Checking out of the hotel by fast-track, the two women drove off into the rainy night. Dolpou handled the car awkwardly in the narrow city streets, but once they were on the Hartlepool road they cruised effortlessly at speed.
“I didn’t know an old-fashioned car like this could go so fast. And it’s so smooth. I can almost imagine we aren’t touching the ground.”
“We aren’t. It’s a space-hopper, built into the body of a Jowett Javelin: a vintage car. Being so old it doesn’t need a road licence. Which saves all sorts of official questions.”
“What’s a space-hopper? You don’t mean one of those bouncy balloons with horns?”
“Named for it. It’s the standard runabout on the Moon. Up there it only has one-sixth Earth gravity to contend with. You can even leave the surface and ascend into space: though that’s not a clever thing to do because it’s scarcely spaceworthy. In Earth gravity it’s as much as it can do to keep six inches off the road. I exaggerate of course.”
Car headlights and flashing blue beacons glittered off the wet tarmac ahead of them. They had just passed a massive illuminated road sign announcing they were approaching the junction with the A1(M).
“An accident?” Anitra clutched at Dolpou’s arm.
“It might be a road block. No time to mess about. Here’s where we show ‘em what this old banger can do.”
The line of flashing blue lights dropped away beneath the Jowett’s bonnet. Anitra clutched even tighter. She stared downwards to her right as the glowing knot of cars slipped beneath them into their past. Immediately they shot across the trench of the motorway, a gleaming river of cars reaching out a long way ahead of themselves with their headlamps, white light beams licking one carriageway, red sparks strewn along the other.
Then, scarcely to be seen in the dark, bare hedges rose up from the ground on either side. They only just cleared the roof of a car travelling in the opposite direction. Wrenching herself round in her seat, Anitra stared out of the Jowett’s tiny back window. The car they had just skimmed had spun out of control, coming to rest aslant the road.
Dolpou glanced aside at her. “Are they all right?”
“I-I think so…” Anitra was almost too scared for the words to come out.
Dolpou touched a small screen on the dashboard and peered quickly into it. “Well, at least they’re the right way up. That’s a relief. They’ll have a story to tell, won’t they.”
The groubian squirmed to get more comfy in her seat and gave her attention to the road ahead. “Star-child,” she murmured distractedly, “do you think you could ease your grip just a tiny bit? You’re bruising my arm.”
They were now in open countryside, east of the A1(M). Great black raindrops splattered on the windscreen, to be smeared across it by the Jowett’s old-fashioned wipers, which shuddered to-and-fro like the limbs of a steam-age automaton.
“If we can fly, why are we bothering keeping to the road?”
“Trees, rising ground, power lines, radio masts… to clear everything safely we’d have to fly above 500 feet, making us visible to ground radar. And without the road-signs it’s easy to get lost in the dark. You can even get lost with the road-signs – this is County Durham.”
Suddenly there was bright light on the road ahead. A car shone its headlights on full beam straight at them. Once again Dolpou lifted the Jowett’s bonnet off the roadway. There came a sudden swish, smoke briefly blanketing the windscreen, then an orange flash lit up the landscape ahead. Glancing backwards as they swept over it, Anitra could see the car was on fire. She fancied she saw people on either side plunging out of it head-first.
“Nasty crude things, moonrakers. We groubians have much better weapons, but you can’t bring those on a diplomatic mission all the way from Mars.”
“Did we do that?”
“Why?” Dolpou’s brutal act seemed so utterly at variance with the concern she’d expressed for the car they’d leapfrogged back at the motorway.
“They had us in an echo lock. If somebody does that to you on the Moon you don’t ask why: you fire your moonrakers. The pictures from the nose cameras will show us all about them. With luck, star-child, we’ve just taken care of your brothers’ assassins.”
They reached the lights of Wingate and shortly afterwards turned south in darkness onto the dual-carriageway of the A19. The rest of the journey was a flurry of car lights, rain and gleaming wet tarmac until they came to rest in a wire-fenced car-park drenched in floodlights perched on tall thin poles.
Dolpou transmitted a message to the Olympian Consulate in Teesport to come and collect the Jowett, then she hurried Anitra into the terminal building.
“Where are we?” Anitra asked.
“Teesside Airport. Now we have to buy you a ticket.”
Dolpou went through the motions of buying what looked like an ordinary airline ticket. “Hang on to this,” she said. “It says ‘Destination Lunaborg’. There is a Lunaborg in Greenland, I’m told, but it’s the one on the Moon that’s meant.”
