Another instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
Prometheus reaches Titan. Jack prepares to descend to the surface in an ornithopter.



The first mate returned to the control deck and saluted the captain.  Shval was still beside the command seat, standing stiffly to attention between two orderlies. 

“Crewman Meteor has requested permission to descend to the surface on a later flight.  Any observations, Number One?”

“No, sir.”  The first mate would have loved to say “Yes and let her bloody well stay there!”  But he kept his counsel.

The captain turned to the v-screen.  “MM?”

The virtual agent’s cheeks shimmered like moonlight on a murky pond.  “Sir, may I recommend instead that you hold Crewman Meteor under close restraint.  And continue to do so until this ship is back in Mars orbit.”

Captain Kahlil looked up at Shval with the barest hint of a smile.  “A bit extreme, MM?”

“No sir.  I have ample footage to justify such measures.”

The captain hesitated no more.  “Number One,” he snapped.  “Take Crewman Meteor to the hibernation chamber and put her back under!” 


In Bay 33, one of the intact ectoplasts stirred.  Its opal surface took on texture and colour, mainly blue and white.  It unclipped itself from the stowage frame.  Then, going to a cache of maintenance toolboxes, it selected one and took out a regulation six-shooter in its holster, strapping it on.

Then it hunted for an emergency hatch to the deck above.  Crawling through, it began to climb the ladder.  Reaching the top, it discovered that it couldn’t open the hatch.  It turned to go back down. 

At that moment there was a hiss from below and the first hatch clamped shut.  It was trapped like a fly in a bottle.

Beside the figure’s shoulder a small v-screen lit up.  The face of MM appeared.

“Kto ti?”

“Ia—Shval Méteor.” 

“Nevozmózhno!”  (Impossible!)  shouted MM.  “Vot Shval Méteor!”

A view of the control deck appeared, showing Shval standing to attention before the captain.  The face of MM reappeared on the screen.  “Ia skazálo:  kto ti?”

The ectoplast hesitated.  “Ia—Tvoul Rádouga.”

“Tózhe nevozmózhno!  Tvoul Rádouga—oumerlá!”  (That’s impossible too.  Tvoul Rainbow is dead!)

With heavy emphasis MM repeated its critical question with a significant alteration: Shto ti!”  (What are you?)

“Ia—Agént Nol’.”  (I am Agent Zero.)

MM opened wide its empty eyes and mouth.  “Ia tepér’ ponimáiu fsë!”  (Now I understand everything!) 

The hatch sprang open with a crash.  “Nádo speshít’, a to opozdáesh!”  (You’ll have to be quick, or you’ll be too late!)  The figure squirmed through and MM yelled after it “Bístro!”

Dashing along catwalks and corridors, Agent Zero made straight for the control deck. 


“Left, right, left, right…” barked the first mate.  Brandishing tasers, the two orderlies marched three paces behind.  The first mate however had equipped himself with an uzi—the one taken from Jack when he first came aboard.  Escorting Shval Meteor under guard was no playtime for the Holy Innocents. 

They came to the hibernation chamber.  Taking the tasers from the orderlies, brandishing one in addition to the uzi and slinging the other over his shoulder, the first mate sent them off to break-out one of the hibernators reserved for the return journey.  They brought it and set it down on the conveyor belt feeding the compressor. 

“Get inside,” snarled the first mate.  “Or could you do with a little assistance?”  Sneering, he levelled the taser he held. 

With a flourish of disdain, Shval stepped into the hibernator and slammed down the lid.  But unseen by her captors she held back the catch, crushing her finger in so doing.  In the confines of the casket she screamed, but the men didn’t detect it. 

Also undetected, an elstat dropped to the rubbery floor.  It bounced once before it did its thing.

Counting seconds up to ten, Shval cautiously opened the lid again.  Flapping her hurt hand, she wafted aside the ozone fug.  With the sleek grace of a sea creature she slipped out of the hibernator, deliberately putting her foot on the first mate’s throat.  Then, picking up the uzi, she strode back to the control deck, her body stiff and her eyes wide.

Another elstat preceded her grand entrance.

