Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
10. The Prison of Death
I had enjoyed my long visit with Zerka. We had eaten again at the same restaurant in which we had met, we had gone to one of the amazing theaters of Amlot, and we had finally gotten home about the nineteenth hour, which would be about 2:00 A.M. Earth time; then Zerka had invited me in for a little supper. But during all that time neither one of us had learned anything of importance about the other, which I think was the uppermost desire in the mind of each of us; nor had I had the Gap kum Rov pointed out to me. However, I had had a rather enjoyable day, marred only by my constant and depressing worries concerning Duare.
The theaters of Amlot and the plays shown therein under the Zanis are, I believe, of sufficient interest to warrant a brief digression. The audiences in the theaters sit with their backs toward the stage. In front of them on the end wall of the theater is a huge mirror, so placed that every one in the house may see it, just as a motion picture screen is placed on our cinemas. The action taking place on the stage behind the audience is reflected from the mirror, and by a system of very ingenious lighting stands out brilliantly. By manipulation of the lights the scenes may be blacked out completely to denote a lapse of time or permit a change of scenery. Of course the reflections of the actors are not life size, and therefore the result gives an illusion of unreality reminiscent of puppet shows or the old days of silent pictures. I asked Zerka why the audience didn't face the stage and look directly at the actors; and she explained that it was because the profession of acting had formerly been in disrepute, and it had been considered a disgrace to be seen upon a stage. They got around it in this ingenious way; and it was considered extremely poor form to turn around and look directly at the actors, even though the profession was now considered an honorable one.
But the thing that amused me most was the play. There are one hundred theaters in Amlot, and the same play was being shown in all of them. It was the life of Mephis! Zerka told me that it consisted of one hundred and one episodes, each episode constituting a night's performance, and that it was absolutely obligatory on all citizens to attend the theater at least once in every ten days. They were given certificates to attest that they had done so. The play had already been running for more than a year. Mephis's publicity agent should have been born in Hollywood.
The day following my visit with Zerka I was given a detachment of the Zani Guard and told to report to the Gap kum Rov. It was just as easy as that. Here I had been trying to locate the place for days, and without success; now I was being officially detailed to the prison. Just what my duties were to be and whether I was to remain there or not, I did not know. My orders were simply to report to one Torko, governor of the prison--The Prison of Death.
My detachment consisted of eleven men, one of whom was a kordogan, whom I ordered to march the detachment to the prison. I didn't wish them to know that I had no idea where it was. The prison stood on a small island in the bay, not more than a hundred yards off shore. I had seen it on several occasions, but had not guessed that it was the notorious Gap kum Rov. At the quay we entered a small launch belonging to the prison and were soon standing beneath its grim walls. The mere fact that we were members of the Zani Guard gave us immediate entrance, and I was presently in the office of Torko. He was a large man, heavy of feature and coarse, with one of the cruelest human faces I have ever seen. Unlike most Amtorians, he was ill-favored. His manner was gruff and surly, and I sensed immediately that he did not like me. Well, our dislike was mutual.
"I never saw you before," he growled, after I had reported. "Why didn't they send someone I knew? What do you know about running a prison?"
"Nothing," I assured him. "I didn't ask for the assignment. If I can put up with it, I guess you can."
He grunted something I couldn't understand, and then said, "Come with me. Now that you're here, you've got to familiarize yourself with the prison and with my system of administration."
A second door in his office, opposite the one through which I had entered, opened into a guardroom full of Zani Guardsmen, one of whom he ordered to go to the courtyard and fetch my men; then he crossed to another door, heavily bolted and barred. When this was opened it revealed a long corridor on either side of which were partitions of heavy iron bars back of which were huddled several hundred prisoners, many of whom were covered with wounds and sores.
"These mistals," explained Torko, "have been guilty of disrespect to Our Beloved Mephis or to the glorious heroes of the Zani Guard. Show them no mercy."
Next he took me to the end of the corridor, through another door, and up a flight of stairs to the second floor, where there were two rows of individual cells, each cell containing from one to three prisoners, although each would have been cramped quarters for one.
"These are traitors," said Torko. "They are awaiting trial. We really haven't enough room here; so every day, when we receive a new batch, we take some of them out and shoot them. Of course, we give them a chance to confess first. If they do, why naturally a trial isn't necessary; and we shoot them. If they don't confess, we shoot them for impeding justice."
"Very simple," I commented.
"Very," he agreed, "and eminently fair, too. It was my idea."
"Our Beloved Mephis knows how to choose his lieutenants, doesn't he?"
He looked very pleased at that, and really smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and I hoped he wouldn't do it again--his smile seemed only to make his face appear more cruel and repulsive.
"Well," he exclaimed, "I guess I was wrong about you--you talk like a good man and an intelligent one. We shall get along splendidly. Are you very close to Our Beloved Mephis?"
