Another instalment of our serialisation of Anitra’s Petition, the sequel to The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2020). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.
It was the second day of the moon-flight. Not a “day” as on Earth, when the sun rose and set: that does not happen in space. The vessel kept instead to a twenty-five hour circadian cycle — the same as they keep-to on the Moon — and the cabin lights were dimmed and brightened accordingly.
As one might expect, Nilsson’s seat was in a different part of the cabin. But although Dolpou made no attempt to go near the bar during waking hours, nor Anitra, who stayed close by her side, there was no evading the Commissioner if she was of a mind to come over and talk to them.
On such a long flight the passengers circulated. Tip-up seats facing the fixed ones could be pulled down to accommodate a visitor. In one of these Nilsson was sitting and Dolpou was taking the opportunity to mine her for whatever information she could be tempted to divulge.
“How did you explain the bodies?”
“There weren’t any bodies. Had there been, it would have been harder to persuade the police to close the incident. As it is, empty burnt-out cars — stolen ones — are something you come across every day.”
Dolpou nodded. “Anitra thought she saw people tumbling out of the burning car. Was it in fact stolen?”
“No. Procured by the Olympian consulate for the use of unspecified people — on the authority of Dr Galax, director of the Vratch, would you believe?” She peered at Dolpou’s face, evidently gratified to see it foam with chaotic colour.
“Nevertheless I told the police it would be better to report it stolen. So you can thank your lucky stars you won’t have to furnish any explanation to the authorities on Gaia — or Mars.” Nilsson inhaled with a long sniff. “But Selene is another matter. You know the law as it pertains to moonrakers. For every one fired off you have to turn the movie over to the police.”
“They were fired off outside Selenean jurisdiction.”
“Yes, but they’re of particular concern to Moonforce.”
“Who says so?”
“I say so.”
To Anitra surprise, Dolpou gave up all opposition. Perhaps she hadn’t cared about the outcome: she had only pushed back to stand her ground. Quietly she handed over a small black object like a thick matchstick. Nilsson extracted a wallet from her breast pocket and inserted the cartridge. For half a minute she scrutinised it, the screen inside its kidskin covers glowing blue-white which reflected off her face. There came an orange flash which lit up her blanched eyebrows and she made a sharp motion with her thumbs. In her slow precise way she handed the wallet to Dolpou, pointing to something on the screen.
“Yes,” said Nilsson. “They got out. In the last three frames before the second moonraker strikes home you can see them clearly: both wearing Martian helmets and dust-suits. Had they not been, there would have been two wrecked skeletons sitting in the car, mineralised to lime.”
“They had us in an echo lock.”
“I can accept what you’re saying. Though I doubt your explanation would have ‘cut it’ with the Durham police.” Nilsson looked aside, her mouth a crinkled line. “Fortunately for you it won’t have to.”
“So you know who they are?”
“Moonforce HQ tells me they are members of an organisation called HR, standing for ‘Human Rights’. I’m sure in your capacity as Supreme Councillor and special advisor to the Goubernator, you’re well-acquainted with their activities.”
“As well as anyone can be, who’s not of their number. On Mars, what they get up to is not actually illegal, though they do skirt the line.”
“A human-rights organisation?” said Anitra. “How could they want to do us harm?”
Nilsson took a breath and opened her mouth to explain, but shut it when she saw that Dolpou was preparing to do so. She knew perfectly well that Dolpou was a jurist, the top exponent of Olympian law, and an authority on quite a few others.
“On Mars, Anitra,” said Dolpou, “‘human rights’ doesn’t quite mean what it does on Gaia. There are a lot of things — let’s call them ‘things’ — which would lay claim to human rights if the Transgenic Laws weren’t so strict. But in the minds of some people — HR especially — they aren’t strict enough. So they take enforcement of the law into their own hands. They make a point of doing so before it gets clarified in the victim’s case, in a way they wouldn’t approve of.”
“You mean, they don’t give people a chance to have their case heard?”
“Exactly. It is possible to petition the Goubernator in open court, as we are proposing to do, the Court deciding whether it is to be a grant of full or limited human rights. Seldom is the award for no rights at all. Your Uncle Peter though, being a chimorg (a chimeric organism) was awarded only limited rights. And to qualify for those he had to submit to being stripped of his mobility.”
“Stripped of…? What do you mean?”
“By being surgically crippled by the Medical Police – the Vratch.”
