Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
Zasta raid the gang’s hideout and Hamish dies defending the others. Jack is co-opted to replace him. To escape from Mars the new triada needs to board the Prometheus, bound for Titan.
NOW READ ON…
The shuttle disgorged a mob of brown-clad crew returning from surface-leave. Last off was a trio of passengers who contrasted egregiously with the strapping crewmen. The accessibility hoist lowered a trolley onto the deck. Behind the trolley was a groubian. Cradled in it was a gaian holding a walking stick, sitting on the lap of something that was neither groubian nor gaian: a species all its own.
They entered the guardroom of the shuttle bay. The captain, a pale man with thinning hair who looked like English gentry, was sitting behind his desk, flanked by two orderlies standing at-ease. He made a habit of personally interviewing all arriving volunteers.
He got to his feet in amazement. “Shval Meteor!”
“Captain Kahlil.” Shval nodded, speaking in a quieter voice than his.
“Whatever they say about you, you’re nothing if not entertaining.”
“It’s my job in life, Captain.”
The captain of the Prometheus sat down again. “Why have you gone to the effort of making the journey here? Do you suppose for a moment I’m going to welcome you aboard?”
“I’ve brought you a passenger.”
“Why didn’t you send him alone? He might have had a sweeter reception.”
“We travel everywhere together. This is my triada.”
Captain Kahlil nodded slowly, his mouth forming a big O. “The famous Meteor Gang. What happened to Hamish? Did he step out of line then?”
“Hamish died saving our lives,” said Shval, carrying it off with such dignity that it was impossible to doubt her. “This is a newly-formed triada. The one you won’t know is Jack Williams, from Gaia.”
“I know of you,” said the captain, to Jack’s surprise. “TMG told me you were on your way. Though in whose company they didn’t have the grace to say.”
“Captain,” said Jack, “I have a request to make. I’ve a close family member on Titan. I haven’t seen her since she married my son and they left Gaia. I need to visit her and talk to her about a family bereavement. Since yours is the only vessel bound for Titan, I request passage… under the terms of the Treaty of Moscow.”
“As far as I recall offhand, the Treaty of Moscow only applies to the Four Worlds,” the captain replied.
“But the spirit of the Treaty…!” protested Shval.
“I cannot for the life of me think of anything spiritual where Titan is concerned.” The captain sighed, softening his stance. “What’s the name of your family member and what is your relationship to her?”
“Tvoul Williams. I’m her father-in-law.”
“Tvoul is a groubian name.”
“Nevertheless, that’s what she’s called.”
“Hmm,” grunted the captain, eyeing Shval aslant. “For a Terrestrial, you do seem to have a lot of groubian in the family. And if that were all…” His frown drifted to Peter Zwillinge.
“That is my privilege and my misfortune,” replied Jack, trying to match Shval’s dignity—or was it chutzpah? Inwardly he gasped at himself. The man who sat before them was the unchallenged master of an entire world. Of two worlds, you could argue. It wouldn’t do to appear arrogant.
Captain Kahlil turned to the v-screen. “MM—can you confirm any of that?”
The shimmering face of Magic Mirror, the virtual agent, looked like the death-mask of an old man reflected in an oily pool. “Sir, there is indeed a Tvoul Williams on Platform Two,” it said. “The person concerned travelled out on the last voyage, which as you know left Mars on Monday 2 December of last year, coming straight here from Oberon without going through the formalities of landing on Mars. Such a thing is not uncommon for Peretchelo employees joining us from Selene. Peretchelo does have a policy on compassionate leave, or failing that, on admitting visitors. But the interval is too short to qualify.”
“I can pay for my passage,” said Jack.
“You’re carrying a booner card,” said Captain Kahlil. “Is it Strana business you’re on?”
“No. Purely personal.”
Jack had no idea what were the right and wrong answers, so he could only extemporise. Shval had given Jack the barest of briefings in preparation for this vital interview. “Use your antennae,” she’d ended up saying.
The captain folded his hands on the desk. “Mr Williams. There is no cash or infocredit within the Promethean mir. Any payment due to us is made at our offices in Lunaborg. Any payment due to you is made in selkroner or US dollars, whichever you nominate, by direct payment into your account. Official business is underwritten by your booner card in the normal manner. There is no way you can ‘pay for your passage’ as you put it.”
Jack didn’t answer in words. Instead he took out the booner card and placed it on the captain’s desk.
The captain picked it up. It went green. He put it back on the desk. It went blue again. The look of astonishment he gave Jack must have lasted for all of half a second. Then he smartly put the card in his breast pocket.
“Ahhmm… Welcome aboard, Mr Williams. I shall direct the first mate to show you to your cabin. You will have the privileges of a first class passenger, which includes entitlement to dine with me and my officers—if you so wish. You needn’t decide upon that just yet.”
Sitting in Peter Zwillinge’s lap, it didn’t seem appropriate to shake hands. Jack inclined his head in what he hoped would be taken for a formal gesture of gratitude. Immediately the captain fixed Shval with a hard stare.
“That doesn’t apply to you, Shval Meteor. Now get off my ship. And take this…” he pointed to Peter Zwillinge, who hadn’t said a word throughout, “this person with you.”
