance, can only accommodate so much population increase per year. We can’t send surplus children off to a special crèche because there aren’t enough teachers or doctors—or anything, so the mothers have to take care of all their own kids; or the fathers, if they happen to have a job in town and the mother is a field worker. The whole process has got to be regulated.”
“Regulations!” Hollister threw up his hands. “Behold the bold frontiersman!”
The girl looked worried. “Careful what you say.” She smiled at him with a touch of wistfulness. “It needn’t be such a hindrance to you. Things are … pretty free except where the production of children is involved.”
“I—this is kind of sudden.” Hollister tried to smile back. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate the compliment. But I need time to think, adjust myself—Look, are you busy right now?”
“No, I’m off.”
“All right. Put on your party clothes and we’ll go out and have some drinks and talk the matter over.”
She glanced shyly at the thin, colored coverall she wore. “These are my party clothes,” she said.
Hollister’s present rank let him visit another bar than the long, crowded room where plain laborers caroused. This one had private tables, decorations, music in the dim dusky air. It was quiet, the engineer aristocracy had their own code of manners. A few couples danced on a small floor.
He found an unoccupied table by the curving wall, sat down, and dialed for drinks and cigarettes. Neither were good enough to justify their fantastic cost but it had been a long time since he had enjoyed any luxuries at all. He felt more relaxed with them. The girl looked quite beautiful in the muted light.
“You were born here, weren’t you, Barbara?” he asked after a while.
“Of course,” she said. “You’re the first immigrant in a long time. Used to be some deportees coming in every once in a while, but—”
“I know. ‘Sentence suspended on condition you leave Earth.’ That was before all countries had adopted the new penal code. Never mind. I was just wondering if you wouldn’t like to see Earth—sometime.”
“Maybe. But I’m needed here, not there. And I like it.” There was a hint of defiance in the last remark.
He didn’t press her. The luminous murals showed a soft unreal landscape of lakes and forests, artificial stars twinkled gently in the ceiling. “Is this what you expect Venus to become?” he asked.
“Something like this. Probably not the stars, it’ll always be cloudy here but they’ll be honest rain clouds. We should live to see the beginning of it.”
“Barbara,” he asked, “do you believe in God?”
“Why, no. Some of the men are priests and rabbis and whatnot in their spare time, but—no, not I. What about it?”
“You’re wrong,” he said. “Venus is your god. This is a religious movement you have here, with a slide rule in its hand.”
“So—?” She seemed less assured, he had her off balance and the green eyes were wide and a little frightened.
“An Old Testament god,” he pursued, “merciless, all-powerful, all-demanding. Get hold of a Bible if you can; and read Job and Ecclesiastes. You’ll see what I mean. When is the New Testament coming … or even the prophet Micah?”
“You’re a funny one,” she said uncertainly. Frowning, trying to answer him on his own terms: “After the Big Rain, things will be easier. It’ll be—” She struggled through vague memories. “It’ll be the Promised Land.”
“You’ve only got this one life,” he said. “Is there any sound reason for spending it locked in these iron boxes, with death outside, when you could lie on a beach on Earth and everything you’re fighting for is already there?”
She grabbed his hand where it lay on the table. Her fingers were cold, and she breathed fast. “No! Don’t say such things! You’re here too. You came here—”
Get thee behind me, Satan.
“Sorry.” He lifted his glass. “Here’s freefalling.”
She clinked with him smiling shakily.
“There isn’t any retirement on Venus, is there?” he asked.
“Not exactly. Old people get lighter work, of course. When you get too old to do anything … well, wouldn’t you want euthanasia?”
He nodded, quite sincerely, though his exact meaning had gone by her. “I was just thinking of … shall we say us … rose-covered cottages, sunset of life. Darby and Joan stuff.”
She smiled, and reached over to stroke his cheek lightly. “Thanks,” she murmured. “Maybe there will be rose-covered cottages by the time we’re that old.”
Hollister turned suddenly, aware with his peripheral senses of the man who approached. Or maybe it was the sudden choking off of low-voiced conversation in the bar. The man walked very softly up to their table and stood looking down on them. Then he pulled out the extra chair for himself.
“Hello, Karsov,” said Hollister dully.
The Guardian nodded. There was a ghostly smile playing about his lips. “How are you?” he asked, with an air of not expecting a reply. “I am glad you did so well out there. Your chief recommended you very highly.”
“Thanks,” said Hollister, not hiding the chill in his voice. He didn’t like the tension he could see in Barbara.
“I just happened by and thought you would like to know you will have a crew of your own next trip,” said the policeman. “That is, the Air Control office has made a recommendation to me.” He glanced archly at Barbara. “Did you by any chance have something to do with that, Miss Brandon? Could be!” Then his eyes fell to the cigarettes, and he regarded them pointedly till Barbara offered him one.
“Pardon me.” Hollister held his temper with an effort and kept his voice urbane. “I’m still new here, lot of things I don’t know. Why does your office have to pass on such a matter?”
“My office has to pass on everything,” said Karsov.
“Seems like a purely technical business as long as my own record is clean.”
Karsov shook his sleek head. “You do not understand. We cannot have someone in a responsible position who is not entirely trustworthy. It is more than a matter of abstaining from criminal acts. You have to be with us all the way. No reservations. That is what Psych Control and the Guardians exist for.”
He blew smoke through his nose and went on in a casual tone: “I must say your attitude has not been entirely pleasing. You have made some remarks which could be … misconstrued. I am ready to allow for your not being used to Venusian conditions, but you know the law about sedition.”
For a moment, Hollister savored the thought of Karsov’s throat between his fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Remember, there are recorders everywhere, and we make spot checks directly on people, too. You could be narcoquizzed again any time I ordered it. But I do not think that will be necessary just yet. A certain amount of grumbling is only natural, and if you have any genuine complaints you can file them with your local Technic Board.”
Hollister weighed the factors in his mind. Karsov packed a gun,. and—But too sudden a meekness could be no less suspicious. “I don’t quite understand why you have to have a political police,” he ventured. “It seems like an ordinary force should be enough. After all … where would an insurrectionist go?”
He heard Barbara’s tiny gasp, but Karsov merely looked patient. “There are many factors involved,” said the Guardian. “For instance, some of the colonies were not quite happy with the idea of being incorporated into the Venusian Federation. They preferred to stay with their mother countries, or even to be independent. Some fighting ensued, and they must still be watched. Then, too, it is best to keep Venusian society healthy while it is new and vulnerable to subversive radical ideas. And finally, the Guardian Corps is the nucleus of our future army and space navy.”
Hollister wondered if he should ask why Venus needed military forces, but decided against it. The answer would only be some stock phrase about terrestrial imperialists, if he got any answer at all. He’d gone about far enough already.
“I see,” he said. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Would you like a drink, sir?” asked Barbara timidly.
“No,” said Karsov. “I only stopped in on my way elsewhere. Work, always work.” He got up. “I think you are making a pretty good adjustment, Hollister. Just watch your tongue … and your mind. Oh, by the way. Under the circumstances, it would be as well if you did not write any letters home for a while. That could be misunderstood. You may use one of the standard messages. They are much cheaper, too.” He nodded and left.
Hollister’s eyes followed him out. How much does he know?
“Come on,” said Barbara. There was a little catch in her voice. “Let’s dance.”
Gradually they relaxed, easing into the rhythm of the music. Hollister dismissed the problem of Karsov for the time being, and bent mind and senses to his companion. She was lithe and slim in his arms, and he felt the stirrings of an old hunger in him.
The next Venus day he called on Yamashita. They had a pleasant time together, and arranged a party for later; Hollister would bring Barbara. But as he was leaving, the Venusian drew him aside.
“Be careful, Si,” he whispered. “They were here a few hours after I got back, asking me up and down about you. I had to tell the truth, they know how to ask questions and if I’d hesitated too much it would have been narco. I don’t think you’re in any trouble, but be careful!”
Barbara had arranged her vacation to coincide with his—efficient girl! They were together most of the time. It wasn’t many days before they were married. That was rushing things, but Hollister would soon be back in the field for a long stretch and—well—they had fallen in love. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable. Curious how it broke down the girl’s cool selfpossession, but that only made her more human and desirable.
He felt a thorough skunk, but maybe she was right. Carpe diem. If he ever pulled out of this mess, he’d just have to pull her out with him; meanwhile, he accepted the additional complication of his assignment. It looked as if that would drag on for years, anyhow; maybe a lifetime.
They blew themselves to a short honeymoon at a high-class-and expensive—resort by Thunder Gorge, one of Venus’ few natural beauty spots. The atmosphere at the lodge was relaxed, not a Guardian in sight and more privacy than elsewhere on the planet. Psych Control was shrewd enough to realize that people needed an occasional surcease from all duty, some flight from the real world of sand and stone and steel. It helped keep them sane.
Even so, there was a rather high proportion of mental disease. It was a taboo subject, but Hollister got a doctor drunk and wormed the facts out of him. The psychotic were not sent back to Earth, as they could have been at no charge; they might talk too much. Nor were there facilities for proper treatment on Venus. If the most drastic procedures didn’t restore a patient to some degree of usefulness in a short time—they had even revived the barbarism of prefrontal lobotomy!—he was quietly gassed.
