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 and Shval reach Platform Two. “Metapelet” reluctantly agrees to take Jack to meet the person he has come for. Shval is left on her own to prepare for trouble.
NOW READ ON…
It was a stiff walk to the Special Unit, Platform Two being more than two hundred yards from corner to corner. They descended from the guardroom into the main body of the rig and then paced along corridors grimed with black grease, past locker rooms and corridors full of cabins opening at intervals on either side.
“Gabrielle, I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Oh, Jack—I wish it was anywhere but here.”
“I thought you were en-route for Selene.”
“I was enlisted under false pretences. Press-ganged, you’d say. I had to leave Mars—you knew I had no choice over that. But once they got me aboard the shuttle, they told me it wasn’t going to the Oberon but to Prometheus.”
“It seemed strange when I thought about it,” said Jack. “A shuttle couldn’t catch up with the Oberon at the speed it travels. Certainly not with such a head-start.”
“I should have been more suspicious…”
“So now you’ve gone over to the enemy?”
Gabrielle stopped and put her hands on her hips. Her voice broke.
“How do you have the nerve to say that? Aren’t TMG and Peretchelo working hand-in-glove?”
“They are the Enemy.”
With a shrug of contempt, Gabrielle resumed her pace. “And I suppose Shval Meteor, of all people, is one of the Glorious Allies?”
“That is Agent Zero accompanying me.”
“Pull the other one. Do you think I don’t know an old client? One I escorted on an eight-month journey?” She pushed against a heavily-sprung door and held it open for Jack.
“You’re imagining things. All groubians look the same to us gaians. It’s an easy mistake to make. I know—I’ve made it…”
“See here, Jack: I must have spent my time on Mars better than you did, because I took the trouble to learn spatio-color signatures. That thing accompanying you is Shval Meteor in the flesh.”
“So what? We’re here on Zasta business.”
“Oh yes, I know all about that. TMG business, you mean. What’s the real agenda, Jack?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Oh—no reason. None at all. Just that I was your agent on Oberon, remember?”
“I remember,” said Jack, accepting the gambit. “I remember all right. It’s clear to me that when you were meant to be helping me search for Tvoul, you were actually shielding her. You must have known exactly where she was on board the Oberon—and you made damn sure I didn’t.”
“That’s a lie!” Gabrielle was on the verge of breaking down. “My orders from Jens were to do exactly what I’m doing now: to bring you two together. And to stop Shval getting in ahead of us. None of us knew the real situation, the real whereabouts of… Mama-duck. It was not until I got to Platform Two that I learned the amazing truth…”
“The Amazing Truth! Is that what you call it?”
“Jack—prepare yourself for a shock.”
“I don’t believe a single thing you say.”
“You know, I feel like smacking your fat head. I spent eight tedious months cosying up to the Meteor Gang—for your sake. I risked my life to stop Shval finding out the true state of affairs. And now here you come, waltzing in on Shval’s arm.”
Turning a corner they fell silent. A rigger passed them, going the other way. He stopped to speak to Gabrielle.
“Coming to the party tonight? It’s Alessandro’s Twenty-First.”
“No… I’ll be busy.”
“You can’t do that to us, Gabrielle! There’s just you two women on the whole rig.”
“That worries me sometimes.” She didn’t introduce Jack and they strode on rapidly. Gabrielle was setting a brisk pace. As they stepped over a greasy bulkhead to go through a doorway, the heavily-sprung door shut on Jack’s uzi, fetching it a hefty clout.
“I hope there isn’t a bullet in the breach. Heads can get blown off.”
“Don’t fret yourself, pet. I’ve got a triton pistol strapped to me leg too. You haven’t said a word about that.”
“TPs don’t count. Everybody carries them. It’s the law here.”
“And all for the sake of the Titan Kraken. A bogey to scare kids.”
“We have to take it seriously, Jack. We can’t ignore what happened to our sister rig.”
“What happened? Did Nessie get it, like?”
“It’s not funny. Platform One issued a Kraken Attack moments before it perished.”
