Ahead of them, still far away, almost submerged in the glare of the curved lunar horizon, Anitra could see the flash of a needle-like object catching the sunlight as it slowly turned. As it grew closer she could see it was a gradually rotating structure resembling a lopsided dumb-bell, one pod being much larger than the other.
At the balance-point where a fist would grasp it, the shank of the dumb-bell bulged. At first it looked like a skewered eyeball, and then like a child’s toy with a comical round head and a big-O mouth. Soon she could make out the name of the vessel written across the “forehead” in big black letters each the size of a tennis court:
Into the wide-open mouth was where they were heading. Dolpou steered the hopper in and the vast mouth gobbled up the stars around them. Mechanical arms locked onto them and swung them into an empty bay, ready for disembarkation.
As if she were watching a silent film, Anitra found herself being directed by a steward into a levitator, which sped them through its glowing rings to the larger of the two pods.
The pod’s official name was Mársnaya Gravitátionala Sredá: Martian Gravitational Environment. Everyone knew it as Marsgrav.
“Are we prisoners, or aren’t we?”
The steward looked nonplussed at the brutality of the question. “Excellency, you are free to come and go as you please.”
“Then take us back to the hub and put us in our hopper.”
The steward shrugged helplessly. “Preparations are underway to detach from lunar orbit, Excellency. We cannot service any arrivals or departures during that time.”
Dolpou turned to face Anitra squarely. “Isn’t that clever of them. So we’re bound for Mars. Well, it may be where we’re going anyway, but why do they imagine we want to spend eight long months doing it?”
Turning to the steward she snapped “Well then, take us to the captain.”
“I can do that for you, Excellency. But first let me show you and Miss Starr to your respective quarters. If you will heed my advice, it will serve as an ideal base from which to lodge complaints about your treatment. Otherwise you could spend a lot of time standing around in corridors.”
Dolpou, on account of her status, had been assigned a stateroom, but Anitra merited only a tiny one-person cabin. To this the steward led them first.
Anitra just wanted to stay there, to lie on the bunk and take some time-out to recover from her frightful experience. But Dolpou snapped at the steward “This is simply not good enough. You’d better show us both to the stateroom.” She turned to Anitra. “Remember where this cabin is, but come along with me.”
The stateroom was far better-appointed. There was a large en-suite bathroom with a bath that could have comfortably accommodated two people. Anitra wasn’t sure she wanted to share a bath with Dolpou, even a large bath, but she knew that groubians did that sort of thing and expected others to as well. It had to do with being descended from sea-creatures. In addition, as she’d found out with Nanoud, conversing in spatio-color using nothing but your face was like talking through a keyhole.
There was a superbly-equipped kitchenette leading off the dining area, though the availability of so many bars and serveries in Marsgrav meant there was never any need to prepare food except to pass the time. And in the middle of one wall was a four-poster double bed, draped in gold brocade.
“Anitra, you must stay here with me. Then I can keep you under my eye.” Anitra’s skin must have involuntarily made it clear how much the prospect appealed to her of having to share a double bed for eight months, for Dolpou added, turning to the steward, “Can you make up an extra bed?”
“No trouble, Excellency. I’ll tell the stateroom steward. If you want to summon him yourself, at any time, just lift the t-unit and speak.” He pointed to an Edwardian-style telephone of gilt and mother-of-pearl sitting on a marble coffee-table. It was more like a shower fitting, Anitra thought, than an instrument of communication.
“This is better,” said Dolpou. “Now take me to see the captain.”
Dutifully the steward led the way back out the door. “Stay here, Anitra,” Dolpou called back over her shoulder as she followed him. “Phone the cabin steward and get him to bring you something to eat. Don’t wander off — it’s not safe.”
Anitra sat down hard on the Chesterfield, bouncing up and down moodily. Before a minute had gone by, she knew she was going to get extremely bored waiting for Dolpou to come back.
What did she mean — it wasn’t safe? They’d certainly been in danger earlier on, but now everything seemed peaceful and civilised. Oberon was about to detach from lunar orbit and set sail for Mars — so nobody could board the vessel, or disembark. How she wished Dolpou would calm down and come to terms with the situation.
In spite of the length of time it was going to take, travelling to Mars on the Oberon sounded much more appealing than being frozen down in a sort of coffin to be stowed in a fast-ferry. What else had she got to do with her life that was so important? She picked up an apple from a bowl, big, rosy and glistening, but her appetite didn’t rise to the challenge. She put it back.
