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.star_tattoo_4_by_stock_kat

Peter’s next visitor was Commissioner Nilsson. Scorning to sit down beside his pillow, she stood at the end of the bed and raised her voice loud enough to be heard without mistake.

“There was no plutonium up their noses, either of them. What sort of a game are you playing, Zwillinge? Because I don’t have a lot of patience with fools.”

“In that case they are not the people who attacked me.”

“They’ve got to be. They fled the house the moment we arrived — and we caught them within a hundred yards. If it wasn’t the people who were doing you over, then who else could it be?”

“I’m telling you, Nilsson, they are not what you think they are. My real attackers are still at liberty. And that puts Anitra in extreme danger. They were torturing me to find out where she was — and where she was off to.”

Nilsson relaxed her formal stance. She had been inclined to dismiss out-of-hand whatever Peter said. But his unmistakable concern for Anitra made her think that she ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. Just this once.

“Look,” she said. “We’ve gone through the history of these two performing clowns like a dose-of-salts. We have their movements on the Moon for the past month: one set of co-ordinates for every second. Do you know – they’re the same people who dug up your coffin in Crater Lipsky and abandoned it by the gaping hole, once they’d taken a peep inside and seen it wasn’t you? Which is what alerted me to the fact that you were still alive. What have you got to say to that?”

“Who are they?”

“Denizens of Oberon. Permanent residents of the ice city. Hard men, in the pay of Red Erik.”

“The men who fixed me up were Martians. ‘Human Rights’ people, I’m convinced of it. They were wearing dust-suits and Martian helmets.”

“Then how did you manage to get plutonium up their noses?”

“They’d clipped back their visors to gloat over me. I never miss.”

Nilsson came round beside his piled pillows and stood over him threateningly, daring him, it seemed, to do the same to her. “Look, Zwillinge, if you’re playing sillybuggers with me…”

“Am I in a position to do that?”

The Commissioner fell silent for several seconds.

Certain aspects of the scene-of-crime had puzzled her. Peter’s story provided an explanation for them all. The people he was describing matched those that Dolpou Zvezda had moonraked on the way to the airport. She too had been convinced they were HR. It pointed to an amazing state-of-affairs: that three independent groups had been converging on the Starrs’ house that night, lured like bluebottles to ripe meat. Namely: Moonforce, HR and Red Erik’s men. But it was not something beyond the bounds of possibility. She had known of two such groups, including hers. Why not three?

“What a lot of friends you’ve got, Zwillinge. It’s as if you’d put an announcement in the society columns.”

“That’s not funny. Nine children come-of-age in one household on the selfsame day. That must send a signal to the ends of System Sol. There was no way Gaby and I could have kept it secret, though we thought we’d done well in keeping it out of the local papers. But I hadn’t expected HR to descend on us quite so soon.”

Nilsson actually condescended to sit down.

“Just suppose for a moment you are right,” she said. “We’ll have to let Red Erik’s men go: we’ve got nothing on them. Right now their lawyers are round my neck like argumentative albatrosses.”

“It will break your mind-set and start you looking for the real assassins. But what do you mean, you’ve got nothing on them? Grave-robbing in Lipsky? How’s that for size?”

“A civil offence. We’d have to bring a private prosecution. To do that we’d need the co-operation of the next-of-kin. Your name was on the gravestone — that makes you a sort of next-of-kin, I suppose. Would you be prepared to testify against them?”

Peter laughed, then winced with pain. “Geddaway, as they say.”

“Look: if I release them and they are the assassins of Anitra’s family, then this places the girl herself in even greater danger.”

“Anitra is in no danger from these people. Nor am I. Let them go.”

Nilsson got up slowly from her chair. “Mr Sullivan is right,” she murmured. “You are getting soft in your old age.”

“I’ll say to you what I’ve just said to Sullivan. Do you really think I deliberately murdered sixty thousand people?”

Nilsson towered over him, sneering in his face.

“I not only think — I know. Else why would I be preparing for the biggest trial there’s ever been on the Moon? I’m almost convinced that for some equally Byzantine motive you’ve engineered the HR business as well. It’s your modus operandi.”

Peter screwed up his eyes. “How could you think it of me?”

But of course, Nilsson could think anything of Peter Zwillinge.

“I was one of a triada,” continued Peter, “a three-way marriage. As you know perfectly well, the three members of a triada swear absolute obedience to each other, in a triangle. Hamish commanded Shval and I commanded Hamish. Shval commanded me. I was totally under her thumb.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“It will be my defence in court.”

“Well, as to that, I’ll see you in court.” She picked up her gloves to go.

“If somebody takes advantage of your skill,” said Peter, “and uses it to kill someone, does that make you guilty too? Even if it’s thousands of people in a single flash? What about those who sold her the ticket to get to the Moon in the first place? Who granted her leave to stay? Who fed her meat and drink on that fateful day? Who stitched her shoe-leather, to enable her to walk to the scene-of-crime?”

Nilsson looked back over her shoulder. “There is no comparison between a stitched up pair of shoes… and an Adin satellite, hacked to shine off-beam.”

