NEXT—> Advice from the Serpent

Another instalment of our serialisation of Anitra’s Petition, the sequel to The Titan Kiss, by Clark Nida (2020). A further 3,000 words (or so) will appear tomorrow.star_tattoo_4_by_stock_kat

“The thing I don’t get,” said Anitra, “is how it takes the place of money. How do you Martians manage without money?”

The young Martians looked at each other. Had they thought it a stupid question — an inappropriate one — or even plain insulting? The answer was no doubt going to and fro on the intensor, but Anitra was of course blind to all that.

“Look at it this way,” said Hermes eventually. “Do you ever use money in the family — I mean, between yourselves?”

“Sometimes, but not often. Only as training for life. Gaby would say, you must pay your brother the true cost if you want him to do you such a big favour.”

“The true cost…” said Hermes, eyes raised, appearing to reflect. “Think about it, everyone. Between a willing seller and a willing buyer there’s no such thing as the ‘true’ cost. The cost is just the consideration they agree between themselves.” He was proudly airing his knowledge of exo-economics. “But did Gaby — did you call her? — ever charge you money for giving you your supper? For washing your clothes?”

“No. But when I wanted to change my clothes twice a day she’d say, ‘do you think we’re made of money?’”

Laughter. “But what about with strangers?”

“Oh yes. Nobody does anything for you except for money. You soon learn that in life.”

“Yes, you soon learn it. But don’t you see, you have to be taught it?” He stretched and took up another position on his cushion. “The Inuit people, I’m told (and Arne will confirm this) don’t have money. They don’t have this institutionalised distinction between family and strangers. Everyone’s either a brother, a sister… or an enemy.”

“Strangers are people you’re not sure about,” said Anitra. Her glance couldn’t help straying to Viktor.

“That’s exactly right. Now, with the intensor, you can be sure of everyone you meet.”

“Almost everyone,” added Viktor. He had seen how she’d looked at him and his eyes held hers in challenge.

“Nobody likes freeloaders,” Hermes continued, ignoring him. “On Gaia the money system serves as a primitive way of ensuring it isn’t all take and no give for some people. Of course it doesn’t work with princes and millionaires. They go around taking whatever they fancy — and nobody complains. What’s more, money is anonymous. You spend it — people love you for that — but nobody knows if it isn’t ill-gotten gains. The intensor is the civilised way of achieving the same goals as money, but without its disadvantages. As soon as you meet someone, you get an immediate impression of what they give… and what they take… out of life.”

“The cumulative record,” said Viktor, imagining what Hermes had said needed clarifying, “of what they have given and have taken out of life. It’s called their intensions — with an S, not a T. It has to be multi-dimensional because not everything can be reduced to a single measure… I mean in the way terrestrials try to reduce everything to dollars.”

“Everything has its price,” said Anitra, “as we say on Gaia.”

“Shouldn’t that be: everyone has their price?”

“Everything does,” said Hermes, implicitly contradicting Viktor. “Valuta, we say, not price. Valuta has infinite dimensions. Price has only one. There are smiles… and there are kisses. They aren’t measured on the same scale.”

Anitra recalled his kiss on her lips, when he’d brought her flowers. She read in his eyes the identical recollection. But he was keeping his face straight, even wooden, to preserve their secret in the present watchful company.

“‘How many smiles in a kiss?’” Viktor flopped back on his cushion. It hadn’t been a gnomic utterance of his own contrivance: it was a tired Martian cliche, but Anitra wasn’t to know that. “Smiles and kisses… the two principal components of the Hilbert space of the intensor. Incommensurate — and thus mutually orthogonal.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Anitra. She was beginning to conceive a lively dislike of Viktor.

“It means,” said Hermes with a sigh which sounded regretful, admitting that Viktor had in fact said something meaningful (which up to that point Anitra had doubted) “that the two are not interchangeable. No number of smiles adds up to a kiss. And no number of kisses…”

He broke off what he was about to say. For a moment Anitra thought it was a histrionic gesture aimed solely at her. But his lowered head and sideways flick of the eye contradicted that interpretation. What he had just said – or had failed to say – had been for fear of what he’d been on the point of broadcasting to the world at large on the intensor plane.

