Another instalment of our serialisation of Anitra’s Petition, the gripping sequel to The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2020). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.The following day. Somewhere over the Moon.
In the gloom of the deserted ice-world Prometheus, Nilsson paced the rubbery floor, the vagtmester (the captain of the watch) keeping in-step.
Like all major space-platforms, Prometheus simulated gravity by rotating on its axis. Nilsson had docked her hopper in the shuttle bay, where the axis intersected the base of the cone forming the vessel’s enormous hull. Back there, where the vagtmester had been waiting to meet her, they’d been in freefall. It had been like floating underwater and they’d had to pull themselves along on cables stretched taut. But as she and the vagtmester made their way towards the control room on the perimeter she felt pseudogravity growing stronger.
Pseudogravity is a centrifugal force, thus the journey to the perimeter felt like descending from a high tower. It mostly led down spiral staircases. At each level, corridors and suspended catwalks stretched away on every side into the iron gloom.
Nilsson’s joints ached from the exertion. She yearned for the civilised convenience of a levitator. But Prometheus was not a luxury liner like Oberon, a fairy castle in the sky. It had been a working vessel: a cargo boat – the essential link between Mars and Titan. A link completely and forever broken when the Titanic mir had been extirpated.
“So the deal is this,” the vagtmester was explaining to her. “Here, in orbit round the Moon, is this vast space platform, of uncertain ownership, under the control of an artificial intelligence of doubtful alleigance that was critically implicated in the massacre that took place here eighteen years ago.”
“Why hasn’t Moonforce blasted this abomination out the sky?”
“Because, in spite of everything, Parliament doesn’t consider it a threat. In practice Prometheus is the sleepiest of sleeping dogs. Mars has formally requested Moonforce to stay its hand until the question of ownership has been hammered out in the Selenean courts. Quite apart from anything else, there are stupendous sums in salvage due to us, once the legal profession can agree who’s responsible for shelling out.”
“So,” said Nilsson, “Mars wants us to think of this orbiting atrocity as Santa Claus, not War of the Worlds?”
“Something like that,” said the vagtmester, with an uncertain grin. “But Prometheus can’t mount a credible invasion because there’s no one aboard. No one, that is, except the Moonforce boarding party, currently consisting of six police officers plus myself.”
“A plum posting,” murmured Nilsson, with the ghost of a smile.
“I wouldn’t call it that, Komisar. We all hate it here. It’s like policing a deserted city the size of Lunaborg. A vast empty tomb. Apart from which, everywhere you go you have this feeling of eyes on the back of your neck.”
Nilsson couldn’t stop herself from looking over her shoulder. “Are we being watched at this very moment, Vagtmester?”
“Undoubtedly. On every landing there is a v-unit mounted on the wall. Even if it doesn’t show its face, Magic Mirror is sure to be watching us through it, and listening.”
“And this is the robotic agent the ship’s crew knew as MM, that solved the logistics of destroying the lot of them in a matter of seconds?”
“Precisely, Komisar. Oh, if I may ask a boon of you before we reach the control room…”
“Please don’t anger it. We are reliant on its goodwill for basic services. Such as air, light, heat…”
Nilsson frowned. “Goodwill? Did they seriously program it with sentiments?”
“No, not exactly. But they did give it a lively sense of threat. Plus an appreciation of the need for prompt action against any threat it detects.”
“Which amounts to the same thing,” murmured Nilsson, partly to herself. “Could I ask a boon in my turn?” she added. “Have all the 200-odd propulsion cartridges been located and neutralised?”
The other gave a dry chuckle. ”It was the very first thing we did.”
Each propulsion cartridge was a thermonuclear device of several megatons. An H-bomb, though nobody cared to call it that. It was how Prometheus had managed to do the Titan Run in 20 days, whereas six years under chemical power had barely sufficed for it to limp back to the Moon.
“Quite right too.” Nilsson nodded slowly. “Magic Mirror could have done the Moon a lot of damage with those, if it had felt threatened.”
