Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
The newly-reformed Meteor Gang boards the
Prometheus, bound for Titan. Jack is welcomed aboard as a first-class passenger. After initial reluctance, Tvoul is taken on as a cook. Peter has to be put into hibernation.

NOW READ ON…

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Jack waited for the captain to open the conversation, but the latter was clearly waiting for him to do that. 

“The food’s canny,” said Jack at last.  “Tell your chef from me.  It’s a pity we’ve got those hibernators to look forward to.  It’s spoiling the trip for me, like.”

“That’s right, Mr Williams.  Let us enjoy the pleasures of the table while we can.  All things considered, it’s a miserable trip, this Titan run.  The first five days are tolerable enough, a leisurely cruise to rendezvous with an asteroid.  But then it’s 20 days at megaspeed under hibernation before we reach Titan.  You’re conscious of little enough of that of course—except the putting under and the bringing back up.  Which never gets any jollier.”

“Why the asteroid?” Jack guessed he was expected to ask at this point. 

The captain leaned back in his chair, clearly relishing the opportunity to treat Jack to some facts and figures.  “Action and reaction are equal and opposite—Newton’s Third Law of Motion.  To give us the action, the asteroid has to furnish the reaction.  In the process it gets blown to dust.  Why we don’t is a trade secret.  It’s the essence of giga-nano engineering—the juggling of giga units in the space of nanoseconds.”

He took a mouthful of cous-cous and swallowed it without relish.  “Everything about this trip is gigantic, with the operative syllable being giga—billions.  We travel a distance of a billion miles, give or take 20%, depending on whether Mars is this or that side of the Sun from Titan.  If we did the trip at the speed of the Oberon it would take us over six years.  We do it in just 20 days.  Think of the implications of that, Mr Williams.”

Now this was just the sort of calculation that Jack did in his head.  His speciality—times and seasons.  “That’s an average speed of a million miles an hour!”

The captain was impressed.  “Quite right.  At that speed a vessel of 10,000 tons has the kinetic energy of 500 megatons of TNT.  Most of that we dissipate by braking in the atmosphere of Saturn before heading out to Titan.  For the journey back we use ice and rock from Saturn’s rings.  We have to take ice with us to decelerate via the thermonuclear drive, because there’s no atmosphere we can use in the neighbourhood of Mars.”

Without looking at Jack he scooped up more cous-cous.  “It’s a round-trip we do every two months.  Regular as clockwork, we detach from Mars orbit on the ninth of the month.  Since our launch three years ago it’s been the second, but leap-year has added seven sols to our schedule.”

“So we surf-ride on top of a mushroom cloud?”

“Not in space.  More like a plasma cone of a carefully determined angle.  The feasibility of thermonuclear propulsion hangs on slowing down the impulse from nanoseconds to seconds.  In that way you only have to deal with accelerations of a few hundred g and not a few thousand or a few million—an impulse which would smash a diamond to powder.  200 g is severe enough.”

“Hence the casket?” said Jack. 

“Hence the casket.  I’m sorry you had to watch your companion being put into hibernation.  It’s a shock when you first see it done.  It’s no consolation to know that we all have to go through it, from the captain down to the humblest kitchen maid.”

“It distressed the ‘kitchen maid’ more than it did me,” said Jack.  “She’s very protective of our Peter.”

The captain nodded sympathetically, but as he did so his eyes bored into Jack.  “It’s touching to see… in someone whose reputation isn’t exactly that of a caring individual.  How well do you know them both?”

“They are my triada!  I owe them my life.  They’re the only friends I’ve got.”

“That’s not quite what I meant to ask.  Are they chance-acquaintances, perhaps?  Boon-companions met-with on the road?”

“I know them rather better than that.”

The captain evinced surprised.  “You mean you’ve worked with them for some time?”

“Not at all.  I’ve never ‘worked’ with them—not in the sense I guess you mean.  But I had a detective investigate them for a year.  And Shval’s mother, Vermat Aurora, was a personal friend.  She kept an eye on them for me too.”

