The door-chime told her that there were someone waiting outside. She was in the stateroom on her own, recovering from the excitement of the previous circadian. Dolpou was away on some secret errand as ever.
Dolpou had warned her not go answering the door to strangers. Only the steward had any business knocking on doors unannounced.
“Come in,” she called out, without getting up. If the person waiting outside was authorised to come in, he would be able to open the door himself anyway.
The steward entered without a word. Scarcely looking at her, but with a short polite bow in her direction, he left a parcel on a side table.
When he had gone she picked it up and weighed it in her hands. Twice shoebox size, it was fairly heavy — more than the weight of two pairs of heavy shoes. But her intuition told her it was footwear nonetheless.
She put the parcel down on the table again and stood back a step. Dolpou had said nothing about accepting parcels from strangers, but that, she thought, was because it hadn’t occurred to her that any would. Not because she’d think it was okay.
It was far too heavy to be a bomb. If somebody was sending her something to do her harm, surely it would be smaller — the size of the death’s-head charm on her bracelet perhaps? Curiosity making the veins thump in her temples, she picked up the parcel, sat on the bed with it and began to untie the decorative string.
The packet came open. Inside was a beautiful pair of skates in red leather, with stainless steel blades that shone like the Moon. She scratched around in the wrapping tissue, but found no indication of who’d sent them.
Dolpou perhaps? Right at that very moment the groubian wasn’t her favourite aunt. But whatever her vices — real or imagined — in Anitra’s eyes, she knew Dolpou was nothing if not generous. She’d had proof of it yesterday, when they’d toured the boutiques to get her decked out like a princess for dinner with the Captain.
But if it had been Dolpou, she would have given her the skates in person. Or taken her along to one of the myriad luxury shops to buy a pair.
No. Whoever it was had waited for Dolpou to absent herself in order to give her the skates.
Uncle Peter perhaps? Straightaway she dismissed the possibility. Like Dolpou, Uncle Peter would have made a point of giving her the skates in person. Back home he had been in the habit of surprising her with unexpected gifts. He used to joke he was gratifying himself, not her, because he loved watching the expression on her face as she opened the parcel.
Hurriedly she tried the skates on. They fitted perfectly.
Now here was another mystery. Not only did she have an invisible friend, but someone who knew her exact shoe size and fit. Instead of making her feel cosy and loved, as once upon a time it would, it gave her a creepy feeling. Who, apart from Dolpou and Uncle Peter, could possibly know her shoes size?
Staring at the beautiful skates in wonder, she noticed a small piece of grey paper stuck to one of the blades. It read: Be your own person.
Suddenly everything was clear. Commissioner Nilsson!
Back on Earth, waiting for the spaceplane, Nilsson had retrieved the trainers Anitra had thrown away. These would have told her not only that Anitra was in the terminal building but also her shoe size. Now, in their turn, the skates announced to Anitra that Nilsson was here on the Oberon.
She recalled Dolpou saying they hadn’t been the last to arrive. As soon as Nilsson knew Anitra had been hijacked, and where she’d been taken, the Commissioner must have decided to follow her.
To follow her? Or in pursuit of Uncle Peter?
The latter was more likely. Like a bloodhound, Nilsson would never abandon the trail. Did Peter know she was on board? If he did, she was as good as dead. Should she warn Uncle Peter? Nilsson was taking a big risk in informing Anitra of her presence on board. But she was an experienced policewoman: a judge of character by dint of necessity; a prophet of what an individual was going to do next.
She would be aware of the possibility that Anitra might tell Peter she was on board. And she had concluded she wouldn’t.
Or maybe, even if she did, Nilsson had her answer ready?
Perhaps the skates were a sort of test? To accept a secret gift was to agree to keep a secret. Nilsson was quite aware that Anitra knew too much for comfort now about “Uncle Peter” — for hadn’t she, Nilsson, told her herself? Anitra was no longer under the control of her former guardian — or even under his protection. Were they any longer secure in each other’s affections?
Nilsson had written: Be your own person. It was a challenge to grow up.
Downstairs in the Speil, Anitra sat down on one of the ice chairs swaddled in furs and strapped on the skates. Soon she was spinning in her own private world among the stars, twirling and leaping to the music of the spheres. Others on the rink were nothing but fleeting ghosts — she might have been entirely alone.
Suddenly it didn’t matter if she was. She no longer felt the slightest bit lonely and frightened, as she had confessed to Nanoud. She had become divine — she was a goddess. She felt her soul expanding to encompass the universe. “Who’s that marvellous girl?” — people would say as she flashed past. “Why didn’t someone tell us about her?”
And that was exactly what they were saying.
Momentary the outside world intruded on her perception. She caught a glimpse of someone she knew — or almost knew: that gorgeous boy she’d encountered in the Gaiascope. From whom Nanoud had lost no time in dragging her away. She felt her heart leap at the look of surprise on his face. She imagined he shouted something like “Hey — girl of my dreams!” — and then she had sped on past him, beyond his grasp.
Pride comes before a fall, they say.
Five seconds later, somebody stumbled and fell in front of her. She had no time to swerve, but took a tumble as her legs were swept from under her. She had a fleeting vision of the face of the gorgeous boy staring down in horror into her fading eyes. She was being borne off the ice in his strong arms…
But when she came to properly, she was lying on a trolley in the sick bay — and the face staring down at her was the elderly bespectacled one of Mr Sullivan.
“Speak to me, love.”
She tried to say something, but nothing would come out. Her eyes roved around the room, swivelling like those of a frightened beast.
