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 start at Chapter 16, where our hero, Durham ex-quarryman Jack Williams, reaches Mars in his planet-trotting quest for his errand daughter-in-law, Tvoul.
Jack sat in the empty Speil. Beneath the glassy floor the star-strewn sky turned slowly like a crystal sphere. Every minute the planet Mars appeared and filled the dance floor. Jack remembered as a child walking on Roker beach, picking up pieces of brick which the sea had milled into pebbles. That was how Mars looked. A vast lump of clinker, which fate and time had dropped in the sea of interplanetary space and ground down to a pebble.
Gabrielle had left with the Meteor Gang on the first shuttle to the surface. With eight months to prepare for this, it was surprising how much of a rush they were all in by the end. She and Jack made no arrangements to meet up, beyond sharing a desire to do so as soon as Jack had got settled in. Neither wanted to admit that their affair, blossoming in the dreamy hothouse in which they’d been confined, might not transplant to the arid soil of Mars.
Everyone was packing or making last-minute arrangements, getting ready for the drop to the surface. So Jack had the Speil to himself. Alone among many, he wasn’t floating over this rusty world because he particularly wanted to. He was here only to track down one particular person. Having done that, he could turn around and go home.
He found it easier to direct operations from the Oberon itself rather than land on the surface and have to discover the whereabouts of the simplest facilities. He had spoken to the immigration officer and discovered with relief that the Martian authorities had no difficulty accepting that the person travelling as Tvoul Radouga was in fact Shval Meteor. That the real Tvoul Radouga was here as well, going under a different name—but not one that anybody knew. The immigration officer declared that neither of these violated the Olympian criminal code, unless the intensor itself had been tampered-with. On its own, it proffered no excuse for stopping Shval from landing, or even for arresting her when she got to the surface. Even if Shval had committed a crime in another’s name, it was incumbent on that other person to take action. Mars, Jack concluded, was a lot easier to enter than the USA.
But if he thought they didn’t keep a careful watch on who arrived, he was to revise his opinions.
Jack finally managed to make contact with Jens’s agent in the other pod, but only once that worthy had made landfall. They were never to meet in person. The agent assured him that there had been no groubian in the Zemgrav pod—and that the Martian authorities were certain that only one groubian had made landfall at Voronka: the one escorted by Gabrielle. Of Tvoul herself there was no sign.
At the hub, shuttles were coming and going, re-provisioning Oberon for the return journey. New passengers were coming aboard in sizeable numbers. Some glanced inside the ballroom on their way to their cabins, but didn’t stay. Soon the last shuttle would leave for the surface before the great space vessel departed for its home port of Lunaborg. Oberon didn’t tarry in Mars orbit like it did around the Moon. The conjunction of Mars and Earth, the best time for the outward trip, was the best time for the return journey too. From now on, the two planets would daily draw further apart.
The helmet and the clothes he stood up in were the only things he planned to take with him. Time was drawing on. Reluctantly he got to his feet and paced slowly out of the ballroom.
At the door he turned. Beneath the transparent floor the sun crept across the glass. It was half the diameter he recalled it on the Earth and Moon. Round about it the sky was black. A faint dot accompanied it. Gaia. Under magnification it looked like a nail-pairing. Earth had literally turned its blind side towards him.
Hesitating barely a moment, Jack surveyed what had been home for the past eight months. Then he turned and walked without haste down the concourse, making for the levitator to the hub, where the last shuttle hung suspended in the darkness, waiting for him.
Stepping into the shuttle, Jack stared through a porthole at the surface. The sunlit side had slipped away and Mars was now for the most part a dark presence blotting out the stars. In Olympia it was the middle of the night. The sun hovered on the distant horizon amid skeins of dry-ice clouds scorched like titanium jewellery into rainbow hues.
Ahead, a darker mass within the darkness, Jack could feel rather than see the sombre presence of Olympus Mons, mightiest volcano in System Sol. Its gradual slopes ascended 15 miles above the plains, rearing up out of the thin choking atmosphere, out of the dust storms which frequently blanketed the planet. The most habitable spot on Mars, the groubians had chosen Nix Olympica as the site of their capital—and the gaians had chosen not to second-guess them.
The Nix came into view as a darker patch against the starlit surface. But as it loomed larger and larger at the destination of their flight path, Jack could see that it was not altogether black. An extensive network of lit-up roads lay within its tiered pits, a spider’s web in the grass on a frosty morning, studded with dewdrops.
