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 just shot “Tvoul” – and realised his dreadful mistake. Shval prepares a warm reception for the approaching ornithopter from the supposedly deserted Prometheus.
NOW READ ON…
Shval was now under siege in the guardroom. Using the public address system had attracted unwelcome attention. The two captured 0.38s were her only weapons, but she’d been using them to great effect, one in each hand like a Wild West gunslinger, in spite of her crushed finger. She had been glad to discover that they fired the ammunition in the uzi magazine Jack had left with her.
She had found a portable v-screen which Sprenger could have used as a roving command post. This meant she was no longer confined to the guardroom—provided of course she could escape from it. Going back into the side-office, she undid Sprenger’s triton pistol in its calf holster and strapped it on her own calf. Returning to watch the screen, she waited for the next attempt to storm the guardroom door. Bodies lay strewn around, both outside and this side. She’d been hit herself, but it took more than a few rounds to kill a groubian.
She decided to risk the public address system again. “Jack—there are hibernators in the survival capsule. Get Tvoul into one and bring her to the flopper.”
But by then Jack was descending into Number Three Leg.
Wrenching himself free of the s-bots, Jack started climbing into the hole, with every intention of making it to the bottom unaided. The s-bots grabbed him again before his shoulders had descended below deck level. One of them felt the metabolo in Jack’s breast pocket and extracted it. Reaching across, Gabrielle seized it. As a nurse she knew just what it was and how to use it.
“Thanks, I’ll take this. Now Jack: behave yourself—or I’ll switch you off.”
“Let me go!” Disregarding what she’d said, he tried to struggle free.
“Jack!” shouted Gabrielle in his ear. “Didn’t you hear me? This metabolo I’ve got in my hand—it’s all that’s keeping you alive!”
“So you’re gonna stop me going down to get me own son?”
“It’s 700 ft to the bottom, if it’s an inch. That’s almost a thousand rungs. You’ll slip and fall—and then you’ll perish too.”
“I don’t care!”
“Look,” she said in desperation, “there’s tackle in the lockers. Why don’t you abseil down?”
It was one single gleam of sense in the whole crazy nightmare. Going limp, Jack let the s-bots drag him out of the manhole.
Presently Jack was back inside the hole, this time properly equipped. Reaching the survival capsule, he located hibernators inside and attached a line to one of them. The s-bots hauled it up.
With no place to go, evacuation of the rig figured nowhere in its emergency plan. Each of the four legs had survival capsules, with provisions to keep one person alive for three months, plus enough hibernators for the entire rig’s complement divided between the four legs. These were deemed to be the strongest parts of the structure and would best withstand a fire or other catastrophe. There was no experience of the capsules’ use, but they proffered some assurance, of a feeble sort, that living on Titan didn’t place you altogether beyond the aid of distant worlds.
The capsule, bolted to the wall, was set to one side of the ladder. Jack had hoped to find Harry’s body draped over it, but he was disappointed. The ladder went on past the capsule, down into the darkness. This was now where Jack had to go.
Descending in long hops, continuous thunder in his ears, Jack paid out the rope, yard upon yard of it. In the beam of the headlight they’d clamped to his helmet, Jack came at last in sight of the pool of thick black sludge which filled the bottom of the leg. Suspended somewhere in that pool was Harry’s corpse.
Suddenly he became aware of a red glow. A vicious snarl made itself heard over the incessant booming. A blazing dot was floating down towards him, leaving a trail of white smoke that flashed in the beam of his headlight. A bloody-butcher had come to join him in his search. Memory struck a chill through him, like a spit of frozen steel. For nearly a minute he was unable to move.
But the CRW paid him not the slightest regard. It was doing the humanitarian job it was originally designed for: recovering bodies from inaccessible places. It hovered here and there, like a dragonfly above a glistening swamp. Unable to find Harry’s body after thirty seconds its fuel ran out and it dropped in the sludge.
