Yet another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). Another 3,000 words will appear tomorrow.
Gabrielle has been forced by the Vratch to return to Earth. Jack sees her off in a spaceplane from Voronka. Drowning his sorrows in his favourite bar, he happens to spot a familiar Groubian face. They tell him she is called Tvoul… and she’s anybody’s.
“Welcome to Åsgård! Not quite the late-lamented Gaiascope—but we’re every bit as proud of it. Have you been here before?”
It was Petra who addressed the question to Jack. Possibly because she had noticed him looking at her.
“Why no—first time.”
“The City Fathers in their wisdom decided that the Areopagus needed a spa and pleasure garden like the Gaiascope, which as you’ll know was inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. To someone from Gothenburg like me it looks more like Liseberg without the green rabbit.”
“How do they manage to get a hot-spring spa—here on Mars?”
“The same way as they do on Gaia. Here inside the Nix we’re sitting on a dormant volcano. Down beneath us is a huge well of magma. Hundreds of cubic miles of molten rock. That gives us areothermal water. How do you think Nix City manages to stay so warm?”
“So—if Olympus Mons erupts again, the whole place will go up like the Gaiascope?”
Petra and Sviatoslav exchanged wry glances. Petra replied “Well, Jack, not exactly. I for one feel safe enough. Olympus Mons is dormant. It hasn’t erupted in over fifty thousand years. Isn’t that what the groubians tell us?”
“A short interval in the areological timescale,” replied Sviatoslav, with a wink at Jack. “There’s no such thing as a ‘dormant’ volcano, Petra, and we’d do well to remember it. There are active volcanoes, extinct volcanoes and live ones. Technically speaking, Olympus Mons is live.” He chuckled. “Jack’s right. We’re all up-in-the-clouds—or might soon be.”
Petra frowned. She thought of herself as a person with her feet on the ground.
Jack had met Petronella Persson briefly in passing at the TMG offices. He hadn’t given her a second glance. But now, in the sauna, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Not just because, in her state of undress, she was revealed as an exceedingly handsome woman, but because her body reminded him so much of Gabrielle’s.
There was of course no mystery about that. People from Sunderland have a lot of Viking blood in them. Gabrielle’s ancestors might well have come from the Gothenburg area too. Petra was as tall as Gabrielle, had her shape of face, her lean figure with its small neat breasts and her flaxen hair. Gabrielle’s slightly receding chin, a characteristic of the Göta people of Sweden, was emphasised in Petra.
He soon decided that that was where the similarity ended. He disapproved of Petra’s razor-wire disposition—and her resemblance to Gabrielle only served to irritate him.
A fourth person came into the sauna, a stocky man with thick dark body hair. Jack thought of a black bear.
“Ah, Boris.” said Sviatoslav. “Glad you came. You’ll know Petra, of course, our legal counsel. This is Jack Williams, who has recently joined TMG… Jack, this is Boris Mixailovitch of Peretchelo—Harry’s company.”
Boris gave Petra and Jack a polite nod and spread out his towel to sit down.
Sviatoslav added meaningfully “Jack is Harry’s father.”
Boris turned back to look at Jack wide-eyed. After a significant pause he held out his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Jack,” he said. “Do accept my commiserations over your son Harry.”
“It’s mainly over Harry that I’m calling this meeting,” said Sviatoslav.
“I love your choice of meeting rooms,” said Boris with no trace of irony. “It’s one-up on the magnolia boxes of your HQ. I take it we’ve got this cabin to ourselves?”
“Of course. And it’s sealed for sound and swept for bugs. And it’s a helmet-free zone—no intensor. We can talk off-the-record.”
“Just the place to discuss hot topics,” said Boris gleefully, rubbing his hands. He had already begun to sweat and his hands made a crepitating noise. Petra pulled her towel tighter round her body.
“Well,” said Boris eagerly, “where shall we start?”
“Jack’s the only one of us who doesn’t know what Harry was up to,” said Sviatoslav. “I think we ought to bring him up-to-date. Then I want to know precisely where Tvoul fits in.”
Boris swivelled on his base to face Jack squarely. “Harry was my colleague. I managed him, but Peretchelo is an informal sort of place. We worked closely together on a number of projects. I suppose you know what Harry did for a living?”
“He told me was a bio-engineer.”
“That’s correct. So am I. But did he ever mention transmen?”
“Not in front of me, no.”
