There was somebody at the door and Dolpou answered. Anitra peeked past the drapes of the four-poster bed. It was the boy from the Gaiascope, the boy she’d glimpsed again just before her accident.
What was his name? Hermes: yes that was it. Hermes Krov’ – the son of the Goubernator. He was standing in the doorway with a huge bunch of flowers, which Dolpou was trying to prise off him.
“Oh, do let him come in, Dolpou. We know each other.”
Dolpou was seriously taken aback. Anitra could tell from the explosion of spatio-color on her face, though it was nothing Hermes would have been able to guess. Apparently Nanoud must not have told Dolpou anything about their earlier encounter in the fountains of the Gaiascope. What a pal she had in Nanoud!
“Hermes! How sweet of you to come and see me.”
“Anitra! I’m so relieved to find you conscious. I was desperately worried when I carried you off the ice. You were so limp and white… I thought you’d… gone beyond us.”
He walked over and reverently laid the flowers in her lap. She proffered him a kiss and he gladly accepted it, their lips meeting in the lightest of touches.
But with the energy that passed between them at that instant you could have lit the galaxy.
“Fancy seeing you here…!” Hermes and Anitra both commenced in unison as their lips drew apart. Both stopped in confusion and laughed. Dolpou Zvezda might as well not have been there, for all the attention they were paying her. But she was there — and moreover something was agonisingly plain to her which might have escaped the notice of these two young people.
It was love at first sight.
But this wasn’t actually the occasion of that “first sight”. That had been a little while ago, because they’d both had time to get over the initial shock.
Had it been downstairs in the Speil? Or on some earlier occasion she hadn’t been told about? That Nanoud hadn’t told her about?
Had Nanoud known?
“Are you going to Mars…?” said Hermes — then shook his head, realising he’d said something silly. How could she be going anywhere else? He sounded out of breath all of a sudden. “Where are you staying when you get there?”
“Hermes Krov’!” snapped Dolpou. “That’s quite enough for now.” She came over and stood behind his shoulder. “Our little patient needs to be kept quiet. Mr Sullivan’s orders.”
Then, as if making a conscious effort, her face became less stern, though somewhat more formal. “Thank you for bringing flowers. It was most considerate of you.”
She herded him to the door like a sheepdog dealing with a recalcitrant ram. “And thank you, too, for rescuing her off the ice…”
Dolpou followed Hermes out and closed the door behind her. As a result Anitra didn’t hear what was subsequently said. After an unexpectedly long time, too long merely to say goodbye, Dolpou came back into the room alone, scowling pensively. Her skin mirrored that scowl in spatio-color, so Anitra knew she wasn’t just putting on a show of indignation.
“You didn’t tell me that you two had met before.”
“No.” She was on the point of adding “I left it to Nanoud to tell you,” but she didn’t. The loyalty of a friend compelled loyalty in return. She wasn’t going to volunteer the information that Nanoud knew everything, but hadn’t told Dolpou. The groubian might be able to read it from her face, but if so — well — just too bad.
Luckily Dolpou didn’t look into her face to read it, but sat down hard on the bed. “Hermes Krov’”, she said, “is the son of the Goubernator.”
“Strange, then, that you thought it so lacking in importance as not to bother telling me.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”
“Think now. As soon as we get to Mars we will present your petition in the Court of the Goubernator. A petition for you to be recognised as human. A historic landmark…” She stopped to reflect on what she had just said. “Which has got to be the biggest understatement of all time.”
“I know, Dolpou. I’m very sorry…”
“Let me finish. Your legal counsel will be me. Not many people have a Supreme Councillor to represent them in court, but there are sound legal reasons for me to do the job personally. Very well: I am your legal counsel — and I represent the Groubian Alliance too, which has an interest in the matter. A profound interest.”
“Don’t think I’m ungrateful, Dolpou. A bit thoughtless…”
But Dolpou wasn’t mollified by her clumsy gambits. “Please pay attention to what I’m saying. I wouldn’t waste my words if it wasn’t so serious. Almost certainly your petition will be challenged. And I think I know who will mount the challenge: a firm known as TMG: ‘The Master’s Genes’. The portfolio will be in the hands of a certain Petra Persson, their legal counsel. They too have an interest in the little matter of your humanity.” She looked aside. “One that runs up hard against ours.”
