Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
Kenneth the gunsmith eventually agrees to provide Jack with a suitable weapon. Groubians are notoriously hard to kill, but the weapon of choice is the humble uzi, by virtue of its rate-of-fire.
Neither Kenneth nor Jack wanted a transaction to register on the intensor. Jack’s booner card was no defence: quite the opposite. Booner transactions were logged on a special list. So when Jack handed him back the gun, Kenneth simply shook his head. Back upstairs, reaching down under his coffee-table he got out three boxes of a hundred rounds each, which he’d signed out to himself earlier that day. Then, wandering off into the kitchen, he came back with four spare magazines like short grey truncheons, plus a zip-up bag of black leather.
“My back is turned,” he said. “Outside—don’t let anyone see you.”
“Are you going against the law in this?”
“Who knows? I’d rather not ask. Concealing a transaction from the intensor carries its own penalties…” Kenneth had an ugly smile. “But it’s the lesser of evils.”
The next day Kenneth looked out of his window to see an unfamiliar marscar standing outside his apartment. The latest model. Having slipped-on his dust suit and clipped down the visor he stepped out into the oúlitza and wandered casually over to it.
There was nobody in sight. “Chei…?” he muttered, looking away.
“Ia—tvoi mars-kar, Kénnef,” it replied. “Ne právda-li?”
Kenneth snapped his fingers. “Molodétz!” he exclaimed in delight. “Nou—poidëm.”
The door opened and he got in. But it wouldn’t shut again. A blue-clad arm had been thrust in: an exceptionally flexible arm. Its white gauntlet held a six-shooter to Kenneth’s temple. A voice-chip cut-in over the intertalk, using the standard voice for a groubian imperson. “Otstói!” it commanded.
Screwing up his eyes, Kenneth let his forehead slump to the dashboard.
Restlessly Jack paced the white gravel of the Areopagus, waiting for sundown… and his appointment with Tvoul. Waiting was something he’d never done that well. For the first time in two years he found himself craving for a cigarette. Uselessly of course. With his SP unit he could no longer inhale.
A mother walked past with her daughter, a girl of about Kat’s age. The mother said matter-of-factly “On Gaia the sky is blue.” To which the daughter replied “Don’t be silly, the sky is black.” Jack turned to stare at them, his jaw sagging in a scramble of emotions.
The child had been born under a black sky. She had never experienced daylight. A bright blue firmament was a thing unknown to her—as it was to everyone who first opened their eyes inside the Nix. The very notion of a brilliant blue canopy with gracious white clouds smiling down on you was absurd.
“On Gaia the sky is blue.” For the Martian, those six little words encapsulated all the notions people in that vain airy world are said to entertain—their hopes, their fantasies, their baseless optimism—numbing them against the urge to escape the doom that sits waiting for them in the dark. They raise their eyes and they see the fragile gossamer mantle of the Great Mother, which everyone on Earth takes for granted, and they mistake it for infinite space. They do not see the emptiness of death that lies behind it, like the skull beneath the skin. And at night, when the veil is torn away and any objects to be seen are for the most part sunken centuries into the past, they shut their eyes and sleep—and do not look.
Of course the sky is black. How could anyone think otherwise?
Jack glanced backwards to see where the pair had come from. They’d been in one of the telescope booths. Like a sleepwalker he entered the empty booth. In front of him a wall-sized screen showed stars spattered randomly, like glints of frost on a flank of sable fur. Stars dim and bright, burning with cold crisp urgency.
“Shtoza planéta?” said the voice of the telescope.
“Gaia”, Jack replied, his head empty of thought.
The sky span like a globe of crystal, the sun flared past in a blaze of light and a small blue crescent swung into view. It centred and grew larger and larger until it filled the screen: a broken cookie of liquid blue and gold, dusted with clouds. Nearly half the disk was in daylight. Jack couldn’t tell if he was seeing the actual planet or a library image.
“Èto Géia, íli Zémlia. Goloubáia planéta. Trétja planéta ot sólntza.” (This is Gaia, or Earth. The blue planet. The third planet from the sun.)
“Shtoza straná?” continued the voice of the telescope after a pause.
“Anglia,” said Jack. Being addressed in M1 no longer fazed him, though he knew he’d never speak it fluently.
“Èto Ánglia.” The ball grew larger until the screen carved out a slice of the shining rim. The British Isles were visible, having just come up over the horizon.
“A tepér’ koudá?” (Where now?)
“Èto Esh Winning, County Durham,” confirmed the voice again. The screen zoomed-in upon England, coming in low over East Anglia, letting Yorkshire inflate and bulge off the bottom of the screen. Jack briefly saw the three towers of Durham Cathedral lit by the morning sun.
The image in the frame moved a fraction to show the village of Esh Winning, six miles to the west. The crenellated tower of Newhouse Church came into view, a cubist fragment in the slanting swirl of house-encrusted streets.
“St Mary’s, Newhouse…” said Jack, dread rising in his throat.
