The Commissioner, reliving the event, turned to stare with burning eyes into her empty glass.
“Present by invitation of your grandfather at the Ring of Fire ceremony was the head of Moonforce, Commissioner Vermat Avrora: your grandmother. Since I was Vermat’s deputy, I reluctantly became acting head of Moonforce. At the time I thought it was just another of those mishaps to be blamed on technological hubris. In hindsight perfectly predictable, but before it happens quite unthinkable.”
“Shit happens,” murmured Anitra, then knew it hadn’t been a clever thing to say.
Nilsson looked up from her glass. But she hadn’t really heard. She was back in memory at Moonforce HQ in Lunaborg, hearing the dreadful news from the other side of the Moon. “I then made the discovery that at its last maintenance the Adin satellite had been fitted with a faulty chip. A chip that had been specially reworked… by none other than Peter Zwillinge.”
“Uncle Peter? Mightn’t it have just been an awful mistake?”
“No. Zwillinge was a member of the Meteor Gang. They were then under contract to TMG, which stands for “The Master’s Genes”. On Mars, TMG presents the image of a respectable company working in the field of transgenic engineering. Why — the present Goubernator, Sviatoslav Krov’, is a former CEO. But on Selene we hold TMG to be a criminal organisation.”
Nilsson picked up her empty glass in finger and thumb and gesticulated with it. “There is no good reason why TMG should have been supplying chips to the Ministry of Water. But they, plus others, were implicated in the atrocity — and some people subsequently confessed. From that time on, your Uncle Peter was wanted on the Moon for crimes against humanity. But by then he was on his way, via Mars, to Titan, where there happened to be a secret laboratory. A secret maternity ward. He and his triadnik Shval Meteor went there to get possession of you… and your late brothers.”
Throughout all this, Anitra sat on her stool with her head bowed and her eyes screwed shut. “Isn’t there is the slightest chance,” she said, “that Uncle Peter is innocent of all this?”
“I think not. But don’t take my word for it: I have an axe to grind. If Peter Zwillinge has an innocent explanation — which I doubt — it will come out at the trial. The main witnesses, alas, all died on Titan. Harry Williams: your father. Shval Meteor: your mother’s evil twin. The last of the Titan colony on Platform Two, not to mention the entire crew of the Prometheus. The only people who could, if they had chosen, have exonerated your ‘Uncle Peter’. Though only by incriminating themselves.”
Anitra swallowed. Nilsson had given her a lot to think about.
“I’m trying to speak objectively,” continued Nilsson. “But objectivity is what I do not feel. Speaking for myself, I believe — I know — Peter Zwillinge is as guilty as sin.”
She took a deep breath and turned to face Anitra squarely. “I’m sorry, young Starr. These are far too heavy matters to be placing on your young shoulders.”
Anitra’s eyes were wet. She gave a little sniff. “I’m grown-up now.”
“Eighteen last birthday. An adult, eh? Some would consider you still to be a child. But now you will have to grow up. My advice to you is: be your own person. The same advice the Snow Queen gave to Little Kay.”
“Who are the Snow Queen and Little Kay?”
“What?” said Nilsson. “Don’t they teach you anything at school on Gaia?” She turned aside, miming disgust at the backwardness of that benighted planet. “The Snow Queen is the heroine — if you think of it that way — of a story by Hans-Christian Andersen. Heard of him?”
Anitra, wide-eyed, shook her head.
“Every Selenean mother gives her child milk from one breast and H-C Andersen from the other. But not on Gaia, it appears.”
“The Snow Queen,” said Anitra, as if something had fallen into place. “Yes, I know who you mean now. But I don’t know the story awfully well.”
“H-C Andersen was writing in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The final flowering, some would say, of the Enlightenment: the worship of Pure Reason. The ideas of a philosopher called Hegel were gaining ground, plus those of his more notorious disciple, Karl Marx. Charles Darwin’s theories, too, were much discussed. Taken together they seem to point to humanity being nothing but an animal. An ugly, hateful animal, many said. Whereas beforehand Man had been held to be something beautiful: the repository of the divine spark — the very breath of God.”
