Life plus fifty for killing a man. You may believe that such a sentence is a just punishment - a life of eternal confinement in exchange for robbing a man of his inalienable right to freedom.

But look at it this way: The man that I killed was holding fifteen people hostage and had the muzzle of an illegal Class 3 rail pistol shoved into the ear of a young, pregnant woman.

Unfortunately, the gun that I killed him with was also illegitimate. Due to strict safety codes, officers of the Martian Police Department are not permitted to carry firearms. If a stray projectile was to pierce the bio-domes, then the loss of life would be catastrophic. Not everybody in the colony, including me, adhered to these draconian regulations. I was to pay dearly for my lack of discipline.

Even though I had saved the lives of fifteen innocent men and women, I was immediately arrested and charged for "discharging an illegal weapon while in the confines of the New Houston dome" and "the unlawful killing of an Earth citizen with said weapon". So I, Detective-Sergeant John Carver, was carted off to the medium-security penitentiary at Syrtis Major and remanded there until my trial.

The Martian justice system is slow. Our small resident population is, by and large, law-abiding and the judiciary are under no pressure to rush cases through the courts. Especially serious cases like mine. I resided at the governor's pleasure for eighteen Earth-months before finally getting the date for my trial. At last, I would get the chance to tell my side of the story.

I wish I had not bothered.

In spite of the mitigating circumstances (saving lives and all that nonsense), I was found guilt of gross negligence, bordering on treason, sentenced by a jury of my peers and, within an hour of leaving the courtroom, was bundled into a shuttle and transported to my new home - the Phobos Maximum Security Facility, orbiting some nine thousand miles above the Martian surface.

At least that's where I figured I was being taken. On entering the window less cabin of the shuttle, I was drugged into unconsciousness and strapped into my launch seat. I would be unable to calculate my destination by measuring the duration of the flight or by looking out of the solid, metal windows and bulkheads, I vaguely heard the rumble of engines coughing into life and then I was out cold.

When I came to, I found myself lying on a cot in a small, dimly-lit cell, faint, diffuse sunlight filtering through a tiny, thickly-paned window. I sat up, nursed my aching head for a few seconds and decided to try and look through the glass. I gave up after a few attempts when I realized that it was too high to look out of, even if I stood on the bed. All that was visible was a square of light-blue sky.

The Phobos Facility was constructed on Mars' primary satellite, a fifteen mile long, potato-shaped lump of rock revolving around the red planet every seven and a half hours. The rocky, cratered surface of the moon was blanketed by a thin, artificial oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, clinging to the surface of the satellite with the help of a powerful bio-forcefield nine hundred feet deep.

I slumped back onto the bed and cursed loudly to myself.

"Welcome to the Phobos Maximum Security Prison." I started at the unexpected voice. I looked around the cell and saw that a small screen on the door had lit up. A genial, old man's face smiled at me. "This cell is now your new home. Due to the severity of your crime, there will be no exercise periods and no trustee duties. You are not permitted to leave this room - ever." He smiled again, as though that would make me feel better. "Messages from family and visitors will be displayed on this screen from time to time and if your confinement begins to affect your mental health, a trained psychotherapist is on hand to treat you. Meals will be provided through the slot at the base of this portal."

As if to punctuate this statement, a small, rectangular slot snapped open and a tray of dull-looking slop skidded across the floor and came to rest by my unshod feet. The screen went blank and I guessed it was time to eat.

I forced down the bland, tasteless gloop and washed it down with a beaker of tepid water. It took another twenty of these meals before I decided that it was time that I broke out of this place.

The next week of my confinement was spent trying to find a way out of my cell. Obviously, the door was locked. The walls were seamless and the floor and ceiling were constructed of thick, riveted metal plates.

I did not speak to anybody, not even myself. Occasionally, the screen would activate and a recorded message from my mother or the friendly old man would try to bolster my flagging spirits.

The second week, I spoke constantly. To myself, to my disembodied companions on the screen and to the blank walls. Eventually, a new face appeared on the monitor. It was the psychotherapist.

"Are you all right?" he asked mechanically.

"No! I'm going insane in this goddamned place!"

"Good. Glad to see you coping well. Now, keep it up and if you need anything, just call me." The screen went blank.

"How am I supposed to contact you?" I screamed, but the viewer remained stubbornly dark. "He acted like he didn't even hear me," I said to myself loudly. "Can you hear me?" I shouted at the ceiling. My words bounced around the room, but no reply came.

I decided to twiddle my thumbs to pass the time.

My girlfriend called at the end of the third week and her message was relayed to my door screen. Apparently she was not going to wait for me (good job really, as I was never coming out of prison except in a wooden box with brass handles) and that she had met and fallen in love with my lawyer. They were to marry in he spring at the Olympus Mons National Park. I threw the tray at her face and it faded from the screen. I lobbed my beaker at the black rectangle where her face had been, but it resolutely refused to break. Both the screen and the beaker were impervious to my jealous rage.

