Suddenly Anitra spotted someone she knew. In astonishment she clutched at Nadia’s arm. The girl instantly located the object of Anitra’s surprise. “No,” she said, “don’t go near him – that’s a very wicked man!”
“It’s Uncle Peter! Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
Twisting her arm from Anitra’s grasp, Nadia turned and fled. Uselessly Anitra raised her hand in the direction of the girl’s departing back. But Nadia had vanished in the throng. With a shrug Anitra turned and walked towards her beloved uncle.
The chimorg was sitting at a table carved from a block of ice. Just then he resembled nothing so much as a recumbent snowman in the process of melting. In front of him was a drink of an improbable colour, equipped with a very long straw — more like a catheter than something agreeable to suck. Opposite him was a man of about fifty, clearly someone used to deference from those around him, but now content to sit respectfully in the other’s presence. He was nursing a drink of his own, in a similar chunky tumbler made of ice, a colourless one without a straw.
“Anitra, my precious!” Peter’s face expanded in delight. He leaned back in his trolley and threw his arms wide. Anitra bent down for a hug, from which her beloved “uncle” was loth to let her go, as he chuckled madly in her ear.
Anitra said “I thought you were still back on the Moon, under arrest. When did they let you go?”
But Peter only laughed the more.
“Let me introduce you to my personal physician,” he said when he’d recovered enough to say something sensible. “Mr Patrick Sullivan, late of the Thoracic Department of the Galen Clinic. Patrick, this is Anitra.” At which the august gentlemen actually rose to his feet and took her hand.
“My dear,” he said, “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
At mention of the other’s name, Anitra’s eyes widened in recognition. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said, as if her knowledge of the fact surprised her.
“I’ve heard a lot about you too, you know.”
“In a professional capacity,” laughed Peter, “although he doesn’t want to admit it. Patrick is a specialist in unusual physiognomies. He’s interested of course in your chromatic skin.”
“Where have you heard about me?” said Mr Sullivan.
“Gaby used to talk about you.”
Mr Sullivan laughed politely. “I’m afraid I can’t recall anyone of that name…”
“Nurse Gabrielle Starr,” enunciated Peter, his voice precise and serious all of a sudden. Mr Sullivan put his hand to his forehead, smitten with recollection.
“Good gracious — yes! Gaby… I do remember now.” He grinned at Anitra. “An impressive young lady. Most professional. From your part of the world I believe?”
“I’m from County Durham… on Gaia.”
“I know. And how is Gaby these days?”
Anitra’s face fell. She opened her mouth to reply, but her voice wouldn’t engage. Peter intervened, in a way Anitra thought somewhat abrupt. “Gabrielle is dead. Along with Anitra’s brothers.”
“Ah. Oh dear…” Mr Sullivan sat down again on the cushions of fur in his chair of ice. “I see.” He shook his head. “I really am so sorry to hear that.”
It wasn’t just politeness camouflaging confusion. It seems to Anitra as if the sorrow grew on his face as the news sank in. “So your brothers… are all dead too?”
Peter said, “I haven’t had the chance to tell Patrick. I’d been labouring under the illusion there was plenty of time. Thirty-two weeks, in fact, before we make landfall at Voronka Cosmodrome. To tell the truth, Patrick and I haven’t long met up since… since…”
Mr Sullivan finished the sentence. “Since the beginning of the last circadian. Since the time when Peter was a patient at the Galen Clinic – with an armed guard at his bedside.” He shrugged. “It’s strange how long ago it all seems now.”
Fifty, did she think he was? In Anitra’s eyes Mr Sullivan now began to look much older: seventy perhaps. Or was he, like her, in the grip of post-traumatic stress?
“Anitra my treasure,” said Peter, “where’s Dolpou?”
“Scurrying all over the place, demanding to see this person and that. She’s lodging an official complaint.”
“Complaint?” echoed Peter, glancing round at their luxurious surroundings. “About what?”
“About how we’ve been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped…” nodded Mr Sullivan, and began to smile oddly. “Yes, it is a term you could employ. For all four of us.” He said it in such a lugubrious manner that Anitra wondered whether he cared all that much.
“It certainly describes what’s happened,” said Peter.
“Dolpou thinks so,” Anitra continued. “She’s threatening dire consequences for the whole of Oberon if we’re not straightaway released and returned to the Moon.”
Tipping his head back, Mr Sullivan downed the rest of his drink. “Well there’s not the ghost of a chance of that happening. Not now we’re underway.” Which confirmed Anitra’s impression he wasn’t all that bothered.
Peter sipped at his straw, pain evident on his face, for all the appearance of enjoying himself he was trying to project. “Oh, she’ll settle in for the long haul, when she’s had time to think about it. An unscheduled vacation… wow! She’ll just have to lie back and enjoy it.”
He flopped down in his trolley in a sort of triumph at having made the effort with his drink. Waving his hand, he said “It’s not as if the alternative is very pleasant, travelling by fast-ferry. To take a biff up the backside by a hydrogen bomb, they have to put you in a hibernator.” He smirked as though he never wanted to go in a hibernator ever again. Which he didn’t.
