For those of you self-isolating, social distancing, or finding some other way of making yourself thoroughly miserable, here is a serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
We commence Chapter 17. The manner in which Jack eventually reaches Nix City Centre is evidently not the usual way you’d go, nor does the destination cater for new-arrivals. He faces spending the night on a park bench in the Areopagus.
Jack awoke to a sharp kick in the sole of his outstretched boot. Two men stood there, draped with equipment and carrying stun-guns. Jack recognised the killer-whale police uniform, but couldn’t see in the uncertain light whether it was green or blue. He decided it was blue, in which case these men were Zasta.
Their faces were blanked out. One of the men gesticulated to Jack and, not getting the expected response, hauled him to his feet. Each grasping an arm, the z-niks marched him away down a shortish tunnel to a police post and thrust him in a cage. Then they sat and looked at him.
For all their apparent inaction they must have been doing something. They’d called for somebody, which Jack couldn’t overhear them doing, for presently a third officer appeared, a woman. She was wearing the green uniform of the Vratch and her transparent visor revealed her face. Peremptorily signing to the men to unlock the cage she entered it, the door getting locked again behind her. She motioned to Jack to take his helmet off and hand it to her. Straightaway she returned it to him and he put it back on.
“There,” a voice sounded in his ear. “Is that better?”
“What did you do?”
The woman laughed. “You were still tuned to the Oberon intensor. However did you miss getting that fixed? Were you last off the ship or something?”
A familiar comforting feeling had flooded over Jack’s face. Instantly he had become aware of the woman’s presence on the intensor dimensions: previously a forbidding figure of impersonal authority, she was revealed as someone firm and decisive, but nevertheless warm-hearted and open-handed. Someone who out-ranked the two z-niks, whose angular intensions were mean and faceless. Society, he could tell, stood in this woman’s debt, not the other way round.
“I guess I must have slipped between the cracks…” muttered Jack in reply. He felt humbled by her, as he might in the presence of a saint. She, for her part, looked at him like a headmistress contemplating an errant pupil made to wait outside her office for punishment. Then she turned and made a circular motion with her hand. The cage was unlocked again.
“A booner!” she exclaimed, and now Jack could hear the men groan in reply. One of them grunted “On my watch, too!”
“Well, someone ought to display some initiative around here,” snapped the woman. “Come on Jack—come with me.”
Taking his hand like a child she led him out of the cage, out of the police post and into her marscar. Presently they were miles away from the Areopagus, in the corridor of a building somewhere in the seemingly endless rows of streets.
The woman threw open the door and invited Jack to step in first. He found himself in a tiled shower unit, with doors off to the left and right. He pushed against one of them.
“Uh-uh!” The woman pulled him back. “Never take a dust suit into the house.”
Without shame she began taking off her own dust suit, revealing herself naked underneath. She kept her helmet on however, checking the visor briefly for watertightness. Clearly she was expecting Jack to do the same. After a moment’s hesitation he did, returning her frank stare, as hot water rained down upon them both.
She was a woman of robust good looks and ample bosom, with areolas the size of squash balls, dark chocolate, indicating that she’d given birth. About thirty-five years of age, there was not a mark upon her skin except for the caduceus, the universal medical sign, tattooed over her left nipple, the same as on her helmet badge.
“Don’t touch skin. You’ll rub the dust grains in. They are incredibly sharp.”
Jack’s eyes fell irresistibly down to her bush, trimmed to a neat vertical stripe like one-half of a rip-fastener. Impressive bit of topiary, he reflected coolly. If your nude body was frequently on view, then of course it had to be kept well-groomed.
Wasn’t she afraid of him? With her well-developed triceps and deltoids, there was more cause for him to be afraid of her. What did she want with him? Was she moonlighting as a prostitute, or had he simply been picked up and brought home for sex?
But nothing, it seemed, could have been further from her mind. “Is this your place?” said Jack as she led the way out of the shower.
“No. It’s yours now.”
She glanced this way and that, her lip slightly curled. “It’s nothing super, but it happened to be empty. It will serve you for now, until you can find somewhere better.” Hesitating, she seemed at last to take note of the fact that they were both naked, and that somehow this was bothering Jack. Reaching into a cupboard she took out two white towelling dressing gowns and handed one to him.
“Forgive me for being personal, but how are you managing with your SP unit?” Personal or not, it was the vratchka talking: professional to the last.