Martians’ relaxed attitude to nudity, born of their planet’s pervasive lethal dust, didn’t mean they’d lost all sense of shame. Far from it: shame had simply translated itself to the intensor: the electronic modality in which consciousness now for the most part resided. Protected behind a visor in your helmet, your face no longer mattered as a social organ, except as a high-bandwidth interface to the intensor. In its place you were allocated a hyper-face in hyperspace: your intensions (“with an S, not a T”). These you had to cultivate and defend – with much more than perfume and foundation – if there were to be anything left of your mind, your feelings, your very soul, that was not embarrassingly on-view to all and sundry.

It suddenly struck Anitra just what the intensor mediated – and what it could achieve. And why Dolpou didn’t want her switching herself into it. Not here, not in the steamy hothouse of the Oberon.


The auditorium on Deck 38 was unaccustomedly full. It reminded Anitra of the Gaiascope — or at least what the Gaiascope would look like if sliced in two, with a much smaller central stage. Almost half the people on board must have been there: one representative at least from every family. Being somewhat nearer the hub than Marsref (the Mars gravity reference-point at the centre of the Speil) pseudo-gravity was noticeably less here. Fine for sitting and listening, being somewhat easier on the bottom. A good thing if you were going to have to sit for a long time.

Although it hadn’t been billed as such (in fact its advertising had been distinctly low-key) it was going to be the most important assembly in the entire history of the Oberon. With thousands of people present, Anitra might have expected a sensation of excitement, as you get with a football crowd. But the atmosphere was sombre, like Remembrance Day. Or Nedélia Slëz, the groubian equivalent, commemorating the dead of the two Olympian Wars.

Anitra and Dolpou crept down from the doors at the back in the soft light until they came to a row with two vacant seats. In contrast to the restful bluish lighting of the auditorium, the stage was ablaze with white light.

Seven people sat on the podium behind a long table covered with a tasselled black cloth embroidered in silver with the logo of Oberon: an upward arrow transfixing a lunette. A picture came to mind of school speech-days and Anitra smiled to herself. She recognised the purser and Captain Mond, but three of the faces on the podium she couldn’t put names to. The captain was in the chairman’s place. Next to him on his right sat a beef-faced man with curly ginger hair and a commanding presence. Then came Uncle Peter in his trolley — he didn’t need a chair.

She touched Dolpou’s arm.

“Who is that sitting between Uncle Peter and the captain?”

“That’s Eric Rauthi — ‘Red Erik’. I’m surprised he has the nerve to put in an appearance in such high profile. He is here as the representative of the Selenean expatriates, which is the power-base he’s been cultivating.”

Without noticeable signal, certainly not from the stage, the audience began to chant in a fitful murmur, which gradually rose until it sounded like the sea on a windy shore. It was the anthem of Marsgrav, rarely heard these days, but heard now, such was the singular nature of the occasion. Anitra didn’t recognise the tune, nor could she understand the Selensk words: Vi elsker vores pod

Captain Mond raised one hand. All eyes upon him, the singing died away.

“Denizens,” said the captain. “I have called you together to hear the facts about the situation we find ourselves in — and to consider our options.”

The silence which followed seemed to echo in Anitra’s ears.

“As you will all know, the wealth of Oberon has chiefly come from the transport monopoly it has enjoyed… ever since the demise of our sister vessel Titania.

“All good things, they say, must come to an end — although it is not a thing to be taken for granted. The voyages of Oberon are constrained to a two-year cycle, when Gaia and Mars draw near to each other on the same side of the Sun.

“In recent years much of our trade has been creamed-off by the eight so-called fast-ferries: vessels of the Prometheus type. Powered by thermonuclear cartridges, they can undertake a journey which takes us around 200 circadians in virtually as many hours — and they can set off and arrive at any time in our two-year cycle.

“Such are the needs of business that more and more people are forsaking our luxury conditions for a quick-and-nasty journey frozen-down in a hibernator. Alas, these are the very people who used to pay full-fare.

“The fast-ferries have been long in the planning. We knew they were coming, but we refused to let ourselves be troubled by the fact. But now comes a time of reckoning. Trade has dwindled to a level which can no longer maintain us in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. We are forced to look further afield for our living.”

