Anitra Starr has just come of age when she receives a visitor from another world with a grim message.
Her life is now in constant danger unless she petitions the Goubernator for a grant of human rights.
But the Goubernator’s Court sits in Nix City… on the planet Mars.
Simply getting there will be an adventure.
Friday 24 June 1994. Crater Lipsky, Selene, System Sol
Ask anyone on Earth what the Moon smells like and they will probably say: green cheese. Actually it’s gunpowder. You can’t get the smell of it out of your spacesuit.
Komisar Jutta Nilsson, a slight woman with wrinkled lips and long straight hair bleached white with age, stood beside a Moonforce sergeant in a lonely corner of Crater Lipsky. On the Moon that’s as far away from Planet Earth as it’s possible to get.
Nilsson stared out across the plain towards the encircling hills. Their shattered crags, swathed in trails of scree, glowed mould-green against the sky: a black sky spattered with stars like snowflakes on a sable’s pelt. Behind them the lights of Lipsky Spaceport glared out into the deepening dusk.
On the plain before her, 440 spikes of hand-carved moon rock stood like soldiers on parade. They cast ebony shadows, long and needle-sharp, in the last sparkle of the setting sun.
441 — that was the number there should have been, laid out in a 21-by-21 grid. But a single spike was missing from its place. The police sergeant happened to be carrying it under his arm.
A roughly-dug hole, like a pool of ink, marked its original position on the ground. Beside the hole lay a cosmonautical hibernator, pressed into service as a coffin — as had been done for every occupant of these neglected graves. Its prised-off lid lay beside it, the contents having been unceremoniously tipped out into the moondust.
“What’s the name on the gravestone, Sergeant?” murmured Nilsson across the voice-link. By way of reply the officer mutely handed her the slab of rock he was holding, and she took it like an empty box. It was nothing but featherweight pumice: mostly foam, with scarcely any lava.
“Peter Zwillinge”, she read. “Who’d want to disinter that monster?”
The officer jerked his forearms upwards in lieu of a shrug, which his spacesuit would have hidden.
“When was this discovered?”
“In the last circadian,” said the sergeant as he led the way to the desecrated grave. “The perpetrators were surprised in the act by a random patrol. They fled in their hopper, leaving everything just as you see.”
Nilsson stared at the remains on the ground. Twelve years had passed since the Prometheus had inserted into lunar orbit – with its crew of dead men. Twelve years under conditions of total preservation due to the intense cold counted as no time at all: the body was just as it had been when it went in its hibernator.
If it was now a charred skeleton, that’s what it had been back then.
After a few second Nilsson spoke with quiet vehemence. “That is not Peter Zwillinge.”
The sergeant turned to her, astonishment widening his eyes. “How can you be so sure, Komisar?”
“That is the skeleton of a normal human male…” Nilsson paused for emphasis, “…with legs and hips intact.”
She glanced aside at the other and realised her remark had conveyed nothing to him. “Listen, Sergeant. Peter Zwillinge was not a human being – leastways not on Mars he wasn’t. He was a chimorg: a chimeric organism. A laboratory product.”
“Is that something you’d be able to tell from just the skeleton?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Then how do we know it’s not the person named?”
“Peter Zwillinge was judicially crippled by the Vratch – the Martian medical police – to ensure that he couldn’t pass for a human being. To prevent legs ever being grafted back on again, they elided the pelvis and gave him a stainless steel basin to retain his guts.”
The sergeant let out a cry. “The barbarians! And we accept these people as civilised, like us?”
“He was only a chimorg,” snarled Nilsson, with just a hint of irony. “A robot made of meat. Now take a good look at that skeleton and tell me why it isn’t Peter Zwillinge.”
“It’s got legs!”
“At last, you’ve caught up with me.”
The sergeant clutched at the back of his helmet, as if he’d forgotten he was wearing one. “I’m not so certain about that. My mind is boiling over with questions.”
“Well, you’re not the only one.” Nilsson took a deep breath. “Some person or persons unknown had questions to which they wanted answers so badly they’ve come here and opened his grave. Or rather: his purported grave.”
“Maybe that’s their business. But unless the next-of-kin make a complaint, what does it mean to us; to Moonforce?”
Komisar Nilsson sighed. “It means, Sergeant, that twelve years ago we let the biggest mass-murderer in Selenean history simply slip through our fingers.”
