Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
Jack is left with a sense of dissatisfaction after his talk with Fr O’Leary, SJ. Exitting through the church, he scarcely notices a z-nik apparently in silent prayer. But later that night, the “z-nik” pays Sviatoslav a visit. Next day…
NOW READ ON.
“Ah, Jack,” said Sviatoslav. “Come in and take a seat.”
Petra was there, so was Boris Mixailovitch from Peretchelo. Jack nodded to them both as he moved round the table to one of the two empty chairs.
“Not the sauna this time?”
“No, Jack,” replied Sviatoslav. “It goes without saying we won’t be alluding to what went on there. Fortunately we don’t have to. We need to be a bit more formal for this meeting, because it represents a watershed of collaboration between TMG and Peretchelo. On a matter of no small importance… to us all.”
When Jack had made himself comfortable, Sviatoslav glanced round the table at each participant in turn. His eyes finally settled on Jack and he put on a bright smile.
“Well, Jack: we’ve got a job for you.”
“Very pleased to hear it. I was starting to wonder how to fill my time.”
“Oh, this job will do that quite satisfactorily.” Sviatoslav chuckled, but his face went suddenly serious. “It’s the job for which you’ve been brought all the way from Gaia. At considerable expense I might add: both material and personal.”
“Don’t think I’m not grateful,” said Jack. He guessed Sviatoslav was referring to the deaths of Markus and Duke. Here, at last, was Payback Time.
“It is we who will have cause to be grateful.” Sviatoslav stretched and folded his arms behind his head. “If you succeed.”
Jack waited in silence.
“We want you to go to Titan… and bring back Tvoul.”
Jack nodded slowly. Eventually he murmured “Bring her back to Mars?”
“Yes. Back to Mars. Shortly after you parted from Markus on Gaia, he phoned Platform Two and delivered Tvoul an ultimatum. The mere fact that he’s not alive today isn’t going to stop us carrying it out. Tvoul can run, but she can’t hide. Not even if she hot-foots it all the way to Titan.”
“So what am I supposed to do when I get to Titan? How am I to carry out this… ultimatum?”
“You will gain access to Tvoul thanks to your unique relationship with her—as her father-in-law. Under the Treaty of Moscow, anyone who stops you seeing her commits a crime against humanity. You will be taking a hibernator casket to Platform Two and you will return to Mars with Tvoul inside the casket—dead or alive. In all this you will enjoy the best possible assistance.”
“Will Tvoul be expecting me?”
“I… er… imagine she will. But she won’t know the true purpose of your visit. Nor will anyone on Platform Two. That is, apart from your contact on the rig, codenamed Metapelet. Hebrew word, I think. That’s the manager of the Special Unit.” Turning to indicate, Sviatoslav added “Boris is here to help you fix it up.”
“What does the Special Unit do?”
Boris endeavoured to answer Jack’s question. “It is staffed exclusively with Peretchelo employees. Its activities are top-secret, but they are all to do with Project Tahiti.”
“Boris doesn’t want to say this,” added Sviatoslav, “but it specialises in activities which are technically illegal on Mars. In a manner of speaking, Tvoul has gone to precisely the right place.”
“What are we to tell the captain of the Prometheus?” interjected Petra.
“Only what it is good for him to know,” replied Sviatoslav. “We’ll warn him Jack is on his way, of course. Then Jack must claim passage under the Treaty of Moscow, pleading family connections.”
“Will that work, do you suppose?”
Sviatoslav raised his eyebrows at Petra. “Can you think of a better approach?”
Petra put her head to one side. “It would help if Jack could claim to be on assignment to Peretchelo—and had security clearance for Project Tahiti.”
“Good idea,” said Sviatoslav. “He’ll need a code-name then…”
“How about another Hebrew word… Nimrod?” Petra hadn’t hesitated. Her eyes transfixed Jack as if he were celluloid. “The great hunter of the Book of Genesis?”
“Any objection, Jack? Well, Nimrod let it be. Boris, can you fix it?”
Boris nodded, as if he did this sort of thing every day.
“When do I set off?” said Jack. His voice was flippant. The journey to Titan was notoriously harsh, but he was finding it hard to take his mission seriously. Like as not, events would have intervened by then to prevent his going. Events which he himself would soon be setting in motion.
Sviatoslav redirected his gaze at Petra, inviting her to reply.
“What are we today?—Friday March 13, 401,” she said. “In four weeks’ time then. Every other month, on the same day, Prometheus re-inserts into Martian orbit. The actual day has gone back a week because last year was a leap-year. So it’s next due to arrive on April 6. It’ll depart again on April 9, so be ready.”
Sviatoslav sniffed. “Are you happy to do this for us, Jack?”
