“Okay,” said Viktor at last, “why have you brought me here?”
“To see the statues.”
“The Sixty Thousand Victims of the Gaiascope Atrocity. I saw pictures back on Mars. And now I’ve seen them in the flesh – if you call sintered moondust flesh. Right, let’s get to the Gaiascope.”
“You asked me what my dissertation was, remember? I told you: The History of Groubians on the Moon. And you laughed me out of court.”
“Can you blame me? How many groubians ever leave Mars – let alone trek all the way to the Moon?”
“Come and take a look at this statue.” Hermes got to his feet and Viktor followed. Soon they were standing beside a statue in the ring – just one among the many. But when he saw its face, Viktor struck his visor in shock and amazement.
“Okay, I eat my words. But this is just one groubian – and much the worse for wear. Are you going to write your whole dissertation about that gal?”
“I could do… and I could write volumes. This is Vermat Avrora.” When Viktor said nothing, he added “The last of the Mothers.”
It was several seconds before Viktor replied. “She survives the Battle of Mars, and then comes all the way here to perish in the Gaiascope. How tragic is that.”
“Oh, ‘that gal’, as you call her, had quite a career before that happened. For many years she was Chief of Police in Lunaborg.”
“That’s amazing! Head of Moonforce – a groubian? However did she manage it?”
“Sheer ability. The mothers were the natural leaders, but Vermat was a Leader among leaders. If she’d stayed on Mars the settlers would have got her. It was coming here that saved her life. And it was joining Moonforce and rising to the top of the pile that preserved it.”
“Self-interest,” murmured Viktor, “but enlightened self-interest. Plus bucketloads of grit and determination.”
“You could say that. But the more I read, the surer I become that Selene knew what it was getting – and wanted more. Vermat never put herself forward: she was always pushed from below to take on any new responsibility. For her entire career, ever since the Last Zygogeny, she was in intractable pain. You and I in her position would just want to curl up and die.”
“Uh-uh.” Viktor stared at the hideous disfigurement of the face. “I guess that was a war wound?”
“No. I told you she was one of the Mothers. That’s a parturition scar.”
Viktor let out an ejaculation. “You mean to say, a baby popped out from behind her eye?”
“Zygocysts can erupt anywhere, all over the body. That’s why few of the Mothers survived. Young groubians were brought up by the whole community.”
Viktor lowered his head and shook it. “I’m sorry. I never took a lot of interest in groubian reproduction. It’s not a very nice subject.”
“Groubians wouldn’t disagree with you,” said Hermes, with a sigh. “But they don’t despise people who’ve gone through it. Just the opposite – they venerate them with a kind of mystic awe.”
Viktor nodded slowly. “So that’s why the settlers made such a point of hunting all the Mothers down? I’m surprised they let Vermat get away. And to the Moon. Once here, why they didn’t move heaven and earth to have her bumped off.”
“Moonforce is a combined police and defence force. An amazing thing in a democracy – and such a democracy as they have here. Moonforce is the leading fighting force in System Sol – more powerful even than Olvói. And it owns the most advanced surveillance systems ever devised – which is another reason Selene won’t tolerate the Intensor.”
“So, we Martians ought to be pretty scared of Moonforce?”
“Sure, if we were planning to invade the Moon. Or Gaia. Not otherwise.”
“You reassure me.” But Viktor didn’t sound reassured.
“Anyway,” said Hermes, “With all that power at her command, Vermat was unassailable – and she was in a position to protect other groubians too, even as far away as Mars. If there are groubians alive today, the credit is mostly due to Vermat. Yet she was totally under the control of Parliament. The willing slave of Rådhuset – and never seriously resenting it.”
“Amazing,” said Viktor. “Though they do say loyalty is the chief groubian virtue. So tell me, what else is she famous for?”
Eager to get to the Gaiascope and its legendary delights, he wasn’t expecting an answer. But Hermes chose that moment to drop his bombshell.
“You see that missing eye? Not just one baby ‘popped out’, as you so inelegantly put it, but about 10 or 12. Not all of them survived of course. But of those that did, two are famous. Shval Meteor… and Tvoul Rainbow.”
Professor Tvoul Rainbow, as every Martian knew, was the heroine of the Siege of The Nix. She went on to serve as Goubernator for three terms of office, the legal maximum. Shval Meteor, her evil twin, could hardly be said to have enjoyed such an illustrious career. But she was famous nonetheless.
