Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
We conclude Chapter 18 and start on Chapter 19. Jack has a job: driving a street sweeper around Nix City. No prospects – but he is getting to know his way around, which will help him hunt for Tvoul. However somebody called Sviatoslav has other plans for him – and before Jack knows it, he’s a social researcher employed by TMG: the mystery employer of the ill-fated Markus, who back on Earth had bought Jack’s house for a booner card.
The next day Sviatoslav set Jack the task of evoking pictures from his boyhood. It was a fitting lead-in to his new job: a job he was to find the most absorbing, the most creative, he had done in his entire life. Or would ever do again, considering it would be the last job he’d ever have.
But first Sviatoslav drilled Jack on what he could recall of Martian social class. He considered it important that Jack got on top of it. “Else how are you going to know if you’re talking to a living person or a machine?”
“Can you tell that from the intensor?”
“Yes—unless the individual sports a booner card.”
Sviatoslav showed how. As with most intensor questions, the answer was the same: drop the menu and eyeball the option.
“We got down to class four yesterday,” said Jack. “What’s class three?”
“Class three is a properson: a protected person. Binary 0-1-1. No legal autonomy—but mobile and econact. Children are class three. They’re given freedom to transact on the intensor—under tight parental controls of course. It’s the only way to learn to become an effective citizen.”
“So I should be careful of myself in front of a child.”
“You certainly should. They can maxgear you—and how! And if their parents don’t disagree with what they’ve done, there’s no redress.”
“And being a booner won’t save me?”
“Nope. Booners are subject to discipline. There’s worse things to lose than incred. Your booner status, for example. It’s one reason why few booners choose to hide behind their booner cards when off-duty.”
“That’s a funny one. The inperson. Binary 0-1-0. You and I can’t be inpersons—it’s only for institutions, provided they are not-for-profit. Families. Triadas. Not autonomous, since they’re dependent on their members. Mobile, along with their members. But not econact, although generally one or two of their members are. Membership is often mixed-class.”
“Expersons. Deceased persons. Their estates, I think you’d say. No longer autonomous, no longer mobile, but still able to transact on the intensor.”
“Just as estates can pay out and receive money on Gaia, I’m told. But class ones on Mars can do a little more.”
“Like swap smiles with the living? Not to mention kisses?”
Jack thought he was making a joke, but Sviatoslav was all for taking the question seriously. “In a way. Have you been to Krásnoe Kladbísche yet? The ‘Red Cemetery’?”
“No I haven’t. Why should I go there?”
“It’s in the Old City. It’s our answer to the Moscow Novodevitchii.”
Jack blinked as if a bottle of champagne had gone pop in his face. “Are you telling me I can go to any gravestone and call up the dead person? Talk to his holoface?”
“Yes—every one. Some of them are quite fun to chat to.”
“I’m gob-smacked. I don’t think I’d fancy doing that.”
“Oh, I often go there. It’s a popular recreation. Parents take their children to talk to their forebears. It gives them good intensions.”
Jack’s eyes lit up. “Now I can see the point of that. ‘I’ll tell grandpa what a naughty boy you’ve been…’” He laughed.
Sviatoslav laughed too. “Then you can see the point of the work we’re doing here. Archiving ancestral knowledge, we call it.”
Jack pondered that—and his laughter gave way to tingles down his spine. It was a million year archive, Sviatoslav had claimed. If Hilda had been interred on Mars, he considered, she could still be chatting to people in a million years. It was a several seconds before he spoke.
“That only leaves class zero. And—let me guess—that means no autonomy, no mobility and no parity. If class one is dead, then class zero’s double-dead.”
Sviatoslav stretched, sighed and looked down at his feet. It puzzled Jack as to why he hadn’t got a ready answer.
“Well, isn’t it?”
“But it’s not allowed to do anything. Mobility… autonomy…”
“Nevertheless it does.”
Jack grew even more puzzled. “Tell me more.”
Sviatoslav screwed up his face as if every word was a tooth extracted. “Its—more—like—undead.” In a sudden fit of decision he flourished his hand as if presenting Jack with an invisible prize. “See here, Jack. Have you ever heard of Agent Zero?”
Jack covered his mouth and chin with his hand, resting his elbow in his other hand. “Yes I have. Once in passing. I forget when it was.”
But he hadn’t forgotten. He could see the uncertainty in Acting Commissioner Nilsson’s face as she uttered the words “it doesn’t matter.”
Quite clearly it did.
Sviatoslav tossed his head as if shaking off a fly. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You’re as bad as Commissioner Nilsson.”
“Who’s Commissioner Nilsson?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The two men locked eyes as if they were arm-wrestling. Suddenly Sviatoslav snorted and laughed. “Okay, Jack. It’s something I didn’t want to go into at this stage. Let’s just say that as far as the intensor is concerned there are no personas of class zero. It’s just a bucket category—a trash-can. Assigning class zero to a persona is a way of consigning it to oblivion.”
“So what is Agent Zero?”
“Listen to me carefully, then. There ought to be no personas of class zero. In actual fact there is at most one. It is known as the Unperson. A bug in the Nix intensor. Its existence was never even suspected until it was discovered by the Meteor Gang.”