“And then it disappeared? Without trace?”
“Not exactly. There was a thermonuclear explosion. That’s what actually destroyed the rig.”
“You don’t mean to say the Kraken…?”
“No, you fool, of course not. Nobody has ever seen the Kraken. What destroyed Platform One was ‘plasma resonance’: a freak accident with two TPs. That’s the official story—and it’s a pretty plausible one.”
“And still you lug these bloody things around with you?”
“They’re safe enough; provided you point them outwards, away from the rig.” She thrust herself in front of him and pushed open another door.
“Tell me, what is ‘plasma resonance’?”
“When one TP is in the firing-line of another. An idle TP simply vaporises: they’re only glorified water-pistols. But when both TPs happen to be firing at each other, at one and the same instant, their combined energy gets released in less than a microsecond. Kilotons of TNT—if they’re both full.”
Gabrielle glanced behind her. “Proper drills can prevent that sort of thing. Anyway, you’d have to be pretty desperate to go firing triton pistols at each other.”
They reached the spiral staircase at one end of the Special Unit. Gabrielle led the way up. By now they’d lapsed into sullen silence. At the top they passed through one room, then another. The first room they came to was decked out as a children’s playroom. Cartoon animals were painted on the walls. There were toys in heaps in the corners, many of them still in their boxes.
The second room was quite plainly a nursery. A couple of dozen brand new cots were spaced around the walls. Half of them were pink, half blue.
“Is this a crèche for families?”
“There are no families on Titan. Everybody here is single. At least that’s what they tell us when they arrive on board.”
The next room, lit with a dim blue glow, looked eerily like an intensive care ward. There were four rows of bluish plastic machines, appearing to Jack’s eyes like hi-tech baby-baths. Transparent gloves hung down inside through port-holes in the Plexiglas sides.
Suddenly, with a pang of horror, Jack realised what they were. Incubators: for foetuses too small to survive in the open. Foetuses that wouldn’t be going through the normal birth process. It looked as if they hadn’t yet been used.
Gabrielle put her hand to her breast pocket. “Excuse me, Jack, I’m being paged—it’s urgent. Wait here.” She hastened back the way they’d come and slipped through the swing doors, reaching for the wall-mounted t-unit Jack had noticed as they’d passed it by.
Swinging his uzi off his shoulder, Jack drew a magazine out of his calf pocket and snapped it in-place. Then he strode on through the swing doors opposite. Clearly it was where they’d been heading. As the doors swung to behind him, he stopped dead.
A figure sat there, waiting. A figure in a striped yellow-and-black boiler suit, loose-fitting and rumpled, but clean. Surgically clean. It wore a pristine Martian helmet, with visor set half-silvered to conceal the face.
As Jack stood poised like a high-diver facing his supreme test, the figure rose slowly to its feet and reached downwards and outwards, palms facing forward. In pointless welcome… or in hopeless appeal?
In the side-office of the guardroom, Shval was still left to her own devices. She had broken into the security camera network and was eavesdropping on Commander Sprenger speaking to his adjutant. All the cameras, she was glad to discover, had attached microphones. She had a clear view of Sprenger’s face, but couldn’t see the command console.
Evidently he was in communication with some vessel or other. But what? A returning ornithopter, sent out on a fruitless mission, like a dove from Noah’s Ark? Apart from Platform Two there were no other settlements on Titan—and as for the Prometheus, Shval had left its systems operating in passive mode. No signal could possibly be coming from there. Nor could it have launched a lander after their own. Unless…
“It’s coming into range…” the commander was saying. He gripped his headset with both hands. Then hurriedly he started jabbing at the console.
He’s paging someone, thought Shval. Straightaway she switched into the rig’s t-network.
“What’s up?” said the adjutant.
Slowly, deliberately, Sprenger muttered “Entire crew of Prometheus dead. Massacred.”
“Keep your voice down!” Sprenger motioned with his forehead towards the door of the side-office where Shval was sitting.
