If you’d still appreciate some distraction from the world’s woes, 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 17. Things are going badly with Jack in the Areopagus pending the intervention of a senior vratchka prepared to display some initiative. With her timely assistance Jack lands on his feet, and picks up the reins of a brand new life. Now to start looking for Tvoul. “You’re a booner,” they say. “Ask Zasta to find her for you.” And at Zastavlénie HQ they tell him: “You need to ask Miro…”
To relieve the drabness of the city streets, Jack took to spending sundowns in the Areopagus. He would circle the rock and stop by each of the three great trees. They had names, he’d discovered. The Oak King. The Ash King. And the Rowan Queen. As he stood silently that sundown under the last of these, watching darkness sweep over the Nix, the Intertalk woke up. A voice in his helmet said “Mr Williams: Zastavlénie. You are alone.”
Jack looked around him. There was nobody in sight. “Yes, I’m alone.”
“I am not asking you. I am telling you. You are in the Areopagus, standing under the Rowan Queen, and you are alone. Please try to keep it that way for the next ten minutes. I have Komissár Miro for you.”
Glancing quickly over his shoulder, Jack sat down on the bench. He felt like a glass baby: helpless and transparent.
“Mr Williams. Commissioner Miro. Thank you for trying to contact me. I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak to you.”
“Did they tell you what it was about?”
“Oh yes. And they did assure you at the time that the matter was in hand. But your status entitles you to… personal assurances. These it’s my pleasure to give you.”
“I’m grateful,” said Jack. Where was all this leading?
“I wonder if in return you can furnish me with certain assurances?”
Jack swallowed. “I’ll try.”
“Simply this. You were the last person to see Commissioner Vermat alive. The last surviving person, that is.”
Jack was beginning to get used to the intensor society. The thing to do, it seemed, was to assume that everyone, even total strangers, knew everything about you there was to know—and take it from there.
“Please reassure me… were her final moments happy ones?”
Jack was stuck for a reply. Could Miro see his face? He hoped not. The voice continued “I-I mean: so far as you know?”
“I think so. I left her watching the celebrations. She was with my other friends and we were all having a good time.”
There came a long drawn-out sigh of relief. “Vermat, you know, suffered so much in her life. It does me good to hear you say that.”
Jack was embarrassed. “I’m—er—glad to help.”
“She thought highly of you. We—ahh—were in regular contact. She begged me to furnish you with all the assistance you’ll need whilst you are here on Mars.”
“Whilst I’m still alive, I think you’d say.”
“Yes, I know about that.”
“Well… where is she?”
There was a pause.
“The whereabouts of Tvoul Williams: that too is something I would like to know. Not to mention the whereabouts of her sister, Shval Meteor. Let me just say how grateful I am for what you’ve done for us in that regard.”
“I-I don’t think I’ve done anything.”
“But you have, Mr Williams. As a direct result of your investigations on Selene, we have been able to bust the Meteor Gang. It is only a matter of time before Shval Meteor puts another foot wrong and we will wind-up her affairs for good. Now I suspect that Shval is back on Mars.”
“I know she is.”
“She came off the Oberon just before I did, masquerading as Tvoul Rainbow.”
“Shval is now class four here. Do you know what that means?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“She is—how would you put it?—on the run. Her property is forfeit to the state. And that includes her info. This is something down to your credit. Without your information we could not have moved so decisively against her. She knows this, of course—and it does put you in no little danger. But, ah, perhaps you were anyway?”
“I don’t care a fig about Shval. Where’s Tvoul?”
“As for Tvoul herself, please realise that her whereabouts is hers to know. Zasta has no power to make you a gift of that information without her agreeing to it.”
“You’re powerful enough to do whatever you like.”
“No, Mr Williams, I am not. Information is property on Mars. Your information is your own property—and our constitution guarantees it. All transfer of information, as you know, is intensor-mediated. We in Zasta are charged with preserving the integrity of the intensor. We are a property police, Mr Williams. To inform you of Tvoul’s whereabouts would be to steal the very property we are entrusted with defending.”
“I don’t see. If you know, why can’t you just tell me?”
