A further instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). Another 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
Sviatoslav explains the concept of Martian social class to Jack. Several puzzling things now become clearer. Once more the mysterious “Agent Zero” arises in conversation – and this time Jack is treated to an explanation (of sorts).
Jack takes time off for a little rock-climbing with Gabrielle on the North Rim of the Nix caldera. But she has something painful to tell him…
“I wasn’t thinking of you at the time,” she said. “I didn’t know then you’d be on board Oberon. But when we met up again… I transferred my dream to you.”
Suddenly tears started in her eyes. Jack wanted to kiss her, but she needed to keep her visor shut in order to breathe. She turned her head away. “Jack—I’m afraid it’s not to be.”
“Hinny, if it seems I’m not paying you enough attention, it’s because I’ve got something hanging round me neck. A bit job to do. After that, things will be better. Believe me.”
“No Jack, you don’t understand. It’s just that… it’s… I can’t have children.”
Jack was stunned. This wasn’t what he’d been anticipating.
“The lady from the Vratch told me last night. She wanted to remove my ovaries there and then, but I wouldn’t let her. I said I didn’t want to be mutilated—it means a lot to a woman. She replied that it was a condition of being allowed to reside on Mars. So I said I’d go back to Earth.”
“Gabrielle—what the heck’s been happening to you?”
“Radiation, Jack. The solar wind. Oberon was well shielded, but eight months in space must have been the last straw to break the camel’s back.”
“What are you on about? That goes for everyone on the Oberon surely…”
“No it doesn’t, Jack. I’ve spent half my working life flying to-and-fro on the Lunaborg spaceplane, ferrying patients to the Galen Clinic. I should have known better. The vratchka did tests. My ovaries are shot to pieces. It’s irresponsible even to think of having children.”
“We could adopt…” blurted out Jack, before he realised what he’d said. With his life-expectancy it was irresponsible for him too.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and gripped his arm in both hands. Tears hung on her lashes. “Jack,” she whispered. “I’m committed now to going back to Earth. I’ve told the Vratch I would.”
“How soon’s that gonna be? It’s another two years before the Oberon comes round again. What can they possibly do to you in all that time?”
“Keep me in prison.”
Jack bowed his head and shook it widely, like an elephant swaying its trunk. The power of the Vratch! The insolent, heartless power!
“Luckily,” she said, “it doesn’t need to come to that. There’s a special shuttle just been put on. It’s flying out to Oberon before it gets too far away, though it’ll be a long flight. I’ve got another first-class passenger.”
She sighed and dropped her hands in her lap. “I depart from Voronka in two days’ time.”
Throughout Gabrielle’s last two days and nights on Mars, Jack never left her side. He asked her what she’d most like to see before she went home. He was expecting her to say Cydonia or Valles. Going by rocket train they might have managed both of them in the time. But all she wanted to do was wander round the Areopagus. The huge rock drank-in their pain. The chill it radiated deadened their sense of impending loss.
Hand in hand they walked past the lawns and the flower beds and fingered the trees under the Plexiglas dome that housed the Park.
“They’re rebuilding the Gaiascope,” said Gabrielle. “It will be even bigger and better.”
“Is that where you’re going back to? Jordvik? I thought you wanted to return to Earth.”
“I do really. But there’s nowhere on Earth for me to go. I haven’t got a home in Sunderland anymore. Me Mam won’t be able to look after me—she’s far too old. Her bungalow is too small for us both.”
“You won’t go short, will you? Did Jens arrange payment for you, I mean, as our agent on board the Oberon?”
“Oh, yes. There’s a tidy sum in selkroner waiting for me in Jordvik. Just try transferring it back to England though… ‘Moon-money’…” She affected a Mackem whoop. “…‘What’yer doing with moon-money?’ But I’ll get to spend it. The firm’s keeping me on as courier—and it’ll be easier for me if I’m based on Selene.”
“I’m surprised you still want to work for them—after what they’ve done to you.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I can’t sue for compensation or anything like that. It was entirely my own fault. As a nurse I should have known. The tests were on offer, but they weren’t compulsory. And they’re not awfully pleasant. I just loved the life—and I guess that deep down I was afraid that if they found radiation damage I’d have had to give it up.”
“Don’t they limit you to so-many hours?”
“It doesn’t depend on how many hours you spend in space. It depends on where you happen to be in the spaceplane when an X-flare hits. You’re supposed to know the sunspot forecast and be sitting in a seat: they’re all well-shielded. Not standing in the aisle tending a sick passenger—or soothing a crying child.”
They tried to link hands around the bole of the great oak, but couldn’t quite reach. Gabrielle said “This one’s called the Oak King. Every two years it produces masses of acorns.”