“But that’s awful!” Anitra put her knuckles to her mouth.
“They let him live,” said Nilsson, her voice grating against Anitra’s protest. “It’s doubtful whether on Gaia they would have done that. He’d have been summarily dispatched, like any laboratory animal surplus to requirements.”
“Uncle Peter is not an animal.” Anitra’s skin went maroon with indignation. Nilsson affected not to notice and continued. “He ought to have been grateful — but he wasn’t. He will find though that a grant of human rights – even limited ones – brings with it human responsibilities. And respond he will! In court — for his crimes against humanity.”
She lowered her head as if overawed by the tragedy of it all. “He will claim of course that he is not responsible for his actions: that he’s nothing but a machine of meat and offal. It will not avail him.”
For Anitra, hidden depths were revealed where Uncle Peter was concerned. She saw them opening under his feet — and hers — like a crack in the ground. A crack winding down to hell.
Nilsson continued. “He should be grateful not to be going back to Mars, to face Olympian justice. They’d do worse to him there: far worse than even our most stringent laws allow. On the Moon he will simply be left to rot in gaol for the rest of his life.”
“Why don’t you send him back to Mars?” said Dolpou. “There he’d be dispersed quickly and painlessly. It’s the only humane course of action.” Anitra didn’t realise she could be so callous. She didn’t know what “dispersed” meant in this context, but it sounded dreadfully final.
“The crime was committed on Selene,” said Nilsson. “The victims were Seleneans, mostly. He is Selenean himself. Oh yes… shortly before the Gaiascope atrocity he took out Selenean denizenship, along with the other two members of the Meteor Gang. If we were going to challenge his application on the grounds of his not being human, it should have been done back then: eighteen years ago. As things stand, he is entitled to trial on the Moon.”
“He is a chimorg,” said Dolpou. “Entitled to nothing.” She glanced aside at Anitra. “Except maybe our compassion…”
“Limited human rights, on Mars at least,” stressed Nilsson.
“No,” said Dolpou the jurist. “What he has done on Mars has made him Class Four: stripped of all rights. That would have happened whatever social class he had previously enjoyed.”
“Hmm…” grunted Nilsson. “I suppose that was for killing two entire Zasta units. But how do you know it was he who killed them? From what I heard it was Shval who took care of the first unit with an elstat — and Hamish who wiped out the second unit when they had him at bay.”
“Shval, Hamish and Peter Zwillinge comprised a triada,” said Dolpou, “They took vows of total obedience in a circle, which ensures collective responsibility. Once one member became Class Four, they all did.”
Nilsson closed her eyes and shook her head at the inequity of Martian justice, but didn’t challenge Dolpou’s harsh logic. “As I understand, he was Class Three at the time of his application for Selenean denizenship. By the Treaty of Moscow a grant of human rights on Mars attracts equivalent rights on Selene. Or better, if there is no equivalent – as there isn’t in the case of Class Three.” She uttered the last two words as if binning something nasty. “In my world there are no second-class human beings. Therefore Zwillinge is as human as you or I.”
Seemingly not satisfied with her gnomic pronouncement, she turned and subjected Anitra to a lioness stare. “Or our young stellan here, would you not agree?”
“In Olympian Law,” replied Dolpou, ignoring her reference to Anitra, “plus Selenean law too if memory serves, it all boils down to this. Is Peter Zwillinge — the egregious Peter Zwillinge — guilty of crimes against humanity? Or is he morally incapable of committing crimes of any sort? And that, I bet, is what the defence will argue when he comes before a Selenean judge.”
“If you can support the case for the latter,” snapped Nilsson, “then that makes you a vital witness in his trial. For the defence…” Nilsson paused to let the final word sink in.
By now Dolpou’s face was the colour of fresh liver as she replied in a voice to match. “You can keep me in a Selenean gaol for a thousand years — and I will not defend Peter Zwillinge. Nelziá!”
Anitra creased her face and shook her fists like a baby. “This is my Uncle Peter you’re talking about. What do you both mean – ‘crimes against humanity’?”
Nilsson said nothing. Instead she stared at Dolpou with her eyebrows raised.
Tears started in Anitra’s eyes. “Dolpou,” she implored her companion, “Tell this woman it isn’t true.”
But Dolpou Zvezda kept her mouth shut tight and her features set like the Sphinx. The patterns on her face however spoke worlds to Anitra: worlds she could hardly begin to comprehend.
“Are you still cross with me?”