“Mr Williams… on Gaia, your body-politic is corrupted by security agencies which do precisely that. Money is everything. Now we on Mars do not have money. We consider it is just another way of transmitting information: a redundant one at that—and deeply flawed. On Gaia, if you possess an item of information—let us call it your secret—then somebody can steal it from you and you have no way of knowing. Your laws define stealing as denying you the use of your own property. But your secret can leak out—yet you still appear to possess it. The document is, after all, still in your safe. But if someone were to act in the knowledge of that secret, they could damage you. On Mars, that is how we define stealing: to act on information which is not yours. It is something that can be readily detected and policed via the intensor.”
“Is the intensor really that powerful?”
“Oh yes. And it is the foundation of our society. To compromise Tvoul’s information is to strike at society’s very roots.”
“Okay, I get the message.” Jack laughed. “I must say I stand in awe of your principles.”
“There is no need to be sarcastic. I’m Zasta. The intensor is my life—and it is yours too, while you remain on Mars. Nobody is above the law: not I, not you, not Tvoul—and certainly not Shval. Once we assent to information being compromised, at whatever level of command, the body-politic begins to unravel like a worn-out garment. We of Zasta take an oath to die before that happens. We have our sacred badge—the sword and sigil—tattooed above our hearts to symbolise the fact.”
“So you know where Tvoul is—but you’re just not going to tell me?”
“I do not know, for sure. Not yet.”
“But when you do, you still won’t tell me?”
“In principle I fear that is so. But that is not the end of the matter. Tvoul’s whereabouts may be her secret. But were you to stumble upon her by accident… that would be information that is yours, not hers.”
It was quite dark now. You could hardly see the black rock against the sky, except where it cut out the stars. Someone hurried past. Jack waited until they were well down the path before replying. He knew Miro would know why.
“I see. So you’d advise me just to carry on looking for Tvoul?”
“Mr Williams. Some people believe there is no such thing as an accident. But I know, by virtue of my position, that noise enters the system from outside. Cosmic rays engender noise. So does the solar wind—even in so well-shielded a system as the Nix intensor. To put it in the vernacular: shit happens.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that accidents can be engineered. The likelihood of their occurrence can be magnified. Coincidences can be arranged. If a causal link is absent, or rather, undetectable—a transaction is not registered on the intensor. Now listen carefully…”
“I’m all ears.”
“In consideration of the services you have rendered us, over the next few days I shall engineer some accidents on your behalf.”
Jack stood up from the park bench. He put his boot on one among the crowd of fallen berries, crushing it. What an insignificant mess it made.
“That sounds dodgy. What if the ‘accident’ happens to me?”
“This is not Moscow. Taxis do not run you over in the street—much less trams. Not even Zasta can arrange for an accident to happen to you without leaving a clear audit-trail to the person who gave the order. The integrity of the intensor is the citizen’s guarantee.”
“I’m not a citizen. Here on Mars I’m nothing but a stranger.”
“I know. You are in a vulnerable situation. Were you to die—when you come to die—you have no heirs, no family, to seek redress on your behalf.”
Jack made no reply. Miro had never said a truer word.
“Now I won’t say anything so banal as ‘trust me’. But be aware of this, Mr Williams. You have powerful enemies on this planet. But you also have some friends. Friends who will help you, if need be, from beyond the grave.”
Jack got back to his apartment around ten that night, bearing in triumph a dinner of fish, chips and mushy-peas which he’d commissioned in the local market. The hardest part had been trying to explain “mushy-peas”—there was no word for them in M2. He put the meal in the microwave oven. Then he began to puzzle out how to work it.
The only controls he could see were a big red button and a little green button. He pressed the green button. Nothing happened. He pressed the red button. Instantly the appliance sprang to life and the holoface of a pretty girl appeared in the window.
“Dóbroe vétcher, Dzhak. Ia—tvoi petchka-bot…”
“Speak English, damn you.”
“Prostí, ia ne poniálo…”
“…I mean M2.”
The holoface gave a polite cough. “Good evening, Jack. I’m your oven-bot. How are you feeling tonight?”
“Tired. Just do your stuff, pet.”
The holoface pouted and vanished. Two mechanical claws tore the transparent wrapper off, popped the door open and threw the rubbish out onto his toes. The door slammed shut again and the turntable started.