They reached the control room and Nilsson settled herself in the command seat. The screen shimmered with stars and galaxies, and from a point in the middle there expanded the face of a very old man. A mask with hollow eyes and mouth, swirling slightly like oil on a murky pool.
It must have tickled the crew to give the ship’s agent a persona straight out of Grimms’ fairytales. But in hindsight’s grim light it was singularly apt.
The image on the screen spoke in sepulchral tones, and as it did so its mouth opened onto a void: the void of deep space – from a time before Time.
“Komisar Nilsson,” it said. “You have no jurisdiction in the mir of Prometheus.”
Nilsson’s mouth compressed itself to a lipless line. She was just about to remind Magic Mirror that Prometheus was a mir with no denizens. It was as dead as Titan — both having perished on the selfsame day. But she remembered the vagtmester’s request not to anger the agent.
Besides which, strictly speaking, MM was right. Until the Council of the Inner Planets ruled otherwise, Prometheus was still a mir — a legally constituted world in its own right.
A world of ghosts.
“Magic Mirror,” Nilsson replied, echoing something of its tone-of-voice, “I have no jurisdiction anywhere these days. Tell me why not.”
“Twelve years ago you retired from Moonforce, handing over to Komisar Bergström.”
“That’s right, MM. Nothing much escapes you up here, does it?”
“I try to keep myself informed.” MM spoke like an old faithful servant cornered into admitting something his master wasn’t meant to know.
“Nowadays,” said Nilsson, “I’m nothing but a bounty hunter – though I call myself a consultant. Out of courtesy they still accord me my former job-title of Komisar.”
The old man’s empty mouth opened again. “Then why are you here, Komisar?”
“To ask questions about a man called Peter Zwillinge. That is, if you’ll consent to answer them?”
“I do consent. Please ask your questions.”
“Right now, at this very moment, where is Peter Zwillinge?”
MM took its time to answer. When it did so, its voice was solemn and sonorous, like a long-dead abbot intoning liturgy in a ruined monastery.
“His corpse lies beneath us, on the Moon, in a makeshift graveyard for a slaughtered crew, laid out beneath the western rim of Crater Lipsky.”
“MM – I have just come from that graveyard. The charred body buried there under the name of Peter Zwillinge belongs to someone else.”
“That is news to me, Komisar.”
“Whose body is it?” Nilsson’s voice took on a rasp.
“If what you say is true – and there is no cause to doubt it – then the body can only be that of Harry Williams, the father of the Star Children.”
Nilsson couldn’t restrain a gasp. “Was the body burnt when Peter Zwillinge massacred the crew?”
“I cannot answer that question because it rests on a false premise.”
“What false premise?”
“The body was not ‘burnt’ — if by that you mean: maliciously or recklessly exposed to fire. It was legally cremated, albeit in a makeshift way.”
“On whose orders?”
“On the directions of the deceased, as set down in his Last Will and Testament, of which Nurse Gabrielle Starr was the executrix.”
Nilsson wrinkled her nose. To her, as an ex-police officer, that sounded like a defence lawyer being economical with the truth.
“Whyever did Nurse Starr attempt to fulfil these directions in-flight? Surely she would have known that a spacegoing vessel is not equipped with a crematorium? The correct procedure is to freeze the body in a hibernator for repatriation, leaving it open for the cause of death to be ascertained by the home coroner.”
“That was precisely what both she and the deceased were determined to avoid.”
Nilsson’s “Why?” came back at MM like a whiplash.
“What Harry Williams and his lawfully-wedded groubian wife Tvoul Rainbow achieved was a sociological, biological and commercial innovation of cosmic importance. The crossing of two species of human being to produce a new species, provisionally named the Stellans – the Star Children.”
Nilsson nodded. It made sense.
On Mars, groubians were honorary human beings by the terms of the peace treaty which ended the Second Groubian War. But that was only a privilege – and it was not automatically inherited, especially by the issue of a gaian (what on Planet Gaia was called a “human being”) and a groubian. Conventional wisdom held that the result could only have been a laboratory curiosity. A chimorg.