“But it’ll all be diff’rent af’er uh Big Rain,” said the doctor. “My son ull have uh real clinic, he will.”
More and more, Hollister doubted it.
A few sweet crazy days, and vacation’s end was there and they took the rocket back to New America. It was the first time Hollister had seen Barbara cry.
He left her sitting forlornly in the little two-room apartment they now rated, gathering herself to arrange the small heap of their personal possessions, and reported to Air Control. The assistant super gave him a thick, bound sheaf of papers.
“Here are the orders and specs,” he said. “You can have two days to study them.” Hollister, who could memorize the lot in a few hours, felt a leap of gladness at the thought of so much free time. The official leaned back in his chair. He was a gnarled old man, retired to a desk after a lifetime of field duty. One cheek was puckered with the scars of an operation for the prevalent HR cancer; Venus had no germs, but prepared her own special death traps. “Relax for a minute and I’ll give you the general idea.”
He pointed to a large map on the wall. It was not very complete or highly accurate: surveying on this planet was a job to break a man’s heart, and little had been done. “We’re establishing your new camp out by Last Chance. You’ll note that Little Moscow, Trollen, and Roger’s Landing cluster around it at an average distance of two hundred kilometers, so that’s where you’ll be getting your supplies, sending men on leave, and so forth. I doubt if you’ll have any occasion to report back here till you break camp completely in a couple of years.”
And Barbara will be here alone, Barbara and our child whom I won’t even see—
“You’ll take your wagon train more or less along this route,” went on the super, indicating a dotted line that ran from New America. “It’s been gone over and is safe. Notice the eastward jog to Lucifer at the halfway point. That’s to refuel and take on fresh food stores.”
Hollister frowned, striving for concentration on the job. “I can’t see that. Why not take a few extra wagons and omit the detour?”
“Orders,” said the super.
Whose orders? Karsov’s? I’ll bet my air helmet!—but why?
“Your crew will be … kind of tough,” said the old man. “They’re mostly from Ciudad Alcazar, which is on the other side of the world. It was one of the stubborn colonies when we declared independence, had to be put down by force, and it’s still full of sedition. These spigs are all hard cases who’ve been assigned to this hemisphere so they won’t stir up trouble at home. I saw in your dossier that you speak Spanish, among other languages, which is one reason you’re being given this bunch. You’ll have to treat them rough, remember. Keep them in line.”
I think there was more than one reason behind this.
“The details are all in your assignment book,” said the super. “Report back here in two days, this time. Okay—have fun!” He smiled, suddenly friendly now that his business was completed.
Darkness and a whirl of poison sleet turned the buildings into crouching black monsters, hardly to be told from the ragged snarl of crags which ringed them in. Hollister brought his tank to a grinding halt before a tower which fixed him with a dazzling floodlight eye. “Sit tight, Diego,” he said, and slapped his helmet down.
His chief assistant, Fernandez, nodded a sullen dark head. He was competent enough, and had helped keep the unruly crew behaving itself, but remained cold toward his boss. There was always a secret scorn in his eyes.
Hollister wriggled through the air lock and dropped to the ground. A man in a reinforced, armorlike suit held a tommy gun on him, but dropped the muzzle as he advanced. The blast of white light showed a stupid face set in lines of habitual brutality.
“You the airman come for supplies?” he asked.
“Yes. Can I see your chief?”
The guard turned wordlessly and led the way. Beyond the lock of the main shell was a room where men sat with rifles. Hollister was escorted to an inner office, where a middle-aged, rather mild-looking fellow in Guardian uniform greeted him. “How do you do? We had word you were coming. The supplies were brought to our warehouse and you can load them when you wish.”
Hollister accepted a chair. “I’m Captain Thomas,” the other continued. “Nice to have you. We don’t see many new faces at Lucifer—not men you can talk to, anyway. How are things in New America?”
He gossiped politely for a while. “It’s quite a remarkable installation we have here,” he ended. “Would you like to see it?”
Hollister grimaced. “No, thanks.”
“Oh, I really must insist. You and your chief assistant and one or two of the foremen. They’ll all be interested, and can tell the rest of your gang how it is. There’s so little to talk about in camp.”
Hollister debated refusing outright and forcing Thomas to show his hand. But why bother? Karsov had given orders, and Thomas would conduct him around at gunpoint if necessary. “Okay, thanks,” he said coldly. “Let me get my men bunked down first, though.”
“Of course. We have a spare barracks for transients. I’ll expect you in two hours … with three of your men, remember.”
Diego Fernandez only nodded when Hollister gave him the news. The chief skinned his teeth in a bleak sort of grin. “Don’t forget to ‘oh’ and ‘ah,’” he said. “Our genial host will be disappointed if you don’t, and he’s a man I’d hate to disappoint.”
The smoldering eyes watched him with a quizzical expression that faded back into blankness. “I shall get Gomez and San Rafael,” said Fernandez. “They have strong stomachs.”
Thomas received them almost unctuously and started walking down a series of compartments. “As engineers, you will be most interested in the mine itself,” he said. “I’ll show you a little of it. This is the biggest uranium deposit known in the Solar System.”
He led them to the great cell block, where a guard with a shock gun fell in behind them. “Have to be careful,” said Thomas. “We’ve got some pretty desperate characters here, who don’t feel they have much to lose.”
“All lifers, eh?” asked Hollister.
Thomas looked surprised. “Of course! We couldn’t let them go back after what the radiation does to their germ plasm.”
A man rattled the bars of his door as they passed. “I’m from New America!” His harsh scream bounded between steel walls. “Do you know my wife? Is Martha Riley all right?”
“Shut up!” snapped the guard, and fed him a shock beam. He lurched back into the darkness of his cell. His mate, whose face was disfigured by a cancer, eased him to his bunk.
Someone else yelled, far down the long white-lit rows. A guard came running from that end. The voice pleaded: “It’s a nightmare. It’s just a nightmare. The stuff’s got intuh muh brain and I’m always dreamin’ nightmares—”
“They get twitchy after a while,” said Thomas. “Stuff will seep through the suits and lodge in their bodies. Then they’re not much good for anything but pick-and-shovel work. Don’t be afraid, gentlemen, we have reinforced suits for the visitors and guards.”
These were donned at the end of the cell block. Beyond the double door, a catwalk climbed steeply, till they were on the edge of an excavation which stretched farther than they could see in the gloom.
“It’s rich enough yet for open-pit mining,” said Thomas, “though we’re driving tunnels, too.” He pointed to a giant scooper. Tiny shapes of convicts scurried about it. “Four-hour shifts because of the radiation down there. Don’t believe those rumors that we aren’t careful with our boys. Some of them live for thirty years.”
Hollister’s throat felt cottony. It would be so easy to rip off Thomas’ air hose and kick him down into the pit! “What about women prisoners?” he asked slowly. “You must get some.”
“Oh, yes. Right down there with the men. We believe in equality on Venus.”
There was a strangled sound in the earphones, but Hollister wasn’t sure which of his men had made it.
“Very essential work here,” said Thomas proudly. “We refine the ore right on the spot too, you know. It not only supplies such nuclear power as Venus needs, but exported to Earth it buys the things we still have to have from them.”
“Why operate it with convict labor?” asked Hollister absently. His imagination was wistfully concentrated on the image of himself branding his initials on Thomas’ anatomy. “You could use free men, taking proper precautions, and it would be a lot more efficient and economical of manpower.”
“You don’t understand.” Thomas seemed a bit shocked. “These are enemies of the state.”
I’ve read that line in the history books. Some state, if it makes itself that many enemies!
“The refinery won’t interest you so much,” said Thomas. “Standard procedure, and it’s operated by nonpolitical prisoners under shielding. They get skilled, and become too valuable to lose. But no matter who a man is, how clever he is, if he’s been convicted of treason he goes to the mine.”
So this was a warning—or was it a provocation?
When they were back in the office, Thomas smiled genially. “I hope you gentlemen have enjoyed the tour,” he said. “Do stop in and see me again sometime.” He held out his hand. Hollister turned on his heel, ignoring the gesture, and walked out.
Even in the line of duty, a man can only do so much.
Somewhat surprisingly Hollister found himself getting a little more popular with his crew after the visit to Lucifer. The three who were with him must have seen his disgust and told about it. He exerted himself to win more of their friendship, without being too obtrusive about it: addressing them politely, lending a hand himself in the task of setting up camp, listening carefully to complaints about not feeling well instead of dismissing them all as malingering. That led to some trouble. One laborer who was obviously faking a stomachache was ordered back to the job and made an insulting crack. Hollister knocked him to the floor with a single blow. Looking around at the others present, he said slowly: “There will be no whippings in this camp, because I do not believe men should be treated thus. But I intend to remain chief and to get this business done.” Nudging the fallen man with his foot: “Well, go on back to your work. This is forgotten also in the records I am supposed to keep.”
He didn’t feel proud of himself—the man had been smaller and weaker than he. But he had to have discipline, and the Venusians all seemed brutalized to a point where the only unanswerable argument was force. It was an inevitable consequence of their type of government, and boded ill for the future.
Somewhat later, his radio-electronics technie, Valdez—a soft-spoken little fellow who did not seem to have any friends in camp—found occasion to speak with him. “It seems that you have unusual ideas about running this operation, señor,” he remarked.
