Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
Boris, Harry’s former colleague, arranges top security clearance for Jack to travel to Titan to bring back Tvoul. Agent Zero, due to accompany Jack, puts in a request of its own. Boris is puzzled when Jack’s contact, codenamed Metapelet, insists that there are no groubians on Titan. But Jack doesn’t find it puzzling at all.
NOW READ ON…
Jack found a gunsmith in the lower part of the old city. He’d scanned a register of sports shops, simply dictated the street-numbers and his marscar took him there.
He wandered into the shop and tried putting a few shotguns to his shoulder. Bolt-action guns. Repeater guns. Soon the shopkeeper came over.
“I need to get out more,” said Jack. “I’m thinking of taking up a sport.”
“No finer way to keep in trim,” said the shopkeeper. “That’s if swimming or climbing doesn’t suit you. You can chase the quarry, or you can stalk it.”
Jack smiled and handed him the shotgun. “Forgive me, I’m new here. I’m from Earth—I mean Gaia. We’re not seriously talking about wildlife on Mars, are we?”
“There is no native wildlife, except what the groubians brought with them—and you don’t hunt that. But there is quite a bit of feral life—rats mostly. You find them around the terraforming vents. They’ve learnt to live in the Martian atmosphere, would you believe. They’ve picked up some bio-engineered symbiont that lives in their lungs and breaks down carbon dioxide. They grow quite large as a result.”
“So do your customers mostly shoot rats?”
“No. Actually quite a dangerous thing to do. They release target-bots. In a variety of shapes, sizes and speeds. Anything from the humble clay-pigeon to ectoplasts of groubians.”
“So people shoot groubians do they?” said Jack, honing his voice to a meaningful edge.
The shopkeeper paused before replying. “Not these days, sir. Peace has broken out. It’s not the fashion to talk like that about our sisters… our human sisters.”
Jack smiled back: a humourless smile. “I wouldn’t say a word against the lovely dears. I was only thinking of shooting one.”
The man broke the shotgun and peered in the breech. “Do you mean killing one—or just causing her a lot of pain?”
The man shook his head and turned away. “You can’t kill a groubian with a shotgun. Groubians have remarkable powers of recuperation. Now if you just want to cause them pain—agonizing pain—that’s easy. Their pain threshold is extremely low. I’m not at all certain they aren’t in pain the whole time.”
“I don’t want to cause them pain. Nasty wicked thing to do.”
The man put the shotgun back into the rack.
“But killing one now…” added Jack. “If they’re all in pain anyway, that might be construed as an act of mercy…”
The man gave a little snort.
“Or justice…” Jack added.
Without saying a word, the man slowly turned to face Jack squarely.
“Surely it’s been done before?” Jack persisted. “What did they use then?”
The shopkeeper stood looking at the entrance and then back at Jack. “This isn’t the sort of thing I discuss in my shop…”
“I’m sorry,” said Jack in forced apology. “I’d better go.”
He turned to walk out of the door. Instantly an address was beamed to his helmet over the IR link. As Jack stopped, holding onto the door-frame, the shopkeeper said “I’m Kenneth, by the way, as you will verify. I’d be in a better position to answer your questions if you’d care to come round to my apartment this evening when I’ve shut up shop.”
Jack managed to track down some Newcastle Brown and with two six-packs under his arms he presented himself at the door of Kenneth’s apartment. The door opened as soon as he arrived.
“I wondered if you’d come.”
“Of course, man. D’you think I’d drink these all by myself?”
They quickly got through one of the six-packs, all the while making desultory chat. The advantages of one shotgun over another. Hunting in England, on Gaia generally—about which Jack wasn’t all that knowledgeable. And sport, such as it existed in Nix City—where the gym reigned supreme as a means of getting exercise. But both of them were rock-climbers, as it pleased Jack to discover.
He broke open the second six-pack and handed Kenneth a can. “About my little problem…”
“What have you got against groubians? Have you ever met a groubian?”
