Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
We’re up to Chapter 18 now. Jack has discovered to his advantage that he is in Miro’s good books, from which he can shortly expect to benefit in unspecified ways. He gets to meet his neighbour’s six-year-old daughter, Kat, who helps him heat – and eat – his hard-won fish-and-chips. Gabrielle contacts him by hugglephone: a more intimate experience than having a piece of metal jammed to your ear.
The Adin Beam stabbed down—a poker, scoring wood with runes of disaster. Firebirds swooped around them as he hugged Kat tight. But in the hydrogen-red flames her incandescent face became a skull. Horrified, he let go the shining skeleton, which shattered like an ember at his feet…
Jack vomited the sound as he lurched upright in bed, his voice-chip faithfully executing the intent of its afferent neurones. Hugging his knees, he wept silently: rosin-sticky tears of self-pity.
The nightmares weren’t going away. As his body grew weaker they were growing in frequency and intensity. Would they ever stop?
Yes. They would stop with his death and not before. They might be the last things he’d experience. Hell is not something you go to, like prison. You never actually leave it: it’s what’s under the skin of consciousness. Nightmares are only what shows through the holes in the skin. The day he died, lucidity would totally evaporate, letting the nightmares run together like crazy paving: an endless trail of desolation through an empty valley.
One after the other, he dragged his feet out of the bed and stood up. The room felt cold. “Twenty degrees Celsius,” he called out. The vents started humming quietly but soon stopped. The room was already at 20º Celsius.
Jack got dressed: a simple matter of putting on his helmet and slipping into his dust suit in the shower-lobby. He knew better now than to wear clothes under a dust suit.
He had a job. It consisted of driving a sweeping machine around the streets. The machine looked after itself, more or less. Jack wondered if the seat for a driver wasn’t simply there to give somebody employment.
The fact of it being a menial job didn’t trouble him in the least. It gave him the opportunity to explore. He needed to know the city a lot better if he was to have any chance of tracking down Tvoul.
Nix City was divided up into 121 kvartíri—districts—jumbled together like a patchwork quilt. In each district the streets were laid out to the same grid plan: oúlitzi east-west and dorógi north-south, but the grids of neighbouring districts never lined-up. He asked his foreman if he could sweep a different district each day. “No problem,” said the foreman.
His street-sweeper didn’t so much sweep up the dust as strain out the lumps, spitting it out again. Like most of the appliances he had come across, it had a holoface and a female voice.
“Just take it easy along this street, pet, I wanna peek doon the side-alleys, like.”
“I’m not following you awfully well, Jack. Do you want to train my accent?”
Jack smiled to himself. “Why-aye, hinny. We’ll ha’ yer ta’kin’ Durham before the day’s oot, like.”
Getting to know the city was going to be a problem. The streets all looked the same. He’d have to get hold of a city plan—if they had such things. Looking for Tvoul in a city this size was a challenge. But Jack refused to be daunted. There was nothing else he was here for, so there was no other job he’d prefer to be doing.
“When we get back I’m not gonna plug you in tonight. Mebbes I’ll get day-off tomorrow an’ I can go an’ have a bit-sup, like.”
“Whey!” said the machine, in its newly-trained accent. “You’ll get wrong off foreman.”
A man deliberately stepped into Jack’s path and put his hand on the hood. The sweeper lurched to a halt just before it ran him over, banging Jack’s lip on the rim of the dashboard.
“Why man!” shouted Jack. “What d’you think you’re playing at? Chicken?”
The man ignored the furious question. “What’s a booner like you doing in a job like this?”
“Well… that’s my business, like.”
“Come with me, Jack, and I’ll give you something better to do.”
“Yes, of course.”
“What’ll I do wi’ me sweeper?”
“Leave it here. Someone will come for it.”
The man was called Sviatoslav Iliich Krov’. M1-speakers always introduced themselves by ímia i ótchestvo—name and patronymic. The patronymic was more important than the surname, he told Jack. Calling him Sviatoslav Iliich was quite acceptable. Jack followed him down an escalator into a covered mall, a jumble of walkways, shops and open-plan eating places. They sat down at one of these and Sviatoslav Iliich had the waiter bring coffee and cakes.
“What’s the job?” said Jack.
Jack rose to his feet. “I’d best be getting back to work.”
Sviatoslav reached forward and pulled at his sleeve. “Sit down, Jack, and hear me out.”