“Do you mean you can just come in here and buy a ticket to the Moon?”
“Well… a spaceport is the obvious place, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I know people think this is just an out-of-the-way provincial airport, but on Gaia things have to be kept hidden.”
“Why don’t people do it then… I mean, go to the Moon, come back and splash it all across the front page?”
“Star-child, you’ve no idea how things work. Lunaborg has been there for centuries. If somebody was going to do that, they’d have done it by now.”
Dolpou turned a sudden corner and Anitra clutched at her arm to keep level.
“Then why did the Americans make such a fuss about putting a man on the Moon?”
“Well, that’s their business. Maybe they were only showing off to the Russians. You’ll notice they’ve never been back.”
“Yes, but I mean… if my classmates knew about it they’d be so… so…”
“Well that’s why people don’t go hollering it from the rooftops. Now, please stop distracting me, star-child. You’re making me see double.”
Dolpou was clearly in no mood for explanations. She just wanted to get to International Departures and comparative safety. Once through the barrier however, she was far more relaxed. There was a shop selling jet-set gear. “Choose yourself a nice pair of trainers, star-child,” Dolpou murmured in her ear. “I want to buy you a present.”
“What price-range? You can pay anything for trainers.”
“Drat the price. Choose ones you fancy.”
She was about to ask: does it have to be trainers? — then she realised that would be rude. She looked down at the pair she’d put on that morning. A birthday present, they’d been new then – but the events of the day had not been kind to them. However they were still serviceable. Puzzled, she did as Dolpou said.
“Let me look at you. Turn around. Very nice.”
“It’s awfully sweet of you,” said Anitra. “Is it for coming-of-age?”
“No. There’s a little ceremony you go through when you’re about to leave Gaia forever. You throw away your old shoes and buy a new pair.”
At the word “forever” Anitra’s heart stumbled. It brought it home to her the significance of the journey she was embarking on.
“It’s just a tradition,” continued Dolpou. “I don’t know when it first started. Centuries ago.”
They didn’t stay long in International Departures. Dolpou had a pass to a secret inner-sanctum: the VIP lounge. “The flight to Lunaborg is all VIP-class,” explained Dolpou. “Which is why nobody you know has ever been to the Moon.”
“The newspapers would stump up the money.”
“They’d have to pay in Selenean crowns, which you can’t exactly purchase through your local bank. The last I heard, the crown was trading unofficially at 43,000 US dollars. And, let me assure you, a ticket costs more than one crown.”
Anitra looked at the little booklet in her hand with sudden respect.
“And does everybody here think we’re going to Greenland?”
“We are. Once we’re above the Greenland ice-cap, out of the range of gound-based radar, we simply go straight up.”
“By rocket power?”
“No-oh. A spaceplane couldn’t carry all that fuel, and the acceleration would be awful. There are proton beams on the Moon to provide all the power, collimated from the solar wind. We simply pick one up.”
“And then we’ll be floating about in space, weightless?”
“It isn’t quite like that. The spaceplane looks much like a normal airliner except for swivelling nacelles mounted on the fuselage. These provide thrust for most of the journey, which induces pseudogravity equal to the Moon’s. No sudden sharp thrusts, see? And above the atmosphere there’s no air-resistance, so there’s no need for streamlining: a plane can travel roof-first if it likes.”
She looked hard at Anitra, trying to gauge how much of that had gone in. “It gets you used to Moon-gravity before you get there.”
Anitra tried to say something, but nothing came out. She cleared her throat. Dolpou smiled and let her eyes slide off sideways.
“So don’t imagine it’s going to be like a spacewalk, everyone floating around as if they’re underwater.”
Anitra’s spirits had sunk again on being told the spaceplane didn’t leave until the early morning. There were hours to kill in the first-class lounge, well-appointed though it was. But you can only eat so many wrapped chocolate biscuits and drink so many orange juices. She pestered Dolpou, who was trying to read the complimentary magazines, to get her to talk about where they were going.
“How long have there been people on the Moon? They told us at school there was nobody there at all – no life, no water, nothing.”
“Since about the seventeenth century. You can see it in the art of the period. Before then the Moon is shown as a smooth disc, often with a picture on it. The Man in the Moon, or sometimes it’s a hare. Today the Moon Hare is the heraldic figure of Selene. But from Galileo onwards the Moon is always shown as a mountainous globe pitted with craters.”