“A kind of Mr Nobody—responsible for all the things that are nobody’s fault?”
“Exactly.” Sviatoslav wrinkled his nose, as if savouring a novel idea. “How I think of it is this. The info-tensor itself can be represented as a Schrödinger Wave. Personas in the intensor, being pure information, behave like subatomic particles—quanta—describable by quantum theory. Personas having class greater than zero are fermions: in other words they obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, they have individuality. Are you with me?”
Sviatoslav’s eyebrows shot up. He hadn’t expected that. “Are you a mathematician?”
Sviatoslav gazed at Jack in unconcealed disbelief. He was of a mind to test him. “So if I tell you that a persona assigned class zero no longer obeys Fermi-Dirac but Bose-Einstein statistics…?”
“…It becomes a boson, indistinguishable from any other boson. They’ll merge into a bosonic condensate… aah!” Jack’s face lit up with a sudden insight. “so that’s what the Unperson is: a bosonic condensate—the bosonic condensate—of all class zero personas ever!”
“By the Rock-of-Mars! You are a mathematician.”
“But it doesn’t tell me what the Unperson is capable of. I’d hazard a guess and say nothing.”
Sviatoslav nodded. “That’s how it ought to be, Jack. But the intensor is a programmed artifact… and even groubian programmers are only human. Prohibitions such as zero autonomy and zero mobility need to be explicitly programmed.”
“I know what you mean. Harry once showed me a simple arcade game he’s written. To make the ball bounce off the wall you have to write a program telling it to. Else the ball just goes through the wall.”
“Yes, Jack—that’s good. Now the Nix intensor was erected way back in the first century MV—the sixteenth century UT—long before nonexistence was properly understood. The programmers saw no need to program the prohibitions for class zero because there are no personas of class zero.” He took a deep breath. “Or so they imagined.”
“Can’t the bug be patched?”
“It’s lodged too deep. Every class inherits the properties of class zero—which includes their programs. We can’t tear down the intensor to start afresh. Public life would collapse. The Strana of Olympia would disappear.”
Jack strained forward. “So the Unperson evades all restrictions—becomes anybody?”
Sviatoslav nodded. “The Meteor Gang discovered they were able to animate an ectoplast with it. Do you know what an ectoplast is, Jack?”
“Half an ectoplast makes a hugglephone.” Jack recalled Gabrielle telling him that.
“You could say so. The result was the famous—or infamous—Agent Zero.”
“And I take it,” said Jack, “that there can be no more than one Agent Zero in existence at any one time?”
“That’s right. But it sure can get around.”
Jack had a thought. “Can it leave the intensor field—say to travel to the Moon, or Gaia, where there is no intensor?”
“Yes. The intensor is not needed to keep the dummy animated, only to animate it in the first place. But if it were to perish altogether, then the Unperson can only be re-expressed back within the Nix intensor.”
“And what if it’s made to impersonate somebody who is already class zero in their own right? Like my Harry, who’s been edulated—which I gather earns him zero status?”
Sviatoslav had to stop and think about that. “Something very interesting would happen… I’d say the Unperson wouldn’t merely commence impersonating Harry, but Harry would actually become the Unperson.”
Jack ripped through the streets in his marscar, throwing up a column of dust as if he were in a motor boat ploughing along a canal. He was chagrined to discover that ordinary folk didn’t use the free-ranging moon-hopper on Mars. All he could get was one of these slithering cars which were designed to do nothing but cruise the dusty streets. If you wanted to range across the surface of Mars you had to sign-up with Olvoi—Olímpiskaia Voíska—the volunteer defence force. Only Olvoi was allowed to use hoppers—and only on exercises.
However there was one advantage to a marscar. Unlike a hopper, which basically you steered by hand, you simply had to tell a marscar where to go and it went there of its own accord, avoiding other vehicles as it went, not to mention the odd pedestrian. You could sit back and contemplate the overpowering scenery.
Unfortunately he had to instruct his marscar in M1. They didn’t have an M2 voice-chip for the model he wanted. Only the meagre low-valuta models had those, since only menials bought them. The dealer had given him a list of things to say and he tried to read them out as best he could, but his accent was bad and there was vast scope for misunderstandings.
This had been his experience ever since he’d landed. Here he was, in an advanced civilisation, half a century ahead of the planet Earth—and he couldn’t get anything to do what he wanted. Maybe, like Kat, you had to be born to it.
He was on his way to see Gabrielle, to take her climbing on the north rim of the Old City. He thought of something she’d said when they’d talked on the hugglephone. She said the Vratch was coming to see her, but she hadn’t wanted to say what for. The more he thought about it, the more ominous it sounded.
If people on Earth viewed good health as a citizen’s right, on Mars it had become a civic duty. Of course such things were more important in the delicate artificial biosphere of Mars than the more robust one of Earth. People who allowed themselves to weaken and so become a reservoir of disease were being anti-social.
But it went far beyond disease control—almost to the borders of eugenics. The Vratch was to health what Zasta was to info-crime—a medical enforcement agency. Jack was determined to ask Gabrielle why she’d called them in. But he wouldn’t be surprised if she told him the Vratch had invited themselves.