Jack did so. “I don’t know the first thing about social research.”
“You’ve come from England, haven’t you? England on Gaia?”
“And your knowledge of the place is still fresh in your mind?”
“Why of course…”
“That sort of knowledge is precious. Give us Martians the benefit of it and it will gain you enormous incred. Everywhere you go, people will turn their heads. They’ll lean over backwards to help you. You aren’t going to tell me that’s not what you want?”
“How do you know what I want?”
“So—you’ve come all the way from Gaia just to sweep our streets?”
“No…” agreed Jack. “But I want to find my way around town, like. The job’s champion for that. Me—I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Clearly Sviatoslav had something he wanted to say to that. But he swallowed it back, contenting himself with “You won’t be sitting in an office all the time, Jack. You’ll be getting out and meeting people. People from all walks of life. Gaians and groubians. They’re all hungry for the knowledge you’ve got in your head.”
“Sounds to me like money for old rope.”
“We aren’t offering you money, Jack. You don’t need ‘money’. You need incred. Honour. Glory. Bags of it.”
“That’s just where you’re wrong. I’m not one of your publicity-seekers.”
“Publicity!” Sviatoslav laughed with a bark. “Jack—you’ve got the wrong idea about Mars. Yes, you can go in for publicity if you like, but that’s not what’s on offer.”
He tapped the plate with his knife. “The intensor doesn’t go noising you abroad. It affects the people you meet—but only the people you meet. Publicity is another thing. If you don’t want publicity, there are things you can do to stop anyone giving it you. Or rather, as we say, stealing your privacy.”
Sviatoslav helped himself to a cake and butchered it with his knife as if giving somebody the chop. “We don’t have paparazzi here. Information is your most precious possession. In order to give you unwanted publicity, a journalist has to steal information from you. Unlike on Gaia, you can feel it leaving you. You know who it’s going to. If you don’t like it, you maxgear them. That’ll discourage any would-be paparazzi from hounding you.”
He put a slice of cake in his mouth and mumbled “Only the most determined of information thieves can steal your privacy—without losing theirs into the bargain.”
“Well,” said Jack, “that’s where I’m at a disadvantage. I don’t know how to do any of that.”
“So—we’ll have to teach you, won’t we?”
“I work for an organisation called TMG.” Sviatoslav watched Jack like a cat watching a mouse-hole, seeing how he’d respond. “You must have heard of us?”
“Certainly I’ve heard of TMG… but I can’t remember what the hell it is you make.” He didn’t want to volunteer what Jens had told him.
Sviatoslav sighed. “It’s not easy to explain—but it’s no secret. It’ll come clear over the next week or two. One of the things we do is collect information about Gaia.”
“Which, of course, Gaia doesn’t know how to stop you getting?”
Sviatoslav frowned. “Which, of course, former denizens of Gaia are pleased to give us—of their own free will, or not at all.”
He stabbed a piece of cake and put it in his mouth, munching as he spoke. “We build vast databases of that information.”
“What sort of information?” said Jack suspiciously.
“Social information. We’re not interested in personal or commercial secrets, in hot gossip. The information we gather is going to be valuable in a hundred years, a thousand years…”
Sviatoslav leaned forward conspiratorially and murmured “…a million years.”
“What have I got in me nut that’s going to be worth anything in a million years?”
“Simple things. Trees. Flowers. The landscape. The weather. The people. And… houses—roads—vehicles—animals. Things you normally never stop to think about.”
“Why should anybody be interested in all that?”
“Stop being naive, Jack. Look about you. What have you seen of Nix City in the course of your street sweeping?”
“Not a lot. Buildings, dust…”
“Exactly. The Nix, for all its vast size, is a cultural wasteland. Apart from the groubians, everybody’s memories, cultures, traditions—all come from one single blue dot in the sky. And where is it all heading to?”
“Haven’t the foggiest.”
“To every other dot in the sky. Do you imagine it’s all going to stop here for the next million years? On Mars? Have you seen anything to make it seem particularly worth stopping for?”
Jack mouth spread out like a spoonful of cold syrup. “No, I can’t say I have.”
“Exactly. Mars is simply a staging post. A jump-off point—a launching pad—for humanity.” He drained the last of his coffee and got to his feet. “Look, come back to the office and I’ll show you something to knock your eyebrows back.”