“I have indeed. Two now. One on Gaia—and one on Selene.”
“Really? What were their names?”
“The one on Selene was called Vermat Aurora.”
Kenneth banged down the can. “The true-mother! What was she doing there?”
“She was Commissioner of Police. I made good friends with her.”
“The cunning bitch! So that’s where she holed-up. Friends, did you say?”
“Yes—for my part. She seemed quite forthcoming in the end. She was most helpful.”
Kenneth shrugged to show his scepticism. “How can you really be friends… with a fifty thousand year-old being?… Far older, if she’s one of the Mothers.”
“Like you can with anyone, I suppose.”
Kenneth chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t they just view us as a flash in the pan? Look. Ever seen a spark in a candle flame?”
“Tell me something—is it alive?”
“Maybe it isn’t… maybe it is. But can you so much as contemplate the possibility of making friends with it? There isn’t even time to say ‘hi’—let alone ‘I like you’. In a second it’s not going to be there—and tomorrow the flame won’t be there either.”
“What are you driving at?”
“To a groubian, friendship with a gaian can’t mean a thing.”
“I thought the two groubians I met had the potential to form deep and trusting relationships with… people. But Vermat died in the Gaiascope outrage, before our friendship could develop that much.” Jack fell silent.
“And the other one?”
“I’m not so sure, now.”
“What was her name?”
Kenneth spluttered into the can. Leaning back he whistled. “You don’t set your sights too low, do you?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Tvoul Rainbow is the most famous groubian on the planet.”
“All the same… we were friends.”
“Were friends? Why—is she dead too?”
“Not so far as I know. But dead is how I want her.”
A gradual smiled spread across Kenneth’s face. “Why’s that, may I ask?”
“Because she married my son.”
Kenneth emitted a yelp. “Well, I can see how that would upset some people. Me, I never had all that good relations with my in-laws. My ex-in-laws, ha-ha…”
“It was a groubian wedding.”
The silence was like a lid going on. Kenneth stared at him, slowly easing forward in his chair.
Jack said it again. “She killed my son. I want her dead.”
Kenneth mustered his words like bandsmen playing the dead-march. “Two wars have been fought over that sort of allegation. And here you come, all the way from Gaia, all set to start a third.”
“I don’t see it”, said Jack. “Why would killing one groubian start the Third Olympian War?”
Kenneth sank back into his chair, shutting his eyes.
“There are plenty of groubians you could kill which wouldn’t start a war. In fact there’s some I can think of that everyone would pat you on the back for—from the GA to the Goubernator. Why don’t you start with one of those?”
Jack smiled weakly.
“The head would make a nice trophy in your hall. I can sell you a wooden shield to mount it on.”
Jack burst out laughing. “It would look a bit floppy on a shield, wouldn’t it?”
Kenneth laughed too. Still laughing, they each opened another beer.
“You’re… not hoping to get me involved in this political assassination, are you?”
“Heavens no, man. I just want to buy a suitable weapon. If you’ve got one in your shop then surely you’re allowed to sell me it? Or do I have to sign-up with Olvoi before I could buy it?”
“Sign-up with Olvoi and you could lay your hands on anything—even a triton pistol. That would do the job, wouldn’t it?”
“I couldn’t face the collateral damage. A lot of people might get hurt.”
“They certainly might. But all the same, I can’t sell you a triton pistol. By the Treaty of Moscow they’re banned on the inner planets.”
“So who does use triton pistols?”
“Olvoi keeps a cache of them, strictly under lock and key. Nobody is meant to know about that. It’s common knowledge though that Prometheus carries them—for when the crew make landfall on Titan. Titan’s a world of its own.”
“What do they use them for?”
Kenneth shrugged his shoulders. “They’re just frightened of their own shadows…” He laughed. “When you stop to think about it, you need something pretty heavy against a shadow. You’ve got to blast away whatever it casts itself on.”