Jack tried shouting up to Gabrielle, but his voice was dispersed in its own echo. She must have lowered down a speaker however, because a moment later he heard a small clear voice next to his ear.
“The body is too far down for the CRW to sense it, Jack. Feel all around you near the ladder. If you can locate it and pull it up a few rungs, we’ll send down another CRW to haul it up.”
Step by step Jack worked his way down the slippery rungs of the welded ladder, giving himself time to sink in the sludge. Even with the knowledge that he had an SP unit and didn’t need to draw breath, he couldn’t forestall a sense of panic as treacly blackness closed over his helmet. Taking charge of himself, he stopped thrashing about and began purposefully to grope around him. Very soon his hand closed round a boiler-suited limb. Gripping it firmly he began to climb. If it had been easy to lower himself into the ooze, it was a heavy burden he found himself lifting out—dragging it, as it were, out of a bog.
There came the snarl of a second CRW, which chilled his chine no less than the first had done. There was a sharp crack in his face as it shot its talons into the corpse he was holding. Then the burden began to be drawn upwards, slithering out of his parental embrace like a baby dragged by forceps from the womb. Exhausted, he hung back limply against the rungs.
Jack came-to as the lifeline round his waist delivered an urgent tug. But he was now chilled through and disinclined to move. The lifeline tightened and its pull grew stronger until his feet forsook the rungs. Feebly trying to help himself along, whenever a hand or a foot chanced to touch the ladder, Jack was winched up and up… until he emerged through the hatch into the light.
Harry was lying on the deck beside him. The s-bots had hosed the sludge off him and cut away his striped boiler suit. The body was covered in plum-coloured lumps, each the size of a fist. Jack recalled his sight of Vermat’s shattered physique, as she bared herself to Arne the masseur.
Gabrielle was running a stethophone over the corpse. As it came near each lump it emitted a succession of little ticks, like an old-time pocket watch. “The foetuses are still alive.” An agonised smile of relief drew back her lips. “Get him into the hibernator,” she commanded. “They’ll stay alive until we get him back to civilization.”
The lid shut down and a bubbling hiss announced the commencement of Harry’s journey into eternity. Then the s-bots turned their attention to Jack, who knelt like a basalt angel in a forgotten graveyard. Almost tenderly they hosed him down with hot water, getting off the worst of the black sludge.
Suddenly the public address system came to life.
Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack!…
A pre-recorded voice cackled its frenetic message over and over. Lights flashed and sirens were roused to wail through miles of corridors. From all around there came the hiss of pneumatic doors, the clatter of boots on steel gratings and men’s urgent voices, anticipating disaster.
The ornithopter had arrived at last. It was fluttering overhead, keeping its cockpit steady in the gale like a kestrel’s eye. At any moment it would swoop down upon one of the three vacant orni-pads. It called for desperate measures. If Shval failed to stop it, Agent Zero would be at large on the rig, hidden in its maze of corridors.
High on the wall was a glowing orange box. Its glass cover depicted a nursery-book octopus, sporting a vampire-toothed sneer and curling the tips of its tentacles into precious little fists. Smashing the glass with her pistol butt, Shval pulled on the red handle.
Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack!…
The result was instantaneous. Everyone dropped what they were doing. Everyone with the exception of Jack and Gabrielle, standing over Harry’s casket. They stayed their ground, frozen in anticipation, having a fair idea what Shval was up to.
But the rest of the rig didn’t—and they didn’t stop to ponder. Tugging on helmets and snapping visors shut, men poured out of the air-locks onto every deck of the rig, lining the railings like penguins on an ice floe watching for the sea-lion. Some climbed the ladder on the flare-off stack to get a better glimpse of the alleged attacker and a surer shot.
The rig had no permanently mounted weaponry. That would simply have offered a fixed target to a creature fabled to have a hundred eyes and thousands of suckers with razor rims, plus the malevolent wits to put them to optimum use. It was for precisely this eventuality that every person on Platform Two carried a triton pistol. Toting a couple of hundred of these, plus twice that number of eyes, humanity was now supposed to be in with a chance.
