Jerking back from the window, Anitra went and told Dolpou, who was thumbing in desultory fashion through Country Life. “What’s she doing?” the groubian whispered, not looking up from her glossy magazine.
“She’s working through the entire book-rack, picking out books. She’s got out quite a pile. She’s not opening them to read. She’s just going by the covers.”
“Creep back and see what she does with them.”
A minute later Anitra, face sparkling in reds and greens, returned to report. “You’ll never believe this. She’s bought the lot — and then she’s dumped them. In the very bin where I dumped my shoes.”
“I know which ones she’s chosen for expurgation: Lonely Planet Guide to Lunaborg and Jordvik. They caught my eye too. A flagrant violation of the Treaty of Moscow.”
“Treaty of — what?”
“Oh, I’ll explain some other time. Go back and carry on watching her. I hope she doesn’t come in here.”
When Anitra peered out again, she saw that Nilsson had stopped still, grasping her chin. Then she turned, went back to the rubbish bin and, reaching through the slot up to the armpit, rummaged around. Again Anitra reported back in excitement.
“She’s found my old trainers. She’s taken them out and put them in her bag.”
“Whatever did you have to throw them in there for?”
“I — I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”
There wasn’t long to wait before Nilsson appeared in the VIP lounge. She was alone: she hadn’t come with anyone to arrest them. Glancing without expression in their direction, she went and poured herself a cup of complimentary coffee. Then, as if selecting somewhere to sit at random, she came over and sat down without looking up from her cup.
“So… we meet again. Did you imagine you’d escaped from me?”
“Not for one moment,” replied Dolpou. “But I didn’t want your thugs catching up with us while we were still officially on English soil. You seem to have no idea of the danger we’re in.”
Nilsson, to Anitra’s astonishment, actually appeared a little chastened at that riposte. “Well,” she said, “I do now,”
Dolpou didn’t answer, leaving Nilsson to expand on that admission at her own discretion.
“On the way here I passed the burnt-out wreck of a car. Not an uncommon sight in County Durham… but there was something different about this one.”
Dolpou kept silent but opened her eyes wide, mutely inviting Nilsson to continue.
“It had been moonraked. Was that your doing?”
Nilsson it was who now stayed silent, inviting Dolpou to elaborate.
“Have the police found it?”
“Oh, I told them. Only what’s good for them to know, of course. Don’t worry — I covered up for you.”
“I appreciate that. The Consulate would not have been pleased with me for souring relations with the locals.”
Nilsson scratched her nose. “Unless you’re planning on coming back to have more close encounters with ‘the locals’ in this fair and lovely land, I’m sure you won’t lose sleep over that.”
Dolpou raised her chin. “I do consider my colleagues in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.”
Nilsson tossed her head, rolling her eyes.
The cabin lights had been turned low and most of the passengers were asleep. A dim glow seeped along the gangway from the back of the cabin: the lights of the bar.
Was it still open? Might they give her a drink of orange? She scrutinised the face of her companion. Geometric shapes like living henna patterns crawled upon the latter’s skin: not indicative of consciousness. Groubians, it seemed, slept with their eyes open.
Anitra crept out of her seat and steadied herself in the unfamiliar gravity, adjusted to be equal to that of the Moon. Then she began to hop towards the glow of bar, feeling as if she was in a baby-bouncer.
She saw the silhouette of a single person sitting hunched at the bar counter. It gave her a warm feeling to see someone else there. The warm feeling evaporated when she saw it was Nilsson.
She was about to turn and hop quietly back to her seat when she recalled an article she’d once read about tigers. Forest animals don’t make a point of avoiding them when they are not on the prowl. The tiger you can see isn’t all that dangerous. It’s the tiger you can’t see that you need to fear. But if you get close enough to a resting tiger you may learn something to your advantage. You can judge for yourself the sharpness of the teeth that could tear your throat out. You can see for yourself the length of the claws which could open you up from chin to crotch.
Just don’t tread on its tail.
To the right of Nilsson there were three vacant stools, like spindly red mushrooms. Anitra thought of climbing onto the one furthest away, to leave a sort of cordon-sanitaire between them. But she didn’t want to seem rude, even to an enemy.
On first acquaintance she had taken Nilsson for someone compassionate. Why she’d changed her mind was not because of anything the Commissioner had done to her, it was all down to what Uncle Peter had said.
But now, she reminded herself, she was old enough to make her own enemies.
Softly, as if the Selenean were asleep, she slid onto the stool beside her. Nilsson didn’t look round, but carried on staring at the blossoming bubbles in her tonic water. A steward appeared from behind the bulkhead and silently got Anitra a glass of orange juice. Diffidently she sipped it, aware of her neighbour’s proximity. It was like an iceberg radiating chill.