“I’m supposed to get the airmakers installed,” said Hollister. “That part of it is right on schedule.”
“I mean with regard to your treatment of the men, señor. You are the mildest chief they have had. I wish to say that it is appreciated, but some of them are puzzled. If I may give you some advice, which is doubtless not needed, it would be best if they knew exactly what to expect.”
Hollister felt bemused. “Fairness, as long as they do their work. What is so strange about that?”
“But some of us … them … have unorthodox ideas about politics.”
“That is their affair, Señor Valdez.” Hollister decided to make himself a little more human in the technie’s eyes. “I have a few ideas of my own, too.”
“Ah, so. Then you will permit free discussion in the barracks?”
“I have hidden the recorder in there very well. Do you wish to hear the tapes daily, or shall I just make a summary?”
“I don’t want to hear any tapes,” stated Hollister. “That machine will not be operated.”
“But they might plan treason!”
Hollister laughed and swept his hand around the wall. “In the middle of that? Much good their plans do them!” Gently: “All of you may say what you will among yourselves. I am an engineer, not a secret policeman.”
“I see, señor. You are very generous. Believe me, it is appreciated.”
Three days later, Valdez was dead.
Hollister had sent him out with a crew to run some performance tests on the first of the new airmakers. The men came back agitatedly, to report that a short, sudden rock storm had killed the technie. Hollister frowned, to cover his pity for the poor lonely little guy. “Where is the body?” he asked.
“Out there, señor—where else?”
Hollister knew it was the usual practice to leave men who died in the field where they fell; after Venusian conditions had done their work, it wasn’t worthwhile salvaging the corpse for its chemicals. But—“Have I not announced my policy?” he snapped. “I thought that you people, of all, would be glad of it. Dead men will be kept here, so we can haul them into town and have them properly buried. Does not your religion demand that?”
“But Valdez, señor—”
“Never mind! Back you go, at once, and this time bring him in.” Hollister turned his attention to the problem of filling the vacancy. Control wasn’t going to like him asking for another so soon; probably he couldn’t get one anyway. Well, he could train Fernandez to handle the routine parts, and do the more exacting things himself.
He was sitting in his room that night, feeling acutely the isolation of a commander—too tired to add another page to his letter to Barbara, not tired enough to go to sleep. There was a knock on the door. His start told him how thin his nerves were worn. “Come in!”
Diego Fernandez entered. The chill white fluorolight showed fear in his eyes and along his mouth. “Good evening, Simon,” he said tonelessly. They had gotten to the stage of first names, though they still addressed each other with the formal pronoun.
“Good evening, Diego. What is it?”
The other bit his lip and looked at the floor. Hollister did not try to hurry him. Outside, the wind was running and great jags of lightning sizzled across an angry sky, but this room was buried deep and very quiet.
Fernandez’s eyes rose at last. “There is something you ought to know, Simon. Perhaps you already know it.”
“And perhaps not, Diego. Say what you will. There are no recorders here.”
“Well, then, Valdez was not accidentally killed. He was murdered.”
Hollister sat utterly still.
“You did not look at the body very closely, did you?” went on Fernandez, word by careful word. “I have seen suits torn open by flying rocks. This was not such a one. Some instrument did it … a compressed-air drill, I think.”
“And do you know why it was done?”
“Yes.” Fernandez’s face twisted. “I cannot say it was not a good deed. Valdez was a spy for the government.”
Hollister felt a knot in his stomach. “How do you know this?”
“One can be sure of such things. After the … the Venusians had taken Alcazar, Valdez worked eagerly with their police. He had always believed in confederation and planetary independence. Then he went away, to some engineering assignment it was said. But he had a brother who was proud of the old hidalgo blood, and this brother sought to clear the shame of his family by warning that Valdez had taken a position with the Guardians. He told it secretly, for he was not supposed to, but most of Alcazar got to know it. The men who had fought against the invaders were sent here, to the other side of the world, and it is not often we get leave to go home even for a short while. But we remembered, and we knew Valdez when he appeared on this job. So when those men with him had a chance to revenge themselves, they took it.”
Hollister fixed the brown eyes with his own. “Why do you tell me this?” he asked.
“I do not—quite know. Except that you have been a good chief. It would be best for us if we could keep you, and this may mean trouble for you.”
I’ll say! First I practically told Valdez how I feel about the government, then he must have transmitted it with the last radio report, and now he’s dead. Hollister chose his words cautiously: “Have you thought that the best way I can save myself is to denounce those men?”
“They would go to Lucifer, Simon.”
“I know.” He weighed the factors, surprised at his own detached calm. On the one hand there were Barbara and himself, and his own mission; on the other hand were half a dozen men who would prove most valuable come the day—for it was becoming more and more clear that the sovereign state of Venus would have to be knocked down, the sooner the better.
Beyond a small ache, he did not consider the personal element; Un-man training was too strong in him for that. A melody skipped through his head. “Here’s a how-de-do—” It was more than a few men, he decided; this whole crew, all fifty or so, had possibilities. A calculated risk was in order.
“I did not hear anything you said,” he spoke aloud. “Nor did you ever have any suspicions. It is obvious that Valdez died accidentally—too obvious to question.”
Fernandez’s smile flashed through the sweat that covered his face. “Thank you, Simon!”
“Thanks to you, Diego.” Hollister gave him a drink—the boss was allowed a few bottles—and sent him on his way.
The boss was also allowed a .45 magnum automatic, the only gun in camp. Hollister took it out and checked it carefully. What was that classic verdict of a coroner’s jury, a century or more ago in the States? “An act of God under very suspicious circumstances.” He grinned to himself. It was not a pleasant expression.
The rocket landed three days later. Hollister, who had been told by radio to expect it but not told why, was waiting outside. A landing space had been smoothed off and marked, and he had his men standing by and the tanks and bulldozers parked close at hand. Ostensibly that was to give any help which might be needed; actually, he hoped they would mix in on his side if trouble started. Power-driven sand blasts and arc welders were potentially nasty weapons, and tanks and dozers could substitute for armored vehicles in a pinch. The gun hung at his waist.
There was a mild breeze, for Venus, but it drove a steady scud of sand across the broken plain. The angry storm-colored light was diffused by airborne dust till it seemed to pervade the land, and even through his helmet and earphones Hollister was aware of the wind-yammer and the remote banging of thunder.
A new racket grew in heaven, stabbing jets and then the downward hurtle of sleek metal. The rocket’s glider wings were fully extended, braking her against the updraft, and the pilot shot brief blasts to control his yawing vessel and bring her down on the markings. Wheels struck the hard-packed sand, throwing up a wave of it; landing flaps strained, a short burst from the nose jet arched its back against the flier’s momentum, and then the machine lay still.
Hollister walked up to it. Even with the small quick-type air lock, he had to wait a couple of minutes before two suited figures emerged. One was obviously the pilot; the other—
Her face had grown thin, he saw through the helmet plate, and the red hair was disordered. He pulled her to him, and felt his faceplate clank on hers. “Barbara! What brings you here? Is everything all right?”
She tried to smile. “Not so public. Let’s get inside.”
The pilot stayed, to direct the unloading of what little equipment had been packed along; a trip was never wasted. Fernandez could do the honors afterward. Hollister led his wife to his own room, and no words were said for a while.
Her lips and hands felt cold.
“What is it, Barbara?” he asked when he finally came up for air. “How do we rate this?”
She didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Simple enough. We’re not going to have a baby after all. Since you’ll be in the field for a long time, and I’m required to be a mother soon, it … it wasn’t so hard to arrange a leave for me. I’ll be here for ten days.”
That was almost an Earth month. The luxury was unheard-of. Hollister sat down on his bunk and began to think.
“What’s the matter?” She rumpled his hair. “Aren’t you glad to see me? Maybe you have a girl lined up in Trollen?”
Her tone wasn’t quite right, somehow. In many ways she was still a stranger to him, but he knew she wouldn’t banter him with just that inflection. Or did she really think—“I’d no such intention,” he said.
“Of course not, you jethead! I trust you.” Barbara stretched herself luxuriously. “Isn’t this wonderful?”
Yeah … too wonderful. “Why do we get it?”
“I told you.” She looked surprised. “We’ve got to have a child.”
He said grimly, “I can’t see that it’s so all-fired urgent. If it were, it’d be easier, and right in line with the Board’s way of thinking, to use artificial insemination.” He stood up and gripped her shoulders and looked straight at her. “Barbara, why are you really here?”
She began to cry, and that wasn’t like her either. He patted her and mumbled awkward phrases, feeling himself a louse. But something was very definitely wrong, and he had to find out what.
He almost lost his resolution as the day went on. He had to be outside most of that time, supervising and helping; he noticed that several of the men had again become frigid with him. Was that Karsov’s idea—to drive a wedge between him and his crew by giving him an unheard-of privilege? Well, maybe partly, but it could not be the whole answer. When he came back, Barbara had unpacked and somehow, with a few small touches, turned his bleak little bedroom-office into a home. She was altogether gay and charming and full of hope.
The rocket had left, the camp slept, they had killed a bottle to celebrate and now they were alone in darkness. In such a moment of wonder, it was hard to keep a guard up.
“Maybe you appreciate the Board a little more,” she sighed. “They aren’t machines. They’re human, and know that we are too.”