“Hold your fire until you see a clear target!” shouted the shift leader over a megaphone, hoping to conserve precious T2O. But all in vain. Panic invested each plume of spray, whipped from the cusp of every wave, with the appearance of tentacles wriggling over the sea towards the rig. The howling darkness was soon splintered in searing flashes as toroids of thermonuclear plasma swept out recklessly over the surge.
Under cover of the general confusion, Shval too stepped out on deck. Stretching out her triton pistol in both hands, she took aim. In a single flash among several, the swooping ornithopter was momentarily emblazoned on the ochre tapestry of sky like a divine dove. Then the apparition of glory dissolved in blinding gledes, tumbling onto the rig in a rain of molten metal.
The guardroom roof caught fire.
Jack startled as the door of a nearby locker opened by itself. Out stepped a groubian figure clad in Zasta blue-and-white. “One of my ectoplasts,” exclaimed Gabrielle.
“Agent Zero!” cried Jack in glad recognition. “How did you get here?”
“Shval has just shot down my flopper under cover of a bogus kraken attack. But back on Prometheus, while we were still in the asteroid belt, I downloaded my intensions into every ectoplast destined for Platform Two. I can animate only one at a time, but I can choose which. If Shval blasts me again, I’ll simply animate another.”
Agent Zero turned to Gabrielle. “Now please, Gaby, where is Mama-duck? I’m dying to see him again.”
“Tvoul, I’m sorry… so… very sorry.” Gabrielle let her tearful gaze drop to the object at her feet, Tvoul following her eyes down.
“My love!” With a shriek Tvoul fell on her knees beside the hibernator. As she stared at Harry’s frozen face behind the glass, her skin began to smoke in agonies of grey-and-purple. Jack fidgeted in shame as she lay silently clasping the casket.
Presently she raised herself on her arms. Her voice was icy calm. “Dead or alive, they said, Jack? How can I complain? It’s only what we all agreed at TMG Headquarters.”
Slowly she turned back to the casket. “And if it’s any consolation, you’ve spared your son the agonies of parturition.” Her gaze roved up and down the hibernator. “The Titan Curse. Something only Titans should ever have to endure…”
Then she could contain her anguish no longer. “But why do we have to endure your bitterness?” Tears started in her eyes—real tears—whether they were water-based or not. “I loved your Harry. And he loved me. What part of love do you not understand?” Her brimming eyes focussed burning-glasses on Jack’s brow. “How else could he have done this thing for me? How else do you suppose… we could have done it for each other?”
She turned back to peer through the frosted glass. “Or can’t your fleeting gaian mind grasp things like that? How could you look on Love itself… and see only interspex?”
She sank down again, crouched over the casket, as if to cradle Harry’s head. “He didn’t do it just for me, but for all humanity. And because I loved him and shared his dream… I gladly went along with it.”
Smiling bleakly through her tears, she shook her head. “For as long as we’ve known about gaians, the secret has eluded us. But in the end it was all so simple. Don’t be the edulator—be the edulee!”
Slowly Jack knelt down beside Tvoul to gaze at Harry’s crystal face. As he did so, his fingers crept over her shoulder. “So Tvoul Rainbow endured edulation, death and dishonour, becoming class zero, for the greatest thing she could imagine. Did she ever think… did you ever think… that one day you’d wake up as the Unperson?”
“Even when I took on Shval’s persona,” she whispered, “deep down I knew it. What lies here before us is redemption for the groubian species. And, for humanity—the way to the stars.” Then, shutting her eyes to squeeze out tears which plunged down her cheeks, she slid her fingers over his.
“Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack!…” The robot voice babbled its frantic warning, but on Level Five all was still. Nobody came. The crew were out on deck, battling the mythical Kraken. The s-bots lowered the hatch to Number Three Leg and sealed it. Now the threesome sat around the hatchway, waiting for the panic to subside and contemplating what to do next.