Anitra swallowed hard. She gave up the hopeless task of trying to excuse herself. She would just have to endure the browbeating.
But it wasn’t Dolpou’s purpose to browbeat Anitra. She had long been waiting for the opportune moment when she had Anitra’s full and undivided attention to impart certain facts that sooner or later she needed to know.
That moment was now. If only the girl would stop parrying and listen!
“Petra is an old associate of Goubernator Krov’, dating from the time when he was Head of TMG. That is not to imply the Goubernator will be anything but impartial: his position compels it. But Petra knows him well — and she has the most incisive mind of any gaian I know. Her legal skills are on a level with my own… and I’ll bet you never expected to hear that from a groubian.”
Dolpou now paused to search Anitra’s face — and skin. Good. The child was paying attention at last. Though her receptiveness wasn’t all that it should be. Well, she would simply have to repeat it all over again, at some future date. It was no more than had to be done with groubian children.
She looked aside and continued with her monologue. “As regards my representing you in court, Petra will try to present the situation as a grave conflict of interest that I’m also on the Supreme Council, with privileged access to the Goubernator. That is something I think I can successfully rebut, even if it means subtly reminding the Court of the Goubernator’s past connections with Petra via TMG. Tricky, but I think I can pull it off.”
She turned and stared Anitra full in the face once more. The girl knew she’d be able to conceal nothing from her mentor.
“But it needs just one more conflict of interest to emerge… and your petition will be thrown out of court.”
Anitra swallowed and nodded. Tears started in her eyes. She knew what was coming. Exactly what Nanoud had said to her in the Gaiascope.
“If Petra gets to hear that the Goubernator’s son, his actual son, has fallen in love with you, she will make kalamari of me.”
Having delivered her body-blow, Dolpou abandoned the stance of the inquisitorial guardian. Tears streamed down her face as she embraced Anitra. Both women now wept freely on each other’s shoulders.
“Star-child, I’m your friend. Please believe it! But I’m your legal counsel too. You mustn’t hide material facts from me, particularly ones like this, or I can’t represent you effectively in court. I hate it, smashing up your love-life, but…”
She drew back and held Anitra by her shoulders at arm’s length, staring into her eyes. “But we must be careful. You… must be careful.”
Letting her go, she turned to stare at the floor. “It’s such an easy thing to say: don’t see Hermes again. Unfortunately we are all cooped-up together in this ice-world, with over thirty weeks to go. Now Marsgrav is big enough for you not to bump into somebody the whole trip, even if you happen to know they’re here…”
Dolpou glanced up sharply. Anitra could see the spatio-color signs for “Moon” and “force” flit across her face. Maybe it has been unconscious. But clearly Dolpou knew that Nilsson was on board!
“However Hermes Krov’, if he is the full-blooded male he’s cracked up to be, will seek opportunities to speak to you — even just to catch a fleeting glimpse of you.”
“What am I to do, Dolpou?” said Anitra. “Stay here? A prisoner in the stateroom for the rest of the voyage?” But Anitra knew she was being unfair. Just as Nilsson had done, Dolpou was challenging her to grow up. But she did so badly want to know what Dolpou had said to Hermes in the corridor.
Her mentor sat fidgeting with her fingers. “No,” she said finally. “No — of course you can’t. Here’s what you must do. Be polite to Hermes whenever you meet him. Don’t avoid him socially — but make sure you’re never alone together. Be neutral. He can’t read spatio-color so perhaps he won’t be able to tell too much just by looking at you. Use the holoface that’s built into your Martian helmet — it will hide your features, and so, to some extent, your emotions.”
“Yes, Dolpou.” Tears rolled down Anitra’s cheeks again.
