“Hey, you. Come here.”
None of the guards moved.
“Come here, I said.”
The Moonforce officer in Peter’s line of sight glanced at his colleagues with a smirk, then strode forward. “I’m not a frigging nurse,” he snapped.
Peter’s bloodshot eyes roved up and down his dark blue uniform. “No… I didn’t imagine you were.”
“What do you want?”
“Get me Nilsson.”
In spite of the other’s attitude, Peter could see the young man was scared of him. Scared witless. A dozen men must be on guard here in the ward, all having heard of his exploits, magnified no doubt tenfold. All hated him, all were terrified of him, powerless though he was.
“Nilsson isn’t pleased with you. She doesn’t want to see you again until you’re standing up in court.”
“Tell her to bring the confession she wants me to sign. She can say whatever she likes in it: I’ll sign.”
The young man gazed at him, clearly puzzled as to what to do. Then he turned, exchanged a word with the picket leader and left the ward. In a remarkably short time, almost as if she was waiting just round the corner, Nilsson appeared.
“Still playing games, Zwillinge? How much of this do you think I’ll put up with?”
“Have you brought something for me to sign?”
“I’ve brought what you asked for.”
“Read it out.”
Nilsson did so.
“You say I massacred the crew of the Prometheus. I couldn’t have done. When it happened I was frozen down in a hibernator. Plus being locked up in the strong-room like a gold brick.”
“That’s your story. Are you denying it’s your modus operandi?”
“I suppose with all the other crimes I’m accused of, you thought you’d you stick that in as well?”
“Look, Zwillinge, I warned you…”
“I’m going to sign it, I tell you.”
“To repudiate in court?”
“I’ll never come to court.”
Nilsson bent down to stare into his eyes. “You don’t have any choice. Court is where you’re going – if it’s the last damned thing I do.”
“You can’t stop me, Nilsson. In twenty-five hours I’ll be dead.”
Nilsson gave no sign of having heard him. Except that her face was fixed in a mask for five seconds or more. Here was an individual who seemingly could not lift a finger to help himself, let alone do himself harm. But she knew well enough that they could put him under a microscope for every moment of the day and it wouldn’t stop him taking his own life. She almost believed he could do it just by thinking about it.
“How do you propose to sign the document? You will have to get well enough to hold a pen. Digital signatures are not acceptable in court.”
“They’ll accept this. Hold the confession up, just over my neck.”
Nilsson did so. Peter Zwillinge’s hand crawled like a fat drunken spider out from under the bedclothes and fastened on a fold of flesh beneath what passed for his chin. As Nilsson watched, teeth bared, he broke the skin with his horny nail like a chef testing pasta and reached up with a glistening red thumb. Pinching the document briefly to leave his thumbprint, he let go with a gasp.
“There. Signed in blood.” He shut his eyes tight.
Nilsson, fighting internally with herself, reached for a tissue on the bedside trolley to staunch the minor wound. The effort of even that simple gesture had drained the patient. She wasn’t sure if he was still conscious. Then she saw his eyelids flicker.
“You are very wise. This simplifies things immensely.”
Peter Zwillinge didn’t open his eyes, but his lips moved slowly. “There you go, Nilsson, now you can piss off and enjoy your retirement. Grow lilies by earthlight in your greenhouse.”
“I don’t imagine for one moment it’s me you’re thinking of.”
Nilsson straightened up. “No plea-bargaining,” she snapped. “The express instructions of my superiors in Rådhuset. I am not authorised to negotiate with you in any way — to offer you terms of any sort.”
“Anitra is in danger.”
“I’m aware of that.” She leaned forward again, taking her time before she spoke. “There are a hundred Moonforce officers guarding Anitra at every moment of the circadian. She and General Tolchok are at liberty to come and go as they please, but Moonforce has thrown up an invisible shield around them. You didn’t need to sign a confession for that to happen.”
Peter sighed. “Nilsson, how is it you still don’t understand? These HR people are the very devil. PUG students mostly: smart young folk, full of zeal for their noble mission. Clay in the hands of Dr Galax.”
“We’ve got our eye on them. The two from Earth, the two that did you over: thanks in part to your information I know who they are now. They can’t even pick their noses without me instantly being alerted.”
“I’m reassured. But others will come.”
“We’re watching out for them.”
“You have no more use for Anitra. Let her go.”
“Her movements are not constrained in any way. Haven’t I made that clear?”
“Make sure she boards the next fast-ferry to Mars. She is on her way to petition the Goubernator for human rights.”
“I know all about that.”
“Promise me, Nilsson…”
The Commissioner’s eyes flared. “Didn’t you hear me the first time? No Bargains!” She stood the words in verbal book-ends.