“Captain Kahlil,” replied Shval, “you’re known to be a fair man and a generous one. Take me on as an ordinary crewman.”
The captain’s expression didn’t alter. The two orderlies standing either side of him took a menacing step forward.
“Shval Meteor. With your reputation, you’d be anything but an ordinary crewman.”
“Do you only sign up people of irreproachable character?” asked Shval in an innocent tone. “However do you manage to populate this world?”
“It may have been the fashion once to populate new worlds with criminals, but we’re trying to get away from the idea.”
“Captain,” interposed Jack. “I must make it clear I’m not prepared to abandon my triada. If they have to go back down to Mars, then so must I.” He made as if to get to his feet. Peter Zwillinge gave a yelp as Jack’s elbow jabbed into his solar plexus.
The captain’s eyes rose heavenwards before he shut them tight. When he opened them he was looking straight at Shval.
“Can you cook?”
“There is nothing I haven’t cooked, in one form or another, Captain Kahlil.”
“That I can well believe. Very good, report to the galley for duty. The chimorg however goes straight into hibernation—and there he stays until we’re back round Mars. Orderlies—see to it.”
The two orderlies searched the three of them for weapons before marching them off. They took the uzi, plus the elstats from Shval and Peter. But they missed Jack’s. Terrorists after all do not travel first-class.
When they’d gone, Captain Kahlil spoke to the v-screen without turning his head. “MM—get me Number One.”
The first mate’s face appeared on the screen. “Yes, sir?”
“Number One—break out the first-class courtesy pack. We have supercargo. A Mr Jack Williams, late of TMG.”
“We also have cargo: one chimorg—Not Wanted On Voyage. The orderlies are putting him in hibernation right now. Check it happens—and lock the hibernator up in the strong room, plus the chimorg’s trolley.”
“And we have enlisted one groubian, known to be an excellent cook. Detail the head cook to give her an induction tour of the galley.”
“Her name is Shval Meteor.”
“And see to it that Mr Williams gets invited to our sherry reception in the state room before dinner tonight. He’s come here without anything, so he’ll need some gear. Get him measured up for a dinner jacket.”
“Oh—and Number One…”
“…Keep them apart.”
As the first mate’s face faded, to be replaced by Magic Mirror’s oily visage, Captain Kahlil reflected on what a lot of ways there were of saying “Yes, sir.”
“We all have to go in one of these, once we get to the asteroid belt. It’s just that you’re going in a wee bit earlier.”
The two orderlies lifted Peter Zwillinge out of his chair and into the cylindrical chamber they called a hibernator.
“Shval, my lovely, am I ever going to come back out of this?”
“Of course you are, Peter darling,” she said, kissing his ugly forehead.
“Well then… in case we don’t see each other again: best of luck, both of you.”
The top of the hibernator was swung down and clicked tight. There came the gargling hiss of freezing gas pouring in and then the bubbling of packing resin. Massive rams began compressing the casket to enable it to resist the 200 g acceleration of the thermonuclear drive. Now it was all ready for its round trip via the outer planets.
“Why isn’t he being stowed here, in the hibernation chamber?” Shval demanded.
“Captain’s orders. The chimorg’s to be stowed in the strongroom. It’ll be quite safe there.”
Shval said nothing, but simply slipped her hand round Jack’s waist. He did the same to her. There was a lump in his throat—he surprised himself. He hadn’t anticipated feeling anything but joy at the prospect of bidding Peter farewell.
Off went the two orderlies, one wheeling the hibernator, the other wheeling the trolley. Left to themselves Jack and Shval turned and wandered out of the hibernation chamber into the corridor, as if they had nowhere to go. Suddenly Shval put her forehead to Jack’s collar-bone and wept.
Jack was taken aback. Here was the evil genius of the Four Worlds crying on his shoulder. He hadn’t given her enough credit to grieve over her old triada. He was, after all, only a companion of convenience. No real substitute for the one, maybe two, constant companions—lovers indeed—that she had lost.
The voice of the first mate ricocheted off the steel walls of the corridor. “Crewman Meteor! Report to the galley for duty. Look sharp.”
Shval surreptitiously helped herself to a couple of elstats from Jack’s breast pocket. Then she let go and went meekly away without a backward glance. The first mate marched briskly up until he drew level with Jack, then he turned and delivered a respectful salute.
“Captain’s compliments, sir, he wants me to show you to your quarters and see you have everything you need. Would you be so kind as to step this way?”
TC Prometheus—TC standing for “thermonuclear craft”—had ten cabins on the officers’ deck reserved for passengers—normally officials of those companies having business on Titan. Whilst offering nothing like the opulence of the SV Oberon, they were spacious and well-appointed, to the standard of a two-star hotel, with en-suite toilet and shower. Noteworthy though was the absence of anything moveable. Everything was screwed or bolted down.
The ship’s tailor appeared and measured Jack for suits of clothes. Within a quarter-of-an-hour he was back with a well-fitting dinner-jacket and smart patent-leather shoes, with the promise of more clothes to come.
“Why do I need all this clobber? We’ll all be going in those casket things soon, won’t we?”
