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 a memorable dinner with the Captain of the Prometheus. And next morning he has a puzzling conversation with a groubian he assumes is Shval.
NOW READ ON…
The ship’s company was now assembled in the hibernation chamber. In their own time they were getting into the open caskets and shutting the lids. As each man did so, there came a hiss and a bubbling like some ghastly fast-food being prepared. The caskets could support all stages of the hibernation process by themselves, except for the compression required to withstand 200 g. This needed the application of a special hydraulic ram, of which there were only two. S-bots—service-bots, looking like skeletal black devils—were busy placing the sealed hibernators on rollers to await their turn with the ram. It was a scene out of Hellzapoppin’.
Amid the bubble-and-thump, Jack and Shval got a chance for a private word.
“Thanks for bringing me breakfast in bed. I’ve been thinking about what you said…”
Shval stared at him with eyes like lasers. “I didn’t bring you breakfast in bed.”
“Then who did? It looked exactly like you…”
Jack stared aghast at Shval’s face. It had gone a nasty mottled mauve—the colour of a dead squid trawled up from the deep.
Suddenly it struck him. “Agent Zero!” He clicked his tongue. “It was all set to accompany me on this trip. Or so the plan was, before I went and killed the wrong person.”
He was never comfortable referring to the agent as it—and he’d noticed that Shval never did. He added “So she got on board after all?”
“I guess so.”
“However did she manage it? Do you think the captain let her on?”
“No. I doubt he knows she’s aboard. I doubt anybody does—except us two.” She gripped his arm above the elbow. “What did you tell her?”
“Shval, you’re trembling!”
She shook him. “I said what did you tell her?”
“Well—nothing important. She tried to pump me about what was going to happen to the zygocysts. I told her (thinking I was telling you) that she could do what she damn’ well pleased with them.”
That hadn’t reassured Shval in the slightest. In fact it brought her to the point of panic. Controlling herself with an effort, she let go her grip and patted his smarting arm.
“Cover for me—I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She tried to slip unseen out of the hibernation chamber, but the first mate’s steely voice froze her motionless in the doorway.
“Crewman Meteor! Where are you slithering off to?”
“Mr Mate. I’ve just remembered there’s something improperly stowed in the galley. The hyper-g will wreck it.”
“Is it that important? Enough to hold up the firing schedule?”
“We will lose some costly equipment, Mr Mate. The menu will have to be curtailed…”
Shval certainly had the first mate’s range. Systems were duplicated with hot-standbys—triple-redundancy the rule—but not in the kitchen. It was a grave design oversight. Virtually the only thing Prometheus and its crew could not withstand was having the menu curtailed.
“Dammit—get back here in five minutes! Else I’ll send the s-bots after you—to taser you.”
Shval sped off.
At the doors of Bay 33 she stopped and activated the v-screen. Magic Mirror appeared. “MM, how many groubians are there on-board?”
“Just one, Crewman Meteor. Yourself.”
“Where is Agent Zero?”
“I do not understand the question.”
Shval didn’t stop to bandy words with a mere machine. She opened the bay doors and slipped inside. On an earlier visit she had seen a number of ectoplasts in secure stowage. She had counted twenty.
Now there were only nineteen.
Ectoplasts were employed in space for light-duty tasks. Unfit to bear loads heavier than a child could manage, they were more decorative than useful. Sorting nuts-and-bolts, waiting at table, watch-duty—that was all they were good for. They were originally designed for leisure and entertainment, for sex even. Not for hard work. S-bots did all that. Prometheus, an uncompromisingly tight ship, had little taste for wild goings-on in the mess-room, so up until that moment Shval hadn’t been able to fathom why they thought they needed so many.
Now she did. Agent Zero had ordered spares for herself.
Shval came back through the doors of the bay and operated the v-screen again. “MM, there’s an ectoplast missing. Where is it?”
“Right behind you, Crewman Meteor.”
Shval span round. She glimpsed the heel of a Zasta boot disappearing through the bay doors as they closed. Hammering the control panel she tried to open the doors again, but it was six seconds before they would go through their duty-cycle to comply.
Shval leaped inside the bay. She broke out a fire-axe from its mounting. Then she ran up and down the aisles, looking for the stray ectoplast. It was playing hide-and-seek with her. Coming to the batch of ectoplasts, she counted them again.
Now there were twenty.
She felt the one in the stowage which had been empty. It was quite cold. Hurriedly she felt each one in turn for being warmer than the others. It was hard to tell. It couldn’t have been animated for long enough. Any one of them could be the host of Agent Zero.
She felt panic rising inside her. She, who was always ice-cool and collected. What was the matter with her? Agent Zero was her creature. She—Shval—had discovered it.