Presently she took a good look at the plastic card the steward had left her. It served as an all-purpose pass as well as a door-key. It was probably good for an orange juice at one of the bars. What was wrong with having a quick look round outside? She wouldn’t go far. She was certain to be back long before Dolpou had finished running around moaning at everybody.
She tried the door, half-expecting it to be locked, but it wasn’t. Pausing only to glance both ways, she slipped out into the corridor and was soon at large in the most luxurious vessel in the known universe.
Presently Anitra found herself drawn to one of the less luxurious parts: a tiled open space with black skinny-legged tables and bentwood chairs. The spartan familiarity of its decor reassured her however, for already the adventuresome urge had evaporated and her inquisitive spirit was beginning to quail. The tables were mostly empty — there were only three people sitting at them, all widely spaced about. Around the walls were shuttered serveries, of which only two were open. One was serving soft drinks plus popcorn which they were making fresh on the counter. The other had a fish-tank with an assortment of strange creatures swimming inside it. A man standing at the servery was having one fried up for him in a wok and was holding out a small bowl of rice to take delivery of it.
Anitra shuddered and drifted towards the popcorn hatch.
No — they didn’t need money. It was enough for her to show her plastic card. Getting a beaker of orange juice and a clear basin of multi-coloured popcorn that seemed to be glowing, she picked her way past the skinny chairs to one of the empty tables at the edge of the dining area. There was no wall here and it ended in gleaming chrome railings with their uprights sheathed in indigo velvet. More railings, plus another such dining area, were visible about fifty feet away on the other side of a vast void.
Anitra sat down — and immediately rose to her feet in wonder. For it was only when she happened to glance up that she realised the enormity of the void she was sitting beside. It was a stairwell, but of a size she’d never imagined possible.
Over thirty decks ascended on the opposite wall (she didn’t try to count them), each fenced with railings like the ones she was leaning against. Behind the railings, people in all kinds of dress from Martian dust suits and Terrestrial dinner jackets to garlands and grass skirts — or what seemed from a distance to be nothing at all — stood, sat, ate, drank, danced or reclined, taking their ease in a fabulous space-party that showed every sign of going on for the whole eight months of the journey.
This was what heaven must be like — or was there purgatory mixed-in with it somewhere? Maybe hell was here too, hidden behind the walls…
The stairway itself was pure Fritz Lang. It stretched the width of the void, rising past each of the thirty or so decks in flights of thirteen steps, with around twenty feet of landing on a level with its proper deck separating each flight. It looked like sea-green marble from top to bottom, but was mostly covered by a crimson carpet. Chandeliers of a magnificence she couldn’t have imagined in the plushest of palaces hung like globular clusters in the empty void — empty, that is, of all except the music of strings tuned to a tonality utterly new to her. Beneath it, like a murmuring of a wide shallow river, or the baseline of a cathedral choir, the chattering of thousands of voices spread itself like homespun fabric woven from multifarious lives.
Stunned by the sight of it, Anitra sleepwalked along the railings to the landing at her level, still clutching her bowl of glowing popcorn. She stepped onto the Great Stair past wrought-iron lamp posts, each bearing three pale globes, which guarded the corners of the landings.
From each wide gateway so-formed, people spilled onto the Great Stair and separated into ones and twos before sitting on the steps chatting, holding hands, or simply doing nothing. There must have been a couple of hundred people on the entire stairway, but widely enough separated that someone could walk from top to bottom — all 365 steps as she later found out — without having to alter course to avoid anyone.
Not that people were obliged to walk the length of the Stair. Two pairs of escalators ran down the centre, black channels in the greenish marble. They slid silently and smoothly in either direction, turning into moving walkways at the landings, carrying their passengers past deck after deck of self-confident faces and smartly-sheathed limbs.
She was near the top of the steps, looking down as if trying to peer right to the end of a city boulevard, which indeed it was. On impulse she began the descent.
Now Anitra was at the bottom of the long flight of steps. The lowest landing was dim, lit chiefly by the light which seeped down from the Stair. At the far end of the landing were six swing-doors with small round windows, their doorways framed in glowing neon tubes. They defied rather than invited her to pass through into whatever lay beyond.
She turned and looked back up the way she’d come. She felt like a soul descended from the realms of bliss to the dark Earth, to be born into a world of sorrow and tears.
She was on her own for the very first time since the day her family had been snatched away. The courage she’d been able to muster whenever she had company now totally deserted her. Although there were people about, they were anonymous, paying her no attention. She had a flashback to Bishop Auckland Hospital when she was fleeing from Commissioner Nilsson: plenty of people in the corridors, but none of them able to offer any comfort or company: wrapped up as they were in their own personal miseries.
