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 learns the real agenda of TMG – and is appalled. He pays a visit to the priest who married Harry and Tvoul, hoping to uncover whatever it was his son had been thinking of. The conversation turns to the Meteor Gang, whom Jack has already encountered on board Oberon.
“What’s the attitude of the Church to chimorgs? Are they human—or aren’t they?”
“That’s something the Strana decides case-by-case, not the Church. We possess neither the scientific nor the legal expertise. In practice we go along with the Strana’s decision in the matter. Peter Zwillinge has been classified as human—but it was a typical Shval Meteor trick to achieve it.”
“Do you believe that Peter Zwillinge is human?”
The priest grimaced. “Between you and me, Peter Zwillinge is not only human, he is a Catholic. Or was, prior to the papal encyclical which excommunicated all triadas. Before that he used to come to this church and I used to hear his confession. Now the things he told me, under the seal of the confessional, I wouldn’t want to talk about, even if I wasn’t forbidden to do so. But this I can say, because it is public knowledge…”
Father O’Leary filled up both glasses again before he’d venture to proceed.
“Peter Zwillinge was an experiment. He was commissioned in secret by TMG to butter-up the Groubian Alliance. He was clearly intended as a head-on attack on the cause celèbre of the two Olympian Wars. He was male, he contained genes from at least two species—two of them being gaian and groubian—plus porcine genes to stabilise the mix.”
“Porcine? Pig? What does he look like?”
“Deceptively harmless. His face is more or less shapeless and his hair like bristles. He was deliberately crippled in order to gain the licence. By law there can be no chimorgs of class seven: binary 111, you know. So he was robbed of his mobility to allow him to be granted autonomy, to make him class three.”
Father O’Leary took a deep draught of wine. “Yes, I know. Frightful. Absolutely appalling.”
Jack marvelled, shuddering. “What must it be like to be Peter Zwillinge?”
“A living hell. A hell which, from time to time, he inflicts on the rest of society.” Father O’Leary pushed away the rest of his meal, having lost the appetite for it.
Jack’s teeth chinked on the glass as he sipped his wine. Putting it down he said, “Tell me something, Father. Do you think Peter Zwillinge has a soul? Come to that—do groubians have souls?”
The priest stared at him as if he’d said a rude word. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“If I were to kill one—would it be a mortal sin?”
“Oh, I see what you’re driving at.” Father O’Leary pushed his chair back. “‘Do they have souls?’—what a history that question has. Christopher Columbus took some Caribbean natives back to Spain with him, just to get a definitive answer from the pope. Because if they didn’t, then it was permissible to carry on treating them like animals.”
He waited for Jack to say something, but he stayed silent. “Witches are supposed not to have souls either. Nor vampires. Their souls have long ago been carted off to hell and their bodies taken over by demons. So, the story goes, you can do anything you like to them—it doesn’t matter.”
Jack was listening carefully to the old Jesuit’s tone of voice as he said this. He was trying to determine where the other’s sympathies actually lay. In spite of himself, his mind went back a couple of years to one sunny Friday morning, jogging along the old Deerness Valley railway embankment in company with Tvoul. At the time he had been captivated by her.
He said “But you and I eat beef. I see some on your plate, all minced-up. We’re quite happy for cows to be killed to provide it. Yet aren’t cows more closely related to us than groubians are? How can we imagine that a groubian has an immortal soul—and a cow hasn’t?”
“Well…” said the priest, idly toying with the fork on his discarded plate, as if Jack had accused him of eating something unpalatable, “To begin with, groubians have immortal bodies, or nearly so, which gives them a pretty good start, don’t you think? Secondly, they can talk.”
“And cows can only go ‘moo’? Yes but machines can talk as well. And machines can be made indestructible, too.”
“I know. But it’s the act of talking that enables you to tell whether there’s a soul behind the persona or not. Witches can talk—or so the fairy-tales tell us. So can vampires. But it’s the very things they say—and do—which testify to their soullessness.”
Seeing he hadn’t made much impression on Jack with that, he waved his arms. “Look, if you were locked up in a room without contact with the outside world, why—nobody would even know you were there, let alone wonder whether you had a soul or not.”
Jack thought about it. “That’s like Turing’s Test. But people can be fooled…”
“Turing’s Test doesn’t deny that,” the priest replied emphatically. “It says that sooner or later there comes a time when people realise they are being fooled.”