“Don’t panic, chick,” said Mr Sullivan. “Just pause and think for a moment, and then tell me your name.”
“I’m…” It was on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t quite voice it. How silly not to be able to answer a simple question.
Then suddenly it came to her. “I’m Depesh… Depesh Snezhinka.”
Mr Sullivan looked old and grey. “Not good,” he murmured, forgetting not to say things to alarm the patient.
The face of Dolpou now appeared in her field of view. “That’s right, Depesh darling. That’s absolutely right. But you have another name too. Is it coming back to you now?”
In her stupor she thought: how can you have two names? Unless you’ve died and been born again, and been given a new one?
Mr Sullivan spoke once more, but it wasn’t to her. “Any sign of neocortical activity, Mr Zwillinge?”
“No… ahh, here it comes on the trace…”
Just above her eyebrows, almost out of sight, there was a shapeless face, clad like Mr Sullivan in surgical cap and mask. Although the face was upside down, she recognised her Uncle Peter. Smiling up at him, she said “I’m Anitra. Anitra Starr.” Her voice came out in a whisper, but it was no effort now to recall who she was.
What was Uncle Peter doing, dressed up as a surgeon? Then she remembered what Mr Sullivan had told her at their first meeting.
Mr Sullivan was smiling now. “And how old are you, Anitra?”
“Eighteen last birthday.”
“And when is your birthday?”
“Do you know where you are, right now?”
“On the Oberon.”
Mr Sullivan looked up at the others, relief creasing his face. “Well, I think that reassures us she’s not badly concussed. Thank heavens for that.”
Dolpou’s face appeared in her field of view. “That was a lucky escape, Anitra. Your skin had gone quite white. I thought we’d lost you…”
“Supreme Councillor Zvezda, I am releasing her into your care,” Mr Sullivan announced. “The steward will take her back by trolley to the stateroom, where you must put her straight to bed. Keep her quiet for 25 hours. Any problems – get back to me right away.” Mr Sullivan took off his glasses with a sideways motion. “And don’t go fretting her with questions.”
When Dolpou and Anitra had gone, Sullivan and Peter stayed in the sick-bay chatting about the case.
“Professional fame! As if I was in need of any. I must be the first non-terrestrial who’s had the privilege to conduct a medical examination on a stellan.”
“No you aren’t,” said Peter. “I am.”
“Did any British doctor ever attend her on Gaia? Her – or her brothers? Anybody medically trained?”
“Only Gaby, who was a nurse, and of course myself. I made absolutely sure of that.”
“I can well understand why. On Gaia a stellan would have caused a medical sensation.”
“You can say that again.”
Mr Sullivan wasn’t for saying it again, but he did have something else to add. “So you’re aware she has blue blood in her veins?”
“Bluey-green: haemocyanin being the active constituent. Not haemoglobin, like a land animal. More appropriate for a sea creature. She used to come to me with her grazed knees. I used to call her my Little Mermaid.”
“And she has a chromatic skin, like a groubian.”
“Plus two distinct minds. A gaian one, residing in her brain – and a groubian one, functionally based in her skin.” Sullivan scratched his chin. “We had a spectacular demonstration of that just then. The brain was comatose — and yet she was able to tell us her name.”
“They must have given her a groubian name!”
“Which mind is the conscious one, would you say?”
“Philosophically the question is undecidable. A gaian would say it was the brain, because that’s the only one a gaian has occasion to talk to. But somebody has been teaching her spatio-color, bringing her groubian consciousness to life.”
“Dolpou, I’d imagine,” said Sullivan.
“She seems the obvious candidate. But I’m told there was another groubian on the Moon with her: none other than Nanoud Tolchok.”
“The name means nothing to me…”
“General Nanoud Tolchok. Commander of the Groubian Echelon, no less.”
“Oh my God! That was a strong contingent the groubians sent to Gaia!”
“I see traces of Nanoud’s spatio-color signature beginning to appear on Anitra’s face. Very wicked — and very deadly.”
“So you can actually see things like that?” said Sullivan. “I’m forgetting of course: you were in a triada with a groubian.” He chuckled, recalling that “very wicked — and very deadly” was never more applicable than to Peter’s dead triadnik, Shval Meteor.
So Peter should know.
“Can you really understand spatio-color?”
“Nobody can really understand spatio-color — unless they are born groubian. Or, as it now emerges, born stellan. Anitra never had the opportunity on Gaia to learn a proper groubian language. Though she and her brothers had a secret spatio-color jargon which they cobbled up among themselves.”
“I wonder what she’d make of the Book of Titan?”
“I’ve often wondered that myself. It’s a thing I personally have never dared even to look at. I’m far too gaian in my make-up. As for Anitra, I’ve always dreaded it would make her brain implode, like it would mine. Like it does every gaian’s.”
Sullivan shook his head slowly, lips compressed. “Can’t be a groubian without knowing your Book of Titan.”
“But if it didn’t implode… indeed if her two minds ever start talking to each other… she would be able to explain the Book of Titan to the rest of us.” Peter let his pupils disappear up under his eyelids. “She would in the fullness of time become the Cosmic Mind. The ALL…”
Sullivan smiled to himself at that idea. “The All-Mother too, wouldn’t you say?”
Peter smiled too, but pensively. “No… that honour has already been bestowed.” Taking a deep breath he leaned back in his chair. “The grave of the All-Mother is in Esh Winning, County Durham, England, Planet Gaia. As a family we used to go and place flowers on it.”
…to be continued.