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 has just been rescued by the Meteor Gang from arrest by Zasta, who have attacked him with the Corporal Retrieval Winch (CRW) – aka the “Bloody Butcher”.
NOW READ ON…
Time passed and Jack didn’t know whether it was day or night. As far as he could tell, they were in an underground storeroom. Lagged pipes curled and twisted round the ceiling. Packing cases had been manhandled into position to make rough beds for the four of them. Jack tried getting out of bed and attempting a few feeble steps with the aid of a stick, but he soon got back under the covers. His broken heel pained him, his body smarted from the torn wounds of the CRW talons and he felt ridiculously weak. On top of that he was crushed by the guilt of having killed a person—the wrong person.
Now and again he’d wake up with a jolt, sweating copiously, his SP unit chattering and his mouth full of water-brash. It was always the same nightmare—the magnesium flare erecting its tail of smoke like a blinding white Persian cat—the squirming red jelly on the floor—the mess—the nausea. The moment before he’d pulled the trigger she had shape-shifted, he was sure of it. She had shape-shifted into something utterly inhuman.
Or could he be so sure? Hadn’t it simply been a camouflage pattern on her skin which obliterated her outline? A pattern that moved sharply in one direction as she moved in another? That, plus the jet of sepia, which all cephalopods discharge in mortal danger? Both squids and octopi employ optical illusion to confuse predators—or prey.
He hadn’t stopped to inspect the body, but from what he could recall of that gruesome sight there had been no vestige of any human form. Just the sofa and floor strewn with offal and slime.
Every now and then Shval or Hamish would come with food or medicine, or to recharge him through the left nostril with superox. Only Shval was wearing a helmet to keep in contact with the intensor. This saved Jack a good deal of unpleasantness from the triada’s frightful aura. But he felt naked and isolated. He had got used to wearing a helmet and feeling reassured by the presence of people around him. Without access to the intensor, his three boon-companions felt estranged and remote, in spite of the kind words that Shval directed at him whenever she saw him awake.
Most of the time he was alone in the storeroom with Peter Zwillinge, a sullen monstrosity of dehumanised ugliness, who never cared to speak unless he was spoken to—and then only to reply in the most economical way.
“Where are we?” said Jack once.
“Is this where you live?”
“How long are we going to stay here?”
“Until you can be moved.”
“And then where are we going? Back to your place?”
“Zasta is out looking for us.”
Jack quickly decided that Peter was just being his beautiful self. But he had a problem with Hamish. His attitude was best described as silent rage—in utter contrast to the easy affability he’d shown when he’d introduced himself on the Oberon, hollow though that might have been.
Jack decided that when the occasion arose he’d seize the bull by the horns. It was ever his way. He loved a row but hated an atmosphere.
“I really appreciate the TLC,” he said to Hamish when the latter had been ministering to him—quite tenderly too, it had to be admitted, so there was no sarcasm intended.
“Make yourself at home. It’s where you should be.”
“I’m sorry to be such a nuisance. Why are you going to all this trouble for me?”
“Her Ladyship reckons you’re still of use to us,” replied Hamish, drying his hands on a sterilised rag. “Though if it were up to me it’d be a swift one to the back of the neck. It’s the best you deserve.”
In times gone by, Hamish had been one of Tvoul Waterfall’s many admirers. Jack wasn’t to know that. And Hamish never got around to telling him.
When Shval came back with some provisions, she went straight over to Jack. “How are you feeling today? I must say you’re looking better.”
“I don’t feel too bad. Time to be moving on?”
Shval pursed her lips. “No, give it another day or two. Do you eat smoked crab? I thought we all needed a treat.”
“I’m sorry for causing such a nosedive in your lifestyle.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll soon be gone from this planet.”
Hamish cleared the mess off the table from the previous meal and Shval dished out some bags and packages. All of a sudden she put her hands to her helmet.
“Zasta! Get your weapons out.”
The others were carrying guns already. Shval pounced on Jack’s uzi lying on a box at the end of the bed and dumped it on the bedclothes. “You too, Jack. Think you can manage this?”
“Stop buggering about, woman.” growled Hamish. “Get the other two away down the rabbit hole. I’ll follow as soon as I can.” He stamped on the floor and a recess appeared. Flaps slid back to reveal a shaft.
Peter rapidly propelled himself over to Jack’s bed. “Get on my lap,” he shouted. Then, grasping Jack round the middle, he wheeled the pair of them over to the hatch. Jack screamed as they toppled in.
It was a levitator—a somewhat wider one than Jack had met with on the Moon. As they gently touched bottom, Shval landed on top of them. Quickly she got behind Peter Zwillinge and started the trolley motor going. On and on they sped in the darkness of the overflow drain. It smelt acrid and rusty, as Olympus rock does when it’s moistened. The air which had sunk down from the buildings above was oxygen-depleted and poisoned with radon. It was a good job that none of them needed to breathe it.
