Marino, otherwise known as Prisoner 7244, crept through the undergrowth with the guard’s stun-gun in his hand. The guard was sleeping peacefully under Marino’s blankets in his cell and would not be found until morning. It had been fairly easy to get the drop on him as Marino was a drug-dealer and the guard was fond of Sunshine. The forest was dark and the only light came from the few emergency lights here and there on the dome structure. The birds were silent and Marino moved silently beneath the trees. He was suddenly aware of movement and saw a deer in a small stand of birch.
“Hello, Beautiful,” he whispered, “I could stand here and watch you all night, but I have to be on my way. When daylight comes, this hideously orange uniform I’m wearing will be practically fluorescent.”
He moved on toward the surface-vehicle hangar as the airless black sky visible through the foliage and the unblinking stars above the horizon changed not a whit, but the light of the sun rising above the horizon struck the top of the dome and the artificial light within began to increase. He reached the hangar lock and triggered it with the hand-held electronic key he had taken from the guard. The hatch irised open to reveal a half-dozen rovers and crawlers within and the ceiling-lights went on in response to his presence. To his relief, there appeared to be no-one inside. As the hatch irised shut behind him, he picked a speedy-looking rover and headed toward it, triggered the hatch, and it opened in front of him.
There was a guard inside, kneeling beside an open panel. The man turned and looked at Marino and was promptly hit with a stunner blast at half-force. He collapsed, unconscious, on the deck. Marino ducked inside the vehicle and shut the hatch behind him. There was clearly only one thing to do now. He could not leave the guard behind to be found. The guard he’d left asleep in his cell would not be found until the cells opened for prisoners’ breakfast and a search of the prison would be initiated. It would not be until it became clear that Marino was not here and a rover was missing that a search of the surface would be initiated. But if he dumped this guard in the hangar, he would be found quite soon and awakened. He knew Marino’s face and name, and the search of the surface would begin immediately. Marino would be only a few kilometers away. He would simply have to take the guard with him.
Marino bound him into the standard acceleration couch used for prisoners in all Terran police Rovers and shuttles, sat down at the controls, and fired the engines. The hatch irised open before them and the rover rolled through the lock out onto the dusty surface. In the low gravity and the almost total vacuum, it was soon speeding over the gray surface, its huge balloon tires bouncing over the rock-strewn planetscape with police-rover speed.
It was well into the next day before the guard awakened. He tested his bonds and found himself tightly bound to the acceleration couch. Looking out at the surface rolling by at high speed, he realized he was many kilometers from the prison and getting farther all the time.
“Do you really think you can escape this way?” he asked.
Marino glanced up at the mirror over the port. “It seems to me,” he said, “that I’ve already escaped.”
“Well, then, do you think you’ll find freedom this way?”
“Freedom? It depends on how you define it. I spent years trying to get my sentence reduced but no-one cared, and now I can no longer function in Earth’s gravity, should I ever get back there. So if returning to Earth is freedom, I’ll never attain it. But death is also a kind of freedom, isn’t it, and I think I’m pretty likely to attain that.”
The guard thought for a minute. “Am I a hostage?”
“No, not really. I have no interest in killing you. They’ve probably just noticed that we’re both missing and a Rover is gone, but it should take them a while to check everywhere they think we might be going. They’ll try to contact the Rover first, but I’ve disabled the communications and the tracer. Then they’ll check in with every place on the surface I might have arranged for passage. All the spaceports, all the domes, all the mass-drivers. They may think I’ve killed you and dumped you on the surface, or that you and I are in cahoots. They’re suspicious fools. After all, the lie they live by is that your prison is inescapable, so by definition I must have had some help. By the way, what’s your name? We’ll be in each other’s company for quite a while yet, so we might as well be civil. I’m not 7244; I’m Marino. I only know you by rank and number.”
“Wow! Classy name. Are you stuck in this godforsaken place like me? Will they let you transfer out while you can still walk on Earth, do you think? You’ve probably already requested that and they’re giving you the runaround. If you’re stuck here forever, they won’t have to give you a raise. There’s not a hell of a lot of difference between prisoners and employees in a place like this, is there?”
Byron said nothing, which told Marino he was right.
“If you’re thinking I’ll join forces with you and help you get…”
“I know I’m never leaving. I’m going to die here. So I really don’t have much to lose. Incidentally, the couch will take care of excretion and I can untie one hand—are you a righty or a lefty?—so you can eat, but you still won’t be able to free yourself. Let me know if you get hungry. I used to work on these Rovers. I’m curious. What were you trying to fix when I found you? I didn’t find anything amiss.”
“I’d already fixed it and was just about to leave. Now you’re stuck with me. Your timing sucks.”
“That’s true. That’s why I’m here.”
“You’re here because you were found guilty of anti-Earth activity.”
Marino chuckled. “Anti-Earth? Do you think the people who live in those orbiting palaces are Earth? Earth is the people desperately trying to scratch a living out of the ruined planet that your employers abandoned. We’re not going to agree on this. Do you want to while away the time arguing politics?”