“Why of course,” said Jack, shrugging. “Company man—that’s what I am.”
For a moment Sviatoslav held his gaze, remembering Agent Zero’s warning of the night before. Boris chipped in. “It all boils down to the incred, doesn’t it?” Jack thought he had a silly grin.
Sviatoslav nodded and sighed, as if he had been expecting things would be more difficult. “Well, that just about wraps it up…”
“Wait a minute,” Petra cut in. “I have a question for Boris. Won’t Tvoul be missed? As far as Peretchelo is concerned, she’s got to be on that rig for a purpose.”
“Ah,” said Sviatoslav. “Now we come to the clever part. We have a substitute for her. There is someone I want you all to meet—but mainly you, Jack. Something I should rather say, to keep within the law.”
“It?” said Jack in puzzlement.
“It,” confirmed Sviatoslav. “That is how we must refer to it. All humanoid simulations must refer to themselves, and be referred-to, in the neuter gender.”
“Svi, stop being so arch,” said Petra. “Who—or what—are you talking about?”
Sviatoslav stretched back in his chair. “I was rather hoping it would be here by now. A little present from Komissár Miro. I’m referring to… Agent Zero.”
Petra’s and Boris’s eyes showed their whites. Boris smacked the table with the flat of his hand. Petra gasped “She’s still extant!”
“It,” insisted Sviatoslav yet again. “Yes, Miro has raised Agent Zero to walk the planet once more.”
“Do you think she’ll come? …I mean: it?” Petra’s tone was hushed, something unusual for her.
“Oh yes,” said Sviatoslav. “It paid me a surprise visit late last night. I asked it to attend this meeting.”
“Whyever would it comply with a request like that?” said Petra. “It’s an instrument of the Meteor Gang.”
“Not any more,” said Sviatoslav. “Miro has seen to that. Agent Zero impersonates Tvoul Rainbow now, not Shval. And what’s more, it’s been sworn-in as a Zasta agent.”
Petra wrinkled her nose. “The Unperson cannot swear. It cannot enter into any form of legal contract.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” scoffed Sviatoslav. “The Unperson can do anything. Anyway, this is a covert operation. Legality doesn’t enter into it.”
Boris let out a long slow sigh. “And is Shval Meteor going to stand aside and let that happen? Will she calmly let Komissár Miro take control of her monster?”
“She has no choice,” said Sviatoslav. “On Selene she lost control of it herself. Or so Vermat told Miro—and she was in an ideal position to know. It was Shval’s evil genius to create it in the first place, to be sure—but the whole point in doing so was to have an autonomous double of herself. And autonomous it has certainly turned out to be.”
“May I ask a question?” said Jack. “When this thing comes in here… how will I be able to tell it is not Tvoul Rainbow in the flesh?”
Petra took it upon herself to reply. “By virtue of the fact that personas are fermions—entities with individuality—there can only be one instance of Tvoul’s persona in the Nix intensor…”
She paused for effect. “And that’s how we know Tvoul is not on Mars.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Jack in amazement. “Could you repeat that?”
Petra took a deep breath. “It’s how we know Tvoul is not on Mars. The intensor cannot support two simultaneous instances of Tvoul’s persona, even if one is an impersonation.”
“Hey wait a minute,” said Jack. “Even I can tell a person’s social class nowadays from the intensor field. I’d certainly tell if I was faced with something of class zero. So how could Agent Zero possibly fool me that she was Tvoul? …I mean it?”
“Well,” said Sviatoslav, “you’ll see in a minute. We’ll all see. But bear this in mind, Jack—and Petra too. Miro has sworn Agent Zero into Zasta, which was extremely clever of him. So Agent Zero is a Zasta agent: a servant of the Strana. A booner—like you. You won’t feel its aura, except as a neutral presence.”
“And what if it turns off its booner card?” said Jack. “Would I be able to tell it’s not Tvoul then?”
“You can try asking it to. But it’s up to Agent Zero whether it complies.” Sviatoslav sighed, unaware of Jack’s reason for wanting to know. “We’ll have to trust Miro for now that he hasn’t gone recruiting Tvoul herself.” He laughed at the idea. “As Petra says, Agent Zero wouldn’t have been able to take on her persona if she were actually here—in Nix City.”
Oh yes, thought Jack. Let’s all trust Miro—the great engineer of coincidences. His mind went back to when Tvoul came into the club on the arms of a couple of men-about-town. She’s perfectly capable of pulling the wool over folk’s eyes, he told himself. And that goes for the three wise monkeys round this table.
“Is it possible,” he asked aloud, “for someone to change their personality so utterly that it’s no longer the same persona? Or if you like, alter themselves so much that they aren’t the same person?”
Silence fell like a blanket of snow.