Stepping over corpses, she picked her way towards the command seat.  Captain Kahlil’s mouth hung open and his eyes stared lop-sidedly upwards.  Shval undid the breast pockets of his uniform, looking for the booner card Jack had given him.  She soon found it.  Through the ozone haze she scrutinised it on both sides. 

It was no longer blue.  It had turned red in her hand.  Across the front there flashed the single word:  ANNULÍROVAN  (Cancelled). 

In disdain she dropped the card on top of the captain’s body. 


The security systems of the ship were designed to protect the centre from the periphery, not the other way round.  Once in possession of the control deck, Shval made certain that MM would accept orders from her or Jack and from no one else.  After that it was an easy matter to release the CO2 cascades, open vents and exhaust the air from all the chambers containing live crew.

Turning to the v-screen, she struck a dramatic attitude. 

“Mirror, mirror on the wall—how many people are there still alive?”

Taking its time, MM answered.  “Besides yourself, Crewman Meteor, there are two people still alive.”

“What are their names and what are they doing?”

“Peter Zwillinge, in hibernation in the strongroom, and Jack Williams, sitting inside an ornithopter waiting to descend to the surface.”

“What about Agent Zero?”

“Agent Zero does not fit the category: ‘still alive’.”

MM was telling the truth.  An ectoplast is not a living person.  But Shval took the statement to mean what it didn’t:  that Agent Zero was no longer a force to be reckoned with.

It was her only mistake.  But it would prove fatal.


Rounding the last corner Agent Zero got a glimpse of Shval’s back as she disappeared through the double doors leading to the shuttle bay.  It raised its six-shooter but there was no time to get a good shot—and a bad one would only have served to alert the target. 

Should it follow her?  Agent Zero judged it was important first to find out what had happened on the control deck. 

As it opened the double doors, wisps of ozone drifted out.  Ectoplasts are equipped with emotions—they are needed to support the convincing impersonations they are capable of.  Agent Zero experienced the emulation of a sinking heart. 

Like somebody in a nightmare wading through treacle, it wandered past scattered corpses towards the command seat and knelt down beside the captain’s body.  It took up the discarded booner card and folded it in the dead man’s fingers, then it tenderly closed his eyes. 

“Salaam aleikum, ya Haji Khalil,”  it whispered.

Now it moved swiftly.  Standing up, it turned to the v-screen.

“Stop her!”

The glum face of MM stared back.

“Why don’t you do something?”

“I only accept orders from Captain Shval Meteor, or failing that from her deputy Mr Jack Williams.”

“Where is Mr Williams now?”

MM’s face dissolved to a view of the shuttle bay, looking down through the open doors.  It showed an ornithopter suspended over the orange haze of Titan.


Jack waited… and he waited.  He had no idea for how long.  Half-an-hour, one hour… two hours?  The instruments weren’t ones he understood.  But he took reassurance from the fact they were still lit-up.

Suddenly there was a thump on the side of the fuselage.  The hydraulic gangway had been swung out again and somebody had entered the airlock.  A moment later a groubian figure flung herself in and dropped Jack’s uzi onto his lap. 

“Shval…?” said Jack, stiffening up in alarm. 

“Of course.  Who else?”

Jack’s stiffness abated.  “So the captain relented?”

The figure punched a button on the dashboard.  The airlock slid shut.

“Yes.  He relented.”

With a jolt the ornithopter unhitched itself from the davits and began to descend slowly through the shuttle bay doors, eased out by hydrazine jets.  Then retro-rockets fired, causing them to fall away faster from the mother ship and drop behind.  The horizon of the globe became less and less curved, till all at once the stars seen through the windows vanished in an orange fog.  Spectral flames of atmospheric braking flickered past the windows. 

Presently the craft unfolded its wings and began to flap them like a Brobdingnagian bat.

Jack chuckled.  “How did you persuade him?”

“With an elstat.”

Jack lurched round in his harness.  “Shval!  How could you?”

“Stop fretting.  Nobody felt any pain.”

“They’ll be after us!”

“There’s nobody alive except Peter.  I left him in hibernation.  I didn’t have time to go resuscitating him.”

“Shval—what a desperate thing to do!  Must we go on and on like this, leaving people dead in piles?”

“No, Jack.  Only one more person to leave dead.”