“And H-C Andersen agreed with Hegel… and Darwin?” Anitra wasn’t altogether sure what Hegel stood for, although with Darwin she felt on safer ground. Evolution, wasn’t it?
“H-C Andersen wrote a parable about a magic mirror — the teachings of Darwin, Hegel and Marx — which reflected only ugliness. The trolls who made it carried it up to heaven to reflect God Himself and His angels in mockery. But it was splintered in the act.”
Anitra felt irrationally glad about that, although the price to be paid was to be high.
“One of the splinters froze the heart of Little Kay, the beloved of Gerda the flower girl. It estranged him from her and made him susceptible to the blandishments of the Snow Queen – the terrible mistress of the North Pole.
“In those days the North Pole was a scientific Shangri-La: where all manner of weird and wonderful things took place. If you ever managed to get there, you would find the sun behaved strangely. So did compasses. It symbolised the icy heart of Pure Reason, which led you hopelessly away from all the old comforting beliefs and superstitions. In H-C Andersen’s archaic Danish, which is very close to Selensk, the word for Reason is Forstanden.”
The barman reappeared and Nilsson pushed him both their glasses for refills. Staring at the ice in her colourless drink, she continued her tale.
“In her vast palace at the North Pole, the Snow Queen’s throne stood in the middle of a frozen lake which had been broken up and the pieces reassembled to form a new magic mirror — a far greater one. Based now not on the introspection of philosophers but on Science. Forstandens Speil: The Mirror of Reason.”
“And what did Gerda do?”
“She endured great hardships searching for her Little Kay. And when she found him, he was sitting in the middle of Forstandens Speil, casting runes of ice in a never-ending quest to spell the word evighed: ‘eternity’. When he succeeded, the Snow Queen had promised him, he would become his own person. Plus… he’d win a brand-new pair of skates into the bargain.”
Anitra managed a weak smile. “Skates?”
“Skates. The Queen was well into the mind of her young disciple.”
“The Snow Queen was away on business, so having braved the fierce Snow Bees, Gerda found Little Kay alone. She kissed him and so melted the ice splinter in his heart and the runes fell down to form the word evighed.” Nilsson cleared her throat. “As you will understand, they didn’t stay to collect the skates.”
“It’s a love story.” Anitra smiled and her face began to warm to gold. “So they all lived happily ever after?”
“In H-C Andersen’s fairytale: yes.” The warmth drained from Nilsson’s voice. “Your story, however, will end differently… unless you become your own person.”
The spaceplane rested quietly on a hard-standing of sintered moon-dust outside the low black buildings of Lipsky Spaceport. All around lay the greenish, slaty landscape of Mørkside, the so-called “dark side” of the Moon — although it got as much sunlight as the other, Klarside. It was so-called because its hills: low, rolling elevations deep in dust pitted with billions of years of gravel flung down from the black depths of the cosmos, are never seen from Planet Earth.
Like a baby elephant being fondled by the trunks of the herd, expanding tubes snaked out from the black buildings to feel for the spaceplane. As Anitra and Dolpou left their seats and crept along the gangway to the exit, Nilsson was nowhere to be seen. In lunar gravity you no longer walk anywhere like you do on Earth. Rather you revert to the chimpanzee mode of locomotion, hauling yourself along by whatever means presents itself: handrails, moving walkways called “pistes” — and trolleys.
Anitra and Dolpou loped along the access tunnel in an ungainly fashion, feeling like prisoners going to the gallows. Soon enough, once they entered the bright corridors of the terminal building proper, a squad of dark-blue uniforms would bar their way and take charge of them, leading them off to where they wouldn’t choose to go voluntarily.
But presently they found themselves, ears still singing from the flight, in the luggage collection hall. Anitra felt an impulse to scour the carousels for the hibernator containing her Uncle Peter. But it was absurd to think it would be delivered to the passenger area for collection. And anyway, who was it who’d be there to collect it?