“Total waste,” replied Jack moodily. “How’s an acorn going to put down roots on Mars?”
“You’re supposed to think what a touching declaration of faith in humanity that is,” said Gabrielle, just as moodily. “It’s got this far, hasn’t it?”
They let go of the tree and walked away. Jack said “Would you like to go back to Earth?”
“I’d love to. It will be a year or two before the Gaiascope reopens. Until it does there’s not a great deal to do in Jordvik, except lift the elbow. And wild horses wouldn’t drag me to Lunaborg to live.”
Jack murmured “The house in Esh Winning has just come back into my hands.”
“How did that happen? I thought you’d simply given it to that Markus fellow.”
“Markus never bothered to register it. He wouldn’t have dared, or they’d have chucked him off the planet. Nobody knew about the transaction. Frank’s been telling me he’s taken charge of the house again on my behalf. The insurance paid out—there was quite a bit of rebuilding work to do. Doesn’t a triton pistol make a mess of things. But now it’s all like new. Frank was hoping to tempt me home.”
“When are you going home, Jack?”
“Just as soon as I can persuade Zasta to do something about Tvoul.” He had told Gabrielle nothing about what the Vratch had said to him.
Gabrielle poked her tongue in her cheek. “What’s their take on that?”
“They say they don’t know where Tvoul is. They’re trying to kid me she’s not on Mars. They claim they can tell from the intensor.”
“Can’t you get her convicted in her absence?”
“No. The law doesn’t work that way. This is a capital charge, they say, so Tvoul must be around to answer it. And it happened off-world, so the onus is on me to bring the evidence. I’ve phoned the Moon and Selstyrke is all ready to help me there. Nilsson’s canny. She’s a great support. But I think Zasta’s covering for Tvoul. She’s sure to have friends in high places.”
“Oh yes, won’t she just. What’s the use of having been Goubernator three times on-the-trot if you only made enemies?”
“Aye, you can say that again.” He stooped to pick up a pebble and clutch it tightly, a ball of pumice like a tiny parched world. “So it’s a waiting game. Sooner or later—I’ll find her.”
He threw the pebble over the edge. “Then I’ll be gannin’ ‘yem.” For emphasis he thickened his accent. “Back to Durham. Back ti’ me bit hoose in Esh Winning.”
But he knew the moment he said it that he was never going back as a living man.
He took Gabrielle’s hands and pulled her round to meet his gaze. “Why don’t you go back there and wait for me? Have it as your weekend cottage. Live in it for free. I’ll give Frank a buzz and tell him to sort things out. I’ll be on the Oberon next time around and I’ll come back home and join you.”
It wasn’t really a lie. It was a wish—a hopeless one.
Gabrielle clasped his neck. It was several seconds before she could speak.
“Thank you, Jack… I’ll keep it warm for you. And every night I’ll put your slippers out in front of the fire…” Her voice tailed off and she burst into tears. Jack hugged her tightly. A second grew to a minute—and still they weren’t able to let go of each other.
Three hours later Jack was standing on the balcony of the main concourse of Voronka Cosmodrome, watching a group of people on a hover-platform glide across the glassy floor towards the departure gate. Gabrielle stood out in her red uniform. Her VIP passenger was a drooping bear of a man. She’d said his name was Sprenger. Jack supposed him to be some government apparatchik.
Jack had half-wondered if Tvoul might take the chance to bolt back to Gaia, but there was clearly no groubian among the little cluster—not even if she’d been in disguise. It was simply not feasible for a groubian to slip off the planet that way.
Just before the hover-platform disappeared beneath the balcony, Gabrielle glanced up. Briefly their eyes met. The SP unit did a painful click.
Jack turned briskly towards the levitators and ascended to the lookout tower. He watched the great Eye slowly open and the shuttle rise. It turned its nose towards the setting sun. Then, like a quarrel from a crossbow, it darted off, dwindled and disappeared.
Long after the sun had gone down, Jack stood in darkness, staring out of the curved windows of the lookout tower. He tried to bring Gabrielle’s face to mind—a face he never expected to see again. In dismay he found it was already fading in his memory. Gabrielle—bonny lass. Beautiful. And not for him.
Solar wind… solar wind… boiling off the surface of the Sun. Blowing past planet after planet, out beyond the furthest lump of ice in the Oort Cloud. Blowing away from him everyone he’d ever known.
Saturday night in the club they were playing 60s songs from Gaia, moody and low. Stewart, sitting beside Jack in his usual place at the bar, couldn’t get him to talk in anything but monosyllables, so in the end he had given up. Jack had raised a discouraging holoface, the Durham Cathedral demon door-knocker no less, and now sat drowned in sullen depths like Debussy’s cathédrale engloutie.