The groubian didn’t answer. She was asleep. Her head was cradled in the headrest and a tiny moon glinted in the depths of her enormous eyes. The spaceplane had a window in the roof, through which a shaft of moonlight shone down on her. They had been travelling for more than a day now — more than a circadian cycle, that is, but still the lunar disc looked scarcely bigger than it did on Earth. She could still cover it with the thumb of her outstretched hand. A moment’s reflection and a fragment of Euclid would have shown her that the Moon wouldn’t double its diameter until they were near the half-way mark of their three-day flight.
Again Anitra left her seat and crept towards the oasis of light around the bar. She thought she had it all to herself, but when she’d given the steward her order for orange juice, a hand grasped the stool next to hers and Nilsson slipped in beside her.
“This drink is on me, barman.”
“Commissioner, I don’t need you to…”
“Humour an old woman, child.” She placed money on the counter: two Selenean crowns. As if it were some religious rite the steward presented her with change.
“I’m afraid I was rather severe in front of you yesterday.”
Anitra replied in a small voice, “You only said what you had to, Commissioner.”
“Has Dolpou filled you in with the details?”
“A little bit.”
Nilsson opened her mouth to say something, then let it out again as an unspoken breath. “Tell me something,” she said at last. “When you and your brothers were growing up on Earth, had you any idea how famous you were?”
“No, we thought we were just ordinary people. At least — it was pretty clear we weren’t because of our colour-changing skins. But that was more of a disability than a claim to fame.”
“On Planet Earth you grew up thinking you were nobody at all?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“So… it’s taking you some time to appreciate that off-world you are famous?”
“I can’t begin to think of it.”
“Take your time… but sooner or later you will have to. Otherwise you will become the plaything of interested parties. Parties pursuing interests that are not your own.”
“I’m beginning to realise.”
“Mmm,” Nilsson murmured. “Not fast enough. Eighteen, eh? In England, that’s old enough for you to be considered an adult. But on the Moon — and Mars too — it’s twenty-one.”
“So when we land on the Moon, I’ll be a child again?”
“A young person. A minor. The responsibility of your legal guardian.”
“You mean Dolpou?”
“No. I mean Peter Zwillinge, according to English law. Since he is under arrest and in my custody, that responsibility devolves on me.”
“But I’m travelling with Dolpou! Peter told me to go to her at the Royal County and she would look after me.”
Nilsson blinked. “Are you sure of that?”
“When did he say that?”
“At the hospital. But it’s been in the air ever since Dolpou visited us at home.”
“And does Dolpou know about it?”
“I think so.”
Nilsson didn’t speak for several seconds. “And are you perfectly happy with that arrangement?”
“Yes,” Anitra said. But was she? Well, sure she was – if the alternative was Moonforce custody, c/o Nilsson. The latter went on speaking, paying out her thoughts like a climbing rope. Or was it a rope for hanging?
“Listen to me, Anitra. Dolpou is only a groubian. I choose my words carefully: she knows she’s only a groubian. She knows she has a gaian child to deal with: gaian at least under terrestrial law. She will take others’ advice on how best to handle you. Whatever advice it is, it won’t be mine.”
Anitra could see now where this was leading. What was Nilsson’s advice? She knew she needn’t ask, because Nilsson was going to give it anyway. But in her own good time. For the moment the Commissioner was for saying nothing. She stared into her drink.
Anitra asked “Why do you hate Uncle Peter so?”
Nilsson sighed as if in chronic agony. “I do not hate him. I do not even despise him. There are plenty of people who do, mind. Including, dare I say, your bona-fide ‘guardian’.”
“Yes. And among the groubians she is not alone in that. Of course, no groubian needs much persuading that a mammal — especially a chimorg of largely mammalian composition — cannot possibly be a real person. But I’m not hampered by these historical prejudices. I see capability — and I see responsibility. When, eighteen years ago, your Uncle Peter applied for denizenship, Selene saw no problem in granting it. And that in spite of what they maintained on Mars, that he was not a real person.”
She took a sip of her drink. “He was to us. So when subsequently he commits a crime on Selene, he becomes answerable for it in law. Our law.”
Anitra said nothing. But Nilsson had only to look at her face, grey, with wandering purple blotches, to know the pain she was inflicting.
“I am police. People say it is my job to put into effect the consequences of other people’s loose thinking. Other people, like lawyers – lawgivers — and the general public.”