“Let me die in peace.”
“What? Still determined to skip your day in court?” She sniffed and turned to go. She was at the door when Peter spoke again.
She swivelled on her heel and stared at him like a stone basilisk.
“Murderer!” she shouted in her harshest voice. Then she was gone.
“Just one more thing before we get up and get dressed…”
Anitra wondered what was coming. Their bodies were still in loose contact and now Nanoud slid both arms around her waist and pulled her into a close embrace.
“Dolpou and I have been talking about it. We’ve decided you ought to have a groubian name. We’re going to call you Depesh.”
“Depesh…” Anitra tried out the word. “What does it mean? Does it have a meaning?”
“All groubian names have a meaning. Generally a quotation from the Book of Titan, especially the famous Last Verse.”
“The fatal one?”
“Your name is not fatal. Just the opposite: it is life-giving. Here it is in spatio-color…”
Anitra observed the pattern spreading over Nanoud’s whole body and let it flow across onto her own.
“That’s right. In M1 that’s détskim peshkóm, which among groubians gets shortened to Dépesh.”
Anitra repeated her name over and over in spatio-color. A smile grew on her face as Nanoud beamed at her in pink and gold. She began to lose the feeling of isolation, of being the only one of her kind. She needed to get used to the idea that she was deeply loved — by Nanoud, by Dolpou, and by a host of people she hadn’t yet met.
“And does it come from the Last Verse?”
“Oh yes. ‘To go on childish footsteps through an empty valley…’ I think that’s what it is in English. Dolpou’s name in M1 refers to going through the empty valley: po dolíne poustói.”
“And what does your name mean?”
Anitra detected the spatio-color for embarrassment. “I’d… rather not say.”
In reply Anitra gave a girlish giggle. “Oh, go on. You can tell me – I’m your friend.”
Nanoud smiled, dropped her gaze and drew away. The patterns on her skin were strange and complex, in the archaic language of the Book of Titan. They were about anger and violence.
“‘Does it have to be your lover who strikes you dead…?’” Anitra’s voice held amazement. “Is that right?”
“Yes. You are getting good. My name ‘Nanoud’ is a contraction of nanósit oudár, the blow that is struck. Your mother on the other hand is ‘your lover’.”
“I beg your pardon…?” Anitra’s face flashed fireworks. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry!” Nanoud laughed out loud. “I should have said: your mother’s name ‘Tvoul’ is short for tvoiá liubóvka – ‘your lover’ in M1.”
“Oh!” Anitra laughed too. She’d known that already, but she couldn’t think who’d told her. Not Gaby — or Peter.
“And you need a second name too.”
“Can’t I just be Depesh Starr?”
“You could — and that would work very well. A groubian’s second name has nothing to do with family. But it says something about them. Generally it refers to something beautiful in nature. Or something remarkable.”
“My mother’s second name was Rainbow. Do you mean like that?”
“Yes. Now it so happens that Dolpou is your guardian, and her second name is Zvezda — which means ‘star’. It’s just a coincidence. But that’s why I said it would work very well.”
Anitra winced. “I don’t want to be ‘Zvezda’. I want a name of my own. You said it didn’t need to be anything to do with family.”
“You’re quite right, but…”
“A star is so very high up in the sky, and so far away. And frightfully hot when you get to it. I’d like to be something like a star but cooler, lighter, lower down. Softer, more delicate.”
“Like a snowflake?”
“Yes, that’s it. You’re reading my mind.”
“I’m only reading your skin.”
“It’s the same thing with a groubian. Well, isn’t it?”
“Not with you, my love.” Nanoud slid her hands round her waist and drew her close once more to gaze into her eyes. “You have two minds: a groubian mind – your skin – and a gaian mind residing in your brain. The first mind I can read like a book. A children’s book… but please don’t take it amiss. The second mind I cannot reach. I can only listen to the words you say and translate it into M1, and then into spatio-color.”
“Depesh Snowflake.” Anitra took a deep breath and sighed dreamily.
“In M1 that becomes Depesh Snezhínka. It’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it suits you wonderfully.”
“Thank you for giving me my name.” Anitra kissed her friend several times on the face. She didn’t know why. It just seemed the right thing to do.
Nanoud shone in pleasure with a golden sheen, but drew away after a second or two and lowered her feet to the floor. “Come, my little snowflake,” she said in a gentle voice, reaching back and laying a soft hand on Anitra’s forehead. “Let’s get up and get dressed – before you melt away completely.”