The captain digested this information.  It was both much more and much less than he’d been expecting to hear.  It made him exercise greater caution. 

“This is a dinnertime chat, Mr Williams, not an interrogation.  I like to get to know my first-class passengers.  A trip to Titan is a shared experience beyond the normal run of things.  I don’t want you to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with.”

They both smiled.  Jack decided to respond to that gambit with a gambit of his own.  “I’m sure there’s more to it than that, Captain Kahlil.  I realise what a suspicious figure I must cut.  You have the safety of your ship to consider.  Not to mention the people you leave behind on Platform Two, though mebbes not to the same extent, like.”

The captain laughed, conceding Jack a tactical victory.  “Let me make no secret of the fact that it astonishes me to find someone like you in the company of someone like Shval Meteor.  To the extent there is anyone like Shval Meteor.”

“How do you know what I’m like?  How do you know we are not birds of a feather?”

“There is no intensor on the Prometheus.  But nobody who has ever lived on Mars needs to poll the intensor to know about Shval’s character.  Or Peter Zwillinge’s, for that matter.  Their reputations, if you’ll forgive me, stink to high heavens.  But you, Mr Williams, are a different kettle of fish, if I may put it that way.  In place of the intensor I must rely on my intuition.”

He paused for more cous-cous.  This man, thought Jack, didn’t eat for enjoyment, but to fulfil a base need.

“Fortunately it is highly developed.  My Sufi training has seen to that.”  He twisted his mouth and raised his eyes.  “I would say… that you’re a man on a mission—not a man on the make.  Why else would you choose to endure the voyage to Titan?” He grunted.  “Why would anyone, I sometimes think?”

“I just want to see my daughter-in-law.  That’s a mission, I guess.”

“No, not ‘just’.  There’s more to it than that.  A family bereavement, if nothing else.  Or so you said when you claimed right-of-passage under the Treaty of Moscow.”

The captain shovelled up the last of the cous-cous from his plate.  “Something is driving you, Mr Williams—some demon.  And it’s driving you all the way to Titan.”

Jack looked down at his plate.  He’d let his steak go cold. 

“The facts of the matter,” continued the captain, “are strange enough in themselves.  You have a groubian daughter-in-law.  She chooses to bury herself in the outer planets.  But that is not enough to deter you from visiting her.  I have a mind to ask, in all this—where is your son?”

Jack suddenly felt there was nothing more he was able to hide from this man.  “It was a groubian wedding.  I didn’t want to go into the matter.  That’s the ‘family bereavement’ I was talking about.”

The captain didn’t look up.  He took a long time to reply. 

“I see,” he said eventually.  “And what are you going to say to Mrs Williams when you eventually meet up with her?”

“I don’t know.  I haven’t thought that far ahead.  It’s been enough of a challenge getting here.” 

Jack was telling the truth, if not all of it.  He wondered how long Captain Kahlil intended to trawl through the shoals of his life.  But the captain had by now decided he knew all he needed to know.

“I would imagine your companions have their own agenda.  But you don’t need me to warn you of that.”  He took a sip of water.  “Before we drop the matter, can I give you some advice?”

“Vermat Aurora gave me some.”

“Yes—I imagine she did.  But mine will be different.  Muslims have a saying:  in-sha’Allah.  If it is the Will of God.  Are you a devout man?”

“No, not as much as I used to be.”

“All the same, try to think of what it may be, this Will of God.  In the end you can’t resist it.  None of us can.  But if you’ve been going against it, ask yourself—would you have got this far?”

Innocent though the captain’s observation appeared to be, for the first time during the meal Jack felt forced into a corner.  The only way out was to come out fighting. 

“Tell me something first, Captain Kahlil.  That booner card coming into your hands—was that the Will of God?”

The captain smiled.  He saw the hidden barb.  “It might have been.  But other wills were involved.  Some of which claim explicitly not to serve God.”

“Then why did you accept it?”

The captain’s smile broadened.  “I suppose I’d say… that I trusted my own purity of intention to overcome the darker motives behind its giving.”

“So what are you going to do with it, now it’s yours?”