Jack lowered his chin to his chest.  “And why do I need an uzi for that?  I’ve been given this… this triton pistol.”

A sawn-off laugh.  “If you let rip at Tvoul with that, you’ll take out the entire rig.  Don’t you want to come back from this trip?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

Now who’s the desperate one?”  She swung herself round in her seat to face him.  “Listen, Jack.  A lot of people have died to get you this far.  Do you think I haven’t been counting?”

She grasped her fingers one-at-a-time.  “There’s Markus Efimovitch and Duke Treikle.  The entire audience of the Gaiascope at the Ring of Fire, including your friends Jens and Kitty… and Vermat, my mother.  And on Mars, a groubian hooker who had the bad luck to be called Tvoul.”

“Yes I know…”

“I’m not done yet.  There was my Hamish.  A complete Zasta unit, plus your little friend Kat.  And just now, the full complement of the TC Prometheus.  All to get you here to Titan… and give you a way to get back home.”

Jack turned slowly aside.  “I’ll never go home.  But I can’t go on.  I just can’t!”

His companion kept silent.

“What a river of blood!”  Jack cried.

“Yes.  What a river of blood.  All spilt to avenge your son.”

Jack turned back to her, his upper-lip lifted in a snarl.  “And who are you here to avenge?”

“Me?  I’m not here to avenge anyone.  I’m your triadnik.  I’m your willing slave.  I share your disgust at chimorgs sired by edulation.  I want to be there when you give my sister what she deserves.  And… there’s the future to be saved.”

Now it was Jack who had nothing to say.  Shval gripped his arm.

“Listen, Jack.  If we give up now, the whole galaxy will be colonised by the monstrous spawn of a renegade.  In time, the whole universe.  When does it become too much blood to prevent that?”

Jack leaned on his elbow, knuckles to his teeth.  Suddenly he shook his fist.  “If only I’d caught up with her in Brazil.  Or on the Moon.  Whyever did I let them get married in the first place?  If only I’d known.  I could have warned my boy…”

“If only… if only.  But in the end you’ve come all the way to Titan—because that’s how it had to be.”  Her voice softened and she gave his arm a squeeze.  “Don’t lose heart now.”

Several seconds passed.  Jack stretched his shoulders.  He reached across his chest and clasped her hand.  “Shval, I’m so glad I’ve got you with me.”

She smiled. 

He added “Now I can be sure of it.  Tvoul’s spawn is going nowhere!”

She stopped smiling and sat very still.

“When you arrived I thought for a moment you were Agent Zero expecting us to keep to the original plan, for all I’ve gone and shot the wrong Tvoul.”  Abruptly Jack let out a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

“You should have seen the first mate’s face when he saw all those ectoplasts back there…”

“What?  Where?”

“Stowed in the space behind us.  You know what he said…?”

Shval silenced him with a raised hand and climbed out of the seat.  “I’d better take a look at them.  Your-friend-and-mine might be here anyway.”

She began to examine the figures in frames.  “Twenty ectoplasts were shipped aboard Prometheus.  That’s Agent Zero’s doing—I know my little doll.  Ever read Dracula?”

“The book?  No…”

“Hell!  Call yourself a Terrestrial?  I know more about your culture than you do.  Well, there’s this undead gaian who never goes anywhere without sending boxes of consecrated earth on ahead of him for salting around the place.  So he’s never short of a bolt-hole.”

“Yes, I guessed that’s what the ectoplasts were for.”

“Well, there are sixteen here now.  Three I wrecked while we were in the Asteroid Belt.  That leaves one, back on board Prometheus.  Agent Zero must have come to life in that.  With luck I destroyed it when I took care of the crew.  MM was certain I had.”

“So that’s the last we’ve heard of Agent Zero?”

“Cross your fingers.”

Jack peered out of the window past stampeding drops of spray.  “Is that a mountain range I see in the distance, with lightning playing on it?  God—what a place!”

Shval hesitated before she spoke.  “It was beautiful, once.”

“Did you ever see it?”

“How could I?  I was born on Mars at the Last Zygogeny.  To me, Titan was never anything but a legend.  I tried looking for it in the face of my mother, Vermat.  But she was in such pain.  No longer could she reflect the clouds, the streaming forests of kelp, the jewelled eyes of the giant nautiluses as they jousted in the open water.  Not even the beauty of Saturn, with its many-coloured rings.”