“About five days out, sir. We’ve got to get through the asteroid belt. Until we do, we can’t fire the thermonuclear drive.”
Jack surveyed himself in the full-length mirror. In evening dress he looked like a nightclub bouncer—or a cartoon superhero in an improbable disguise. He still hadn’t got used to the shape of his torso. He had to remember though: it was no longer the air of kindly Gaia he breathed, but corrosive superox. Just as it was no longer love that kept him alive, but explosive hatred.
His mind went back to his last night on Earth, the night he went down on his knees and raved at the sky. He had declared that he’d accept help from the devil himself. So why should he be so surprised at how fate had unfolded? First he’d enjoyed the patronage of TMG—reputedly the devil’s own organisation. And now he was one of the Meteor Gang—the very seed of destruction.
When had he first fallen from a state of grace? Was it when he’d made his pact? No—it had been long before that. To take an alien into his home, and in his turn to be taken-in by her… that had been the nature of his transgression. To let himself be turned into a victim, to say nothing of his beloved wife and son.
And what could possibly redeem him now?
To catch up with Tvoul. To ascend to her crystal sphere and get even with her. And, as a bonus, to spare the galaxy her demon spawn.
And how much was it all going to cost him? To that he had long known the answer: to the value of life itself. And what of his immortal soul? That had long been melted down in the crucible of despair… to emerge as a cinder: black and crystalline and very, very hard.
On this trip Jack was the only passenger. Apart from a small exercise deck with a miniature gym there was nothing to do but eat, sleep and watch Doris Day dubbed into M1 and subtitled in M2. As Shval had predicted, they were likely to see nothing of each other until they reached Titan. Perversely, he missed her. Captain Kahlil had been right: she was nothing if not entertaining.
He got the ship’s doctor to look at his damaged heel.
“How long is it since you did that?”
“A little over three weeks now. How does it look to you?”
“Not as good as it might. But it’s the simpler sort of heel-bone break. I’ll give you some steroids and some microwave treatment.”
“At least it’ll get a good long rest when I go in the casket.”
“Afraid not. No healing takes place in hibernation. No metabolism, see. If you come out in the same state you went in, well—that’s a bonus. Let’s fix the heel before Saturday, if we can.”
The medic delivered what he’d promised. Although there was still some pain when Jack put weight on the foot, it wouldn’t be enough to hold him back when he came to do what he had come for.
The sherry reception the first night aboard—or what passed for “night”—had enabled Jack to meet the officers socially. Thereafter, at mealtimes at least, he had somebody to talk to.
On each occasion before dinner the captain took care to join his officers for a drink, invariably toying with a glass of tamarind juice, whereas the officers, to a man, drank scotch. But he never ate with them, always having his meals served in his cabin.
On the fourth circadian out, he approached Jack for the first time.
“I’d be honoured, Mr Williams, if you’d join me for dinner. I don’t wish to inflict my dietary foibles on you, so I suggest you see the dining room attendant and make your choice from the menu as usual. The attendant will come for you when it’s ready to be served.”
As he was walking away, on an apparent afterthought he turned his head. “…And pick yourself a bottle of wine from the list.”
The attendant served their meals and retired, leaving Jack alone with the captain.
“Bon appetit, Mr Williams. Forgive me if I don’t join you in a glass of wine. My religion forbids it. But for the French, a meal without wine is a day without sunshine. I imagine that is true for other Terrestrials too. There’s little enough sunshine to be had on this trip, so drink up and enjoy it while it’s on offer.”
“Your good health then, Captain.” Jack raised his glass and took a sip. He hadn’t tasted wine since his night-out with Kitty on the Moon. The sensation was like slipping his toes on a chilly night down to a hot water bottle. Jack knew it would relax him, which was a good thing, but it might also loosen his tongue. Was that his host’s intention? He knew the gift of a booner card couldn’t have earned him any sort of respect.
On the other hand the captain was universally held to be a considerate man. He could afford to be, they said, because his decisiveness when called-for kept his men in awe of him. The officers he’d spoken with had vied with each other to recall instances of this to Jack.
He decided that here was a man who was nobody’s fool. It would be impossible to conceal from him whatever he was determined to root up. How much did he know already? He was evidently under no illusions about Shval. But did he know that he, Jack, was on the run after murdering another Tvoul? If so, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that the object of his trip to Titan wasn’t a cosy family reunion.
In that case why had he let them come aboard at all? Because the booner card had well and truly bribed him, Jack was compelled to conclude. Well enough to make him overlook the consequences to somebody on Platform Two. Maybe the captain felt that his responsibilities extended no further than his crew? But from everything he’d heard of Captain Kahlil, it was quite out of character.
They took the soup and much of the first course in silence. If Jack’s mind hadn’t been a racetrack of thoughts chasing each other round and round, he would have had plenty of time to appreciate how delicious it was, and how well-prepared and well-presented. And all for his benefit: a glance at what the captain was eating showed it to be austere. The captain was not so much sharing his table as repaying his bribe with imperial magnificence.
Or was the first-class treatment simply intended to put Jack at his ease, tricking him into lowering his guard?
…to be continued.