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 gets to meet Agent Zero, whom Sviatoslav has invited along to the meeting at which he details Jack to travel to Titan in order to bring back Tvoul – dead or alive. Jack decides to keep it to himself that he may have discovered Tvoul somewhat closer to home.
The following Monday, after lunch, Boris came to Jack’s office to set up his visit to the Special Unit on Platform Two. No sooner had they enabled the v-unit when Agent Zero came in too. Without a word it sat down with them.
“Do we need you?” said Boris.
“I have a request to make of Metapelet. A practical detail.”
Boris touched the v-unit. The inter-world operator came on-line.
Boris, glancing at Jack, said “Speak M2.”
There was a pause. “Calls to Titan are subject to a three hour, one minute 4.8 second response delay. Duplex transmission is unavailable.”
Nothing brought home to Jack the distance to Titan more poignantly than that. Travelling at the speed of light in free space, it took over three hours to make the round trip.
“Titanian number please.”
“Two-five.” After getting used to Selenean numbers, Jack was astonished at its brevity.
“Please speak your message clearly after the tone.”
Without pausing to think, Boris said “Secure personal message to Metapelet. Hi Metapelet, Boris Mixailovitch here, Acting Director for Off-World Projects at Peretchelo Headquarters, Nix City. This message is for your ears only. If you are not alone, please halt it now and replay it later.”
Boris paused, drumming his fingers on the desk, giving Metapelet time to comply. Then, taking a deep breath and shooting Jack another glance, he continued.
“I have with me a TMG employee, code-named Nimrod. He is on assignment to Peretchelo and has top clearance for Project Tahiti. I am sending him to you on a mission of the utmost importance.”
Boris paused again and took another breath.
“In your Special Unit you presently have a certain Tvoul Williams, a Martian denizen—and a groubian. You may only know her by her code-name, but we happen to know this is true—so do not query. Nimrod is her father-in-law. I repeat—her father-in-law. By the terms of the Treaty of Moscow you are required to grant Nimrod access to Tvoul… whether or not she agrees to it.”
Boris stopped and looked at Jack, then at Agent Zero. The latter spoke.
“Hi Metapelet, I am Agent Zero. You’ll have heard of me in connection with the Meteor Gang. But I work for Zasta now, as Boris will confirm, and I shall present credentials when I arrive. I will be accompanying Nimrod on his mission—and I will bring a hibernator casket. After Nimrod has spoken to Tvoul Williams, I shall place the said party in hibernation—forcibly if necessary—for return to Mars. In my Zasta capacity I shall be acting on behalf of the Strana of Olympia, with the implied agreement of the boards of directors of both TMG and Peretchelo. My action will be sanctioned by the Treaty of Moscow in pursuance of member protocols: namely the transgenic laws. Tvoul Williams must in no way be alerted to my visit and its purpose. Please confirm your understanding of this message—and your readiness to comply.”
Boris resumed the one-sided dialogue. “Hi Metapelet, Boris again. I must stress the seriousness of the situation. The three of us, Nimrod, myself and Agent Zero, will be here waiting for your mandatory reply by return.”
Boris terminated the call with a sigh. “Well, God knows what she’ll think when she gets that.”
“Nimrod…” murmured Agent Zero. It was eyeing Jack in the same piercing way that Petra had done. “Descendant of Ham son of Noah; King of Shinar. The great hunter of Genesis…”
Jack smirked. “That’s not bad… for an unperson.”
“I’m no longer just the Unperson. I’m a smart professor.”
“A professor of Human Reproductive Biology, if I recall—not Religion.”
“Religion’s just a hobby of mine. But it does have a bearing on my work.”
Jack called the agent’s bluff. “Organised religion as sexual display…” he snapped his fingers, “how does it go?”
“…As a sexual display modality in H sapiens.”
Boris, not privvy to this in-joke, smacked the desk. “We’ve got three hours to wait. What shall we do?”
Jack, a smile on his face, said “I was about to suggest we all went for a drink. But you can’t drink cocktails, can you, Agent Zero?”
“I can sit and watch you.”
“In Zasta uniform?”
“The uniform is emulated. I go plain-clothes in the twinkle of an eye.”
Jack perversely thought he’d try a bit of flirting. “What do you wear when you’re not in uniform?”
“No cocktails? No interspex?… You must be kidding.”
“Shall I show you what I can do?” A merest hint of menace in the voice.
Jack recoiled with a shrug. “Well anyway, let’s go. Poidëm! Koktéili for three… I mean two.” His smattering of M1 sat lightly on him.
But as the three of them were getting to their feet, Agent Zero said “You’re a man of surprises, Jack. I cannot for the life of me guess what you’re going to do next.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I assumed that inviting Tvoul Rainbow out for a drink was the last thing you’d do.”
“We were lucky to get her,” said Boris, raising his glass. “Metapelet isn’t her real name of course.”
“What is it, then?”
“Ax!—can’t tell you that. Code-names only, when referring to the Special Unit. No names—no pack-drill. You don’t want to get back to Mars facing prosecution under the transgenic laws.”
“And the Strana lets you get away with that?”
“Project Tahiti: the little word that makes everything okay.”
Agent Zero had swapped Zasta uniform for a scintillating dress of greeny-blue. Easy enough to do when clothing is just another digitally-simulated texture. But it had been a favourite colour of Tvoul’s to wear. It was getting harder all the time to remember it wasn’t Tvoul herself. Until, that is, the ectoplast did something robotic, like changing outfits in a flash.