Without looking up from her drink, the Commissioner murmured “Why did you run away from me at the hospital?”
“I was frightened.” Anitra hoped Nilsson would be satisfied with that, but she wasn’t.
“Did ‘Uncle Peter’ tell you to escape from me? He was in touch with you the whole time, wasn’t he?”
Anitra didn’t answer. The clock ticked through a right-angle before Nilsson spoke again.
“That’s a marvellous charm-bracelet you are wearing. But wouldn’t somebody your age consider it ‘retro’?”
For a moment Anitra thought Nilsson had changed the subject, for which she was grateful. But she could almost hear Uncle Peter’s voice saying “She’s coming at you from another direction. Watch those teeth and claws.”
But one thing Anitra had learned from eighteen years of growing up was not to be devious. It worked for some people: it had never worked for her. Like a groubian, she couldn’t tell a lie. If she felt a surge of gratitude for Nilsson moving the conversation onto safer ground, then she ought to go along with that feeling, trusting to her native wits if it proved to be a trap.
She glanced down at the dangling charms on her wrist as it rested on the counter. Letting a little brightness seep into her voice, she said “Yes, that’s what I thought at first. But now I really like it.”
“A gift from ‘Uncle Peter’?… yes of course it is. A formidable little armoury, if I may say so. It bestows on you the firepower of a helicopter gunship.”
She turned to stare Anitra full in the face. “Did you know that?”
Anitra’s eyebrows went up as far as they could go. When she didn’t answer, Nilsson tried another question.
“Has he trained you in the use of all that weaponry?”
“I — I don’t know what you mean…”
Her wrist began to tingle. She realised the Commissioner knew full well that her groubian skin made her incapable of telling a convincing lie. But amazingly, that knowledge was her sword and shield.
Nilsson looked away again. With a laugh that was more of a bark she said “I suppose I ought to be grateful he didn’t order you to drop that elstat in my path… yes, the little death’s-head.”
Anitra swallowed hard. He had. But then he’d changed his mind…
“So,” the Commissioner continued, “you’d have me believe that those pretty charms are nothing but jewellery?”
“So far as I know…”
“Then how about this one?”
Nilsson reached into her pocket and placed something small and glinting on the counter. It was the Smiling Sun that Anitra had dropped in the gutter outside her home in Esh Winning.
She felt like Tam O’Shanter. Riding home drunk one night and chancing upon a witches’ sabbat, Tam knew the safest thing to do was to keep on walking towards them, not to turn tail and run. She picked up the Smiling Sun and put it in her ear-lobe. “Thank you! Wherever did you find it – and how did you know it was mine?”
“It was in Peter Zwillinge’s jacket pocket when we arrested him.”
The smile faded from Anitra’s face. Quietly she said “Where is he?”
“Quite close at hand, actually — though you won’t be able to get in touch with him via that miniaturised wristlink. He is in a hibernator, travelling as luggage in the hold.”
“What’s a hibernator?” But Anitra remembered she’d heard the word before. Long before.
“It is essential equipment on one of the new fast-ferries… though this one came originally from Prometheus, which has the same sort of thermonuclear drive. It even has Zwillinge’s name engraved on it, in fine Roman letters.” Nilsson’s voice rang hollow like a tomb.
Blushing rainbows, Anitra said “Why was there a hibernator… on Prometheus?” But she knew there had been hibernators on Prometheus. Communal ones – anonymous ones. What she’d really meant to ask was why Peter’s name had been ceremonially engraved on one.
“As you’ll know, if they taught you any physics at school, a thermonuclear vessel accelerates at several hundred earth-gravities. The impulse that applies to everyone on board is enough to smash a diamond to powder…”
Nilsson casually selected a peppermint from a chrome dish on the counter, a hard white sweet like a dress button, pressing it sharply between her thumb and bony forefinger. To Anitra’s terror it collapsed with a snap in a wisp of dust. For a moment she wondered if the Commissioner used to break the fingers of suspects she interrogated.
“Therefore,” continued Nilsson, depositing a pinch of powder on the bar counter, “it is necessary to put the crew and passengers into hibernation. To compress them into solid blocks of ice – to withstand the impulse of the thermonuclear drive.”
She turned and studied Anitra’s face again. “Tell me something. When you were a little girl, do you remember man-sized metal boxes with windows to show the faces of the people inside?”
“Yes,” she said, “I do. They were scary.”
“Why so? Because the people inside were all dead?”