“‘Human’ is a pretty broad term,” he murmured, almost automatically. “The guards at Lucifer are human, I suppose.”
Her hand stole out to stroke his cheek. “Things aren’t perfect on Venus,” she said. “Nobody claims they are. But after the Big Rain—”
“Yeah. The carrot in front and the stick behind, and on the burro trots. He doesn’t stop to ask where the road is leading. I could show it by psychodynamic equations, but even an elementary reading of history is enough to show that once a group gets power, it never gives it up freely.”
“There was Kemal Ataturk, back around 1920, wasn’t there?”
“Uh-huh. A very exceptional case: the hard-boiled, practical man who was still an idealist, and built his structure so well that his successors—who’d grown up under him—neither could nor wanted to continue dictatorship. It’s an example which the U.N. Inspectorate on Earth has studied closely and tried to adapt, so that its own power won’t someday be abused.
“The government of Venus just isn’t that sort. Their tactics prove it. Venus has to be collective till the Big Rain, I suppose, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to collectivize the minds of men. By the time this hellhole is fit for human life, the government will be unshakeably in the saddle. Basic principle of psychobiology: survival with least effort. In human society, one of the easiest ways to survive and grow fat is to rule your fellow men.
“It’s significant that you’ve learned about Ataturk. How much have they told you about the Soviet Union? The state was supposed to wither away there, too.”
“Would you actually … conspire to revolt?” she asked.
He slammed the brakes so hard that his body jerked. Danger! Danger! Danger! How did I get into this? What am I saying? Why is she asking me? With a single bound, he was out of bed and had snapped on the light.
Its glare hurt his eyes, and Barbara covered her face. He drew her hands away, gently but using his strength against her resistance. The face that looked up at him was queerly distorted; the lines were still there, but they had become something not quite human.
“Who put you up to this?” he demanded.
“No one … what are you talking about, what’s wrong?”
“The perfect spy,” he said bitterly. “A man’s own wife.”
“What do you mean?” She sat up, staring wildly through her tousled hair. “Have you gone crazy?”
“Could you be a spy?”
“I’m not,” she gasped. “I swear I’m not.”
“I didn’t ask if you were. What I want to know is could you be a spy?”
“I’m not. It’s impossible. I’m not—” She was screaming now, but the thick walls would muffle that.
“Karsov is going to send me to Lucifer,” he flung at her. “Isn’t he?”
“I’m not, I’m not, I’m not—”
He stabbed the questions at her, one after another, slapping when she got hysterical. The first two times she fainted, he brought her around again and continued; the third time, he called it off and stood looking down on her.
There was no fear or rage left in him, not even pity. He felt strangely empty. There seemed to be a hollowness inside his skull, the hollow man went through the motions of life and his brain still clicked rustily, but there was nothing inside, he was a machine.
The perfect spy, he thought. Except that Karsov didn’t realize Un-men have advanced psych training. I know such a state as hers when I see it.
The work had been cleverly done, using the same drugs and machines and conditioning techniques which had given him his own personality mask. (No—not quite the same. The Venusians didn’t know that a mind could be so deeply verbal-conditioned as to get by a narcoquiz; that was a guarded secret of the Inspectorate. But the principles were there.) Barbara did not remember being taken to the laboratories and given the treatment. She did not know she had been conditioned; consciously, she believed everything she had said, and it had been anguish when the man she loved turned on her.
But the command had been planted, to draw his real thoughts out of him. Almost, she had succeeded. And when she went back, a quiz would get her observations out of her in detail.
It would have worked, too, on an ordinary conspirator. Even if he had come to suspect the truth, an untrained man wouldn’t have known just how to throw her conscious and subconscious minds into conflict, wouldn’t have recognized her symptomatic reactions for what they were.
This tears it, thought Hollister. This rips it wide open. He didn’t have the specialized equipment to mask Barbara’s mind and send her back with a lie that could get past the Guardian psychotechnies. Already she knew enough to give strong confirmation to Karsov’s suspicions. After he had her account, Hollister would be arrested and they’d try to wring his secrets out of him. That might or might not be possible, but there wouldn’t be anything left of Hollister.
Not sending her back at all? No, it would be every bit as much of a giveaway, and sacrifice her own life to boot. Not that she might not go to Lucifer anyhow.
The first thing was to remove her conditioning. He could do that in a couple of days by simple hypnotherapy. The medicine chest held some drugs which would be useful. After that—
First things first. Diego can take charge for me while I’m doing it. Let the men think what they want. They’re going to have plenty to think about soon.
He became aware of his surroundings again and of the slim form beneath his eyes. She had curled up in a fetal position, trying to escape. Emotions came back to him, and the first was an enormous compassion for her. He would have wept, but there wasn’t time.
Barbara sat up in bed, leaning against his breast. “Yes,” she said tonelessly. “I remember it all now.”
“There was a child coming, wasn’t there?”
“Of course. They … removed it.” Her hand sought his. “You might have suspected something otherwise. I’m all right, though. We can have another one sometime, if we live that long.”
“And did Karsov tell you what he thought about me?”
“He mentioned suspecting you were an Un-man, but not being sure. The Technic Board wouldn’t let him have you unless he had good evidence. That—No, I don’t remember any more. It’s fuzzy in my mind, everything which happened in that room.”
Hollister wondered how he had betrayed himself. Probably he hadn’t; his grumblings had fitted in with his assumed personality, and there had been no overt acts. But still, it was Karsov’s job to suspect everybody, and the death of Valdez must have decided him on drastic action.
“Do you feel all right, sweetheart?” asked Hollister.
She nodded, and turned around to give him a tiny smile. “Yes. Fine. A little weak, maybe, but otherwise fine. Only I’m scared.”
“You have a right to be,” he said bleakly. “We’re in a devil of a fix.”
“You are an Un-man, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I was sent to study the Venusian situation. My chiefs were worried about it. Seems they were justified, too. I’ve never seen a nastier mess.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed. “Only what else could we do? Do you want to bring Venus back under Earth?”
“That’s a lot of comet gas, and you’d know it if the nationalist gang hadn’t been censoring the books and spewing their lies out since before you were born. This whole independence movement was obviously their work from the beginning, and I must say they’ve done a competent job; good psychotechnies among them. It’s their way to power. Not that all of them are so cynical about it—a lot must have rationalizations of one sort or another—but that’s what it amounts to.
“There’s no such thing as Venus being ‘under’ Earth. If ready for independence—and I agree she is—she’d be made a state in her own right with full U.N. membership. It’s written into the charter that she could make her own internal policy. The only restrictions on a nation concern a few matters of trade, giving up military forces and the right to make war, guaranteeing certain basic liberties, submitting to inspection, and paying her share of U.N. expenses—which are smaller than the cost of even the smallest army. That’s all. Your nationalists have distorted the truth as their breed always does.”
She rubbed her forehead in a puzzled way. He could sympathize: a lifetime of propaganda wasn’t thrown off overnight. But as long as she was with his cause, the rest would come of itself.
“There’s no excuse whatsoever for this tyranny you live under,” he continued. “It’s got to go.”
“What would you have us do?” she asked. “This isn’t Earth. We do things efficiently here, or we die.”
“True. But even men under the worst conditions can afford the slight inefficiency of freedom. It’s not my business to write a constitution for Venus, but you might look at how Mars operates. They also have to have requirements of professional competence for public schools—deadwood gets flunked out fast enough—and the graduates have to stand for election if they want policy-making posts. Periodic elections do not necessarily pick better men than an appointive system, but they keep power from concentrating in the leaders. The Martians also have to ration a lot of things, and forbid certain actions that would endanger a whole city, but they’re free to choose their own residences, and families, and ways of thinking, and jobs. They’re also trying to reclaim the whole planet, but they don’t assign men to that work, they hire them for it.”
“Why doesn’t everyone just stay at home and do nothing?” she asked innocently.
“No work, no pay; no pay, nothing to eat. It’s as simple as that. And when jobs are open in the field, and all the jobs in town are filled, men will take work in the field—as free men, free to quit if they wish. Not many do, because the bosses aren’t little commissars.
“Don’t you see, it’s the mass that society has to regulate; a government has to set things up so that the statistics come out right. There’s no reason to regulate individuals.”
“What’s the difference?” she inquired.
“A hell of a difference. Someday you’ll see it. Meanwhile, though, something has to be done about the government of Venus—not only on principle, but because it’s going to be a menace to Earth before long. Once Venus is strong, a peaceful, nearly unarmed Earth is going to be just too tempting for your dictators. The World Wars had this much value, they hammered it into our heads and left permanent memorials of destruction to keep reminding us that the time to cut out a cancer is when it first appears. Wars start for a variety of reasons, but unlimited national sovereignty is always the necessary and sufficient condition. I wish our agents had been on the ball with respect to Venus ten years ago; a lot of good men are going to die because they weren’t.”
“You might not have come here then,” she said shyly.
“Thanks, darling.” He kissed her. His mind whirred on, scuttling through a maze that seemed to lead only to his silent, pointless death.