“Èto sérkov’ Newhouse Sviatói Maríi,” came the confirmation. The church grew until it filled the screen, the weather-vane turning in the breeze. It was an actual image he was seeing, just as it had been four minutes ago, a sunbeam glancing off the tower in the direction of Mars.
Beyond the tower lay the churchyard. “The grave of Hilda Williams…” Jack groaned.
“Èto mogíla Gílda Viliáms,” said the voice of the telescope. “Net informátzii.”
No information… but it had at least known her name. The frame zoomed into a shiny black gravestone until it too filled the screen aslant. He hadn’t yet seen it—although it was he who’d placed the order.
The picture pixellated: the telescope had reached its limit of resolution. But Jack knew what the inscription said, because he’d written it down for the stonemason:
Hilda Margaret Williams
Born 16/4/1907, died 13/6/1974
Beloved wife of Jack Williams
Died of a broken heart.
His gaze strayed to the date-stamp at the bottom of the screen. In Esh Winning it was 11.30am on Monday 3 May, 1976. Here in Nix City it was 6.30pm on Saturday 21 March, 401.
His eyes filled with tears. Almost two years had gone by and this was the first time he’d been able to weep for Hilda. Groping blindly, he staggered out of the telescope booth into the synthetic daylight of the Areopagus. A few people glanced round in fleeting concern as Jack straightened himself and set his visor neutral.
Then he stalked away to keep his deadly appointment.
Jack’s marscar stopped outside Tvoul’s apartment. He reached for the bag containing the uzi plus the loaded magazines. Taking two, he slipped them into his shin pockets. Of the remaining three, one he clipped into the gun, the others he left loose in the bag.
He could see no further than the deed to be done. Afterwards there was no way of escape. He supposed he’d simply get back in his marscar and command it to drive to the nearest Zasta post, where he’d give himself up. And then what would they do to him? Keep him in prison until they could deport him back to Earth? It hardly mattered. He’d be dead before the Oberon came back.
The outer door opened to let him in. He went down the passage and found himself in a living room which balanced sleaze against chic. A miniature bar occupied one corner. There was a poster of the Chrysler Building, captioned Niu-Iórk, Niu-Iórk, a reproduction of Picasso’s Three Dancers, a couple of Kandinsky pictures and a still from Casablanca showing Humphrey Bogart staring betrayed into the eyes of Ingrid Bergman.
Nothing of especially groubian interest, Jack reflected. Maybe he wouldn’t have recognised it had there been? Then his eye was arrested by a small colourful picture looking like a Rohrschach Ink Blot. Hadn’t he seen something like it recently?
Yes, he had. In Kenneth’s looted copy of the Book of Titan.
Curiosity overcame him. He went and stood in front of it. There was a poem inscribed on the patch of colour: a poem in M1. With his weak but growing knowledge of the language, Jack recognised the famous—or infamous—Last Verse…
Vérnaia mat’ terpít détstva outrátou.
Poust tvoiá liubóvka nanósit oudár;
Shto est’ valiúta ou zhízni samói?
Otvét: nishtó, ésli lish ni plestís’
Détskim peshkóm po dolíne poustói.
It happened to be Dolpou Zvezda’s ground-breaking translation from the original spatio-color, the one Kitty had thought so misleading. To everyone you asked it meant something different. Spatio-color, so they said, had conjunctions and prepositions with no counterparts in gaian languages: something that Dolpou Zvezda had tried stumblingly to portray. But apparently her effort didn’t make a lot of sense in M1 either. It may have been the only gaian language Dolpou spoke, but it could scarcely have been called her mother-tongue.
What did it mean to Tvoul? If nothing, she wouldn’t have had the verse stuck up on the wall, printed over what simply had to be a quotation from the original spatio-color. Perhaps he ought to ask her—before he shot her dead? Else he might never know.
Not that her present thoughts interested him in the least. He was after all planning to switch them off. But it would be nice to know what had been going on in her mind when she killed his son.
Tvoul’s dreamy voice oozed through from the next room. “Pour yourself a drink, Jack. I’m just changing into something more comfortable.”
As it happened Jack’s nerves were on a hair-trigger. Tvoul’s suggestion struck him as a good one. On the other hand, maybe he shouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol. Wisdom counselled that he should be on top form to carry this thing off. Ever since Hilda had died, it had been his only goal in life.
He went over to the bar to see what Tvoul had thought to get in stock for her clients. Whether she drank such things herself he couldn’t be sure—she had stuck to soft drinks when she’d been at his house. There were the ingredients for every variation of Martini you could think of. There were fancy cocktail sticks and bottles of every sort of fruit which might conceivably be stuck on them. There was a whole shelf full of mixers—and there was tequila, white rum, whisky, gin, vodka, brandy… all the usual spirits anyone might ask for.