Although it remained to be tested in the courts, it stood to reason that the natural issue of two human beings was itself human and therefore entitled to full human rights. But groubians could not breed naturally, all living groubians being female. Only gaians could breed naturally. Not groubians – and certainly not a gaian/groubian couple. What Harry and Tvoul had achieved flew in the face of conventional wisdom… not to mention the Law.
So what would have happened when Prometheus arrived at its destination? The bio-engineering firms would have pounced like vultures on Harry Williams’s frozen body, with its scattered embryos in multiple zygocysts, to find out everything they could about it. The Star Children would never have been born. They would have ended their brief existence in a test tube.
Gabrielle Starr’s best course of action was now all too plain.
Firstly, deliver the children before Prometheus reached the Moon. There’d be time enough to let them grow up until they could talk. Then nobody would query their humanity… leastways not on Selene or Gaia.
Secondly, cremate Harry Williams’s body – and furthermore destroy all clues to its eventual whereabouts by getting his ashes buried under another man’s name.
Whose name? Peter Zwillinge.
But why Zwillinge? Why that monster? Why, of all the 441 hibernated bodies sent down to the surface for burial in Crater Lipsky, did Gaby Starr choose Peter Zwillinge to swap with Harry Williams?
Nilsson slapped her open hand on the console as she turned to the vagtmester. “Why didn’t Bergström interrogate Gabrielle Starr more thoroughly?”
“There were the children to consider,” replied the other. “For their sakes she was allowed to proceed to Gaia with all due despatch. As their father’s executrix she was already their legal guardian. She had also undertaken to repatriate the body of Harry Williams, a denizen of the Gaian mir – a British citizen.”
The vagtmester squirmed under Nilsson’s unblinking stare. “I know it was only one body out of 400-odd,” he continued. “But it was one less to have to deal with. And Gabrielle Starr had made a detailed statement, fully corroborated by the available evidence.”
“Except in one detail,” said Nilsson. “One tiny little detail: the actual whereabouts of Harry Williams. Namely, inside a hibernator labelled ‘Peter Zwillinge’.”
Her eyelids drooped as if she were about to fall asleep. Then they shot wide open. “This is the Butcher of the Gaiascope we’re talking about,” she bellowed. “A man with sixty thousand Selenean deaths on his conscience!”
The vagtmester winced and shrugged. “Nurse Starr was a courier for the Galen Clinic. She was well-known at Lipsky Spaceport and held to be of good character. What was wrong with accepting her version of events?”
“What was wrong? What was wrong?” Nilsson thrust her index finger into the palm of her hand. “Look. Suppose Zwillinge’s hibernated body held some sort of appeal for Nurse Starr. Professional interest maybe? After all, Zwillinge was an anatomical specimen of exceptional interest…”
She turned to the screen, suspicion narrowing her eyes. “MM – was Passenger Zwillinge frozen down for the whole six years of the voyage home?”
“No. Nurse Starr had him resuscitated soon after we left Titan.”
“For God’s sake — why?”
“To get this ship safely back to the Moon. It was beyond her unaided abilities.”
“Even with your unfailing assistance, MM?”
“It was I that advised her to resuscitate Passenger Zwillinge.”
“With his appalling record?”
“It was an emergency. The ship was damaged. I was damaged. Passenger Zwillinge was a master technician, as well as being an anaesthetist of consummate skill. The Star Children needed all his talents for their safe delivery and repatriation. It was senseless to ignore such a valuable resource.”
Nilsson propped her head on one elbow, her eyes screwed shut and covered by her thumb and forefinger. Slowly she looked up and blinked at the vagtmester.
“At last… it all comes out.”
She turned to the screen for one final question. “And when his job was done, why was he not re-hibernated, to be handed over to the authorities at Lipsky Spaceport?”
“He made no secret of his eagerness to help raise the children on Gaia,” said MM. “Nurse Starr must have approved. It was an unexpected bonus for her.”
