The final instalment of our serialisation of The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2014, 2016).
Jack, Gabrielle and the revenant Tvoul carry Harry’s body to the ornithopter. But first they have to deal with Shval.
NOW READ ON…
The party stopped by a doorway. Gabrielle said “We’re now one floor down from the orni-pad. Behind those doors there’s a stairway which runs between decks.” She turned to Tvoul. “What do we do now?”
Tvoul replied “As soon as we pass through those doors we’re likely to run into Shval. Let me go first.”
“Tvoul—if we do meet up with Shval,” said Jack, “Can you be sure of killing her outright?”
“No—not even with this thing. You know how hard groubians are to kill. But it’s a risk we’ve got to take.”
“No it isn’t!” cried Jack. “We can negotiate with her.”
“Useless.” Tvoul snapped back at him.
“Listen,” said Jack. “This is my triadnik you’re talking about. I happen to command her!”
Tvoul turned slowly round in wonderment to stare into Jack’s face. “And who commands you?”
“Peter Zwillinge. Locked away in hibernation, on captain’s orders.”
“Jack,” cried Tvoul. “What a Faustian pact you’re caught up in…!” She hesitated, pondering. “But it might work. No matter how far a groubian falls, the last thing she lets go of is triada loyalty.”
She tightened her grip on the uzi. “But she expects loyalty of you too, Jack. In return for her absolute obedience you’ve given your solemn vow to cherish her and defend her with your life.”
Jack swallowed hard. “I’ll have to tell her where we are.”
“That’s if she doesn’t know already.” Tvoul looked up and down the corridor. “Let me get out of sight. When you hear me shout ‘down’—hit the floor, all of you.” She raised herself on her toes to look over his head. “S-bots included.”
His voice tripped as he tried to speak. There were so many different things he wanted to implore her. To spare the triadnik he’d just betrayed? To be merciful to her? To have a milligram of pity? Would Tvoul take the slightest bit of notice?
“You will make bloody sure of her, won’t you?”
Without answering, Tvoul slipped into a side-corridor and was gone.
Jack went to the t-unit mounted beside the door and picked up the handset. But when he tried to speak, he found he couldn’t. Screwing up his eyes he feinted axe-blows with his open hand, as if that would help.
“Shval, petal…” he eventually managed to say. “Can you hear me?”
“Jack! Where are you?” Shval’s frantic voice came back over the public address.
“We’re at stairway 22, level 5,” said Jack, reading it off the plate above the door.
“What do you mean: we? Who’s there with you?”
“Why—Gabrielle, of course. And three s-bots helping us carry the hibernator. They’re okay—they’re doing what we tell ‘em.”
There was a significant pause. “And who else?”
“Not a soul.” It was the literal truth.
They waited in silence for Shval’s response. Instinctively Gabrielle drew close to Jack and put her arm around his waist. The s-bots took up defensive positions in a triangle around them.
“So put away your weapons and come to your Jack, eh? Just to please me?”
Still there was no reply from Shval. To blunt the urge to panic, Jack started counting, silently mouthing the numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
He got to 13 when everything happened at once.
With a spiteful hiss the pneumatic doors sprang apart. There just out of reach was Shval, half-crying, half-smiling. She held out empty hands towards Jack.
It was Tvoul’s voice—from the stairwell behind Shval. Gabrielle and the s-bots dropped to the ground. But Jack stood staring, just as Judas must have stared at his erstwhile master. Lunging upwards like a tigress, Gabrielle clawed him to the floor.
The uzi blazed out. Stumbling to her knees in the bullet-storm, sepia spraying from her body, Shval turned and levelled her triton pistol. A ripping flash—and the uzi stopped, instantly vaporised along with its firer.
Shval fell face-down. Over her body freezing orange fog poured in through a huge gash in the outer wall. Jack’s visor shot across his face. But Gabrielle was wearing no helmet. Clutching wildly at Jack, she convulsed in his arms, choking in the paraffin atmosphere.
Mercifully the safety systems detected a massive leak in the stairwell and the pneumatic doors slammed back shut—with Shval on the other side. One s-bot produced an emergency breathing mask, clapped it over Gabrielle’s face and picked her up. The other two picked up the casket. Jack staggered along behind them as they hastened back the way they’d come, making for stairway 21 and the gangway outside.
Shval’s voice came shrieking over the public address system. “Jack, you double-crossing bastard. I’ll kill you!”
The s-bots raced up stairway 21 and struggled out through the airlock with the hibernator. Thirty yards away, on the other side of the hole, stood the ornithopter. Still intact on its pad, glimmering in the fire which flared behind the guardroom windows, it tempted them like bait on a mousetrap.
There was enough of the buckled gangway to clamber past the triton-blasted hole. The two s-bots carrying the casket put it down and covered Jack’s and Gabrielle’s passage, weapons at the ready. As Jack reached the ornithopter, he banged frantically on the door. Nothing happened. The s-bot carrying Gabrielle thrust past him and touched an unobtrusive panel. The airlock sprang open and Gabrielle was carried in. The other s-bots brought up the rear with Harry’s casket and Jack stood aside to let them enter.