She drained her drink. “But in this case I do not consider the thinking to have been at all loose. A crime has been committed. Zwillinge is responsible for his actions, therefore he is capable of committing crime. He is the subject of allegations which must be answered. Therefore, when he is fit to plead, he must stand trial — and it must be on the Moon.”
She motioned to the steward for another drink. Anitra noticed that this time there was gin in the tonic. She drank it down in one gulp.
“The magnitude of the crime is such that I have dedicated the rest of my life to bringing him to justice. Retired though I am, it would be the crowning success of my career. Particularly as, in my ignorance, I once let him go.”
“I still don’t understand. What crime?”
“The Gaiascope Atrocity.”
“Atrocity…?” But there was something else to understand first. “What is a ‘gaiascope’?”
“What is the Gaiascope? That is best explained when you reach the Moon. All you need know for now is that it is a stadium in Jordvik capable (back then) of holding sixty thousand people. On 25 May 1975, in Universal Time, it was full to capacity. With people who had come from all over the Moon, and further afield, to celebrate the Ring of Fire.”
“What is that?”
“On Earth you would call it a total eclipse of the Moon. As you know, such a thing can only take place at the very instant of the full Moon. Then the Sun, Earth and Moon are in syzygy: that is, precise alignment. The Moon enters the Earth’s umbra, its shadow, but it doesn’t turn altogether black. It becomes blood-red to look at, like a Chinese lantern with a candle inside.”
She paused, staring at Anitra’s face. “But surely I am only telling you what you already know?”
Eyes wide, Anitra slowly shook her head.
“You young people! Head stuck in a computer game all the time, if it isn’t television. When will you ever take time out to look at the sky?”
Clearly the Commissioner didn’t expect an answer to that, nor particularly want one. So Anitra responded with a question of her own. “Why does the Moon go red?”
“Some sunlight reaches it, refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. Light that is predominantly red: the combined sunsets and sunrises from all around the globe. Seen from Jordvik, which as you know is sited at the very centre of the lunar disc, the Earth hangs permanently at the zenith of the celestial dome. At the instant of the Full Moon it becomes a brilliant ring of fire.”
As she listened, Anitra’s skin couldn’t help expressing her thoughts. She felt a bright red ring forming on her forehead. “That’s something I would love to see.”
“While all this is happening, the Adin satellites are working flat out. That is because the Earth’s magnetic field focuses the solar wind. And at the time of the Ring of Fire it does so directly onto the Moon.”
“What are the Adin satellites?”
“The main source of water on the Moon. Vast structures in the sky to catch the solar wind: the stream of nuclides boiling off continuously from the Sun. Fresnel lenses, coiled from ultra-thin superconducting wires, collimate the nuclides, separating out the electrons by a magnetic field. The resulting beam of fast protons — hydrogen ions — is redirected by a succession of orbiting tubes, the so-called Adin satellites, to a precise spot on the Moon’s surface, the Adin Crucible. There it drives what is known as Adin’s Process.”
“Does it get very hot?” The word “crucible” had suggested as much.
“It becomes a vast sphere of incandescence. The energy is enough to release oxygen from Moon rock, which combines with the hydrogen ions of the beam to yield H2O. Water. A valuable by-product is an alloy of aluminium and magnesium which flows out of the crucible in white-hot streams.”
“That’s neat.” Anitra wondered why they’d never mentioned anything about all this at school. But on Gaia, Adin’s Process was a thing unknown.
“The Earth itself also focuses the solar wind, thanks to its magnetic field. Few nuclides fall on the planet, most sweeping past to converge on a focal point in the Earth’s shadow. At the time in question, the Moon passed though this concentrated stream, temporarily magnifying the Adin Beam by several hundredfold.”
Although she wasn’t following too well, Anitra caught a glimpse of an invisible threat, coalescing in a hammer-blow of unimaginable ferocity.
“The Adin satellites are configured to direct the beam into Crater Flammarion, the site of the Adin Crucible. Alas, one satellite contained a fault. Its effect was, at the very instant of the Ring of Fire, to zero the target co-ordinate register.”
They stared at each other in silence. Anitra, with her mouth slightly open, wondered what she was meant to deduce from that arcane piece of technobabble.
“Well, don’t you see, child? The Adin beam, at maximum strength, fell back upon map-reference zero-zero — the precise location of the Gaiascope. It became an Adin Crucible. Sixty thousand people died instantaneously, with no survivors.”