A voice rose out of the background noise, singing a Lennon-McCartney number…
Once there was a way… to get back home.
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry…
All at once the music froze for Jack on one note. There was a root shift in the energy of the intensor. A buzz ran round the room, confirming Jack’s impression: somebody of consequence had entered the building. Jack didn’t know intensor conventions well enough to be sure what it meant, but the torque on his face was nearly strong enough to pop his eyeballs.
A celebrity? Or a scoundrel?
Three people had just come in. A tall shapely woman with her arms around the shoulders of two men. One of the men collected drinks from the bar. Two beers and an elaborate cocktail—a Midsummer Madness. They were just settling down to enjoy their drinks when one of the men, evidently in response to an intertalk, got to his feet and left the club. After a moment the other man followed him, laying his hand briefly on the woman’s arm to bid her stay and wait for them to come back. As he departed, the intensor barely quivered. It was tightening in a vortex around her—and her only.
With sinuous grace the woman stretched out her long legs, encased in stylish leather high-boots with titanium buckles. Adjusting the straw in her cocktail, she raised the visor of her helmet and began to drink. As she did so her groubian cheeks flushed with pleasure in hues of yellow and rose-pink. Jack’s SP unit went click.
It was Tvoul! Never could he forget that face.
Alerted by the click, she looked up from her drink to catch him staring fixedly at her. Her groubian complexion exploded in a flurry of colours—then it settled down to a pond of ripples in shades of bluish grey, which rose steadily from her chin and tumbled into her eyes.
Stretching her legs, affecting to relax even more into her chair, she returned his gaze with a long low stare, smiling that Mona Lisa smile as she sipped her cocktail.
He recognised her—but had she recognised him? He was showing a dismal holoface which masked his own, but she would have no difficulty polling the intensor to find out who he was. If she was that bothered.
Deliberately he switched off the holoface, treating her to a basilisk glare from his own features. In response she merely broadened her smile. Jack’s throat tightened in fury. He was all set to leap to his feet.
Her two companions had scarcely been away when they returned, hurrying her off. Snatching her eyes away from Jack, she pushed her unfinished drink to the middle of the table and rose effortlessly to her feet. Then, arms around each others’ waists, the threesome briskly climbed the waxy steps out of the club.
Jack turned to look at Stewart, who was smiling and nodding. “Looks like you made a hit,” the latter observed.
“Who was that?” said Jack, straining to keep his voice level.
“Why—that’s Tvoul. Everyone knows Tvoul. She often comes in here. Though she doesn’t have to tout for custom these days.”
“You mean she’s a prostitute—along with her other accomplishments?”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘other accomplishments’, but she’s the world expert on interspex. The galactic expert. That’s Tvoul.”
Stewart took a gulp of his drink. “Just try her out and you’ll see what I mean.” He lifted his glass to drain it.
“I’ve never done it with a groubian,” said Jack. “How do you avoid getting edulated?”
Stewart spluttered in his glass. “Bloody idiot! You can’t be edulated without your consent. It takes hours… days… you have to lie back thinking of England. Huh! No, she’ll do it your way—whatever you want. Would interspex be anything like so popular?”
“Just thought I’d ask,” said Jack.
A picture of Harry arose in his mind. So he couldn’t have resisted. Had he’d been drugged… perhaps by some rainforest fruit or other?
“Anyway I’d say she fancies you,” Stewart continued, putting down his glass. “Though the look on your face would’ve scared the shit out of me. If I were you I’d raise that holoface again. It was much less malign.”
Catching the barman’s attention, Jack ordered more drinks. “Can groubians tell what you’re thinking?”
Stewart pondered for a moment. “It’s doubtful. They recognise a smile of course, but they’re not very good on gaian facial expressions. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just—it’s just that I could use a little, er, consolation. I’ve said goodbye to Gabrielle. It’s almost three weeks and I’m still down. I wouldn’t like to put Miss Tvoul off by my look of misery.”
“I don’t imagine she’ll hold that against you. Get on the hugglephone: ‘touch her up’, as they say. But I guess you’ve missed your chance for a while.”
“Well, for a week, let’s say. Nedélia Slëz starts at midnight.”
“Always the first week of March: the month of Mars—in MV: the time of Mars. It never varies.”
“Hell—I’d forgotten that.”
“I guess that was her having a final fling before going off to sulk in a black veil for seven days.”
“Where does she live?”
Stewart told him where. “She also dances at the Krásnaya Melnítza. That’s M1 for Moulin Rouge if you don’t know. Her act is the highlight of the cabaret. Bear in mind she pulls the crowds. Whenever she’s billed, book well in advance.”
“Then I suppose I’d better do that now.”
…to be continued.