Anitra turned incredulous eyes towards Mr Sullivan. “Have you been kidnapped too?”
Mr Sullivan laughed as if it was all a huge joke. “Let’s just say,” he replied, leaning back and folding his fingers behind his head, “I’ve been made an offer I can’t refuse.”
“Now that terms have been agreed,” said Peter, “Patrick has been officially accepted as a denizen of Oberon.” Turning to the surgeon, he said, “Are the facilities you saw today anywhere near as good as those you enjoyed on the Moon?”
“Oberon is excellently equipped. I had no idea. I shall miss my surgical team, of course. Back at the Galen the registrar was new, but he’d made a promising start.” Mr Sullivan nodded, contemplating the situation. “But I shan’t in the least miss the administrators I’ve had to deal with of late.”
“Did I hear Uncle Peter saying you were his personal physician?”
Mr Sullivan nodded again. “But he wants me to keep my hand in, with a little… ah… private consulting.”
“I should say he does,” said Peter with emphasis. “The sick-bay here has never had anyone of Mr Sullivan’s calibre.”
“Or Peter’s, if it comes to that,” said Mr Sullivan, supplying the information (which Anitra hadn’t known) that Peter was a trained anaesthetist. “There’s got to be some benefit to Oberon of inviting us all on board for a free voyage.”
In spite of having known her “Uncle Peter” all her life, she’d never guessed that, along with all his other accomplishments, Peter was medically trained. No wonder he and Gaby had always used big words when discussing the children’s health. She compressed her lips. However things stood between Oberon, Uncle Peter and Mr Sullivan, she was quite sure that she and Dolpou hadn’t been snatched from the custody of a Moonforce escort as the accidental fallout from an interplanetary healthcare initiative.
Dolpou Zvezda burst into the stateroom, tore off her helmet and dust suit and flopped onto the four-poster bed. “Come and talk to me, Anitra,” she said.
Anitra drew aside the curtain and sat on the edge of the bed. Dolpou’s skin was crawling with purple-grey patterns of anxiety and fatigue. Anitra felt she needed a big hug, but she didn’t offer. She wasn’t feeling very well-disposed towards Dolpou.
“Have you been here the whole time?”
“It’s what you told me to do.”
Dolpou flashed her a sideways glance. “That’s not what I said.”
If George Washington had had a chromatic skin, nobody would have given him credit for his legendary truthfulness. Anitra couldn’t tell a lie — not one to be believed. Least of all to a groubian.
“I thought I’d take a look round.”
“Oh yes? What did you see?” Dolpou sounded bored – or was it resigned?
“I spent most of the time on the Great Stair, simply marvelling at everything. Then I went down to the Mirror of Understanding — the Speil they call it — and that is even more marvellous.”
Dolpou mumbled with her eyes closed, “It is pretty wonderful, isn’t it. It knocks the Gaiascope into a cocked hat. Even now, when they’ve rebuilt the latter bigger and better than ever. Of course they can’t get the Gaiascope to spin round and round in space, girdled by the Milky Way.”
“Dolpou, are you cross with me?”
“For doing what you said I shouldn’t?”
Dolpou gave a short laugh. A bitter one, Anitra thought. “Of course I am. But you’re back here again, and you’re safe. So what’s done is done. I shall condone your disobedience.”
She opened her eyes and flashed Anitra another sideways glance. “I just ask myself: why do I worry?”
Anitra knew why she worried — and she felt contrite. Like any teenager, she used to play power-games with Gaby over things she’d been asked to do, but that was because Gaby couldn’t read her chromatic skin like a core dump from an electronic brain.
“Dolpou, there’s something else you ought to know…”
“Something else?” Dolpou smiled. “You mean to say that you can keep something hidden from your quarter-of-a-million-year-old maiden aunt?”
“I met Uncle Peter down in the Speil.”
Judging by the firework display that erupted on Dolpou’s skin, it was clear she hadn’t read everything from Anitra’s face. She cringed up into the foetal position and rubbed her eyes. “Well, doesn’t that just explain everything. No other reason need be sought for why we’ve been hijacked and brought here.”
On impulse, she reached across the bed and gave Anitra’s hand a squeeze. “Good work, star-child. I only wish I’d let you go off and find that out before I went storming in to see the Captain. He says he knows nothing about it all — and now I believe him.”
“Hasn’t he heard anything at all from the Moon?”
“You may well ask. I was expecting us both to be in the eye of a full-scale diplomatic hurricane. Instead the Captain didn’t even know I was on board. He has received no signal from the Moon about us. The Seleneans have said nothing at all. Nothing!”
“Perhaps they haven’t heard yet what happened to our escort?”
“Oh, they’ll have heard, all right. Moonforce will have known all about it the moment it happened. You would have expected them to demand the extradition of Red Erik and his entire gang to stand trial for murdering their policemen. Instead: not a squeak.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“I can only guess. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if Commissioner Nilsson hasn’t had a say in the matter. She is a wily fox, that one. She’d have realised it was done to force the hand of the Oberon passenger committee. So she has chosen to keep all her options open — not to mention those of Oberon itself. It spikes the guns of the people who’ve hijacked us, supposing they are hell-bent on precipitating an intermondial confrontation.”