Friday 24 June 1994. Wear Valley, Gaia, System Sol
Anitra pushed open the back door with her bum. Clutching two handfuls of bulging shopping bags, it was the only sensible way of doing it. The door led straight in to a spacious kitchen and was kept unlocked during the day – you never knew who might be round for a cup of tea and a “bit-chat”. In a Durham pit village in the Year-of-Grace 1994, the pit might be long gone and the village full of incomers (they were incomers themselves) – but a stranger stood out a mile.
“Hi, Uncle Peter, I’m back.”
No reply. But Anitra wasn’t surprised. Peter might be anywhere: upstairs, out in the front garden, or mending something in his workshop as usual. Today there was only Peter and herself at home. Gaby had taken the boys for a run up the Dale: they were going to Bishop Auckland afterwards for the shopping you couldn’t do in Durham city.
Anitra had opted to stay at home because there was something she wanted to do, but she didn’t want to go telling everyone what it was. Everyone knew anyway. There was a boy she was keen on, and she was putting the finishing touches to a jumper for him, rushing to get it ready in time for his birthday.
But Peter had asked her to do the shopping first. Eight brothers make a lot of shopping at the local Co-op, even if it’s only for the week. She didn’t resent it: for once they’d all eat the food she liked, not the boys. But before she settled down to her knitting she thought she’d make Peter a mug of tea.
Steaming mug in hand, she went in search of him. As she passed the door to the front room she stopped. There were voices coming from within. One of them was Peter’s.
If it was people you knew, you’d chat to them in the kitchen. You didn’t take them into the front room, which was only for posh visitors. So who could it be?
She was seized with a quick thrill of fear – and straightaway told herself not to be silly. But the feeling persisted, and indeed grew, as she overheard what was being said.
Peter was talking to a lady whose voice she didn’t know, but she could tell she wasn’t English. If anything, she sounded Russian. The lady was talking in measured but insistent tones, and sounded as if she was accustomed to being obeyed without question. Peter sounded anxious, angry even, but Anitra could tell he was making a big effort to keep his temper.
The lady was saying, “You’ve been lucky so far. But what do you think’s going to happen when Moonforce finds out you gave them the slip?”
Peter’s voice: “That’s all taken care of. If Moonforce was going to rumble us, they would have done so by now.”
“You’re living in cloud-cuckoo land, Peter Zwillinge. The stellans have come-of-age. It’s 12 years since the ice-world Prometheus staggered back from Titan to park in its graveyard orbit around the Moon. And back then they were just six years old. People can count up on their fingers, you know. Nanoud tells me there’s Martians poking around on Selene, trying to discover where the stellans went. Racial Hygiene students, under the supervision of Dr Galax.”
“I’m not afraid of Galax! Just let his people try coming here.”
The woman’s voice became exasperated. “Peter – see reason! The Groubian Alliance is everlastingly grateful to you and Gabrielle for all you’ve done for the stellans. But you can’t hide them away for ever in a Durham pit village, of all places. Their destiny lies elsewhere.”
It’s wrong to eavesdrop, Anitra told herself. High time to announce her presence. Should she simply go marching in? She had every right to do so: it was her house. But she felt it might be better to knock.
The voices stopped instantly. Being careful not to spill the mug, Anitra pushed the door open against the resistance of the plush carpet, that still looked like new. This time she didn’t use her bum. You can’t barge in on posh visitors rear-end first.
The smell of furniture polish and the antiseptic spray Gaby used to clean dead flies off the window-sill couldn’t completely mask the acrid tang of an old room that was hardly ever used. Peter sat in his motorised trolley facing a lady in black, who was sitting in their one hard high-backed chair, face concealed behind a lacy veil. Peter peered round discomfited, as if Anitra was intruding, as no doubt she was. His plug-ugly visage was red and angry, though not with her.
The strange visitor promptly rose to her feet.
“Star child!” she said in ringing tones of welcome. “We meet at last.” Then she rounded on Peter. “I thought you said the children were out for the day?”
Peter mumbled, “Anitra wanted to stay behind. She had things to do. I… er… wasn’t expecting her back so early.”