Before following them he turned and glanced back. As he did, a 0.38 slug ripped through his chest. Superox spurted out of him. Mixed with blood the oxidising spray ignited in the paraffin-laden atmosphere, transfixing him with a brilliant javelin of fire.
In the light of the blazing guardroom, Jack saw Shval crawling on the deck. She’d dragged herself through the yawning hole as the last s-bot had reached the ornithopter. The uzi had lacerated her body and the burred edges of the hole had opened up her dust suit, tearing back the flesh of her mantle in a great flap. Like a crushed slug, she’d left a grainy trail of guts, rapidly glazing over in the intense cold.
She came to a halt. Her lower half was now stuck fast to the steel deck. “Jack!” Her voice, like a panicking child, came squealing over the IR link. “Don’t leave me. Not here—not on Titan!”
In the last extremity of despair, Shval fired again and again. This time the bullets came close to Jack’s head, ricocheting off the ornithopter. He couldn’t tear his gaze from her dreadful eyes as she kept on squeezing the trigger. It didn’t occur to him to scramble through the airlock to safety.
Now Shval had fired her last shot. The automatic clicked uselessly once… twice. She relaxed her fingers, letting the gun drop onto the deck. Her open hand stretched out towards him, not to claw, but as if to caress.
Jack turned his back on her to climb inside, but stopped as the narrow flame reddened a heart-sized patch on the airlock. How could he forsake his triadnik, whom he’d vowed to cherish and defend with his life? Was she so hateful that she was only fit to be abandoned in her last despair?
Well—that made two of them.
Turning and reaching out one arm, Jack staggered back towards her. She shied away, hand raised to ward off the fiery javelin sprouting from his breast. Kneeling down, he let the flame punch through the deck. Steel turned white in a shower of sparks and bubbled up in droplets. He was a thermic lance. Turning slightly to keep the jet of oxygen well clear of her, he clasped Shval’s outstretched hand…
Regaining consciousness, Jack found himself inside the ornithopter.
An s-bot had emerged from the aircraft and paralysed the two of them with a taser shot. Then, spraying Jack with halon, it had quenched the flames. It had even tried to plug the foaming wounds, but that was beyond its competence. Beyond anyone’s now, save the Galen.
“Let me go back to her.” he screamed. “We can’t leave her. She’s going frantic out there!”
Gabrielle, recovered now, was sitting at the controls. She turned and glared at him. It was she who’d ordered the s-bot to bring him in.
“What am I supposed to do? Leave you out there to die—in the arms of that alien trash?” She wrenched herself round in the pilot seat and jabbed at the console.
Like an eagle rising from its eyrie, the ornithopter reared up on its legs, still clamped to the perch, gathering wingfuls of brown wind for take-off. Jack groaned and curled up in a foetal ball, his eyes shut tight. Blood mixed with superox sprayed through his fingers onto his visor.
Flapping vigorously, the ornithopter let go its perch. It fought to make headway against the gale, which strove to sweep them back onto the blazing roof. Still frozen in her mucus to the deck, Shval too was regaining consciousness. She drew Sprenger’s TP from its calf holster and tried to level her wavering arm to turn this flopper also into glittering rain.
Suddenly the craft decided to go with the wind, not against it—skipping over the rig like a dry leaf. But as it did so, its right wing struck the central stack, bringing it crashing down in a blossom of fire. Spinning full-circle, the aircraft careered out of control. It bounced twice on the waves, each time managing to free itself from the engulfing spray with vigorous thrashes of its one good wing. Spiralling skywards, it was presently high over the rig. It couldn’t have presented an easier target.
Struggling to hold her arm up steady, Shval suddenly gave up the effort. Her features soaked in agony and tears, she lay on the frozen steel, shaking her head from side to side.
Then something caused her to open her eyes.
Standing in the hole, flickering in the light of hopeless fires, a second ectoplast had come to life and stood eyeing her along a TP barrel. Tvoul Rainbow was about to waste her sister—who had herself wasted so many others.
Shval squeezed the trigger of her own TP. A figure-eight of infinite temperature ensnared the twins in a macro-p-orbital. Plasma resonance occurred as the fermions of diametrically opposed personas paired and became bosonic: a stationary state of dreadful synergy. A microsecond later there was mutual annihilation.
Inside the ornithopter, blinding light flooded the cabin. Gabrielle screamed and Jack tensed up, certain he was about to die.
He was back on Wearmouth Bridge, standing in a shining mist before the Sunderland coat-of-arms:
Looking down he noticed, as if for the first time, the full inscription as it carried on beneath the shield:
There is nothing to despair about. Look to the Will of God.
Else what is the value of life, that we take such pains to hold on to it?
Suddenly the light faded. They were still flying. Raising himself on his elbow, Jack gazed in awe out of the rear of the cockpit. A gigantic fireball, a sickly-green cauliflower of ash and flame, was ascending into the Titanic stratosphere in a writhing bubble. Underneath, feeding it a boiling column like the trunk of a shining tree, an even bigger ring of rolling spume tumbled outwards in a massive breaker. Expanding steadily from this abomination, as though it were a trick of the light, a perfect hemisphere inflated to engulf everything there was.