Picking up the fire-axe she hacked at the first ectoplast. Nano-particle paste flowed out like puddled cement from the membrane that held it in roughly human shape. A single gash wouldn’t do. The membrane would have to be shredded. She demolished another. She had just got started on a third when the public address blared out.
“Crewman Meteor! Get back here this instant!”
There was no time to wreck them all. She knew she’d have to obey. Otherwise the first mate might well punish her by keeping her in hibernation until they got back to Mars—and there he would be tempted to collect the bounty on her head.
Back in the hibernation chamber, the first mate confronted her. Behind him stood the captain. The rest of the crew were in their hibernators.
“Did you secure the equipment?”
She thought fast. She had remembered only just in time to put the axe back. A loose fire-axe, floating backwards by inertia at a million miles an hour, slap-bang through the thermonuclear drive? It didn’t bear thinking about.
The first mate motioned with his fist for her to get in her hibernator. When satisfied she was safely under, only then did he climb into his own. Silently the captain watched him go under with a hiss and a crackle. Before getting into the last open casket, he strolled over to the v-screen.
“MM—all present and correct?”
“Yes, sir. The ship is impulse-worthy.”
“Then carry on.”
“Sir. There is something I would like to bring to your attention. It concerns a supernumerary passenger who is not altogether there…”
“Not altogether there? In one of the holds?”
“Yes, sir. Bay 33.”
“If they’re not frozen down like we are, they’re not going to be there at all in a minute.”
“Sir, I rather think they are.”
The captain screwed up his features in perplexity. “Can it wait until we get to Titan? In the meantime no one’s going anywhere.”
Grimacing and shaking his head, Captain Kahlil dragged himself back to his open casket to lie down. Bracing himself against the chilling shock, he slammed the lid down over his face. A catch clicked into place, starting the cruel process.
At that point, with every living soul on board sealed helplessly inside a hibernator, TC Prometheus was operating under the control of robots. Human lives were wholly at their mercy. Robots held between their metal fingertips two hundred TNCs—thermonuclear cartridges (nobody cared to call them H-bombs)—each packing the punch of five hundred million tons of TNT. Little wonder that the inner worlds didn’t want the Prometheus within a gigameter when its thermonuclear drive was activated.
The polished black cone that was the body of the vessel turned slowly until it found the correct point in space to rendezvous with Saturn in twenty days’ time. Not a rock strayed in the way—not a floating pebble. Were one to do so, it would rip through the ship at a million miles an hour.
The sparse stony belt crept round the Sun in an endless procession of silent tumbling rocks. Suddenly every boulder and granule for thousands of miles around was lit by an unwatchable glare. The polished cone now tipped a spear of blinding brilliance growing at hundreds of miles a second. Within the hour it was clear of the asteroid belt. Within twenty days it was at Saturn.
Lighting up the disk of the awesome gas-planet, there suddenly appeared a bloom of glowing plasma scores of miles across and many thousands long. In a moment it had broken up into wispy rags and dissipated in Saturn’s tumultuous atmosphere.
Having appeared quite literally in a flash, Prometheus girdled the planet with fire as it braked in its dense atmosphere. Then it skipped out into empty space, with the momentum of inescapable doom, towards the outermost and largest of Saturn’s four main moons.
Once again Prometheus had arrived at Titan: not so much a resurrected world as an unquiet grave.
“Should never have brought an old-timer on a journey like this,” groused the medical orderly, chafing limbs which felt like cold putty. Jack lay comatose upon the resuscitation table. Crewmen stood around, submerging their concern beneath the affectation of boredom. “I guess this one’s a goner…”
Shval, by way of contrast, was affecting nothing. “Jack!” she sobbed like a lost child. “Don’t go and leave me all alone… on this God-cursed world!” She seized his head between her palms and started slapping his cheeks.
“What other forms of resuscitation do we have?” demanded the medical orderly.
“There’s a metabolo in the stowage here,” a crewman called. “Never been unwrapped.”
“Not a lot of use,” said another, “unless his SP unit is enabled.”
“Here!” screamed Shval. “Throw it over. He’s got metabolic control.”
The metabolo came flying over and Shval deftly caught it. With teeth and suckered fingers she tore off the wrapping. Two seconds later she was working the joystick, her eyes closed as if in the lee of a prolonged climax. Jack’s eyelids fluttered. Everyone began visibly to relax.
Jack opened his eyes, then sat up with a jerk. “Are we there yet…?”
“Lie down!” snapped Shval, pushing him back none too gently. Hastily she finessed her approach, caressing his forehead with her hand. “There’s no rush, Jack,” she said in a tender voice. “Just lie there and come-to gradually. There’s fresh coffee when you’re ready. Try not to sit up too suddenly.”