“Whyever would they want to do that?”
Dolpou affected a convincing click of the tongue and a sigh. “Ah, star-child. What a lot of homework you’ve got to do.”
“So is everyone just going to shut up and let them get away with it?”
“When you stop and think about it, there isn’t a lot they can sensibly do for the next two years. Oberon has detached from lunar orbit and is now underway. They did it whilst we were in the levitators from the hub, so gently you probably never felt it. It cannot comply with anything the Seleneans might demand, even if the Captain wanted to. So, with model restraint, the Seleneans have said nothing. But just you wait till Oberon is back in orbit round the Moon. Selene is perfectly capable of invading it — even of destroying it (the stars forbid!) Of course Oberon does have a small but well-trained defence force of its own: the Falcons.”
“Who will win?”
“The conclusion is not in any doubt. Moonforce, in its combined police and military capacity, is the most effective fighting force in System Sol. When you consider the size and equipment of the US Army, the Red Army or the Chinese People’s Army, that’s saying something.”
“You mean Moonforce defends the Moon from outside attack as well as policing it?”
“It defends the whole of System Gaia, and has done so for the last four hundred years. Amazing, isn’t it. Never a whisper of a military takeover. They don’t go around boasting of it either. With typical Selenean self-effacement — Jantelov, they call it — they even give the illusion of being ashamed of the fact.”
Dolpou stretched and spreadeagled herself on the heavily embroidered counterpane. “Everyone of Earth habitually underestimates the role of the Moon in defending Gaia. If it weren’t for Moonforce, Mars would have invaded it long ago. They have absolutely nothing to thank its peoples for — and everything to gain from colonising ‘Beautiful Blue’, as they call it. And putting everything to rights, in their view.”
Dolpou turned on her side and lay in silence for half a minute with her face in her hands. “Oh, by the way… the Captain tells me we weren’t the last to arrive on board. We may well be hearing from Selene yet.”
“Dolpou, are we prisoners here?”
“Only to the extent we can’t get off until we reach Mars.”
“But Mars is where we’re going anyway. Does it do any harm if we take a bit longer over it?”
Dolpou groaned. “Not in the least, star-child. In fact we’ve been rescued, had we but know it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve had a message from Nanoud.”
Smitten with a sudden foreboding, Anitra put her knuckles to her mouth. Dolpou continued as if she hadn’t noticed.
“She finished what she stayed back for much quicker than she expected, so she was able to catch the fast-ferry we were booked on. Mars is so close at the moment that it’s only taken her a couple of days.”
“Is that all? And it’s going to take us eight months?”
“We’re chemical-powered. Fast-ferries are thermonuclear. On arrival at Voronka Cosmodrome she discovered people waiting for us. Gaians in the pay of Dr Galax.”
“How did she find that out?”
“They mistook her for me and demanded to know the hibernator you were in. She had them arrested and interrogated. By Olvoi: the army. Not by Zasta: the police.
“Why not the police… Zasta, did you call it?”
“Short for Zastavlénie — the Enforcement Agency. It works hand-in-glove with the Vratch – the medical police – the latter being headed by Dr Galax.”
“What would they have done to us?”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about. Especially since we’d have been frozen down and helpless. I rather doubt they’d have dared do anything to me, but I would have lost you, star-child. My mission to Gaia would have ended in disaster.”
Anitra was silent for several seconds before anything emerged from her open mouth. “So everything has turned out for the best?”
“Don’t speak too soon. But… yes.”
“Then why have you been running around complaining so?”
Dolpou sat up with a jerk. She looked like a resurrected boiled lobster. “Because,” she shouted, “it is vital not to give the impression that we’ll cheerfully go along with whatever they choose to do with us. It establishes a bad precedent.”
What did Nanoud say Dolpou’s trade was? Jurisprudence? Anitra tried to keep a straight face, but she couldn’t do anything about her skin.
Dolpou must have seen what she was thinking because she laughed and relaxed. “Of course I don’t expect you to understand.”
Anitra smiled and rose to her feet. “Let me get you a cup of coffee or something.”
“Bless you. Pick up the t-unit and tell them to bring me a gin-and-crab-juice. A large gin-and-crab-juice.”
As Anitra lifted the handset from its gilded cradle, Dolpou added “Oh, by the way, we’ve an invitation to dine with the Captain tonight. If ‘tonight’ has any meaning on this snowball-to-hell. It’s clear he’s impressed with the glamour surrounding his surprise passenger – and I should jolly well think so too.”
Anitra smiled and put the handset back on its cradle without letting go. “Dolpou,” she mock-chided, “I didn’t know you stood upon these things.”
“It’s you I’m referring to, star-child!”
She flopped back, flat. “We’re not refugees, we’re royalty. We’re going to have to buck ourselves up and look the part. Leave Captain Mond in no doubt about our status on board.”
“I’ve come with nothing.”
“Nor I, young lady, nor I. When I’m recovered, we’ve got some survival shopping to do.”
…to be continued.