“Tvoul… Rainbow…” Viktor repeated the name slowly. “Well, everyone has heard of her. The Mother of the Star Children – by a gaian! And as for the Meteor Gang, didn’t I just hear a rumour about them?”
“Yes…” Hermes was thoughtful. “Moonforce has just been to Gaia and arrested the only surviving member of the gang: its technical genius, Peter Zwillinge. And we all know about him.”
The entrance hall of the Gaiascope was at least as wide as Moon Dog Square, but bitten-into, like teeth-marks in a scone, by a Grecian colonnade suggestive of something huge and domed behind. But Moon Dog Square it wasn’t. Back there you saw people sitting or standing in every state of preoccupation from quiet satisfaction to profound misery. Here you saw only happy people, chatting as they crowded towards the turnstiles, glowing with the prospect of wonderful things in store.
Nanoud paid with her booner card for them both to go in. Once inside, Anitra stopped in a daze. Illuminated trees, looking as old and magical as in a fairy story, shed their white leaves upon black grass. A serpentine lake reflected coloured lights in its rippling water, the speculative hint of carp drifting lazily beneath its surface. Upon the lake there cruised giant swans with their wings arched in domineering majesty. Each swan held a couple, pedalling in time to the strains of a Strauss waltz percolating through the leafy glades.
Round the walls of the voluminous cavern in which they found themselves were pubs, bistros and tavernas of every nation on Earth, tables and chairs scattered about outside, if “outside” it could be called. People sat around taking their ease over plates of fruits-de-mer and osteanretning, overlooked by tall-stemmed glasses of scintillating bubbly wine.
Anitra squeezed Nanoud’s arm to direct her attention. “What’s that over there?”
In one corner she could see the proscenium arch of a miniature theatre. Its curtains were closed and a roped-off area of seating in front of it lay empty. But, as Nanoud told her, within the hour it would fill up with whoever happened to be passing, to watch gaily painted characters in dirndl dresses and diamond-spangled tights dance and sing in front of picture-book scenery.
“Just look at all those lights.”
Everywhere hung coloured lanterns, of a design known as a tivoli light, a bulbous droplet of liquified colour distilling gentle beams. In their massed glow, Dutch windmills and pagodas mooned over their reflections in the glimmering pool. Swathes of darkness sliced its sprinkled gleams wherever an arched bridge vaulted the narrow lake with its winding shore.
Over one such bridge they now went, treading its mossy planks like a pathway to the clouds. A shadow loomed before them, the suggestion of an huge mound. Anitra could see yet another colonnade, concentric with the outermost one, supporting a dome which merged into the cavern roof. Lights gleamed pink and turquoise behind the columns, suggestive of something brilliant inside, or was it the brilliance of intense darkness?
“What is this gi-normous dome?” Anitra asked.
“It is called the Camera. Short for camera-obscura, which means ‘darkened room’ in Italian. Do you speak Italian?”
Anitra pursed her lips and shook her head.
“They tell me that the camera-obscura was the first recorded use of a lens by gaians to show pictures. It’s the main attraction of the Gaiascope complex.”
They went into the dome through one of several entrances behind the columns and immediately descended into darkness, down steps bordered with dim yellow lights. Thick black curtains barred their way, through which they now pushed.
Anitra’s first impression was of being inside a cathedral of worldwide importance, or in some marvellous ancient temple. They were standing on the rim of a bowl of granulated sky-blue light. Presently she made out the backs of self-tipping seats. These were blacked out at random, showing which ones were occupied.
Picture a hundred, her teacher used to say. That’s easy: a ten-by-ten array, like eggs upon a tray. A hundred-by-a-hundred equals ten thousand. Anitra had a flair for numbers, they came naturally to her with very little effort. A good thing, because Mathematics was not a subject she had any inclination to work at. But she knew by instinct there were upwards of a hundred thousand seats in this cathedral — temple — stadium — whatever.
Nanoud led the way to a row of vacant seats. In darkness and silence they stared down. A vast pinched column of blue light rose from a circular arena, its extent picked out by swirling grains of dust.
Anitra’s heart swelled with wonder, tears moistening her eyes. For there was Gaia laid out before her: the earth she wondered if she’d ever set foot on again. With its enormous globe projected onto the level floor of the arena, it displayed its rippling oceans and green-fringed sandy continents. Patches of cloud fitted themselves snugly to the surface — except that they weren’t actually touching it, but hovering above it by scarcely the width of her little fingernail held at arm’s length. She could see the puffy clouds of stratus, the spikes of the trade-winds, the swirl of cyclones. She thought about the people living beneath those bright fleecy blankets, which they would only see as grey skies, maybe shedding snow or wintry rain.