“When I first met Tvoul,” pondered Jack, “I thought she was a pretty queer fish. Literally and metaphorically. But after talking to her, getting to know her—as I imagined—I began to accept her as a person. I was prepared to believe that she was really and truly in love with my son—I was never in any doubt that he loved her. I even grew quite fond of her myself…”
Jack absent-mindedly picked up his glass—and put it down again as if it were full of blood. “Then she goes off into the jungle with our Harry—and does this!”
The priest seemed absorbed in jabbing his fork into the cold meat-balls. After a while he said “I see your point—and I do sympathise with you, Mr Williams. Don’t run away with the idea I don’t. No one can blame you for feeling resentment.”
“It’s not just resentment,” declared Jack. “I’m not just a wronged man talking. I think it has made me see the light.”
Father O’Leary looked up and squinted at him, like a small furry animal emerging from a dark hibernation.
“You said it yourself,” Jack continued. “Witches and vampires may be legends, but groubians are real. And I’m convinced they really are animated by demons, not by souls. Demons which are intelligent enough to kid us they’re human—until they go and do something demonic.”
“Demonic…?” The priest turned the word over on his tongue as if tasting a counterfeit penny. “We must distinguish what we do as the result of an extraneous evil impulse—demonic possession you might call it—from what we do when following the urges of our fallen nature. It’s the difference between Actual and Original Sin. The Problem of Evil: how can actions arising out of our nature be evil, no matter how disgusting and repulsive, when that nature has been created by God?”
He paused and stared at Jack, daring him to say something to that. Jack didn’t, so he went on, “Tvoul’s crime (for crime it is) arises not so much out of her Will as out of her Nature. An extinct and perverted Nature admittedly, bred on a God-cursed world.”
“Are you trying to apologise for her? Do you basically think there’s justification for what she’s done?”
“Not at all, Mr Williams. In this, as in other matters, we have to follow the laws of the planet, which are perfectly clear.”
“But what do you really think?”
The old priest started chuckling. Seeing this offended Jack, he was at pains to explain himself. “Excuse my laughing in this serious business, Mr Williams. Your question reminded me of an old Catholic joke. It is said that there are two things God Himself doesn’t know. What Jesuits really think—and what nuns really do.”
Jack stopped frowning and allowed a bleak smile to come through. “It strikes me that for nuns you could just as well say groubians.”
Suddenly serious again, the old priest lowered his head and waved it slowly from side to side. A watering-can, germinating seeds of doubt. “If only it hadn’t been Tvoul Rainbow…”
He looked up. “Mr Williams, I’m the wrong person to go laying down the law. I was prepared to accept Peter Zwillinge as a human being, capable of redemption. Which few do. I was ready to baptise him as a Catholic. To give him absolution for his sins, which were very, very serious ones.”
“You do what you think’s best at the time, Father…”
“My bishop was not behind me. He sided with the Strana in viewing Peter’s award of human rights, restricted though they were, as a legal blunder of the first magnitude. He said we had all been inveigled into giving absolution to wild animals.”
He shrugged. “But on the topic of groubians, the Church is in no doubt whatever. They enjoy full human rights at law. The Church does not condone any violation of human rights. It has taken two bitter wars for that message to get across.”
Elbows on the table, he covered his face with his hands. His next words came out through his fingers in a whisper. “So—don’t do anything rash.”
Jack pressed his thumbs together and watched them go white under the quick. “Well, I’m grateful for your opinion.” He looked up at the clock. “I suppose I ought to be going.”
“Please come back, if you want to talk some more.”
Jack got to his feet. “Thanks for your time, Father. No, don’t get up. I can see myself out.”
Jack retraced his steps through the sacristy and found himself back in the main body of the church. This time he took more notice of his surroundings. His attention was drawn to a side-altar where on a plinth there stood—not a saint or an image of the Virgin Mary, but a glowing blue globe of the planet Gaia. Candles were burning in front of it.
Had Mars fallen into the error of geolatry?
Someone else was in the church. Someone staying behind after Mass for silent prayer. The figure wore Zasta uniform of blue-and-white and was kneeling in a pew near the back, head resting in hands sheathed in the uniform’s white gauntlets, face concealed police-fashion behind a silvered visor. He felt only the impersonal aura of a booner: a public servant, class six. He paid the figure no more attention.