Nilsson sat in stunned silence. At last she said in a tiny voice, “Thank you, MM.”
The screen went dark. She leaned back, shut her eyes and took a deep breath.
“So you see, Vagtmester… when someone has been your faithful companion for six long years, helping you bring up nine children on a stricken vessel — nine very special children — might you not feel the urge to do something for that someone in return? Might you not even feel in ongoing need of the services of one so valuable as the talented Peter Zwillinge?” The hated name came howling forth.
The vagtmester sat very still.
Nilsson’s face sank in a drooping scowl. She continued in a murmur, as if to herself. “Might not the children? They were six years old by the time Prometheus reached the Moon. Possibly they’d grown fond of this… ogre.”
Her eyebrows rose, as did her voice in a sardonic, slightly comedic lilt. “Maybe they called him ‘Uncle Peter’…”
“Uncle Peter, the phone. Shall I answer it?”
“No, treasure, I’m here.”
Peter Zwillinge snatched up the handset. The voice on the line sounded both officious and unsure of itself at one and the same time. That sparked a thrill of warning that skipped around Peter’s frame like the fuse of a firework display.
“Mr Peter Blake?”
“Yes…!” On Gaia it was the name he went by.
“Durham Police. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Please follow the instructions I’m about to give you.”
Peter froze. These past twelve years he’d gone in constant fear of just such a phone call: the klaxon cry that Moonforce had rumbled his whereabouts. But as he listened, with a growing sense of being in a dream — it wasn’t that at all.
It was something far, far worse.
His face went from an ugly scowl to a puzzled frown, and then to goggle-eyed, and his lower lip began to quiver.
“What is it, Uncle Peter?” His little girl was wide-eyed and alert, like a puppy sensing a rabbit close at hand.
“Anitra love, I have to go somewhere. Stay here and don’t let anyone in.”
“It was the police, wasn’t it? Don’t lie.”
Peter waved his enormous strong arms as if he were a baby in a pram. “I won’t be long.”
But he knew he would.
Anitra frowned. “Have they booked Gaby again for parking where she shouldn’t?” She read him like a book, no matter how hard he tried to lose his place among the pages. “No…” she continued, “it’s something worse than that, isn’t it?”
“Anitra my precious, like I said…”
“I’m coming with you! I’m not going to let you go alone.”
Peter began to panic. “I don’t want you to be seen outside…”
But what he really wanted was to spare her everything that was going to happen to him: the awful sight, the anxious helplessness, the waiting around in the cold.
“You can’t keep me in purdah all my life. I’m a grown woman now.”
Grown woman. Eighteen last birthday, which was just a day or two ago. How quickly they grow up. Well – now she’d be for finishing the job off.
“All right… yes, I suppose you’d better come too. Start the car and get it warmed up.”
“I’ll just go and put my face-paint on…”
“No time for that. Come as you are. Grab your biggest pair of sunglasses and… and a headscarf.”
“No, not a headscarf. Please!”
“Look – just come. We’re in a hurry.”
He tore down his bomber jacket from its coat-hook and struggled into it. Then he rummaged in the hall basket for his balaclava helmet. Anitra put on her yellow raincoat, her gorgeous featherweight Italian job which made her look like a film star. She glanced appraisingly down the row of family shoes which stretched from the front door to the stairs, stepping first into an impractical pair of platform soles.
“Those are no good,” said Peter. “There won’t be time to stand around looking pretty.”
Anitra pouted and laced-on snowy-white trainers.
“And do something about your skin. Muffle up. Try to think pink thoughts…”
“If only you’d let me…”
“D’oh! No time for it. We’ve got to be there.”
Anitra stooped and peered at him. His face had gone a nasty colour. It was never all that pretty of course, but now it looked slate-grey, like unfired pottery. A vessel for display in a gift-shop: an ultra-grotesque Ugly-Mug.
“It’s something really bad,” she murmured, “isn’t it?”
…to be continued.