“I take it you don’t believe in the Titan Kraken?”
“Nobody believes in the Titan Kraken,” snorted Kenneth, taking a deep swig. “Until they get to Titan.”
Jack followed his lead. “Well, I don’t need a triton pistol. I know my target. I’ve seen it in the flesh, I’ve talked with her, shared my deepest thoughts with her… and I’ve been betrayed by her.”
Kenneth took a deep breath. “Some would say you were a fool to trust her in the first place. Whatever made you?”
“My son trusted her. That was good enough for me. Until my son was no more.”
Kenneth slowly and steadily finished his beer. “There’s a lot of blood been spilt over that particular cause. Now everything’s nice and peaceful—and you come here, all the way from Gaia, hoping to stir things up again!”
“I’m not ‘hoping’ to do anything of the kind.” snapped Jack. “One bloody groubian…”
“I know—I know. And it just has to be ‘bloody’ Tvoul Radouga.”
Jack looked down. “That’s what I get from everyone. Don’t you believe me either?”
Kenneth opened another beer. “Oh look, Jack—I believe you. I’m all too ready to believe you.” As if on an afterthought, he leaned back in his chair and, without looking round, picked something off the bookshelf above his head.
“Take a peek through this.”
“What is it?” said Jack, looking at the thin silver-grey cylinder which lay in his hand. He tried looking down it like a tube.
“No, no, not that way. There’s a little hole in the end, going from side to side. Like an Edwardian novelty toy. Only it’s not a micro-photograph you’ll see, like Venice gondolas or some podgy nude. More like a kaleidoscope…”
Jack found the hole and stared through it. It took him a while to focus… and then he could see colours and shapes. They were moving in and out of two spots near the middle.
“So what is it?”
“It’s the Book of Titan.”
Jack snatched his eye away. He stretched his shoulders and leaned back. “So this is the Book of Titan. This?”
He peered again through the hole, this time with greater concentration. Whether it was due to the warmth of his hand, or simply propelled by his desire to see more, the colours and shapes in his field of view evolved and spoke to him. They spoke of dark and dreadful things. Disgrace and betrayal. Wickedness beyond belief. Treachery and retribution and irreparable devastation. They spoke of a whole world cursed until the end of time.
But they also spoke of an insatiable hunger—of a refusal to accept extinction, even after an eternity in hell. Of a faith bereft of hope, without which life itself was worthless, with its never-ending journeys into empty valleys starved of meaning.
As to whether that was what it really meant, how could he know? The cylinder would have had to impart the very language it employed. It was spatio-color, of course. An archaic spatio-color, hugely evocative, resonating with symbols plunged deep within his psyche. Symbols laid down in his race-memory, like the strata seen only in the deepest of canyons. Symbols from an age before his ancestors had possessed skin or fur, or even scales.
Kenneth snatched the cylinder from his fingers in alarm. “Don’t look for too long!”
“It doesn’t do you any good.”
“If you look in it for long enough, it starts reprogramming your peripheral nervous system.”
“What’s that going to do?”
“Drive you stark, staring, barking mad.”
“I’m serious. To begin with, you don’t feel a thing—but your lower nerve-centres wake up and start thinking groubian thoughts. And not just any old groubian thoughts: epic ones. Soon it all bubbles up in your consciousness and you won’t have a clue what the hell’s happening.”
“I see…” Jack tried hard not to smile. But Kenneth noticed. “Look,” he said. “The Book of Titan in the original spatio-color is banned from public sale. Did you know that?”
Jack didn’t. “I tried getting hold of a copy, but all I could find was a translation. Is that the reason?”
“That’s not the reason they tell you. They give it out that the Groubian Alliance is dead against any gaian profaning it. Now it’s clean contrary to Martian custom, proscribing a book in that way, but the GA has a lot of clout. It’s not as if they’re forcing us to read a book we’d rather not, like the Bible—just the opposite. And because it’s their book—their info—the Strana plays along with the GA.”
