For those of you stuck at home and tired of daytime TV, here is a serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
We continue with Chapter 16. The
Vratch (the Martian medical police) tell Jack his lung cancer has metastased, and give him six months to live. They don’t like sick people on Mars and want to deport him back to the Moon. But Jack’s “booner” status confers privileges. They are compelled to return him to the entrance hall of Voronka Cosmodrome, to make his way to the centre of Nix City.

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Back in the entrance hall, his helmet once more clipped around his chin and sealed to his dust suit, Jack continued to feel stifled and isolated, though now he was in far worse state than before.  He looked around, but no one else was for taking helmets off in public.  Why had the medical police insisted on him removing his?  Was it for the same reason that doctors want you to take your clothes off before examining you?  Or hadn’t they been able to communicate with him?

Jack hadn’t really expected to feel the Nix intensor the moment he landed.  Quite likely there would be no signal until he was in Nix City proper.  But after getting used to the intensor on the Oberon, it was uncanny to be standing in a crowd of people in total isolation. 

He sat down at one of the bars.  After the news, he needed a drink.  Without being asked, they gave him a beer.  For several minutes he did nothing but sit looking at it.  The foam sank like a day-old fall of snow.  As he reached out towards the misty glass, his hand shook violently.  He had to steady it with his other hand and steer it towards the drink.  Was this the insidious onset of his death-throes?  Or was it simply the way bad news would affect him now—until the day he died? 

His health-record over the past two years had been a wild adventure.  But at no time since Wearmouth Bridge had he felt death so imminent.  Somehow he’d assumed he’d pull through, as he always had.

Were the Vratch telling him lies?  What possible reason might they have had for doing that?  But why had they let him get all the way to the subway entrance before detaining him?  And all to tell him something he considered his own private business? 

It struck him that it might have been all Shval’s doing.  Or Tvoul’s.  One or the other of them might have put the Vratch onto him as a delaying tactic.  It had certainly had the effect of hindering him for long enough to let his quarry get clean away.  But like him she had only one way to go—and that was into Nix City.

And then where could she go?

The thing to do was catch the train and ask someone at the other end.  Ask them what?  There was only one thing he wanted to know:  where was Tvoul?  Once having found her—and done what he had come to do, he’d gladly take the advice of the Vratch and get himself back on board the Oberon.  Even if it meant booking a special shuttle—because the regular shuttles had now finished.

And what had he come to do?  Almost two years had gone by since he’d set out at midnight from his house in Esh Winning in pursuit of Tvoul.  And still he didn’t know.  When finally he came face-to-face with her, then he would know.  At the very least he’d have some hard questions to ask her.

He drained the last of his beer and sat staring at the empty glass.  The foam hung like tattered curtains, or shreds of rotten flesh.  In his dejected state he must have nodded off because he awoke with a start to a touch on his shoulder.  It was a woman standing there.  Like the Vratch had done, she motioned him to doff his helmet.

“Taxi?”

“Yes.”

Accepting the offer of a tout!  It was the sort of thing Jack would never have done back home.  But whether out of hopelessness or disorientation, it didn’t strike him that he might be going into danger.  Or that he could be ripped off—at least not to make him suffer personally.  The booner card enabled him to mix with potentially hostile strangers with all the confident innocence of a baby.  He owned everything—and nothing. 

As the Romans used to say:  viator vacuus coram latrone ridet.  In the company of bandits the traveller with nothing laughs. 

The woman led the way through unmarked side-doors and between rough concrete columns into what was evidently a car-park.  Her vehicle was like nothing he’d ever ridden in.  For a start it didn’t have wheels.  On Earth you’d have thought it was a fighter cockpit simulation or a gondola from some bizarre fairground ride. 

The canopy sank back on gas struts as they buckled themselves in.  Conventional straps—conventional buckles—though more like a flying harness than a car seat-belt on Earth.  It was a strange blend of the bizarre and the familiar.

Koudá?  …Where to?”  The woman’s voice came loud and clear over the infra-red link.  It was the first time on Mars that anyone had managed to speak to him via his helmet.  From her accent and her halting speech he judged that English was not her first language. 

“City centre.”

“The Areopagus?”

“I guess so.”  But really he had no idea.