“Well, thank you!” But of course he should have been grateful it hadn’t cooked the food with the wrapper on.
Presently he had a dinner, which he bore in anticipation to the table. He then went in search of a knife and fork. What he took for the cutlery drawer contained only spoons, scissors and pincers. He took out one of each and proceeded to operate with them on the meal. It was barely warm.
He crammed the dish back in the oven and stabbed at the red and green buttons until the machine grudgingly started, stopping again after a few seconds.
“Right. Back to the table with you and let’s try again.”
It was no different. Furiously he threw it back in the oven. The holoface reappeared.
“The meal is done.”
“No—it’s not done, flower. It isn’t! Try again.”
“The meal is done.”
Jack hammered the top, letting out a stream of abuse.
“If you have any complaints about the performance of this product, please return it in its original wrapping to the supplier, whose address you will find on the base of the appliance.”
Barking expletives, Jack slumped down at the table again. That’s the last time he’d try cooking for himself. There was no earthly reason why he should do. No Martian one either, for that matter. There was plenty of hot food available. But he hadn’t eaten fried fish and chips with mushy-peas for ages—so he’d jumped at the chance even though it had been delivered cold and was supposed to be re-heated.
A child’s voice said “May I come in, Jack?”
“Please yerself,” groaned Jack through his fingers. When day follows day like a drunken dream, a strange child requesting admission to your flat is nothing to be remarked on.
The child who came in was about six, or so Jack judged. Apart from her helmet, which had kitty ears, she was naked. Peeping back inside the shower lobby, she carefully closed the door behind her.
“Does your mam mind you running around barefoot?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her? We only live down the corridor.”
“So, er… what’s your name?”
“Can’t you work it out?”
“Aa-ah,” said Jack with a slit-eyed smile. “Remind me—I’ve forgotten.”
“The same way as you do anything. Drop the menu, then eyeball the option.”
Jack did as he was told. “You’re Ekaterina!”
She put her head to one side. “Everyone calls me Kat.”
Jack looked at the kitty ears. “Well, noo,” he said, his accent thickening, “why didn’t Ah guess that for meself?”
“Because you’re tired,” said Kat, as if she had to go making excuses for him. She sniffed the air and skipped over to the oven. “Got anything nice to eat?”
“You can have that—if you can make it work.”
Kat put the food back in the oven, slammed the door and leaned on the green button. “Ours is always going wrong. You have to do a manual override. Don’t let it do it all by itself—it’ll tell you it’s done when it’s not.”
She returned to the table with the meal piping hot. She went off to fetch scissors and tongs, then gave Jack an impromptu lesson on their correct use, having sat herself on his lap with a bump.
“Weren’t you hungry?” she said, scraping the plastic dish clean with her fingers and licking them.
“I’m happy just to watch you, kiddo. It’s champion to see a bairn who likes her food. Mushy-peas’ll do you a power of good.”
Kat turned to stare at him full-on. “Why have you still got your outdoor clothes on?” She slipped off his lap. “And you’re all dusty. Have you been walking in the oúlitza?” She slapped her bottom to dust it.
“Where else am I supposed to walk?”
“Don’t be silly. Come on—off with them. I’m not sitting on your lap otherwise…”
Grinning broadly, Jack took off his tunic and threw it over the shoulder of what he took to be a tailor’s dummy standing beside the table.
“That’s not enough.”
“It’s as far as I’m going, flower.”
Kat put her tiny hands on her tinier hips and gazed at him as if he were being mean to her. She sighed. “I’m not sitting in that dust again, whatever you think.”
Struggling with himself in his own mind, Jack tried to get over the idea that a six-year-old could possibly be trying to seduce him.
“Life on Mars is a constant battle against dust,” she went on. “It gets in your eyes, between your teeth and makes machines go wrong. It’s been heated by meteor impact to turn it into glass, then powdered in craters for billions of years by meteorites like a great big pestle-and-mortar until each grain is a tiny razor blade.”
If only her mam could hear her now. She probably thought Kat never listened to a word. “All right,” he groaned. He stripped off his trousers, which he had been wearing all day under his dust suit, as if it were an enormous effort. He was now down to his briefs.
