by Virginia Chandler
You smell Ristro prison before you ever get within two klicks of it. It's the one thing that Phobos is famous for. Some fame. But you didn't argue with god when he gave an order. So, when god said for man to build a prison on the Martian moon, we did it.
I'm a Runner. Names aren't really important in this business, but I'll tell you mine anyway. Jenn. Jenn the Runner. Jenn the Ace. Jennifer Ramsey at birth, and to others, simply "Chill". I grew up in Chicago in the late twenty-first century. I never really dreamt of going to the stars until god showed up in the summer of '98. Earth was caught completely off guard, too, man. It's kind of funny in retrospect; it ain't so funny now. Earth was going down fast, really fast. Ozone gone over Antarctica, extreme southern Australia and parts of South Africa. Oceans so damn nasty that no one went to the beach anymore. The smell would get ya before the pollutants did. The tropics and northern hemisphere were still cool places, but everybody moving there sort of screwed up the world population -balance deal. All in all, Earth pretty much sucked.
Yet, we had bases on the moon and one on Mars. It's just that, (now that I have been to both, I understand better), you can't make something that far away cure a whole planet full of disease. And, boy, did we have disease. AIDS, from the twentieth century, mutated into this almost alien life form by the time that I was born. Cancer was still hanging in there, and these Mystery Viruses were popping up all over the damn place. Yeah, Earth was not exactly the jewel of the solar system anymore.
So, when god showed up in '98, coming down and fixing everything, we jumped at the chance. I mean, we needed help. Those guys had all of the answers; I mean ALL of them. They started pumping out the bad air and bringing in new. Diseases were cured; the ozone patched up; education and learning became a top priority; it was too cool. Human life spans began to double because of the food and nutrients that we were getting from those guys. Of course, it didn't all come from Earth. They helped us gain the advantage of interstellar flight, (Einstein was wrong: near-light speed is possible), and showed us how to establish productive colonies on other worlds and their moons.
Of course, not everyone was happy. Natives, as people who were born and raised on Earth are called, are the most grateful bunch of sons of bitches you've ever seen. They'll get on their knees for god. In fact, if it weren't for them, the Natives, I mean, then god may have been booted to Mars by now, (not that Marmen would want them anymore than the Bouncers do.) You see, about twenty or so years after god showed up, we were kinda ready for him to leave. He got kinda bossy and demanding. It wasn't so much the worship thing as it was giving all the credit to him---sorta like we hadn't done a damn thing. The fact is, after being taught the correct way to do things, we cleaned up the really nasty areas that god avoided; we got the Martian community to be really productive for everyone that was involved, (mainly with the raw materials that we were making into these fantastic metals on the moon), and we started establishing the Library of Knowledge on the Jovian Moon of Io. In short, mankind was once again evolving.
So, when god got kinda pushy about a few trivial things, some people, mainly Bouncers, (folks who were either born and/or raised on someplace other than Earth), pushed back. They started looking into this prison that god had built on Phobos. Despite the wonderful "perfection" of god, there were still a few of the criminally-minded that couldn't be turned to the love of knowledge and peace. Yet, the Bouncers found that not all of the inmates of Ristro were murderers and molesters from Hell; in fact, about three percent of them were people who had defied god. Just defied him. They were rebels, as the twentieth century would call them. So, the Bouncers began to make a lot of noise. I mean, a lot. They demanded that god tell us exactly where his storehouse of knowledge had come from and why he had come to share it with us. I mean, we called him god, but he wasn't the mythological one. We just liked the humor in it. I mean, why call him anything but god when he had done so much?
But, I began to agree with the Bouncers. Where had he come from and why? And why couldn't he help these poor miserable souls in Ristro? Why should we just plant them on Phobos and forget 'em?
So, through a complicated series of events, I became a Runner. I ran Bouncers off of Earth and to safer havens, mainly the Moon and Io. The Bouncers took over the Library on Io. Mars and Earth still remain fairly loyal to god, but we got a few there, too. Yet, despite our best efforts, our leaders still get thrown into Ristro from time to time.
You don't get people back from Ristro. The place is an underground series of tunnels that have two entrances--both guarded by sentry robots. There are three human security guards; all underground at the monitoring station. And one man to run the show. If you can land a ship without detection, boogie past the sentry robot, avoid the hundred or so cameras, find your man, and then get back out again, well, shit, then you've got it made. Yep. That was my assignment.