Soon the Nix covered most of the visible surface and Jack could make out individual roads in multiple grid patterns like a patchwork quilt. The city to which the Nix gave its name was nearly seventy miles across. Beyond the city, to the south of the Nix, there was a distinctive circular impact crater. Dwarfed by its neighbour, it was nevertheless nearly eight miles in diameter.
Voronka. The “Blast Crater”.
As the moment of landing drew near, Jack watched in fascination as the crater turned into the socket of an enormous eye. The pupil—a gigantic iris lens—gradually expanded in a dark circle as the roof of the cosmodrome opened up to swallow them. Once inside the Eye, a landing strip of coloured lights became apparent.
With scarcely a shudder the shuttle touched down. Overhead the wide circle of stars grew smaller and smaller as the Eye closed over them. As soon as the sky had vanished, lights sprang up all around, revealing the stupendous magnitude of the chamber they found themselves in.
The shuttle taxied to the edge of the cavernous enclosure and covered walkways crept out like tentacles to meet them. Presently Jack on wobbly feet was pacing worn red carpets to the arrivals hall.
A huge notice in bright orange letters greeted him.
Dóbro pozhálovat’ v Kosmodróm Vorónkovo!
Velkommen til Voronka Rumhavn!
Welcome to Voronka Cosmodrome!
Sevódnia: Voskresénie, 1 Dekábria, 400, 24:16 MV.
Idag: søndag, den 1:e december, år 400, 24.16 MV.
Today is: Sunday, December 1, 400, 24:16 MV.
Quite disorientated, he looked at his old wristwatch. In Esh Winning it was past midnight on Sunday 25 January, 1976. Remembering the vow he made on the Moon, he dropped the watch in the nearest rubbish bin.
Who, if anyone, was going to meet him? How would he recognise them—or would they spot him first?
He followed trilingual signs to the way out. He expected to pass customs or immigration control, though what form they would take he had no idea. Perhaps on Mars such institutions were redundant. There had been plenty of time to process people on board Oberon. Plenty of time to find out all about them, why they were coming to Mars and what possible contraband they were carrying. But he’d been asked none of that.
Before he expected to be, he was in the arrivals hall of the cosmodrome. Crowds of people were standing or sitting, eating, drinking, conversing—engaged in all the usual forms of public activity. But they were quite unlike the folk you see at an airport on Gaia. For a start they were all in helmets and dust suits—as indeed was Jack. The garment in question was called a dust suit although it served as a pressure suit too, kept you warm and protected you from a lot more than dust: the solar wind for instance. Nobody had worn this garb on board the Oberon: there had of course been no dust. Jack felt sealed-off and isolated, as if he were plunging down to a coral reef.
Selene had been nothing like this. Not even Marsgrav had prepared him for it. He was an alien being in an incomprehensible world, its boundaries and preoccupations far outside his experience. The photos he had studied and the films he had watched all counted for nothing against the experience of actually setting foot on Mars.
Jack walked slowly round the arrivals hall, trying to get an idea of its scope and what one was supposed to do there. Arrive, of course—but did most people come and go by public or by private transport? He knew that private transport consisted of two- or four-seater vehicles called marscars running on a dusty, much-vilified system of public highways. But nearly all adult citizens possessed at least one marscar, for Nix City was graced with nothing resembling the Selenean Orm.
Nevertheless public transport did exist, in the form of a long-distance subway train: rocket-powered, as it happened. It ran from the cosmodrome to the city centre and he soon came upon its entrance.
If anyone was there to meet him, he had given them long enough to spot him. It crossed his mind to go to one of the information booths and make his presence known, but he dismissed the idea. If he was going to have to make his own way into Nix City he ought just to vanish in the crowd. Not everybody who was on the lookout for him could be assumed to be well-disposed. He recalled the circumstances of his arrival on the Moon and wondered what would have happened if the shadowy, luckless Treikle had managed to catch up with him.
He decided to take the subway train to the city centre. He still felt isolated and muffled, missing the reassurance of the Oberon intensor caressing his cheeks. Would he be expected to pay a fare?—if so with what? Of a ticket barrier there was no sign.
No sooner had he approached the subway entrance than two individuals detached themselves from the crowd and approached him on either side, hemming him in. They appeared to be making no attempt to communicate with him, shouldering him instead to one side, clear of the stream of passengers. They were in uniform and armed, otherwise he might have thought to resist, or at the very least protest. The uniform of Zasta he knew from pictures in magazines: white and electric blue in large oval panels. But these were white and green. Airport police, he told himself. He was wrong.
He was about to make the acquaintance of the Vratch.
The two policemen took him to a small office. Once inside they signed to him to take his helmet off. Jack hesitated, but one of the officers with an impatient gesture tore off his own helmet and shook it at Jack in silent demonstration. There was no option but to comply.