“If I could just get a report back to Earth! That would settle the matter. We’d have spaceships landing U.N. troops within two years. An expensive operation, of doubtful legality perhaps, a tough campaign so far from home, especially since we wouldn’t want to destroy any cities—but there’d be no doubt of the outcome, and it would surely be carried through; because it would be a matter of survival for us. Of course, the rebellious cities would be helpful, a deal could be made there—and so simple a thing as seizing the food-producing towns would soon force a surrender. You see, it’s not only the warning I’ve got to get home, it’s the utterly priceless military intelligence I’ve got in my head. If I fail, the Guardians will be on the alert, they may very well succeed in spotting and duping every agent sent after me and flinging up something for Earth’s consumption. Venus is a long ways off—”
He felt her body tighten in his arms. “So you do want to take over Venus.”
“Forget that hogwash, will you? What’d we want with this forsaken desert? Nothing but a trustworthy government for it. Anyway—” His exasperation became a flat hardness: “If you and I are to stay alive much longer, it has to be done.”
She said nothing to that.
His mind clicked off astronomical data and the slide rule whizzed through his fingers. “The freighters come regularly on Hohmann ‘A’ orbits,” he said. “That means the next one is due in eight Venus days. They’ve only got fourman crews, they come loaded with stuff and go back with uranium and thorium ingots which don’t take up much room. In short, they could carry quite a few passengers in an emergency, if those had extra food supplies.”
“And the ferries land at New America,” she pointed out.
“Exactly. My dear, I think our only chance is to take over the whole city!”
It was hot in the barracks room, and rank with sweat. Hollister thought he could almost smell the fear, as if he were a dog. He stood on a table at one end, Barbara next to him, and looked over his assembled crew. Small, thin, swarthy, unarmed and drably clad, eyes wide with frightened waiting, they didn’t look like much of an army. But they were all he had.
“Señores,” he began at last, speaking very quietly, “I have called you all together to warn you of peril to your lives. I think, if you stand with me, we can escape, but it will take courage and energy. You have shown me you possess these qualities, and I hope you will use them now.”
He paused, then went on: “I know many of you have been angry with me because I have had my wife here. You thought me another of these bootlickers to a rotten government”—that brought them to full awareness—“who was being rewarded for some Judas act. It is not true. We all owe our lives to this gallant woman. It was I who was suspected of being hostile to the rulers, and she was sent to spy on me for them. Instead, she told me the truth, and now I am telling it to you.
“You must know that I am an agent from Earth. No, no, I am not an Imperialist. As a matter of fact, the Central American countries were worried about their joint colony, Ciudad Alcazar, your city. It was suspected she had not freely joined this confederation. There are other countries, too, which are worried. I came to investigate for them; what I have seen convinces me they were right.”
He went on, quickly, and not very truthfully. He had to deal with their anti-U.N. conditioning, appeal to the nationalism he despised. (At that, it wouldn’t make any practical difference if some countries on Earth retained nominal ownership of certain tracts on Venus; a democratic confederation would reabsorb those within a generation, quite peacefully.) He had to convince them that the whole gang was scheduled to go to Lucifer; all were suspected, and the death of Valdez confirmed the suspicion, and there was always a labor shortage in the mines. His psych training stood him in good stead; before long he had them rising and shouting. I shoulda been a politician, he thought sardonically.
“ … And are we going to take this outrage? Are we going to rot alive in that hell, and let our wives and children suffer forever? Or shall we strike back, to save our own lives and liberate Venus?”
When the uproar had subsided a little, he sketched his plan: a march on Lucifer itself, to seize weapons and gain some recruits, then an attack on New America. If it was timed right, they could grab the city just before the ferries landed, and hold it while all of them were embarked on the freighter—then off to Earth, and in a year or two a triumphant return with the army of liberation!
“If anyone does not wish to come with us, let him stay here. I shall compel no man. I can only use those who will be brave, and will obey orders like soldiers, and will set lives which are already forfeit at hazard for the freedom of their homes. Are you with me? Let those who will follow me stand up and shout ‘Yes!’”
Not a man stayed in his seat; the timid ones, if any, dared not do so while their comrades were rising and whooping about the table. The din roared and rolled, bunk frames rattled, eyes gleamed murder from a whirlpool of faces. The first stage of Hollister’s gamble had paid off well indeed, he thought; now for the rough part.
He appointed Fernandez his second in command and organized the men into a rough corps; engineering discipline was valuable here. It was late before he and Barbara and Fernandez could get away to discuss concrete plans.
“We will leave two men here,” said Hollister. “They will send the usual radio reports, which I shall write in advance for them, so no one will suspect; they will also take care of the rocket when it comes for Barbara, and I hope the police will assume it crashed. We will send for them when we hold New America. I think we can take Lucifer by surprise, but we can’t count on the second place not being warned by the time we get there.”
Fernandez looked steadily at him. “And will all of us leave with the spaceship?” he asked.
“Of course. It would be death to stay. And Earth will need their knowledge of Venus.”
“Simon, you know the ship cannot carry fifty men—or a hundred, if we pick up some others at Lucifer.”
Hollister’s face was wintry. “I do not think fifty will survive,” he said.
Fernandez crossed himself, then nodded gravely. “I see. Well, about the supply problem—”
When he had gone, Barbara faced her husband and he saw a vague fright in her eyes. “You weren’t very truthful out there, were you?” she asked. “I don’t know much Spanish, but I got the drift, and—”
“All right!” he snapped wearily. “There wasn’t time to use sweet reasonableness. I had to whip them up fast.”
“They aren’t scheduled for Lucifer at all. They have no personal reason to fight.”
“They’re committed now,” he said in a harsh tone. “It’s fifty or a hundred lives today against maybe a hundred million in the future. That’s an attitude which was drilled into me at the Academy, and I’ll never get rid of it. If you want to live with me, you’ll have to accept that.”
“I’ll … try,” she said.
The towers bulked black through a whirl of dust, under a sky the color of clotted blood. Hollister steered his tank close, speaking into its radio: “Hello, Lucifer. Hello, Lucifer. Come in.”
“Lucifer,” said a voice in his earphones. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“Emergency. We need help. Get me your captain.”
Hollister ground between two high guntowers. They had been built and manned against the remote possibility that a convict outbreak might succeed in grabbing some tanks; he was hoping their personnel had grown lazy with uneventful years. Edging around the main shell of the prison, he lumbered toward the landing field and the nearby radio mast. One by one, the twenty tanks of his command rolled into the compound and scattered themselves about it.
Barbara sat next to him, muffled in airsuit and closed helmet. Her gauntleted hand squeezed his shoulder, he could just barely feel the pressure. Glancing around to her stiffened face, he essayed a smile.
“Hello, there! Captain Thomas speaking. What are you doing?”
“This is Hollister, from the Last Chance air camp. Remember me? We’re in trouble and need help. Landslip damn near wiped our place out.” The Earthman drove his machine onto the field.
“Well, what are you horsing around like that for? Assemble your tanks in front of the main lock.”
“All right, all right, gimme a chance to give some orders. The boys don’t seem to know where to roost.”
Now! Hollister slapped down the drive switch and his tank surged forward. “Hang on!” he yelled. “Thomas, this thing has gone out of control—Help!”
It might have gained him the extra minute he needed. He wasn’t sure what was happening behind him. The tank smashed into the radio mast and he was hurled forward against his safety webbing. His hands flew—extend the grapple, snatch that buckling strut, drag it aside, and push!
The frame wobbled crazily. The tank stalled. Hollister yanked off his harness, picked up the cutting torch, whose fuel containers were already on his back, and went through the air lock without stopping to conserve atmosphere. Blue flame stabbed before him, he slid down the darkened extra faceplate and concentrated on his job. Get this beast down before it sent a call for help!
Barbara got the bull-like machine going again and urged it ahead, straining at the weakened skeleton. The mast had been built for flexibility in the high winds, not for impact strength. Hollister’s torch roared, slicing a main support. A piece of steel clanged within a meter of him.
He dropped the torch and dove under the tank, just as the whole structure caved in.
“Barbara!” He picked himself out of the wreckage, looking wildly into the hurricane that blew around him. “Barbara, are you all right?”
She crawled from the battered tank and into his arms. “Our car won’t go anymore,” she said shakily. The engine hood was split open by a falling beam and oil hissed from the cracked block.
“No matter. Let’s see how the boys are doing—”
He led a run across the field, staggering in the wind. A chunk of concrete whizzed by his head and he dropped as one of the guard towers went by. Good boys! They’d gone out and dynamited it!
Ignoring the ramp leading down to the garage, Fernandez had brought his tank up to the shell’s main air lock for humans. It was sturdily built, but his snorting monster walked through it. Breathable air gasped out. It sleeted a little as formaldehyde took up water vapor and became solid.
No time to check on the rest of the battle outside, you could only hope the men assigned to that task were doing their job properly. Hollister saw one of his tanks go up under a direct hit. All the towers weren’t disabled yet. But he had to get into the shell.
“Stay here, Barbara!” he ordered. Men were swarming from their vehicles. He led the way inside. A group of uniformed corpses waited for him, drying and shriveling even as he watched. He snatched the carbines from them and handed them out to the nearest of his followers. The rest would have to make do with their tools till more weapons could be recovered.
Automatic bulkheads had sealed off the rest of the shell. Hollister blasted through the first one. A hail of bullets from the smoking hole told him that the guards within had had time to put on their suits.
He waved an arm. “Bring up Maria Larga!”