"I'm sorry to say that I'm not," I told him. "I merely serve him."
"Well, you must know someone who is," he insisted.
I was about to reply, telling him that I was afraid I knew no one who had the ear of Mephis, when he caught sight of the ring hanging on a chain around my neck. It was too small to fit on any of my fingers; I wore it thus.
"I should say you do know someone close to Mephis," he exclaimed. "The Toganja Zerka! Man! but are you lucky!"
I did not reply, as I had no stomach to discuss Zerka with this beast; but he insisted. "She was right to come over to the Zanis," he said. "Most of her kind were killed; and those that did come over are usually under suspicion, but not Toganja Zerka. They say Mephis has the utmost confidence in her and often consults her in matters of policy. It was her idea to have the Zani Guard patrol the city constantly looking for traitors and beating up citizens who couldn't give a good account of themselves. Playing the life of Our Beloved Mephis constantly in all the theaters was also her idea, as was that of having civilians stand on their heads and cheer whenever Our Beloved Mephis passed. Even the expression Our Beloved Mephis was coined by her. Oh, she's a brilliant one. Mephis owes her a lot."
All this was most illuminating. I had always felt that Zerka applauded Mephis with her tongue in her cheek. I had even doubted her loyalty to him or to the Zani cause, Now I didn't know what to think, but I certainly congratulated myself upon the fact that I had not confided in her. Somehow, I felt a little sad and depressed, as one does when disillusioned, especially if the disillusionment concerns a friend he has admired.
"Now," continued Torko, "if you should put in a good word for me with the toganja, it would be sure to reach the ear of Our Beloved Mephis. How about it, my excellent friend?"
"Wait until I know you better," I said; "then I shall know what to report to the toganja." This was almost blackmail, but I felt no compunction.
"You'll have nothing but the best to report of me," he assured me; "we shall get along splendidly. And now I'll take you down to the courtroom where the trials are conducted and show you the cells where Our Beloved Mephis keeps his favorite prisoners."
He led me down into a dark basement and into a large room with a high bench running across one end. Behind the bench were a number of seats, the whole being raised a couple of feet above the floor level. Around the sides of the room were low benches, which evidently served as seats for spectators. The rest of the room was devoted to an elaborate display of the most fiendish instruments of torture the mind of man might conceive. I shall not dwell upon them. It is enough to say that all were horrible and many of them absolutely unmentionable. All my life I shall be trying to forget them and the hideous things I was forced to see perpetrated there upon both men and women.
Torko made a wide, sweeping gesture, proudly. "These are my pets," he said. "Many of them are my own invention. Believe me, just a look at them usually gets a confession; but we give them a taste of them anyway."
"After they have confessed?" I asked.
"Why certainly. Is it not a treasonable thing to cheat the state of the usefulness of these ingenious contrivances that have cost so much in thought and money to produce?"
"Your logic is unimpeachable," I told him. "It is evident that you are a perfect Zani."
"And you are a man of great intelligence, my friend, Vodo. And now, come with me--you shall see some more of this ideal plant."
He led me into a dark corridor beyond the torture chamber. Here were small cells, feebly illuminated by a single dim light in the central corridor. A number of men were confined, each in a cell by himself. It was so dark that I could not distinguish the features of any of them, as all remained in the far corners of their cramped quarters; and many sat with their faces hidden in their hands, apparently oblivious of the fact that we were there. One was moaning; and another shrieked and gibbered, his mind gone.
"That one," said Torko, "was a famous physician. He enjoyed the confidence of everyone, including Our Beloved Mephis. But can you imagine how heinously he betrayed it?"
"No," I admitted, "I cannot. Did he attempt to poison Mephis?"
"What he did was almost as bad. He was actually apprehended in the act of alleviating the agony of an Atorian who was dying of an incurable disease! Can you imagine?"
"I am afraid," I said, "that my imagination is permanently incapacitated. There are things that transcend the limits of a normal imagination. Today you have shown me such things."
"He should have been executed; but when he went mad, we felt that he would suffer far more if he lived. We were right. We Zanis are always right."
"Yes," I agreed, "it is the indisputable privilege of all Zanis to be always right."
He took me next down a dark corridor to another room at the far side of the building. There was nothing here but an enormous furnace and a foul odor.
"Here is where we burn the bodies," Torko explained; then he pointed to a trap door in the floor. "Be careful not to step on that," he cautioned. "It is not very substantial. We dump the ashes down there into the bay. The chute is quite large. If the door gave way with you, you'd land in the bay."