“Health check,” said the officer.
“I’ve had a check-up on the Oberon.”
“Just do as I say. Place your index finger in here—like this.”
There was a small tube bolted to the office desk. It glowed inside with red light. Jack wondered if this was an insidious lead-up to a violent assault on his person. Was the tube going to trap his finger painfully, immobilising him for more brutal treatment? Like a child complying with some unfamiliar punishment, he inserted his left forefinger, judging it was the one to sacrifice, if such was on the agenda.
But nothing seemed to happen.
“All right. Take it out.”
Still holding his own helmet, the second officer sat at the desk, staring at the empty space where a blotter might lie. Data-screens on Mars emitted no extraneous light, vectoring an image directly onto the viewer’s retina. But to Jack it looked as if the man was sitting deep in thought, havering on the brink of some unpalatable conclusion.
“You have a thoracic condition.”
“Yes, of course I have. I’m fitted with an SP unit.”
“I can see that with my own eyes. What I mean is that the residual lung cancer for which you were treated has undergone metastasis.”
Jack’s eyebrows went up. “Why wasn’t the doctor on Oberon able to tell me that?”
“He didn’t have our equipment. And why tell the patient if you can’t do a thing about it?”
“Well, what can you do about it? And what business is it of yours anyway?”
The officer took a deep but perfunctory breath, as if Jack were just another of the endless succession of fools he had to deal with every day. “We are Vratch: we are the medical police. You’ve had months to learn about our ways here on Mars. Why do I need to tell you that the Vratch can bar your entry, with no leave to appeal?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Mars has a fragile life-support system. Sick people are not welcome here. I’m amazed they let you undertake the journey in the first place. But Oberon is another world and they have scant regard for our concerns. Or yours for that matter, once you’re out of their hands.”
“Okay—so mebbes I ought to see a doctor, when I get to where I’m going?”
“We are the doctors. You can engage a private therapist if you want, but they won’t be able to do anything for you. Whatever you want to know, you can ask me.”
“What’s the… prognosis—if that’s the word for it?”
“You have six months to live.”
The officer spoke brutally and dispassionately, as if he were issuing a temporary entry visa. Jack slowly became conscious of the gruesome words he was hearing. It was a dissociated awareness, without sympathy or fellow-feeling for the person designated. So this was what it was like to stand by and hear a man being condemned to death.
But to die: was that such an uncommon occurrence? No, but like being born, people only did it once in a lifetime. Consequently, for the individual, there was no precedent to go by. Did it need an announcement in the paper? Should he throw a party? Would they hang out the flags?
The officer was staring curiously up into his face, waiting for a response, which didn’t come. Eventually he broke the silence himself. “Six months—provided you take it easy. Considerably less if you rush around like a mad thing. Now I don’t know what you’re doing here—as you so rightly say, it’s none of my business. But you’re new to this planet and it will all seem very strange to you. Your situation is going to be—how should I say—stressful?”
The officer relaxed his shoulders. His next words were almost gentle. “So why not let me put you back aboard the Oberon? You may not live to reach Selene, but you’ll spend your last months in luxury and among friends. They’ll really make a fuss of you. And back in Lunaborg, they’ll give you a gorgeous funeral.”
Feeling began to flow back into Jack like hot water pouring in a basin. Emotion. Passion. Anger. Fury. But one thing he’d learnt since leaving Earth: to control his temper. He leaned trembling against the desk, his knuckles whitening.
“Officer, I’ve come all this way for a purpose—and I’m bloody well going through with it. All I hear you saying is that I haven’t got as long as I thought I had. Now—are you going to let me go, or aren’t you?”
“You’re carrying a booner card.”
“Well, what of it?”
“If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you like this. You’d be back on Oberon so damn’ fast your feet wouldn’t touch the ground. But as it is, you can simply walk out of here and I can’t stop you.”
“Then point me back to the train station where you picked me up.”
“Get yourself back on the Oberon,” the vratchnik snapped. “I’d still recommend it. Very, very strongly.”
Being reminded of his booner privileges had given Jack the confidence to stand his ground. Or was it desperation that gave him the courage to bluff?
“Thanks, officer, but no thanks. Here I am—and here I’ll stay.”
“It’s your funeral. Go through that door and keep walking and you’ll find yourself back in the entrance hall.”
Jack turn to go. He reached out his hand towards the door, which slid back just before he touched it.
“And Mr Williams…”
Now what? Jack turned slowly round to face the officer, still seated at the desk.
“Get your helmet fixed.”
…to be continued.