Even if he wasn’t going to drink it, he should mix himself something, if only to avoid alerting his quarry to anything bad about to happen. He poured some tonic water into a glass and went over and sat on the pink leather sofa, putting his drink down on a glass side-table. Tvoul came in and exhibited her body under the guise of getting him to admire her satin shift, which was all she was wearing.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve been trying to think what we did when we last met. I have this feeling I’ve known you for an awfully long time.”
“Can you remember this?” said Jack. “Standing side-by-side in the dusk, trying to count the stars?”
“Really? How romantic. Did we do that? It seems a lifetime ago.”
“Whose lifetime? Mine? Or yours?”
Tvoul affected a lazy laugh. “Uh, huh… you’re playing word-games with me. There’s no way you could have been around at the beginning of my lifetime, gaian.”
“Will I be around at the end of it, I wonder?”
“Goodness, Jack—aren’t you in a mood tonight! Come on, lover-boy, loosen up. There’s things I could do to relax you.”
“There’s a Jacuzzi in the next room. We could spend some time in that. Just you and me, with nothing coming in between us. Getting to know each other. Easing up…”
She knows I’m on edge, Jack warned himself. Groubians weren’t meant to be good at reading gaian emotions. But if you were in business as a courtesan, you might install sensors to advise you of your client’s state of mind.
In that case, how much could she tell about him? Maybe more than he cared for. Maybe she knew exactly what he had come to do—she was simply laughing at him, having got her answer all worked out. He’d do well not to beat about the bush much longer. That might just be to play into her hands. Picking up his bag he felt for the pistol-grip of the uzi.
“What have you got in the bag?” There was no suspicion in the voice. It conveyed nothing but curiosity, plus a little sensuous anticipation. But of course, groubians have absolute control over their voices. Emotional colour is something to be consciously injected.
“Just a toy or two I’ve brought along.”
“Do you like using toys? Do they help you to perform, or is it just the idea that excites you?” She waved her hand vaguely behind her. “I’ve got a cupboard full of toys. If I’d known you were into those …”
Jack pulled out the uzi and laid it on his lap. She didn’t startle, but it was a second or two before she spoke again.
“Really, Jack, I don’t think there’s anything sexy about that toy. Does it give you a sense of power?”
Now, at last, there was a hint of foreboding in her voice. It was as if she hadn’t been anticipating anything untoward until now. Nor could she bring herself to believe it, even yet. You could be sure she’d checked out Jack before he came, polling the intensor for all its worth. A Terrestrial, but a solid citizen. A booner—well-known—everything to lose.
But she couldn’t ignore the evidence of the uzi. It wasn’t simply any gun, which therefore might be just for show—a prop. During the massacre which commenced the war, this was the weapon of choice for killing groubians. She’d know that.
“Let’s get back to what we were discussing,” said Jack. He tried to keep his tone of voice neutral, because that was something a groubian certainly could pick-up on. “Can you remember when you first met my son Harry? Taking him for biology lessons, perhaps?”
“Oh, yes,” said Tvoul, her voice growing silky. “I take a lot of nice boys for biology lessons…”
She seemed determined to act her part to the bitter end, though now her eyes didn’t leave Jack’s hand gripping the gun. No doubt she was wondering how to reach the alarm button without it being noticed. What a good thing she’d taken her helmet off. Otherwise she’d have found it easy to summon help by now.
Jack hadn’t taken off his own helmet—he’d merely slipped the visor back. The booner card was still activated—although, without her helmet, that wouldn’t signify anything to Tvoul.
“Harry, did you say? Harry… oh, Harry! Now there’s a gorgeous boy.” She prattled on in this vein, as though she imagined it would do something to pacify Jack. Or was she just playing for time?
“So tell me some of the things you recall doing with him.”
Tvoul cast her eyes upwards, as if selecting a tidbit from a fund of salacious memories. “Might they be things you’d fancy doing yourself? Like father—like son, perhaps?”
“As it happens, no. But tell me anyway.”
“Why don’t we stop talking and get down to brass tacks…? No, I didn’t mean that!” She held up her hands as Jack aimed the uzi. “Jack, I can’t imagine why you think this behaviour is likely to get you all excited. It just seems to be making you more and more upset. Let’s try another approach…”
“Can you remember going into the jungle with him? Can you remember what you did with him there?”
“Well that sounds all very exciting, Jack, but aren’t we talking at cross purposes?”
“No, it’s very much to the point. My son happens to be dead—and you’re still alive. And not a mark to show for it. No parturition scars, no lumps which might be zygocysts. Two years on. Two bloody years! That should have been long enough, shouldn’t it?”
“Look…” Tvoul’s voice became a cracked fingernail, catching in the fabric of her stories. “I really must say this: aren’t you in need of help? Let me call the Vratch…” She rose to her feet. Brandishing the uzi, Jack motioned to her to sit down again.
She complied—and as she did so she slowly stripped off her satin shift in one voluptuous movement. Had Jack only known, she wasn’t doing it to be seductive. She had come to the conclusion she was going to have to fight him—and for that she needed all her skin-area exposed, for dazzle camouflage.
…to be continued.