She spoke to her vehicle in the strange nasal tones of M1, or perhaps it was to her controller back at base, and they set off.  Except for the very few public announcements back on the Oberon, always trilingual, Jack had heard little or no M1 spoken.  It was a language in which he was not only unable to repeat a single word, but could not even begin to form the phonemes in his mouth.  If someone had told him the groubians had invented it, he would not have found that difficult to believe.

The road was no more than a trench of dust, along which the marscar ploughed like a motor launch, throwing up wings of dust to left and right.  They plunged into a tunnel lit by a single strip of light along the middle of the roof.  Jack had just one backward glimpse of what they were leaving:  the eight-mile diameter blast-crater of an ancient meteor strike, from which Voronka took its name. 

When they emerged, they were skidding along a rough track which led straight over the horizon.  Sunlit brown rock alternated with inky shadow with a crispness at once both dim and livid.  For Mars was twice as far as Gaia and Selene from the Sun.  Daylight was correspondingly dimmer:  four times as dim according to the inverse-square law of distance.

No other vehicles were in sight.  Whatever the status, or legality, of his “taxi”, this clearly was not a popular way to get from the cosmodrome to downtown Nix City.  Was he in the hands of friends or enemies?  Or was this just one solitary taxi-owner trying to scratch a living?

For thirty miles or so they travelled through a stony featureless landscape under a black sky (although it was daytime), ascending the giant hogsback of Olympus Mons.  During that time the woman spoke not a word.  Presently a dark smudge hinting of a distant ocean appeared just beneath the line of the horizon.  But ocean it was not.  As they drew nearer, a gigantic system of nested cavities became apparent, sunk into the rusty ground. 

The caldera, descending in wide circular steps like the terraces of a vast amphitheatre, grew and grew until Jack could make out its sides to be vertical cliffs, piled high at their feet with scree which at this distance looked like heaps of wholemeal flour.  He thought of the quarry where he used to work.  Seen from half a mile away over the fells, it hadn’t looked so different from what faced him now.  But for all their speed, the caldera seemed hardly to be drawing any closer.  They must still be tens of miles away.  Which made those cliffs not fifty nor a hundred feet in height as the quarry had been, but a thousand…  two thousand…  four thousand…  maybe a mile high.

How deep was the Grand Canyon?  A mile at its deepest?

If this was the Nix, then where was the city?  He asked the driver this and she replied, gesturing with one hand. 

“No to-see city here.  All underground.  Because-that dust.”

So Nix City was mostly underground, like Jordvik?  It was the obvious thing.  Like the Moon, the atmosphere here was too thin to stop meteorites, much less the radiation of the solar wind, which made living on the surface hazardous.  Jack knew from his preparatory reading that the Nix was 15 miles above what passed for sea-level on this parched planet. 

At this altitude the atmosphere was tenuous in the extreme.  It could nevertheless support dust during a major sandstorm, though far less so than on the plains.  But still in sufficient quantities to blanket the city in brown dust to match the landscape—which was why Nix City had never been seen by Earth-based telescope. 

At night the grid pattern of the well-lit streets had been clearly visible from Oberon orbiting overhead.  But Jack reflected on how hard it was to see the night-side of Mars from Earth.  So for all Lowell’s impression of canals, Mars could never have revealed any genuine sign of occupancy throughout its long history of human colonisation.  Human, that is, if you considered groubians to be human.

The marscar entered the mouth of a tunnel and began to descend.  Unlike the tunnel out of Voronka, this one was not lit.  They travelled on headlights in the darkness for more than a minute until they emerged with a shock into the dying light of day.  The pygmy sun danced on the western rim of the caldera, its glancing rays exposing the cliffs directly ahead in psychedelic detail.  It was a sight to make the heart leap, but Jack felt nothing.  He had no lungs for a sharp intake of breath, no heart to pound faster—and no future past a six-month horizon, beyond which his life dropped over a cliff.

They were now in the streets of Nix City, though these were nothing more than dust-filled gaps between rows of windowless blocks, like dragons-teeth on an invasion beach.  Jack had heard that nobody lived in these above-ground structures, which served as storage and meteorite protection for the proper living-accommodation tunnelled beneath them. 

The darkness of evening swept over the streets like a flow-tide over wet sand, flooding the spaces between abandoned sand-castles with black ink which instantly evaporated when the street-lights came on.  Rows of these graced the tops of the gaunt blocks, illuminating them like birthday cakes.