A flash behind them lit up the tunnel in all its awfulness. The explosion which arrived a moment later boxed Jack’s ears. By the sound of falling rock that followed, Jack judged the levitator shaft had collapsed.
They stood listening in the silent darkness. For how long Jack couldn’t tell.
“Will there be any pursuit now?” murmured Peter, his catarrhal voice echoing softly.
“No. Zasta have called-off the raid. They’ve only accounted for one of us, but they’re telling themselves that the rest must have been elsewhere. They don’t know about the rabbit hole.”
Shval sluggishly took the handles of the trolley and began pushing it by hand, the wheels crunching in the moist grit. Peter Zwillinge continued holding on to Jack in the darkness, hugging him tightly like an outsized teddy bear.
“You owe it to us, Jack.”
They were in another bolt-hole. Shval had come back from a dangerous mission: shopping. She knew how to do it without the intensor bringing Zasta crashing through the roof. She put a bag of cakes on the table and a bottle of wine.
“It all seems so sudden… we hardly know each other…”
It was a crass thing to say. Jack was feeling weak after the hammering he’d taken—weak and compliant. His reckless anger had misled him into murdering an innocent being. A human being—as he was gradually coming to accept. How then could he refuse someone who looked so much like his victim? Who in her turn had died because she looked so much like Tvoul?
Shval might not have been able to read his face, but she could read his mind. “Hamish gave his life for you,” she reproached. “I have sacrificed my triada to rescue you from Zasta. When one member dies, the triada is dissolved. But if you imagine for one moment that means I’m going to abandon Peter…”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Oh yes you are—if you did but know it. How do you suppose you’re going to get to Titan now, without my help? Will your precious Agent Zero come running to pull you out of the shit? …A Zasta agent is she now, did you say?”
“All right!” Jack swallowed. “Tell me what I have to do.”
Shval turned and fetched Jack’s helmet from somewhere within Peter’s trolley. “We’ll need our helmets on for this. But we must be quick—or we’ll be pinpointed.”
She opened the bag of cakes and the wine. Then kneeling down she took Jack’s hand and offered him a cake.
“As the intensor is my witness, I promise to obey you absolutely, until death parts the triada. Now repeat after me: ‘as the intensor is my witness, I promise to cherish you and defend you with my life’.”
Jack did so. Then Shval gave him a hug and a kiss before getting up and standing before Peter. They held hands and repeated the formula, Peter vowing to obey her and she to cherish him. They embraced and kissed lingeringly.
“Now, Jack, kneel before Peter.”
It was the hardest thing he’d ever done. The formula was simple enough, so he didn’t need prompting again. When it was over, Shval passed round the wine and they drank from the bottle. Peter was grinning with relief, making little chuckling noises.
Jack looked at Shval. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, what the patterns on her face meant. She said “This is a brand new triada. Its aura is virginal. While we stick together it masks our class four status. So we’ll be able to move about more openly.”
“We won’t have to move about much, will we Shval?” said Peter. “Surely all we need do is get to the shuttle bay?”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” Shval replied. “Jack—when you signed-up with TMG, they gave you an identifier to hang round your neck. We’ll need that to get on Prometheus. Do you still happen to have it on you?”
Jack felt in his pockets but quickly remembered the gesture was pointless. “No—I left it in my apartment on purpose. I didn’t want to carry any sort of identification beyond my booner card when I went off to do my little job…”
Peter and Shval looked at each other. “We’ll have to go and get it,” Shval muttered.
“Why do we need it?” Jack asked.
“Because without it, you have no occupation—and thus no authority to be going to Titan. Prometheus doesn’t have an intensor—it’s a Selenean vessel. But if you don’t have your TMG identifier on you, the moment you set foot on Prometheus they’ll start making inquiries. And they may read your class four status from what’s recorded against your aura back on Mars.”
“I thought you said that Prometheus couldn’t care less about auras? What about yours then—and Peter’s?”
“They don’t care about auras—they wouldn’t get any crew otherwise. But they do care about class. Your booner card will mask yours and they’ll assume you’re class six. But it may all fall apart if they ask you to deactivate it.”
“We can’t go now, Shval. It’s the middle of the night. It would look suspicious.”
“You’re right, Peter. We’ll go first thing in the morning. Let’s turn in now.”
As best they could they settled down in the bolt-hole. It was a lot less comfortable than the last one—and that certainly hadn’t been opulent.
During the night Jack awoke to the sounds of what could have been an oyster-eating contest. “God!” he snarled in disgust. “Get some sleep, dammit!”