“Metapelet,” he said, cupping his hand over the mike. “That guy with you, calling himself Jack Williams. Watch out—he’s dangerous. Very dangerous. Don’t let him in the Special Unit. He’s here to kill Mama-duck.”
Shval didn’t catch Gabrielle’s reply, which would have been to warn Sprenger of her—Shval’s—presence on the rig.
“I know, I know. Just keep him occupied. I’ll get help to you straightaway.”
He reached across the console and broke the guardpiece off some special button or other. Behind him locker doors flew open and three s-bots emerged, man-sized black langoustines of Kevlar and titanium. They had no firearms, but they were equipped with an assortment of less-lethal weapons, including tasers. Each carried a CRW—a bloody-butcher.
“Special Unit. Scramble!”
The s-bots clattered off.
Sprenger leaned back and murmured quietly in the adjutant’s ear. But not so quietly that Shval couldn’t hear him though the camera’s microphone.
“A solitary ectoplast has survived on Prometheus and it’s on its way here. It’s a fighting machine with Zasta powers and it knows the assassins’ plans. It says it is the real Agent Zero.”
The adjutant’s eyes started. “Then what’s that—in there?”
“Not an ectoplast—a live groubian. And you’ll know the name: Shval Meteor.”
Both men pulled out their 0.38 automatics and crept to the door. “On the count of three…” whispered Sprenger. “One—two—three!”
The two men burst into the office and halted abruptly. The lights were out. In the gloom they could see Shval’s dust suit lying crumpled on the floor. They paced slowly round, swinging their guns. Sweat began beading on their faces, coalescing and running in trickles down their necks.
Had they known what to look for, they’d have spotted Shval fairly easily—a pair of disembodied eyes peering over Sprenger’s shoulder. The latter reached back, fumbling for the light-switch, but as he did so his fingers met camouflaged flesh. Before he could spin round he was garrotted with a data cable. The adjutant, fearful of hitting his boss, fatally held back for a fraction of a second—and Shval shot him in the abdomen with Sprenger’s pistol. He lay clawing at the ground in frenzy like a man in free-fall.
Shval slid back into her dust suit, pocketed the gun, snapped-on her helmet and strode into the guardroom proper. Nobody had come in, and she made sure nobody could. Then she sat down at the commander’s console. Once she had mastered it, she’d be in control of the whole of Platform Two. The whole of Titan… apart for one doomed ornithopter, flapping towards the rig like a lonely bat through hell.
How close was the aircraft? She switched the v-screen to radar and saw its labelled blip closing in. Another five minutes before it arrived. Time enough to organise a hot reception.
She brought up a working display of the rig, which she rotated this way and that. Platform Two stood on four huge cylindrical legs in an ocean of liquid methane. She zoomed-in upon the hollow leg nearest the Special Unit. Halfway down inside the leg there was a chamber labelled “survival capsule”—an impregnable bolt-hole. Shval correctly deduced that in pressing need Mama-duck would make straight for it.
She cycled through the cameras installed in and around the Special Unit, bringing images up in turn. She saw Gabrielle tipping out the drawers of her desk, searching frantically for the 0.38 she kept there and thought she’d never need. She saw Jack, uzi levelled, glancing up and down an empty corridor. She saw the s-bots converging on him like spiders on a web-snared fly.
There was no selective intertalk in the rig’s primitive intensor. No private channels. No way to poll Jack or even to page him, since he hadn’t got a pager. She’d have to resort to the public-address system. Donning the headset she shouted, for the whole of Platform Two to hear:
“Jack! Tvoul’s making for the survival capsule in Number Three Leg…”
The striped shape advanced, arms outstretched in clear sign of peace. Jack’s uzi sagged in his hands, but he made no gesture in response.
Suddenly behind him the double doors crashed open. Gabrielle, her face twisted in a scream, lunged at him and tried to wrest the uzi from his grip. Locked in an absurd dance, they staggered and galloped round each other.
“Mama-duck! He wants to kill you!”