It took awhile, and he fumed and fretted. Six partisans trundled the weapon forth. It was a standard man-drawn cart for semiportable field equipment, and Long Mary squatted on it: a motor-driven blower connected with six meters of hose, an air blast. This one had had an oxygen bottle and a good-sized fuel tank hastily attached to make a superflamethrower. Fernandez got behind the steel plate which had been welded in front as armor, and guided it into the hole. The man behind whooped savagely and turned a handle. Fire blew forth, and the compartment was flushed out.
There were other quarters around the cell block, which came next, but Hollister ignored them for the time being. The air lock in this bulkhead had to be opened the regular way, only two men could go through at a time, and there might be guards on the other side. He squeezed in with San Rafael and waited until the pump cleaned out the chamber. Then he opened the inner door a crack, tossed a homemade shrapnel grenade, and came through firing.
He stumbled over two dead men beyond. San Rafael choked and fell as a gun spat farther down the corridor. Hollister’s .45 bucked in his hand. Picking himself up, he looked warily down the cruelly bright length of the block. No one else. The convicts were yammering like wild animals.
He went back, telling off a few men to cut the prisoners out of their cells, issue airsuits from the lockers, and explain the situation. Then he returned to the job of cleaning out the rest of the place.
It was a dirty and bloody business. He lost ten men in all. There were no wounded: if a missile tore open a suit, that was the end of the one inside. A small hole would have given time to slap on an emergency patch, but the guards were using magnum slugs.
Fernandez sought him out to report that an attempt to get away by rocket had been stopped, but that an indeterminate number of holdouts were in the refinery, which was a separate building. Hollister walked across the field, dust whirling about smashed machines, and stood before the smaller shell.
Thomas’ voice crackled in his earphones: “You there! What is the meaning of this?”
That was too much. Hollister began to laugh. He laughed so long he thought perhaps he was going crazy.
Sobering, he replied in a chill tone: “We’re taking over. You’re trapped in there with nothing but small arms. We can blast you out if we must, but you’d do better to surrender.”
Thomas, threateningly: “This place is full of radioactivity, you know. If you break in, you’ll smash down the shielding—or we’ll do it for you—and scatter the stuff everywhere. You won’t live a week.”
It might be a bluff—“All right,” said Hollister with a cheerful note, “you’re sealed in without food or water. We can wait. But I thought you’d rather save your own lives.”
“You’re insane! You’ll be wiped out—”
“That’s our affair. Anytime you want out, pick up the phone and call the office. You’ll be locked in the cells with supplies enough for a while when we leave.” Hollister turned and walked away.
He spent the next few hours reorganizing; he had to whip the convicts into line, though when their first exuberance had faded they were for the most part ready to join him. Suddenly his army had swelled to more than two hundred. The barracks were patched up and made habitable, munitions were found and passed about, the transport and supply inventoried. Then word came that Thomas’ handful were ready to surrender. Hollister marched them into the cell block and assigned some convicts to stand watch.
He had had every intention of abiding by his agreement, but when he was later wakened from sleep with the news that his guards had literally torn the prisoners apart, he didn’t have the heart to give them more than a dressing-down.
“Now,” he said to his council of war, “we’d better get rolling again. Apparently we were lucky enough so that no word of this has leaked out, but it’s a long way yet to New America.”
“We have not transportation for more than a hundred,” said Fernandez.
“I know. We’ll take the best of the convicts; the rest will just have to stay behind. They may be able to pull the same trick on the next supply train that our boys in Last Chance have ready for the rocket—or they may not. In any event, I don’t really hope they can last out, or that we’ll be able to take the next objective unawares—but don’t tell anyone that.”
“I suppose not,” said Fernandez somberly, “but it is a dirty business.”
“War is always a dirty business,” said Hollister.
He lost a whole day organizing his new force. Few if any of the men knew how to shoot, but the guns were mostly recoilless and automatic so he hoped some damage could be done; doctrine was to revert to construction equipment, which they did know how to use, in any emergency. His forty Latins were a cadre of sorts, distributed among the sixty convicts in a relationship equivalent to that between sergeant and private. The whole unit was enough to make any military man break out in a cold sweat, but it was all he had.
Supply wagons were reloaded and machine guns mounted on a few of the tanks. He had four Venusian days to get to New America and take over—and if the rebels arrived too soon, police reinforcements would pry them out again, and if the radio-control systems were ruined in the fighting, the ferries couldn’t land.
It was not exactly a pleasant situation.
The first rocket was sighted on the fifth day of the campaign. It ripped over, crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes, but there was little doubt that it had spotted them. Hollister led his caravan off the plain, into broken country which offered more cover but would slow them considerably. Well, they’d just have to keep going day and night.
The next day it was an armored, atomic-powered monster which lumbered overhead, supplied with enough energy to go slowly and even to hover for a while. In an atmosphere without oxygen and always riven by storms, the aircraft of Earth weren’t possible—no helicopters, no leisurely airboats; but a few things like this one had been built as emergency substitutes. Hollister tuned in his radio, sure it was calling to them.
“Identify yourselves! This is the Guardian Corps.”
Hollister adapted his earlier lie, not expecting belief—but every minute he stalled, his tank lurched forward another hundred meters or so.
The voice was sarcastic: “And of course, you had nothing to do with the attack on Lucifer?”
“That will do! Go out on the plain and set up camp till we can check on you.”
“Of course,” said Hollister meekly. “Signing off.”
From now on, it was strict radio silence in his army. He’d gained a good hour, though, since the watchers wouldn’t be sure till then that he was disobeying—and a lovely dust storm was blowing up.
Following plan, the tanks scattered in pairs, each couple for itself till they converged on New America at the agreed time. Some would break down, some would be destroyed en route, some would come late—a few might even arrive disastrously early—but there was no choice. Hollister was reasonably sure none would desert him; they were all committed past that point.
He looked at Barbara. Her face was tired and drawn, the red hair hung lusterless and tangled to her shoulders, dust and sweat streaked her face, but he thought she was very beautiful. “I’m sorry to have dragged you into this,” he said.
“It’s all right, dear. Of course I’m scared, but I’m still glad.”
He kissed her for a long while and then slapped his helmet down with a savage gesture.
The first bombs fell toward sunset. Hollister saw them as flashes through the dust, and felt their concussion rumble in the frame of his tank. He steered into a narrow, overhung gulch, his companion vehicle nosing close behind. There were two convicts in it—Johnson and Waskowicz—pretty good men, he thought, considering all they had been through.
Dust and sand were his friends, hiding him even from the infrared scopes above which made nothing of mere darkness. The rough country would help a lot, too. It was simply a matter of driving day and night, sticking close to bluffs and gullies, hiding under attack and then driving some more. He was going to lose a number of his units, but thought the harassing would remain aerial till they got close to New America. The Guardians wouldn’t risk their heavy stuff unnecessarily at any great distance from home.
The tank growled around a high pinnacle and faced him without warning. It was a military vehicle, and cannons swiveled to cover his approach.
Hollister gunned his machine and drove directly up the pitted road at the enemy. A shell burst alongside him, steel splinters rang on armor. Coldly, he noted for possible future reference the relatively primitive type of Venusian war equipment: no tracker shells, no Rovers. He had already planned out what to do in an encounter like this, and told his men the idea—now it had happened to him.
The Guardian tank backed, snarling. It was not as fast or as maneuverable as his, it was meant for work close to cities where ground had been cleared. A blast of high-caliber machine-gun bullets ripped through the cab, just over his head. Then he struck. The shock jammed him forward even as his grapple closed jaws on the enemy’s nearest tread.
“Out!” he yelled. Barbara snatched open the air lock and fell to the stones below. Hollister was after her. He flung a glance behind. His other tank was an exploded ruin, canted to one side, but a single figure was crawling from it, rising, zigzagging toward him. There was a sheaf of dynamite sticks in one hand. The man flopped as the machine gun sought him and wormed the last few meters. Waskowicz. “They got Sam,” he reported, huddling against the steel giant with his companions. “Shall we blast her?”
Hollister reflected briefly. The adversary was immobilized by the transport vehicle that clutched it bulldog fashion. He himself was perfectly safe this instant, just beneath the guns. “I’ve got a better notion. Gimme a boost.”
He crawled up on top, to the turret lock. “Okay, hand me that torch. I’m going to cut my way in!”
The flame roared, biting into metal. Hollister saw the lock’s outer door move. So—just as he had expected—the lads inside wanted out! He paused. A suited arm emerged with a grenade. Hollister’s torch slashed down. Barbara made a grab for the tumbling missile and failed. Waskowicz tackled her, landing on top. The thing went off.
Was she still alive—? Hollister crouched so that the antenna of his suit radio pocked into the lock. “Come out if you want to live. Otherwise I’ll burn you out.”
Sullenly, the remaining three men appeared, hands in the air. Hollister watched them slide to the ground, covering them with his pistol. His heart leaped within him when he saw Barbara standing erect. Waskowicz was putting an adhesive patch on his suit where a splinter had ripped it.
“You okay?” asked Hollister.
“Yeah,” grunted the convict. “Pure dumb luck. Now what?”
“Now we got us one of their own tanks. Somebody get inside and find some wire or something to tie up the Terrible Three here. And toss out the fourth.”
“That’s murder!” cried one of the police. “We’ve only got enough oxy for four hours in these suits—”
“Then you’ll have to hope the battle is over by then,” said Hollister unsympathetically. He went over and disentangled the two machines.