Jack was struck by an absence of advertising.  No hoardings, no neon signs:  he never thought he’d miss them.  Apart from the dramatic cliffs which surrounded it, the ambience of Nix City was crushingly drab.  People must walk around looking at little else than their helmet displays.  But as for walking around, there were no pedestrians that Jack could see, although they now began to pass marscars ploughing in the opposite direction. 

They were approaching a great opalescent dome, glowing in the darkness with a soft greenish light, which made it look like a beached jellyfish.  Approaching its circumference, a glassy door slid upwards to admit them to a parking bay.  The canopy of the marscar opened and the woman said in her broken M2 “We here arrive.”

“Here” was evidently the Areopagus—the “Rock-of-Mars”—which the woman had declared to be the city centre.  Throughout the journey Jack had been wondering whether she’d been sent to collect him, but it now seemed like a normal fare.  Getting out of the marscar he produced his booner card, but the woman waved it away. 

“All okay,” she said.  “Done.”  She tapped her temple in the universal sign that the speaker thinks you’re crazy.  “Get it fixed, eh?”  With those cryptic, vaguely insulting words the marscar’s canopy descended and she drove off, expertly negotiating the airlock they had entered by.

There was an atmosphere.  Jack’s helmet display told him that it was safe to open the visor.  He did so.  A few other people were to be seen, mostly couples, arms around each other’s waists.  Nobody else had their visor open, indeed everybody had it set half-silvered to conceal their features.

“Excuse me,” he appealed to a couple walking by, “Where can I find a shop open?”  They ignored him.  He tried another couple and they did the same.  A single person strode past with a brisk step.  Jack grasped the man’s arm, but the other flung him off without so much as looking at him.

It seemed as if he had become a pariah, a homeless person, which of course was what he was.  Somehow everybody could detect that.  Perhaps it was the booner card?  On Selene this had made him welcome everywhere, but here perhaps, if you weren’t in uniform, it labelled you a sneaky government agent:  someone to be shunned. 

In his dejected state he didn’t have the strength to care.  He found a public bench to sit on, slats and painted cast-iron sides, which might have come straight out of an Edwardian park.  It faced towards the centre of the dome.  There, ringed with several acres of raked gravel, a towering rock appeared to graze the zenith of the dome, a lit-up lattice screening it from a sky in permanent blackness.

There was a profusion of shrubs and ornamental flowers, but few trees to be seen except some spindly saplings marking the intersections of the formally laid-out paths.  But there was one magnificent oak which stood before the rock.  Having nothing else to do, Jack got up and strolled around the rock, discovering two more giant trees on the other side. 

Three in all:  oak, ash and rowan.  Here, with no competing organisms, in one-third the gravity of Earth, cosseted with light, warmth and hydroponics, the trees had grown 300 ft or more, half the height of the rock.  All of them were in fruit.  Acorns covered the sterile gravel for a twenty-yard radius around the oak tree.  The ash was shedding its winged seeds which had fallen straight to the ground and made a feathery carpet—and the rowan, like a ruby galaxy, bore endless berries which it shed as clusters in sticky abundance.

Fruitless fruit. 

His emotions all too near the surface, Jack shut his visor, setting it to the regulation half-silvering which everybody else seemed to be sporting, and wept at the futility of the fruiting trees.  They had thrown-in their lot with mankind and this had enabled them to leave planet Earth, but to what end?  How could they ever hope to seed a forest in the dust of Mars? 

There were seats beneath the ash tree and there Jack sat down, letting his chin sink to his chest.  He wished that he could die, then and there, not having to endure the six months of agony which the Vratch had measured out for him like crushed velvet. 

How did lung cancer progress when you had no lungs?  It would not hamper his respiration, but it would be painful nonetheless.  He would have to go back to the Vratch and ask for drugs.  Oberon would not be round again for another two years, so they couldn’t summarily dispatch him back to Selene.  But life on opiates, which people said were the only things that worked with cancer, would become a gradual detachment from reality until the experience of imagination itself stopped.  That’s if it hadn’t stopped already. 

There was only one thing left in life to do now:  find Tvoul.  And she was far away as ever.  As far away as she had been when he’d walked out of his house in Esh Winning, reckless of the road ahead. 

Back then his sole aim had been to get to Mars.  Well, here he was.

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…to be continued.