Anitra lost all sense of time. They might have been there a few minutes, or it might have been hours. She felt soft fingers slipping into her hand. Even in the dim light, she realised, Nanoud could see and sense her misery from the patterns on her skin. She had no secrets she could keep from a groubian.
Presently her friend whispered in her ear, “What shall we do now?”
“I don’t know. You choose.”
“I’d like to go and bathe in the fountains. It’s the sea-creature in me.”
Anitra’s mouth dropped open. “Do they let you do that?”
“Isn’t it what they’re there for?”
“I thought they were just for decoration.”
Back on Earth, thought Anitra, people didn’t bathe in public fountains. Thoroughly Dolce Vita, that. It seemed things were different on the Moon. She followed Nanoud down a levitator into changing rooms. She was relieved to find there were separate ones for men and women. Nanoud bought what looked like two sticks of chewing gum from a vending machine.
“Is that all there is?”
“It unfolds.” For once Nanoud mistook what was on her friend’s mind. “Stop worrying. From a distance you can’t see anything at all.”
“Then what’s the point of wearing it?”
Nanoud looked genuinely shocked. “You can’t go around on the Moon with nothing on!”
“Isn’t that one gorgeous sight?” said Hermes.
“It sure is,” Viktor replied. “That’s why I love coming to the Gaiascope. The scenery’s so beautiful.”
“I’m going to dream about her tonight.”
“What’s the deal? Haven’t you seen a groubian bathing before?”
“The one on the right: the one sporting hair on her head. Groubians don’t have hair.”
“It’s a black wig. You often see them wearing wigs.”
“Not in water you don’t. That’s not a groubian — that’s a gaian!”
His friend turned to gawp at him in ridicule. “What, with a chromatic skin?”
“It’s fake. Some new fad.” Hermes wasn’t going to be argued down. “There’s always been this fashion to copy groubians. Chromatic holofaces: why, I’ve worn them myself.”
“Not over the whole body. That’s her actual skin.”
“Well, whether it is or not, that’s my species, man. Mine and yours. Look at her shape.”
“Perhaps it’s just how she’s holding herself.”
“Look at the finer details: fingernails, ears…”
Viktor stared more keenly, tongue probing the side of his mouth. The object of their wrapt attention was shrieking and giggling with her companion. They were hurling globules of water at each other which floated across like iridescent amoebas before exploding in rainbows on each other’s flickering skin.
“I think,” continued Hermes in deliberation, “that we’re witnessing an apotheosis.”
“Speak M2, will you?”
“An apotheosis. The birth of a goddess.”
“‘Venus rising from the foam’ — that sort of thing?”
“Something like it. Uh-oh — they’ve spotted us staring at them. Now we’ll have to go over and talk to them.”
Viktor affected scorn. “As if you needed an excuse.”
Grinning broadly at the two women, the young men went and sat on the ledge of the fountain, their legs dangling in the water. Nanoud turned away, but Anitra, thinking her friend was just being shy, took her hand to go over and talk to them.
For the moment, she’d lost her sense of the ridiculous. As if the commander of the Groubian Echelon was someone to be shy!
“Hi, I’m Hermes. And this is Viktor.”
“I’m Anitra. Hi guys.” Nanoud, however, stayed silent.
“Anitra — wow, that’s a nice name.”
Hermes was about to add “it’s not a groubian name” — but thought it churlish. What he really wanted to ask was “are you gaian or groubian?” But that would have been far too crass a thing to say.
“I’m named after the Bedouin girl in Peer Gynt.” Anitra wanted this marvellous boy to know everything there was to know about her.
“That’s unusual — but so nice.” Stupid reply to make, he thought. Hermes sensed that the conversation risked getting beached before it was properly launched. You didn’t chat-up a groubian in the same way as a gaian. Unable to dissimulate, they were apt to resent it unless you got straight to the point.
“Er — we’re students at PUG. I’m studying groubian culture, and Viktor… what is it you’re studying, Viktor?”