“Martians do it all the time. And, whatever you do, don’t connect with the intensor. That is the way Martians find out all sorts of things about the world – and about each other. It takes a lifetime to learn how to to handle the intensor effectively, to hide things you don’t want everyone to know. Hermes has grown up in the Nix intensor. He can achieve things with it right now that would take you a lifetime to learn. He will find, as I do, the Oberon intensor naive and provincial — a pushover by comparison with the infinitely subtler one that bathes Nix City. You, on the other hand, have experience of neither intensor.”
She smiled bleakly at Anitra.
“With luck he won’t perceive your emotional state… as I can, all too plainly. You can keep it hidden from him if you concentrate on doing so. He will conclude his feelings are all one-sided. It is equally as important not to send signals of rejection as it is not to ‘pull’ him — as I believe you young people say on Gaia. He would interpret either as signifying the same thing: that you feel as strongly about him as he does for you. Plus or minus doesn’t figure in this particular equation.”
Anitra nodded, tears still streaming down her face. A hand-span above her navel, like an abandoned cigarette, something inside her was burning away to ash.
“You know how you take your shoes off when you enter someone’s house…”
“We English people don’t.”
“However do you keep your carpets clean? Anyway, on Mars we take our dust suits off as well.”
Anitra was shocked. “What if you’re wearing nothing underneath?”
Nadia was puzzled by the question. “Well you aren’t… are you?”
Dolpou had already explained to Anitra that as a rule you didn’t wear anything under a dust suit. “If Mars dust gets into the suit, it will cut your skin to bits. It’s like ground glass. Every grain’s a tiny razor blade.”
When shopping in preparation for dinner with the Captain, Dolpou had bought a dust suit and helmet for her. Anitra hadn’t been looking forward to wearing a helmet the whole time, as you did on Mars. She hadn’t realised how feather-light it was: no worse to wear than a scrunchie in your hair.
But wearing nothing under the dust suit made Anitra feel so weird that Dolpou had got her a white cat-suit of non-woven fabric (the shopkeeper called it ‘paper’) to wear underneath until she got used to being without it. “It’ll have to come off when you get to Mars,” warned Dolpou, which Anitra had heard with foreboding. “But until then you’ll be all right because there’s no dust here on the Oberon.”
Anitra had spent much of the intervening period trying out different holofaces and admiring them in the mirror. She could be a Barbie Doll, or even a T.Rex. The helmet detected her expression and reflected it in the holoface, with animé exaggeration. She fancied the idea of going around like Bugs Bunny, or the green rabbit character that was popular on Mars. But she remembered Dolpou’s strict instructions not to turn-on the intensor, the prime feature of a Martian helmet.
The others who’d been invited were there already. Hermes and Viktor, of course, plus another boy called Arne, a Selenean. Nadia’s friend Sophia was there already. All the young people were unselfconsciously sitting or reclining on big fluffy blow-up cushions in their bare skins, though all of them still wore their helmets.
“Always keep it on,” Nadia had declared. “A good girl never takes her helmet off.”
“The intensor protects your virtue. If a boy touches you inappropriately, just maxgear him.”
Nadia hadn’t explained what she’d meant by that, but Anitra looked it up afterwards. It was a simple but effective use of the intensor to punish someone without a trace of violence, but as compelling as a bullwhip. But of course to use it, you had to turn on the intensor in your helmet.
Everyone was showing a holoface. Everyone, that is, except Hermes, whose face nobody would let him hide. As she self-consciously slid out of her dust suit, Anita had projected her Bugs Bunny holoface, but forbore to utter “What’s up, Doc?”
Nadia had tempered her nakedness by making free with the henna. The pattern was so regular that Anitra decided she must have used transfers. She thought she’d try henna too and wondered what Dolpou would say. She’d suspect Anitra had secrets she wanted to hide.
Sophia, on the other hand, had decorated her skin with great swirls of pastel colour, laterally reversed on either side. It was clearly intended to emulate a groubian but the pattern, besides being stationary, was stylised like a spatio-color document, from which it had probably been copied. Anitra smiled to herself, wondering if Sophia knew what it said.
“Take it off, Anitra,” coaxed Nadia in mock-disgust, referring to her paper cat-suit. “I want to admire your chromatic skin. Show Sophia some real spatio-color to copy.”
Hermes cut-in. “Don’t listen to her, Anitra. You do exactly what you’re comfortable with.”