A cocktail sat on the table before it. Jack had ordered one for it too, hoping not to draw attention to the three of them, but it made no attempt to sip it.
“Trained nurse, too,” Boris added. “Just what we needed. She was trying to get back to Gaia—but there’s no way to do that until the Oberon comes round again. To kill time for her we talked her into a little assignment on Titan. An offer she couldn’t refuse.”
Jack had heard horror stories about the Titan run. “Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing anyone casually volunteers for.”
“We had her by the nuts… in a manner of speaking.”
“The gonads, he means,” volunteered Agent Zero. A professor of Human Reproductive Biology would naturally deem Boris’s remark somewhat lacking in precision. “The ovaries, in fact. She chose to pick a quarrel with the Vratch over them.”
“How do you know all this?” said Jack, an edge creeping into his voice. He thought of Gabrielle. She too had “picked a quarrel” with the Vratch—and over her gonads, too. A quarrelsome organisation—and one that unerringly went for your weak point: he fervently hoped it would leave him alone from now on.
“I’m Zasta. I get to hear of such things.” Agent Zero played with its drink, rotating it on its base on the table top. “It was not a clever thing to do. The Vratch is as powerful, in its proper sphere, as we of Zasta are in ours.”
What sort of things, mused Jack to himself, do you “get to hear about” concerning me? I guess you all imagine you’ve got me by the nuts?
Three hours later, the three of them were back in Jack’s office. The v-unit buzzed. “Inter-world operator. Here is the reply to your call to Titan, made today at 14:37.”
The voice from Titan came through loud and clear, but it sounded barely human. But if it had been anyone Jack knew, he wouldn’t have recognised them, for all the filtering the signal had undergone.
“Hi Boris—this is Metapelet, on Platform Two. I don’t understand the request. I’ve only been here a week, but I can assure you we have no groubians in the unit at this time. There are no groubians on the whole of Platform Two. I repeat—there are no groubians on Platform Two. I can’t imagine why you think there might be. Groubians haven’t been on Titan for fifty thousand years! Wild horses wouldn’t drag them here, by all accounts.”
Boris opened his mouth goldfish-wide. His face signalled astonishment, then fury. “The blasted little fool! Who does she think…?”
Jack glanced up at the silvery visor of Agent Zero, but quickly dropped his eyes again. Groubians might not be able to read gaian expressions, but there was no knowing what an ectoplast could do. Whatever it was equipped to do, presumably.
Yes, Metapelet, he thought to himself, I’m easy with that. There are no groubians on Platform Two. Tvoul is here—she’s living openly in Nix City. She does a weekly cabaret in the Krásnaya Melnítza. A simple trick like that would be just the thing to fool this bunch of turkeys, with their impersons and unpersons and monster databases.
“End of transmission,” came the voice of the inter-world operator. “Do you wish to reply?”
Boris bellowed “You bet I fucking do!”
“Please answer yes or no. Do you wish to reply?”
Boris deflated like a punctured football. “Yes.” He shut his eyes.
“Please speak your reply clearly after the tone.”
Boris took a deep breath, snorting through his nostrils. “Listen Metapelet—Boris here. Don’t give me that bullshit—we know you’re not going to admit to having a groubian on the rig. But sure as hell Tvoul Williams left for Titan on board the Prometheus on 1 December 400 marsvrem—straight off the Oberon. Tvoul has been there in the unit for the last nine weeks marsvrem. I happen to know who is and who is not in your unit because I have the passenger lists in front of me. Please confirm you understand this message and will comply. Or sure as God made little apples—when Agent Zero arrives, it will be putting you in its damned hibernator and tipping you out on my carpet.”
He banged his hand on the v-unit, terminating the message. Then after a brief glance at the ectoplast he glared at Jack. In a hoarse voice, barely a whisper, he muttered “Another drink? On me, this time?”
It was dark outside when they got back a little over three hours later. Only just in time. The v-unit buzzed as they entered the office and sat down.
“Metapelet here. I’m sorry Boris, I didn’t mean to be rude. I hear you and will comply.”
“End of transmission,” said the inter-world operator. “Do you wish to reply?”
“No,” said Boris quietly.
“Yes.” countered Agent Zero.
“Please speak your reply clearly after the tone.”
Agent Zero leaned forward and announced itself. “Listen to me, Metapelet. When I come I want to be ready for anything. Locate a supply of void ectoplasts—ten or twenty should do. If there are insufficient ectoplasts on Platform Two, don’t hesitate to order them to arrive on the next supply visit: the one Nimrod and I will be on. As soon as they arrive, scatter them around the rig. Equipment bays, lockers, tool-chests—anywhere they can hide until they’re needed. If challenged, explain that it is a new Zasta requirement… as it is. Farvel, o’ tak for sidst.”
Agent Zero touched the v-unit to end the transmission, then it turned to Jack and Boris, its visor still blank. “Now we can all go home.”
Jack was puzzled. “What did you say just before you signed off?”
“Farewell and thanks—in Selensk.”
“How come you speak Selensk?”
“I’ll speak anything—if you give me the chip.”
But what Jack should have asked was how Agent Zero knew that Metapelet spoke Selensk. He looked at Boris, who shrugged. He didn’t know any Selensk either, beyond what everybody knew, like farvel o’ tak.
Neither of them could tell that Agent Zero’s signoff had meant “Farewell, and thanks for the last good time we spent together.”
…to be continued.