The crewmen looked at each other. Those who were fully dressed turned to go to their posts, in readiness for Titan orbital insertion.
“She must be pretty fond of that old geezer,” said one to another when they were out of earshot.
“Yeah—that’s one groubian who really loves her man.”
“Have you ever known a groubian lose her cool?”
“Can’t say I have. But there—I’ve never known one fool enough to come to Titan.”
“Crewman Meteor, return to your post! You have no business here on the control deck.”
Shval saluted the captain. “Sir! I request permission to accompany Mr Williams on his visit to Platform Two.”
“Why do you want to accompany Mr Williams?”
“His daughter-in-law happens to be my sister. I too would like to see her again. I have accompanied Mr Williams in his journey all the way from Selene. It would be the height of cruelty to be denied the last leg of the voyage.”
Magic Mirror opened its mouth in semblance of careful enunciation. “I would not recommend it, sir.”
“Sir!” protested Shval. “The ship’s agent is not in possession of all the facts.”
“Of that,” said the captain, “I haven’t the slightest doubt.”
He considered for a moment. “Order countermanded. You’re not to return to your post. You are to remain here until Mr Williams’s ornithopter has departed. I want to keep an eye on you.”
He turned to Jack standing the other side of him. “Mr Williams, it is time for your descent to Platform Two. Number One will see that you’re suitably equipped. All personnel descending to the surface of Titan are required to carry certain armaments. These will be provided to you at the time of boarding. By signing the indemnity permitting you to board the ornithopter you acknowledge receipt of one thermonuclear weapon and you undertake not to bring the said weapon back to the inner planets.”
“I understand, captain. I’ve signed the indemnity.”
The captain held out his hand. “Well, Mr Williams, this is goodbye. In two months’ time it will be another captain who comes to take you off Titan. If you change your mind about staying—and much joy may you have of the world you’re visiting—we are here in orbit for a further 25 hours. We’ll be servicing the rig and taking aboard our precious cargo. You can radio from the guardroom and we’ll come and pick you up.”
Jack nodded. “Thank you captain—for all you’ve done.”
“Thank you, Mr Williams. I enjoyed our little chat. I will think of you as I kiss the Black Stone.”
“This way, Mr Williams, sir,” said the first mate.
In the shuttle bay the first aircraft to descend hung poised on davits. A hydraulic gangway reached towards it like a skeleton’s arm.
“I’ve been in a few weird craft, but this beats the lot. What do you call it—a flopper?”
“Yes sir, informally. Titan has a corrosive atmosphere loaded with sharp dust. Choppers are no use, nor are props and jets. A flopper has the advantage of exposing no rotary joints.”
“I suppose there’s got to be a reason. Am I the only passenger?”
“On this trip—yes. Others will be scheduled later to carry down further supplies.”
“Where’s the pilot?”
“The aircraft is robotic, sir. A human pilot couldn’t fly in Titanic conditions.”
“So I just step inside and wait?”
“Yes, sir. There’s one hibernator stowed within, as requested. It’s in among the ectoplasts…” He sniggered. “One daren’t ask why they want all those.”
Jack was instantly on his guard. “Why do you think they do, Mister Mate?”
The officer was non-plussed at Jack’s apparent failure to cotton-on. “Er… they’ve got no women down there, sir. None to speak of…”
“I suppose that’s their business,” Jack murmured, meaning to let it go. The first mate snapped back into ultra-formality.
“Here’s your triton pistol, sir, fully filled with T2O, plus fresh monatomic piezo-points. It’s to be kept strapped-on at all times. As soon as we receive clearance from Platform Two the airlock will seal, the doors of the shuttle bay will open and the aircraft will commence its descent to the surface. During atmospheric entry the wings will remain folded until the craft slows to 100 m/sec. Don’t be alarmed to see the knuckles on the wings glowing cherry red.”
“Thank you, Mister Mate.”
“Oh, and let’s not forget this…” The first mate drew out a flesh-pink control box, the size of a deck of cards. “It’s the metabolo from the sick-bay, sir. It’s on auto so you won’t need to touch the controls.”
“Why do I need that?”
“You had a nasty turn today, sir. There was a spot of trouble resuscitating you. You’ll need it from now on, to—er—stay alive.”
Gravely Jack accepted the box and slipped it into his breast pocket.
The first mate saluted. “Have a good trip, sir.” He turned and marched away.
Adjusting his helmet, Jack got into the far seat and strapped himself in. The spotlights in the shuttle bay went out and the two vast doors below him slowly opened. The ornithopter on its davits now hung suspended above a wide rectangular void. Beneath him, filling all the space he could see, was the orange surface of a featureless globe.
…to be continued.