The same recording of choral music was playing. Once again the pure treble voice of the soloist rose like a dove in the musical air, weaving in counterpoint around the haunting plainchant of the beautiful Latin hymn: Te lucis ante terminum.
This time Jack stopped, rocked back on his heels and heard out the hymn to the end:
Our Own True Mother suffered loss
Of Blesséd Only Son:
The Sword to pierce her heart came by
Her dearest, precious One.
What is this life, so full of questions
Yet with answers none:
But childish steps through vale of tears
Towards endless worlds to come?
True mother suffers loss of child? A blow from someone dear? Questions… about life? Answer… nothing? Childish footsteps through a desolate valley? The implication slithered like a ice-cube down his neck.
The hymn was a rendering into the Catholic idiom… of the Book of Titan!
Sviatoslav Iliich Krov’ was working late at the office. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he didn’t notice the door open quietly. When he looked up, someone was standing in the doorway. Someone in Zasta uniform, face hidden behind a silvered visor.
“Who are you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“How did you get in here?”
The figure came and sat on Sviatoslav’s desk, almost in his lap. “For someone with as much to hide as you have, your security is pretty bad.”
Something in the way it moved shouted groubian. Which was odd, because there were no more than a handful of groubians in Zastavlénie—all of them too highly-placed to go out on patrol. But Zasta didn’t go in for sporting badges of rank. The chiefs didn’t relish drawing fire.
“Are you here with a warrant?”
“Komissár Miro sent me.”
Sviatoslav relaxed back in his chair—but not as much as he might have done. So it came from Miro? That sounded encouraging, as far as it went. But Miro—was he on the point of pulling the rug away from under him? He expected it to happen any day now.
Casually the figure drew from its holster the silver-grey Zasta side-arm known as a six-shooter (for its six different kinds of ammunition) and pointed it at Sviatoslav right between the eyes.
“Eyes open or closed?”
“Closed, I think.” Oh—why was he always so trusting.
“It makes no difference.”
The figure squeezed the trigger. But no shot was fired. A three-dimensional image flashed up in Sviatoslav’s field of vision. An image of Jack’s head. Moving the weapon this way and that, the newcomer rotated it to give Sviatoslav an all-round view.
“Do you know this person?”
Sviatoslav opened his eyes. “Of course I do. He works for me. I recruited him.”
The visor went transparent. Sviatoslav found himself staring into the face of Tvoul Rainbow.
“Think carefully before you answer the next question. Are you sure he works for you full-time?”
Tvoul Rainbow! It was all starting to come clear. Sviatoslav gazed up at the groubian face as its pattern dissolved into flowing stripes.
“My congratulations to Komissár Miro. He’s done a good job on you.”
The figure smiled, a Mona Lisa smile superimposed on its groubian expression of stripy mirth.
“Tell me something, Agent Zero. Are you trying to acquire a human soul?”
The figure chuckled. “That would be impossible—even were the Goubernator to sanction it. The semblance of one will do. Tvoul Rainbow’s ‘soul’… her persona…”
“If you’re reconstructing Tvoul Rainbow, you’re not short of material. There’s hardly a thing she’s done which isn’t public knowledge. But don’t confine yourself to the public record. Be sure to include footage from Gaia. Get access to our databases…”
“I already have.”
“How did you manage that—without my authorisation?”
“Credit me with a little initiative. Yes, there is material there I can use. Give me time. But there’s one major flaw in my persona which needs working on as top priority.”
“I’m supposed to know Jack Williams—know him well. Yet I hardly recognise him. I’m having to spend a lot of my precious time observing him. And in spite of my best precautions, I think he’s recently become aware of me. Yesterday—in church.”
Sviatoslav laughed quietly. “Can’t recognise your own father-in-law? Well that’s not surprising. Since the time you knew him on Gaia he has changed out of all recognition… and it’s not all down to his SP unit. Don’t be worried if his persona is unfamiliar. Anyway, you don’t have to fool Jack. He’ll be told precisely who you are—and why you’re travelling to Titan in each others’ company.”
The agent smirked. “All the same, it would be nice if we weren’t such strangers.”
“Well,” said Sviatoslav, closing his eyes to smile, “why don’t you come along here tomorrow? You’ll get a chance to meet him.” He tilted his head, as if to show off a dimple on his chin. “Afterwards—who knows? He might even invite you out for a drink.”
“No…” The agent slowly shook its head. “I don’t think he will do that.”
…to be continued.