“It was Shval’s idea. Some tricky plan of hers.”

The Commissioner turned round and strolled back slowly to the bed. “So, you’re prepared to slander the memory of your own triadnik? How low is that? Not even Shval Meteor sank that low. She was always loyal to her friends.”

“Shval Meteor was my whole world,” admitted Peter. “I never saw beyond it. Don’t imagine that she told me everything.”

“Just a tool in her sucker-covered hands, eh? But a willing one, I’ll wager. Listen to me: once Shval knew that her sister Tvoul was pregnant by a gaian, everything she did from that day on was aimed at getting her hands on the children by that union. Are you trying to tell me you didn’t know that?”

She leaned over Peter and hissed in his face. “You are the last of the Meteor Gang. I suppose you think that means you’ve lost your purpose in life?” She straightened her back. “But there is such a thing as accountability for past actions. On the Moon, Peter Zwillinge, you are a human being — subject to human laws.”

Peter groaned. “Once Shval was gone I found a new purpose in life. It was the free gift of a wonderful woman. You’re not fit to lick her boots.”

“Well — she’s gone too, now. I saw her into the refrigerator myself. I even held her hand as she died. So… less from you about licking boots.”

Again she walked round to the bottom of the bed. “If you really want to know what I think, I don’t believe you’ve found a new purpose in life at all. It’s the same old purpose.”

She glanced towards the door, almost as if she didn’t want it overheard what she was saying. “What? Where Shval Meteor failed, you’ve succeeded: in getting custody of the stellans. In actually bringing them up. And now, in pursuit of some arcane objective, there is only one left. But you are still firmly embedded in her affections. I know, because I’ve had the opportunity of a long chat with her.”

“So she is safe then.” Peter inhaled and groaned in eager agony, as if a recumbent beast had decided to get off him. “I want to see her.”

“You can’t. She’s a witness for the prosecution.”

Peter groaned again. “I admire you, Nilsson. You can take Love itself and twist it into a crime.”

Nilsson’s once-handsome face hardened into hatefulness.

“Love? You bastard. You butcher. There is only one bacon-baby you love and that’s yourself. ‘A wonderful woman’, you said? People are only ‘wonderful’ to you if they completely swallow the line you cast them.”

She tossed her head like the old grey mare she was. “I’m going. I’m sorry, I thought you had something sensible to say.”

“Like make a confession?”

“That would have been nice!”

“Die and go to hell!” Peter shouted. The effort that entailed crushed him like a trodden-on snail.

“The truth will out, Zwillinge,” said Nilsson, exploiting his temporary incapacity to withstand her. “The mills of justice grind slow but painfully small. You’re only prolonging the agony for yourself — let’s not even think of other people.”

Then Nilsson knowingly inflicted the most painful wound she could. “Anitra, for instance. Because you persist in maintaining your untenable position, I’m having to constrain her as a witness to testify against you. Confess — and she’s at liberty to carry on with her life. Keep your counsel — and Anitra stays on the Moon for six months or more. In all that time you won’t see a damned thing of her until your court appearance.”

Nodding to the Moonforce guards, Nilsson stalked out of the ward.

Peter stretched himself and writhed uncomfortably. He found the constant pain was beginning to exceed his threshold of endurance. He shouldn’t have been so boastful in front of Mr Sullivan. Soon he would have to go crawling to him, figuratively speaking, begging him for more painkillers.

But far worse than physical pain, the last thing the Commissioner had said had struck him hard. The HR assassins were still at liberty. While Nilsson was stopping Anitra from leaving the Moon, the girl was at their mercy: a sitting target.

Maybe in the end there were a lot of people he’d have to go crawling to.

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Nobody lives on the surface of the Moon like they do on Earth, its dense atmosphere stopping most of the unhealthy solar radiation. But the Moon has no atmosphere. Industrial buildings clutter the landscape around Lunaborg, but they are well-enough shielded, as is Lipsky Spaceport. The bulk of the vast capital city lies underground.

Diametrically opposite to Lunaborg, in full view of the Earth, stands Jordvik, Selene’s second city. Deliberately concealed, by order of the Council of the Inner Planets, it is entirely underground. When finally Gaia is readmitted to full membership of the Council, which won’t happen until it can sufficiently calm its political turmoil to appoint a plenipotentiary delegate, then intermondial trade and tourism will resume and all such precautions will be remembered for what they were: absurd.

Fourteen main concourses run north-south in parallel through Jordvik. The chief of these is Avenue Five, into which two young men from another world descended through the public levitators. They wore stained dust suits that looked as if they’d been through fire, plus lightweight, airtight helmets. Their visors were adjusted to half-silvered, presenting blank faces to the outside world. Thus sealed off from the rest of humanity, they conversed in private via the intertalk built into their helmets. The Seleneans ignored them: they had seen Martians here often enough, though few of them had ever spoken to one.