The striped figure leapt into a corner, opened a hatch and began to lower itself through. With a sudden wrench, Jack detached the uzi from Gabrielle’s grasp, the act of doing so hurling her to the floor. Swivelling on his heels Jack squeezed the trigger. The safety-catch bit. Swearing and slipping it off he sprayed a burst of fire at the trapdoor. Too late—the lid thumped shut. Heaving it open again—a fire-escape: it couldn’t be secured—Jack clattered down the steel ladder after the ungainly fleeing shape. An ugly shape it looked, in its wasp-striped yellow and black.
At the bottom he glanced hurriedly about him to see which way his quarry had gone. Loud and clear, Shval’s voice came over the public-address system.
“Jack! Tvoul’s making for the survival capsule in Number 3 Leg. Don’t let her reach it—or you’ll never get her out before you’re overpowered.”
Jack started running. “Other way!” screamed Shval.
Turning to dash back the way he’d come, Jack caught sight of a yellow blur vanishing round the end of a short corridor. Speeding down the corridor, Jack turned the corner to see a striped torso scrabbling through a hatchway in the floor. Without taking aim, he fired. Simultaneously he thought he heard a man’s voice cry out “Dad…!”
The silvery visor flew off in bits. Knowing all too well how much it took to kill a groubian, Jack didn’t release the trigger until the firing stopped of its own accord.
His quarry arched its back, convulsed. Coloured body-fluids mixed and sprayed across the floor. Like a baby being born in reverse, the torso was engulfed by the hatchway. As Jack dashed forward, uselessly brandishing his spent weapon, there was nothing to be seen but visor fragments scattered round the hatchway’s open throat.
Face-down to the floor, Jack crept forward until his head was over the blood-smeared hole. The blood was red—but the significance of that didn’t strike him. He expected to be looking down into some sort of living-quarters, with the body of Tvoul crumpled on the floor directly below. But what he saw instead was a column of rungs fading into darkness. Rungs made of steel rods bent into D-shapes, welded to the wall of a giant cylindrical void over 30 ft across, still booming to the sound of gunfire. He couldn’t see the bottom.
He was looking down into one of the four hollow legs of the rig. They stood in the methane ocean, which swelled, reared and dashed itself like a billion cobras against nine-inch walls of iron, in the everlasting fury of the Titan storm.
Rolling to one side Jack saw Gabrielle half-crouching, gripping a 0.38 automatic in knuckle-whitened hands. Around them the s-bots dispatched by Sprenger to the scene stood motionless, tasers levelled.
He thrust aside the uzi. “You won’t be needing that, bonny lass. My gun’s empty. I’ll come quietly.”
Gabrielle slowly rose to her full height. “Jack Williams,” she rasped. “What have you done?”
Jack sat up. “I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I’ve shot a groubian that’s eaten my son! I’ve chased her all the way to this god-forsaken sea platform—and at last I’ve got her!”
He tried to scramble to his feet, but his heel slipped in blood and he fell back. To his surprise the s-bots made shift to help him up. He turned to face Gabrielle and saw her eyes full of hopeless pain.
“That wasn’t a groubian, Jack. That was your son!”
Supported by two s-bots, Jack loured at her, head hunched into his shoulders. “Look here, flower—that was Tvoul. The famous Tvoul Rainbow! She’s been going around calling herself ‘Tvoul Williams’, for God’s sake.”
Gabrielle, lips tightened in a bloodless line, shook her head in little jerks. “You don’t understand a damn thing, do you?”
She seemed to relax and not relax, fastening the 0.38 safety-catch and putting it away. “Yes—Tvoul took the surname Williams when she married your Harry. But after edulating her in Brazil—he then took her name.”
Clutching at the edge of a recess, Jack swung back against the wall.
“It was the custom among groubians,” continued Gabrielle, “out of respect for the dead, for the edulator to adopt the persona of the edulee, pending parturition.”
In a stunned whisper Jack said “Then where’s me daughter-in-law?”
“Lying dead in the Amazon rainforest.”
“…Where’s me son?…”
“Lying in the sump at the bottom of Number Three Leg, where you’ve just dropped him.”
…to be continued.