“That’s better,” said Kat, looking at him in wonder—why had he needed telling? She climbed back onto his lap and put her arms around his neck.
“I like you. You’re nice.”
Jack was beside himself with embarrassment. He feinted holding the child in his fingertips as if she was scalding hot. What if her mother came in? He’d be up for a prison sentence at the very least.
“How do you know I’m nice? You ought to be careful of strangers.”
“You’re not a stranger. And I know what someone nasty feels like on my face.” Kat spoke dismissively. “My last daddy was nasty.”
“So it’s just you and yer mam?”
“Yes. You met her the other night.”
“O’Mallory. I’m Kat Hashimotova.”
Aa-ah! Jack nodded silently with his mouth open. Why hadn’t he twigged?
“Mummy sent me round to check you’re all right.”
The tailor’s dummy trilled a brief melody and lit up in the image of a flaxen-haired woman. She too was bare, at least from the navel up, which was all there was of the dummy. Shaking Jack’s discarded tunic onto the floor, she held out her arms.
“Gabrielle!” cried Jack. Kat jumped off his lap and silently tiptoed to the door. She turned to open and shut her hand like a little mouth saying bye-bye, then she was gone.
Jack leapt to his feet. Instinctively he grasped the dummy round the waist, where it ended in a heavy plinth. “By all that’s wonderful! How on earth…?”
The dummy caught his other hand. It felt just like Gabrielle in the flesh.
“Hi Jack. I simply had to try out the hugglephone. It’s what passes for a v-unit here on Mars. Cool, isn’t it?”
Jack felt the need to explain himself. “That was the neighbour’s daughter sitting in me lap. D’ye know, she just plonked herself on me without so much as ‘by your leave’. Stark naked—as if it was a thing she did every day.”
“She probably does. You don’t wear clothes in the house. She didn’t take her helmet off though, did she?”
“Good girls don’t take their helmets off with strange men. She knows she’s safe. Touch her somewhere funny and she’d maxgear you. How many smiles in a grope?”
Jack smacked his forehead. “I can’t believe it!”
Gabrielle gave an easy laugh. “Glad you’re getting to meet the neighbours. No I didn’t see her. I can only see you—as half an ectoplast standing in my living room. And only your top half. I guess that’s all you can see of me. So your privacy is assured.” She put on a fake M1 accent. “Ze Integrity Of Ze Intensor Is Ze Citizen’s Guarantee.”
“So this is what an ectoplast is. You feel as if you’re really here—well, half of you anyway. Can you feel me?”
“Of course I can.” Gabrielle’s voice was warm and low. “The person who invented this was a complete sadist, wasn’t he? There’s not a great lot we can do. Except this…”
She caught hold of the back of his head and crushed her mouth against his, humming sensuously. Her buzzing lips sent tingles to Jack’s toes. He backed away and sat down.
“My-oh-my. The Marvels of Modern Science.”
“It’s called Chemistry. Remember your first kiss? Top half only.”
“That takes me back a bit.”
“Come round and see me. Then we can do the bottom half. Make it soon.”
“Where are you?”
“Kvartíra 102, 906/273, which means corner of U-906 and D-273.”
“That’s miles away.”
“Take a cab. It’s not as if it’ll cost you anything, you booner you.”
“I will. Right now?”
Gabrielle caught her breath in sudden indecision. “No… not right now. I’m due to see the lady from the Vratch. She’s coming round in three-quarters of an hour. I don’t know how long she’ll want to stay…”
“What?” Jack sprang up in alarm.
“The Vratch: the medical service.”
“The medical police, you mean!”
But Gabrielle mistook his tone-of-voice. “Oh, well, best leave it till tomorrow evening. Come over at 12: it’s ‘The Twenty-Fifth Hour’.”
“So you only want me for an hour.”
“You can stay a bit longer, ninny,” she said, giving him a playful nudge in the ribs, making the superox slosh.
“I’ll be there.”
“Love you…” The dummy sagged and went blank.
Elation at seeing Gabrielle again gave way to deep disquiet. Jack sat back down and put his head in his hands. God—what could the Vratch possibly want with Gabrielle?
…to be continued.