It was the time of the New Moon, when Sun, Moon and Earth line up. Somebody standing on Earth would see only the Moon’s shadowy side, no reflected sunlight creeping round. But standing on the Moon in the exact centre of the darkened disc, as they were now, one saw the Earth in full sunlight, no sign of shadows.
She could see now why the Gaiascope was so-called. At map-reference zero-zero, the dead centre of the lunar disc as viewed from Earth, the denizens of Selene had built this gigantic observatory. Here the Earth stood forever at the zenith of the celestial dome. So one could focus its image through a giant fixed lens onto the arena below. Nothing more was needed to engage the rapt attention of hundreds if not thousands of people, who daily came to contemplate, to wonder, to admire… and to worship.
“Why is everybody so quiet?” Anitra asked. “It’s like a church service.”
“That’s what this is: a church dedicated to Gaia. Everybody is silent in their own thoughts. Or in private prayer.”
“You mean people pray to the Earth? Up here — on the Moon?”
“I suppose you’d call it that. People meditate. They contemplate. We groubians always do.”
“I didn’t know groubians prayed. Is the Earth your God?”
“It is deep in our consciousness. And always has been — ever since there have been groubians on Mars.”
“Why is that? I’d have though the Earth would be just a blue dot in the sky.”
“Not at all. We groubians had telescopes long before I was born. Long ago we knew the motions of the planets. When viewed from Titan, Gaia was indeed just a blue dot. But when we saw it from Mars, we saw the continents and seas, the ice-caps and the clouds. And when the dark side of Gaia was turned towards us, as it was when the two planets were at their closest, we saw the lightning flash around the globe and the aurorae dancing at the poles. It was every bit as beautiful as Saturn had been when we looked at it from Titan. Saturn too has wonderful aurorae, did you know?”
“No…” Anitra was ashamed to admit it.
“Like coloured fire they hang in the air above the poles. Gaia, we understood, was speaking to us, just as Saturn had done.”
“You mean it spoke in spatio-color? Did it say anything sensible?”
Nanoud laughed, a dry sound in the darkness. “What its speech meant to those of us born on Titan, like Dolpou, I cannot say. Maybe just a babble. But to those of us born on Mars at the Last Zygogeny, it is in our soul, lying at the roots of our very thoughts. We look and we remember that once upon a time we ourselves came from Gaia.”
They had been letting their voices rise. People in neighbouring rows turned to frown at the two companions. Grinning in the dark, Nanoud took Anitra’s arm and led her out from the row of seats, along a short tunnel and up in a levitator to a narrow corridor, dimly-lit. Along one side were doors with small round windows of darkened glass. One door had a glowing handle. Nanoud opened it and drew Anitra inside with her.
“I’ve used my booner card to get us our own box,” said Nanoud. “Here we can talk without disturbing anyone.”
Through the forward-sloping window of the box they could see down into the arena from a point over its rim. From here the Earth looked as if they were hanging above its surface in geostationary orbit.
Anitra peered through the window and her gaze traced spirals in the swirling cloud-masses. “So you thought the planet was alive? That it was intelligent?”
“It is alive. It is intelligent. Living on it as you gaians do, you are too close-up to realise. What does a flea know about the thoughts of the dog on which it lives?”
Anitra laughed at that idea. Human beings: nothing but the Earth’s fleas. But then a thought struck her.
“When you’d just arrived on Mars, having come all the way from Titan, why didn’t you go just that bit further and land on Earth?” she said. She knew that Mars was only twice as far from the Sun as Earth was, but Titan was ten times the distance away.
“Back then it seemed a senseless thing to do. As well try to land on Saturn. Titan is like Mars in many ways: the gravity is much the same. But Gaia is so large compared to Mars that its gravity forms a deep well from which it is hard to climb back out, at least with the feeble spacecraft we had then. Also it struck us that, though the planet itself may be alive, there couldn’t possibly be anything living on the surface.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?”
“The high concentration of oxygen! It’s what gives Gaia its blue colour. Such a fiercely oxidising atmosphere would destroy all life as we knew it. Everything organic is just on the point of self-combusting. Once ignited – something that would happen spontaneously by lightning strikes – a patch of organic matter would simply burn away. We didn’t know then how rain from the clouds moistens the ground enough to stop it happening and allow forests to grow. In our ignorance we could not imagine living creatures evolving to cope with such an explosive atmosphere.”