“Do you know what transmen are? Or should I say: will be?”
“I’ve recently been made aware,” said Jack.
“Harry was our chief researcher on a major government contract: the bio-engineering of transmen for Project Tahiti.”
Jack bent his head to one side. “So our Harry was manufacturing transmen… for the government?”
Boris waved his hands horizontally. “Not exactly. There is a chicken-and-egg situation with transmen.” Boris giggled at his own little joke. “You’re hoping to end up with real people: people who’ve had fathers and mothers, or brought up in some sort of family situation. People whom the Goubernator would give his blessing to. And yet you’re inevitably going to have to bio-engineer them. At least it seemed inevitable… until Tvoul came along.”
“You’re going to have to bio-engineer them. Period,” said Petra firmly.
“Harry never believed that,” retorted Boris, “or he wouldn’t have signed-up to the project. He was a good Catholic, you know. Catholics believe genetically-engineered people are an insult to the Creator.”
“However did he think he could pull it off?” said Petra, eyebrows raised. “Get it even the tiniest bit wrong and you end up with a chimorg. An insult to the Creator, if ever there was one.”
“A chimorg-and-egg situation,” giggled Boris. He was enjoying his little jokes.
Petra pouted. “Well, the first of your putative transmen is a manufactured thing, a sort of Adam-figure. A chimorg by definition—until the Goubernator gives it his blessing.”
“Only if you’re going to employ non-human genes to prolong the individual’s life,” interposed Sviatoslav, “the operative word being human.”
“Which is exactly my point,” said Boris. “Well, Harry—aided by Tvoul, I must add—discovered that an all-human hybrid was feasible. A gaian-groubian one. The obvious route is to insert groubian chromosomes into an enucleated gaian oocyte and then to inseminate it with gaian sperm.”
“Explicitly forbidden by the transgenic laws,” said Petra.
“Quite right. So they couldn’t go that route. But nobody could have predicted the route Harry and Tvoul were eventually to take: edulation.”
Jack nodded and looked down at his hands.
“But Harry’s real breakthrough was hiding in there right from the start. While everybody else was locked into thinking that transmen would have to be genetically-engineered and to grow to adulthood, maybe for several generations, before the star-children could set out from Mars, Harry was convinced that transmen could be bred on board once the mission was underway.”
Boris stopped and looked round keenly. “Does everyone understand the significance of that?”
Sviatoslav and Petra stared back poker-faced. “No,” said Jack.
“It knocks decades off the project timescale,” said Boris. “It means we can use an existing vessel like Oberon, which is already tried and tested, spaceworthy and autarkic…”
“What do you mean autarkic?” said Jack.
“Self-contained, to the point that it needs no contact with the home world,” explained Sviatoslav. “These days it also means capable of building a replica of itself, using locally-abundant materials.”
Jack instantly saw the point. “A super-organism—a great big germ.”
Boris nodded and continued. “And, as we know, Oberon will become obsolete in twenty years. It will be replaced by eight thermonuclear vessels not constrained to flying in Hohmann orbits.”
Sviatoslav whistled. “I see what you’re thinking. But with Harry gone it won’t happen.”
Petra leaned forward. “But what if we could make it happen?”
“How?” Boris and Sviatoslav both spoke at once.
“With Tvoul’s zygocysts—or DNA derived from them.”
“Oh.” said Boris. “That’s your angle, is it? Well, consider this. The Oberon isn’t a particularly fast vessel—but Prometheus is. What if it were Prometheus which was assigned to the galacto mission? That would tickle the fancy of the Groubian Alliance.”
“Oh, wouldn’t it!” crowed Sviatoslav. “Prometheus is Titan’s only link with the Four Worlds. It would entail the abandonment of Platform Two and dissolution of the Titanian mir.”
“Re-colonising Titan was something the groubians were never awfully pleased about…” said Petra.
“Keep off our God-damned holy world,” said Boris, nodding.
Sviatoslav smacked his knee. “If I’d have known that Harry’s project entailed that, I’d have had the Groubian Alliance eating out of my hand. Speaking of which…”
He turned to Petra. “Petronella, darling—have you managed to sound out Dolpou Zvezda, high-priestess of the GA?”
Petra glanced at Jack. “Before I start on that, I think somebody ought to tell Jack about the star-children.”
“I was just going to ask about that,” said Jack.