Jack stayed seated. “I’m a bit worried about just walking out of me job like this. Won’t that dunch me persona—or whatever the intensor does to you?”
Sviatoslav shook his head firmly. “I’ve already contacted the foreman and told him you’re working for us now. He’ll have no complaint about that. There are plenty of people in Nix City who can sweep streets. But there’s only one person on Mars who can tell us about Esh Winning in the twentieth-century.”
Jack stared at him in amazement. Then he burst out laughing. The very idea that in a million years countless people on an uncountable number of stars should wish to know anything about one small Durham pit village in the twentieth century struck him as hugely absurd. But more amazing still was that Sviatoslav knew the name of Esh Winning at all—and moreover that he, Jack, had lived there. He didn’t make the connection with Markus.
Sviatoslav turned to go, beckoning Jack to follow him. As he did so a wild-eyed man thrust past him, pushing him against the table. He staggered and fell over. The man blundered into Jack, blindly trying to feel his way around him as if he were a wall of glass.
There came the shrill snarl of a microscopic pulse-jet, followed hard by a red flash, as if a signal flare had exploded in Jack’s face. The man screamed as he was jerked onto his back, to be dragged away on a transparent filament. Jack watched in horror as the stricken man slid off, leaving a thin trail of blood, until he was lost to view amid the legs of the heedless crowd.
Sviatoslav picked himself up. Ignoring his own bruises he straightaway took Jack by the arm. “You all right?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“It was a good job your visor snapped shut in time—or you’d have been knocked-out cold.”
“What in the name of damnation was it?”
“A bloody-butcher. Named after the trout fishing fly. Officially it’s called a CRW, a corporal retrieval winch. Employed by Zasta to catch class four fugitives.”
“What a—bloody—vicious thing!”
“Oh-ho,” chuckled Sviatoslav, “you don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those.”
Jack was looking at a view down Front Street, Esh Winning. He and Sviatoslav had built it up from scratch in less than ten minutes. The right hand side of the street was still a little hazy, though.
“That’s where the E-light was,” said Jack at last.
“The system doesn’t understand you.” Sviatoslav didn’t either, but that was not the point.
“No—well—that’s not the first time today. I guess the rest of Britain would pronounce it Elite. But we always called it the E-light.”
The picture suddenly clarified. Sviatoslav laughed. “That’s exactly the sort of information we are after. You’re going to be worth your weight in gold.”
Jack leaned back. “Now, explain to me in words of one syllable how that is possible. We’ve got a good crisp picture, as good as a photograph. Just like I remember it. But all I’ve done is tell the system what it wasn’t like.”
“That’s the power of information. I mean negentropy—not what you might think of as information, which is no doubt just sheaves of facts and figures. We’ve got a lot of it in the system already: the type of brick used in a pit village, the trappings of a typical English street, window-frames from the various periods covered by that scene. The machine took a guess at what a view down the main street of a typical Durham mining village would look like. Then you eyeballed the bits that were wrong and gradually it came into focus. Wherever you could assert what it wasn’t like, the machine could eliminate possibilities. A simple yes-or-no can eliminate thousands of them. In the end you’re left with the only thing it can possibly be.”
“Brilliant.” said Jack. “I hear what you say, but I can’t believe it—or I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t seen it with me own eyes.” He stretched his ribs and leaned back in his seat.
He was relaxed now. At first he had been trembling from his experience of seeing the “bloody-butcher” in action. Sviatoslav, noticing this, had poured away the coffee he was making and put down in front of Jack some calming herbal drink: flavoured chamomile, he guessed.
“Do you mean,” he exclaimed, “the police fire off this devilish thing at anybody they want to? Just for a stop-and-search?”
“Goodness, no. By law the fugitive has to be class four.”
“I heard you say that. What does it mean?”
“Didn’t they explain Martian social class to you on Oberon?”
“Yes…” said Jack, scratching his head. “Something about a three digit binary number. I can’t say it went in at the time. I gather most people are class seven, but as a booner I’m class six. That doesn’t mean a blessed thing to me.”
“Social class,” said Sviatoslav, “depends on just three attributes: autonomy, mobility and parity. Autonomy means being held responsible for your actions. Mobility means—well—being allowed to move around at will. Parity means being allowed to transact business on the same level as other personas possessing parity. Such personas are called econact. If you’ve got all three you’re binary 1-1-1—a citizen with full privileges.”