Viktor’s lip curled. “The behaviour of beer in lunar gravity.”
“You never told me,” protested Hermes, flipping knuckles at his friend’s midriff. He turned his frank gaze back to Anitra. “I’m doing my dissertation on groubians on the Moon.”
“How are you going to fill the other ninety-nine pages?” said Nanoud. But Anitra could see no sign of amusement in the patterns on her skin.
Hermes laughed, detecting no hostility – or convincingly ignoring it if he had. “Actually when you look into it, there’s quite a lot of material.”
“Even if you have to skim it off the fountains?” For some reason Anitra could not understand, Nanoud seemed keen to pick a quarrel.
“Pardon me,” said Anitra, flustered. “This is Nanoud. She’s… a groubian.”
Hermes, no doubt, could see that for himself.
“Hi Nanoud. Yeah — that’s more like a groubian name. And if you’re Nanoud Tolchok, then I’ve heard of you. Who hasn’t!”
Viktor interjected something in M1 which Anitra didn’t catch.
“Look,” said Hermes, “when you’re dry, both of you, come and have a drink with us.”
Anitra was dismayed to see her companion’s skin doing tiger stripes. Her own, she saw, had gone pink and gold like a hothouse bloom. She was never quite sure what that meant — except that it might be rather revealing. It certainly used to pull the boys at parties.
“I’ve heard of you too,” Nanoud said to Hermes. There was now an unmistakable off-note in her voice. “I’m sorry but we have to be going. We’ve somebody to meet and we’re just killing time.”
Hermes bit his tongue. “Have to be going, eh? Are you staying in the vicinity?”
“No, just passing through.”
But Hermes was not to be put off. Anyway, it wasn’t Nanoud he was trying to date. “Say, Anitra, how about it if I booked half-an-hour of your precious time — your very precious time — to interview you on the topic of groubians on the Moon?”
Anitra glanced uncertainly at Nanoud. “I don’t know much about groubians on the Moon. Groubians in general, that is.”
“Have you ever heard of one called Vermat Avrora?” Hermes was a gambler staking his last chip.
“Yes,” gushed Anitra, eager to impress. “She was my grandmother.” Too late: she caught sight of Nanoud flashing her a silent but vehement warning not to go revealing anything about herself.
Hermes’s eyebrows shot up. “Your grandmother? Then you must be…”
“Excuse me, sweetie,” said Nanoud, making a grab for Anitra’s arm. “Sorry, you guys, we’ve got to be off. Maybe we’ll see you around.” Her skin said Maybe We Won’t. She hauled Anitra firmly off, not letting go of her until they were back in the changing room.
“Why did you do that?” said Anitra. “They seemed perfectly nice boys.”
“They are,” said Nanoud. “But it was all getting out-of-hand.”
“Nanoud! What are you saying?”
“I didn’t recognise him at first. All gaians look the same to me. But as soon as he opened his mouth I knew him straightaway.”
“Who is he, then?”
“Hermes Krov’. The son of the Goubernator.”
Anitra did a sharp intake of breath. “The Olympian head-of-state?”
Her shoulders drooped. “Why is that so bad?”
“Anitra, listen to me,” Nanoud snapped. “You’re on your way to Mars precisely in order to petition the Goubernator for a grant of human rights. Cosying-up to his son would be viewed as a grave conflict of interest.”
“It wouldn’t have been for long. He only wanted half an hour. To talk about Vermat.”
“That’s right. You told him who you were.”
“No, all I said was Vermat was my grandmother…”
Nanoud stuck her knuckles on her hips. “That’s as good as telling him you’re one of the stellans. Which must have been the question uppermost in his mind.”
Anitra stared at her, trying to work things out.
“Do you imagine,” said Nanoud, “that people on Mars know nothing about Vermat Avrora — and her two famous offspring: Tvoul Rainbow and Shval Meteor? The story is legendary. They are teaching it in schools, now.”