“Sorr-ee,”… came Shval’s muffled voice.
“I thought cars didn’t get stolen on Mars.”
“They don’t,” said Shval.” The owner’s going to maxgear us for borrowing it without permission. But who cares? We’ll be on Prometheus before he even discovers it’s gone.”
“Have an elstat.” Peter Zwillinge handed both Shval and Jack an object the size and shape of a quail’s egg, grey with three coloured bands round it, brown, black and red.
“What is it?” asked Jack.
“An electric grenade,” explained Peter. “A 100 microfarad capacitor charged to 100,000 volts, which unfurls filaments by electrostatic repulsion. It’ll kill everyone in a room without causing structural damage. Just twist the hemispheres before throwing it round the door.”
Shval laughed to see Jack holding his at arm’s length as if it were about to explode in his face. “It’s quite safe until you do that. You can put it in your pocket, hang it on your key-ring…”
“You’ll see it has a ‘stun’ setting,” said Peter. “Don’t use that. Too unreliable.”
Faking a casual air, Jack and Shval got out of the marscar, leaving Peter in the driving seat for a quick getaway. Jack reached back inside for the stick they’d got him. Half a minute later they were in the apartment. Jack’s foot was far from healed—he’d been quickly reduced to hobbling.
“It’s in the bedroom,” said Jack. “On the bedside table.” He wondered if he’d be able to snatch a quick breakfast of krill semolina. For the last two weeks he’d not been eating normally.
“I daren’t touch it,” said Shval from the bedroom. “I might alter it in some way. Come and get it for yourself.”
Jack went into the bedroom to discover Shval lying naked on the bed. Her skin was shimmering in pastel colours. “Don’t you want to consummate the triada?”
“I thought we were in a hurry.” He picked up the identifier on its cord and hung it round his neck.
“I’ve got the intensor just where I want it. So long as nobody comes in we’ll be safe here for as long as you need. Peter’s quite happy out there.”
“Can’t it all wait until we’re on our way to Titan? There’ll be more time…”
“There won’t be another chance. Prometheus isn’t the Oberon. It’s not a luxury liner—it’s a working vessel. We’re unlikely to get a cabin together.”
Jack sat on the bed and ran his hand up Shval’s bare flank. Rose-pink eddies swirled away from his fingers. In spite of himself he felt his loins beginning to creep.
Then he thought of Kitty—and snatched his hand away.
Moodily Shval shifted her bottom to sprawl on her side. She reached again for Jack’s hand.
“Can’t we just leave it for now?” said Jack. “I’m not feeling very sexy.”
“I don’t fathom you, Jack. You’ve got a groubian as your willing slave—and you don’t care. Half the population of Nix City would give their right arm to be in your shoes.”
“Perhaps I’m the other half,” he muttered.
“Jack, if you’re going to be like that, this triada isn’t going to work. This could be our last chance to get together—just you and me. I’ve vowed to you I’ll do anything you ask. Isn’t there something you want me to do?”
“Yes,” said Jack. “There is.”
Shval waited in silence.
“Answer me a couple of questions.”
Shval put on a surprised look and propped her head up on her hand. “Whatever you say, Jack…”
“What does the Last Verse really mean?”
Shval sat up like a rat-trap springing shut. “Why does that matter to you, gaian?” Her skin crawled with orange flames.
“It just does.”
“And you pick now, of all possible times, to ask me that?”
“You’ve said it yourself. Mebbes it’s the last chance I’ll get. I’ve read a bit of the original, you know.”
“How can you possibly have read the Book of Titan?” She grabbed his face between both hands and peered into his eyes. “God—you have!” She let him go, throwing his chin to one side.
“So you won’t tell me? What’s all this stuff about vows?”
“I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you when I’ve calmed down. Is that all you want to know?”
“No, I’ve another question for you. Who torched the Gaiascope—and why?”
She lowered her head, putting a hand to her brow.
“So… you’re not going to tell me that, either? And you’re the one saying this triada isn’t going to work?”
She raised her shoulders sluggishly, then let them drop in defeat. “Peter spiked the chip in the Adin satellite. He’s good at things like that. It was done for another contract, which fell through when we discovered we’d been set up. It was all long before Tvoul Rainbow went to Gaia and married your son. It was easy and gratifying to put the blame on TMG, because they were the ones who set us up.”
“So you simply forgot about it—and left this sword of Damocles dangling over the Gaiascope?”
“No, I didn’t ‘simply forget about it’. Right up until the last moment it was a disaster so easy to prevent. A word in Vermat’s ear and Selstyrke could have shot down the collimator at five seconds’ notice.”