Anitra grabbed her hand and pulled her back in a tight hug. “Don’t be in such a rush, Nanoud. I get so frightened when I’m not in your arms…”
“Wake up, Peter, we’ve got places to go.”
Peter Zwillinge stared at the two men by his bedside. He could see they weren’t Moonforce. His eyes went straight to their breast-pocket badges. The red arrow of Mars, emblazoned on a sparkling white lunette turned upwards like a bowl. The Shield of Oberon.
“Who are you?” Then, as wakefulness returned, he knew he didn’t need to ask. “Oh, you must be the fellas who dug me up at Lipsky.”
“That’s right — but it wasn’t you. I’m Konstanz and this is Fricke. We’re in a hurry and the boss is waiting.”
“Won’t Moonforce have something to say about that?”
Fricke waved his arm around him. Straining to see, Peter realised that Nilsson’s guards were lying all over the floor.
“Have you killed them? All of them?”
“They’re only tasered. It won’t be long before they start to twitch. We gotta be off.”
Konstanz spoke again. “Thanks for kidding the Commissioner to let us go. Sorry we weren’t in time to save you from the HR guys back on Gaia.”
“I didn’t know I had that sort of pull with Nilsson.”
“You’d be surprised. She’s got the hots for you, Peter. We’ve brought you a hibernator.”
“Oh God — no! I’m sick of hibernators. I’m finished. I’m done for. Leave me here to die.”
“No-Way. Red Erik needs someone who can mend a fuse.” The two men started disconnecting equipment preparatory to lifting Peter from the bed into the hibernator. Fricke waved the saline drip around, unsure of what to do with it.
“Can’t you stick me on a stretcher or something?”
“We’ll have to put you in the hibernator, but we’ll leave the lid propped open. Here, hold this…” Fricke gave Peter the bag of saline. Peter said “How long have I got to keep holding this?”
“One more complaint out of you and the lid snaps shut.”
“Do as you must. It doesn’t seem as if I’ve got much choice.”
“That’s a good boy. Lie back and let it all wash over you. We’ll soon have you safely on the Oberon. Just let Nilsson try to winkle you out of there.”
“Hey — I’m under medical supervision!”
“That’s OK. We’ve got the surgeon too.”
Nanoud was shaking her awake. “Anitra, we must hurry up and get dressed.”
She opened her eyes and found there were men in the bedroom. With a gasp she sat up, grabbing a pillow to cover herself.
In a cross voice Nanoud made the men wait outside the door. “Moonforce,” she explained, when the last of them had slipped outside.
“Are we being arrested?”
“Yes, I suppose you’d say we were. ‘Deported’ is the word, I think.”
“Back to Earth?”
“No… we’re being hastened on our way to Mars. Commissioner Nilsson has withdrawn her objection to letting you leave the Moon. It seems you’re no longer required as a witness to give evidence in court. What’s more, she wants you on your way as soon as possible. You are booked on the next fast-ferry.”
“Why this sudden change of mind? Is it anything to do with Uncle Peter?”
“Oh, no doubt about it.”
Anitra was alarmed. “What’s happened to him?”
“I don’t know, and I daren’t think. You dress and I’ll pack. You won’t be needing much — you’ll be in a hibernator for the journey.”
Out on the hotel’s hopper pad, seven hoppers were parked in formation, six in Moonforce livery spaced around the seventh, a civilian one. Dolpou was waiting inside at the controls. Before Anitra got in, Nanoud hugged her and wished her a safe journey. “Give my love to Nix City,” she said.
“Aren’t you coming too?”
“I must finish off what I was doing while Dolpou went to Gaia to collect you. I hope I’ll be in time to catch the next fast-ferry. Don’t worry, Depesh darling, it won’t be long before we’re together again.”
Her emotions still raw from her recent experiences, Anitra burst into tears. “Hush, little snowflake,” said Nanoud, “Dolpou will look after you. And obviously Commissioner Nilsson is keen to see you’re well-guarded on the way to Lipsky.”
The seven hoppers took off in formation. Anitra stared at the tall figure of Nanoud casting a long shadow on the hopper pad like a straw in the sand, watching her dwindle away to nothing. Snatched from the protection of that strong, proud woman, fear and terror gushed in upon her like a black flood.
It was to be many months before she’d see her friend again.
Roughly three thousand miles separates Jordvik from Lunaborg, travelling round the Moon’s equator. In the absence of atmosphere, the speed a hopper can go is limited only by the need to avoid obstacles with elegance. So the journey was scheduled to take around two hours.