I decided to take things easy for a while and spent my time eating my food and lounging on my bed. I exercised lightly every day, sit-ups and push-ups keeping me in trim. I kept my cell tidy and disposed of my meal-trays down the waste chute (which also doubled as my toilet) instead of letting them pile up.

As the fourth week drew to a close, the psychotherapist appeared in front of me again. He had exactly the same clothes on as before.

"Are you all right?" he asked mechanically. I had the strangest feeling of dã´jã¡ vu.

"Er, no," I stumbled. "I am going quite mad and I need your help."

"Good. Glad to see you coping well. Now, keep it up and if you need anything, just call me." The screen went blank.

"It's just a recording," I muttered. "Nobody is watching me. I could die in here and nobody would ever realise it." I regarded the food slot at the foot of the door. "I'll bet that the food is automatically prepared and dispensed as well."

A sudden feeling of abandonment and isolation swept over me, to be rapidly replaced by a sensation of utter rage.

I grabbed the bed and tossed it across the cell, the mattress coming away from its metal supports. Without the heavy padding, the frame was much easier to swing. I took advantage of this and began to systematically destroy my room.

I smashed the monitor screen and battered the waste disposal unit into an unrecognizable lump of metal. I smashed the bed against the walls and floor (I could not reach the ceiling or the tiny window - but, believe me, I tried) until I collapsed, exhausted, to the metal deck. I lay there, panting for breath, when I noticed the draught.

Raising my head, I tried to locate the source of the cool breath of air. Then, where the floor met the wall, I saw it. During my insane onslaught, I had somehow buckled the metal plates that made up the floor of the cell and now a small crack stared at me with cool, fresh air streaming through onto my sweating face.

Struck by a feeling of hope, I grabbed the bed again and managed to get one leg off the frame. I forced the tool into the gap between the wall and floor and attempted to prise the plate further open. I struggled and grunted until, suddenly, the whole plate fell away into darkness and I was blasted by a gust of frigid air. I peered into the hole, my hair whipping around my head. I could see nothing, the opening was totally dark.

Girding my loins, I dropped into the hole and landed on soft earth, my head still poking out into my cell. I crouched down and squinted into the blackness. there was no light whatsoever, except what filtered down from my room. I reached behind me and my hands came into contact with a wall of dirt, my fingers digging into the soil. It was a wonderful experience after having being imprisoned in my sterile cell for a month. I tried the same in front of me and found that there was nothing blocking my path.

I made an instant decision and plunged, on hands and knees, into the darkness.

Crawling deeper into the tunnel, I became grateful that I was not afflicted with claustrophobia. My head frequently brushed the roof of the tight passage and my shoulders rubbed against the walls, causing rivulets of soil to flow to the ground in my wake. I counted the seconds and, when I had been moving for fifteen minutes, decided to take a break.

I rolled onto my back and stared at the invisible ceiling above me. The current of air flowing across my face refreshed and invigorated me.

A guttural growl made my heart stop for a beat. Then, weighty footsteps above me preceded a deafening roar. Something thudded heavily and I was showered with dirt. I rubbed the soil from my eyes and spat more from my mouth. Another roar and more crashing came from above, but this time I had my eyes and mouth clamped firmly shut.

I recognized the source of the sounds. the growling and roaring noises were made by a Titanian Grothar. These ten-foot tall masses of fur and scales from Saturn's largest moon preyed upon the ore ships which mined the rings. Their small, fast attackers inflicted heavy damage on any vessel that got in their way. They did not like the way that humans had encroached upon their territory.

They liked being caught and confined even less. The Grothar above me was obviously trashing his room as I had. I only hoped that he didn't break through to the tunnel. Sharing this confined space with a pissed off alien did not appeal to me.

I continued my sightless journey, not knowing where the tunnel would deposit me. I hoped that it was somewhere near the shuttle pads. If so, then I could steal one and make for the Europa colony. I had friends there that would hide me. Thrilled by my own optimism, I speeded up and, half an hour later, collapsed with fatigue. I drifted into a troubled slumber.

Dreams of freedom merged into nightmares of recapture and incarceration. These in turn merged into dreams of Miranda, my ex-girlfriend, and the good times we had experienced on Mars and Europa. Then, suddenly, I was swallowed by the slavering fangs of a Grothar and I awoke drenched with sweat.

The cool air soon dried my perspiration, but it also chilled me to the bone.

"This is strange," I said to myself. "The artificial atmosphere of Phobos is supposedly kept at a constant temperature of twenty Celsius. How can this air be so cold?"

I shrugged the thought aside and began crawling again. During my sleep, I had lost all track of time and I no longer had any idea how long I had been down here.