She threw her arms round his neck. “Oh, Jack… I was hoping to use it as a bargaining counter, when everybody was hunting Tvoul. I had to kill TMG’s agents because they were getting too close. They wanted to suborn you to get hold of Tvoul, alive or dead. I realised then a lot more people were going to die—and not by my hand. I then thought of booking my own private box at the Gaiascope for the Ring of Fire. Negotiations would be delicate—and I needed to be in the thick of things. I was going to invite you and Vermat to join me. But then you went and organised your own party. How was I to know you’d choose that night to propose to Kitty Martin? Or that Vermat would pounce on me before I could carry out my plan.”
“So you let your own mother die?”
“I didn’t intend it that way, Jack.” Tears started to flow. “I was going to be there, in a box next to yours. I wasn’t gambling my mother’s life. I was staking my own. And my triada’s.”
“But Vermat had you arrested the moment you set foot inside your box? And you let Selstyrke lead you away without saying a word?”
“That’s not quite what happened. We weren’t cautioned—we were simply ambushed and tasered. Vermat was clearly losing her grip. She had no patience with me any more.”
“So what exactly was your plan?”
“It was a flexible one. Several plans in one, with several fallbacks. I got a message through to Tvoul, offering to get the hounds off her tail if she gave me what I wanted. She didn’t reply and I still couldn’t find her myself, so I told her what was going to happen to the Gaiascope, to Vermat, to me, to you… and how I’d framed her to shoulder the blame. I was convinced that would flush her from cover.”
“But it didn’t?”
“No. She figured a way of getting a message through to you, and you alone, to winkle you out of the Gaiascope in time. If she had attempted to warn you—warn anybody—I’d have pinned her down. But she foxed me with a standard wristlink message format launched from a lovers’ dating service. Outsmarting my own twin sister? I was so, so complacent…”
Jack was silent. He was working out in his mind how he could strangle Shval. But he knew by now how hard it was to kill a groubian. Even with an uzi—which was back in the car anyway, with Peter. And he knew that if he hurt Shval, Peter would kill him.
The notion that Tvoul had cared enough about him to find a way of saving him from the Ring of Fire was not an agreeable one. But he could not—would not—let it deflect him from bringing her to justice. His own justice, failing all else. Until then… he needed his loathsome triada.
“Well, does that answer your question? Does it explain why I stood by and let my own mother die—the last of the Mothers from the Titanic Zygogeny?”
Jack was silent.
“You’ve no idea how I felt when I came round in custody to learn that she was dead—and you too, for all I knew. When Gabrielle Starr, in her innocence, told me you were on board the Oberon, I vowed never again to let you out of my sight. Ever since then I’ve been your guardian angel. Keeping one step ahead of TMG and Zasta, not to mention Agent Zero—my Agent Zero—whom they’ve turned against me. And all the while trying to track down Tvoul. Not to mention figuring out what you were gonna do next.”
She threw herself flat on the bed. “Would you care to guess which was the hardest task of all?”
Before Jack could bring himself to say anything in reply, they heard a soft sound in the next room. Picking her dust suit off the floor, Shval retrieved her elstat. Then, creeping off the bed, she opened the door a crack.
“Jack—are you there…?”
It was Kat’s voice. In an instant Jack’s hand clamped tightly round Shval’s holding the elstat. “No!”
“Let me talk to her.”
“She’s perturbed the intensor, damn her.”
Twisting her wrist, Jack thrust his way past Shval to stand in the doorway. He saw Kat in the middle of the room, visor slid back, a look of horror on her face.
“Have you got someone in the bedroom…? Oh! What’s happened to your poor foot?”
“Don’t you worry about me. Now why don’t you just run along home.”
“Please, Jack,” she faltered, her voice grinding like a keel in gravel, “why are you class four…?”
“Kat, pet, I can’t explain right now. I’ll come round later and tell you all about it…”
“Jack!” Her hands leapt up to her helmet. “Do you know who it is you’ve got in there?”
Shval’s arm reached round the door and hauled Jack back into the bedroom. No sooner had she closed the door behind him when they heard Kat’s voice scream “Zasta!”
Instantly Shval flung her elstat round the door and slammed it shut. Then sitting on the bed she unhurriedly donned her dust suit, all the while holding Jack’s gaze. Putting her ear to the door, she listened. With a jerk she opened it and hauled Jack out of the bedroom behind her.
A mist of ozone hung in the air. Bodies lay strewn about. Bodies in blue… and one small white one.
“Kat!” screeched Jack. “Kat!” Fighting free from Shval’s grasp, he flung himself forward to sprawl sobbing beside the diminutive corpse. “Come on, Jack!” yelled Shval, dragging him with main force out of the apartment.
…to be continued.