She sat hugging her shoulders.  “Like most of the moons of the outer planets, Titan consists mostly of water.  Tidal friction and radioactive decay once kept it liquid—and temperate.  But after the Fall of Titan, the surface temperature crashed.  Just look out the window now.”

Jack did so.  He saw the flopper landing lights reflected fifty feet below in mighty breakers.  Like chipped flint they appeared to him, but flint in gruesome motion.  They rose and fell and spumed in a reckless gale. 

“The open water’s still there, anyway.”

“That’s not water, Jack—that’s liquid methane.  The water has become like rock.  Gaians see this world as a glorious vat of exotic hydrocarbons, industrial feedstocks too expensive to synthesise in bulk.  But I see only ruin and devastation.  Once humanity forsakes this body—soon, please-God—then let it lie forever under its dreadful curse.”

“I thought groubians had a deep and abiding love of Titan.  But it sounds like you really hate it.”

“Yes—I hate it.  And I hate it when people try to immortalise it in the Book of Titan.  Which reminds me:  didn’t you have a question you wanted to ask me?”

“Ahh, yes…”

“Well, now’s the time to ask it.  It will be half an hour before we reach our destination.”

Jack stretched back in his seat.  “What does the Last Verse actually mean?”

Shval shook her head.  “I guess I’m the wrong person to ask.”

A guffaw burst from Jack.  “D’you mean to say, after all that, you don’t know?”

“Oh, I know, all right.  And I think I’m the only groubian that does.  Which is why I’ve never been a member of the GA.”

“Tell me, then.”

Shval hesitated.  “How many different translations have you come across?”

“Four or five at least.  There is even a church hymn, would you believe?”

Shval laughed.  “I’ve seen them all—including the hymn.  And I’ve studied them very, very carefully.”  She turned to face Jack squarely.  “Do you know which one comes closest to the original?”


“The one by your late friend, Dr Catherine Martin.”

“Kitty?  She told me she’d done a translation, but she never showed it me.”

“Then let me quote it to you:

True motherhood entails the loss of childhood.
Let it fall to thy lover to deliver the fatal blow;
Question:  What then is the sum-total of life’s valuta?
Answer:  nothing… unless it represents
Progress, by elementary steps, into the void.

“It lacks the poetic cadence of the others.  But it is devastatingly faithful to the original.  Dr Martin’s achievement was to discard Dolpou Zvezda’s romantic homage to Lermontov and refer back to the actual spatio-color—the only gaian ever to have done so.  Unfortunately she was a historian, not a mathematician.”

“Why does that make a difference?”

“Had she known something about mathematics, she would have cottoned-on to the structure of the poem.”

“What structure?  What do you mean?”

“The structure of the Last Verse.  And not just the Last Verse:  it permeates the entire Book of Titan.  Proposition—example—question—answer—counter-example.  Don’t say you hadn’t noticed?”

She received a blank stare.

“Jack—I thought you were a mathematician!  Look, here’s the Last Verse in Bourbaki notation.”  She pulled a slate out of her thigh pocket and wrote on it rapidly with her point-of-gaze:

Proposition:  ΣA=−Σ(−A)
Example:  for all n let An=Bn
Question:  what is Σ(A+B)?
Answer:  0, but only if
{An}0  as  n .

“The Book of Titan is a mathematical textbook.  With lurid examples to capture the attention of the immature.”

If Jack had lungs he’d have let out a long descending whistle. 

“What?  The Book of Titan:  nothing but a book of children’s sums?  Shval—you… you can’t be serious!”

“What did you suppose it was?”

“A… a religious text.  A mystical treatise.  A work of inspiration—of-of deep philosophy!”

“Well, so it is.”

“What you’ve written down—why, that’s just a high-school problem.”

“Ask yourself the obvious question.”

“What?”  He looked again at the example and something occurred to him. “Do you mean: if An =−Bn  then how can the sum over all n be anything but zero?”

“Precisely.  The way you gaians are trained, you miss it.  Especially the physicists.”


…to be continued.