“I shall lay down my command.  I shall travel to Gaia—and I shall make the Pilgrimage.  It is my life’s ambition now to earn the right be addressed as haji instead of Captain.”

Jack shook his head and chuckled.  “Well, best of British luck to you.  They’ll dress you in a long white robe and they will keep you walking round and round a great big black square building in the hot sunshine and they’ll spray you with disinfectant from the air.  So I’m told.  Not my idea of the holiday of a lifetime.”

But the captain merely smiled.

“Have you ever been to Gaia?” Jack persisted.

“No—I’ve never had the privilege.”

“There are other things to do, once you’re there.”

The captain let out a derisive snort.  “The man who gave the card to you—what blandishments did he use to kid you to make the pilgrimage to Titan?  Or did he try to discourage you, as you’re trying me?”

“No,” said Jack.  “The destination was Mars.  There was no mention of Titan.  My daughter-in-law must have boarded this ship on the very day she landed from the Oberon.”

“That’s right.  It’s a through-connection.  SV Oberon times its arrival so that passengers and crew joining us from Lunaborg don’t have to go through the formalities of landing on Mars.”

“I’ve found that out the hard way.”

“But you’re here at last.”

“Yes.”

The captain paused, toying with his thoughts.  “So we’re both pilgrims, aren’t we, Mr Williams?  Pilgrims on our respective paths —in opposite directions though they lead.  Even if things don’t turn out as we expect, we’ll still go all the way, won’t we?”

“I guess so.”

“But—Mr Williams—please reassure me about one thing…”

“I’ll try…”

“…The sky will be blue, won’t it?”

Jack’s eyes twinkled.  He thought the captain had cracked a joke.  “Why-aye.  The sky’ll be blue.  Not a cloud, like…”

The captain nodded, satisfied.  “Well, you know the saying:  ‘On Gaia the sky is blue.’  In the end, that’s all that matters.”

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Kitty… Harry… Hilda… Gabrielle… Jens… Vermat… plus many, many others.  He could see their faces floating and turning over like falling leaves in a wintry sunbeam…

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The cabin light was shining in his eyes.  He didn’t know how long it had been on.

Usually Jack was woken by the batman bursting into his cabin, switching on the light to wake him up with a jolt, then without a word plonking a cup down and filling it with hot sweet tea.  It was yet another expression of that pungent combination of hardiness and privilege which marks the officer class of a space-going vessel.  But this time a cheery voice bade him good morning, setting down a delicious-smelling tray of food on his bedside cabinet, accompanied by the equally inviting clink of cutlery. 

There were eggs and bacon, mushrooms and black pudding, hash-browns and lots of fried bread.  Plus toast, white and brown—still hot and reeking in its stand, real butter, a pot of tea, another of coffee—and little pots of twelve different sorts of marmalade, honey and jam, some of which he’d never tried before.

Jack blinked sensuously at the familiar groubian face.  “To what do I owe this singular privilege?”

“Just thought you’d like breakfast in bed.”

“That’s very considerate of you.  So they let you in to see me?”

“They can’t keep me out.  No one can keep me out.”

“Well, they’ve managed it so far.  Do I get to see you more often now, like?”

“Doubt it.  We are now in the asteroid belt.  You’re due for your hibernator today.  And what’s going to happen at the other end, well—who can say?”

“Then it’s hello-goodbye,” said Jack, buttering a piece of toast. “Will we get another chance to talk before Titan?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”  His good-fairy paused in the doorway.  “Before I go,” she said, “There’s something bothering me.  Are we still sticking to the original plan?”

“Whose original plan?  Ours?  Or TMG’s?”

“Ours, I suppose you’d say.”

“Yes, we’re still sticking to it.  Why?”

“Because I’m having second thoughts.  Just suppose for the moment I’m Tvoul…”

“You’re Shval.”

“But just suppose for the moment I am Tvoul.  Right:  you meet up with me on Platform Two.  What are you going to do?”

“Let you have it, of course.  Give you what you deserve.” 