“No — I mean – I didn’t know they were dead. It was their faces…”
“What was it about their faces that scared you?”
“They looked like they were in agony — and been frozen down like it. And their skin was covered in thin white spikes, like icy bristles. Gaby told us not to peer in at the windows.” She smiled to herself. “But being only small then, we did.”
Nilsson smiled too. It was the first time Anitra had seen her do that – at least, do it with any warmth. “And those were happy days?” she asked.
Anitra’s face lit up, not only with her eyes and lips but also with a golden sheen to her skin: the groubian expression of delight. “Oh, yes. The happiest days I can remember. There was no school, nothing we had to do all day except play. And we had this huge castle to play in. There was nothing else in our world except this wonderful castle. It was everything we knew. And it was ours.”
The memory of it all caused a happy sigh to pass her lips – and she was aware that Nilsson had sighed as well. A tiny voice cried out in her head “This is no enemy!”
She knew though she shouldn’t let her guard drop, but she felt the urge to prattle. “When it came to bedtime, Gaby never knew where we were, but Uncle Peter always found us. We used to make it as hard for him as we could, of course. There were so many rooms to hide in.”
Nilsson’s smile grew broader, though with a curious reluctance. “Tell me about those rooms.”
For just an instant Anitra checked herself. Neither she nor her brothers had ever spoken of that time to people outside the family. Now here she was, on the point of recounting her fondest memories to a total stranger – maybe a hostile stranger.
But the family was gone. If she never told anyone, not even a stranger, those happy days would dry out in her mind and blow away like dust in the wind.
“Gaby used to tell us there were so many rooms we could live in a different one each day — and she and Uncle Peter would both die of old age before we even got a quarter of the way round.”
“But not you children?”
“Didn’t that seem funny to you?”
“Not at the time. When you’re so young you don’t think of yourself as dying. And both Gaby and Peter seemed so awfully old already. We begged and begged them not to die. And that’s why we kept on living in the same room until we got to the Moon.”
Nilsson chuckled and nodded slowly like a balanced rock, and as she spoke she began prodding the powdered sweet into branching pathways.
“In the mir of Prometheus there are 73,000 rooms. Seventy-three thousand! I could never picture it until I went to Russia and saw Moscow State University. It is a huge pile of a place, a Stalinesque wedding-cake, with 45,000 rooms. So… Prometheus is bigger than MGU, and its rooms are nearly twice the number. But some rooms are large: like aircraft hangars, or the holds of oil tankers. And some are small: cabins for one. But if you spent each day on Prometheus in a different room, then to get to the last of the rooms would take you nearly two hundred years.”
Anitra giggled. “It never occurred to me to do the sums.”
“And in one of those rooms, were there many hibernators…?”
“Yes,” said Anitra, growing serious again. “They were stacked like gold bars in a vault. There must have been a whole army frozen down in there…”
“A whole crew.”
Anitra prattled on, missing the implications. “We used to wonder, my brothers and I – what it would be like if we woke them all up? We would have a city then — a city of our very own. My brothers would all be princes… and I would be Queen.”
Nilsson mournfully shook her head. “That, alas, would not have been possible. To wake them up, I mean.”
Still Anitra didn’t cotton-on to what Nilsson was saying. “Where are all those people now?” she chirped. “Did they all get off the ship when we reached the Moon and go their separate ways? Did any of them go to Earth? I mean — to Gaia?”
Slowly, as if each word tasted of alum, Nilsson intoned: “In downtown Lunaborg, by Lipsky Spaceport, there is a crater. In that crater there is a graveyard. And in that graveyard they all lie buried – all save one. And he did indeed go to Gaia.”
She inhaled deeply, as if the act of doing so was sheer agony. “But once again he is in a hibernator, beneath our very feet, and he is on his way back to the Moon…”
With unexpected brutality she added “to face justice for his crimes!”
“What crimes?” Anitra wailed. “Uncle Peter hasn’t committed any crimes…?”
“Hasn’t Dolpou told you?”
“Then I must leave to her the responsibility of doing so.”
Anitra screwed up her features as if they were full of dirty water and needed wringing out. “Uncle Peter? I can’t believe it. What crimes could he possibly have committed?”
“Ah Anitra, Anitra…” Nilsson’s voice faded to a near-whisper. “You are so like Gaby Starr, your foster-mother. Incapable of thinking ill of anyone. I’m lost in admiration. To go through life not thinking ill of anyone. You – you and Gaby – have just one fault between you. And that is it.”
“What you mean? How can it be a fault?”
“Bear in mind, child, that ‘Uncle Peter’ was old before you were born. Very old… and very wicked.”
…to be continued.