“You’re just a blank shape to me,” wailed Sophia. “You’re not switched-into the intensor.”
“Express instructions from my guardian not to.”
“That’s going to take some getting used to,” groused Viktor. But then he gave every sign of getting used to it without too much effort.
Whatever conversation they’d been having before Anitra arrived was abandoned. They would have been chatting in M1, the first language on Mars, but as soon as she arrived they all switched effortlessly to M2, which was close enough to American English for Anitra to understand what they were saying to her – or at least, to think she did.
They wanted to know what it was like living on Gaia. They weren’t for letting her get away with shrugging her shoulders and saying, well, like living anywhere, she guessed. To these young people, coming from an arid planet of bare rock as they did, Gaia had to be paradise.
“They say the sky is blue the whole time,” chirped Sophia. “Is it really? That’s got to be a myth.”
“It is in hot countries,” said Anitra. “But where I lived it was mostly cloudy.”
“Cloudy…!” Sophia glanced around the company. Her holoface was a manga character with wild spiky hair and she made its mouth open and its big eyes sparkle. “Dust clouds?” she added uncertainly.
“Clouds of water vapour, air-head,” said Arne. “They range from ground-level, when they’re called ‘fog’, to five miles in altitude, when they’re called ‘cirrus’.”
“Oh,” said Sophia in a little-girl voice. “Trust a Moon-man to know all about Gaian meteorology. What colour are the clouds, Anitra?”
Anitra pouted. “Cloud-coloured. Grey.”
“They can’t always be that colour,” protested Viktor.
“Mostly. Dark slaty grey too, in Wear Valley where I lived.”
“What about sunrises and sunsets?”
“Oh, that’s different. Sometimes I’d come home from school and just sit outside on the garden wall and watch the sun go down.” She knew she’d never see an Earth sunset again — and was glad for the holoface being able to hide the tears which were just waiting to well up. “When it was raining,” she added, clearing her throat, “there’d sometimes be a rainbow if you looked the other way.”
“Do a rainbow for us,” gushed Nadia. “Please. On your face, if you won’t take off that silly paper suit.”
Anitra switched off her Bugs Bunny holoface and obliged. The others clapped like children.
“Rainbow was your mother’s name, wasn’t it?” said Viktor. He murmured it casually, but the effect on the girls was startling.
Anitra nodded. Seeing the others’ looks of surprise, Viktor said “Girls and boys, this is one of the Stellans we have here.”
Viktor, mused Anitra, knew more about her than she was happy with.
Hermes must have seen the look on her face because he made a point of chiding his friend. “She’s travelling incognito, you mugwump. And she has a dragon of a guardian.” His eyes rested on her again. “Does Dolpou know you’re here?”
“I daresay,” said Anitra. “There’s not much you can hide from her. But I haven’t asked her permission, if that’s what you mean.” There was general laughter.
“Has Dolpou told you why she doesn’t want you to use the intensor?” Sophia wasn’t for leaving the subject alone. “Until you switch it on, you can’t transact.”
Anitra smiled bleakly. “I think Hermes had the right word for me back then,” she said. “Travelling incognito.”
“You’re certainly that. Unsociable, I’d say.”
“Sophia,” said Hermes scowling. “Make the effort.”
In such new, thrilling company, of young people her own age from another planet, Anitra was determined not to take offence. “I’ve never been in an intensor field,” she said. “They don’t have them on Earth… I mean Gaia.”
“Nor on the Moon,” said Viktor, “I mean Selene.” He nudged Arne hard, who had to put out an arm to support himself. “Savage lot you are.”
“Dolpou tried to explain it to me, but I can’t begin to guess what it’s all about.”
“Go on,” urged Viktor. “Just try it. Drop the menu and eyeball the option: ON”
“Don’t you dare!” said Hermes. “Dolpou will sense it immediately. I bet she’s simply waiting for you to do that. All ready to pounce.”
“That’s the feeling I get,” said Anitra. “No, Viktor, I’ll just have to be a good girl and do what I’m told.”
Viktor spluttered with ironic mirth.
…to be continued.