“Fine, touch-wood. But I’ll be needing superox in an hour.”
“You’ll find a nasal hook-up at the end of the corridor, between the levitator and the ice-machine.” She took a breath and glanced around again. “Otherwise everything’s here you’ll need tonight.” Stepping over to the fridge she peered inside. “Plenty of food in here. Only the ex-cred stuff: nothing exciting. But, hey—I eat it myself. It’s nourishing.”
She came back and held out her hand. “I’m Lance-Sergeant O’Mallory Hashimotova, 15th Vratch. Call me O’Mallory. I live just down the corridor with my daughter Kat. Call on me if you want anything, though it’s best to stay in here and link with Intertalk.”
“How do I do that?”
“Didn’t they teach you how to use a helmet on the Oberon? Drop the menu and eyeball the option. Try it now.” With a click, her voice cut-off.
Jack brought up his helmet’s holographic display and saw her name at the top of the contacts list. She half-smiled as he re-linked.
“Like I said, call me if you have any trouble. If I don’t answer, Kat will.” Touching his forearm she turned to go. “You won’t reach me tomorrow because I’m on-duty all day. Clinic.”
She made a wry face. “A lot of city-fever going around. I’ve two duties back-to-back because it’s hit our unit hard.” She paused and looked him up and down professionally. “You don’t need to worry—you’ve got no lungs.”
Slipping off her dressing gown with a twitch of her silky shoulders she handed it to him, ignoring the clicking of his SP unit. Then she opened the lobby door and climbed back into her dust suit.
“O’Mallory, how can I begin to thank you?”
“That’s all right. Self-interest.” She smiled—and there was not a little warmth in it. “If I hadn’t done something back there, all hell would have broken loose.” She secured her neck-seal and touched the front door to open it. “It’s not every night we pick a booner up out of the gutter.”
Next morning Jack woke up early and left the apartment. Sleep had refreshed him and he wanted to get started on his search for Tvoul. But even with his booner status switched off, still nobody would stop for him in public places.
Eventually Jack came upon a doorway through which a stream of people came and went. He decided to go in himself. Inside this building someone would have to talk to him eventually, if only to ask him what he was doing there.
The entrance led through a system of three airtight revolving doors, down steps which had a waxy feel, leading to what was clearly some sort of bar or club. He propped himself on a vacant bar stool and waited for the barman to come over. Looking around he saw that everybody had their visors open, though many sported what were evidently holofaces. So he did the same, unclipping the visor beneath his chin and sliding it back over his crown.
The barman came up to him. “Zdráste,” he said. “Shto ti xótchesh?”
“What do you want to drink?”
“A beer. Any sort. What everybody else is drinking.”
“Everybody else like you is drinking kvass. Want some?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The barman looked at him doubtfully and went away. Presently there arrived a large earthenware mug capped with foam. Greedily Jack buried his nose and mouth in it, sipping the dark fluid, but found it tepid and quite bland. It could just as well have been weak tea as beer.
The fellow sitting next to him swivelled round lazily on his stool. “Just off the Oberon, Jack lad?”
Jack’s instant reflex was to ask the man how he knew his name. But he realised the intensor would have told him.
“Yes. I’ve had eight months to prepare for this, but I feel like a fish out of water. You have the advantage on me. I still can’t read the intensor well enough to know what you’re called.”
The man laughed. “I guess that’s how I felt three years ago when I’d only just arrived. On Oberon you get to know a lot of people and you don’t realise how different Mars is going to be.” He held out his hand. “Call me Stewart.”
Jack took the proffered hand. “Pleased to meet you, Stewart.”
“You’ll have to learn some M1 if you want people to talk to you here. This is an M1 club.”
“Is that why nobody replies to me in the street?”
“God—no!” said Stewart. “Don’t try striking up a conversation in the street. Not even with somebody intense. People on foot are not worth talking to. That’s what folk believe.”
So that, thought Jack, was why everyone had been cutting him dead. “An M1 club, eh?” he said. “Are there M2 clubs as well?”
“Yes. They tend to cluster in the poorer parts of town. You can ask around for all you’re worth, but you won’t find anywhere better than this.”
“Good, is it?”
Unexpectedly Stewart had to ponder that. “Well, no: not what you and I would call good. They’re all much the same. So I’m just saying: it doesn’t matter where you try.”