The controls of the captured tank were enough like those of the ordinary sort for Barbara to handle. Hollister gave Waskowicz a short lecture on the care and feeding of machine guns, and sat up by the 40mm cannon himself; perforce, they ignored the 20. They closed the lock but didn’t bother to replenish the air inside; however, as Hollister drove up the mountainside, Waskowicz recharged their oxygen bottles from the stores inside the vehicle.
The battle was already popping when they nosed up onto the ledge and saw the great sweep of the city. Drifting dust limited his vision, but Hollister saw his own machines and the enemy’s. Doctrine was to ram and grapple the military tank, get out and use dynamite or torches, and then worm toward the colony’s main air lock. It might have to be blown open, but bulkheads should protect the civilians within.
An engineer tank made a pass at Hollister’s. He turned aside, realizing that his new scheme had its own drawbacks. Another police machine came out of the dust; its guns spoke, the engineers went up in a flash and a bang, and then it had been hit from behind. Hollister wet his teeth and went on. It was the first time he had seen anything like war; he had an almost holy sense of his mission to prevent this from striking Earth again.
The whole operation depended on his guess that there wouldn’t be many of the enemy. There were only a few Guardians in each town, who wouldn’t have had time or reserves enough to bring in a lot of reinforcements; and tanks couldn’t be flown in. But against their perhaps lesser number was the fact that they would fight with tenacity and skill. Disciplined as engineers and convicts were, they simply did not have the training—even the psychological part of it which turns frightened individuals into a single selfless unit. They would tend to make wild attacks and to panic when the going got rough—which it was already.
He went on past the combat, towards the main air lock. Dim shapes began to appear through scudding dust. Half a dozen mobile cannon were drawn up in a semicircle to defend the gate. That meant—all the enemy tanks, not more than another six or seven, out on the ledge fighting the attackers.
“All right,” Hollister’s voice vibrated in their earphones. “We’ll shoot from here. Barbara, move her in a zigzag at 10 KPH, keeping about this distance; let out a yell if you think you have to take other evasive action. Otherwise I might hit the city.”
He jammed his faceplate into the rubberite viewscope and his hands and feet sought the gun controls. Crosshairs—range—fire one! The nearest cannon blew up.
Fire two! Fire three! His 40 reloaded itself. Second gun broken, third a clean miss—Fire four! Gotcha!
A rank of infantry appeared, their suits marked with the Guardian symbol. They must have been flown here. Waskowicz blazed at them and they broke, falling like rag dolls, reforming to crawl in. They were good soldiers. Now the other three enemy mobiles were swiveling about, shooting through the dust. “Get us out of here, Barbara!”
The racket became deafening as they backed into the concealing murk. Another enemy tank loomed before them. Hollister fed it two shells almost point blank.
If he could divert the enemy artillery long enough for his men to storm the gate—
He saw a police tank locked with an attacker, broken and dead. Hollister doubted if there were any left in action now. He saw none of his own vehicles moving, though he passed by the remnants of several. And where were his men?
Shock threw him against his webbing. The echoes rolled and banged and shivered for a long time. His head swam. The motors still turned, but—
“I think they crippled us,” said Barbara in a small voice.
“Okay. Let’s get out of here.” Hollister sighed; it had been a nice try, and had really paid off better than he’d had a right to expect. He scrambled to the lock, gave Barbara a hand, and they slid to the ground as the three fieldpieces rolled into view on their self-powered carts.
The stalled tank’s cannon spoke, and one of the police guns suddenly slumped. “Waskowicz!” Barbara’s voice was shrill in the earphones. “He stayed in there—”
“We can’t save him. And if he can fight our tank long enough—Build a monument to him someday. Now come on!” Hollister led the way into curtaining gloom. The wind hooted and clawed at him.
As he neared the main lock, a spatter of rifle fire sent him to his belly. He couldn’t make out who was there, but it had been a ragged volley—take a chance on their being police and nailing him—“Just us chickens, boss!” he shouted. Somewhere in a corner of his mind he realized that there was no reason for shouting over a radio system. His schooled self-control must be slipping a bit.
“Is that you, Simon?” Fernandez’s voice chattered in his ears. “Come quickly now, we’re at the lock but I think they will attack soon.”
Hollister wiped the dust from his faceplate and tried to count how many there were. Latins and convicts, perhaps twenty—“Are there more?” he inquired. “Are you the last?”
“I do not know, Simon,” said Fernandez. “I had gathered this many, we were barricaded behind two smashed cars, and when I saw their artillery pull away I led a rush here. Maybe there are some partisans left besides us, but I doubt it.”
Hollister tackled the emergency control box which opened the gate from outside. It would be nice if he didn’t have to blast—Yes, by Heaven! It hadn’t been locked! He jammed the whole score into the chamber, closed the outer door and started the pumps.
“They can get in, too,” said Fernandez dubiously.
“I know. Either here or by ten other entrances. But I have an idea. All of you stick by me.”
The anteroom was empty. The town’s civilians must be huddled in the inner compartments, and all the cops must be outside fighting. Hollister threw back his helmet, filling his lungs with air that seemed marvelously sweet, and led a quick but cautious trot down the long halls.
“The spaceship is supposed to have arrived by now,” he said. “What we must do is take and hold the radio shack. Since the police don’t know exactly what our plans are, they will hesitate to destroy it just to get at us. It will seem easier merely to starve us out.”
“Or use sleepy gas,” said Fernandez. “Our suits’ oxygen supply isn’t good for more than another couple of hours.”
“Yes … I suppose that is what they’ll do. That ship had better be up there!”
The chances were that she was. Hollister knew that several days of ferrying were involved, and had timed his attack for hours after she was scheduled to arrive. For all he knew, the ferries had already come down once or twice.
He didn’t know if he or anyone in his band would live to be taken out. He rather doubted it; the battle had gone worse than expected, he had not captured the city as he hoped—but the main thing was to get some kind of report back to Earth.
A startled pair of technies met the invaders as they entered. One of them began an indignant protest, but Fernandez waved a rifle to shut him up. Hollister glanced about the gleaming controls and meters. He could call the ship himself, but he didn’t have the training to guide a boat down. Well—
He pulled off his gloves and sat himself at the panel. Keys clattered beneath his fingers. When were the cops coming? Any minute.
“Hello, freighter. Hello, up there. Spaceship, this is New America calling. Come in.”
Static buzzed and crackled in his earphones.
“Come in, spaceship. This is New America. Come in, damn it!”
Lights flashed on the board, the computer clicked, guiding the beam upward. It tore past the ionosphere and straggled weakly into the nearest of the tiny, equally spaced robot relay stations which circled the planet. Obedient to the keying signal, the robot amplified the beam and shot it to the next station, which kicked it farther along. The relayer closest to the spaceship’s present position in her orbit focused the beam on her.
Or was the orbit empty?
“ … Hello, New America.” The voice wavered, faint and distorted. “Evening Star calling New America. What’s going on down there? We asked for a ferry signal three hours ago.”
“Emergency,” snapped Hollister. “Get me the captain—fast! Meanwhile, record this.”
“Fast, I said! And record. This is crash priority, condition red.” Hollister felt sweat trickling inside his suit.
“Recording. Sending for the captain now.”
“Good!” Hollister leaned over the mike. “For Main Office, Earth, United Nations Inspectorate. Repeat: Main Office, U.N. Inspectorate. Urgent, confidential. This is Agent A-431-240. Repeat, Agent A-431-240. Code Watchbird. Code Watchbird. Reporting on Venusian situation as follows—” He began a swift sketch of conditions.
“I think I hear voices down the hall,” whispered Barbara to Fernandez.
The Latin nodded. He had already dragged a couple of desks into the corridor to make a sort of barricade; now he motioned his men to take positions; a few outside, the rest standing by, crowded together in the room. Hollister saw what was going on and swung his gun to cover the two technies. They were scared, and looked pathetically young, but he had no time for mercy.
A voice in his earphones, bursting through static: “This is Captain Brackney. What d’you want?”
“U.N.I. business, Captain. I’m besieged in the GCA shack here with a few men. We’re to be gotten out at all costs if it’s humanly possible.”
He could almost hear the man’s mouth fall open. “God in space—is that the truth?”
Hollister praised the foresight of his office. “You have a sealed tape aboard among your official records. All spaceships, all first-class public conveyances do. It’s changed by an Un-man every year or so. Okay, that’s an ID code, secret recognition signal. It proves my right to commandeer everything you’ve got.”
“I know that much. What’s on the tape?”
“This year it will be, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves give me liberty or give me pigeons on the grass alas.’ Have your radioman check that at once.”
Pause. Then: “Okay. I’ll take your word for it till he does. What do you want?”
“Bring two ferries down, one about fifty kilometers behind the other. No arms on board, I suppose? … No. Well, have just the pilots aboard, because you may have to take twenty or so back. How long will this take you … Two hours? That long? … Yes, I realize you have to let your ship get into the right orbital position and—All right, if you can’t do it in less time. Be prepared to embark anyone waiting out there and lift immediately. Meanwhile stand by for further instructions … . Hell, yes, you can do it!”
Guns cracked outside.
“Okay. I’ll start recording again in a minute. Get moving, Captain!” Hollister turned back to the others.