“Go ahead, Star-Papa,” said Sviatoslav.
Boris enthusiastically took up the challenge, leaning forward and gesticulating with his pudgy hands. “Star-children? Well… not everybody means the same thing by that. But everybody means future galactonauts. People suited to living and breeding among the stars will have to form the first galactic colonisation team.”
“You are thinking too small,” said Sviatoslav. “Don’t call it a team—call it a mir—a world. It takes a world to bring a world into existence. Worlds are living beings, sexual beings—they reproduce themselves. Teams aren’t—and don’t.” He glanced at Petra.
“Sviatoslav is right,” said Boris, still addressing Jack. “Mars wasn’t seeded by just one spaceship. Nor Selene either. Selene is the child of Mars (and Titan, to press a point—but everybody likes to forget that). Oberon is the child of Mars and Selene—there’s no argument about that. And, appropriately enough, the new world which sets out to colonise the stars will be the child of all the classical Four Worlds—Gaia, Selene, Oberon and Mars.”
“Five—if you include Titan,” volunteered Petra.
“I’m not including Titan,” snapped Boris.
“Perhaps you ought to,” retorted Sviatoslav. “Because that’s where Tvoul has gone.”
A stunned silence greeted the news. Eventually Boris said “Can I be absolutely sure of that?”
“I’ve no evidence of my own, but Markus was convinced of it,” said Sviatoslav. “And that’s good enough for me.”
“If that’s the Markus who bought my house,” said Jack, “then he’s dead. So how do we know what he was convinced of?”
Jack was just on the point of dropping a bombshell of his own: that he had discovered Tvoul living openly in Nix City. But it occurred to him to keep his trap shut. He wanted to know exactly what plans they had for Tvoul. Because he had plans of his own.
Sviatoslav leaned forward to address Jack. “When Markus took possession of your house on Gaia, he first phoned Selene, then Mars… then Titan. His call to Selene was to the TMG resident agent in Lunaborg: Duke Treikle. When Markus phoned Mars, he left a message for me. But when he phoned Titan… his message was for Tvoul herself, to await arrival.”
“But how do you know that’s where she’s gone?” said Jack.
Sviatoslav shrugged. “Circumstantial evidence. Failure to find her on Mars, even by polling the intensor.”
Polling the intensor: that phrase again! Nobody had ever managed to explain to Jack how that was done. He gathered it entailed offering a tidbit of information as bait and seeing what nibbled it. The trouble with these Martians was that they relied on all these wonderful hi-tech solutions in lieu of common sense.
What if Tvoul had been too canny to take the bait? And canny she was. Who, after all, would expect to find a university professor dancing the quinquin?
Tvoul’s secret—her incredible secret. But by stumbling on it himself, it was his secret now, as Miro had assured him. Not Tvoul’s, nor TMG’s, nor anyone else’s. He was, or so he felt, beginning to get an idea of the ownership of information as real-estate: beginning to learn how to turn the intensor to his own advantage.
“Now,” said Sviatoslav, turning to Petra, “having dealt with the star-children, how did you get on with Dolpou Zvezda and the Groubian Alliance?”
“Well, Tvoul has suddenly dropped in status from superhero to—well not exactly persona non grata—but someone the GA doesn’t want to talk about. They may be covering-up for her, but I doubt it. Yes, Dolpou did agree that transmen with groubian genes would be something her members might well find—erm—appealing. After all, it’s something mighty close to the groubian dream. But not if it entailed interspex—they don’t like owning up to that. And as for edulation…!”
“I guess they don’t want to start another Olympian War,” murmured Sviatoslav.
“No it’s deeper than that. They have an intrinsic horror of it. Edulation, that is, between a gaian and a groubian. They insist that all the stories which gave rise to the wars were sheer calumny.”
“Yeah-yeah,” sneered Sviatoslav. “That’s been the GA’s line all along. But I asked you to explore a slightly different angle. Was it possible that Tvoul tricked Harry into marriage just to get rid of him?”
Petra shook her head, but Jack looked up with a start. “Why would she want to do that?”
Sviatoslav nodded towards Boris, who cast around for a way to explain. “You see, there’s been a lot of rivalry between Peretchelo and TMG over the best route to the Transman. And you could include PUG in that rivalry.”
“Warfare,” muttered Sviatoslav.