I was in the Martian city of Prague having a drink at one of the local cantinas. Just swaying my shoulders to the tenor of the horn and sipping a concoction called Sepala. I was feeling quite good in spite of the fact that I had no idea how I was going to get Gregg out of Ristro. Gregg is one of our esteemed leaders who pissed god off badly enough to land his butt in Ristro. The Bouncers didn't really expect that I would pull it off; I think that they just wanted to have a show of patriotism on our part. You know, show god that we did stick together and that he wasn't gonna push us around. So, there I was, listening to some Martian jazz, catching a buzz from the drink, and wondering if I could just disappear from the whole solar system. Who would miss me?
"Can I buy you another drink?"
I nearly jumped out of my skin. I don't like when guys approach me in bars. Especially when you're on assignment.
So, this guy sneaks up behind me and asks me if I want another drink. Now, especially on off worlds, that kind of thing just didn't go on very often. You don't buy strangers drinks. Not where I come from, anyway.
So, I shrugged him off. "No thanks."
He eased up beside me on the next stool, lit up a cigar from Earth, and ordered one anyway. He was tall, dark, and looked really pale. He coughed a little as he smoked his cigar, and he kept pulling the collar of his trench coat up around his neck. He had the air of someone who didn't want to be seen. So, naturally, I didn't want to be seen with him.
"Thanks for the offer, bud, but I'm out of here," I said, paying for my Sepala and turning to leave my stool.
"Not so fast." He slid my new Sepala in front of me and whispered, " You don't need to go to Ristro, Chill."
I was stunned. Who was this guy? I started looking for an exit
"Relax, will ya? Jeez, they weren't kidding that I might freak you out," He said, looking around the room and trying to appear nonchalant.
"Look, I don't know who this 'Chill' person is or who you are. I appreciate the drink, but I really have business to attend---" I began.
"The only true god lives within ourselves," he whispered.
That was the "secret" greeting of Bouncers. I knew then that I was okay. At least, okay for the moment. I suddenly hoped that no one else had noticed my nervous clumsiness for the last few minutes. I turned to the man and smiled.
"A little late, weren't you?" I said.
"Late? What do you mean? Oh! The greeting. Yeah. Sorry."
I snickered. "How come no Ristro?" I asked.
"Gregg got out already. He still needs your help, but he's out."
I nodded, turning again to my drink. "How do you know?"
"Because I am he," he said in a low voice, blowing smoke rings above our heads like halos.
"Oh," I said simply. Adventure over. I didn't really mind at all. Time to go back to Io, I guessed.
"Listen carefully, Chill, cause I got to get out of here fast. The Natives know that I'm out. They don't want to sound no alarms because they don't want people thinking that anyone can get out of Ristro, you know? You gotta get me to Io on the double. Where's your ship?"
I stared at him for a long time. "How'd you do it?"
He looked dumbfounded. "Do what?"
"Do what! C'mon, how'd you get out? I've been racking my brains for weeks on how to get past the sentry robots and now you're standing here tellin' me that it ain't no thang. I wanna know."
He laughed a little and then shrugged. "I've got the Martian authorities lookin' for me up and down, and you wanna know the details? How about I tell ya on the way to Io?"
I squinted a little at him then in the dark. He didn't look quite right to me. Too pale, you know?
"You say that you got off Ristro on your own, eh? How'd you get from Phobos to Prague? Not easy getting transport off of Phobos. Nearly have to have your own ship or steal the supply ship....."
In a flash, he had drawn a blaster and was about to melt me into some Martian slag, but I already had mine in hand under the bar counter and notched him first. BANG!! What a rush!! Of course, Prague ain't no place to bang anybody, so I turned before the smoke even cleared and made it down the alley like an Earth cat. Something was really fishy here in Prague. The Natives knew that I was here and they knew why. The question now became: Could I get out of Prague alive?