“I’ve read the transcripts of your trial. I know what you’d say.”
“That’s a surprise. I don’t think most guards would do that.”
“I like to know who I’m guarding. Helps me deal with them.”
“Well, you’re not going to convince me to give up and go back to my cell. You might as well just wait till I’m finished and see what happens. Enjoy the view. Look, there’s a rock in the dust, and there’s another one. And there’s a crater-rim on the horizon. And there’s a black sky full of stars. They don’t even scintillate, like they do on Earth.”
Marino fell silent. He loosened Byron’s right wrist-lock and passed him a squeeze-bulb of food, just like the ones provided in ships and shuttles and rovers and crawlers everywhere in the solar system. Byron hardly cared what it was and what it did or did not taste like.
Tell me,” Byron said between swallows, “what would you do if you got the chance to get to Earth?”
“I told you: I can’t go to Earth. I’m too old and I’ve spent too much time living in one-sixth gravity. I know spacers use pseudo-gravity machines and exercise regimens to keep their gee-legs, but the exercise regimen here is for shit. They don’t care about the prisoners’ health. If I found myself on Earth, I’d be bed-ridden. My only view of Earth would be outside a hospital window. There’s not much point, is there? Why, are you offering me a free trip to Earth? Have I won the lottery?”
“No, I was just wondering.”
“Or maybe you were trying to find out if I’m on my way to board a shuttle somewhere. Nice try. Just doing your job, eh? I think I should shut up for a while.”
Byron was unable to get Marino to talk anymore and eventually fell asleep, rocked by the Rover as the surface sped by. He awakened hours later and saw the same view again, but the shadows were lengthening as the sun rose behind them. They were making good time, almost outrunning the sun.
“You’re awake! You’re just in time,” Marino said. “The view is about to change.”
Byron watched as Earth rose slowly over the horizon ahead. It was the most beautiful sight available on Luna and never visible from the Farside Prison Complex. Lit by the full sun, it was a blue globe decorated by long white clouds drifting over brown mountains and deserts and luminous green forests. The drowned coastlines and the crumbling cities were too small and inconsiderable to be seen. It might as well be Earth from a billion years ago, for all the human imprint visible on its surface. The disillusioned prisoner and the toughened guard sat silently, tears forming in their eyes and running down their cheeks. They were silent, poring over the sight for long moments.
“This is the sight denied me for twenty years by your masters,” Marino said finally. “The place I can never go again. And all because I cared more deeply for the Wretched of the Earth trying desperately to survive on its surface than the cruel, calculating would-be gods living in their gardens in the skies.” He began to breathe heavily, as if building up to an uncontrollable outburst of hatred.
Byron saw him pick up his stun-gun and turn toward him. Was Marino going to desecrate this most beautiful sight with hatred and murder? He tried desperately to snap the bonds on his left hand, doubting that he could reach Marino even if he succeeded.
“Wait!” he said. “You don’t have to…”
Marino picked up a clicker and pressed a button. Byron’s remaining bonds fell open. Then, before Byron could move, Marino put the stun-gun directly to his own temple and pressed the trigger. It buzzed and his brains were instantly scrambled. The light died in his eyes and he collapsed in his couch.
Byron bowed his head and wept. He extricated himself from the couch and went to Marino. It was hardly necessary to take his pulse but he did so. For a while, he sat looking at the Earth, and then he found a pressure-suit and put it on, performing the ritual with precision as he had done so many times. He picked up Marino’s body, seeming to weigh nothing in the Lunar gravity, and cycled through the lock. Outside, he placed Marino’s body on the ground, leaning against a rock, facing the full Earth. With Luna’s tidal-locked orbit, Marino would face the planet he could never go to forever, and in the vacuum, he would never decay.
Someday, when the interplanetary Cold War ended, he might be taken to Earth and buried there, with honors. Byron hoped so. Or visitors to the Moon might make a pilgrimage to this place and shed a tear over him. That would be acceptable as well.
Marino returned to the Rover, started the engine and set off across the surface. Earth peered over his shoulder all the way, and he nosed into the hangar of an installation a few kilometers away, the route secretly programmed by himself.
“What the hell kept you, Byron?” the foreman asked.
“There were complications. Am I still scheduled?”
“Yes. Do you want a shower? Let me put that another way. You need a shower before we let you in our ship.”
After a sonic shower and a cup of hot coffee, Byron told the foreman what had happened. “I don’t know if it was enough,” he finished.
“What else could you do? We’re barely able to smuggle you back to Earth. Another person? Another set of ID papers? For a Terran prisoner whose face must already be on wanted screens all over Luna? And if we somehow got him to Earth, he would be a basket case, and a hospital room on Earth would be another prison for him. He would end up hating Earth instead of loving her.”
But Byron was determined to do right by Marino somehow. Throughout his career in the Terran Underground, he told the story many times, particularly to agents who were disillusioned or exhausted. In the end, years later, after the Amnesty, he took ship to Luna and found Marino where he had left him. He was still staring at Earth, but Byron could barely see him for the Terran flowers laid upon his vacuum-preserved body.