The coffee table lay between Peter and his visitor. Anitra put the mug down in front of him. He took a sip and recovered sufficiently to remember his manners. “Anitra… this is Supreme Councillor Zvezda, personal adviser to the Goubernator on groubian affairs. She’s come all the way from Nix City, just to see you.”
“And your brothers,” added the stranger.
Anitra caught her breath. Nix City, she knew, was nowhere to be found on Earth. But she knew well enough where it was: on the planet Mars.
She said to the lady, “Can I get you something too, er… Supreme Councillor? …Tea?”
The lady in black gave a brisk shake of the head. A broad smile was barely visible behind her veil, which she now lifted to reveal her face.
“Call me Dolpou,” she said. Then she held out her arms, clearly expecting an embrace.
But Anitra recoiled in terror. It wasn’t the fact that the lady’s face was not one you’d encounter in the normal scheme of things, unless you’ve ever come face-to-face with a cuttlefish. Nor that it swirled with rainbow colours, like a kaleidoscope being twisted in the fingers. Nor that her eyes were enormous, with inky-black omega-shaped pupils. It was the fact that the stranger looked exactly like the photographs of her dead mother.
Anitra herself didn’t look like a cuttlefish. She looked like a normal girl her age. So normal you’d pass her in the street without noticing her. But you wouldn’t do that if she wasn’t wearing foundation, which she never failed to apply to her face whenever she left the house.
Anitra recalled a conversation she’d once had about it with a fellow-attendee at a cosmetics exhibition: a thin boy of uncertain demeanour. He had confided to her his sense of shock on first meeting someone else who shared his disfigurement: which in his case was a strawberry birthmark covering one cheek. There’d been an upwelling of empathy, curiosity — and something else…
Love at first sight? Or the projection of self-hatred?
Just why Anitra was in the habit of attending cosmetics exhibitions (as indeed were her brothers) was on account of their unusual skin. It placed them in the category of special needs. It wasn’t a disorder though, just a unique feature of theirs.
No one else had chromatophores. No one else’s skin could instantly change hue, making faces in a witchy fire, flickering in swirls of red, gold, brown and purple with every shift of mood, making it impossible to tell a lie.
It was the one obvious characteristic she and her brothers had inherited from their mother. Which they all happened to share with cephalopods: octopuses, squids and cuttlefish… and, so it appeared, with this lady from Mars.
To live in Wear Valley – to withstand eleven years of state schooling – she and her brothers had needed to apply a special foundation each morning to every inch of exposed skin, washing it off again once they got home. Physical Education – “PE” – was something they were excused without question, because Peter and Gaby didn’t want them showing their bodies in the showers. Anitra thought it was all about shame. But it wasn’t — it was the need for secrecy. People possessing skins like theirs would start a rumour that would travel far.
As far as Nix City.
The search was never-ending for new and better cosmetic products to make them look — not perfect — but like everybody else. Whilst their contemporaries squeezed pimples in the bathroom mirror, they used to get fake ones in clear plastic boxes like bindi spots and painstakingly apply them with tweezers.
Dolpou lowered her arms from their proffered embrace and laid her hands on her lap. She smiled slightly, meaning to show that she hadn’t been offended by Anitra’s impulsive rejection. But it was her colourful skin which conveyed that message more effectively to Anitra than her thin alien lips.
“Where are your brothers today? I was hoping to see them too.”
Peter ground his teeth in annoyance. He had already told Dolpou where they were. It irked him that she saw fit to double-check whatever he saw fit to reveal.
Anitra fidgeted with her charm bracelet, a curiously retro present from Peter on her eighteenth birthday, which had been that previous Tuesday. And not just hers. She and her brothers all shared the same birthday: June 21 — the Summer Solstice. They were nonaplets — if such a word exists.
“They’re — I mean — Gaby’s taken them off in our bus for a birthday treat. I couldn’t go with them. There was something I needed to finish.”
The eldritch visitor smiled again. But the pattern on her face signalled its own message, which had nothing to do with buses, or birthday treats. It surprised Anitra how much of it she implicitly understood. It was spatio-color: the silent language of the groubians. And of squids and cuttles too, their distant ancestors on Earth. She knew the name for it, but to her it was just a private mode of communication she shared with her brothers. She’d never imagined it could be a formal language of culture and wisdom, of law and science, spoken by a whole nation.