“One thing still puzzles me,” said Jack. “How did my Harry manage to get here?”
“Harry took my name, Tvoul—as was the ancient custom—and embarked on the Oberon. You spotted him on board and made as if to speak to him, but failed to register who he really was. Nevertheless he made sure to keep out of your way for the rest of the trip. He had already run huge risks in tricking you out of the Gaiascope in the nick of time, before it was sent up in flames by Shval’s Byzantine scheming.”
“So it was Harry who lured me to the Moon Dog rendezvous?”
“Yes. He couldn’t let his own father die. Otherwise he took great care to hide himself. As soon as Oberon reached Mars and reconciled with the Nix intensor, it registered Tvoul Williams as a new persona. But anyone polling the intensor would discover that Tvoul Williams was not on Mars—and never had been.”
“That’s what Sviatoslav kept telling me, but I thought I knew better. So he and Miro knew that Harry was alive—and Tvoul Rainbow dead?”
“Oh, no. Nobody on Mars could have known that. But MM knew, as I was amazed to learn today. Harry was careful not to make landfall on Mars, which would have spoilt everything. He transferred straight to the Prometheus, thus shaking off pursuit. MM would have checked him aboard as ‘Tvoul Williams’, but known he wasn’t groubian. That’s how it deduced that Tvoul Rainbow was dead.”
“Miro assumed the same thing as you did, Jack—the same as everyone—that it was Harry who’d been edulated in Brazil, not me. Everyone was on the lookout for a groubian, not a gaian. It was the perfect disguise. And unwittingly Shval reinforced it by masquerading as me in order to get back to Mars. She too, for reasons of her own, was keen to cover Harry’s tracks.”
“Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack! Kraken Attack!…” The robot voice cackled on and on. But now a second robot voice began to accompany it in absurd counterpoint. “Fire! Fire! Fire!…”
Shval’s living voice cut-in over the racket. “Jack. I can’t get back into the guardroom—it’s on fire! Bring Tvoul’s hibernator to our flopper. Then let’s get back to Mars.”
Her voice began to rise in unmistakable panic. “I can’t see you, Jack. Pick up any t-unit and talk to me!”
Tvoul leapt to her feet, fury scoring her skin with silver veins. “Yes,” she hissed. “Let’s do that. Let’s get the hibernator to the flopper. But my zygocysts are not going to Mars. They’re going back to Gaia.” She placed her hand on Gabrielle’s forearm. “Gaby—if you come through this alive, can I depend on you as planned?”
“Yes,” said Gabrielle, wiping tears away. “You certainly can!”
“I won’t be coming with you,” said Tvoul. “I’ll have to stay and take care of Shval. She won’t let you get away with the body. She’ll try to shoot you down like she did me.”
She picked up Harry’s triton pistol. “I have many scores to settle with my sister. Not the least—for trying to steal my babies.” She then picked up the uzi which Jack had tossed aside, sliding out the empty magazine. Turning to Jack with a perceptible shudder she said “Have you any more ammunition for this awful thing?”
Sheepishly Jack bent down and slid out the remaining magazine from his shin pocket. He handed it to Tvoul, who expertly clipped it in place. This was the heroine of the Siege of the Nix, as Jack recalled. “Let’s go.” she said.
The s-bots picked up the casket by three of its lay-holds. Jack got a grip on the fourth. With Tvoul leading the way, machine-pistol at the ready, and Gabrielle following behind, swinging her 0.38 this way and that, they began to run for the ornithopter. As far as they knew, it was still there on the guardroom orni-pad. A better-armed and more determined funeral cortege had never paced the rig.
But they met no resistance—from Shval or anyone else. Everybody was on deck. Some were still firing plasma-rings at phantoms in the waves. Others, in increasing desperation, fought the guardroom fire.
As yet there was no sign of Shval. But there was every chance that once more she was listening-in—or watching them. She would certainly be watching the guard-room orni-pad, which held the one remaining flopper on Titan.
…to be continued.