Neither Dolpou nor Anitra had any luggage. By force of circumstance they were travelling light. Standing lost in a haze of perplexity, Dolpou suddenly summoned up a sense of purpose. Grabbing Anitra’s hand she propelled them both in the direction indicated by a huge lit-up signpost “UD”. Anitra wondered out loud what dreadful thing that stood for, but Dolpou merely said it was Selensk for “exit”. Passing through doors which opened into the Arrivals area, they were greeted by a figure clad in black exactly like Dolpou, who embraced them convulsively as if they were survivors from a coal-mine blast.
“Dóbro pozhálovat’ va-Selene!” she cried in M1, clutching Anitra now at arms’-length. But as if suddenly becoming aware that she didn’t speak it, the groubian dropped into English. With a quick sideways glance at Dolpou she said “So, Moonforce did not detain you after all?”
“No, not yet,” said Dolpou. “But let’s see if we can get clear of Lipsky before we pat ourselves on the back.” She reached out to her young companion and introduced her to the newcomer, who still gazed at her in smiling wonder. “Nanoud — this is Anitra, one of the Star-Children. Anitra — this is General Nanoud Tolchok, who commands the Groubian Echelon of Olvói: the Olympian defence force. Nanoud was kind enough to accompany me here as far as the Moon.”
Anitra looked from face to face, unable straightaway to see any difference. They might have been identical twins. But it didn’t take long for differences to emerge. She knew about spatio-color signatures in theory, but it was only now she appreciated them in practice.
If, like a groubian, you concentrated on skin-pattern and colour, not body-contours and outline as gaians do, the two groubians couldn’t possibly have been mistaken for each other. Set against Nanoud, Dolpou seemed ancient and venerable, like an Old-Testament prophet. Nanoud by comparison seemed immature and eager: a junior disciple of some novel creed that hadn’t altogether gelled.
“Where are your brothers, Anitra?” she gushed. “I was so looking forward to meeting them…” She glanced at Dolpou. Fleeting skin-patterns of mauve and shadowy grey flashed between them, after which she dropped the subject.
“You must both come back to the boarding house with me,” she said, her face composing forms of sorrow and sympathy. “Let’s not hang around here. Mrs Gryde will make us a light meal and we can talk.”
“Why hasn’t the Commissioner taken us into custody?” asked Anitra.
Dolpou glanced about her. The question must have echoed her own thoughts. “I guess it’s because she knows we can’t leave the Moon except on her sufferance, so she is happy to let us to roam loose for now. But let us not forget that Nilsson is not the one in charge any more. She has retired from duties as a high-ranking officer. Nowadays she is nothing but a freelance investigator. Taking us into custody isn’t her call.”
Seizing Anitra’s hand, Dolpou motioned Nanoud to lead the way. “Anyway she has achieved her main purpose: she has the target of her investigations safely shut up in a hibernator. She will come for us when we’re needed… as witnesses at the trial.”
Peter Zwillinge smiled for the first time in ages.
“Mr Sullivan, you’re a marvel. I shall appoint you my personal physician.”
“You can’t make a career specialising in the medicine of one particular physiognomy, no matter how challenging – if there is only one living example.”
“You just wait until I’m on my feet again. I could really make it worth your while.”
“You’ll never be on your feet again, Zwillinge. The Vratch did their job all too well.”
“When I’m up and about. When I’m rid of all this clutter — what is it? I don’t recognise half of it.”
“You wouldn’t. It took quite a bit of ingenuity fixing you up. Saline drip — that you’ll recognise. Nutrients, metabolic supervision, immunosuppression…”
“You’ve given me a new damn’ liver! A pig’s liver.”
“You’re not meant to know that.”
“The HR guys burst my old one when they jumped on me. So I guess you’d have to. OK, I’ve never tried to hide it — there’s a lot of pig in me.”
“There’s a lot more now.” The surgeon turned aside to inspect the instruments.
“Mr Sullivan — can I ask you a question?”