Captain Mond went on to invite the audience to make suggestions as to how this could be done. The ideas from the floor were few and impracticable. The public mood degenerated from sombre to sour.

“A proposal has been put before us, however, which is as exciting as the prospects facing us are depressing. But it is something we must all consider most carefully. All eligible denizens will be asked to vote on the issues, but this won’t take place today. The ramifications are so profound that we must all have time to mull over them and discuss them among ourselves.”

The captain turned to his right. “We all of us know Erik, one of our most prominent denizens. Let me hand over to him to explain it to us.”

Red Erik got to his feet and raised his arms like someone inviting the adulation due to him. A cheer arose as if the home team had scored a goal. Anitra glanced around her, but not every face was shining with joy. Some were silent and serious, Dolpou’s among them. Anitra looked back again at the man in glory on the stage — and she momentarily recalled a picture in her history book of Mussolini: a demagogue about to tell his people thrilling lies.

“Denizens,” he cried and the assembly roared again. “Captain Mond has laid it on the line for us. But there is a ray of hope I want to share with you. More than a ray: a beam.”

Again the assembly roared, but Erik made a gesture which clearly signalled this was not to be a revivalist meeting. Everyone should pay close attention. To emphasise the fact he put his hand on Peter Zwillinge’s shoulder, clearly meaning to confer his blessing upon someone whom the gathering might not automatically accept.

Anitra had never heard her Uncle Peter speak in public. Whatever else he could do, it was not a thing she’d expect him to excel at. But he spoke clearly, with emphasis, even if his bearing was wooden and his voice like a belching toad. The content of his address more than compensated for what he lacked in Erik’s pulling power.

“Let me start,” he said, “by asking an obvious question. Why should anybody want to go to Mars?”

He paused for effect. Not a sound greeted him.

It was not a question the denizens of Oberon cared to ask themselves. People did. And they wanted to come back. In consequence wealth flowed in. But now it was pertinent to ask that simple question.

“People’s motives have varied over the years. All too often they were simply not wanted on Gaia. They would have died if they’d stayed. They were refugees, whether or not they saw themselves as such. It was never their intention to stay on Mars forever, them and their descendants. In time there would be other worlds to go to: better worlds. Don’t we denizen believe we have a better world right here?”

That elicited a murmur of approval, grudging though it was, coming from the person it did.

“Being brought up on a planet, as most people still are, one gets hung up on the idea that planets and moons are where one ought to live. But natural bodies resembling Gaia, Selene and Mars are in short supply. All too rarely is the climate healthy or the atmosphere breathable. But consider: perhaps the future of humanity is to live on worlds like Oberon? By spinning our platform we can choose whatever gravitational environment we wish to live in. We can shape our world exactly as we please. Then all we need a planet for is anchorage in the Goldilocks Zone of a star — and as a source of raw materials.

“Oberon, like the first colonists on Mars, is now no longer needed by the planets that gave it birth. As Captain Mond says, everyone could see it coming. Not everyone however has been idle. Some of us have seen to it that Oberon becomes autarkic — that is to say, we can manufacture out of ambient raw materials all we need for our continued welfare. And what is even more vital: all we need to replicate ourselves by building daughter Oberons.

“The galaxy is one big vat — and we are a single cell of yeast. If we choose, we can in time leaven the universe with our progeny: each world providing a good life for its denizens, just like our own does. What an adventure!”

Once again Anitra looked round at the faces in the dark, illuminated like a multitude of moons by the light from the stage. She noticed a pattern: the older the face, the less enthusiastic it looked. She was starting to learn, as young people do, that nobody well-off welcomes change of any sort. They know from experience it is more likely to be for the worse than the better, no matter what blandishments are offered.

“However,” continued Peter, “if we are already feeling the pinch, where are we to get the victuals to launch us on our voyage of discovery?” He appeared to be thinking hard about this, but of course he had his answer ready.

“Now it so happens that the Strana of Olympia has long been incubating a project dear to the heart of every Martian: Project Tahiti. The name is significant. In the days of the great scientist, Robert Hooke, it represented to people living in England a faraway island on the other side of the planet. But from that island a predicted astronomical event of fundamental importance was going to be observed under the most ideal conditions: the Transit of Venus.”