They knew that I was in Prague, and that I was here to rescue Gregg. They also knew my nickname, Chill, and they knew our "secret" greeting. I knew that my first priority would be to signal Io and let the big boys know that we were in deep shit. They'd have to change the greeting and all kinds of stuff. Of course, the Martian authorities would immediately know my location if and when I signaled. That meant a hasty exit. Where would I go? To Io? No way, man, they'd hunt me down in the deep space between Mars and Io and then ship my ass off to Ristro. Ristro. Suddenly, I had an idea.
I sent the quick and short message about an hour later from a conventional satellite relay in downtown Prague: "Io: nothing is safe. Repeat: Nothing. Trust no one. BANG." They would know it was me from the BANG even though I had recorded it and left it with an AT&T operator to transmit on her own. The boys back on Io would be surprised, but they would get the message. That was all that counted. I certainly had to get to Io, too, at some point. But not while they were expecting it. Nope. I figured that I would go to the last spot that they would expect to find me. Ristro prison.
My ship, the Scorpio, is very fast. I decided that she was my best bet to get me to Io. But I had to have a head start. Just thirty minutes or so, but still a head start. With that in mind, I determined to fly her to Phobos, put her down right over the dark side, and hike it to the entrance nearest me. From there, I'd have to be a real hero. I still didn't know how I 'd find Gregg, but it was coming to me. Ristro only has a hundred or so prisoners. My ship has a huge cargo department in her belly. I figured that I could probably haul seventy-five or eighty people. Surely Gregg would be among them. Anyway, that was my plan: slam 'em in there like sardines and hope that he was among them.
I kinda felt like I needed some help, though. The thought of going in there on my own made me feel nervous, and I've already told you what a nervous gal I am. I mean, strolling up to the sentry robot and surrendering didn't seem like a really great idea, but I had seen this movie that my dad had rented once where these prisoners were trying to break out from some fortress near San Francisco, I think. The real smart prisoner had hidden a knife in the heel of his shoe; of course, it was detected. He surrendered it with a little bit of a fight, but he really didn't mind: See, he had hidden a second one that the security folks didn't bother to scan for. Silly as it sounds, after one weapon, they simply let 'em pass on through. Anyway, that's the way that I remembered it. So, that 's what I planned to try.
I had planned to leave Prague at around midnight or so. But, when I went to retrieve Scorpio, there were some security dudes snooping around her. Now, I don't have her registered under my name, but she'd been sitting there for a few days and I guess that with all of the hullabaloo about me being in Prague, well, they were checking everything out. I gave 'em a couple of hours to snoop really well, then I returned to the port. They were gone. I walked right up to the doorway, hit the security code, and entered my ship. All seemed well. I juiced her up, ran a quick check, and then blasted out of port. I had filed a false trajectory for Io, and as I left port I noticed a couple of Earth ships in really close orbit. I gunned it right past 'em as they sort of nonchalantly started to tag along. I juiced it some more, shot past Deimos, whipped it around, and killed the engines. When the Earth guys passed by, they would hopefully think that I had already hypered out. I was too scared to even turn on the Comm unit, afraid they'd detect the energy coming from my ship. Finally, they all shuffled past. I gunned it then for Phobos. Shaking and sweating like a madwoman, I landed my ship and then shut her down. As far as I could tell, Ristro was two kilometers away. So, I began to hike it on down.
No one was home. I stood dumbfounded outside the security entrance. Everything was charred and smoking; Ristro-smell stinking up what little atmosphere existed. It was rank, man, let me tell you. I debated about going inside but finally decided that I had to check it out. Why else come all of this way? I wasn't sure what had happened, but something told me that Gregg probably had something to do with it.
Inside the corridors it was dark and spooky as hell. I got the shakes again as I held my blaster firmly in my right hand. I gave the place a thorough once-through; it's not that big of a place. Fifty cells, security room, cafeteria, and supply room. That was it. And no one was home. I wandered back to the security area and sat for a moment in the dark. How had all of the prisoners gotten off of Phobos? Hijacked a ship? The supply ship, I guessed.
Then I noticed that the security equipment was still juiced. I hit a couple of buttons and some tapes began to roll across a monitor. Yep, the inmates had attacked and been victorious. Scenes of blasters firing, men slapping each other around, fires being started and small explosions here and there, and then, my heart froze and my blaster fell clanking to the floor. I recognized the guy who was apparently rounding everyone up and cheering them on: It was the guy from the bar in Prague. The guy that I had slagged. He had been Gregg!!!! Oh my god! And I had sent the message to Io about the messages all being shit!! I was in deep, deep trouble. I sat in troubled silence for about an hour.