“It’s me who’s asking the questions. Like: how are you feeling?”
“Remarkably well — for the state I’m in. Where am I? Galen Clinic, I suppose?”
“Of course. Where else in the known universe could they have put Humpty Dumpty together again? Need your painkillers strengthening?”
Peter Zwillinge stretched like a lazy cat. “Pain — I love it. It tells me beyond all doubt that I’m alive.”
“The point of painkillers is not to kill pain altogether. It’s to bring it down to a level you can tolerate. Which varies from person to person.” The surgeon inspected the drip-feeds. “Intensity of pain I can measure for you. Tolerance to pain, on the other hand, is something you’re going to have to tell me yourself.”
“I’m OK for now, really I am. How long before I’m out of here?”
“It will be a while yet before you’re fit enough for Nilsson to have her way with you. She doesn’t want you out of here too soon. She wants you to stay in for as long as necessary, to avoid any chance of your being judged unfit to plead.”
“Speaking of Nilsson… convey my thanks.”
The surgeon raised an eyebrow. “Whatever has she done to earn your gratitude?”
“For rescuing me from the bastards who jumped me.”
“I’d have thought it was out of the frying-pan into the fire for you.”
“Oh, no. The treatment I’m getting now, courtesy of Nilsson, is infinitely preferable to what they were doing to me. Did she get them?”
“They’re holding two people, I’m told. They caught them not far from your house.”
“Do me a favour, Mr Sullivan. Find some pretext to examine their nasal passages for radioactivity.”
The surgeon sat back in his chair, blinking and frowning, as if Peter had suddenly sprouted a squid from his mouth. “Why should I do that?”
“Nobody gets away with pummelling Peter Zwillinge. I managed to shoot a plutonium pellet up each nostril. Four pellets in all. They didn’t notice — they were too busy triumphing over me.”
The surgeon leaned forward again, narrowing his eyes, trying not to smile. “How big is each pellet?”
“Fifty microns radius.”
Mr Sullivan sat with one hand grasping his elbow, the other spanning his cheekbones. “That amount of plutonium will irradiate the limbic system, inducing a progressive lesion. No noticeable effect for a year or so, but after that their emotions, appetites and biorhythms will disintegrate. Nasty way to go. That’s vintage Peter Zwillinge, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Oh, that’s not the end of it. From ten yards I can make the pellets go critical.”
“Critical mass? A particle that small?”
“They’re shaped a nanometre off total internal reflection of free neutrons: my own discovery. A microwave pulse will expand them, triggering microscopic nuclear explosions just enough to pop the tops of their heads off. But I doubt I’ll get the opportunity now. So they’ll carry the plutonium there for the rest of their lives.”
Peter grimaced sardonically. “Their short, miserable lives.”
Mr Sullivan winced. “What must it be like, to have a mind like yours?”
“Look, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to die like that.”
“What?” The surgeon slapped his hands on his thighs.
“After all,” continued Peter, “they are human.”
The other grimaced at him, miming an exaggerated gulp. “What’s this I’m hearing? The Butcher of the Gaiascope: gone soft in his dotage?”
“Mr Sullivan, do you believe I wilfully murdered sixty thousand people in a single flash?”
“‘That’s not my department’ said Werner von Braun.” The surgeon got up to go. “All right, I’ll do it. I’ll take a look at them. And am I to ablate the particles when I find them?”
“Yes of course. And then send Nilsson in to me. I’ve something I need to say to her.”
Mr Sullivan bent over Peter and stared into his bloodshot eyes. “My goodness, haven’t you changed. They tell me that on Gaia you were living the life of a reformed character.”
“The influence of a good woman. And nine beautiful children.”
Mr Sullivan spent a moment with his head bowed. He must have concluded there was nothing clever to reply to that.
“Now there is only one,” continued Peter. He sighed in physical and moral pain. “And I don’t even know where she is.”
Without another word the surgeon got up and went out, brushing past the Moonforce picket cluttering the private ward.
…to be continued.