“I didn’t know anyone would be so interested.”
Anitra was getting to recognise the spatio-color for laughter. And for different sorts of laughter. This wasn’t one of the nicer sorts.
Nanoud made an effort to explain. “When the Prometheus arrived back at the Moon from its six-year journey, having been lost in space all that time, the news electrified the Four Worlds. Your foster-mother Gabrielle was subject to intense questioning by Moonforce, who at the time didn’t see the need to maintain secrecy about the fantastic drama that emerged. She had to give interviews on Selenean TV. You would only have been six then — too young to remember. She went to Gaia with you and your brothers precisely in order to disappear.” Nanoud bit her lip. “And for another reason I don’t want to go into.”
Anitra sighed at her friend. Then she shrugged. “I suppose me growing up in an out-of-the-way place has left me in the dark about all this.”
Nanoud’s stare was intense. “You’ve never said a truer word.” Then suddenly abandoning her disapproving stance she clasped Anitra in her arms and kissed her as if taking a bite out of her. “You were safe back there on Gaia,” she wailed. “Dolpou hopes to keep it quiet that you’re here on the Moon. But she’s being totally impractical. That’s Dolpou all over.”
Anitra nodded with a shy grin. It was good having her impression of the arch-groubian confirmed by someone who’d known her for a long time.
“She wasn’t born on Mars,” complained Nanoud. “She’s terribly old and wise, but in her mind she’s still on Titan. Right across the Four Worlds the existence of the stellans is an open secret. Everyone knows your birthday, so they can work out when it was you came-of-age. And everybody knows that in order to get to Mars you’ll have to come via the Moon.”
“Well what am I to do? Stay locked up in purdah the whole time?”
“It’s what the Commissioner recommended. But Dolpou wouldn’t hear of it – and nor would I. Anyway it’s too late now.”
Anitra tilted her head to one side. “So what’s the problem?”
Nanoud flashed an exasperated glance. “With people around who want you dead, it doesn’t do to go showing yourself off in public quite so blatantly.”
Anitra’s face fell. “Now you’re talking just like my Uncle Peter.”
“Well,” Nanoud almost shouted, “might he not have a point?” Impulsively she reversed her mood, hugging Anitra again and giving her another kiss. “It was silly of me to let us bathe in the fountains. Hermes Krov’ has no reason to wish you harm. But everybody knows him — and he can’t even blow his nose without it reverberating around System Sol.”
Anitra was dressed by now. Nanoud had been too busy talking, her skin displaying complex patterns of agitation. “Dolpou will be livid when she hears” (and Anitra could just picture the colour she would go). “By the time we get to Mars, everyone will know that the Goubernator’s son has met one of the all-famous stellans.”
Back in their guest house, they lay on the bed and Nanoud began to teach Anitra to speak Groubian. It was an intimate experience: more intimate than Anitra had ever had with another woman, or had ever fancied having, though they were chaste and respectful to each other. Anitra allowed the patterns on Nanoud’s skin to bleed into her own, like coloured inks into clear water.
“I used to think of my skin as just moving wallpaper,” she said. “A sort of disco effect on vellum. But I see it has the power to say all sorts of things.”
“That’s right. As we are conversing now, this is the commonest language which groubians use today.”
“The commonest…? How many languages are there?”
“Hundreds, still in use. Plus thousands of dead ones — of which the most notorious is the language of the Book of Titan, whose idioms can kill. The written languages are different from the spoken ones, as you’d expect. The format of the medium sees to that.”
“Why do you need so many languages when there are only a few thousand of you?”
“It’s not until quite recently there’s only been a few thousand of us. The last war was frightfully destructive. We don’t have languages centred on nations as you do on Gaia, but according to disciplines. Occupations, you might say. Dolpou, for example, is a jurist. She speaks the language of jurisprudence — and she is so boring with it.”
Anitra relished Nanoud’s tone of disgust, which she expressed both in voice and colour.