“Now Tvoul was not only PUG’s chief researcher on their Transman contract but, in her ex-officio capacity as founder of the Groubian Alliance, she continued to be their chief contact for all sorts of things.”
“To say nothing of contacts arising out of Tvoul’s service to Mars as Goubernator,” interjected Sviatoslav. “Don’t overlook that.”
But Boris made a face. “I’m sure she has her fingers in every pie. But if Tvoul was assisting Harry with his Transman project too—our project—then that’s a serious conflict of interest.”
“The plot thickens,” said Petra, “So Tvoul has been selling PUG down the river to Peretchelo, has she? And selling the Groubian Alliance too? When I spoke to her, Dolpou wondered out loud if that was so.”
“No,” said Boris. “Just the opposite. Because Tvoul did not help Harry achieve his goal. She married him—and edulated him. Exit Harry. No transmen… at least, not by that route. So Peretchelo was sold—looted—sacrificed—to Tvoul’s cronies in PUG and the GA. Aren’t they the beneficiaries? I ask you—cui bono?”
Jack gasped and put his head in his hands.
“Perhaps I should say: no transmen—courtesy of Peretchelo. Now Sviatoslav, do you know something I don’t?” Boris put his hand over his mouth and tried to stare Sviatoslav out.
“Wait a minute,” cut-in Petra, “Let’s be absolutely certain of what you’re saying. Exactly who has Tvoul been two-timing? PUG—or Peretchelo?”
“Peretchelo,” blustered Boris. “My company. Me!”
“Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you,” Petra countered. “But I need evidence that’ll stand up in court.” She put heavy emphasis upon the word “court”, as if she was determined that was where the matter would end up.
“Until then, Boris,” murmured Sviatoslav, “you’d do well not to go flinging out wild accusations…”
Boris spluttered. “I’m not flinging out anything. I merely said, off-the-record if you will—do you know something I don’t?”
Sviatoslav’s voice revealed an edge. “Like…?”
“Let me just repeat what I heard Petra say just now. What if we could make it happen… with Tvoul’s zygocysts—or DNA derived from them. What’s so wild about wondering if there’s some tie-up between TMG and Tvoul, to Peretchelo’s disadvantage?”
Petra sat back with her hands on her lap, as if she’d taken personal offence. “I was merely postulating a what-if situation. This is the first time the idea’s been aired—and in your presence, if you will. You’ve no right to go impugning our motives.”
Boris half-closed his eyes. “Your motives—not even God-in-heaven knows those. But there’s a perfectly good way to establish Tvoul’s motives,”
He leaned forward until his head was almost above Petra’s knee, the latter shying away in spite of herself. “Suppose we find her. Then it hinges on this. Has she got any zygocysts or parturition scars—or hasn’t she?”
There was silence. Boris paused to let the question sink in.
“Because if she’s got neither, then I for one cannot believe she has merely failed to conceive after edulating her gaian husband.” Boris sat up. “Hell—I mean to say… Principal Professor of Human Reproductive Biology? This is a person who knew precisely what she was doing.”
“What was she doing?” murmured Sviatoslav very quietly.
“Giving my Transman project the Titan Kiss—that’s what!”
Sviatoslav clicked his tongue. “I just cannot believe that Tvoul, of all people, would do anything to harm the one single cause close to the heart of every human being on this planet: the star-children.”
“I agree with Svi,” said Petra. “And Dolpou Zvezda can’t believe it either.”
“Well you’re being naïve, both of you. Sure, the groubians want star-children—but they want them to be groubian star-children. No groubian wants to see some gaian Johnny-come-lately succeed where they haven’t managed it… in fifty thousand fucking years.”
Boris leaned forward again for emphasis. “I’m convinced that Tvoul deliberately married Harry to take him out of the equation. To dispose of him, plus his ideas for the Transman, so thoroughly that no one will ever find out what really happened.” He slapped his thighs. “Look—she kids him to propose to her… and to take her to Gaia to meet the family.”
He turned to Jack. “Do you know what we call Gaia? The Blue Hole. It swallows everything and lets nothing back out. Things fall onto the surface of that planet—into its oceans, its swamps, its rainforests—and are lost without trace.”
He turned to the others and waggled both his forefingers. “So go on: try and find Tvoul. But you won’t find what you’re expecting. Because when you do locate her—there’ll be no zygocysts. Read my lips: no zygocysts. Her body will be pure and sterile as the driven sands of Mars.”
…to be continued.