I finally determined to get out of there. One way or another, I had to get back to Io and explain things.
I was about to vacate the place when I noticed movement on another one of the monitors. My stomach went tight as my throat went desert dry: god's troops were entering the facility. I freaked. I was about to be busted for something that I didn't even do, and they wouldn't even have to throw me very far when they locked me away. I had to get out of there. The Scorpio could still outrun them. I just had to get to her.
I exited the security room and made a dash for the exit farthest from the troops. Silly me, I should have realized that they would enter BOTH exits simultaneously. I bumped into them about five hundred yards from the door to freedom. I wanted to slag 'em, but it was no use. I dropped my blaster. Ristro was going to be awful, and I was all alone.
God was really hard on me. He had me flown back to Earth for interrogation. You don't remember interrogation. They knock you out and then drain your memories. You get 'em back, but you feel really fuzzy for a week or two. I rested in a bunker in New York City. On the seventh day of my recovery, god came to see me. He brought along some of my friends.
"She looks like she's been through hell," I heard one of the 'Bouncers, Rik, I think, say.
"She has indeed, sir. But, she's none the worse for wear, as you people so often say. She's got her memories back, and she'll probably never go near Mars, Phobos, or Ristro prison again." Silence. "She's all yours." It was god's voice, I could tell.
I opened my eyes and saw god with three 'Bouncers that I had met just before this last mission.. How he had gotten them off of Io and back to Earth I still don't know. They all stood rather stiffly and awkwardly. I smiled weakly at one of 'Bouncers, but he quickly turned away from me.
"Are we free to go?" A Bouncer asked.
God seemed surprised. "I told you that you were."
The three of them began to vacate the room like they couldn't wait to stop breathing the air.
"Wait," God said suddenly pointing to me, "aren't you forgetting something?'
Rik spoke up, "She's no use to us anymore." He frowned. "You take 'er."
"And what shall I do with her?"
Rik shrugged. "Whatever you want."
"Don't take her ship," God said with an edge to his voice.
The Bouncers disappeared.
God suddenly looked tired. He sat down next to my bed and ran his wrinkled hands through his powder-white hair.
"You've got no place to go, Jenn," he said quietly. "No place to go. You see, your own people set you up. They knew that you'd slag Gregg in Prague, you're much too jumpy, you see, and then they guessed that somehow you'd end up in Ristro. One way or another. Do you understand?"
"They wanted Gregg dead?" I asked foolishly, still feeling fuzzy and not sure what he was getting at.
"They wanted him dead. He was too much of a nuisance in prison. Your folks don't want martyrs to mourn and praise; they want heroes and patriots. Gregg enjoyed Ristro too much. The boys from Io wanted him gone, one way or another."
"And they didn't care if I ended up in Ristro or not?"
God shook his head. "No."
I couldn't believe it. I was stunned.
"I've got something to offer you, Jenn. I have a plan, you see. Earth is too far beyond even my help. Mars is too independent. Io surely doesn't look promising. But, beneath the clouds of Venus, now there, I can make a home. From scratch. I can do it. But, I need help. I only want those who don't feel loyalty for anyone but themselves. I've learned, you know. Humans are too proud, but I guess that's my own fault. So, I give up. I'm leaving. No one knows. I'm only taking a few. We'll begin again and try this whole thing from the top. I'd like to have you."
I grinned. "And if I don't? What if we don't want you there anymore? What if we don't let you be the boss? Can you handle being on the same level as us, god?"
He smiled then and a bright light filled the room. I began to feel warmth creeping through my veins and a sense of grand wonder made me feel as if I were floating.
"Oh, god, I won't be on the same level as you. The question, my daughter, is can you handle being on the same level as me?"
I knew the truth then. The wars, the pain, the suffering. It had been our fight, not his. Could I be on his level? Considering what level I had been on for so long, I was certainly willing to give it a try. I was Venus-bound.
Story copyright © 1999 by Virginia Chandler <DragnHawk@aol.com>
Artwork "Return to Seaholm" copyright © 1999 by Eric Seaholm <firstname.lastname@example.org >