Pinching thumb and forefinger into a monocle around one eye, he slowly moved the index finger of his other hand in front of it.

“Now Robert Hooke had the vision to encourage his countrymen to plan for an event that would not take place until they were all long dead. It was left to a later scientist with comparable vision — the celebrated Captain Cook — to undertake the voyage to that distant land, almost a century later, and perform the prescribed observation.

“Observing the Transit of Venus was the overriding goal of the expedition. The reason why is one I won’t go into. It has long been diluted in the public mind, because what Captain Cook’s popular fame rests on is opening up new worlds. Now Project Tahiti is just such a voyage: to open up new worlds in the outer reaches of System Sol… and beyond.”

As he said those words to solemn effect, he held up his arms and slowly brought them down in a wide arc, as if to embrace the whole of the Milky Way.

“I propose that before we reach Mars, we offer the Oberon as the vehicle for Project Tahiti. It is an offer the Martians will not lightly dismiss. It brings forward their cherished project by a generation… and Mars will equip us handsomely to undertake it.”

Murmurings swept round the assembly like zephyrs in a cornfield. Captain Mond accepted a question from the floor.

“System Sol extends notionally for two light years from the inner planets, when it gives way to the system around our nearest neighbour, Barnard’s Star. Two light years is a long way. The new fast-ferries have a top speed of one-tenth of the speed of light, which means they could complete the journey in 20 years. What are we talking about for Oberon, which is a hundred times slower? 2,000 years?”

“Maybe more,” said Peter. “We have to start thinking in millennia.”

There was a buzz of conversation, people nodding their heads. None of the denizens had ever thought much in those terms. Oberon was less than three hundred years old. What would life be like on board in two millennia?

“The ancient Romans couldn’t possibly have planned for us,” complained another. “During the time of Oberon, life on board has changed out of all recognition. How can we even pretend to plan for 2,000 years’ time?”

“Societies on Gaia,” replied Peter straightaway, “evolved due to contact between different civilisations. Much of that contact was propelled by vainglorious individuals, most of them after plunder. King Darius, governing the whole of Asia, felt he had a duty to govern the world. Ghengis Khan, on the other hand, was originally goaded by the insult done to his ambassador. An isolated society does not change, even over thousands of years. Certainly not in its central aspirations. The ancient Egyptians showed us that.”

Another question was asked. “If it’s going to take us a couple of thousand years to reach our destination, namely some huge lump of ice in the Oort Cloud, then aren’t we going to be overtaken by subsequent generations in fast-ferries?”

“Fast-ferries cannot see where they’re going, to make late adjustments to their course. They never will. It is the problem of travelling at near-lightspeed. They are ill-equipped to undertake a voyage of discovery. But they are splendid as supply vessels for discoveries once made. Just as once upon a time Prometheus supplied the now-defunct colonies on Titan.”

A glance round the audience showed the question had been answered to most people’s satisfaction. But Peter hadn’t finished yet.

“Now subsequent generations may indeed discover ways of investigating objects over two light years away, enabling them to send out a fast-ferry. But following that line of reasoning, it is never worthwhile setting out to colonise the galaxy if our grandchildren are always going to overtake us.”

The committee on the podium nodded to each other and smiled. “But have you considered this?” continued Peter. “Perhaps our grandchildren will only be motivated to overtake us if we lead the way?”

A heckler shouted from the back, unwilling to wait his turn with the circulating microphone. “You can always tell a pioneer,” he yelled. “Face-down in the mud with an arrow in his back!”

“That is a distressing attitude,” said Captain Mond. “The choice facing us is not whether to brave the wild or stay at home by the fireside. It is to embrace our role as pioneers, for all the possibility of mud on our faces, or to turn into an orbiting museum. A theme park… or worse, like Prometheus – an empty tomb.”

A suppressed gasp trickled through the assembly, plus a collective shudder. Like heaven and hell, ice-worlds lay on a spectrum: gorgeous Oberon at one end… and dreadful Prometheus at the other.

On that serious note the assembly was adjourned. But agitated discussion continued in the corridors, the Speil, and in the multifarious bars up and down the Great Stair. It went on past the end of that circadian and well on into the next.star_tattoo_4_by_stock_kat

NEXT—> Advice from the Serpent