“What is your discipline, Nanoud?”
“Can’t you tell? I’m a warrior: a soldier. I speak the language of combat and co-operation. Of hate… and love. The hate to pursue enemies to the end. The love to defend others… with my life.”
Anitra pulled back in surprise. “Would you defend me… with your life?”
“Of course, young Anitra. Why do you think Dolpou brought me along?”
Anitra wriggled back into Nanoud’s embrace, both grasping and failing to grasp the enormity of the privileges which were hers by right. “I’d never have guessed it. You are so kind and gentle. I think of you as someone my own age.”
Nanoud laughed. “Ask any Martian and they won’t say that. I scare people rigid. Didn’t you notice it with the two boys? Especially the one called Viktor.”
Now groubians mightn’t be good at reading gaian facial expressions, but they miss nothing in a tone of voice, for all that they don’t use soundwaves to communicate among themselves. Anitra’s attention had been so taken with Hermes that she hadn’t noticed the crumbly edge to Viktor’s voice as he bantered with his friend. Hermes, she thought, had borne up remarkably well under Nanoud’s hostility, unconcealed and unprovoked as she’d thought it had been. He and Viktor were two college boys, right out of their depth with strange girls in a foreign world.
“I think that was such a shame. I’d love to spend half-an-hour with Hermes. He seems so nice.”
“He is, Anitra. Oh, believe me. But it was a dangerous situation. I didn’t want us to be seen speaking with him: I knew we’d never hear the end of it. And I’m not completely sure about Viktor.”
Anitra sorrowfully shook her head, trying to bring her mind back to the business in hand. “You said something about the Book of Titan just now, about it being in a written language — a dead one. I just can’t imagine what that looks like.”
Nanoud smiled impishly and got up from the bed. She reached in the pockets of her clothes and drew out a short pearly cylinder, like an old-fashioned propelling pencil. This she placed in Anitra’s hand.
“What do you do with it? Does it unroll somehow?”
“There’s a hole at one end which goes from side to side. Put it up to your eye — no, the other way round. Can you see anything?”
“No…” Anitra was squinting, screwing up her other eye. “Wait a minute…”
“Look towards the light. On Gaia aren’t there toys like this called kaleidoscopes?”
“Ah, I see it now. It’s coming. Swirling clouds of colour — as if my face was right up close to yours.”
Nanoud snatched it away from her. “That’s enough for now.”
“Why did you do that? I was just getting into it.”
“I’m sorry, Anitra, I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.” She lowered her eyes to the pencil-form in her hand. “It is dangerous for a gaian to go reading the Book of Titan.”
Anitra stared at her, scrutinising the patterns on her face. She tried a brief snigger — and immediately felt sorry for it.
“I’m serious,” said Nanoud. “No gaian has ever read it right through in the original — and lived.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“I’ve never known a gaian die myself, but I cannot risk it happening. You’re far too precious, Anitra. It is too early for you to try — and you may never be able to manage it.”
“What is there about it that kills people?”
“Nobody knows. The mischief is concentrated in the Last Verse. It is something that we groubians find deeply moving. But with gaians something else happens. Their spirits drain away in horror.”
Anitra’s mind couldn’t take it in. “So you can’t tell me anything about what it says? You can’t show me yourself — in spatio-color?”
“Not the whole verse. It might kill you.”
“So, there’s no gaian alive that knows what it says?”
“Oh, no, that’s not the case at all. There are translations into gaian languages. Several. Why, our very own Dolpou has produced one.”
“Can I read it?” Anitra was trembling in her eagerness.
“It’s in M1. You wouldn’t understand it.”
“Is there an English translation?”
“Yes, lots. But you’d scarcely know they were all meant to be saying the same thing.” However Anitra wasn’t going to be fobbed-off, she could see that. She gave her shoulders a little twirl — a groubian sigh — which sprinkled green eddies round her body. “Remind me when we get dressed and I’ll dig one out for you.”
…to be continued.