She pictured the body of Andrew – the only one of her brothers she’d actually seen in the hospital mortuary – a pale white alien in death, as she had never known him in life. Sitting on the lowest steps with her back to the ebony plinth of the Shrine of the Sun, she put her face in her hands and wept, hoping not to be seen by any of the revellers in the bars, or on the Great Stair behind her.
All at once she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She raised her eyes from her cupped palms. A girl of roughly her age had knelt down beside her to offer her comfort. There was the briefest flash of astonishment at the sight of Anitra’s chromatic skin, then tenderness and sympathy flowed back into her face.
“Magou-ia shto-niboud zdelat’…?”
“I… beg your pardon?”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
Through her tears, Anitra forced a smile and patted the comforting hand. “I-I don’t think so — ye-yes — I’m not sure…” Stifling a sob she cast around in her mind for something sensible to say. “I’ve only just arrived and I’m lost.”
The newcomer helped Anitra to her feet and, putting her arm round her shoulders, led her gently across the landing. “Beyond these doors there are tables and chairs to sit at. We can talk in private and I can get you something warm to drink.”
The girl said her name was Nadezhda, Nadia for short. She was so obviously Martian that she didn’t need to say. She was clad in a loose crinkly onesie that sparkled like silver foil, but softer, draping her delicate frame like fabric. It merged into chamois-soft gloves and neat leatherette boots: at least that’s what the material looked like to Anitra’s eyes, though it was as strong as Kevlar. It was a Martian dust-suit. Neither Dolpou nor Nanoud had worn one, and she’d only spotted the occasional one from afar on the Moon, but there were a lot more of them to be seen here. A lightweight helmet – Martians were never to be seen without their helmets – framed her round pretty face.
The swing-doors led to flights of stairs on a more familiar scale, leading down to the lowest deck. What was down there? Storerooms — washrooms — utilities of one sort or other? The gaudiness of the door frames, each like a retro nickelodeon, hinted otherwise. A casino perhaps?
Had she been by herself, Anitra in her present mood would not have had the courage to go through them. But now, with her newfound friend by her side, her sense of curiosity welled up again. Nadia pushed open the swing-doors and they tiptoed down the stairs… and presently Anitra found herself within the greatest marvel of all.
They were standing in darkness, or so it seemed after the brilliance of the Great Stair. Shapeless coloured lights broke up the gloom: not to illuminate this invisible forest, but rather to confuse the unwary traveller and lead him astray to his ruin.
Then Anitra realised they were standing on a glassy floor. A frosty web of paths radiated from the cascade of stairways behind her. When she put her foot off the path it slipped. The pathway itself was of a non-stick matting, but the floor in greater part was an ice-rink.
As it happened, the entire outer shell of Oberon was made of ice. Turned on a massive lathe in the pigmy gravity of the Moon, the pod had been sprayed for months with water mixed with clear reinforcing fibres. This had instantly frozen into a rock-hard, immensely tough crust which was gloriously transparent.
It was this crust she was standing on. The central hub of Oberon was immediately overhead and the rotation of the vessel was simulating an outward-flinging pseudogravity. Here, on the outermost rim of Oberon, its pull was equal to the pull of gravity on the surface of Mars.
Now, looking around her, she realised why she’d felt as if she were lost in an enchanted forest. Uneven columns of ice, like old gnarled trees, caught the light and twisted it into uncertain shapes that writhed as she moved her head. The columns bound the icy ceiling to the floor without the need for walls. They left ample space to walk between, and to skate.
Now she understood the reason for her fleeting sense of giddiness. Skaters were dancing to music upon the transparent floor, whirling round and round as if they themselves were orbiting in empty space. Beneath their feet and round about, the Milky Way spread out like a vast frozen river.
The sight took her back to carefree childhood days in County Durham, when she’d had her family around her. Never suspecting that one day she’d lose them all and be compelled to forsake Planet Earth in a madcap quest for the legal right to be treated as a human being. Durham City had an ice rink, and Gaby often used to take them there, her and the boys. They all got good at it, and Anitra even showed promise of reaching competition standard, had she been bothered to put in the necessary practice.
Oh, for the chance to skate again!
She turned to stare at Nadia. “Where are we?”
“We’re in the Speil!”
The Speil! Of course… the Mirror of Understanding: Forstandens Speil in H-C Andersen’s archaic Danish. Anitra recalled Nilsson telling her about it. Now she was Gerda the Flower Girl at the North Pole, standing in the wonderful palace of the Snow Queen.
Was she all about to find her Little Kay?
…to be continued.