Sviatoslav commenced a slow, shrewd smile. “Well, Jack… I’ve known people manage it. You for one. But it’s not so easy for a fifty thousand year-old being.” He gave a sharp sigh. “I think we can discount that possibility.”
No, thought Jack, we can’t. The face at the club tells us we can’t.
The v-unit on the table in front of Sviatoslav buzzed. “There’s someone to see you, sir,” said the receptionist, in a voice tinged with uncertainty, a touch of fear even. “Someone from Zasta…”
“Send it in,” said Sviatoslav with a grin.
Presently the door opened. An anonymous figure stood there, visor opaque, clad in the blue-and-white uniform of Zasta. Sviatoslav beckoned and pointed to the one remaining empty chair. It closed the door and sat down.
“Gentlemen—and Lady,” said Sviatoslav, “I present to you… Agent Zero.”
The visor cleared. In spite of having been prepared for it, Jack jumped. He looked slowly round at Sviatoslav, who was smiling back at him. Nobody had missed Jack’s SP unit going click.
“Not bad, eh Jack?”
“Huh! Pretty good I’d say.”
It was Tvoul’s face—no doubt about that. And Sviatoslav was right about the booner status concealing a class zero. There was no way he could tell it from the intensor. It felt on his face exactly like the figure he’d caught sight of in church.
A thought struck him: it might just be the same figure! But there again, aren’t all z-niks booners?
“This is what’s going to stand-in for Tvoul on Platform Two—once the real Tvoul has been strong-armed into the hibernator. Dead or alive: it doesn’t matter. We only want the zygocysts.”
“Now here it comes,” said Boris with an ugly grin of anticipation. “Here’s where Tvoul gets her come-uppance for double-crossing us all.”
Jack turned to the newcomer. “Do I take it you’re coming to Titan with me?”
He watched as Tvoul’s gioconda smile was convincingly carried-off. “We won’t exactly be holding hands, Jack. I shall make my own way on board the Prometheus. Don’t you think that’s advisable, Sviatoslav?”
“Can you do that? Security is tight.”
“No problem. I’ve managed to penetrate the terminal twice already. And even get on and off the shuttle without anyone noticing.”
Sviatoslav chucked. “You were pretty scathing last night about my security. What have you got to say about the cosmodrome’s?”
“Far worse. But it’s easier for me than it would be for you. And I mean you, Sviatoslav, for all your covert experience.”
“Do tell us why.”
“It’s the things I can do, both as a z-nik and the Unperson. Personas may be unique, but ectoplasts are expendable. I can discard one—and animate another.”
“That I’d love to see,” grinned Sviatoslav.
A robot, thought Jack—but a smart robot. A very smart robot indeed. But all the while he was thinking to himself: this may be what I saw in church, but it isn’t the person who came into the club. Nor the one I spoke to on the hugglephone. Neither of those was a booner and neither was class zero. Both were class seven.
“Your booner card—can you switch it off for a moment, flower?”
“A z-nik can’t do that while on-duty.”
Jack persevered. “Can you take your helmet off, like? Let me have a proper look at you?”
“Good girls don’t take their helmets off with strange men.”
Giggles all round. Jack contemplated reminding the agent just what Tvoul had taken off for him in times past, but decided against it.
“The illusion would vanish,” said Sviatoslav. “I’m not even sure the helmet isn’t ectoplasm.”
“Correct,” said Agent Zero. “It is simulated.”
But Jack wasn’t going to let it rest there. “Do you ever go to church to pray?”
“Whyever would the Unperson want to do that?”
“Like the Undine, y’know… to earn herself a human soul?”
Boris burst out laughing. But Sviatoslav’s smile evaporated.
“Why should I have any interest in doing that?”
“I asked you a question.” The room fell silent.
“I have been known to go to church. But not to pray.”
Jack nodded slowly, his lip curling. “And did you see me there yesterday?”
“Yes.” The reply came without hesitation.
Jack shot Sviatoslav a glance of triumph. The latter acknowledged with a barely-perceptible lowering of his eyelids. Emboldened, Jack resolved to try some more questions.
“And can you sip a cocktail?” This met with general merriment, but the agent returned a blank stare.
Jack persisted. “Can you use the hugglephone—and offer someone interspex?” Boris, Jack noticed, was by this stage reduced to helplessness.
“I haven’t tried sipping a cocktail. It would all go wrong, I think, after the first sip. I can use a hugglephone of course: it’s only half an ectoplast. But I wouldn’t care to use it naked, as the fashion goes. There is insufficient bandwidth to transmit whole-body spatio-color.”
Jack was still nodding slowly. But his expression had grown bleak.
“And as for interspex…” Agent Zero toyed abstractly with its six-shooter in its holster, “if I were you, I’d forget about it.”
…to be continued.