More noises drifted down from above and I realized that I was still under the cell block. I could hear cries of rage, wails of anguish and moans of despair. I felt for the other prisoners, but I was certain of my own innocence. For all I knew, those rueful cries could have been coming from serial killers or rapists or paedophiles. If that was the case, then they could rot in Hell for all I cared. My crime was killing a man before he killed fifteen other people. I should have got a medal not a prison sentence.

The whole Solar System is crazy!

This thought was still at the forefront of my mind when I heard rumbling from further back in the tunnel. It sounded like a locomotive was coming towards me. I looked back, but could see nothing - the passage was still pitch-black. Then the smell of disturbed soil filled my nostrils.

The tunnel was collapsing behind me!

I knew that Phobos was prone to minor tremors, caused by the strong pull from Mars, but it had picked a fine time to have one now.

I scrambled forward as fast as I could, my hands and knees throbbing painfully as they scraped across the cold, hard soil beneath me. The smell of dank earth grew stronger and I slowly began to realize that I would not outrun the collapsing tunnel. Nevertheless, my instinct for survival drove me on.

Eventually, I could go no further and slumped to the tightly packed earth, gasping for air. The rumble of falling soil grew louder and the stench of stale dirt made mu nose feel like it was filled with compost.

Then, the rumbling faded and I felt my ankles become covered with rough soil. The tremor had ceased and I had escaped being buried alive by about five feet. As I struggled to breathe in the dirt filled air, another puzzling notion entered my naturally suspicious mind.

Phobian tremors usually last for hours, as the moon drifts closer to the Martian surface. Yet this quake had lasted for only a few minutes. And why was it so cold? I shivered in spite of my sweat-soaked clothes.

I continued my journey after a short rest and desperately hoped that I would reach the end of the tunnel soon. I was becoming more hungry and thirsty with each laboured shuffle. I decided to slow down and conserve energy.

The sounds of unhappy inmates had receded behind me and i hoped that I had left the cell block area. Suddenly, my head scraped against something sharp. I yelped with pain and felt above me with my right hand. Something sharp and thin pricked my fingers. Then other sharp, thin points stabbed my other fingers.

I did not care and almost jumped for joy. I had reached the perimeter fence. Obviously, somebody had escaped before, digging this tunnel and somehow cutting their way through the wire-mesh fence, sunk deep into the soil all around the prison complex.

I wondered who he had been and how long ago he had escaped. The Phobos prison had been in operation for over two hundred years, but I doubted that the tunnel had stayed intact for that length of time. Had he been recaptured? I doubted it, because if that had been the case, then the tunnel would have been discovered and filled in. That meant that there was a definite way off this rock.

Filled with renewed hope, I squeezed through the sharp mesh and crawled on. If I could have managed it, there would have been a spring in my step.

As I moved forward, the air grew more cold and the soil around me became harder and more frigid. I wondered if the atmospheric temperature controls were malfunctioning and hoped that I would not freeze to death on the barren surface once I had exited my grubby escape conduit. My hands ached terribly and I stopped to look at them. They were raw and filthy.

I could see them!

I looked around and could vaguely make out the tunnel around me. I had not realized it, but as I had travelled, the passage had grown gradually brighter. I almost laughed out loud and hurried forward, the tunnel becoming more and more visible with each agonized yard.

Eventually, I came to a solid wall of earth, brilliantly lit from above. I looked up and saw sunlight streaming through a hole above me. I was so excited That I almost threw up. I climbed up and expected to see the Phobos prison complex behind me. But, as my hands pulled me out of the tunnel, I saw that I was not where I thought I was.

I clambered out of the hole and found myself lying on a carpet of lush, green grass. Behind me, about half a mile away, was the perimeter fence and beyond that was the penitentiary.

In front of me, a thick wall of pine trees thrust their branches high into the clear blue sky, where fluffy white clouds flitted towards the mountains on the other side of the forest. The air was freezing, but it was ’natural“ freezing air and it was the most wonderful mixture of gases I had ever breathed.

I looked towards the line of trees and the snow-capped peaks beyond, then back to the fenced complex nearby. the prison sat silent and inscrutable, totally unaware of my escape. A shadow passed over me and I glanced upwards to see a flock of birds gliding towards the forest.

My bare feet were freezing, the damp grass doing them the world of harm. I tore the sleeves from my prison tunic and wrapped them around my aching feet. Standing back up, I took stock of my surroundings.

I was on Earth. I had never been taken to the Phobos Penitentiary. It had all been a ruse to make me believe that escape was impossible. But, thanks to my indomitable nature and the tunnelling skills of my long-gone friend, I was free once more.

I laughed out loud, the sound echoing around my dizzy head, did a little twirl on the grass and disappeared into the trees.


Steven Johnson 1999

Updated 11th March 2012