The first young man, Viktor, looked all about him. They were in a vast smooth cavity like the inside of an opalescent dome, the walls and ceiling being nothing but a smooth canvas on which to display moving images. As the two young men stood and looked, they saw a light-show going on, portraying the birth of the cosmos. Brightly coloured galaxies went to and fro like snails dancing a strathspey, colliding and unwinding into filaments of stars.

“Is this the Gaiascope?” asked Viktor, excitement in his voice.

“No,” said his companion, Hermes. “This is Moon Dog Square — and that’s the famous Moon Dog you see in the middle.”

Viktor looked… and his heart shrivelled like a salted slug. Beneath a hemisphere of clear fused quartz perched a shapeless apparition — a mooncalf — weighed down by heavy chains with oblong links. Eyeless, it bared its teeth to the sky in a never-ending howl.

In the North of England they talk of a demonic creature called the barghest. Nobody can describe to you what it looks like, even those who’ve encountered it, except that when seen by moonlight it has no real shape.

“The people of Jordvik call it the Fenris,” contined Hermes. “A monster from Norse legend, I am told.”

Viktor was appalled. “I always thought of Moon Dog Square as a big happy place, like the Areopagus back home in Nix City. What with that horrible thing stuck in the middle, it feels anything but. You’ve got to be weird to be happy here.”

“It’s a matter of opinion.”

“Why don’t they get rid of it?”

“Jordvik folk are proud of their Moon Dog. They wouldn’t want to be without it.”

Viktor stood with his head to one side, grappling with the notion that somebody might worry if one day it simply disappeared. “Is it a memorial to the old Gaiascope?”

“Yes, nowadays that’s what they say, but it was there before the disaster. The statues are new, though. There’s one for every person who died, modelled in their likeness.”

This was the other permanent feature of Moon Dog Square: a number of life-sized statues, cast in what looked like bronze but was in fact sintered moon-dust. They debouched four-abreast from Avenue Five and stood in a ring facing the Moon Dog.

Viktor and Hermes walked over to the glass dome to take a closer look. The statues held hands, leaving gaps for people to slip through. Peering down Avenue Five, Viktor saw the column of statues disappear into the distance. There were mustered along the middle of the concourse all the way to the surface exits at Crater Priscilla: a distance of over ten miles. They were in no obvious order, though families appeared to be together. Men, women and children stood, squatted or lay on the ground at their ease, in everlasting anticipation of some wondrous event.

The dead among the living: their two worlds interpenetrating without one being conscious of the other. Each going about their daily business, except that the business of the statues wouldn’t change tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. There they would stand until Jordvik itself went back to moon dust.

Hermes led the way over to the slatted public seating around the dome and sat down. Viktor followed.

“I can’t believe you’ve braved this environment for a whole year! Only just back from Planet Gaia and it’s already driving me crazy. No intensor field! However do you manage?”

“You get used to it. It’s amazing how quickly you do.”

“Would they notice if we erected our own private intensor, just you and me?”

“Don’t even think of it! Five years in jail. Moonforce would detect it and come down on us like a lava bomb.”

Viktor slowly shook his head from side to side as he stared at the ground between his feet. “So these people spend their whole lives shouting at each other through the stinking communal atmosphere with their naked mouths for all to hear? Or else they talk into these crappy wristlink things…” Holding his wrist up to the front of his helmet he mimed an exaggerated conversation. “How are you? Where are you? Which way up are you?”

Hermes quivered in his dust suit, showing he was laughing. “Give over. It’s not that bad. At least they let us use Intertalk.”

“What have they got against the Intensor? Do they simply not know about it?”

Hermes shrugged. “You have to understand. It’s only a quarter of a million miles to Gaia – and society is still basically Zemlian. They value their private lives as much as we do, but they don’t know how to secure them. They still use money, and it’s so anonymous! Nobody knows where you’ve got it from. You could steal it from them and half the time they wouldn’t notice. And if they did, they’d have to go through the court system to get it back. To them the Intensor is something creepy.”

“Creepy? How?”

Hermes rocked his head from side to side, as if preparing to explain what he knew his listener would never understand, much less accept. “If we plunge ourselves back in an intensor field, all they’d see is two people sharing the same feelings, the same ideas, even though they were far enough apart to be out of sight. Spooky action at a distance. A crowd of people bathed in the Intensor would look to them like an all-powerful distributed intelligence – a Hive Mind – with hundreds of eyes and no doubt hostile intent. It would have the natives at a huge disadvantage.”

The other turned and delivered a light punch to the upper arm. “You make it sound like we dissolve into this thing, sacrificing our very identity.”

“To a Selenean that’s exactly what we do.”

“Ignorance…! Will they ever come round, do you suppose?”

Hermes gave a click of impatience. “Think of it. You and I – we’ve grown up in the Intensor. Long before we could talk they put us in a helmet. Before we even got our first pair of shoes. There’s no way a Selenean is ever going to catch up with us – with that sort of start in life. Even if they live to be a hundred.”

Both young men lapsed into silence, and sat watching the crowds go by.star_tattoo_4_by_stock_kat

…to be continued.