“No incentive to excel?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. No incentive for the establishment maybe, but there is for the barman. ‘How many smiles in a kiss?’ They’re all building up their incred by the drinks they know how to mix. Of course, if you will go ordering kvass…”
“I wanted a beer. It’s the only thing the man offered me.”
“It’s all they’ve got that’s ex-cred. They do that sort of thing to booners.”
Jack simpered. “Is there anywhere I can get rid of this? Will they notice if I pour it on the floor?”
“No, don’t do that,” said Stewart, grinning broadly. “Just give it back and ask for something else.” He beckoned the barman over and spoke to him in M1. The barman took Jack’s drink away and brought him a Midsummer Madness.
“How did you know I liked these? You don’t know somebody called Gabrielle, do you?”
“It’s the latest craze. Spread like wildfire in the last two sols. Gabrielle, did you say? Yes, that’s the name. Fresh off the Oberon—like you, I guess?”
“Good old Gabrielle!” Jack raised his glass.
“Yes, good old Gabrielle,” echoed Stewart. “You know her?”
“Why-aye. She’s a canny bit-lass.”
“Well,” said Stewart, “you can tell her from me she mixes a mean cocktail. If she carries on like this she’ll earn herself intensions a mile high. But warn her to keep her recipes to herself. Everybody’s getting the incred which is hers by rights.”
Simply by asking around in the bars, Jack found himself cafés to eat in, markets to shop in and a job to do, in that order. English people are shy when it comes to asking things from strangers—they prefer to read the public signs and buy the local papers. Americans ask around a lot more, because they know the signs and the papers aren’t reliable. On Mars there are no signs or papers, reliable or otherwise, so asking someone is the only way to find out anything.
Jack had decided to switch off the booner card and get by with building up his incred until such a time as he needed it to cover his tracks. As on Selene, he could in principle get anything on offer by invoking his booner status. The state (the Strana of Olympia) would recompense the seller—but only for the base valuta, which nobody wanted to transact at. So desirable things would tend to disappear from open view at a booner’s approach.
Jack had wondered how, in a cashless society, anyone had any incentive to work. It had been an artificial situation on Oberon. On board you were a passenger: a special class of person with your passage paid-for—and a whole lot more besides. On Mars he discovered the hard way that if your incred went too low, people stopped talking to you. You couldn’t get hold of anything worthwhile. All you could get were ex-cred items: those in such plentiful supply as to change hands for nothing. Or conversely those in such short supply that they were rationed—which still meant they changed hands for nothing. Nobody starved. But to eat well you had to trade. Jack quickly concluded that the only way he could build up incred was to make himself useful. Hence the need for a job.
But a job conferred an additional benefit: his workmates treated him like family. You don’t trade with family—you simply give them whatever they need. Jack gained a lot and learned a lot from his workmates, and his foreman. Except the one thing he wanted most of all to know: where was Tvoul?
Simply asking after her was a thankless prospect. The conversation would go like this:
“I’m looking for my daughter-in-law. How do I set about finding her?”
“Does she know you’re here? In Nix City?”
“No, I don’t think she does.”
“Then go along to Zasta and get them to poll the intensor for you.”
Then he’d try another tack. “I’m looking for somebody called Tvoul Williams. How should I go about finding her?”
“Does she want to be found?”
“I’m not sure she does. She used to call herself Tvoul Rainbow.”
“Tvoul Rainbow!” (An expletive generally followed.) “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“Where is Tvoul Rainbow now?”
“Oh… she went to Gaia.” That, it seemed, was the end of the matter.
Sometimes he would try the direct approach. “I’m trying to find Tvoul Rainbow.”
“Tvoul Rainbow! The devil you are. Well, she went to Gaia.”
“I’ve reason to believe she’s back on Mars.”
“Oh, those are only rumours.”
“I happen to know they are true.”
“Look—you’re a booner. Why don’t you go along to Zasta and tell them to find her for you?”
Eventually, assured of his privileged position, he did just that. Presenting himself at Zastavlénie HQ, he demanded to see someone senior enough to tell him what he wanted to know.
“Oh, you want Commissioner Miro for all that.”
“Can I book an appointment?”
“Commissioner Miro is a busy man.”
“I don’t have much time. I insist on seeing him.”
“Mr Williams, please be patient. Your request has been noted. Commissioner Miro will be in touch with you in the next few days.”
And sure enough he was.
…to be continued.