How could a rainbow blush be seriously called a language? But she’d once heard English described as nothing but a stream of moans and clicks coming out of your mouth. Faced with this exquisitely refined, infinitely expressive visage from another world, she felt uneducated… savage… uncouth.
“I won’t stay long,” said Dolpou Zvezda. “I only came to find the right house and introduce myself. I’m staying at the Royal County Hotel in Durham City. I’ll be back tomorrow. Then we can have a good long chat…” She smiled, and glanced speculatively at Peter. “The first of many, perhaps?”
The chimorg smiled back, but Anitra could see his gargoyle grin was forced. Clearly these two had the advantage on her of long acquaintance. But it hadn’t been friendship.
“Dolpou… has a proposition to make,” he said. “But more of that anon.”
The visitor lowered her veil and picked up her shiny black crocodile-skin handbag to depart. Passing Anitra in the doorway she briefly raised her veil once more to bestow a delicate kiss upon the young person’s cheek. Anitra felt the tack of her thickly applied lipstick and recognised her perfume. Chanel Number Five — a classic scent.
How strange: it was one she’d used herself… when trying to pretend she was grown-up. She couldn’t afford to buy it, but she cherished the midget tester they’d given her in Fenwicks. It was naughty and sophisticated: nothing like the dolly-mixture scents her classmates went in for, dismayed at growing up too soon in an unforgiving world.
Peter followed the visitor as she left the room to show her out the front door. Then he trundled slowly back to Anitra. Sitting in his trolley in the doorway, he stared silently at the young woman who called him “Uncle”.
It was a bleak stare. In Nix City, he was thinking, Anitra would never call him “Uncle”, although he was closer to her than the vast majority of uncles to their nieces. He’d actually assisted at her birth, in the harsh conditions of a stricken space-vessel. After that he’d helped their foster-mother Gabrielle bring up the children. There was no relation by blood of course. In Nix City, he, Peter Zwillinge, wasn’t even classified as human.
Would she be? — he wondered.
Anitra’s hands went up onto her hips. “That was a groubian!”
“Now at last you’ve met one in the flesh.” Peter turned and shut the door.
“Was my mother… like that?”
“No, not to me she wasn’t.” Peter Zwillinge’s boiled-egg eyes seemed to glaze over as he went back in his memory. “Though I doubt you’d have been able to tell the difference. So — yes — I suppose you’d say she was…”
Anitra sat down hard in the nearest chair, hands in her lap, toying with the charms on her bracelet. Her voice, when at last it came, was petulant.
“Why did she call me ‘star child’?”
“Because, my treasure, that is what you are.”
Anitra tossed her hair, eyes rolling heavenwards. It was her pet-name within the family. A weak pun on Gabrielle’s surname, she’d always thought. What business had a total stranger using it?
“You and your brothers: you’re the Stellans — the Star Children. To millions of people — though nobody on Earth to speak of.”
Peter’s voice dropped to a murmur. “Dolpou wants to take you away from us: from Gaby and me. To take you back with her to Nix City. She says it’s your destiny.”
Anitra struggled to her feet, to flop down again on her knees beside Peter’s trolley and fling her arms around his bristly neck, as if she was a little girl once more. His little girl.
“She can’t do that,” she shouted. “I won’t go!”
Impulsively she kissed the tip of his shapeless ear. “Uncle Peter, I shall never, ever leave you. Never.”
Peter patted her dark hair as her face slipped down to nestle against his shoulder. His eyes grew moist. “In the end you will, my dear. You must.”
She looked up. “Why?” The word came out in a defiant little bark.
“Because I shall die of old age… and you will not.”
Now it wasn’t as if Peter’s prognosis was exactly news to her. But she and her brothers took it as a fond conceit of his and Gaby’s — that they were going to live forever. But how could anyone know how long they’d live? After all, weren’t they supposed to be the first of their kind?
The matter was never mentioned outside the family — and seldom nowadays within it. Unlucky to do so.
“I won’t go off with that… that groubian! Tomorrow I’ll be out of the house all day. When she comes, tell her to go away.”
“Anitra…” Peter gently raised her head with his finger crooked under her chin and gazed into her tearful eyes. “Tomorrow we must listen, you and I, to what Supreme Councillor Dolpou Zvezda has come all this way to say.”
…to be continued.