“So in the seventeenth century people on Earth actually went to the Moon?”
“Well, yes and no. Nobody on Earth had the technology to build a space-going vessel: it was the most they could do to build one that stayed afloat in the oceans. The Moon was colonised from Mars. But folk on Earth knew it was possible to go there and live. A famous savant called Athanasius Kircher wrote a book in Latin about space travel. His hero, Theodidactus, goes to the moon and planets and talks to the people living there.”
“Do you mean to tell me there were people living on Mars even before then?”
“Well of course there were. There was me living there. Me and my people.”
Anitra wondered how to explain what she’d meant, but Dolpou continued. “I remember like yesterday the first time we saw Mars. From a distance it looked so much like Titan — it’s roughly the same size and colour. The gravity is much the same too: a third that on Earth. But when we got there we were shocked to find how different it was.”
“No, I meant real people — I mean human beings…” Anitra’s face made writhing patterns of embarrassment and Dolpou laughed.
“You mean me then. I’m human. The Goubernator says so.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I mean people like me. No I don’t — I mean people with pink skins that don’t change colour… all that much…”
Her voice tailed off in confusion and her skin went anything but pink. But Dolpou only laughed the louder. “What about people with black skins?”
“Oh yes, they’re human too.”
“Well I’m sure they’ll be pleased to know it. And all the people with brown skins too, if you’re happy to include those.”
“Dolpou, you know what I mean.” She guessed the groubian was just toying with her ignorance.
“Of course I do,” she chuckled. “But you’ve got to be careful of using words like ‘people’ and ‘human’ when you’re talking to groubians. Or, for that matter, anyone from Mars. On Mars we groubians are legally human.”
“Aren’t you just using the word to mean whatever you want?”
“Not at all. Not if it’s what everyone agrees. Those human beings descended from apes are called gaians, after the planet they think of as their own. Those of us descended from cuttlefish are called groubians. I don’t want to say why, because originally it wasn’t a nice word in M1.”
Anitra felt she was going to drown in the flood of new ideas. She grasped at something tangible to stay afloat.
“Mársnii-odín: the official language of Mars. The first official language, that is – there’s two. Groubians of course don’t have a language based on mouth-noises, so we all had to install voice-chips and learn M1 in order to be able to talk to gaians. The other official language is called M2 — Martian-Two — but it’s largely used by menials and low-grade workers. You’d understand it though because it’s very much like English.”
“Will I be able to understand M1?”
“Yes — if you speak Russian.”
Anitra grinned and shook her head. She thought she’d change the subject. “Have there been gaians on Mars for as long as groubians?”
“No… only for the last five thousand years or so. We groubians took them there. Gaia has many legends about shepherds encountering strange creatures resembling women. Nymphs and goddesses, the gaians thought we were.”
“I thought those were all just myths.”
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t true… to some degree. I have a particular interest in myths. On an earlier visit I was told about a papyrus fragment which accurately describes a groubian, rainbow skin and all. She meets a solitary fisherman and tells him it’s so boring in the sky. I’m not sure which groubian it was, but I have my suspicions.”
“You mean… an ancient Egyptian actually wrote about someone you know?”
“Oh yes. I’ve known a lot of ancient Egyptians. All dead now, sadly. Gaians don’t live very long.”
“Did you meet them in Egypt? Or on Mars?”
“Mars, mostly. You’d often see them in the bars and clubs. The pyramids were inspired by certain natural features in Cydonia. As indeed was the Sphinx…”
“You said you took gaians to Mars. As slaves?”
“No, as company.” Dolpou gave an exaggerated shrug. “Oh, you’re old enough to be told, I suppose. As sexual company. All our own menfolk died in the Last Zygogeny, which took place shortly after the Fall of Titan. So we’re an extinct species, would you believe. And that’s been so for the last fifty thousand years. Although, back then, there were a lot of us.”
“But surely you didn’t know you’d be able to have children by gaians, did you?” Anitra thought of her own mother and father — people she had never met — and realised what a massive weight of history hung on what they did together in the Amazon rainforest.
“We always hoped we could. But even if we couldn’t, we wanted to foster the gaian species, in much the same way that a woman on earth will foster a child that is not hers.”
Dolpou’s passing remark made Anitra think of Gabrielle. For just an instant she was able to do so without pain. What had been her motivation for bringing up Anitra and her brothers? It had been so firm and unwavering it could only have been love. But love for whom? For Uncle Peter? Or for people Anitra and her brothers never knew?