“Mebbes they’re doing us a favour? They know it’s dangerous for us—so they want to protect us from its harmful effects.”
“Such touching concern for our welfare isn’t borne out in other areas.” He reached over his head and put the thing back on its shelf. “No… they want to keep it out of our hands because it reveals them for what they truly are—their real attitude towards us. All summed up in the Last Verse.”
Kenneth looked down at his hands as if they were covered in blood. Not-so-innocent blood. “They’re immortal. Demons from hell. On their timescale we’re just a flash in the pan. Here today—gone tomorrow. Most of them are prepared to stick it out until we’re gone. Three or four thousand years, at the outside. But for some of them that’s not fast enough. They want us gone—now. Pronto!”
“How did you manage to get hold of the Book of Titan in the original?”
Kenneth spoke slowly, stressing every word. “It—was—a—trophy—of—war.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “You killed a groubian to get it?”
“I killed lots of groubians. This was taken from the body of one of them.”
Jack shifted in his seat. The horror of the last Olympian War was something legendary. But right now there was only one thing he wanted to know about the whole bloody business.
“What sort of weapon did you use?”
Kenneth held his fingertips together, mutely appealing for patience. “I’ll show you in a minute. When we’ve finished these beers.”
They picked out a beer each from the remains of the second pack. “So what was the war like?” said Jack. “On earth we never hear a thing.”
Kenneth leaned back in his chair. He seemed to close in on himself, although his eyes were staring into space.
“Nobody who took part in that war wants to talk about it. Not if they’re gaian. Not if they’re groubian.” He sighed a long drawn-out sigh. “It was the most terrible experience of my life. And all totally, totally pointless.”
“Why? Because so many groubians were killed… to no avail?”
“No. Because some groubians were left alive.”
Jack recoiled in astonishment.
“Killing the greater part of them solved nothing,” Kenneth continued. “They’re in exactly the position they were before. They’re extinct as a species. They can’t breed. And why not? I’ll tell you why not—because they’ve eaten all their own damned menfolk!”
Kenneth paused. “You knew that, didn’t you?”
“And now they damn well want to start on ours.” Kenneth smacked the arms of his chair. “I’ve lost friends to these un-dead fossils. I’ve lost family. I know what it’s like… to lose a son.”
Their eyes met and locked.
“But don’t run away with the idea I’m planning another massacre. I’ve shot my bolt in that particular direction. Still, they watch me closely now.”
He balled his fists and banged the wooden arms again. “But if I can help anyone who’s going through what I did…”
He struggled to his feet. The beer had wrecked his sense of balance and he clutched briefly at the back of the chair. “Come on downstairs,” he slurred, “and let me show you something…”
In the basement under the apartment block, Kenneth unlocked the door to a private firing range. He opened the metal-lined case he had brought with him and took out a machine-pistol. With slow precision he filled the magazine with bullets. Then with a snap he clipped it in place and handed it to Jack.
“This is an uzi: made in Israel. If you want to kill groubians, this is the neatest way. The frequency with which the bullets strike the target resonates with the natural frequency of the groubian nerve-net, inducing a fatal spasm.”
Jack looked down in awe at the functional-looking tool of death in his hands. He tried various grips upon it. Eventually he swivelled-down the frame stock and clamped it under his elbow, like a Chicago gangster with his tommy-gun.
Kenneth said “Watch for the target. When you see it pop-up, fire at will.”
Jack splayed his legs and pointed the machine-pistol down the range. Kenneth pulled a lever. Up came the cardboard target—a life-sized groubian warrior charging at the onlooker, face frozen in a mask of fury.
The uzi spattered metal at the target. Cardboard fragments sprayed about. Cut through at the waist, the upper half toppled off and clattered on the concrete floor.
…to be continued.