“I have to tell Earth what I know, in case I don’t make it,” he said. “Also, somebody has to see that these technies get the boats down right. Diego, I’ll want a few men to defend this place. The rest of you retreat down the hall and pick up some extra oxy bottles for yourselves and all the concentrated food you can carry; because that ship won’t have rations enough for all of us. Barbara will show you where it is.”
“And how will you get out?” she cried when he had put it into English.
“I’ll come to that. You’ve got to go with them, dear, because you live here and know where they can get the supplies. Leave a couple of suits here for the technies, pick up others somewhere along the way. When you get outside, hide close to the dome. When the ferry lands, some of you make a rush to the shack here. It’s right against the outer wall. I see you’re still carrying some dynamite, Garcia. Blow a hole to let us through … . Yes, it’s risky, but what have we got to lose?”
She bent to kiss him. There wasn’t time to do it properly. A tommy gun was chattering in the corridor.
Hollister stood up and directed his two prisoners to don the extra suits. “I’ve no grudge against you boys,” he said, “and in fact, if you’re scared of what the cops might do to you, you can come along to Earth—but if those boats don’t land safely, I’ll shoot you both down.”
Fernandez, Barbara, and a dozen others slipped out past the covering fire at the barricade and disappeared. Hollister hoped they’d make it. They’d better! Otherwise, even if a few escaped, they might well starve to death on the trip home.
The food concentrate would be enough. It was manufactured by the ton at Little Moscow—tasteless, but pure nourishment and bulk, normally added to the rest of the diet on Venus. It wouldn’t be very palatable, but it would keep men alive for a long time.
The technies were at the board, working hard. The six remaining rebels slipped back into the room; two others lay dead behind the chewed-up barricade. Hollister picked up an auxiliary communication mike and started rattling off everything about Venus he could think of.
A Guardian stuck his head around the door. Three guns barked, and the head was withdrawn. A little later, a white cloth on a rifle barrel was wavered past the edge.
Hollister laid down his mike. “I’ll talk,” he said. “I’ll come out, with my arms. You’ll have just one man in sight, unarmed.” To his men he gave an order to drag the dead into the shack while the truce lasted.
Karsov met him in the hall. He stood warily, but there was no fear on the smooth face. “What are you trying to do?” he asked in a calm voice.
“To stay out of your mines,” said Hollister. It would help if he could keep up the impression this was an ordinary revolt.
“You have called that ship up there, I suppose?”
“Yes. They’re sending down a ferry.”
“The ferry could have an accident. We would apologize profusely, explain that a shell went wild while we were fighting you gangsters, and even pay for the boat. I tell you this so that you can see there is no hope. You had better give up.”
“No hope if we do that either,” said Hollister. “I’d rather take my chances back on Earth; they can’t do worse there than treat my mind.”
“Are you still keeping up that farce?” inquired Karsov. But he wasn’t sure of himself, that was plain. He couldn’t understand how an Un-man could have gotten past his quiz. Hollister had no intention of enlightening him.
“What have you got to lose by letting us go?” asked the Earthman. “So we tell a horror story back home. People there already know you rule with a rough hand.”
“I am not going to release you,” said Karsov. “You are finished. That second party of yours will not last long, even if they make it outside as I suppose they intend—they will suffocate. I am going to call the spaceship captain on the emergency circuit and explain there is a fight going on and he had better recall his boat. That should settle the matter; if not, the boat will be shot down. As for your group, there will be sleep gas before long.”
“I’ll blow my brains out before I let you take me,” said Hollister sullenly.
“That might save a lot of trouble,” said Karsov. He turned and walked away. Hollister was tempted to kill him, but decided to save that pleasure for a while. No use goading the police into a possible use of high explosives.
He went back to the shack and called the StarEvening again. “Hello, Captain Brackney? U.N.I. speaking. The bosses down here are going to radio you with a pack of lies. Pretend to believe them and say you’ll recall your ferry. Remember, they think just one is coming down. Then—” He continued his orders.
“That’s murder!” said the captain. “Pilot One won’t have a chance—”
“Yes, he will. Call him now, use spacer code; I don’t think any of these birds know it, if they should overhear you. Tell him to have his spacesuit on and be ready for a crash landing, followed by a dash to the second boat.”
“It’s still a long chance.”
“What do you think I’m taking? These are U.N.I. orders, Captain. I’m boss till we get back to Earth, if I live so long. All right, got everything? Then I’ll continue recording.”
After a while he caught the first whiff and said into the mike: “The gas is coming now. I’ll have to close my helmet. Hollister signing off.”
His men and the technies slapped down their covers. It would be peaceful here for a little time, with this sector sealed off while gas poured through its ventilators. Hollister tried to grin reassuringly, but it didn’t come off.
“Last round,” he said. “Half of us, the smallest ones, are going to go to sleep now. The rest will use their oxygen, and carry them outside when we go.”
Someone protested. Hollister roared him down. “Not another word! This is the only chance for all of us. No man has oxygen for much more than an hour; we have at least an hour and a half to wait. How else can we do it?”
They submitted unwillingly, and struggled against the anesthetic as long as they could. Hollister took one of the dead men’s bottles to replace the first of his that gave out. His band was now composed of three sleeping men and three conscious but exhausted.
He was hoping the cops wouldn’t assault them quickly. Probably not; they would be rallying outside, preparing to meet the ferry with a mobile cannon if it should decide to land after all. The rebels trapped in here would keep.
The minutes dragged by. A man at the point of death was supposed to review his whole life, but Hollister didn’t feel up to it. He was too tired. He sat watching the telescreen which showed the space field. Dust and wind and the skeleton cradles, emptiness, and a roiling gloom beyond.
One of the wakeful men, a convict, spoke into the helmet circuit: “So you are U.N.I. Has all this been just to get you back to Earth?”
“To get my report back,” said Hollister.
“There are many dead,” said one of the Latins, in English. “You have sacrificed us, played us like pawns, no? What of those two we left back at Last Chance?”
“I’m afraid they’re doomed,” said Hollister tonelessly, and the guilt which is always inherent in leadership was heavy on him.
“It was worth it,” said the convict. “If you can smash this rotten system, it was well worth it.” His eyes were haunted. They would always be haunted.
“Better not talk,” said Hollister. “Save your oxygen.”
One hour. The pips on the radarscopes were high and strong now. The spaceboats weren’t bothering with atmospheric braking, they were spending fuel to come almost straight down.
One hour and ten minutes. Was Barbara still alive?
One hour and twenty minutes.
One hour and thirty minutes. Any instant—
“There, señor! There!”
Hollister jumped to his feet. Up in a corner of the screen, a white wash of fire—here she came!
The ferry jetted slowly groundward, throwing up a blast of dust as her fierce blasts tore at the field. Now and then she wobbled, caught by the high wind, but she had been built for just these conditions. Close, close—were they going to let her land after all? Yes, now she was entering the cradle, now the rockets were still.
A shellburst struck her hull amidships and burst it open. The police were cautious, they hadn’t risked spilling her nuclear engine and its radioactivity on the field. She rocked in the cradle. Hollister hoped the crash-braced pilot had survived. And he hoped the second man was skillful and had been told exactly what to do.
That ferry lanced out of the clouds, descending fast. She wasn’t very maneuverable, but the pilot rode her like a horseman, urging, pleading, whipping and spurring when he had to. She slewed around and fell into a shaky curve out of screen range.
If the gods were good, her blast had incinerated the murderers of the first boat.
She came back into sight, fighting for control. Hollister howled. “Guide her into a cradle!” He waved his gun at the seated technies. “Guide her safely in if you want to live!”
She was down.
Tiny figures were running toward her heedless of earth still smoking underfoot. Three of them veered and approached the radio shack. “Okay!” rapped Hollister. “Back into the corridor!” He dragged one of the unconscious men himself; stooping, he sealed the fellow’s suit against the poison gases outside. There would be enough air within it to last a sleeper a few minutes.
Concussion smashed at him. He saw shards of glass and wire flying out the door and ricocheting nastily about his head. Then the yell of Venus’ wind came to him. He bent and picked up his man. “Let’s go!”
They scrambled through the broken wall and out onto the field. The wind was at their backs, helping them for once. One of the dynamiters moved up alongside Hollister. He saw Barbara’s face, dim behind the helmet.
When he reached the ferry, the others were loading the last boxes of food. A figure in space armor was clumping unsteadily toward them from the wrecked boat. Maybe their luck had turned. Sweeping the field with his eyes, Hollister saw only ruin. There were still surviving police, but they were inside the city and it would take minutes for them to get out again.
He counted the men with him and estimated the number of food boxes. Fifteen all told, including his two erstwhile captives—Barbara’s party must have met opposition—but she still lived, God be praised! There were supplies enough, it would be a hungry trip home but they’d make it.
Fernandez peered out of the air lock. “Ready,” he announced. “Come aboard. We have no seats, so we must rise at low acceleration, but the pilot says there is fuel to spare.”
Hollister helped Barbara up the ladder and into the boat. “I hope you’ll like Earth,” he said awkwardly.
“I know I will—with you there,” she told him.
Hollister looked through the closing air lock at the desolation which was Venus. Someday it would bloom, but—
“We’ll come back,” he said.
WORLDMAKERS. Copyright © 2001 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.