I spent a week undergoing a sort of training in inhumanity; and then Torko obtained a leave of absence, and I was left in charge as acting governor of the Prison of Death. During the time that he was away I did what I could to alleviate the sufferings of the inmates of that hideous sink of misery and despair. I permitted them to clean up their foul cells and themselves, and I gave them quantities of good food. There were no "trials" while I was in charge and only one execution, but that was ordered by a higher authority--in fact, by Mephis himself. I received word about the 11th hour one day that Mephis would visit the prison at the 13th hour--2:00 P.M. E.T. As I had never met the great man and had no idea how to receive him or conduct myself, I was in something of a quandary; as I knew that a single error, however unintentional, would affront him and result in my execution. At last it occurred to me that my kordogan might help me out. He was more than anxious to display his knowledge; and so, as the 13th hour approached, I anticipated the coming event with considerable assurance. With a number of warriors as an escort, I waited at the quay with the prison launch; and when Mephis hove in sight with his retinue, I lined up my men and we saluted and Maltu Mephised him in orthodox style. He was quite affable as he greeted me with condescending cordiality.
"I have heard of you," he said. "If you are a protege of Toganja Zerka, you must be a good Zani."
"There is only one good Zani," I said.
He thought I meant him; and he was pleased. The kordogan had the remaining guardsmen lined up in the guard room; and as we passed through, every one saluted and shouted "Maltu Mephis!" at the top of his voice. I wondered at the time how Mephis could listen to such forced acclaim without feeling like the ass he was; but I suppose an ass doesn't mind being an ass, or doesn't realize it.
The great man asked to be taken into the basement, where his own particular prisoners were incarcerated. He took only me and two of his aides with him, one of the latter being his present favorite--an effeminate looking man, bejeweled like a woman. When we reached the room where the prisoners' cells were located, Mephis directed me to show him the cell of Kord, the former jong of Korva.
"Torko has not told me the names of any of these prisoners," I explained. "He said it was your wish that they remain nameless."
Mephis nodded. "Quite right," he said, "but of course the acting governor of the prison should know who they are--and keep the knowledge to himself."
"You wish to speak to me, Mephis?" asked a voice from a nearby cell.
"That is he," said Mephis. "Unlock his cell."
I took the master key from my belt and did as Mephis bid me.
"Come out!" commanded he.
Kord was still a fine looking man, though wasted by confinement and starvation. "What do you want of me?" he demanded. There was no "Maltu Mephis!" here, no cringing. Kord was still the jong, and Mephis shrunk in his presence to the insignificant scum he had been born. I think he felt it; for he commenced to bluster and talk loud.
"Drag the prisoner to the courtroom!" he shouted to me, and turned back to that room himself, followed by his aides.
I took Kord gently by the arm. "Come," I said.
I think he had expected to be jerked or kicked, as he probably had been on former occasions, for he looked at me in something of surprise when I treated him with decent consideration. My heart certainly went out to him, for it must have been galling to a great jong such as he had been to be ordered about by scum like Mephis; and, too, there must have been the knowledge that he was probably going to be tortured. I expected it, and I didn't know how I was going to be able to stand and watch it without raising a hand in interference. Only my knowledge that it would have done him no good and resulted in my own death and, consequently, the defeat of all my own plans, convinced me that I must hide my indignation and accept whatever was forthcoming.
When we entered the courtroom, we saw that Mephis and his aides had already seated themselves at the judges' bench, before which Mephis directed me to bring the prisoner. For a full minute the dictator sat in silence, his shifty eyes roving about the room, never meeting those of Kord and myself but momentarily. At last he spoke.
"You have been a powerful jong, Kord," he said. "You may be jong once more. I have come here today to offer you your throne again."
He waited, but Kord made no reply. He just stood there, erect and majestic, looking Mephis squarely in the face, every inch a king. His attitude naturally irritated the little man, who, though all-powerful, still felt his inferiority to the great man before him.
"I tell you, I will give you back your throne, Kord," repeated Mephis, his voice rising. "You have only to sign this," and he held up a paper. "It will end needless bloodshed and restore Korva the peace and prosperity she deserves."
"What is written on the paper?" demanded Kord.
"It is an order to Muso," replied Mephis, "telling him to lay down his arms because you have been restored as jong and peace has been declared in Korva."
"Is that all?" asked Kord.
"Practically all," replied Mephis. "There is another paper here that you will sign that will insure the peace and prosperity of Korva."
"What is it?"
"It is an order appointing me advisor to the jong, with full power to act in his place in all emergencies. It also ratifies all laws promulgated by the Zani Party since it took control of Korva."
"In other and more candid words, it betrays my few remaining loyal subjects into the hands of Mephis," said Kord. "I refuse, of course."
"Just a moment," snapped Mephis. "There is another condition that may cause you to alter your decision."
"And that?" inquired Kord.
"If you refuse, you will be considered a traitor to your country, and treated accordingly."
"Executed," corrected Mephis.
"I still refuse," said Kord.
Mephis rose from his seat. His face was livid with rage. "Then die, you fool!" he almost screamed; and, drawing his Amtorian pistol, poured a stream of the deadly r-rays into the defenseless man standing before him. Without a sound, Kord, Jong of Korva, sank lifeless to the floor.