Why? None of his business really. And yet it might be—if she were pregnant.
A thought struck him. She hadn’t told him because she didn’t want the baby and was planning to get rid of it. His Catholic upbringing revolted at the idea. If life itself had no intrinsic valuta—what had?
If she was plucking up courage to tell him that she was bearing his baby, he was determined to do everything to see that she could have it. Even to abandoning his search for Tvoul. The cost of bringing up a child wasn’t a problem. Not for a booner. But the likelihood of wrecking her career might be—at least to her. And yet… why had she come out all the way to Mars, if not in quest of a new life? A life in which she could settle down and start a family?
He realised he was thinking like a man with his whole life ahead of him. Not one they’d given only six months to live. Maybe they were crazy… and maybe he was, too. If she had anything to tell him, she would.
Soon he had picked her up from her apartment in Doróga 273 and they were tearing north along the dusty streets to the North Rim. Jack was showing off his new toy: he took anything but the straight route, just so that he could twist and turn, showing off his altogether superficial command of M1.
Eventually they got to the climbers’ resort at the foot of the Rim. A rocket train took them a mile along a tunnel up through tumbled rock at the base until they came to the Rim proper—a sheer mile-high cliff on top of that.
Areology, the Martian equivalent of geology, sought to explain the lurid tones in which the cliff face was stained. The explanations it offered trumped anything you could have come up with in a drunken party game. The first people to see photographs of the Martian surface described it as the bizarre imaginings of somebody who knew nothing about geology. And thus the science of Areology was born: a grotesque kid-sister to terrestrial geologists’ mature awareness of their own planet.
Soon Gabrielle was clambering—and sometimes dangling—behind Jack, as they felt their way up crack and cranny with ropes and pitons.
“You know, Jack,” she observed over the intertalk, “If I didn’t love you, I’d be hard put to think of a crazier way of spending an afternoon. Did you used to do a lot of this on Earth?”
“I climbed a bit in the Lake District when I was a lad—plus all around Roseberry Topping, south of Teesside. Hadn’t done it for years. But the Galen Clinic got me going again on the Moon. They said it was rattling good exercise for a man who’d been fitted with an SP unit.”
“What about his poor girl-friend?”
“Oh, they were happy for her to string along behind.”
She coughed. Jack ignored her.
“Kitty came out with me quite a lot. We used to go climbing in Crater Flammarion, the popular place to go from Jordvik. Did you ever meet Kitty?”
“No—I can’t say I did. Jordvik isn’t exactly a tiny village…”
“Kitty came from California.”
“Well, the Earth’s not that small either.”
“No… you’re right there.”
Jack inserted another piton in the rock, taking more than usual care. Martian gravity was only a third of Earth gravity. If you weighed twelve stone on Earth, you weighed four on Mars. But it still didn’t do to go falling off a cliff—as Gabrielle had pointedly reminded him at the outset. Jack had retorted “Confucius, He Say: height of fall not kill you. It’s sudden stop at bottom.”
Once Jack was satisfied with his handiwork they started climbing again.
“What became of Kitty? Did you kiss her goodbye on Selene?”
“In a manner of speaking. She was with Jens and Vermat when the Gaiascope went up.”
Gabrielle fell silent. They didn’t speak again until they reached a narrow ledge, where Jack thought it was high time she had a break. He was apt to forget that people who didn’t have SP units got tired far quicker than he did.
Gabrielle clutched his arm. “Jack—just look at that view!”
“There now. Aren’t you glad you came?”
She gave the arm a squeeze. “I’m always glad when I’m with you.”
“I know. You’d follow me anywhere, ha-ha. Even up the sides of a crater. But you have to admit, this is a champion crater.”
“It isn’t a crater. It’s a caldera.”
“All right. It’s a champion caldera.”
It certainly was. It put Crater Flammarion in the shade. In the sable sky above them, drizzled with stars, the sun glared down, lighting and warming the cliff face. There was no red tinge to the sky here, nor even blue—the atmosphere was insignificant this far above “sea-level”, as it was fancifully called. And the rocks weren’t the dull greeny-grey of the Moon. They were painted rocks, mostly reds and browns and ochres. Twenty miles away, on the other side of the plain, the cliffs rose in multiple levels as several calderas bit into the central one.
Below them the City stretched across the intervening lava pan. He could see the dome of the Areopagus like a lonely blister, but the sameness of the city made it scarcely visible at this altitude.
“Jack—there’s something I must tell you.”
Here it came. He patted Gabrielle’s hand in what he hoped would feel like encouragement.
“You know…” she said, then stopped and had to pluck up courage again. “When I made the decision to come out to Mars, I knew it would mop up the best years of my life. I didn’t make it lightly. I was hoping to get something in return.”
They turned to look into each other’s eyes. For a moment Jack was tempted to raise a holoface—the thought alone could set it off—but he’d have hated himself for that. He imagined he could see the same thought in Gabrielle’s eyes—her face looked strangely naked. Not romantically naked, but as you do when you’re about to confide something bad.
…to be continued.