How far he had fallen, he reflected.  When he had first set out in fury from his home in Esh Winning, it was hard questions he had in mind for her, not bullets.  Now he’d have nothing to say to her, except to confirm her identity.

“Suppose I’m bearing zygocysts,” said the pretend Tvoul.

“Too bad.  They’ll die with you.  Devil’s brood and all that.”

Groubian hands went up onto groubian hips.  “They are not the devil’s brood, Jack.  They’re your grandchildren.  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Jack put his toast down.  “I don’t want grandchildren in such circumstances.  My son has been eaten!  How can they possibly be his children?  Voluntarily, I mean?”

“Maybe he consented to their conception…?  Well:  just supposing he did.  Would you still want them destroyed?”

Jack stared back.  It was several seconds before he spoke.  “What’s got into you, Shval?  I thought we were in total agreement.  When we met, almost the first thing you said…”

“The fact is, you don’t care what happens to them, do you?”

“No… but I must admit I don’t like the idea of TMG getting their grubby hands on them.”

“Well, why not let me have them instead?”

Jack gaped.  “What will you do with them?”

“Well, that would depend on whether I was Shval… or Tvoul.”

“All right,” said Jack, entering into the spirit of the game. “let’s pretend for a moment you’re Tvoul.”

“If I’m Tvoul, I’ll want to keep them out of the hands of TMG.  I won’t want them to go back to Mars.  I’ll want them to be sent to Gaia:  the very thing TMG has been striving to prevent all along.  Wouldn’t it be nice, Jack, if they could be brought up in a family home, as proper human beings?”

Jack started to speak, but a hand flaring suddenly red was raised to quell any protest.  “Now it so happens that you’ve installed Gabrielle in your house in Esh Winning.”

Jack blinked and opened his mouth.  However had she found that out?

“Well don’t look at me like that.  Yes I mean Gabrielle, the ‘Destination Lunaborg’ courier.  That was the arrangement, wasn’t it, when you saw her off at Voronka eight weeks ago?”

Jack’s eyes narrowed.  “You know a damn lot, don’t you?”

“It’s my job, Jack.  I make it my job to know everything.  The most obscure intelligence can come in handy.”

Jack waved his hand irritably.  “I can’t see the point of all this.  You’re Shval.  Let’s stick to what we know.  And what we know is going to happen.”

The molluscan figure stretched as if taking a deep breath.  “All right,” she said, “I’m Shval.  I’m going to take the foetuses back to Mars and trade them for what I can get.  Sell them to TMG, or Peretchelo—or the unholy alliance we know they’ve just formed.  They might help me to negotiate away my class four status.  That’s if I haven’t a notion to bring them up as my own.”

“Well, okay, I don’t suppose I’ll stop you.”

“Oh, but you might.  At least you might not co-operate in what I want you to do.”

“Now look here, hinny:  just say what you want me to do and I’ll see if I can do it.  Right?”

“Right.”  Their eyes locked like the arms of two wrestlers.  “I want Tvoul put straight in the hibernator—no messing about.  That’ll preserve the zygocysts.  If Tvoul dies I don’t want you destroying the body …or otherwise contriving to lose it.”

“All right.” said Jack with his mouth full.  “All right!”  He sniffed the coffee by flexing his throat, as one learns to without lungs.  It smelt wonderful.  He wished his benefactor would now go away and leave him to enjoy it in peace.  “Please yourself.  Once I’ve done what I’ve come for, what do I care?”

As he was speaking there was a sound in the corridor.  Glancing timidly round the door the slim figure made a hasty exit.  Jack was left to puzzle over the encounter. 

Had he just had another waking dream?

He’d been having flashbacks with increasing frequency:  flashbacks to the Gaiascope in flames.  The only cure would be to die.  The six months to live which the Vratch had given him was running out.  He felt nowhere near the point of death, but if metastasing cancer cells were landing in his brain he could expect the bond to start fraying which tethered him to the iron post of reality. 

But the breakfast was real enough.  And wasn’t it delicious.

Breakfast in bed.  It was just the sort of thing Hilda used to do for him… whenever she wanted to get round him for something.

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…to be continued.