“But in the end you did land on Earth, didn’t you?”
“Yes. The Titans, as we call them — those not born on Mars — were sure that creatures like us might be able to live in the oceans, which turned out to be the case. But it wasn’t until we went there that we learned that there were beings on the land who had the rudiments of civilization. And there was something else we learned which amazed us. Far back in the distant past, our ancestors had actually come from Gaia.”
Anitra turned to stare at her companion. “Do you mean to tell me that groubians didn’t evolve on Titan?”
“Oh, we evolved there all right. We had millions of years to do so. But our ancestors were molluscs — cuttlefish — that came from Earth.”
“Did cuttlefish have spaceships all that long ago?”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking. Natural ones: comets, you call them. They weren’t carried to Titan voluntarily, of course.”
“Do you see that spike of land sticking out from Central America? The Yucatán Peninsula. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid fell there. A thousand cubic miles of shallow coral seas were splashed out into space, instantly flash-frozen into snowy masses. In those snows were the eggs of many different reef creatures, including the tough leathery egg pods of cuttles.”
Nanoud slipped one hand onto Anitra’s back and peered over her shoulder at the shining arena, the blue of Gaia gleaming in her eyes. “As Martian-born I cannot picture how we lived on Titan. Dolpou often tries to tell us, but even she can’t properly recollect. You and I have nothing to compare it with. She talks of a three-dimensional world, spanned by flying buttresses and porous rock formations twisted into loops and spirals, like some deep but highly-structured ocean. Titan, as you know, is mostly water.”
“Solid ice, scientists tell us.”
“Only on the surface, which is cold and hostile. But not inside — at least it wasn’t before the Fall. Like the Earth and the Moon, Titan warms up as you travel towards its core.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. I’d always imagined the Titans living on the surface.”
“I used to make the same mistake,” Nanoud laughed. “On the surface of Mars, drier and warmer though it was, we could not live as we did on Titan. We could not even find niches to live in, as cuttles do on Gaia. There was nothing there resembling a coral reef — until we cultivated it ourselves. But in caves beneath the surface — well, that’s different. Before we discovered those caves, lava-tubes mostly, and bored extensive tunnels to expand them, we had to live as we had done in space: on orbiting platforms. Phobos and Deimos are all that remains of those ancient cities of ice.”
“Cities of ice? Like Prometheus… and Oberon?”
“Yes, you could say so. In deep-frozen space it is the obvious building material. And in the outer reaches of System Sol there is no shortage of it.”
Her hand slipped down to Anitra’s waist and she gave her a gentle hug.
“Our history of development is the very opposite of yours — even though we both come from the seas of Gaia. Billions of years ago we must have shared a common ancestor, if only a tiny threadworm. But we, the Martians, developed from spacegoing creatures into dwellers on dry land. You Gaians have gone the other way. It amazes me how alike we are, though we’ve come to where we are from opposite directions.”
“It amazes me too,” said Anitra. “You don’t look like a slippery cuttlefish.” She giggled briefly.
“And you don’t look like a hairy monkey,” laughed Nanoud in her turn. She kissed Anitra on the cheek. “But you, of course, are far from being just a monkey to me. You and I — we’re sisters of the skin.”
The two friends, falling silent, turned back to the spectacle below. Anitra looked for England and couldn’t find it. How she wished she’d paid more attention in geography class. Then she realised that from her perspective the Earth was upside down. England was directly below her, distorted on the bright blue rim, mostly veiled in feathers of cloud.
Down there was Durham… and Esh Winning… and Dorian. It struck her with a pang that she would never see him again. Did he know it yet, she wondered? Would he care that much? He’d find another girl: there were enough at school who had him in their sights. And then she thought of her brothers — and tears began to blur her eyes.
Who would attend their funeral? Where would they be buried? Along with her mother Tvoul in Newhouse churchyard? Or in some nameless grave for unclaimed corpses? Might they never get a proper burial, just bits of their bodies being pickled in formalin as medical curiosities?
Radiant and welcoming as it looked now, in her mind the planet Gaia would always stand for pain and agony. The agony of a corrosive oxidising atmosphere, burning up whatever tried to make its home down there, beneath those skies so blue.
…to be continued.