When the shock-wave struck, it all but hurled them into the sea. Fluttering its wings, the ornithopter righted itself and resumed its climb through the dust-laden atmosphere, high above the methane waves. When it began to flap against emptiness its rockets ignited, enabling it to climb higher still.
It was being drawn back to the black cone of Prometheus, drifting overhead with its crew of dead men. The double-doors of the docking bay lay open, as Agent Zero had left them. Like a swift returning to its nest, the ornithopter rose between them and clamped itself to its perch.
But Jack took no notice. The last of his superox had bubbled away in pink foam and his SP unit had shut down in damage-mode. Straightaway the s-bots put him in the casket brought for Tvoul.
Four figures floated out of the ornithopter into the darkness of the stricken mir. Gabrielle, in emergency oxygen mask, led the way, dragging Jack’s casket with the help of an s-bot. The other two s-bots came behind with Harry. Soon they felt the pull of quasi-gravity and were able to walk upright.
On the control deck, Gabrielle stepped over bodies to reach the v-screen. MM appeared and acquainted her with the situation. She turned to stare at Jack’s hibernator, slowly shaking her head.
“I’m sorry Jack, I shall have to resuscitate you. Or else we’re going to circle this dead world forever.”
The s-bots came back with Jack on a trolley, an oxygenation lead in his arm. He had fared no better in his second resuscitation than his first. Reverently they laid aside Captain Kahlil’s body and propped Jack’s comatose form in its place. Gabrielle cradled Jack’s head whilst working the metabolo.
MM’s mouth opened onto the void. “Kaptén Dzhak Viliáms.”
Jack’s eyelids sprang apart and he lurched forward, as if aroused out of a horrid dream. Gabrielle clung to him, looking in vain for a gleam of reason in his eyes.
“Koudá?” said MM.
Jack groaned, as if he’d been asked a question of such enormity that it would take mankind a thousand years to answer.
“Jack, bonny lad,” murmured Gabrielle in his ear, “where’re we gannin’, like?”
Jack closed his eyes, like a man laying down a heavy burden. His trek from Earth had begun to the sound of Gabrielle’s soft voice. Now it was ended. “Gan ‘yem,” he muttered—and never spoke again.
The coloured bars sank to nothing and a flashing skull appeared. The metabolo slipped unnoticed to the floor as Gabrielle began to weep on Jack’s shoulder.
“Na Geia,” MM confirmed—and its face faded to stars. Great smoky wisps of stars in countless numbers, streaming through space like pollen in a sunbeam. Each grain a mighty sun, waiting down the ages to be garlanded with worlds of ice and steel.
One blue dot among a wisp of stars grew to a crescent, frosted by swirls of cloud. The crescent grew until it filled the screen.
The stars no longer shine. The sky is bright. Clouds drift across in ever-changing shapes.
The clouds are clearing from the sky. Beneath a few remaining wisps of white there stands a crenellated tower. At its foot, eight boys and one girl kneel around a well-kept grave.
The smallest of them, Anitra, solemnly leans forward and places a wreath at the gravestone’s foot. A new inscription has been added. Now it reads:
Hilda Margaret Williams
Born 16/4/1907, died 13/6/1974
Beloved wife of Jack Williams
Died of a broken heart.
And here too lies her heartbreak’s cause
Tvoul Williams, her bonny bairn Harry
And her dear husband Jack
At peace now in eternity’s embrace.
For eternity is here. It is now. Let a thousand years pass—a million years—and people will still be making the pilgrimage from all over the galaxy to the traditional site of the tomb, in what is widely held to be ancient Esh Winning, on one of the better candidates for being Gaia of the fairytales. They will be drawn to this hallowed spot by an enduring myth: to pay homage to Gilda, the All-Mother.
Anitra glances either side at her brothers. Solemnity crumbles into giggles. Children they are still, for one last sunny day. Their footprints still wander through Wear Valley. Tomorrow they are eighteen, every one, for they share the same birthday: Midsummer’s Day. Tomorrow they will make plans to leave Esh Winning, Durham, England, Europe, Gaia, System Sol… for worlds more distant still.
Grey ripples course across their faces, tumbling in their eyes, displacing pastel colours on their ever-changing skins. Colours of pregnant fantasies they couldn’t hide to save their everlasting lives. For these are the stellans: the star-children. Together with gaians and groubians they comprise the three species of humanity.
They scramble to their feet, shouting and laughing, as they play catch-as-catch-can all the way back to their rainbow-coloured bus. There, sprawled across both seats behind the driver, is Uncle Peter: an ugly great lovable octopus of a man, who has lived with them for as long as they can remember. And Gabrielle, her mortal skin now putty-grey with cancer, sits in maternal patience at the wheel.
As each child passes them both, they are brushed by hands that turn rose-pink with love. And as the children crowd into their seats and look out through the windows, they lift their eyes to the sky, letting its azure hue flow down their cheeks. For they know that, however far they roam the galaxy, their beautiful round sapphire eyes will always reflect the memory of Gaia.
For on Gaia the sky is blue.