She had always known that Peter doted on Gabrielle. He was her willing slave in every way. But Gaby, now… hadn’t her love for Peter been the love of a woman for a fierce pet dog? Hadn’t she just responded like any decent person would: cherishing such devotion from somebody so useful, even if you weren’t naturally drawn to them?
Anitra, too, had loved her Uncle Peter. But she was still capable of asking how anyone could naturally be drawn to him. Gaby must have been asked it often enough when she was alive. Because, not content with the answer they’d have got from her, people used to ask Anitra too, when she was old enough. And Anitra used to dissimulate.
How can you justify to anyone the love of a guardian angel for their mortal charge?
“So you took gaians to Mars, just picking them up around the countryside? Shepherds — folk like that? People who wouldn’t be missed?”
“Oh, we only took people who asked to go. People who were likely to be killed if they stayed. During the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, large numbers disappeared all over the continent. They didn’t all die though. Having too many refugees crowded into Nix City was the impetus for the founding of Lunaborg. The place was originally called Juliana. There is even a Norwegian folk song about it:
Oh, to be in Juliana, that’s where you’ve got to go.
The meanest wretch in Norway becomes a duke in a year or so.”
“Juliana — Lunaborg — was a Norwegian city?”
“Well – Norse, I think you’d say. Greenlandic actually. Whenever I talk to people on Gaia these days they all think Juliana was in Greenland. For five hundred years there was a thriving Viking colony there, which completely vanished. It’s assumed the settlers all perished of disease and starvation. But I know where they went.”
That puzzled Anitra even more. “Lunaborg?”
Anitra was now completely mystified. “Where, then?”
Anitra wished Dolpou wouldn’t be so arch. Sometimes she overwhelmed her with incredible facts. At other times it seemed she told her nothing at all, or seemed to be wilfully misleading.
Lunaborg — it must have been Lunaborg that Dolpou meant.
But right now Lunaborg didn’t interest her. She’d seen pictures of it: an ugly city with no redeeming features. It was Mars she most wanted to talk about.
“Nix City — I suppose that was originally a groubian settlement?” Dolpou nodded. “What’s its name in spatio-color, Dolpou? Please tell me.”
Smiling her golden-coloured smile, Dolpou Zvezda made a fleeting pattern on her face. Anitra made her repeat it again and again until she could do it too.
It was her first real word in a groubian language: she and her brothers had only ever used colourful gestures to each other. And whenever they hadn’t liked what they saw in each others’ faces, Gaby had been dragged-in to arbitrate – and of course she hadn’t known where to begin.
Was it rude to do tiger-stripes at your sister? To show a flash of gold when your brother, doing something silly, fell over and hurt himself? As a family they’d had to make it up as they went along.
“It’s never translated like that of course,” said Dolpou. “In M2 it’s always Nix City: Nitchnii Gorod in M1 – or just plain Nitchnii. The word ‘Nix’ comes from Nix Olympica: the dark smudge that people on Earth could see through a telescope. That was long before they knew it was the caldera of a giant volcano.”
“And groubians lived there before gaians did?”
“Yes. But our cities were nothing like the sort of things gaians used to build. Ours were more like the Great Barrier Reef than Lunaborg. So we encouraged them to build their own, even helping them by laying foundations for them, like you do for honey bees. In those days we were far more numerous, so we made space for them in the Nix and went off to Valles and Cydonia.”
Anitra stroked her cheek, drawing inferences she didn’t want to draw. “But today it’s the other way round… gaians are far more numerous than groubians?”
“Yes. Two dreadful wars have seen to that. There are now less than five thousand of us groubians left.”
“Do you mean to say that after all the nice things you did for the gaians, they repaid you by making war on you?”
“They repaid us by making you,” said Dolpou. “It was everything we’d ever hoped from them.” And her face glowed in gold and rose-pink like a spectacular sunrise.
Dolpou was too tired to talk any more. But Anitra couldn’t have taken in much more of this. She didn’t feel the least bit sleepy, though. With all the things that had happened to her that day, and all the things that Dolpou had revealed, her mind was grinding away like a hundred windmills.
There were windows in the VIP lounge, with Venetian blinds drawn down in front of them. Idly she took to peering between the slats. There was one window through which she could see back into the shop where they had bought the trainers.
All of a sudden she spied Nilsson.
…to be continued.