“Right, I get it now. As a booner I’m not econact. People give me what I ask for, but they don’t get any credit for it.”
“They don’t get any extra credit. They only get the base rate set by the intensor—the rate the Strana offers for goods and services.”
“And why are we called ‘booners’? Because everyone has to do us a boon?”
“It’s a Selensk word: b-o-n-d-e-r.” Sviatoslav spelled it out. “Pronounced ‘booner’. It means a bondsman, a servant. A public servant, in your case. Whenever your card is switched on, you’re on official business.” He chuckled. “So don’t bother being nice to people, or trying to punish them by maxgearing them. It’s wasted effort. You’re simply an instrument of the state.”
“Which sets me one step down from a full citizen. Class six instead of class seven.”
“That’s exactly right. Everything with a class number is a person, meaning it has a persona.”
“Right.” Jack held up three fingers. “Whether or not I’ve got these three attributes,” Jack grasped each finger in turn, “gives a total of two, four… eight possibilities.”
“Forget class zero. There’s something special about that.”
“Seven classes, then. We’ve done six and seven. What about class five?”
“Class five is binary 1-0-1. Autonomous—not mobile—but econact, yes. It’s called a coperson. A company, a business, a static robot, a vending machine. It also includes one or two chimorgs who’ve been awarded restricted human rights.”
“Did I hear they get forcibly crippled?”
“That hasn’t happened for a long while. Not since the Peter Zwillinge case. Chimorgs generally get the same rights as children: class three—not autonomous. Someone has to be responsible for them. Peter Zwillinge wanted to be autonomous in order to exchange triada vows with Shval Meteor. They wouldn’t let her simply take charge of him.”
“Because of her bad intensions—her bad character, you’d say. Quite apart from what would happen if you put those two technical wizards together. So the Vratch threatened to take away his mobility—and he consented to that.”
“They had to, because otherwise he’d have been class seven: a full citizen. Only human beings can have class seven. I entirely agree it was barbaric, though. A chimorg does have feelings—some of them at least. That’s why we have the transgenic laws. To stop chimorgs being created in the first place.”
“If somebody did that to me,” said Jack, “it wouldn’t exactly turn me into a model citizen.”
“It didn’t. We’ve all been suffering the consequences ever since.”
Jack began to see the Meteor Gang in a new light. He thought of the resentment which must be driving them.
“Class four—we’re into that now.”
“As class four you are a disperson. Binary 1-0-0. Autonomous. But not permitted to roam about loose—and not econact. In fact denied all privileges except having to take responsibility for your own actions.”
“You said class four—dispersons—were criminals. Fugitives.”
“Yes, but the crime has to be serious enough.”
“So how do you get to be a disperson?”
Sviatoslav’s eyebrows shot up. “How do you get to be a disperson? Try firing on the forces of law and order. Shoot a z-nik—or a vratchka.”
“What if I’m a booner?”
“That won’t save you. All transgressions by class sevens are handled by the sanctions of the intensor. Class sixes cannot ‘transgress’ by definition—but they are generally under orders, so they can be disciplined. When people refuse to co-operate at all, the intensor is quite clearly useless for controlling their behaviour. Then sterner methods of restraint are needed—like the bloody-butcher.”
“So the guy who bumped into us today was a complete tearaway?”
“Without a doubt. Zasta is not authorised to use the CRW on anyone else—unless you’re dead and your body needs hauling up out of a hole. Which was what the CRW was invented for.”
“So once upon a time it had a humanitarian purpose?”
“That goes for all the worst horrors. Haven’t you noticed?”
Jack nodded slowly. In his mind’s eye he could still see that trail of blood on the floor of the concourse. He thought of the Meteor Gang: hadn’t Commissioner Miro told him they were class four, now? And didn’t they have him, Jack, to thank for that?
Peter Zwillinge, Shval Meteor—and that great ugly brute Hamish McDougall. Pretty mean enemies to make. And to have running around loose in Nix City at the same time as he was.
“So what was Peter Zwillinge’s humanitarian purpose?”
“Oh, don’t you know? He was trained as an anaesthetist, as well as a telecomm engineer. He can cure as well as kill. He’s very good at it, I’m told. When he wants to be.”
“Sounds poles apart to me.”
“No, the two jobs go quite well together, if you know anything about the intensor. Provided you’ve got the brains for it.”
…to be continued.