After greeting her in an abstract sort of way, Dolpou had hardly spoken a word since, no doubt assuming that Nanoud had told her everything she needed to know. She was concentrating on the flying. Her face — all that Anitra could see of it behind her helmet — exuded calm. But it was the calm of steely determination, not of placid satisfaction. Even before anything had happened, Dolpou seemed to be aware the trip wasn’t going to be a smooth one.
They had been travelling for just over half an hour and Crater Kepler was coming into view when they heard an emergency call from the escort leader. “Bandits two-seven!”
Dolpou set the navigation screen to wider coverage, which showed eight blips closing in. The escort switched to a defensive formation. The accompanying hoppers each fired two moonrakers which flickered away over Crater Kepler — so certain were they of the intent of the approaching craft. Two of the eight blips disappeared from Dolpou’s screen.
Each hopper fired off a further pair of moonrakers. Moonforce craft carried more than the regulation two. This time all six blips persisted, the attackers now deploying sufficient counter-measures to make sure that two of their number was all the defenders were going to take.
The enemy continued to close in. “There’s more of them!” shouted the leader. “South one-eight!” Moonforce was now decisively outnumbered. “Excellency, I’ve called for reinforcements, but they’re over two minutes away.”
“Shall I engage?” said Dolpou.
“No, your Excellency. Keep flying straight and level.”
But pretty soon the leader countermanded the order. “Another force of bandits: west zero-nine! Excellency — follow close behind Red Three and Red Five.”
Red Three took over the voice channel. “See the sinus just north of us? There’s an Orm tunnel running under it. I’m going to blast a way in. We’ll have to take a chance that there’s no train due. Follow me into the hole. Red Five will come in after you and cover our escape.”
A moonraker from Red Three struck the ground inside the looming sinus. A flash — and a cloud of dust and boulders blossomed in a perfect hemisphere. Gravel hissed on the canopy as Dolpou wrestled the hopper to avoid the boulders and a moment later they were through the cloud. Anitra saw Red Three just about to descend into the gash it had made when a moonraker swept it away, smearing it out in a dark streak across the sinus floor. A flash lit up the cloud of dust surrounding them: Red Five had been hit too.
“I see the one that did it,” Dolpou yelled, whether or not the escort leader was still listening. “Starting to engage…”
She swung the hopper round. Anitra was crushed into her seat by the deceleration. Immediately Dolpou launched two moonrakers and the object of her fury disappeared in a blood-orange blaze.
“Target destroyed,” Dolpou whooped. Then she shook her head. “The escort has gone. We’re on our own, star-child.”
Escape was impossible. Dolpou’s counter-attack had been nothing but an empty act of defiance. At any moment Anitra expected them too to boil away in flames.
The hopper began to descend. “We’ve no more moonrakers. We’re defenceless. We’ll just land here and wait for whatever happens.”
“Won’t we be better off in the tunnel?”
“No. Without Moonforce covering our rear we’ll be a sitting duck. It’s surrender — or die.”
Dolpou brought the hopper gently down upon the floor of the sinus, stirring up a crinoline skirt of dust that wrapped them round.
Hoppers began landing on all sides. A new voice cut-in over their communication-link. “Supreme Councillor Zvezda, are you alive and well?”
“You won’t get away with this, you blackguards.”
“And is your precious passenger alive and well?”
“Yes, but no thanks to you.”
“We promise you will come to no harm, Your Excellency.” The voice was bizarrely deferential. “But for your continued safety, and that of your precious passenger, will you please comply with my instructions.”
“Who are you — and what you want with us?”
“I am called Konstanz and I work for Red Erik. He desires your illustrious company.”
Dolpou made a wild gesture, though “Konstanz” wouldn’t have been able to see it. “How am I supposed to comply with that?”
“Oberon will be passing overhead in thirty seconds. When I give the order, we will ascend in formation to twenty thousand feet.”
“That will take us right into its path!”
“Quite so. Once you’ve made visual contact with Oberon, you will set course to enter the hub. During your final approach you will be receiving voice instructions from Oberon, of course, not from me.”
“Are you telling me that Oberon is co-operating in this outrage?”
“Let’s just say they are expecting you.”
Dolpou’s face went crimson. “Do you realise the gravity of what you’re saying?’
“I’m merely obeying orders, Your Excellency.”
Silence ensued on the voice-channel. Dolpou turned to face Anitra, offering spatio-color gestures of reassurance that she all-too-clearly didn’t feel.
Anitra found herself counting seconds. She reached the count of twenty-seven when the voice of Konstanz came through again.
“Excellency, begin your ascent… now.”
Dolpou squeezed on the controls. Ringed by the hoppers of their abductors, they took off vertically as instructed. And that was the last Anitra was to see of the surface of the Moon for a very long time.
…to be continued.